Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Top Ten Cooking Mistakes
Great advice here from Kieth Law -
1. Salt. The food police have everyone running scared of good old sodium chloride, but it’s incredibly important from a culinary perspective as a flavor in and of itself and as a flavor enhancer. Salt intensifies other flavors in every dish by hitting the fifth taste known as umami; without salt, most foods will taste bland, flat, or even stale. Salting foods early in the process allows you to use less salt in total because you can often infuse your foods with salt by dissolving salt in the cooking liquid. Pasta water should always be heavily salted, and the cooking liquids for small grains like rice, barley, or quinoa should also have salt. Seasoning the exterior of meats helps prepare the surface for the Maillard reaction that occurs during the application of direct heat on a grill or on a stovetop pan, producing that brown crust that, for me, is the #1 argument against vegetarianism. I prefer kosher salt for most applications because it doesn’t dissolve too quickly and is easily pinched due to the coarse grain size, but I use table salt for baking because kosher salt will not integrate evenly in most doughs and batters.
2. A real knife. You can do a lot with a good chef’s knife, and you can’t do shit without one. It doesn’t have to be an expensive model; America’s Test Kitchen has recommended this Victorinox 8” chef’s knife (or its 10” version , about a buck cheaper!) for years, although I have grown accustomed to the handles on my Henckels Four-Star knives. Buy a good chef’s knife that feels comfortable in your hand, with a blade 8 to 9 inches long, and buy a honing steel to keep it sharp. Avoid home sharpeners, though, which “sharpen” your blade by destroying it.
3. Cooking by temperature. Most recipes say “bake for 20 minutes” or “grill for 15 minutes,” but those directions assume a median size and shape for the food being cooked and a degree of consistency in ovens and grills that simply doesn’t exist. The food you’re cooking is dead – even lobster dies when it hits the boiling water if you haven’t already killed it – and doesn’t know when the timer goes off. Your roasted chicken breast is done at 161 degrees, whenever it gets there, and you’re not going to know when it gets there unless you check it with a thermometer. I keep two in the house: A cheap instant-read thermometer (also useful for checking the temperature of water for green tea, which is best brewed at 160 degrees) and a probe thermometer with an electronic alarm. I wouldn’t roast a turkey or a pork loin without one of the latter.
4. Using fresher spices. If you’ve got a cheap $10 coffee grinder with a rotating blade, I have two things to say to you: It’s useless for grinding coffee, and it’s great for grinding whole spices. Buying spices whole and grinding them yourself is cheaper two ways and maybe three. One, the whole spices tend to be cheaper per unit of weight. Two, they’ll last far longer than ground spices, which go stale in six months to a year; a whole nutmeg will last for several years, while ground nutmeg is sawdust in a few months. And three, if you’re buying your ground spices at a regular grocery store, there’s a chance you’re getting fillers in addition to your chile powder or allspice. Buy your spices whole, toast some before grinding (cumin, coriander, and fennel seeds in particular), and grind them as you need them. I recommend Penzey’s for mail-order spices, although I may be biased because I have one near my house. I’ve been very happy with their quality and prices on almost everything they sell. A corollary to this rule is to use fresh herbs when you can, especially in season. A $1.29 package of thyme from my local farmstand will keep for two weeks if left in its plastic box in my vegetable crisper drawer, and the volatile oils in fresh herbs give them a deeper, richer flavor than dried herbs can provide. This also means that those spice mixes you buy in stores are a particularly bad deal – they often contain fillers, they nearly always contain salt as the first ingredient, and they take the control out of your hands. Make your own spice mixes in small batches as you need them.
5. Fry – or, as Alton Brown’s plastic chicken once said, “fry some more.” Everyone’s afraid of frying just as they’re afraid of salt, but if you fry right, the fried food will absorb very little of the cooking oil and will amaze you with its texture and moisture. When you keep the oil hot and remove the food before it’s overcooked, the food’s exterior (usually a batter or breading) won’t absorb the fat in which it’s being cooked. The keys to frying are simple:
* Use a huge pot of oil or fill your electric fryer. The more oil you use, the faster the oil temperature will rebound after you add your cold food, which can easily knock a small pot of oil down fifty degrees.
* Use a frying or candy thermometer and monitor it. Too low and you’ll get greasy, undercooked food. Too hot and you’ll get smoke and eventually fire.
* Keep an eye on the food. If it stops sizzling or emitting steam, it’s probably starting to overcook. The force of the food’s internal moisture escaping as steam prevents oil from seeping in, but when the steam stops escaping, the food is dry and will start to suck up oil from the pot.
* Use a fire extinguisher. Duh.
6. Brine. I’ve preached the brining gospel here plenty of times, but here it is in condensed form: Brine lean meats before cooking them. That includes most pork, chicken, and turkey, and you can brine shrimp as well. Brining infuses water and some salt into the meat, helping prevent the meat from drying out as it cooks, which lean meat does tend to do, especially if you like to push your pork past medium.
7. Using proper heat. You need to learn your stove over the course of many meals to understand where “medium-high” really lies. On medium-high, a chicken breast seared in a hot pan in a little bit of oil should develop a nice brown exterior in under three minutes, but more than two. A chicken cutlet (sliced and/or pounded to ¼” thick) should cook through in two minutes per side, and a properly seasoned piece of salmon should have a slightly crispy brown crust in about two and a half minutes. Cooking over heat set too high will result in uneven cooking, with a raw interior and a perfectly-cooked exterior, or a perfectly-cooked interior surrounded by leather.
When the recipe says “simmer,” that doesn’t mean “boil the shit out of it.” Turn the heat down until the bubbles are small and aren’t coming too quickly. When the recipe says “sweat,” don’t sauté. Stir the cut aromatics in the hot oil, sprinkle with salt to draw out moisture, and let the mixture sit over medium to medium-low heat for six or seven minutes until the onions are translucent and golden.
When pan-frying, use plenty of oil and add the food when the oil starts to shimmer, which may mean starting on high or medium-high heat and backing it off as the oil heats. If it smokes, it’s too hot – and yes, I know ATK likes to talk about wisps of smoke, but they’re wrong, because smoke means the oil is breaking down. You might consider a splatter-screen if you pan-fry often, and always remember to turn the gas off or take the pan off the burner before adding any alcohol to a hot pan. (I have, in fact, ignited a few pans, and am fortunate that alcohol burns at a pretty low temperature.)
Remember that long cooking times typically mean indirect heat. On a grill, that means putting the food on a part of the grate that isn’t directly over the heat source.
8. Buy better ingredients. It depresses me to walk into the local Stop and Shop and see the sad excuses for fruits and vegetables offered in that section of the store, especially since a mile away is one of the best farmstands in the area (Wilson Farms), selling superior-quality produce at comparable prices. Food is no different than anything else in life: garbage in, garbage out. If you start with bad produce, no amount of cooking skill or seasoning is going to create a great salad or pie or contorno. Some basic rules of thumb when shopping for fresh produce, meats, fish, and cheeses:
* Produce should be brightly colored and, with a few exceptions like basil, stored in a cool area. Leafy things shouldn’t be wilted or have brown spots, and if any part of a leaf has started to break down into a slightly oozy green substance, then it’s gone bad. Solid fruits and vegetables should be heavy for their sizes, indicating the presence of plenty of moisture in the fruit. Buy whole when you can, as it lasts longer and avoids risk of cross-contamination at the store. Carrots with the leaf stems on top are better than trimmed carrots, which are better than peeled carrots, which are better than the fake “baby carrots” sold in bags (nothing more than peeled, cut full-sized carrots tumbled to give them smooth, rounded exteriors). Fresh beats frozen, and the only acceptable foods in cans are beans and, if the quality is high enough, pears, which are nearly impossible to get out of season because they store and travel poorly.
* Fish shouldn’t smell fishy; if it does, it has already gone bad, and no amount of seasoning will get rid of that taste. Don’t be afraid to ask the monger to let you smell the fish before you buy it. Fish should be stored on ice, and the monger should provide ice for the trip home if you ask for it. In warm weather, bring a small cooler to the store. Color is not an indicator of quality in salmon, since salmon farms can alter the fish’s coloring by changing the feed. Shellfish can make you extremely sick if it’s not handled properly, and salmon can even carry a rare but dangerous parasite that’s killed in cooking.
* Meats and chicken are easier to pick out, as long as they’re stored properly in a cold case and there’s good turnover at the meat counter. As with produce, the more it’s been handled, the greater the risk of cross-contamination, and the less you know about what’s in the product. If you’ve got a good knife, especially a sharp boning knife, buy whole chickens and butcher them yourself; you’ll get more bang for your buck and can save the bones (and wings, if like me you find them to be a waste of time for eating) to make stock. Remember that seasoned or marinated meats rob you of your chance to give the meat a visual inspection before buying. When buying steak, more marbling will mean a more tender end product (and higher cost, but it’s worth it). And try duck. Not only is the meat delicious, if you render the subcutaneous fat, you get one of the greatest cooking fats on the planet.
* The flavor of cheese is entirely determined by what the cow, goat, sheep, or water buffalo eats, so that “Parmesan” cheese from Argentina or Wisconsin isn’t going to rival the Parmiggiano-Reggiano from Italy. Buy cheeses from the right places, looking for an official seal if it’s from Europe (Denominación de Origen from Spain, for example). A good cheesemonger should be willing to give you a taste of any cheese you want, and be willing to cut to any size you’d like. Buy in small quantities that you expect to use in a few days; soft cheeses go bad quickly, hard cheeses can become too hard to eat out of hand, and all cheeses are prone to absorbing other flavors in the fridge. Wrap your cheese in waxed paper to give it some room to breathe, then plastic wrap to keep off flavors out. Shredded or grated cheese is halfway to stale when you buy it, and any cheese can be dismantled quickly with the use of a good box grater .
9. Sauce. I’m not suggesting that you whip up a hollandaise every time you poach an egg or steam some asparagus, but any time you sear meat in a pan, you’re halfway to a pan sauce. Deglaze the pan with some wine, beer, chicken stock, or chicken broth, then return to the pan to the heat and simmer most of the liquid away, scraping the pan bottom to dissolve the brown bits (known as fond) into the liquid as it thickens. Boost the sauce with a little cognac, some chopped shallot, some Dijon mustard, and chopped fresh herbs (or a pinch of dried); you can add a few tablespoons of heavy cream if you’d like, or even full-fat coconut milk. Remove from the heat and mount it with two tablespoons of cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes, and season with salt and pepper. I’ve also shown you how easy it is to make a buerre blanc, which is great on fish, white-meat chicken, and many vegetables. Hoisin is one of the few jarred sauces I’ll use, but you can build a simple pseudo-Asian sauce with soy sauce, honey, a pinch of dried chili flakes, some cornstarch dissolved in water (which will thicken the sauce when heated, so add this to the pan with the vegetables still in it), and a shot of toasted sesame oil right before serving. You can get a lot of extra mileage out of a simple dish like sear-roasted fish or steamed broccoli by saucing it properly.
10. Play with your food. I know it’s trite advice, but it’s true. You may not feel up to experimenting right away, but there are little things even the novice cook can do, like altering or adding herbs and/or spices to dishes, or adding extra flavors when the food is off the heat, like the toasted sesame oil I mentioned above or some toasted sesame seeds, or a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, or some slivered toasted almonds or ground peanuts. There are, unfortunately, some bad combinations of foods, but it won’t take you long to understand what foods play nicely together to encourage you to experiment more, until you get to the point where you can devise your own recipes from scratch or recreate something you ate in a restaurant just by figuring out the ingredients as you eat it.