Tools for Possibilities: issue no. 8

Once a week we’ll send out a page from Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities. The tools might be outdated or obsolete, but the possibilities they inspire are new. Sign up here to get Tools for Possibilities a week early in your inbox.

Basic principles
The Science of Good Cooking, $18

I’ve learned more about cooking from this hefty volume than from reading or watching anything else.

There are other fine books about the science of cooking, including Harold McGee’s classic On Food and Cooking, but this big book is by far the most practical and helpful. While McGee’s is authoritative and complete, this one is better organized for your average cook. The science is condensed into 50 principles, and each easy-to-remember principle is illustrated by half a dozen tested recipes. If you can master these 50 you’ll have the equivalent of a culinary degree.

An example of a principle would be: Salting vegetables removes liquid. You’ll hear the evidence why this is true, what difference it makes in dishes, and how to apply it to any recipe in the future. Every claim is tested by experiments run by the nerd chefs at Cook’s Illustrated, so that you have full command of the idea and its exceptions. Although this book is jam packed with “best recipes” this is not a traditional cookbook: it is more of a cooking course. The teaching is a model of clarity and insight. – KK
  • The way you cut an onion affects its flavor. To prove the point, we took eight onions and cut each two different ways: pole to pole (with the grain) and parallel to the equator (against the grain). We then smelled and tasted pieces from each onion cut each way. The onions sliced pole to pole were clearly less pungent in taste and odor than those cut along the equator.Perhaps just as important as cookware material is the pan shape and size. Crowd four chicken breasts into a 10-inch pan and they will steam; space them out in a 12-inch pan and they will brown.
  • Salty Marinades Work Best. Marinating is often regarded as a cure-all for bland, chewy meat. Years of testing have taught us that while many marinades can bump up flavor, most will never turn a rough cut tender. Well, not without the right ingredient. What’s the secret to a marinade that can add complexity to steak, chicken and pork and enhance juiciness? You guessed it: salt.
  • Gentle Folding Stops Tough Quick Breads. As we learned in concept 39, yeast breads depend on a well-developed gluten structure to rise properly. Gluten also gives bread its resilient, chewy texture. In contrast, quick breads (such as banana bread), as well as muffins and pancakes, can be ruined by excess development of gluten. That’s because tenderness–not chewiness–is the goal.
  • Two Leaveners Are Often Better than One. The advent of chemical leaveners, such as baking soda and baking powder, in the 19th century made it easier for cooks to bake at home. No need to rely on fickle yeast in order to make a cake. Chemical leaveners are quick and reliable. But they are also confusing. Some recipes rely on baking powder, some on baking soda, and many on both. Why do you need two leaveners in something as simple as a cookie that doesn’t even rise all that much?
Food answers
On Food and Cooking, $27

This is the smartest book in my kitchen. It’s where I go whenever I have a question about what I am eating, or the science behind its preparation. Simply the best source for understanding food and how it works. Now in its updated second edition. Covers ingredients from all over the world and time. Awesome, encyclopedic. – KK

Aromas from Altered Carotenoid Pigments.
Both drying and cooking break some of the pigment molecules in carotenoid-rich fruits and vegetables into small, volatile fragments that contribute to their characteristic aromas. These fragments provide notes reminiscent of black tea, hay, honey, and violets.

Green Chlorophyll.
One change in the color of green vegetables as they are cooked has nothing to do with the pigment itself. That wonderfully intense, bright green that develops within a few seconds of throwing vegetables into boiling water is a result of the sudden expansion and escape of gases trapped in the spaces between cells. Ordinarily, these microscopic air pockets cloud the color of the chloroplasts. When they collapse, we can see the pigments much more directly.

Soba: Japanese Buckwheat Noodles.
Buckwheat noodles were made in northern China in the 14th century, and had become a popular food in Japan by around 1600. It’s difficult to make noodles exclusively with buckwheat flour because the buckwheat proteins do not form a cohesive gluten. Japanese soba noodles may be from 10%- 90% buckwheat, the remainder wheat. They’re traditionally made from freshly milled flour, which is mixed very quickly with the water and worked until the water is evenly absorbed and the dough firm and smooth. Salt is omitted because it interferes with the proteins and mucilage that help bind the dough (p. 483). The dough is rested, then rolled out to about 3 mm thick and rested again, then cut into fine noodles. The noodles are cooked fresh, and when done, are washed and firmed in a container of ice water, drained, and served either in a hot broth or cold, accompanied by a dipping sauce.

Maple Sugaring Without Metal or Fire.
In 1755, a young colonist was captured and “adopted” by a small group of natives in the region that is now Ohio. In 1799 he published his story in An Account of the Remarkable Occurrences in the Life and Travels of Col. James Smith, which includes several descriptions of how the Indians made maple sugar. Here’s the most ingenious method. “We had no large kettles with us this year, and the squaws made the frost, in some measure, supply the place of fire, in making sugar. Their large bark vessels, for holding the stock-water, they made broad and shallow; and as the weather is very cold here, it frequently freezes at night in sugar time; and the ice they break and cast out of the vessels. I asked them if they were not throwing away the sugar? they said no; it was water they were casting away, sugar did not freeze and there was scarcely any in that ice…I observed that after several times freezing, the water that remained in the vessel, changed its color and became brown and very sweet.”
Global spice source
Penzeys SpicesPrices vary

The spices of life. All of them, in subtle variations, from around the world. By mail order. – KK

Saffron is the stigma of the fall flowering crocus. Peek inside most any flower and you will see three threadlike filaments. These are stigma–but only in the saffron crocus are these stigma worth thousands of dollars per pound. Saffron is so valuable because it is a very labor intensive crop; only 5-7 pounds of saffron can be produced from each acre of land. This makes saffron the most expensive spice by weight–it has always been–but by use saffron isn’t that expensive, because a little goes a long way. A single gram of saffron easily translates into golden color and fragrant flavor.

Saffron contains 450-500 saffron stigmas to the gram. The stigma are also called threads, strings, pieces or strands. 1 gram equals 2 tsp. whole, 1 teaspoon crumbled or ½ teaspoon powdered. Don’t buy prepowdered saffron because it loses flavor quickly and is usually cut with turmeric or something else.

Mace, the lace-like, dried covering of the nutmeg, is a sweet and flavorful spice well worth using. Mace has a softer flavor than nutmeg, and for a nice change of pace it can be used in place of nutmeg in any recipe. Blade Mace can also be added to clear soups and sauces where nutmeg powder might spoil the appearance. Mace is a traditional flavoring for doughnuts and hotdogs.

Ajwain Seed
Ajwain (or Ajowan) is a traditional addition to many Indian and Pakistani dishes. It’s especially useful in vegetarian lentil and bean dishes, as a flavoring, and to temper the effects of a legume-based diet. From Pakistan.

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