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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Matters of the Pot and Pan (Temperature)

              We first started cooking our food to make it more easily digested and to enable it to be more shelf stable (cave stable?). Once we graduated from spit roasting to cooking our dinners in a metal or clay pot, we were able to prepare foodstuffs that were more liquid rather than just chunks of meat skewered and suspended over the fire.  I’m sure the first chefs quickly learned that viscous solutions also have a tendency to stick to their container and caramelize unless their proximity to the fire was attended to regularly.  So much time and energy has been spent on enabling us better control of our heat source through inventions of things like stoves and thermostats, why not take advantage of them?  I always end up telling less experienced line cooks; “the burner doesn’t just go on and off, there’s a whole lot in the middle”.

                A pot on the stove needs constant adjustment.  Sometimes this can be accomplished by merely stirring it or setting it off center of the heat source.  I typically offset a stock or reduction so that the bubbles rising on one side help to push the impurities over to the other more stagnant side giving me the chance to skim them away.  Things change as they cook too.  As soups and stews simmer away on a stove, they get thicker, thicker solutions hold more heat and will require you to routinely lower the temperature of your burner in order to maintain that lazy bubble you’re looking for. 

                Aggressive cooking techniques need aggressive heat.  Grilling, roasting, sautéing, and other dry heat cooking methods are all about evaporating moisture and getting it out of the way to allow browning to take effect.  Hence the sloped sides and large surface area of a sauté pan; its design allows water to escape quickly bettering the likelihood of you achieving the result of GBD (golden brown and delicious).  An attentive cook will listen to the pan and turn it down when the sizzling and popping sounds go from aggressive and evenly paced to violent and turbocharged.  Avoid using too much oil when cooking with gusto.  It has a tendency to burn and spatter or even catch fire.  Experiment with temperature next time you brown chicken breasts in a pan by changing the heat level applied to the pan for each breast, hotter each time.  Take note of how they change in color and appearance as you progress in temperature.   

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Matters of the Pot and Pan (Surface Area)

               Much detriment can come from a poorly attended pot or pan in the form of dashed dinner dreams and limp vegetables intermingled with completely raw ones.  Paying attention to both the surface area of your food and that of your cooking vessel is paramount in a kitchen.

                Think about your favorite fast-paced cooking show (Chopped, Top Chef, Iron Chef), ever notice the cooks constantly giving their pots and pans a stir or a little shake?  This isn’t a nervous tick or showmanship, they are leveling everything off so that they have evenly cooked product while visually assessing what’s going on in the pan itself.  Vegetables in a pan can be quite fickle when it comes to being consistently tender and to counter act this we want to regularly rotate the layer of food that is in direct contact with the pan bottom.  By leveling out the ingredients in the pan with a shimmy, shake, or stir, we can avoid having that rogue undercooked carrot or potato that never made its way to the business portion of our pan.  None of this stirring and agitation will have the desired result if we have picked the wrong size pot to sweat our vegetables in. 

                Surface area comes into play when we look at our amount of foodstuffs versus the size of the pan that we are going to use.  If we are sautéing onions and desire a bit of color on them, then we will need med-high heat and a pan that is big enough to let the onions settle in a single layer or two.  As vegetables and proteins stack up in a pan, they suck heat from the metal and release water.  If the temperature of the pan drops too much due to being overloaded, we will be steaming our onions rather delivering them to the world of crispy brown perfection.  This is especially important whenever we are preparing vegetables and proteins with high water content (mushrooms, onions, potatoes, fish, etc.).