November 5, 2012
In 1983, Christopher Kimball, founder of Cook’s Magazine, received a letter from an irate grandmother unhappy with his presentation of recipes and cooking. “You don’t cook from your heart,” she wrote. Kimball responded in the affirmative. “Yes,” he said, “I cook from my head.”
That approach helped Kimball, a slim man never without his bow tie and glasses, build an empire of inquisitive, science-based cooking with his magazine now named Cook’s Illustrated and PBS shows America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country. Based out of a 2,500-square-foot kitchen outside of Boston, the magazine and television programs offer a tirelessly scrupulous approach to solving the kitchen’s persistent problems: Why does food taste better hot (science)? Does marinating really tenderize meat (no)? How do you get extra fluffy rice (rinse in water)? Kimball says, “The objective is to figure out why bad things happen to good recipes.” Accompanied by his even more fastidious science advisor, Guy Crosby–”working with Guy is like working with a Talmudic scholar”– Kimball tests dozens of different methods for each recipe, all so you don’t have to.
Which is fortunate, because as it turns out, “The science of cooking is actually much more complicated than particle physics or anything else that I’ve discovered,” according to Kimball.
In a world of stylized cooking shows with frequent exclamations of “Yum-o!” Kimball, 61, would appear out of synch. To him, cooking with your heart is as useless an expression as cooking with your pancreas. His delights are in trial and error, mastering the how and why. Stubbornly rigorous, Kimball is still far from a perfectionist. He says, “You never see Martha Stewart start a show saying, ‘This cakes looks terrible!’” But Kimball regularly includes failed recipes on his shows to show how common it is and how easy to overcome.
In the recently released book, The Science of Good Cooking, Kimball and company (he works with a staff of more than three dozen) guide the reader through 50 concepts of cooking and more than 400 tested recipes. Perhaps a little more ambitious than physicist Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces, the 50 concepts touch on everything from temperature to tools as a way to enhance not just the recipes in the book, but any dish you attempt in the kitchen.
Some of the tips offered and mysteries explained:
Don’t marinate meat, brine it: Counterintuitive but scientifically proven; salt makes meat juicy. According to the pros, “Salting poultry allows us to reap the benefits of brining as it breaks down proteins and helps to retain moisture within the meat.” The process even makes the skin crispier. Win-win. This is because, when the salt is first applied, through the process of osmosis, water is drawn out of the meat to the surface. But over time as the salt migrates inward, the expelled moisture returns as well, drawing water from the skin to plump the meat and dry the skin. Mouth watering yet? The same actually goes for dried beans, which should be brined instead of soaked. The pros recommend kosher salt but not all kosher salt is the same. “Because of its more open crystal structure, a teaspoon of Diamond Crystal actually contains less salt then a teaspoon of Morton kosher salt.” The book offers this handy conversion: 3 teaspoons of Diamond Crystal=2 1/4 teaspoons Morton.
Serve warm dishes at 98.5 degrees: Scientists, concerned with culinary satisfaction as they are, discovered tiny proteins in our taste buds that allow our sense of taste to be heightened with increased temperature (obviously to a degree, burning your tongue does not enhance flavor). The seemingly optimal temperature is somewhere around 98.5 degrees, depending on the food. Plus, “Much of our perception of flavor comes from aroma,” and, as the book points out, heated molecules are in an excited state more likely to reach our waiting noses. As a caveat, since some dishes are meant to be served cold (revenge not mentioned), the writers say you should flavor cold dishes more aggressively with seasoning.
Rest dough to cut down kneading time: “Kneading is the most enjoyable part of the breadmaking process,” the writers admit. But, they warn, over-kneading is a common sin that leaves the bread with less flavor and poor texture. You’ll know you’ve arrived at this sad place when your dough goes from a “wheaty tan” to a “grayish white.” The text explains that the point of kneading is to break down existing bonds and form stronger, straighter gluten sheets. But overknead, especially with electric mixers and you introduce both heat and air into your dough. The trick: autolyse, a technique first developed in the 1970s. Essentially all you have to do is rest your dough before kneading. The rest process actually takes care of some of the kneading work for you as enzymes go to work breaking down the mess of coiled protein to prepare for those nice gluten sheets later to come. According to the book, “Doughs that were given the 20-minute respite took an average of about five minutes less kneading.”
Fry foods between 325 and 375 using a mix of old and new oil: Nothing is worse than soggy fried chicken. Likewise, nothing is better than perfectly crisp fried chicken. The difference may be a matter of degrees. Most food is fried somewhere between 325 and 375 degrees (French fries, for example, are perfectly crisped at 325 degrees). It’s important to maintain this temperature (one of the reasons you fry in small amounts because dumping a large quantity of food into the pan lowers the overall temperature, warn the writers). Dropping a piece of battered shrimp into hot oil causes the surface moisture to escape in a burst of steam. That allows oil to move in. Too hot and too much moisture is lost meaning too much oil moves in, making the food greasy. But just right and the oil crisps the surface while allowing the meat to cook as well. And as a super secret way to make your food even crisper and more golden, the book recommends saving a cup of used oil to mix with fresh oil. Turns out, oil goes through five different stages while frying (beginning with “break-in” and “fresh” and ending with “degrading” and “runaway”) and right in the middle is the “optimum” oil. Mixing helps you avoid the first batch flop many of us have experienced.
Add milk to scrambled eggs, frozen butter to omelets: If you want scrambled eggs, most of us know to throw in a bit of milk or butter while scrambling. That’s because the lipids in the dairy coat the proteins in the egg (11 percent in the whites and 16 percent in the yolks) and slow down the process of coagulation, a.k.a. when the proteins are denatured and unfurl, releasing much of the water in the mixture. Adding fat helps keep some moisture in and fluff up the final product. But the same does not go for omelets. “While scrambled eggs should be fluffy, an omelet is more compact,” the authors write. While milk works for scrambled eggs, it can add to much moisture to an omelet. The chefs recommend frozen bits of butter instead, which melt more slowly and disperse more evenly. And it turns out you can go ahead and salt the eggs before you even cook them up. Because salt affects the electrical charge on the proteins, it weakens the bonds between them, preventing overcoagulation. Bring that up at your next brunch.
This is just a glimpse into the world of America’s Test Kitchen, where they don’t just find the right fry temperature, they find the individual smoke points of every oil (from coconut to peanut to canola). Precise and tested advice mixed with irresistible-sounding recipes for creamy parmesan polenta, crunchy baked pork chops and Boston cream cupcakes makes for a guide both the experienced home cook and the nervous beginner will enjoy.
“We’re not about gourmet food,” says Kimball. “We just want people to cook at home.”
Even Kimball admits, though, that are some kitchen conundrums he can’t solve. When asked if he’d found a way to really engage his own four kids with the science of cooking he said, “The only thing I’ve proved is they only want to cook with marshmallows and chocolate.”
October 12, 2011
Like the average casual wine consumer in America, I drink bottles mostly in the $10 to $15 range. I’ve never decanted my wine (poured it into another container to allow it to “breathe” before serving), and I’ve wondered if the practice really improves the taste or if it’s just a wine snob’s affectation. It seems even wine experts disagree on whether or when decanting makes a perceptible difference, and whether that difference is necessarily positive.
All agree on one clear benefit to decanting: done properly, it means any sediment that has accumulated in the bottle won’t end up in your glass. Sediment is usually only an issue with red wines, especially older ones, although decanting also works for unfiltered wines of any age. Decanting to improve a wine’s taste is more controversial.
First, a little (simplified) science: wine, as a fermented food, has a complex combination of chemical compounds. The character of the wine is constantly changing as these compounds interact with one another and with light, oxygen and humidity. Left to its own devices, wine will eventually turn to vinegar. Bottling or otherwise storing wine (as in casks or tanks) slows down that process almost to a halt—the trick is capturing it at the optimal point in its evolution. Most wines made today, especially those in the low to middle price ranges, are intended to be drunk within a few years of bottling. But others are meant to be further aged in the bottle, allowing them to develop what is considered the perfect balance of flavors.
Decanting, ideally into a wide-bottomed decanter that increases the wine’s surface area, exposes wine to oxygen, speeding up its transformation. The disagreement is over whether this change is significant to be worthwhile, and whether the change is always for the better.
Andrew L. Waterhouse, a California viticulture and enology professor, explains in Scientific American that an expensive (more than $20) red wine intended for cellar aging can taste astringent or “closed” if drunk before its time, and that decanting allows unpleasant volatile compounds to evaporate. In theory, it also “softens” the harsh taste of tannins, although Waterhouse notes that chemists have not observed changes to the tannins after decanting.
But Jim LeMar, a wine company sales representative, points out the risk of losing pleasant aromas through decanting. He argues on the blog Professional Friends of Wine that today’s winemaking techniques have mostly eliminated undesirable sulfuric smells, “rendering aeration before serving moot.” He continues, “Some VOCs [volatile organic compounds] are present in such minute concentrations and are so volatile that they may be exhausted and disappear completely with only a few seconds of aeration. Is it worth sacrificing these scents for what amounts to superstition that has little scientific basis?”
At the other extreme, Joseph Nase writes in New York magazine that all wines, even whites, can “come to life at an accelerated pace” through decanting. “This is especially important for younger wine,” he continues.
The latest wrinkle in the debate is the practice of “hyperdecanting”—mixing wine in a blender to maximize oxygen exposure. Nathan Myhrvold, co-author of the recent Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking and a proponent of the technique, claims it “almost invariably improves red wines—particularly younger ones, but even a 1982 Château Margaux.”
But John M. Kelly, a Sonoma Valley winemaker, contends on his blog that just because a wine objectively changes through decanting or hyperdecanting doesn’t mean everyone will prefer that change. It’s a fair point, and one that brings us to the bottom line: if you want to try decanting, go for it. If you like the results, keep doing it. If you don’t, or you can’t tell the difference, don’t bother. Decanting, as with everything about wine, is a matter of taste.
August 5, 2011
I tend to shy away from recipes that call for more than one fresh herb; they’re expensive to buy, and I always end up having more left over than I can use before it wilts. The best solution would be to grow my own, which I have started to do—basil, parsley and dill in the garden, mint in a pot by a sunny window—but not everyone has room (or the inclination) for a garden, and some herb plants don’t do well indoors. Besides, only the most dedicated gardener has the time and space for all of the possible culinary herbs they might want to use.
Whether homegrown or store-bought, there are ways to preserve the flavor of fresh herbs for later:
1. Keep them fresh longer. One method does not fit all when it comes to short-term storage. Some leafy annual herbs, especially basil, stay fresher if placed in water, stems down (like a bouquet of flowers) rather than in the refrigerator. Woody perennials, including rosemary, thyme and oregano, can withstand the cold of the refrigerator. Cook’s Illustrated recommends stacking them in layers separated by parchment paper in plastic containers with tight lids, or in plastic bags for smaller amounts. Parsley, dill, chives and cilantro can be stored in the refrigerator but should either have their stem ends in water or wrapped in a damp paper towel and sealed in a plastic bag.
2. Freeze them. Some herbs don’t freeze well—basil turns black, and cilantro loses its flavor. But hardier herbs, including rosemary, mint, dill, thyme, parsley and tarragon, can be frozen and stored in an airtight container.
3. Dry them. The reason people use fresh herbs over dried is that they often taste better. But there are a few exceptions—bay leaves being the most notable—and, in any case, it’s better to dry your leftover herbs than let them go to waste. The Beginner’s Guide to Edible Herbs, by Charles W. G. Smith, suggests drying dill, basil, rosemary or sage by hanging them upside-down by the stem and then storing them in an airtight container once dried. Other herbs can be dried on paper towels in the refrigerator. A dehydrator also works well if you have one. Don’t bother drying cilantro—it loses its flavor.
4. Make herb butter. Fats help preserve the flavor of herbs, and making herb butter (also known as compound butter) is easy. You just take softened unsalted butter and mix in a generous amount of minced fresh herbs, either singly or in combination, and, if you like, other seasonings. The butter can be frozen in small portions (some people use ice cube trays) and stored for months. The thawed butter can then be used on fish or chicken, in pasta, on vegetables or as a spread. Combinations to try include basil, thyme and dill (recipe at Annie’s Eats), cilantro and lime (from Simply Recipes) or nearly the whole kit and caboodle, as this six-herb butter from Chew on That calls for.
5. Make pesto. Basil is the most traditional herb used in pesto, but parsley, arugula, cilantro, dill and rosemary—really, almost any herbs—also work well. Again, leftover pesto can be frozen in small batches to use later. For something different try parsley and walnut (from the Daily Green), tarragon and pistachio (from Bon Appétit) or cilantro and pumpkin seed (from Tasty Kitchen).
6. Make herb jelly. Mint jelly is the traditional accompaniment to lamb, but just about any herbs can be turned into jellies. They can be used as a spread or as the basis for a meat glaze. As a bonus, they don’t need to be kept in the freezer. Renee’s Garden gives a basic recipe that can be used with any herb. You can also combine herbs and fruits, as in Pie and Beer’s tomato-basil jam or Gourmet magazine’s cranberry roesemary wine jelly (via Epicurious).
7. Infuse oil or vinegar. Infusing oil and vinegar is a great way to capture the flavor of fresh herbs without preserving the herbs themselves. The Beginner’s Guide to Edible Herbs recommends light oils such as olive, safflower or sunflower with strongly flavored herbs for the best results. You simply fill a sterilized bottle or jar about a quarter to a third of the way full with fresh herbs that have been rinsed and allowed to dry, then fill the rest with oil. Cap the container and let stand at room temperature for 10 to 14 days, then strain out and discard the herbs. The oil should keep for up to two months. The process is similar for vinegars: the Farmer’s Almanac shares the basic formula.
February 1, 2011
I rang in the new year to the…odor of vinegar. Some friends’ New Year’s Day party was winding down and the couple began cleaning. “Mom, could you PLEASE not spray vinegar on the kitchen counters while I still have guests here?” their 21-year-old daughter asked. I silently thanked her because as much as I know that vinegar is an economical, natural household product, I can’t abide the smell.
But I’m learning. First came the problem of white salt stains on my boots. Last year I had removed stains with an expensive blue substance called “salt stain remover,” which smelled exactly like vinegar. I couldn’t find it, so I substituted balsamic vinegar of Modena, which is deep brown (the boots are chocolate brown). A few swipes of vinegar across the stains with a clean cotton cloth and the salt was gone.
Then I got an e-mail from my sister: “Ice-proof your windows with vinegar! Frost on its way? Just fill a spray bottle with three parts vinegar to one part water and spritz it on all your car windows at night. In the morning, they’ll be clear of icy mess.” The same e-mail said to spray cooking oil on the rubber seals around car doors to prevent car doors from freezing.
Later, I found hundreds more uses of vinegar on the web site of the Vinegar Institute. I also learned that my balsamic vinegar of Modena was probably only commercial grade, not “traditional.” The real balsamic vinegar of Modena is made by a labor-intensive and time-consuming process regulated by the Italian government.
All these encounters with vinegar reminded me that several years ago I made a beautifully rosy cranberry vinegar to give away at the holidays. Here are the directions:
Heat one quart white distilled vinegar, two cups of fresh or frozen cranberries and a half cup of sugar or honey in a saucepan until the mixture boils and the cranberries burst. Simmer for five minutes. Strain through a sieve; when cool, pour into decorative bottles. Place a cinnamon stick, a few whole cloves and a handful of whole cranberries in each bottle.
By Jeanne Maglaty