Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Maillard Reaction: The Science of Browning

The browning of this T-bone steak is thanks to the Maillard reaction
What is the Maillard reaction? It is one of the most important chemical reactions in cooking. That’s what it is! It is the difference between boiled steak and grilled steak, bread straight from the bag and bread that’s been toasted, steamed dumplings and pan-fried ones.

             Specifically, the Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction between amino acids and a reducing sugar like glucose (reducing sugars are sugars that form aldehyde or ketone compounds in an alkaline solution). If your high school chemistry is a little rusty just know that hundreds of new compounds are formed during the reaction. Some of which supply color. Others supply flavor. I won’t list the compounds here, seeing as there are too many to list and they have names like: 6-acetyl-1,2,3,4-tetrahydropyridine (which, apart from acting as a tongue twister, is partly responsible for the flavor of many baked goods).

Garlic and Herb Dinner Rolls
            The reaction occurs between 140 to 165 °C (280 to 330 °F), though 310°F/154°C is the sweet spot where the reaction is most commonly noticed. The reaction requires high dry heat in cooking, though it can be coaxed along chemically for other purposes. It doesn’t occur in boiled foods because boiling water can never get hot enough. The types of amino acids and sugars present, the amount of water, and how alkali (alkali being the opposite of acidic) the food is all effects how the reaction occurs.

            The Maillard reaction is named after the French chemist Louis Camille Maillard, who first described it during the 1910s. Note that the reaction is not to be confused with caramelization, which is another important browning reaction in cooking, but involves the breakdown of sugars at higher temperatures.

            So, the next time you are chowing down on some golden-brown bread, some roasted chicken, or perfectly seared steak you now know what reaction helped make that food so delicious. Cooking is edible science.   
Thanksgiving Turkey

Sunday, January 28, 2018

7 Prepared Ingredients I Always Have on Hand

I don’t make everything from scratch. I just don’t have the time. Below are seven ‘prepared’ ingredients I always have on hand that make cooking a little easy due to their ease of use, versatility, or just plain awesomeness. 
Panko: These light Japanese style bread crumbs are a gift from the food gods. I’m not averse to drying white bread in the oven and making my own bread crumbs, but why would I when panko is so perfect. If it’s crunch you want, then panko is where it’s at. Other bread crumbs (like Italian style) are usually too fine. If I notice my bag is getting low then it’s to store I go to re-stock.
Favorite Use: panko breaded fried shrimp.

Curry Powder: Sure, I could buy individual spices and mix my own curry powder (and I do sometimes!) but usually I just want something quick to throw in a dish that has the flavor profile I want. Curry powder fits the bill. Given that there are dozens, possibly hundreds of varieties and brands available you’re guaranteed to find one you like. I tend to go for the yellow variety and I make sure It’s not too hot (I like to control the heat with fresh pepper or powdered cayenne). Curry powders are usually well balanced, already, so it cuts down on the ingredients you need to add to a dish. Anything that simplifies cooking gets an A+ from me.
Favorite Use: curry chicken

Jarred Pasta Sauce: I’m only talking about the tomato kind. I would never use jarred alfredo sauce (but since this whole article is me promoting ready-made stuff I won’t look down on you for using it). I always make my own gravy, but I only make my own tomato sauce half of the time (usually when I make meatballs). If I’m making a baked ziti or a lasagna, chances are I’m using the jarred stuff. I stick to the basics (marinara, original, tomato basil…). I can add any vegetables, meat, or other spices that I want but the hard part of stewing tomatoes until they form a sauce has already been done for me.
Favorite Use: baked ziti

Stewed Tomatoes: If you don’t know what stewed tomatoes are they’re sliced tomatoes cooked in their own juices with celery, onions, green bell peppers and spices. You can find them next to their more widely used brother, diced tomatoes. My mother basically raised me on them so I guess this one can be chalked up to childhood tastes that have carried over into adulthood. Stewed tomatoes are kind of sweet, but I like the sweetness and I always have at least 5 cans around. One thing I enjoy doing is chopping them up and cooking them quickly with garlic and fresh basil, then spooning that over panko fried chicken breast, and finally topping the whole thing with shaved parmesan cheese. I could put them in any recipe that calls for diced tomatoes, but I don’t because that would be overusing them.
Favorite Use: Pasta with Italian sausage, eggplant, zucchini and chopped stewed tomatoes (Yeah, I don’t have a name for that other than “damn good pasta dish”)

Canned Salmon: Nothing is better than fresh salmon cooked to the perfect doneness, seasoned lightly and served with fresh vegetables. Canned salmon couldn’t beat that no matter how well it’s made but there is something about it. Something that keeps me coming back to it for one thing: Salmon cakes (also called patties or croquettes). Yeah, fresh salmon is great for this, but let’s face it canned salmon has a long shelf life and you don’t have to chop it so once again it’s all about convenience. I always take out the bones (though they become so soft in the can you can eat them), but never the skin. I try to buy it when it’s on sale and currently have three cans on hand. 
Favorite Use: Salmon cakes (served with grits or biscuits)

Saltine Crackers: Crackers hardly get simpler than saltines, but for something so simple they’re amazing. And while I do eat them with cheese sometimes (because they’re crackers) it’s all their uses beyond being crackers that interest me. I grind them in a food processor and use them to bread fried eggplant and zucchini as well as chicken for chicken parmesan (I don’t use panko for everything fried, though I could!). I crush them and use them as binders in crab cakes and wait for it…salmon cakes. I add them to soups, stews, and chowders as a thickener (just like you might use flour or corn starch only better). Finally, I love a little bit of them ground fine and tossed with steamed vegetables and butter. That sounds weird but it works for me.
Favorite Use: Fried eggplant and zucchini with a sprinkling of parmesan cheese

Italian Seasoning: I may get some hate for this one, but I use it religiously. Italian seasoning is a mix of dried herbs commonly used in Italian cooking like basil, rosemary, and oregano. One might wonder why a cook that has all of these herbs already would need Italian seasoning. You don’t need it. Nothing on this list is necessary, but my pantry is seldom without it for long, because If I didn’t have it I would have to approximate the taste by mixing a whole bunch of herbs together. That might work but I never have marjoram so it would pale in comparison. If I have a dish and I say It needs rosemary I add rosemary, thyme I add thyme, basil I add basil. If I have a dish and I say this needs the taste of “herbs” then I add Italian seasoning. You know the taste I’m talking about. The taste only herbs can provide but not a particular herb, just herbiness.
Favorite Use: In soups and tomato sauce  

This list is by no means exhaustive. I keep a lot of other prepared ingredients on hand, but these are my seven favorites. I may do a follow up with several more in the future.                 

Friday, January 26, 2018

Salt: Understanding the Most Important Seasoning


Any time a base reacts with an acid a salt is born in the resulting neutralization reaction. There are many types of salt but the one humans care the most about is sodium chloride (chemical symbol: NaCl), the union of the gas chlorine and the metal sodium by an ionic bond. In its natural form, it is a crystalline mineral called Halite. Sodium Chloride is the only salt I will be discussing in this article so any mention of salt from here on will refer to it.
            Salt is one the most important items in the kitchen along with water, fire, and a sharp knife. It enhances the flavor of any food you put it on by bringing out the subtle flavors in that food and countering the taste of bitterness. Basically, it balances flavor, which is why nearly every dessert recipe calls for a ¼- ½ teaspoon of salt. You don’t taste the salt in the recipe, but you taste what the salt does.
            There are several types of salts you will encounter in the grocery store.
Table Salt: This is salt produced by dissolving mined salt in water and then purifying and cooling the resulting brine to get “pure” salt crystals. The salt crystals are ground into uniform grains and mixed with anti-caking agents and usually iodine (to prevent iodine deficiency, a serious medical problem from the past still common in some developing nations)
Kosher Salt: Very similar to table salt, but with kosher salt the crystals are coaxed to grow from the top of the brine resulting if more uneven shapes. These crystals are rolled into flakes which are not only more uneven than table salt but also larger. Kosher salt has less anti-caking agents and no iodine. It is probably the number one cooking salt. Chefs says it’s easier to sprinkle on food and it tastes better than table salt. 
Sea Salt: If you take sea water and put it into shallow beds then let the water evaporate the resulting salt is sea salt. It has trace amounts of different minerals in it from the ocean that give it different flavors and colors depending on the region of the world it’s from. My grandfather (a former caterer) swore by the stuff. I seldom use it. Some minerals it might contain are: sulphate, magnesium, calcium, bicarbonate, borate, etc. Sea salt usually has irregular shapes as well. 
Finishing Salts: These are flavored salts that can include sea salts. A common one would be smoked salt, which is exactly what its name suggests. You don’t cook with them, instead you sprinkle a little on the finished dish to impart some subtle flavor. You’ll feel like a fancy chef finishing your newest masterpiece when you use them. 
The salt with the largest most irregular crystals here, is a type of sea salt. Across from it the finest salt is iodized table salt. Between them are regular kosher salt at the bottom and coarse kosher salt at the top.

An assortment of finishing salts. Starting with the black and moving clockwise: smoked salt, Hawaiian red salt, Himalayan pink salt, Eurasian black salt (not black at all), and Sel de Guerande. 
             Learning to salt food properly is one of the most important skills you can learn in the kitchen. The key is to get just enough salt to enhance the flavor of the food while making sure salt is not all you taste. There are four techniques for salting food right.

1) Salt with your hands. Don’t pour it out of a container. This gives better control of how much salt is going into the dish. Eventually your fingers will develop a feel for it and you’ll know exactly how much seasoning one of your pinches provides.
2) Salt from up high. This means don’t hold your hand real close to the food (mainly for meat/fish). Hold your hands up high and let the salt fall like snow. It will cover the food more evenly.

3) Salt the individual components of a dish and salt the dish a little at time. These two go hand in hand. Let’s say you are making a stir fry that requires you to add vegetables or meat at different steps. After the addition of each new ingredient add a little bit more salt. Don’t try to salt it all at once (at the beginning or end) because you might add too much. You can always add more salt if you have to, but taking it out will either be a pain or impossible.

4) Last, you need to salt food at the right time. Large pieces of meat like roasts can be seasoned the night before cooking to let the salt work its way into the meat. Pasta, potatoes, and grains should be cooked in salted water. Most vegetables should be salted after adding them to the pan unless the goal is to pull water out of them before use in which case you should salt them ahead of time. Small or thin pieces of meat can be salted just before cooking. Most recipes will tell you when to salt the foods.

Finally, a word on health. Salt in and of itself is not a bad thing. Your body requires it for proper health, but as with anything too much of a good thing is a bad thing. As long as you are drinking enough water and have healthy kidneys there is no evidence that going on a low salt diet will make a healthy person live any longer. If you have high blood pressure however, follow your doctor’s advice on salt, whatever that may be.