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…the way I cook…

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The entire term of cooking is such a misnomer for me – it’s always felt so narrow and ill conceived to describe the process of turning ingredients into food. Especially lately as I’ve been pondering and considering all the different techniques of cooking I regularly use, their strengths and weaknesses, for my cookbook.

I’m thinking of this tonight as I’m making a roasted a chicken with a beer can shoved up in its cavity, half filled with beer, some garlic and rosemary. It’s a method many have heard about, and it’s a great substitute for a pricey vertical roaster you might buy specifically for the purpose of roasting a chicken upright. While it’s fascinating to discover how perfectly a 12oz beer can fits into the place where the guts used be, almost making you believe that some god somewhere wanted them to be used in this way together, there’s something more here for me. It’s the perfect case in point about the way I usually cook…

When it comes to applying heat, or what is generally thought of as actual cooking, there are subtle and beautiful aspects to each of them. Braising, or boiling something in liquid gives you a means of controlling temperature. Water only ever gets to 210 degrees – at a full out rolling boil – so you know that nothing in that medium is ever going to get hotter than that. A gentle simmer is more in the range of 180 degrees… Other liquids, such as wine, boil at an even lower temperature. All liquids, including fats and oils, which have a much higher temperature range, are great conductors of heat; they cook much more efficiently and evenly than roasting something. Steaming is even better; a scant amount of liquid and a minimal heat source can cook vast amounts of food. It’s hotter too, than boiling water, 273 degrees Fahrenheit. They’re both a moist heat, so they prevent things from drying out, or losing a lot of their own moisture through evaporation. But neither of them brown anything…

Roasting relies on air, mainly, to conduct heat. And air is an extremely poor conductor. It takes longer, it causes things to lose moisture, but sometimes that’s exactly what you want; a good crust on a roast, or crisp skin on a chicken or duck.

Pan frying, and sautéing relies on direct contact with a hot surface, usually augmented with some oil or fat to elicit a better contact with the cooking surface than if it were dry. Like grilling over coals, or broiling under a flame or element, it’s well suited to browning things quickly, but poor at cooking anything large, or for long durations, lest you want to dine on carbon…

Of course cooking isn’t just relegated to the realm of applying heat to modify a food – a number of other things come into play, such as curing, brining, drying, fermenting – that equally change the structure and flavor of things, but that’s a tangent I’ll visit more later…

The most intriguing revelation, and difficult thing to express succinctly, is discovering I rarely cook anything only one way. Most things are cooked, or transformed multiple times, using different techniques along the way. I have very few rules or diktats about the process of making food, but this is one that I’ve come to believe as being generally true in virtually every aspect; the more any particular ingredient is touched, coaxed, set to lay around, dried, kept waiting, cooked one way and then another; inevitably the better it becomes… To wit; bacon. Cured first, then dried, smoked, rested and then pan fried. Confit; salted (cured), dried, poached in fat, stored in fat, then pan seared or eaten cold, pounded into rillettes… A roast; browned first in fat, then braised in port or wine, then roasted to brown and caramelize the braising liquid… Potatoes; often blanched or boiled, then browned in fat. Brussels sprouts; blanched in water, then sliced and browned in butter. Potstickers; steamed, then fried. Even a steak going across an open grill; salted and air dried for at least a few hours before if not overnight… Bread; starter is fermented, rested, formed into loaves, then finally baked in an oven with boiling water thrown in it for steam…

And the beer can chicken; a simple little jewel combining two techniques at the same time. Steam from the beer to cook the meat one way from the inside, while roasting it and crisping up the skin from the outside…

Maybe it’s the reason why cooking, as a general term, is so difficult to embrace; the best things in life are all cooked a number of times, differently. It’s the process that makes them, not just some particular step along the way…

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Discussion

2 thoughts on “…the way I cook…

  1. You always have such interesting subjects, to say nothing about the sketches that accompany them…. The chicken in this case looks as though it is descending onto the beer can…. Funny…. Love it!!!

    Posted by seabreezelouuse | July 26, 2011, 3:14 am

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