Saturday, February 2, 2008

Moishe: My Sylvia Already Understands, But Here's a Think Piece for Your Sunday Afternoon Cooking Experiments

Click the link above, as always, for the full article.

The Curious Cook
The Invisible Ingredient in Every Kitchen

OF all the ingredients in the kitchen, the most common is also the most mysterious.

It’s hard to measure and hard to control. It’s not a material like water or flour, to be added by the cup. In fact, it’s invisible.

It’s heat.

Every cook relies every day on the power of heat to transform food, but heat doesn’t always work in the way we might guess. And what we don’t know about it can end up burning us.

We waste huge amounts of gas or electricity, not to mention money and time, trying to get heat to do things it can’t do. Aiming to cook a roast or steak until it’s pink at the center, we routinely overcook the rest of it. Instead of a gentle simmer, we boil our stews and braises until they are tough and dry. Even if we do everything else right, we can undermine our best cooking if we let food cool on the way to the table — all because most of us don’t understand heat.

Heat is energy. It’s everywhere and it is always on the move, flowing out as it flows in. It roils the chemical innards of things, exciting their molecules to vibrate and crash into each other. When we add a lot of heat energy to foods, it agitates those innards enough to mix them up, destroy structures and create new ones. In doing so it transforms both texture and flavor.

There are, however, uncountable ways to misapply heat. In most cooking, we transfer energy from a heat source, something very hot and energetic, to relatively cold and inert foods. Our usual heat sources, gas flames and glowing coals and electrical elements, have temperatures well above 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Boiling water is around 212 degrees.

Cooks typically heat food to somewhere between 120 degrees (for fish and meats that we want to keep moist) and 400 degrees (for dry, crisp, flavorful brown crusts on breads, pastries, potatoes, or on fish and meats).

At the bottom of that range, a difference of just 5 or 10 degrees can mean the difference between juicy meat and dry, between a well-balanced cup of coffee or tea and a bitter, over-extracted one. And as every cook learns early on, it’s all too easy to burn the outside of a hamburger or a potato before the center is warm.

That’s the basic challenge: We’re often aiming a fire hose of heat at targets that can only absorb a slow trickle, and that will be ruined if they absorb a drop too much. Are you ever annoyed by pots that take forever to heat up, or frustrated by waiting for dry foods to soften? A kitchen that becomes hot enough to be a sauna? Big jumps in the utility bill when you do a lot of cooking? The problem, as you will notice if you pay more attention to your kitchen’s thermal landscape, even in terms of what you can feel, is how much heat escapes without ever getting into the food.

1 comment:

Mosihe said...

way way beyond moishe. but thanks.