3 techniques to improve your home cooking

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J. Kenji López-Alt

"Often you find that there are ways you can improve techniques or recipes," says J. Kenji López-Alt, author of The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science.

[Lopez-Alt on the myths of cast-iron and why you should use bay leaves.]

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: I usually don't rave about a book, but I have to say that if anybody cooks even once a month, this book would probably be a revelation to them. I have no idea how you came to these conclusions -- you had to have been working 24 hours a day for god knows how long. But also you make it so readable. Often when you get into food science, your eyes roll back. I gather this is purposeful.

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt
J. Kenji López-Alt (Photo: Peter Tannenbaum)

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt: It is. I grew up watching kids' science shows. I loved science as a kid. I loved science classes. I think the best teachers are the ones who make the science interesting and make it sound like something just really cool, which is what it is.

LRK: You do exhaustive tests to come to conclusions that often go against everything we've ever been told. How do you work? How do you go through the process?

JKLA: I work mostly from the hours of midnight to 4 a.m. in my underwear -- that's where the writing takes place.

But the cooking work starts off with a ton of research. If I'm going to start working on a given recipe or even if I'm just thinking about a technique, it starts with research. It starts with looking up all the classic techniques, looking in cookbooks, looking online, and looking at other really innovative, smart cooks I know and seeing what they have done with it. It all starts with a lot of research.

Then from there I start to design a set of experiments that I'm planning on carrying out, keeping in mind the end goal. The end goal is to make food better and more efficient, always with the constraint that these are recipes designed for normal, everyday people who are not going to be buying really fancy equipment or going to specialty markets to find exotic ingredients.

From there you just poke and prod and experiment until you discover either that everybody has been doing it right the whole time, or that maybe there are ways you can improve it. Often you find that there are ways you can improve techniques or recipes.

1. Start meat low and slow, then sear it at the end

JKLA: Traditional recipes will have you start fast and finish slow. I think that stemmed from the idea that searing meat will lock in juices. The idea is that you create the cauterized crust on the outside, and that prevents juices from the inside from escaping. It turns out that this has been proven to be untrue many times.

It's actually very simple to prove it yourself. You can sear one side of a steak, get a really nice brown crust, flip it over and let it cook. Eventually you'll start to see juices bubbling out of that seared surface, so quite obviously it's not actually sealed.

The other way you can test it is by searing meat first and finishing it slow. Then do the opposite, which is starting slow and searing at the end. By doing this, what you find is that actually the meat that you sear, the one that you sear at the end, loses far less juice than the one that you sear at the beginning.

That is a technique that I recommend for many things: steaks, pork chops and hamburgers. I recommend it if you're going to roast a whole chicken. Basically any sort of fast-cooking meat that you want to get a nice brown crust on, start it low and slow until it's very close to the final temperature that you're going to serve it.

For a steak you bring it up to around 110 degrees Fahrenheit or so, and then you sear it at the very end. By the time it's done searing, it's at around 125 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a nice medium-rare.

The differences that you get -- a very even cook from edge to edge. It's nice and pink all the way throughout as opposed to a more traditional steak, which has a temperature gradient where it's gray on the outside and transitions to pink in the middle.

Madrone Tea Bark Eggs
Also from Lopez-Alt: The Rules for Pan-Seared Steak and Butter-basted Pan-seared Thick-cut Steaks

2. 'The microwave is just another tool'

JKLA: Microsteaming is just a portmanteau -- it's microwaving and steaming.

People are afraid of the microwave. Even the other day I was on Twitter and somebody mentioned, "This restaurant must microwave all their food." They were talking about one of these big, national, chain restaurants. To me that was just like, "Well, you know what? I've worked in restaurants like that and most of those places don't microwave their food."

But you know where they do microwave food a lot is actually at very fancy restaurants. I think it's because at these fancy restaurants chefs maybe use a little bit more thought and realize the microwave is just another tool. There's nothing evil about it. Just because most of the things people cook in it happen to be frozen dinners, it doesn't mean that it can't be used as a good tool for cooking real, fresh food.

Microsteaming is essentially when you steam green vegetables. You can do green beans, you can do asparagus, you can do whole ears of corn, things like that. You put it on a plate with a little bit of water, cover it and microwave it. It steams much faster than it would on the stovetop. You actually end up preserving a lot more color and a lot more flavor. I'm not a nutritionist, but I'm told you also preserve more nutrients that way.

3. Preserve the fresh flavor of green vegetables with cryo-blanching

JKLA: My friends over at Ideas in Food, a food blog that's been around since I think before food blogs even existed, came up with this concept called cryo-blanching. Traditional blanching is when you take a great vegetable and drop it in boiling water -- not until it's fully cooked, but until it's almost cooked, just enough that you break down the cell structure. From there you can chill it and it's ready to go for dinner. Then all you have to do is quickly saute it.

Cryo-blanching is essentially you take those same vegetables, put them in a single layer and then freeze them. What freezing does is it'll crystallize the water molecules inside the vegetables. Those crystals have sharp, jagged edges that end up puncturing and breaking cells the same way that boiling a vegetable will. But what it doesn't do is it doesn't alter the flavor. You end up with a vegetable that's essentially blanched because its cell structure has been broken down a little bit, but it still has a very fresh, green flavor.

You freeze your green beans in a single layer. Then when you're ready for dinner, pull them out, let them thaw and then you just finish them in a pan with a little bit of butter. They'll come out tender and perfectly cooked but with a brighter, fresher green bean flavor than they would if you had blanched them in water. In addition to the green beans, you can actually also do this with other green vegetables like asparagus, fresh peas, snow peas, snap peas or any sort of small green vegetable that's going to freeze quickly.

You can then transfer them to a freezer bag. If you want to do it even better, you can use one of those vacuum sealer bags. Just seal the fresh vegetables in a vacuum sealer bag in a single layer, and then throw that straight into the freezer. That way when you thaw them out, you can actually thaw them underwater and you don't risk waterlogging them.

From This Episode: 
September 25th, 2015

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