Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Truth will save you bucks

Harold McGee was inducted into the James Beard hall of fame last night. For thirty years his book "On Food and Cooking" has been my go to guide when I wanted to know what was happening on the stove or in the oven. In addition to applying basic scientific understanding to the cooking process he is a great myth buster, and can save you a great deal of money if you heed his advice.

You will notice that I added his blog site to the roll on the right column of this page. I go there constantly.

One of his entries that I particularly appreciated was his discussion of the testing he did on cooking oils. When I could still watch the food channel I would cringe every time Mario would insist that you had to fry or saute in EVOO. It was clear what brand he was using and though I don't know that this was a product placement, it smelled of it. In any case the effect must have been to convince viewers that he knew what he was talking about, he was Mario. So McGee subjects a variety of cooking oils to the taster, smell, test as they are heated and concludes that his testers could not discern a difference between the oils he used. Something changes when you heat them and in fact olive oil scored poorly for taste when heated. Use olive oil for dressing and finishing food, not for cooking. There is more bad news re. olive oil. Most of the so-called EVOO isn't. This confirms an earlier test. In the course of the initial study Berio was consistently identified as an honest brand. Why pay more?

While on the subject of oil consider the idea that frying chicken at lower temps, 300 instead of 350 and up, is a preferred temp as it allows the interior moisture more time to dispel without burning the surface.
Here are some counter intuitive tips for deep frying.

The following article points up another frying practice that makes for better cooking:
"While European and Western cooks deep-fry with a single frying, the Chinese deep-fry in stages. After being marinated, foods are then deep-fried at a low temperature, maybe 290°F, and later finish-fried at a high temperature, 365°F to 385°F. This staged cooking increases crispness and color. Batters reduce surface moisture, and a dryer surface reduces initial boiling. In addition, batters add color, flavor, and texture to many deep-fat fried foods, with green tomatoes, eggplant, okra, and even ice cream being examples of foods that are battered before they are fried. A meunière is a thin, light breading, or flour dusting, often used on fish and popular in traditional French kitchens. But batters can also be thick, as in the case of double, triple, or breaded coatings used for fried fish and chicken." Mark F. Sohn enotes

David Chang changed many cooking practices for me. I had treated brining as a gimmick that never seemed to change the moisture content of turkey and so the concept was dismissed as ineffectual. Then Mr Chang suggested I brine my chicken wings in salt/sugar water for a few hours before I dried and deep fried them. You will taste the difference. The science is explained on this page from the Exploratorium in SF.
The contents of this page dispel another myth; searing meat retains its moisture. What happens when we heat meat in a pan is called the Maillard reaction. It is explained as the browning phenom that gives meat flavor as the heat caramelizes sugars on the meat's surface. You want this to happen but not because it retains moisture, it doesn't.

While we are on the subject of surface temperature lets dispel yet another myth; gas is a better heat source than electric. It might look cooler and the grates suggest real cooking is going on here but the fact is that gas is wasteful and in some cases unhealthy. Gas does not burn at 100 percent efficiency meaning that some noxious gases are released into the environment. It is no more accurate or controllable then an electric dial and the idea that it burns hotter is foolish as you don't want to use extreme high heat. High heat kills pans. I have praised the virtues of induction cooking and hope the price point drops as the stove tops and portables become more available.

Here is a truth that is so simple one wonders why anyone buys ersatz mayonnaise. Some will argue they can taste the difference between blender and hand whisked mayo. Harold, are you listening?

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