How the Cookie Crumbles

It's always good to get to see presentations about cookie techniques, because either it will help to solidify something in my mind or, even better, will teach me something new. A problem I never really considered before was a crumbling cookie. If you make a cookie that has to travel some distance, you'll find that your average cookie recipe will leave you with something that cannot survive bumps and jolts without turning from a round confection to a pile of crumbs and bits.

Cookie crumbs

I was watching an IACP presentation by Shirley Corriher, author of BakeWise and CookWise , and also Food Scientist Extraordinaire on Good Eats. During her presentation, she talked about how to keep cookies from crumbling. The problem comes in because all of the sugar in the cookies absorbs all of the water, keeping the water from combining with the flour to make gluten. Exacerbating that lack of water due to sugar is a literal lack of water, as most cookie recipes have very little water-type liquid added to them. To make matters worse, all of the butter in the cookies will coat the flour, thus preventing whatever water may have been added which had not already joined up with the sugar unable to get to the flour. It makes for a crumbly cookie, because there are no long chains of gluten to ensure a structure that can hold up under pressure.

The solution is devilishly simple: take a cup of the flour that is in your cookie recipe and, before anything else, mix it with a few tablespoons of water until it forms a dough (exact amount of water depends on the type of flour and so on, but just add as much as you need and no more). Make your cookies as normal, but add this dough in at the end. Depending on how much you kneaded the dough, you will give extra strength and body to your cookies, and you will be able to control the texture by kneading it more if you want more chewiness to the cookie.

One of the added benefits of this method is that, because the water is all tied up making gluten in the flour, it's not going to throw off your cookie recipe's balance. The water isn't going to be released into the cookie, so you only have to worry about how much extra body you are giving your cookie and not wether the cookies will become a soggy mess.

Of course, you don't want to do this with a shortbread cookie, because the very definition of a shortbread cookie is that you don't have long gluten chains. I mean, you can make what would be a shortbread cookie with this recipe, but it won't be shortbread any more.

Decision Making

In many ways, we live in a fantastic world. We have access to information, communication, and food that has never been possible before. We can travel from one side of the globe to the other quickly, or we can do it inexpensively. If we need to find a fact, it takes seconds instead of being a potential multi-week project that you give up on before the answer arrives, if it does.

Of course, there is a cost. There is always a cost. Information from all around is constantly bombarding you. Choices for what to eat are nearly limitless. And, it seems, most of those choices are bad for you, the environment, or your wallet. It hardly seems like a day goes by without someone saying there's a new food you can't eat any more for one reason or another, whether it's political, environmental, or health-related.

There's a funny thing that happens to people when they have to make decisions all the time: they lose the ability to make decisions. Decision making ability is like a bucket filled from a slow tap: it holds quite a bit, but when it's gone, you have to wait a while before you can use it again. How this often manifests in our household is that we both return from work tired from making decisions and solving problems all day, and then we have to decide what to do for dinner. This rarely goes well under these circumstances. We both sit around and moo*, and eventually we decide to do whatever's easiest, which might be ordering a pizza or grabbing some barbecue.

Now, I am all for pizza or barbecue, but during heavy work cycles, we got to the point where the pizza place knew it was us just by our order, and that was certainly disturbing. And it's not as though we are lazy, nor are we incapable of making food (hopefully), but the simple process of deciding what to make was not so simple for us, and so we resorted to not making a decision, but going with defaults.

There are two major ways that decision making can cause you troubles as far as food goes. The first is the scenario described above, where "what to eat right now" is causing trouble. This scenario is common to people who try to make lunch decisions in groups, because it's not only about what you are interested in eating, but there's a huge social component as well, where you take into account what other people are interested in, who ate where recently, who can afford what, what sort of transportation you have, what things you remember are available to eat, and the mood everyone is in right now. This is why Food Courts are popular.

This first problem of decision making is relatively easy to solve. You pick a time when you haven't exhausted your decision-making supply, and you plan how you're going to eat. On a weekend, for example, you plan your meals for the week, including how to use leftovers, and you get as much of the work done on the weekend as possible, so you have minimal work to do to cook for the week. For the lunch situation, you make a list of all restaurants so you're ready just to pick something from that list, or you make a schedule ahead of time, when you're not hungry, giving you a variety of places to go, and anyone who isn't in for that day can just plan to do something different. It's easy, but only if you do it at the right time.

The second way the decision making gives you trouble is in what you are and aren't "allowed" to eat. For allergies, it's pretty cut-and-dried, because you can't eat those things. But if you need to get more fish in your diet, how do you do that sustainably? If you want to eat vegetables, do you want them trucked to you from California, ruining the environment? If you go to the farmer's market, are the people selling from the large stands really able to grow all of that within 75 miles of your city, despite the fact that it will be weeks before the smaller growers have tomatoes, for example? Are eggs good for you today or bad for you? Is this meat from a farmer you can trust, or is it from a mega-processing-plant that's ruining the world, or so your cousin tells you?

Some people can make a hard philosophical choice and, if it's properly limited, stay within that choice. Vegans are a simple example of this, or people who start locavore projects. You outline the very few foods or food categories that you can eat within, and you stick with that. Try to ignore any additional food controversies that come out involving your food, or you may have to re-evaluate (e.g. GM soy). You're not constantly making a decision about what to do, you are simply following The Plan. If you do have to re-evaluate, you do it just every so often as a major exercise, rather than with every meal.

However, if you haven't firmed up your philosophy of what you can and cannot eat, or if you have a philosophy but it's complicated, then you're going to have the hardest time of all. This is the situation I find myself in, where I want to eat food that is both good for me and good for the environment and so on, but I haven't really decided entirely what that all means yet.

This is what the appeal of things like Bittman's Vegan Before Dinnertime plan come in, because it's simple, and about balance: eat nothing that is animal or animal derived before dinner, and after that do whatever you want. That way, when you do decide to eat meat, you don't have to fret about if it should be turkey, because that's not as fattening, or the local beef, because it's grass-fed, or whatever.

So you can certainly do something like that. Or you can make a list, just as with the lunch plan, or things that are "approved to eat", quick, available, inexpensive, healthful, or whatever it is you're going for. It will help you with quick decisions when your bucket is dry.

So, do you have an eating strategy? Is it standard, or one that you made up? Please share with us your ideas in the comments.

*- Somewhere along the line, we decided that a moo was the best sound to make to indicate distress. It's very flexible by way of expressiveness and great fun. I highly recommend.

A Year From Scratch

A year and a few months ago, Ben Snitkoff asked on twitter if anyone would be interested in working with him on a new food project. I had some time and was interested in something new to do, and so I volunteered. After a few months of planning, we launched A Year From Scratch.

The basic idea of A Year From Scratch was for each of us to create a recipe each week. These recipes were to be things that you would normally think of as store-bought, but which could be made at home. Usually, these things could be made easily from home. Last week, we wrapped up the year, with 104 recipes and 11 podcasts.

The project isn't over yet. Sure, the year is done, but that doesn't mean we won't have anything else to say on the subject of homemade, From Scratch goodness. So we've renamed the site A Life From Scratch, and it will be undergoing some other transformations as time goes on. We don't expect all of the new content to be recipes, and we certainly don't expect to make a recipe each per week. But we like the idea, and we're going to keep up with it.

For me, A Year From Scratch accomplished two goals: one, it got me focused on making some of the dishes that I've been wanting to make but just hadn't gotten to; two, it got me working on writing about cooking recipes. Writing recipes is, in many ways, harder than writing about food, food trends, and the science of food. Even if the recipes aren't all mine, or aren't mine at all, documenting the process of cooking a specific dish is something that I'd only do rarely. So it got me out of my comfort zone, which is good. You can't get better unless you also do things you feel like you don't want to do.

So, are there any things in your life you think might be good to do but you don't really feel like doing? It might be a good time to get those done. And you don't necessarily have to take a year to do them.

Incidentally, here's a list of all of the A Year From Scratch recipes and podcasts, and here's the link to my specific entries if you want to peruse those.

Learning to Cook

It was many years before I finally learned to cook. Which is not to say that I couldn't make food and to follow a recipe, but I was always at the mercy of the recipes that were available to me. Sure, variations in the flavor of the recipe were pretty easy to do, but  serious changes to the recipe were unheard of. Sometimes these might be items of preference, but sometimes they were necessary because the recipe was just incorrect.

I like to tell this story of shortly before I started really trying to understand what this food and cooking thing was really all about. I watch The Big Chili episode of Good Eats, where he talks about how to make chili in a pressure cooker. I wanted to make this chili, but had no pressure cooker, so I checked the episode for these directions:

You put the chili in the bowl. You put the spoon in the chili. You put the chili in your mouth. That's it.

R: But Paw!
GG: Don't call me that, boy! It makes me feel ... old.

Now for you folks at home that ain't got one of them ...

GG: What'd you call that thing?
R: Pressure cooker. [continues to point out service options in the background]

... pressure cooker, don't despair. Just get yourself a nice, big, heavy Dutch oven. Preferably one that's cast iron. And do your meat browning in there, and add all your ingredients, bring it to a boil, clamp on that lid, and toss it in a 350 degree oven for anywhere from 6 to, I don't know, 24 hours, depending on what you like.

From the Good Eats Fan Page archives. Emphasis mine.

Six hours as a minimum seemed an awfully long time to be cooking something. So I re-watched that part of the episode three or four times on the Tivo, but it always said the same thing. So I checked the Food Network recipe, but it just had the pressure cooker instructions. So… I cooked it for about six hours in a 350° oven. And all but two chunks of chili were turned into charcoal. It should be said that the remaining two chunks of chili were the best I'd had before or since, but that's a lot of trouble to go through for two chunks of chili.

What is truly sad is what never occurred to me: chili is just a beef stew. There are millions of beef stew recipes available. Heck, there are millions of chili recipes available. I could have found another, maybe a few, compared cooking times, and just gone with that. And it's not as though, generally, I am stupid. It's just that I didn't think about cooking the right way. I didn't think, "Hey, there are only a few ways to cook food, and most recipes are just variations on those themes." Every recipe was always it's own, completely different thing, and trying to alter it could cause trouble.

Of course, now I know differently. But that's one of the most important things to learn about cooking: the technique. Learn how the meat or vegetable cooks, and the flavor variations are simple and relatively risk-free. There are maybe 10 major methods for cooking meats and vegetables. Learn those, and you never need char a pot of chili just because someone made a joke on television.

Incidentally, Alton Brown has finally managed to fix the recipe in his book, Good Eats 2: The Middle Years. The chefs don't have direct control over the Food Network recipes, so he couldn't fix it there, but when the book with the episode came out, the proper directions were put in. Go on, get the book. It's well worth it, even if you know how to make chili.

Vanilla Beans

I have recently purchased a large quantity of vanilla beans from Vanilla Products USA. They have insanely low prices for bulk vanilla beans, and I knew the time was coming when I would need to do crazy things with lots of vanilla, so I took the plunge and ordered.

Of course, when you can buy two vanilla beans in a test tube for $10 at the local grocery store, when you announce that you're buying 1 lb. of grade b vanilla beans for $25 and you're getting 1/4 lb. of grade A Tahitian beans for free because that's what kind of a site you're ordering from, suddenly everyone is interested in what you're buying. So I promised I'd report on my findings.

First findings are that shipping and order processing are lightning fast. I ordered over the weekend, and the product was out the door first thing on Monday to arrive on Wednesday with 2-day shipping. And then I got sick for a few weeks, so everyone had to wait on my findings. To top it off, there are two major limitations to my current findings: 1) I've only used the B grade stuff so far for the preliminary part of infusion recipes; 2) It's been so long since I've used a whole vanilla bean, I can't entirely remember the experience for comparison.

The beans come vacupacked, and the seller recommends triple-bagging in plastic when it arrives. I did that. When the time came and I opened the sealed beans, I did not get a big vanilla smell out of the beans. It was definitely more subtle. It honestly smelled a lot like tobacco. Not nasty cigarette tobacco, but lovely fresh pipe tobacco. Ironically, it didn't smell very much like vanilla-scented pipe tobacco, just a good, fresh Virginia variety.

Aroma aside, the beans I split open, and I split open about 35 of the Grade B Bourbon beans, had plenty of beany goodness inside. They seemed juicy enough, and they started infusing very quickly. I feel confident that I am going to get my $30 worth (including priority shipping), and unless I'm terribly disappointed with the flavor when I start making custards and other baked goods, I expect to buy many more beans from this seller.

If you try them out and have better comparisons with other sellers, please let me know in the comments. It would be great to have a big discussion on the best place to get vanilla beans here.

What I taught my friend to cook

For those unfamiliar with Teach Your Neighbor to Cook Week, you can check out the full explanation. The brief explanation is that I wanted to encourage people to pass along cooking knowledge directly to people who are unsure how to cook, or perhaps unsure how to make a particular dish.

For my student, I chose my friend Kristen, whom I have heard on several occasions say that she really couldn't cook well. I felt sure that this wasn't true, and TYNTCW seemed like a great opportunity to see if I could help her past whatever it was that was holding here back in cooking. She was pleased to help me out.

To choose a dish, I left things open-ended and asked, basically, what she wanted to learn. This probably wasn't the best way to go, because as anyone who's tried to pick a place to eat lunch with someone else knows, open-ended is usually trouble. I probably should have suggested a few options for her to choose from.

Kristen suggested perhaps some sort of protein and sauce. In these cases, my mind usually jumps to a pan-fried steak in a reduction sauce, but Melanie suggested that perhaps steak was a bit fiddly for this first lesson, and she was almost certainly correct. instead, I offered to teach Chicken Piccatta, which has several steps, all of them relatively simple, so would make a fine example to teach. Also, I wrote an article on it for Fine Cooking, so at one point in the past couple of years I made many many batches of it, so I should be ready for just about any sort of question related to its preparation.

I figured that, as a bonus, we could even roast some vegetables, which is east and can happen in the background. That way we could enjoy a nice, balanced meal after all of our efforts were complete. Kristen arrived, we chatted for a bit about what was going to happen, and I made us some AYFS citrus soda. After everyone was fully relaxed, we got into it.

Making Chicken Piccatta goes pretty much like this:

  • Cut chicken pieces so that each piece is roughly uniformly thick
  • Pound out all the pieces so that they are very thin.
  • Cover evenly with flour
  • Cook in a pan until golden brown and delicious
  • Make a pan sauce from the fond, wine, and lemon juice, adding some capers if you are of the mind
  • Combine and eat

Another advantage of this dish was that, while there were all the steps, there really wasn't anything going on that couldn't be stopped for a minute or two if explanations needed to be made. As we got into it, I could tell that Kristen intellectually knew much of what I was teaching her from watching cooking shows on television, so it really wasn't knowledge that she was lacking.

Eventually, I discovered that Kristen's lack of confidence came because of some cooking disasters, and those disasters came because she was trying to do other things while she cooked, such as laundry and dishes and anything else that needed doing. So much of properly cooking is paying attention to what the food is trying to tell you, and she didn't spare that attention.

If it all worked from timers and exact temperatures and uniform cooking conditions, then she probably would have been fine with a good recipe and the proper equipment instead of focusing on the food. I told her that most of my cooking problems, which certainly do happen, usually also happen because of a lack of attention to the food. The more practiced you are, the more you can multi-task, because you will know exactly what to pay attention to and when, but if you find yourself in a situation where a few meals in succession aren't going as well as you thought, it might be time to focus on what you're doing for a while.

In the end, much chicken was cooked, and aside from a couple of demonstrations with cutting, flattening, and cooking, Kristen did all the work. She was pleased with the results, and made the dish again later that week, and she made it successfully.

For the eagle-eyed readers, you might noticed a lack of description about the side dish. The lack of mention is because we didn't end up doing it. I suppose we focused so much that I forgot about it. A checklist is probably a good thing to include for any future lessons.

I am curious how each of you did with your lessons. Please post in the comments a link to your article on how it went, or write up the story there if you don't have your own blog. Was focus the main problem with your students as well, or was there something different? I'm sure the reasons were many and varied.

Assistance

I wanted to let everyone know that I have a wonderful new assistant named Genna. She writes the blog One Palate, Many Plates, and she also had a cooking project blog The Best I Ever Had. She will be helping my test recipes, and will probably do some Community Management, perhaps some research, and whatever else makes sense. Everyone should please say, "Hello," and make her feel welcome.

Teach Your Neighbor to Cook Week

This is going to be a somewhat long post, with some background and philosophy and the like, but the end message is important and worth stating up front:

On the week of September 20th, I would like for any of you with a blog who enjoys cooking to find someone (a friend, family member, or someone in your community) and teach them how to cook something, then post about it. You can do the teaching at any point, but post about it on the week of September 20th. If you don't have a blog or other publishing platform, and you'd still like to join in, please do find someone to teach. You can post about it in the comments or just skip that step; the teaching is the important bit.

I started blogging about food because I wanted to try to teach other people to cook. This wasn't an entirely altruistic decision; the blog started as a school project, so I had good reason to start writing. Also, I know that the best way to learn something is to try to teach it to someone else, and I really wanted to learn a lot more about food and cooking. Still, ultimately, I wanted to teach, and I wanted to inspire.

As with many people, I've watched a lot of cooking shows on the  Food Network, PBS, and wherever else they happen to pop up. Except Fit TV; I avoid those cooking shows. Most of them are what are often referred to as "Pour and Stir" shows, when the host has a bunch of ingredients, dumps them into a pot, stirs them together, and a dish is made. Food Network had gotten a reputation as a Food Porn channel because the shows were all flash and little substance; they got people interested in the food, but rarely would someone make food or learn much from the process.

The major counter-example to this is Good Eats. It is no surprise to anyone that I am an Alton Brown fan, and that he was one of the major influences of what I've done here on The Food Geek and elsewhere. His show is much more effective at getting people to cook and understand what is going on in the food.

Still, with cooking shows on television, and even recipe books and, yes, blogs, these can all be a passive experience. You can watch them or read them, and you can admire them, but in the end, you don't have to do anything with them. They can be as real to you books or TV shows or blogs about vampires, whether sparkly or not.

Back before mass media and worldwide niche media, we learned to cook by learning, whether from a relative or in a professional setting. Learning in a professional setting still exists, but I think we've lost a lot of the personal teaching and learning that comes from sitting with Grandma while she bakes a pie. That's a shame.

There are some things that are a lot better learned in real life than from a distance. My favorite example is the feel of dough, whether noodle or bread or gnocchi or pie. If you can feel, just once, what a dough feels like when it's really ready to be turned into its final product, then you know so much more than you can get from the best description in a book.

Now, many of you reading this have probably learned a lot from relatives or friends, which is great. But I know people, and I suspect you do as well, who believe that they cannot cook, and maybe feel that they could never learn. They may not have had the interest or the opportunities to learn, and there is so much food so easily available that need no more work than driving up to a window or putting into a microwave in order to be sustenance.

So I want to change that, and I'd like you to help me. The start of this is something I am calling "Teach Your Neighbor to Cook Week." It's a gift that you give to one or two people, in order to help them learn to make something that they couldn't make before, and maybe something that they were afraid to try.

On the week of September 20th, I would like for any of you with a blog who enjoys cooking to find someone (a friend, family member, or someone in your community) and teach them how to cook something, then post about it. You can do the teaching at any point, but post about it on the week of September 20th. If you don't have a blog or other publishing platform, and you'd still like to join in, please do find someone to teach. You can post about it in the comments or just skip that step; the teaching is the most important bit.

If you are one of those people who believes you can't cook, then try the opposite: find someone to teach you how to make something. Maybe it's a secret family recipe, maybe it's something your friend served when you went over to dinner the other night. Learn, and then tell us how the process went.

Things that would be great to see in the write-ups for the experience are what you taught or learned, if you had any trouble finding a student or teacher, how you prepared for the process, what went right, what went wrong, and what you would do differently if you did it again.

For the person I teach, it will be a completely free experience. If you are short of means, then maybe the student could bring supplies, but even if you are a professional cooking instructor, avoid charging for the lesson. This will be much more meaningful as a gift than as a commercial exchange.

If you have any questions, ask here or on Twitter. I'll update this post with any questions and their respective answers as I can.

Internal Consistency

There’s a trait that geeks have. I’d like to think it’s an endearing one, but honestly, I know that it’s not. It even annoys other geeks if left unchecked.

Imagine you are watching a movie with a geek such as myself, and there’s a vehicle in this movie. Someone shoots the vehicle, or it wrecks, or it’s driven off a cliff. What happens? Not only does the car explode, but a note of derision escapes from the geek who is watching the movie with you.

Now, some geeks will leave it there. Some will also mention that the car exploding wouldn’t happen, and some will go into a lengthy explanation about how the gasoline vapor needs to be at a particular concentration of oxygen to gasoline in order to even catch fire, much less explode. Mythbusters may or may not be mentioned at this point.

This happens in all walks of geek life, with whatever the geek happens to know. If it’s a geek who knows the English language well, then there’ll be talk of dangling participles and indirect objects. If it’s a geek who knows physics, it might be about how space ships don’t have any atmosphere to bank on, so Babylon 5 is clearly the most realistic of the space television shows of the 90’s. If it’s a Food Geek, it might be about how searing steak doesn’t seal in the juices.

And that’s where the difficulty comes in. This is not a surface attribute that happens to be common of geeks. It’s fundamental to our nature. Also, it’s really useful, perhaps vital, to the way we explore, explain, and change the world around us.

Any movie, book, sentence, mathematical equation, physics experiment, programming language, or life has a set of rules and conditions. The way the geek mind tries to deal with any of those is to understand what those rules and conditions are and to try to work within them to get them to do what we want.

So if geeks do this, what do non-geeks do? The same sort of thing, but to a lesser extent, and with less reliance on explicitly stated rules. Think about catching a ball that’s been thrown to you. Relatively easy to do, under the right circumstances. Now think about solving the equations necessary to predict the location of a thrown ball. Do we do all that math, some of which wasn’t even invented until a couple of hundred years ago, whenever we catch a ball or throw a spear at a moving target?

In a word: no. In three words: not a chance. No, what we do is we watch a lot of balls being thrown, and we recognize the pattern of the flight of a ball. If we do that enough, we get a feel for how balls work when thrown, and, with just a small section of their flight path viewed, we can do anything from a pretty good job to an amazing job predicting where it will land.

The same thing goes on for just about everything. We are really good at recognizing patterns. We see something happen, we internalize the circumstances, and we make predictions whenever we see those circumstances repeated. It doesn’t matter if those circumstances are realistic, as long as they are familiar. Which brings us back to the exploding car.

Cars have exploded in movies for as long as there have been cars and movies. Probably the first move with a car in it featured the car hitting a tree and exploding, destroying the world. (This is a lie.) So we understand, when watching a movie, that when we see a car take a lot of damage, it’s probably going to blow up. When we get into a wreck in real life, though, we don’t run from the crash as quickly as we can to escape the inevitable explosion. The circumstances are different, and we recognize and adapt to those different circumstances.

So why does the car exploding bother the geek mind? Because, as a general rule, we are always trying to solve problems. When we’re watching a movie, we don’t just wait for the ending to happen, we try to predict the ending. We want to know, before we’re told, how the heroine is going to solve the problem and defeat the antagonist to save the world. In order to do that, we have to know what the rules of the world are.

Of course, it’s nice to be able to use a bunch of extra knowledge as well. If you are a geek who knows physics, then there’s a huge amount of knowledge that could be applied to the movie that will let you figure out how to get out of the cell or stop the train or neutralize the acid blood of the aliens, or whatever. But if the car explodes because it hits a brick wall, then real world physics doesn’t work, and that means that a good portion of your potential solutions might not work, either. And that’s annoying.

Still, it’s a common problem with movies, and one that can be worked around. The big problem is if the rules of the world change from one moment to the next. One moment, a car that gets shot in the fuel tank explodes in a fiery ball of death. A few scenes later, there’s a shootout, and the goons are hiding behind a car, which provides complete immunity from all bullets. The solution is simple: shoot the gas tank, and you will have goon-barbecue before they can even realize what their mistake was. Unfortunately, what ends up happening is that the car, in this instance, is not only completely bullet-proof, but it’s non-explody as well.  So a problem that should have been solved isn’t because the rules of the world don’t make sense.

So, finally, let’s get to why this is important for cooking. Jump back up to the end of paragraph 4 where I talk about steak. For the longest time, people seared a steak because, they thought, it sealed in the juices. You would have a juicer, and thus tastier, steak by searing, because none of the juices would escape. That was the rule, we lived by it, and all was good.

The problem is that we know, now, that it’s a lie. Searing a steak does the opposite of sealing in the juices. Searing a steak lets juices escape. Once you know that, it may drive you crazy when people who should know better teach that to others, perhaps on the television or in a book. It’s maddening.

Does it matter? We know that searing is a great idea for meat, because it causes maillard reactions which bring out flavor, and honestly, losing some juices concentrates flavors. Besides, beef has plenty of juice in it. It takes a lot of effort to dry out beef. Some might say that anything that gets people to remember to sear their steaks is worthwhile, even if it’s not entirely for the proper reasons. Those people would be wrong.

Cooking is a set of rules. We don’t know all the rules, but we are trying our best. A lot of cooking instruction boils down to “do this a lot, and you’ll eventually get really good at it,” for the same reason that you eventually get good at catching a thrown ball when you practice enough. Still, you form a picture in your mind of what’s going on in the food when you’re cooking it, and whatever explanation you have can probably be applied to other aspects of cooking as well.

If you know that searing steak seals in juices, and steak is a meat product, then you would be tempted to think that searing pork, chicken, or fish would likewise seal in juices. Those are all meat products, so searing must be great for them. You would be wrong. Trying to sear the fish to keep it moist is like trying to shoot the car that the bad guys are hiding behind; the car should explode, and the fish should be sealed, you just end up with a dry fish and an unexploded car.

In a very large nutshell, this is what I’m trying to do with my food geekery. I’m trying to give people the understanding they need in order to visualize how food and cooking works. To give them the ability to make predictions when they encounter new foods or cooking techniques that they’ve never used, and to have some idea of what will happen when they use them. Having this knowledge doesn’t replace the need for practice and experience, but it should make your practice and experience go a lot farther than if you didn’t have it at all. More importantly, it will hopefully give you the courage to try things that you’ve never tried before, since you’ll have some idea of what’s going to happen and how you’ll deal with it.

A Year From Scratch

Earlier this year, one of my friends from Twitter, Ben Snitkoff, wanted to start a new food website, and before starting that site he wanted a collaborator. This was to be a site about making one dish each week that we in the modern American culture have started to think of as purchased, when once upon a time it was made, at home, with base ingredients. In short, he wanted to make A Year From Scratch.

Well, clearly I had to join in on this. One of my favorite things to make are foods that seem like they can only be purchased in the store. Sure, sometimes it's just as tasty to get a store-bought item, but even if you don't make it From Scratch all the time, knowing that you can is often as important as actually doing it. It gives you the choice of when to buy and when to make. If you can't make it From Scratch, then you only have the choice of buying. And who knows when the world's going to and and keep you from being able to buy your favorite sauce?

Of course, feeling good and useful in the event of an apocalypse isn't the only reason to learn how to make food From Scratch. When you make it yourself, you have the ability to customize what you're making. Want it spicier? Add more pepper. Need it more flakey, less tender? Go for it.

Not only that, but there's the increasingly important knowledge of what, exactly, is put into your food. Maybe you'll go completely organic, or maybe you'll go with your favorite brand of flour, or maybe you'll stick with local and seasonal ingredients. Again, you have the choice and the ability, which, in my mind, is much better than having neither.

So please, check out A Year From Scratch. Two posts each week. Ben's are on Tuesdays, and mine are on Thursdays (unless I mess up the auto-post thing again). So far we've explored how to make:

Croutons

Home Roasted Coffee Beans

Pudding Mix

Apple Cider Biscuits

Guacamole

 

Sharp as a Knife

It's been a long journey since I decided I needed a new chef's knife, did all the knife research, and eventually bought the knife. Looks like it was about a year and a half.

Of course, I didn't just purchase a knife. Oh, no. I was going on a life quest to become Serious about my knives. To do the knife thing properly. And, in order to be prepared for my new knife-owning lifestyle, I had to be prepared to sharpen my knives myself. Not with a sharpener. With whetstones.

Oh, it was to be glorious. I would see my knives getting dull, and say, "Now is the time where I, with my serious knife lifestyle, will make the knives razor-sharp. Well, knife-sharp. And I will know that nothing is beyond my power."

A year and a half later, and no knives had been sharpened. The collection of whetstones sat in a cupboard in the kitchen like so many lace doilies, waiting for a day that might never come.

Well, that day finally came.

Shun Classic Chef's Knife with whetstones

The In-Laws were visiting last week, and Melanie's mother owns a Shun paring knife (one of the Alton's Angle ones), and apparently at some point after October of 2008 I offered to sharpen it if it ever became dull. Of course, it might have been Melanie who, thinking I was silly for paying all that money for whetstones I probably would never use, offered my sharpening services. Time dulls memory, and it's hard to know which story is more likely.

In any case, the knife was dull, and she brought it for sharpening. The time for delays was over.

Most of my trepidation with sharpening wasn't about the knives or even the sharpening process itself. If I did a poor job of it, as long as I didn't keep at it for too long, the worst that would happen is that I would have to take the knives to a local shop to have them sharpened. Not a big deal.

As with most projects that never get started, my problem was with the little details, like where to do the sharpening. Some of the videos I had seen show people outside at a table set up with all of their whetstones in a row and a bottle of water that they can pour over the whetstones when they are in danger of drying out. Well, if I did something like that, then I'd want the weather to be nice, and I'd need a table outside, and possibly to have the hose set up to provide moisture, and so on. That set up never happened, so knives slowly started to dull.

When push came to shove, I lubricated the whetstones with the kitchen faucet, then placed them on the island where I could sit down and sharpen them. If they looked a bit parched, I went back over to the sink. It was not a great hardship. If I were sharpening 100 knives, it would be a great hardship. For 10 knives, it was pretty simple.

With the logistics out of the way, I could finally sharpen. I'm not really planning on discussing technique, because I've had one sharpening session based on information I pulled off of conflicting sources from the internet. My knives are sharp, but I can't say that what I did was the best way to do it. Suffice it to say that, at the end of the day, previously dull knives could now cut a piece of paper in twain if such were my wont.

Instead, I will give you a video from the No Reservations Twitter feed that promises knife instruction. It's somewhat appropriate, as Anthony Bourdain is largely to blame for me deciding I needed this lifestyle change, so hopefully this video will help any others who have been similarly urged into sharpening knives. The technique demonstrated in this video is not how I did it, but I may give this technique a go next time.

Am I a better person for this experience? It's such a philosophical question. From a personal perspective, I now have a more direct connection with my kitchen tools that didn't exist before. If the apocalypse comes, I can still have sharp knives without needing any electricity or help from a third party. These are good things. From a social perspective, point at ten people on the street: will they be able to sharpen their own knives? Chances are maybe one of them can, so that must make me better than, what, 90% of all people on the street.

Right?

No?

 

Good Food Interviews The Food Geek

I was on the Los Angeles NPR affiliate KCRW show Good Food this weekend talking about the differences between cast iron and stainless steel, and following up on the article I did for Fine Cooking about cast iron nutrition.

For the record, I am a big fan of cast iron.

As these things go, the interview on air only covered about half of what we discussed. We completely missed the explanation of how stainless steel remains stainless, and I didn't get to tell you about the scientific study where the villagers receiving pans from scientists sold those pans instead of using them.

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But such is the way of radio, which is, incidentally, plenty of good fun to do. Go, listen to the episode, and enjoy.

Baking in a Storm

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I was perusing the King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion [affiliate link] and I came across a tip about humidity and baking. It started out with the relatively common advice that, in more humid weather, flour will absorb more liquid and will consequently need less added for any given recipe. However, tucked away under that was another hint that I'd never heard before.

One of the common symptoms of rainy weather is lower atmospheric pressure. The thing I'd never considered is that the lower pressure will affect cooking. It'll have a small effect on the temperature needed to bake, which the King Arthur folk didn't mention because it's probably pretty negligible. This is the same thing that happens to high-altitude bakers and the opposite of what happens in a pressure cooker.

The important thing is that your cake/bread/whatever will rise higher because there isn't as much pressure on it. It's obvious when you think about it, and I'm sure bakers who have travelled to different elevations to practice their craft have noticed the difference, but it's news to me.

What I wonder is if there's anyone who would want an oven that could control its pressure. Not necessarily to pressure-cooker levels, but for people living near the edge of the atmosphere (I'm looking at you, Colorado), they could keep it at 1 ATM. For those who just want the tallest souffles ever, they could dial down the pressure just a smidge.

There's a problem that happens with chemically leavened products like muffins and quick breads. If you put too much leavener in, the quick bread will collapse before it's done baking. This happens because there's not enough structure in the confection to hold it up. Specifically, the atmospheric pressure is pushing it down when the tiny amount of gluten isn't ready to hold it up.

With the fancy atmospherically-controlled oven, you might be able to dial back the pressure enough to allow the structure to set before removing the pressure. There will be limits, of course; a soufflé is going to fall eventually, and if you make your structure too delicate, no amount of reduced pressure is going to help unless you're going to somehow eat it in the reduced pressure. Which seems unlikely.

Still, I'd bet someone talented to could work some magic with a system like that. I doubt it would end up being useful, certainly not compared with the work of actually creating such a device, but I wouldn't have really figured out any good uses for the anti-griddle either, so who can say for sure?

Why I Cook

Earlier today, Michael Ruhlman posted a list of the reasons why he cooks, and he encouraged others to do the same on their respective blogs. Here are my reasons:


  • I like being able to make people happy;

  • It reminds me of my mother;

  • When civilization ends, I need at least one marketable skill;

  • "It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong;"

  • It makes the house smell really nice;

  • To prove that I can;

  • Food from a can gets old really quickly;

  • Sometimes the only way to get something right is to make it yourself;

  • It would be really embarrassing if people called me a food expert and I couldn't cook;

  • Few things are more satisfying than taking water, flour, salt, and yeast and turning it into bread;

  • Reading a bunch of food theory doesn't stick in my head if I don't lock it down with practice;

  • It justifies the purchase of kitchen tools;

  • It is my husbandly duty;

  • Cooking gives us an insight into traditions, culture, and history. If there are people, then there is food;

  • To encourage others to cook;

  • There's no really good Italian food around here.


What are your reasons for cooking?

Evil Mad Science Wednesday: Asteroids (the edible kind)

Another bit of brilliance from Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, who I clearly have a crush on. Take some chocolate graham crackers that you can make, cut them into clever shapes, do a little piping, and give homage to one of the classiciest of classic video games.

Asteroids (the edible kind):

complete - 1

Pew Pew Pew!!! Nom Nom Nom!!!

complete - 4

 

 

Gems you can find in the post: the recipe for the graham crackers and how to make your own cookie cutters. They ended up cutting these by hand (well, knife), but they could have made custom cookie cutters if they had wanted to.

(Via Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories.)

A bad egg

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Another kitchen mystery. This one is about whether some eggs past their date might be bad or good. It gets a bit philosophical about what we really mean by being good or bad and how that applies to eggs. Not to worry, there's some solid, practical advice around the end.

Incidentally, looking through the archives, roughly 1/6 of all my articles are egg-related. We have:

  1. The Party That Is Egg Foam
  2. Cooking Eggs with Sugar Alone
  3. Cracking the Boiled Egg Mystery
  4. The Best Scrambled Eggs
  5. Egg sizes and substitutions
  6. Dried Egg Pasta: Hidden Danger or Perfectly Safe?
  7. Ingredient Temperatures - Not technically a Kitchen Mystery, as this appeared in the magazine, but still.
  8. Too Hot for Hollandaise
  9. Splitting the Egg
  10. Not All It's Cracked up to Be
  11. A Bad Egg

So be sure to read through all of these to learn more about the majesty of the egg in its inscrutable white shell.

Instructable Wednesday: The Lozenge

I love learning how to do things it just never occurred to me to do before. In this case, it's making my own cough drop. The thing about cough drops is that they are just specially flavored candy. Some may be vaguely medicinal, but there's something to be said for having your favorite herb, spice, or tea inside the lozenge that's soothing your throat. Normal candy making rules apply, so you can follow the normal rules for ingredient substitutions and dealing with changes in the environment (or not) as necessary.

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