Monday, June 14, 2010

Baking Techniques

Baking Techniques: "Techniques"
An article that really, truly explored baking techniques would probably land in at about 300,000 words. The realm of baking encompasses everything from the everyday biscuit to the most airy sponges, French breads to pizza crusts. The variety of stuff that can be produced with some type of flour, a little moisture and heat is nearly endless, and each particular type of baked good has its own little tips and tricks.

When I first started poking around for pictures to accompany this article, I came across hundreds that show creaming, leaveners at work, baking sheets and bread pans, cute kids icing cookies, and gorgeous cakes in every variety. What I ended up NOT finding was very much information on two of the very most basic techniques required for success - no matter what you're making. The picture search led to an info search - and there just isn't much out there. Really? REALLY?

For the most part, many of the successes and failures encountered come down to two things: temperature and moisture. Yes, you do need the correct fomula for your ingredients - the chemistry is critical. But the recipes (formulas) are available all over - thousands of cookbooks contain millions of great recipes for anything you might want to make. But where's the discussion of heat and water? Cakes rise and fall in response to them, doughs remain soft and pliable or crispy and golden because of them, cheesecakes crack or remain whole, and cookies become chewy and luscious, crispy and airy - or hockey pucks, all because of either heat, moisture or both.

For millenia people were perfectly all right with whatever they could bake at their own open hearths - which is a surprisingly diverse number of breads and sweets. Until 1490, when an enclosed oven was developed in Alsace, France - and what we think of as baking was begun. Separating the food from the fire, venting the smoke, and attempting to control the temperature were the first steps toward producing a perfect Angel food cake, Toll House cookies, or a great New York style cheesecake - none of which could have happened without the modern oven.

At the same time first came the problems that plague modern bakers - issues with temperature and problems with maintaining the right amount of water inside the oven. We can work with those - while a nice large commercial bakery and all the fancy equipment would be fun to play with, we don't have those. At least not in most kitchens. It's all right. We can work around it. We're going to play part Macgyver, part Mr. Wizard and part Dr. Phil. As a result everything is going to just taste better.


This one seems like a given - almost every baked goods recipe starts with "preheat your oven to ..." whatever temperature. Usually 350F for most things, but not always. Breads can go much higher - more delicate cakes and custards lower. Each type of product has its own ideal baking temperature - and some require two different ones.

No big deal - that's what the dials on a modern oven are for - right?

You'd think so - but NO! Oh sure - they'll make you think they're going to come through for you, then turn around and quietly undermine you behind your back, and you'll never even realize exactly why you're heartbroken over a ruined Devil's food cake. Think of your oven as as trying to drag you into the ulimate self destructive co-dependant passive-aggressive relationship on the planet. Your oven is going to make you think it's going to come through for you by appearing to be doing everything correctly, while in reality it's not even close. Time for a relationship check.

Counseling for your oven comes in the form of calibration. Calibration simply means you are double checking to make sure the temperature your asking for is the one you actually get. Oven lose accuacy over time - so while you think you may have one temperature, you actually have something that differs as much as 50-100F hotter or cooler. My own oven was nearly new a year ago, and was already running 30F too cool, which meant I was underbaking everything.

The solution is simple - you can either call in an appliance guy and have them run over on occasion and calibrate your oven for you, which is preferred, or buy an oven themometer and do it yourself. Which is probably cheaper. An oven thermometer - just like in the picture - costs about five bucks, and they're available all over the place. Discount and drug stores - the utensils rack a grocery - and they're worth their weight in gold. They're also easy to use simply stick it in the bottom of your oven - or hang it or rack by the little hook. Set your oven to 350F, wait until it's nice and hot, then check the thermometer against the oven setting. When I did this, the oven said 350F, the thermometer said 320F. As a result I now add 30 degrees to whatever temperature my recipe calls for, and my results have been far better and far more consistent.

Now - on occasion you'll need to replace your oven thermomenter. Do it once a year when you check smoke detector batteries - after a while the little inexpensive thermomenter itself loses calibration, and is no longer accurate. So tell it thank you, let it go and get a new one. You'll probably be very surprised at the improved results you begin getting.

Baking Stones

Temperature not only needs to be accurate, it needs to be consistent as well. Many ovens cycle on and off during the baking process, resulting in a surprising range of temperatures. Overall the average temperature may be where you set it, but there can be a 25F-50F range in there, both above and below your set point. There are two main ways to help avoid this problem. The first is simply not to open the oven door - there's no real need most of the time. I know - it's tempting. I like to just stare at stuff when it's baking too, and I have a glass window in my oven door. But opening the door itself lets in a draft of cold air, and allows the heated air to escape. So avoid it whenever you can.

Sometimes there's nothing you can do about it though - for some reason you need to open the door, and anyway - there's not much you can do about the cyclical nature most ovens have of heating. Or is there?

Ah Ha! Enter the baking stone! Yes, baking stones are used to provide particular results when loaves or pizza crusts are baked on them, and that's great. They result in crispier, more even crusts. Lovely. But - they have a secret super power as well. They hold and radiate heat back into the oven . Think about that - not only have you now calibrated your oven, you now have a means by which to keep it consistently at the right temperature - no matter how the oven is heated, and to a degree, no matter if you have to open the door for some reason. A good example of this is if you spritz the crust of baking bread, French bread in particular.

What you've done so far, is to begin taking control of the baking process. If you manage the temperature that carefully, you've taken the first steps to mastery. Now let me put on my MacGyver hat for a minute. There are commercial baking stones available all over the place - and they work like a charm. Most upscale kitchen supply places have them, and you can find a great variety through retailers like Amazon. No problem getting one.

Except the expense - much of which is because of shipping costs. If you have a local place to get one, you'll do better but you're still paying a premium. If you have the means and want a quick solution - knock yourself out. Or, you could pull a maneuver and do something just as good for a lot less money. In my oven are paving stones - the same ones you'd use for a sidewalk. They're thin, they're masonry, and they work just as well as a baking stone. If you go this route just be careful of what you pick up - make sure that you get simple untreated bricks. Many sheets of masonry, especially the older ones, are made of asbestos. I don't know what that does to your bread, but I don't want to take responsibility for that. Don't do it. Think of what you're after - something that will trap and radiate heat. Bricks do that really well. The one drawback - I honestly have no idea what they'd do, mechanically or chemically, if you bake directly on one. I use a baking sheet scattered with cornmeal for bread, and usually grill pizza crusts, so it's not an issue for me.

Cast iron will work as a fill-in for that matter. If you don't mind keeping a careful eye on your cast iron cookware in order to preserve its seasoning, then go ahead and throw a few pieces on the bottom rack of your oven. That'll work in a pinch - or until you find your brick pavers or baking stone. All righty? So - know the temperature of your oven, and keep it consistent. Let's go on.

Bain Marie

Ok - now that you've got a handle on temperature - the next step is to take control of moisture. Unlike temperature moisture won't be an issue most of the time. Most cakes, cupcakes or cookies don't really need a big control of moisture - they contain their own in the form of butter or other liquids, and manager quite nicely if left alone. Other things don't - custards, cheescakes, flourless cakes, and most breads.

Commerical ovens have elaborate systems for keeping a particular mositure level in an oven for baking particular things. However, the simplest and easiest method is to use a bain marie .

Bain marie is French for water bath, and the term applies to anything in which water is used as an insulator. Large steam tables at cafeterias, double boilers, and casseroles of water in your oven are all bain marie . The one we're concerned with here is the last one. One mistake people often make is to think that the purpose of a water bath is to release steam. It is - to a degree. But more importantly it's to insulate. Take a look at the picture - those are little custards in those cups, and they'll probably go into a 350F oven. The tricky part is that the water cannot heat above 212F - the boiling point of water. Which means that the parts of the dessert most in contact with the water will cook at a lower, more gentle temperature. Sure - you need the additional steam that the water will generate as well - part of what keeps cheesecakes from cracking during baking. But the insulation is the more important aspect here.

A water bath is simplicity itself - simply use a container with deep sides large enough to hold your actual baking pan - just like the second picture. Add hot water deep enough to come halfway up the sides of your baking container, and you're good. Make sure the water is hot or boiling when you start the baking process, or you'll completley throw off the baking times. The oven will have to heat the water as well as the product if you use cold or cool water. If the water is hot, it acts almost like a baking stone itself, helping keep the heat inside the oven consistent, and consistently gentle.


Steam is the final element in what I consider the basics of baking. There are times when you need steam, but not a bain marie - most particularly during bread baking. It's just not that hard to generate - check out the videos on French bread and you'll see how I rigged it in my own minimally equipped kitchen.

You can use two methods - for simple steam, place a cast iron skillet in the bottom of your oven. After it preheats, and the skillet itself is hot, then fill it with ice water when you place your dough or bread in the oven. The skillet stays hot enough to do this because of the properties of cast iron itself. Easy as that - the water will gently steam, helping ensure soft exteriors on breads - plain white sandwich bread for example. Which is amazing homemade.

If you want a crispy crust, then the secret weapon is a spray bottle as well as the skillet of water. Gently misting the exterior of the bread at 3 minute intervals for the first few minutes of cooking will ensure the exterior stays flexible enough for the yeast to do its thing - expandind as the bread rises in the heat. Stopping this step will allow the crust to set, and subsequently turn golden and crispy - which will contrast beautifully with the chewy inside. In a nutshell y'all - that's the trick to great bread.

So there you are - I wanted to give you more than just a trick - I wanted to give you the 'whys' - which is the first step in taking control. Once you know how to prevent problems to begin with, you won't need all the stuff to correct them. Your relationship with your oven comes first - and subsequently what you develope with your baked goods will be far more smooth and successful. Think of the head of a dysfunctional family who says 'enough!' That's you - take charge. You'll love what you end up with.

For more information, check out the link above!

Beef - How to Make it What's for Dinner

Beef - How to Make it What's for Dinner: "Beef - How to Make it What's for Dinner"

When I was growing up, my mother often shopped at a place called Service Grocery - which not only delivered, but had a real live butcher with appropriate accoutrement in the back of the store. His actual counter/showcase was rather small - especially by the mega mart standards of today - but I remember he was always dressed in snowy white from head to toe, always dropped everything to talk to my mother and greet the passel of kids that followed her around, and within moments would select, cut and wrap whatever she had asked for. I grew up seeing beef cut from the carcass and trimmed down from larger cuts. I saw first hand where all the different choices came from on the beef itself, and heard the discussions about what they were named and the virtues of each one.

The best part of it though - none of it's really difficult. It all comes down to a balance of flavor vs texture - and THAT is dependant on where on the beef the meat is cut. For the most part you can choose what you wish to cook based on that. As flavor increases, so does the amount of connective tissue. As connective tissue is lost, tenderness is gained.

Going a little further, the types of cuts are often grouped together, which makes it easier to know what you're getting, and therefore which cooking technique will maximize the particular cut you have. You don't want to braise a rib eye steak, and grilling a pot roast would result in shoe leather. So cast a quick eye at the charts, look back at them if you need to, and let me show the first steps to success. Let's go...

Braising or Stewing

Braising and stewing are often used on cuts of beef known as chuck - chuck roasts, chuck steaks, chuck tips, chuck stew meat - about the only thing you wouldn't choose these methods of cooking for is ground chuck, which I'll talk about later. But in a nutshell, if the name contains the word chuck, it'll be a great candidate for this. If the pieces are large, you'll braise. If the pieces are small, you'll stew, but the basic techniques for both are the same.

Chuck cuts come from the shoulder area of the beef. If you look at the beef charts, you'll see one labeled "chuck", the other labeled roasts and "stew meat". These cuts are some of my favorites - they're relatively inexpensive, they're easy to cook, and the flavor is unbelievable. The chuck cuts often result in many of the 'beefier' flavors. You also sometimes have the brisket - from near the leg - thrown into this category as well. The reason is simple - there is far more collagen and connective tissue in the shoulder area then in other areas of the beef. The muscles have seen more use, and they are not the smooth, uniform shapes and sizes you find in the rib or loin. Take a look at the picture labeled 'chuck eye roast' as opposed to the 'rib roast' - and you'll see. All that white stuff is not only fat, but connective tissue. That stuff means lots of flavor.

The tradeoff for flavor though is texture, and that's why you braise or stew. You do have to cook it the right way for the texture to become the butter, fall-apart tender result that you're after. It's ok though - because it's simple.

Braising (and stewing) is called a combination method for cooking - it involves first searing meat to achieve a crust and develop flavors, then slowly cooking it over a period of time with liquid. In my opinion, it's one of the simplest methods - think crock pot, when you think braising. For these cuts of beef, it's your best secret weapon. My tool of choice is a large Dutch oven with a lid - it's more adaptable than the crock pot and one less pan to wash. To do this, you'll first want to brown off the roast in hot oil, which helps deepen both the color and the flavors. You'll then add some liquid - often containing an acid such as wine, a touch of citrus, beer or vinegar. Either reduce the stovetop to low to maintain the liquid just below the simmer, or pop it in the oven at 250F and walk away for several hours. I also like the oven over a crockpot because low in the oven is lower than low in the crockpot.

If you have smaller pieces - such as many sold as 'stew meat' - then the basic method is the same. You still brown the meat on all sides to develop the flavors, then add aromatics or liquids - the order depends on your particular recipe. Long cooking times over low heat again result in tender, spectacular meat with beautifully developed flavors.

It's that simple. There are literally hundreds of variations on the recipes that involves roasts, from the New England Boiled Dinner, to Sauerbraten, to Beef Bourgignon to a beautifully simple Basic Pot Roast. But those are flavor variations - that involves the choice of aromatics you add to your roast, and perhaps a marinade before hand. The actual technique of cooking is the same for them all. Try one of these: Basic Pot Roast, or Perfect Pot Roast.

Pan Frying, Grilling and Broiling

All of these techniques have something in common - the application of high heat for quicker cooking. The cuts of beef used for these can and sometimes are the higher quality steaks - especially for pan frying. See the Beef Rib Eye in this application. High quality cuts are great for this - the amount of connective tissue they contain is relatively tiny, meaning that they don't need long cooking times in order to break that down. They're already tender - what the cook has to do is maximize the flavor in these cuts.

To do that - any of the cuts labeled sirloin, New York, T-bone, rib eye, filet, etc - you can use a combination of methods. Marinades and rubs work well, although frankly if your cut is very high in quality, it's hard to beat the liberal application of salt and pepper. Ensuring you have a great crust - with a grill, a great skillet or a rocking hot broiler, is your next step, and the last is to not overcook. Check out How to Cut and Grill a Ribeye - I broke a lot of the information down in that article, and most of the high end cuts would be treated in the same manner. And in the video you can see how to sear. The same principle works for the broiler or the grill. Make sure you have lots of heat - that seals these great tender cuts and keeps them juicy and luscious.

When you're looking to employ quick heat with one of these methods you'll also be able to consider some lesser quality meats - most particularly the flank steak, and a little known cut that's become very popular recently called the flatiron steak. Both of these have intense, fabulous flavor, and actually can be cooked like you would cook higher quality, tender cuts. The trick to these is to make sure you slice them correctly. That sounds simple, but it's all the difference in the world. Most of the time it just means slicing across the narrow end - you'll see instructions that say to slice across the grain, or on the bias. All that means is that you slice the meat so that the muscle fibers are short - you're cutting across them. Look at the picture of the flank steak - you can look at the top of the steak and see how the long fibers run across the length of the steak. You cut the other way.

These cuts are from the underside of the carcass - near to the legs, or the ribs. So the muscles have done more work - they're tougher and have more connective tissue. But that also means more flavor. These particular cuts carry the best of both worlds - and traditionally were really cheap. In recent years they've been 'discovered' and the prices have risen accordingly - but they still represent awesome beef flavor for less money. Cutting them across the fibers shortens them to the point where they're very tender. Slice the wrong way you'll chew for hours.

Barbecuing, Smoking and Curing

My absolute favorite type of barbecue is the beef brisket. This is a relatively tough cut, full of flavor but full of 'stuff' that makes it tough. Slow heat is the key here, just as it is with the chuck cuts that are best braised. The difference with barbecuing and smoking is that the heat is dry. What works is that the meat is slowly cooked over a long period of time, allowing the meat to slowly cook at the same time that fat is rendered and the connective tissues soften.

The result is tender, succulent and fall-off-the-bone tender. There are of course other cuts that are fabulous on the grill - check out Barbecuing and Grilling for more information on the different methods. But in a nutshell, grilling is for high fast cooking - and the brisket and ribs need slow, long heat to tenderize. For brisket, with lots of connective tissue, you'll also want to treat the final product as you do a flank or flatiron steak and cut it across the grain. The muscles fibers run the same way they do in those cuts.

Now that I think about it - low and slow means low and slow. Chuck roasts though, unlike brisket, lacks the right distribution of fat that brisket has, and which makes it all right for dry heat. Chuck cuts do have fat, but not enough I don't think to make them work this way. Although won't promise that - and might try one just to see what happens.

Briskets are also the cuts that are used in some brined meats, most notably Pastrami and Corned Beef. In these cases the meats are first cured by soaking them in intensely flavored brines. They are then slow cooked - either with an intervening smoking step or not, depending on the cook's preference. The will roll your socks down they're so good.

Ribs can be a little confusing to the novice in this. If you purchase a rib eye, or rib roast, you're buying very prime beef, and the meat is absolutely beautiful. It needs to be roasted or quick cooked to maximize the flavor. Trim off just the rib portion though, and you have two completely different things. The reason is because all the stuff that holds the muscle to the bone goes with the ribs themselves - the steaks that are attached by it are mainly free of the stuff. So if you purchase just the ribs - which I love to do - you need to remember that you'll need one of the 'low and slow' methods. Put those bad boys on the smoker!

Ok - we're going back up the 'quality' scale for roasting - in a manner of speaking. I usually think of pot roast when I think of roasted beef - remember it's braised. The pot is to hold the cooking liquid and moisture. So I supposed it's not truly a roast at all.

Because roasting is a dry heat method - it's usually in the oven, although technically barbecuing is a type of roasting in an enclosed space - just with very low heat. Roast Beef though is dry cooked in an oven, and is usually from a relatively expensive cut of meat. Remember we discussed the low tissue, higher fat content in the cuts from the rib and loin area? These are those - if they are sliced they become steaks. If they are left whole - they are roasts. The tenderloin (where filet mignon comes from), rib eyes, prime rib (a variation of rib eye) and sirloin roasts are all candidates for dry roasting. That means an initial high heat to set the crust, then a relatively short time in the oven. I use 500F and 350F respctively for that. I've done sirloin roasts that were less than two hours for a perfect medium rare in the middle.

If you've spent a little money to splurge on good quality steaks, then you'll understand what it means to purchase a roast cut of this same quality. The good news is that these are actually going to reward you for being more hands off - so they're easier to cook than you might think. A good meat thermometer is critical for these - because these are all about temperature. Once you've gotten the crust developed on these, you really want to pay attention to the internal temperature - because that's a pretty fine point. You can attempt these with cooking charts - the ones that tell you how many minutes per pound. But much of the times on those charts is variable depending on the starting temperature - how close to room temperature it is. Of course then - what's room temp at your house?

For less than $20 - and you spent more than that on your roast - you can get a decent little thermometer that takes all the guess work out of it for you. I like an internal temp of 130F. You'll also rock if you remember to allow your roast to rest - resting time for meats vary - but give it at least ten minutes. These cuts really benefit from the redistribution of juices following cooking, and resting will make you look great when you serve it.

Of course flavors will vary depending on what you choose to use for any aromatics, marinades or rubs - if you use them at all. I can't over emphasize the value of just plain old kosher salt in liberal application. That and lots of pepper will give a flavor missed by many restaurants - so don't worry about fancy rubs or marinades. You spend money on that roast because the flavor is amazing - lock it in with technique and you'll be a rock star.

Ground Beef, Shank and some other Bits

Most cuts of meat that you'll encounter in the grocery fall into one of the techniques I hit above. There are a few other cuts you'll run across though, and they fall into this category. The first of course is the beloved ground beef. I remember watching Mama's orders being ground immediately just for her on a big old evil looking grinder just like this one in the picture (the butcher's close were cleaner though!).

Ground beef is just that - no particular cut that has been ground up. Depending on what the butcher is packaging he may or may not add additional fat, or use a higher quality cut to grind it. When you purchase ground beef pay attention to the numbers on the label - you can find ground beef as lean as 95% if you look hard enough. You don't always want to though - remember that fat means flavor - it means moisture as well. I like 93% or lower - and honestly the price drops as the fat content increases, so I often buy less lean to fit the budget.

If you brown off ground beef for use in a casserole, you can get away with a higher fat content, because you drain off much of the fat. If I'm then adding intensely flavored ingredients, as in tomatoes, capers, anchovies, garlic, onions and olives, I'll even rinse the ground beef under hot water to remove more of the fat. The flavor isn't noticeable and the sauce is then 'cleaner' flavored.

Meatballs, Salisbury Steak, Meatloafand of course burgers all fall into this category, as well as literally hundreds of other dishes - especially across the American Midwest and South. I even made hash from some this morning with potatoes and a fried egg for my kiddos. We seem to love it - and for good reason. It is flavorful, inexpensive, easy to work with and available all over the place. Yay ground beef! The techniques here so too many to mention realistically, but you'll want to pay attention to the fat content and cook accordingly. If the fat needs to drain, cook the meat on a rack over a roasting pan to allow it to drain away, or on a grill - or pan fry or bake then drain. Or take advantage of a little fat for juiciness for meatloaf and burgers. Fat is the key to this 'cut' of meat - how much there is, and where it stays or drains off.

Cuts for stir frys are often from the 'round' - the rear end and legs of the beef. This is often ground for ground beef, but can be found whole. These are similar to the flank and flatiron steaks in that they have great lean flavor, but can be tough. Like those though - it's all in the cutting. Stir fries of course are all sliced before use - take advantage of slicing across the grain, and use quick, very high heat. Done in a skillet or wok on high heat you'll sear in flavor and maintain moisture, and the correct slicing ensured tenderness. Of course you can stir fry higher quality cuts if you wish - the same high heat makes those shine too. That's a win-win situation anywhere.

Finally - you'll encounter other things from time to time. The types of cuts are nearly infinite - how many ways do two people cut out paper hearts? Butchers cut the same way. Sure - there's a lot of standardization, but you'll still find 'oddities' from time to time. Shank is rare in America, but common in many other cultures - use it for soups, stews and braises. Rounds are tough, but full of flavor. Slice them up and pan fry or grill them off. Don't be afraid of them - if you know where on the beef the cut came from, you'll be halfway to making a great dish with it.

For more information, including pictures and lots of video tutorials, click the link above!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Barbecuing and Grilling

Barbecuing and GrillingSometime in the 1500's a group of Spaniards showed up on the shores of South Carolina with a whole passel of pigs. They were met by a group of Native Americans, who apparently had a bag of briquettes in their pockets. They may not have known it at the time, but the patron saints of the culinary world were watching - because Southern Barbecue was born at that moment. The Heavens shone, angels sang and we've all been blessed every since.

Not long after that however, some heretic popped up and called it grilling - and the Great Schism began. People got polarized, most ended up confused, and in the end, nobody really knew what was what. It's ok - think of this as the New Barbecue Catechism. I'll sort you out - and you'll see it's all really a problem of semantics. (How about that as a triple metaphor?)

So let's talk definitions, methods, techniques - and {*gasp* - dare I say it?} - interreligious relations. Here we go...
So what's the problem?

None. Really. You cook something over open flame and it'll taste good. The issues people seem to have come into play over wording. Someone invites you over to barbecue, and they do nothing but throw shrimp on the grill for ten minutes. So where was the barbecue? There wasn't one!

Barbecue is the main culprit - the word that is. It can be used not only for a method of cooking, it can be used to describe the apparatus on which food is cooked, and it can be used for a party with lots of pig and beer. It's a verb and adjective and a noun and they aren't necessarily deriviatives of the same root. The original word is even disputed. No one seems to know who brought it over or what it might have meant. The only concensus is that it meant to cook over a slow fire.

So if you're going to barbecue you're going to slow cook something. It's that simple. If you grill, you cook something quickly. So - barbecue means low and slow, grilling means hot and fast. That part is pretty clear - what can mess you up is the introduction of the apparatus, because you can grill on a barbecue and barbecue on a grill. The two words are used interchangeably to mean the big metal thing on your patio that holds the fire. Just remember that we're talking technique here - so low and slow heat is what we want for barbecue, no matter how you apply it. We grill quickly. That's it. We good so far?

Grilling is what most people do when they talk about either grilling or barbecuing. If you take a look at the videos I've posted, you'll maybe see why. It's a lot quicker, and can be much easier. It's not always possible to baby a grill or smoker over the hours it takes to produce true barbecued meats, but just about anybody can take a half hour and knock out some burgers. I do barbecue fairly regularly, and realized myself it tends to be on lazy kick-around days when I can putter with the smoker every once in a while. When I shoot the videos, I like to go straight through them - planning the dish, video and shoot and knocking them all out. To make a barbecue video I'd have to be camera ready for hours. Yikes. A twelve hour cook time doesn't translate easily to a ten minute video. My lipstick won't last that long.

Grilling, remember, is cooking over a hot fire - not a low one. Gas or charcoal is a matter of personal preference - what really determines success on the grill is control of the heat. I use a gas grill because it's quick and convenient, but I have a charcoal grill as well and use it with some regularity. Especially holidays when I have both grills AND the smoker fired up...

Lots of cuts work well with grilling, especially leaner, higher quality meats. Chicken is more often grilled than barbecued, and steaks were made for the hot, high sear that a grill can give them. Rack of lamb, fat bone-in pork chops, burgers of all makes and models - and seafood! The lean nature of most seafood makes it a poor candidate for barbecuing (I said most, not all!), but seafood and the grill are a match made in Heaven.

The number one trick you can give yourself when grilling is to have an extremely hot grill. Crank it up. Get it rockin' hot before you start to cook on it. You control temperatuere after you put the food on by two means. One is to control placement of the food over the open flame, and the second is to control the radiant heat by keeping the grill covered or not as you need to. Most grills have air vents as well that will allow you some control over the height of the flame. You may want to start a cut over very high heat, or even some flame (such as a rib eye), then move it to a cooler part of the grill (chicken breast). Or you may want an even medium hot spot with no flame for the entire cooking time (beef burgers). Flame or no flame depends on what you're cooking, and the level of heat will depend on how thick a cut you have. A fat burger, bone in chicken breast or pork chop will take a while, so will need less flame and more indirect heat. Shrimp, many cuts of fish and most vegetables can take higher heat or flame, but need only a few minutes or you'll have char. And I don't mean Arctic Char.

Beyond basic technique...

Click edit above to add content to this empty capsule.

Ok - we've got our basic techniques down. Let expand...and talk rubs, smokes, mops and sauces.


If you want recipes for barbecue rubs, they're all over the place. That's not what we're doing here, and I'm not about to step into the regional arguments over sauces. This article is about technique and method - so I'm neatly and conveniently side-stepping that particular controversy with relief.

Rubs can be used either for barbecue or grilling. They are nothing more than a mixture of spices and dried herbs that are rubbed into the surface of the meat before it's cooked. Rubs can be made up of almost anything, although salt and pepper are a good base with which to start. You'll often see components in varying proportion such as garlic and onion powders, cumin, oregano, paprika, chili powders of different kinds, and any other flavoring that can stand up to long cooking times. Fresh herbs are a poor candidate for inclusion in a rub; they can't handle the heat and will turn bitter or just plain burn.

When applied to something like a pork shoulder or racks of ribs, to a whole chicken or salmon fillet, often the rub is allowed to sit on the meat for a period of time, much in the way a marinade does. A rub doesn't necessarily serve the additional purpose of tenderizing as a marinade is supposed to, but it can and usually does impart great flavor. Rubs are fair game for any type of cooking - you can barbecue or grill with them, or you can leave them off entirely. Many times with barbecuing, the only rub a die-hard Southern traditionalist will use is salt. And it's delicious. It's all in what you're after at the end.


Smoke - for meats - means two things. It means the type of woodsmoke that is used to impart a particular flavor, and it also means a method distinct (but often in tandem with) from barbecuing and grilling.

Different hardwoods have different flavors, and once again, it's a matter of preference. Most cooks will use whichever type of hardwood to which they have access. I freely admit to punting and buying the little bags of commercially produced chips from the local hardware store - in my neck of the woods it's usually hickory, and sometimes apple. Both are good general choices and produce good smokey flavor. I've also been known to get my own chips though too - I'm lucky enough to have access to good aged oak, cherry and walnut. Many barbecuers swear by one type of wood over another - and they do have different flavors, from delicate, sweat pear to earthy, pungent mesquite. Plum, alder, pecan, even grape vines can all be used.

The smoking is also an additional technique. Once you've selected the type of hardwood, you use it to either impart flavor as a meat cooks, as is done in barbecuing, or to cold smoke foods without cooking them, as in the production of bacon, which is then cooked further by another method. For barbecuing this may mean using a wood fire made up of the smoke type you're selected, or by using an electric or propane smoker with a pan containing soaked wood chips. You can also barbecue with smoke on a grill by keeping the heat low and using a pan of chips. It's easy to see how the terms can get confusing - but they are all distinct.

Similarly, if you want the quick high heat of grilling and the added flavor of a particular wood smoke, simply soak your wood chips and add them in a metal pie plate while the grill lid is closed. The chips will smoke and the smoke gets trapped inside the grill, imparting it's flavor to the food. So smoking can be a flavoring method on it's own, or an addition to either barbecue or grilling.

The terms mops and sauces are often used interchangeably - but they are actually two distinct, if wet, items. These will baptize your barbecue. (Yeah, I groaned myself at that one).

Mops are flavored liquids that are applied to foods while they are being cooked, and as a necessity usually have a low sugar content. Traditionally they were applied with a little baby mop - hence the name. Conversely they usually are highly acidic. They're used to impart flavor during the cooking process in addition to or in place of any given by rubs. Because anything containing sugars will burn during a long cook time, mops go without. In return they usually carry the sharp, distinct flavors of acids. Vinegars, especially apple cider vinegar, beer, bourbon, citrus juices, as well as low sugar juices of fruits show up with fair regularity in mops. My personal favorite - a spritzer bottle full of a mix of apple juice and apple cider vinegar.

Sauces, on the other hand, are what most people think of even when they mean mops. Sauces are applied at the end of cooking - since most have at least some sugar content that turns black and burns with cooking. They're also served at table as a condiment. That differentiates them from mops as well - you wouldn't want to douse your sandwich with bourbon. Usually. I'm not going to argue one sauce over another - I have my preferences. But I've also had barbecue all over the South and think each and every one has it's merits. But I will tell you how to do it right if you're going to use them.

Sauces go on at the end of the cooking time. Period.

There's a huge difference in caramelization and burnt. You want the first. That's when the sugars in the sauces have caramelized, creating that gorgeous, crispy, sticky crust that good barbecue or grilled food has. Mops will tenderize and impart flavor as well as keeping food moist, but won't caramelize because the sugar content is too low. You can use sauces correctly with either - the trick is when to apply it. That will vary - if you sauce ribs you've barbecued at 200F, then perhaps 1/2 hour before you pull them off the heat will serve to caramelize the crust without burning them. You may even be able to sauce an hour before you pull them off, as long as you turn them to caramelize both sides. If you're saucing chicken on the grill however, you may have no more than five minutes before beautiful becomes burnt. The best rule of thumb - don't do it until the meat is almost cooked through. That gives you a window to apply and cook on the sauce without overcooking the meat.

Further - rubs can and do contain sugar. Sometimes unbelievable amounts of brown sugar. It's ok - it's all about the interaction of sugar and heat. Just like sauces - rubs with sugar have to be carefully monitored so that caramelization doesn't become charred. There can be a fine line - but worth exploring.

The Great Convergence

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Heretical notions aside - I will get all fanatical on you with terms, but when it comes to technique, every one is valid. Even more - I mix them all up. A perfect example is the pulled pork I make - a pork shoulder gets rubbed, then it goes on a very low grill, and I make sure there is plenty of smoke. During cooking it gets mopped, and once it's done it gets sauced. At other times I'll do other dishes - my Alabama White is a mixture of mopped chicken (the buttermilk soak I show), an end sauce and grilling over high heat.

At other times I use the grill to braise - as in the Beer Can Chicken, or to sear (grill) first, then barbecue slowly, especially with some types of ribs. Don't get stuck with barbecue people who get all het up (that's Southern for getting mad) over a 'right' way to do something. Those are the people that probably burned my ancestors at the stake. There may be a right way to make a particular dish, but nobody better dare try to tell me I can't do anything I want once I have the techniques at my disposal. If they try, they don't get to eat.

Don't go down that road - nobody likes a fanatic - learn the definitions and methods. You have the means then to do whatever you wish. If you have your Catechism is in order you can confuse the fanatics by explaining the difference in being burnt at the stake and smoked. (Insert gratuitous blackening methaphor here.)

Allemande Sauce

Allemande SauceSauce Allemande

No matter how much I love classic technique, because I'm self taught, I sometimes get a little intimidated by certain dishes. Almost always though, when I step back and look at it, I realize it's not the preperation of the dish that's the problem. It's usually description, definition or bad instructions. Sauce Allemande , poor little thing, is one of those - mainly because it has all three - confusing definitions on what it is, arguments over what composes it, and unclear instructions on how to make it. It even sounds scary. This sauce took me a while to figure out, because no sooner did I think I had it down, I'd come across another authority with an entirely different set of rules.

This sauce - silky, buttery, enriched with egg yolk and finished with cream, livened with fresh herbs and aromatics - is pure delight. Instead of being well known and beloved for the easy and simple preparation it is, it's been relegated to the ranks of nothing but up scale restaurants and food snobs. Injustice, I say!

So let's break it down, then build it back. What we will end up with will be one of the culinary foundation stones. You're gonna LOVE this one. Let's go...The Mother Sauce Argument

Two centuries ago, at the beginning of the modern era as far as French haute cuisine is concerned, Chef Antoine Careme published a nifty little work titled The Art of French Cooking in the 19th Century . This was the first appearance of the classification of the French Mother Sauces. They've been scaring would be chefs ever since. But they shouldn't - instead of being held up as a summit approachable only by the best, think of these sauces as building blocks. Careme listed four Mother Sauces - or building blocks; Bechamel, Veloute, Espagnole and Allemande.

Which sauces made the list and which should be on there is really rather irrelevant. Don't faint. Yes I said that. The reason is that it's the IDEA of a Mother Sauce that's important. Careme introduced the idea of the building block - learn one master dish or technique, and forever ever after you build with it - in any direction you choose to go and with whatever ingredients you have at hand. Each one is a solid dish on it's own - and then allows you to do hundreds more in turn. Cool, huh?

The problem people have with Allemande - and this is silly - it that you first have to make a Veloute, and THEN finish it a certain way to get Allemande. The argument is something like "Allemande is not a true Mother Sauce, it's a compound sauce, which is what you turn a Mother Sauce into with variations". I know - people actually spend time on that, and get truly upset. Gee whiz, people. You know what? Who cares? They're all phenomenal.

The Formula

All right - an Allemande is a veloute that has been worked on a little more. So to make one, you do have to know two things - first you make a roux, then you add good stock. That's veloute.

Next, reduce the veloute, add egg yolks, cream, salt and pepper. That's it - that's really, truly it. Now - with that said, I have to let you know that you won't find that recipe out there any where, unless it's on my own website. The reason is that I took all the different 'Allemande' recipes out there and reapplied the idea that Careme first introduced. You want a building block. So there isn't a recipe per se - because it's a technique, and it's adaptable and you can make it do whatever you want.

Think of it this way. You have a formula - a ratio for how the ingredients interact. A tablespoon of butter with a tablespoon of flour will thicken a cup of liquid. 1:1:1 - and that's veloute. Continue with that thought pattern - one egg yolk and a tablespoon of cream result in Allemande. 1:1:1:1:1 - see?

In many ways what Careme was trying to do with his Mother Sauce concept was close to what my friend did with his food formula. And that does result in the same thing happening every time. What Careme did not do - and which messes people up - is explain that the artistry of food has to be included. This is why we have so many billions of recipes for dishes, and sometimes so little understanding of why two people can use the same formula exactly, and the results are very different.

The Artistry

This is the part that throws many people off when trying to perfect ANY dish, and why some home cooks surpass professionally trained chefs. You have to understand flavor, texture and seasoning as well as the simple formula. Yes - if you follow the formula you'll have Allemande, but it'll taste like wallpaper paste. To make it correctly is one thing - to make is sing is the artistry part. You're after something someone will try to lick off their plate. Here's how to do that part as well.

Flavor - at it's most basic this comes from salt. Salt is perhaps the most underutilized thing in most kitchens. People are afraid of it, and then don't understand why the flavors in dishes is just tepid. The best thing you can do for yourself as a cook is to learn how to season well - and by that I mean salt well. Use good kosher salt, and season in layers. And TASTE. I can't state that often enough. Taste everything you're using, at each stage in the prep. And yes, I mean everything. If you take the time to learn how each ingredient tastes at different stages, you'll be Bombshell. I even taste flour before using it in breadings or coatings. If it won't hurt me (i.e. raw chicken) I'm going to taste it. And season it. So - in this case, season your veloute, and salt it until it tates good. Then once you've created Allemande, do it again. Seasoning throughout the cooking process allows flavors to build in layers, creating complexity. The food will taste seasoned, not salty...unless you wait until you're ready to serve and try to salt only then. At that point it's too late to develop the complexity of flavor you're after. Salt makes everything taste more like itself. You want that.

Seasoning - yes, salting is called 'seasoning' but seasonings can also mean just about anything you want to add. Think thyme, parsley, red or white wine, capers, tomatoes, chervil, terragon, onion or shallot, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, nutmeg, mushrooms, butter or truffle oil, oyster fumet...anything. Allemande is called a Mother Sauce because all of these seasonings can be added as the cook wishes - it's a building block.

Texture - remember that the first step of an Allemande is a veloute, and veloute is French for velvet. The texture of a sauce is critical - so you do have to pay attention at each step. The best way to do this is to be very careful with temperature. When first making the roux, whisk. When adding the stock to the roux, make sure the stock is warmed, which will help reduce the possibility of lumps. The sauce should simmer, not boil. And once the egg yolks and cream are added, never let the sauce go above 140F - or it'll break, or curdle. The second best way to get silky, luscious texture is to whisk, whisk, whisk. It keeps the liquid agitated, and this also helps the flour from forming lumps. The eggs will cook gently in the sauce, instead of scrambling, and creating their own lumps. The cream will incorporate instead of breaking. Finally - for truly perfectly textured sauce - strain it. You'll see recipes calling for a chinois - that's just a conical strainer. But any fine meshed strainer will work. This last step ensures that any accidental lumps or bit of egg don't end up in someone's dish.

With all that said - pay attention to your food. Allemande is simple - there are few ingredients, and the technique is easy as well. Which means you do need to ensure it's treated well. Remember your working on a foundation block with Allemande - and if your foundation is strong enough you can build as high as you like. Listen to it, watch it, taste it - and you'll end up exactly where you want to be.

Velouté Sauce

Velouté Sauce
Let's get saucy y'all...

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People seem to have a love/hate thing for French food - which I can understand. It's somewhat intimidating, involves approximately 476 steps for something as simple as a scrambled egg, and no one understands what the names of dishes are. They are in French after all.

But think this way for a minute - think of taking each ingredient, and making sure that it's treated with true love and respect. Yes - love and respect. The French treat each item as it needs to be treated in order to bring the most out of it - much like a parent raising a child. Whatever that child needs, they get in order to become the best they can be. K? With me so far?

Go just a little further - think of a dish as being more than the ultimate of each ingredient - more than the sum of the parts so to speak. If each ingredient is well treated, then when combined with the proper technique the result is a SuperChild. Often then, what your SuperChild needs is just a little something - perhaps a utility belt. In French cuisine that utility belt is often a sauce.

Good grief. I've just described Batman.

Fine. So be it - that actually works now that I think of it. Let's roll with it.

If a dish needs a sauce, your choices are literally infinite. Back in the early 19th century, a French chef named Marie Antoine Careme decided that there were four main sauces (some people say five). He called these the Mother Sauces - mainly because if a chef could produce these, he could then create infinite variations on them, providing a sauce for almost any occasion. The sauces are Bechemel, Veloute, Espagnol and Allemande.(Either Hollandaise, Mayonnaise and Tomato is sometimes included as the fifth, depending on the author). Think of the Mother Sauces as your utility belt - if you have these basic tools you can do wonderful things and leap tall stockpots. You'll have tools to pull out that can do amazing things to finish a dish, and with those basics you can adapt to your situation depending on the freshness and availability of ingredients.

In this case we're talking about a veloute - known more classically as sauce veloute. Veloute is French for 'velvety', and that's what you're after. A veloute is a rich, buttery, richly flavored sauce made with exactly the same technique as a bechamel. You start with a roux - add stock, season with salt and pepper. That's it.

The ingredients are five - just five. Butter, flour, stock, salt and pepper. The stock can be one of three - a light chicken, light veal or fish stock. In each case, the sauce then takes on the characteristics of the stock. If you're serving fish, use a fish stock to make your veloute. Ditto for a chicken dish. Veal stock is classically used for everything, since the flavor is so mild. Honestly, I have never found enough veal to make veal stock, although I continue to hope one day I might. But I've made veloute countless times with chicken stock, and almost as much with fish stock or fumet.

Because the flavor of the stock is so predominant in the sauce, the really only hard and fast demand I'll make on you is to use good stock. If you have homemade veal stock - then you're already Bombshell and you need to bring me some. If not, then make homemade chicken stock or fish or shellfish stock. Whichever sauce you use to make the veloute then becomes part of the name - and gives you hints on how to make some standard variations. Veal veloute, chicken veloute, shrimp veloute, etc. We good so far?

I pointed out that there are tons of variations on the mother sauces, and veloute is no exception. Many of these variations have their own names - probably because it was easier for a chef to simply yell out "Berchoux!" then say "make me a sauce allemande and finish it with cream and herb butter!" These are the classics, and each is more luscious and lovely than the next. You've got your utility belt by mastering veloute - now equip it with the tools that will see you through any culinary situation.

•Albufera Sauce - veal veloute with glace de viande.

•Allemande sauce - a veal veloute with a touch of lemon juice and and egg yolk and cream liasion

•Aurora: chicken veloute with tomato purée

•Berchoux - Sauce Allemande with cream and herbed butter

•Bercy - fish veloute with shallots, white wine, lemon juice and parsley

•Hungarian - chicken veloute with onion, paprika, white wine

•Normandy - fish or shellfish veloute with mushroom liquor and oyster liquor or fish fumet with an egg yolk and cream liasion

•Poulette - veal veloute with mushrooms, parsley and lemon juice

•Ravigote - chicken or veal veloute with lemon or white wine vinegar, shallots and mustard

•Suprême sauce - chicken veloute with mushroom liquor and cream

•Venetian sauce - chicken veloute with terragon, shallots and chervil

•Vin Blanc - fish veloute with white wine and cream

Now - I've used the word 'classically' in this article several times. And what I outlined above is the classic version - both the veloute and the variations I listed. But I'm not very classical myself, although I certainly appreciate where the originals came from. What I am is an American, and Americans don't always follow the rules. So Escoffier would probably huff and puff at me if he read the rest of this article, but frankly the results are delicious so I'd huff right back.

The 'real' veloute only uses a light stock - one in which the bones have not been roasted before making stock, and is therefore rather light in color. I do though. All the dang time. And even more heretical, I do it with good homemade beef stock or pork broth when I have it. Go ahead - get your smelling salts. I'm not wrong, I'm not sorry, and I'm certainly going to do it again.

Basic chicken stock is what I have usually - it's available and delicious - and that IS in the classic thought - the mind frame of using what's best, fresh and available. What I have access to on an everyday basis is a roasted chicken stock - or pork or beef, but rarely fish or veal. The technique for veloute is still the same - AND the stock is still dynamite, so I feel it's fair game. With that in mind you have an entirely new world of variations that open up. None of these have names, at least at this point, although I will probably name them all after myself.

Try a pork veloute - use cumin, ancho and coriander, and use it with anything to capture the flavors of the American Southwest. Or go Appalachian Southern, with cream and just fresh parsley.

Any kind of beef veloute is all right in my book. If you want a steak that will just about take your head off, top it with a beef veloute finished with a good red wine vinegar, fresh parsley and cream. Or a little tomato paste, rosemary and cream. Lots of freshly cracked black pepper should visit any of the beef sauces.

Use the roasted chicken veloute to make a chicken pot pie about as rich as the Rockefellers. Liven it up with thyme and rosemary. Or go back to the Southwest, and pan fry or grill some chicken, and finish your roasted chicken veloute with jalapeno, serrano and good chili powder. Hit Jamaica, mon - coriander, cinnamon, fennel, India with good curry powder...any flavor profile you want is up for grabs here! I know some of these cuisines don't use butter sauces - but again, we're already in rebellion. Might as rally the entire League against the Legion of Doom.

Now if you came to this article and have gotten to this point you may be thinking - "Wait! The stuff I had called Veloute was a SOUP!" Then you're still all right.

Go back to the origin of the word - from the French for 'velvet', and also to the part about not following the rules. I've noticed that quite apart from sauce veloute there is a tendency to name any velvety smooth concoction - sweet or savory - as a veloute of some sort. This includes many creamy-textured or pureed soups. It may or may not be a sauce, and I have no problem with that. I personally can name ten or twelve sauces that I think should be served in bowls with a spoon.

Don't get all uptight over it. Keep in mind the whole velvet thing - and remember that whatever you've been served that's been called 'veloute' could just as easily be called 'velvet'. Think velvet broccoli - velvet strawberries or rhubarb - velvet parsnip - velvet crab. It's almost used as the word 'bisque' is used. Classically bisque is a shellfish soup with a buttery rich texture. But any soup or sauce with a similar texture has come to be called bisque. Don't go all Legion of Doom. Holy Veloute Batman! It's food, not astrophysics. Relax, pick up your spoon, and enjoy the moment.

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Cooking Beans and Legumes

Red Beans and Rice, Soup Beans and Cornbread, Cuban Black Bean Soup, Indian Dahl, French Green Lentils, Boston Baked Beans, Hummus....beans (legumes) are ingrained in cultures around the world. As they should be. Packed with some awesome nutritional punch, they are a delicious staple in many diets. Loaded with vitamins and fiber, easy to store, transport and cook, and inexpensive to boot, beans are the best way I know to pack your diet with valuable nutrients. No more than a few days passes at my house before a variety of bean shows up on my table.

Although many varieties are available canned, which means they simply need to be heated, the taste of canned beans is far short of what can be achieved with a little planning and forethought. Canned beans also often come loaded with a bunch of stuff you just don't need and probably don't really want - the extra sodium, fat and preservatives just aren't luscious. Starting from scratch is far easier than you might think - and I'm going to show you how to do it. So here we go...

Start by selecting a market where there is a good bit of turnover - if the packages of beans are dusty, chances are they've been there long enough to have become petrified. Yes, dried beans are dry - but the more time that's passed from the time they were dried, the more additional moisture they've lost. This means several things - mainly that they'll take longer to cook. This means that more of their water soluble nutrients will be lost in the simmering process. The flavor will also be more flat and one dimensional. So look for beans that are fresher.

With that said - beans will last a while in storage - so a couple of weeks won't hurt anything. If you shop every couple of weeks or once a month, load up on different varieties of beans.

The first step is to dump the beans in a colander and rinse them off. They're already pretty clean - but you do want to get rid of any residual dust and dirt they may have brought with them from the field. You also want to check for tiny stones or clods of dirt that show up from time to time. Not often - but a little pepple is the last thing you want to bite. So rinse them off, pick them over, and you're good to go.

Most beans need to be soaked before cooking. The exceptions are lentils, split peas, black-eyed peas and mung beans. Sure you can skip the soaking step - I've done it and there was no Armageddon. But they taste better if you soak them. This is no more difficult than the rinsing. Put them in a heavy saucepan, cover them with several inches of water, and walk away.

Soaking times for beans can vary significantly - but in general the larger the bean the longer the soaking (and cooking) time. If want to get really technical about it you can check out the USDA's website - they have a great simple search engine that will allow you to pull up particulars by type. However - billions of home cooks for centuries have just started the soaking before bed - and when they're ready to cook the next day, the beans are ready to cook. I love how that works. Magic!

Once your beans have soaked, they'll look a good bit like your fingertips when you stay too long in the bathtub. That's all right - doesn't matter any more to the beans than it does to your toes. Drain the soaking water off, rinse them real quick, replace the water and you're ready for the stovetop.

Add a touch of salt and fat. Both bring flavor - and can help prevent the beans from boiling over. Bring them to a boil, reduce to a simmer and there you go. You can cover them if you wish - I usually don't - but that depends on how much of the cooking liquid you care to have evaporate during the cooking process. Many of the dishes I prepare are soups - which means I start with more than the Rule of Three amount of cooking liquid (three times the volume of the beans) because I want to end up with lots of broth. If you want drier beans, cover them and watch the simmering carefully so they don't end up too dry. Scorched beans make a mess, and require WAY too much elbow grease to remove the nasty burnt black gunk off your favorite red porcelain enameled cast iron pot. Not that I know from experience.

How long you cook the beans will depend on the type, the soaking time, and how 'fresh' they were to begin with. I found the nifty little cooking times and put the charts up - but please, please keep in mind that there are variables for these times. You want the beans tender, but in most cases not mushy. There should be a little hint of 'al dente' when you test one. The primary rule is cooking anything is to taste - and beans are a great example. Use these cooking times as a guide - but know that they can - and probably will - vary.

Now I've already mentioned that salt and fat need to be added at the beginning of cooking. You also may have heard that salt shouldn't be added until the beans are cooked because they will be tough. The thought is that salt toughens the skin of the beans, preventing them from becoming fully tender. Nope. 100% not true.

It's not salt that will toughen beans - it's acid. If you're making a dish requiring tomatoes, lemon or lime, vinegar or pineapple - put those in after the beans are done. Acids will toughen the skin of legumes.

Salt however is not guilty. What DOES happen if you don't salt beans during the cooking process is that you have a lot of bland beans floating around in flavored liquid. Salting at the beginning of cooking means that the beans can absorb the salt, resulting in the interior of each and every beautiful little bean tasting just as good as the broth. Salting throughout any cooking process means food tastes seasoned, instead of just salty. Don't underestimate the amount of salt you'll need either - remember the First Rule of Cooking. TASTE! Salt until it tastes good. It's that simple.

Other flavorings or aromatics can be added as well - and the choices are boundless. Think about the properties of what you want to add, and put them in at the right time. For example, if you're making navy bean soup, with about 1 - 1/2 hours of cooking time, then add smoked or salted pork at the beginning, because those can handle the long simmering. Add carrots, onion and celery halfway through, so the veggies are cooked without disintegrating. Aromatic spices can also be added - bay, coriander, cumin, turmeric, rosemary, thyme and cinnamon can handle the heat. Parsley, oregano, and cilantro can't - so add them at or near the end.

As far as the fats go - that's simply up to you. Think of the dish you're making and the flavor profile you want. Beans and pork are a natural - smoked, salted, fresh, sausage - there are tons of combinations and most are fabulous. Southerners use a couple of tablespoons of bacon grease, Italians a touch of pancetta. But try simply drizzling lentils with a rockin' good olive oil. Or hummus and walnut oil. White beans and a spiced olive oil. The more delicate oils will be used at finish - cooking will destroy their flavors. But you can drizzle in a touch of something very neutral at the beginning of the cooking process and add the lovely flavored stuff at service. Beans have the beautiful property of tasting like themselves, while still absorbing other flavors. Use your imagination and you'll be amply rewarded.

Now I haven't mentioned pressure cookers yet - although the USDA was all over them, and there are cooking times and charts for pressure cooking everywhere you look. The reason is simple - I don't have one.

Mama does however, and she used hers with abandon when I was growing up. I have foodie friends who use them as well, and swear by them. I understand that they result in really yummy beans. The main reason I don't use them is because I like to watch my food while it cooks. Simple as that. I like to see it, taste it, smell it at different times in the cooking process. With a pressure cooker you also can't 'layer' in flavor as you can on the stovetop. Admittedly that's part of my over obsession with food - I love the process of cooking as much as the final result. It's absolutely all right to use a pressure cooker though. If I had one, I'd probably use it all the time.

I can't even begin to comment on cooking beans in the microwave. I use mine to boil water sometimes. If I remember it's there, which I usually don't. I've heard it can be done. But I've heard people have seen Bigfoot too.

I can talk about the oven though. If you're going to bake off a dish that's done in the oven, you'll follow the same steps outlined above. Just be careful at the final stages - you want the beans to be tender, but just barely. Baked beans get that unbelievable crust from the slow dry heat of the oven. The sauce slowly evaporates and coats the beans in an amazing glaze. That's perfect! You want that - but you don't want them overcooked at the outset or you'll have nothing but mush by the time the glaze is done.

If they aren't tender enough though - you may not get them there at all. Many versions of baked beans use tomato in the sauce - and tomato means acid. Remember acids will keep beans from becoming tender - so watch where you have your beans when they go into the oven. The good thing is that there's a pretty large window for this stage on the stovetop. It's not like one minute they're underdone and 30 seconds later they're ruined. Toward the end of your cooking time do five minute taste tests and you'll be fine.

A final word...

All right. Beans are known to cause issues with some people. The reason is that there are some complex sugars in beans known as polysaccharides which are very difficult to digest. However, the intestinal track contains flora which does digest them - and it's those microorganisms which produce the gas.

There are ways to combat this problem. Eating beans in combination with certain other foods or spices is the first. Dairy products such as yogurt or sour cream can help. Spices such as cumin, coriander, kombu, turmeric and caraway can assist. But the main thing that you can do is simply eat more beans - the more you consume the more accustomed your own system becomes, and the more - uh - efficient digestion becomes.


Leave it to the French to name even culinary screw-ups to the highest level of kitchen achievement. Vinegar is Old French for ‘sour wine’ – vin aigre. About 10,000 years ago someone opened a cask of wine and discovered that something had gone terribly wrong – the alcohol had fermented to the point that acetic acid (ethanoic acid) had been produced. Sugars had turned to alcohol, and then gone further to vinegar. But there was redemption – the wine wasn’t wine anymore – but what had been achieved was vinegar – one of the most remarkable culinary tools in cuisines around the world. Vinegars can be made from many liquids containing natural sugars. If it can be fermented – it can be made into vinegar. Maple syrup, cane sugar, coconut milk, honey, beer, wine, rice, potatoes, fruits of all kinds – you name it, chances are there’s a vinegar based on it.

As early as 5000 BC the Babylonians were using vinegars to flavor foods as well as preserve them. It appears in Egypt around 3000 BC, and in China as early as 2000 BC. It appears throughout the Old and New Testaments, and in Islam it was named a “Blessed seasoning” by Mohammed. Cleopatra – that tricky chick – pulled on her Scientist Costume - -showing it was a solvent. Of course she did this by dissolving a quantity of pearls and drank them to win a wager – but she did it. Soldiers from the Roman Empire to the American Revolutionary and Civil Wars have quaffed it in a variety of forms and for a number of purposes – from aphrodisiacs to the prevention of scurvy. Louis Pasteur researched with it – proving it was a result of fermentation in the 1860’s.

Perhaps my favorite vinegar story involves four thieves in France in the Middle Ages. During the Black Plague they would sneak into the houses of the dead and dying and rob them. Once apprehended they were offered their lives in exchange for the secret of their survival. How had they not contracted the plague, the judge wanted to know? Their secret? A potion sold to them by a witch, made of garlic soaked in red wine vinegar. To this day it’s used in the practice of voodoo down in New Orleans – and known as Four Thieves Vinegar. That story alone makes me want to cook something with it. Maybe there’s a gumbo in that…

Vinegar is made traditionally by the slow fermentation of sugars; the oxidation of ethanol by acetic acid bacteria. Typically the acetic acid produced in the process has a concentration in vinegars of 4-8% - the range for table vinegars. Other acids can be present as well, depending on the source of the ethanol. Tartaric acid and citric acid are common. Vinegars are produced naturally over the course of weeks or months – and in the case of some – over the course of years. Vinegars are often aged as well – often in barrels just as wines are aged. Perhaps the queen of these vinegars is Balsamic – a fragrantly aromatic little elixir from the Modena and Reggio Emilia regions of Italy.

Vinegars can also be “forced” – produced much more quickly by oxygenating the liquid in order to increase the speed of fermentation. This process is typically used commercially, and shortens production time significantly.

A few basic vinegars are typically available in the average supermarket, with higher end or gourmet stores carrying a larger variety. Even small stores will carry a few basic types – white distilled vinegar, red and white wine vinegars, commercially produced balsamic vinegars, and perhaps sherry, champagne and rice vinegars. Distilled white vinegar is generally too harsh for cooking – although it’s great for pickling and preserving. Look for apple cider vinegar first, then branch out your inventory as you experiment.

If you have a farmer’s market in your vicinity, check it out for artesian vinegars. It can be like a treasure hunt – you never know what you might find! If you’re looking for a particular type, the Internet will be your best friend. Coconut vinegar – essential to authentic Southeast Asian and South Pacific cuisines – is one that you’ll probably have to order from an online source.

In the kitchen, vinegars can be used as you would any acid – and you can experiment with a touch of vinegar in just about any dish. You’ll be rewarded with a bright burst of flavor. But beyond that, the acid in vinegar can be a powerful workhorse. It can act as the acid in any marinade, and can form a component of a brine as well. Deglaze a pan and reduce a flavored vinegar for a quick pan sauce. Add it to poaching liquid – the acids can help proteins coagulate, helping to keep delicate fish and eggs firmer and more cohesive.

Vinegars can be used to make an acidulated water – use it to prevent potatoes, apples and other fruits and vegetables from oxidizing or turning brown before you cook them. A few drops of apple cider vinegar is amazing in apple pies, and can be used to help keep candy from becoming granular when cooking with sugar. Add a tablespoon to a cup of sweet milk, allow it to sit for a while, and you’ll have buttermilk.

Emulsify vinegar with good oil and you’ll have dressings – of all kinds. Whisked into egg yolk it’s mayonnaise. Made into a brine with salt and aromatics and you’ve got the means to make pickles. Treat it as a sauce on its own – a condiment for fish, for chicken, for potatoes – malt vinegar is amazing on french fries. Mix rice vinegars with a touch of soy sauce and sesame oil for a fabulous dipping sauce. The use of vinegars is nearly endless - Chef and author Michael Ruhlman stated that perhaps the use of vinegars alone can elevate a good cook to a spectacular one.

For more information including photographs - check out the link above!


Flaky biscuits, fluffy pancakes, pillowy sandwich bread, chewy French loaves, ethereal angel food cake, tender devil’s food, soft oatmeal cookies, and cloudlike soufflé…mmmmm. All of these little lovelies share a common trait – they have all been leavened. Leavening is the means by which lift is introduced to baked goods, giving them their characteristic textures, and in some cases, much of the flavor as well.

Leaveners are the means by which this happens, and for the home cook, leavening is going to fall into one of three categories; biological, chemical or mechanical. Yes – this makes it all sound like the introduction to a science class you didn’t really want to take. But knowing what they are and how they work will give you culinary superpowers. The neato-keen part is that it’s not nearly as esoteric as it sounds at first; you’ve even heard of all these things.

Yeast, baking soda, baking powder and the creaming method are the leavening agents with which this article will be concerned, since they are the methods and ingredients with which the home cook will be working. There are others – but unless you’re heading into the world of commercial baking or brewing beer, you probably won’t encounter them. So here we go…


The biological and chemical leaveners share the characteristic of releasing gas bubbles when activated, which provides the lift and therefore the texture of baked goods. Carbon dioxide gas is released into a dough or batter, which then creates the volume which is characteristic. There are mulitple types of each, but most people will be using one of three: yeast, baking soda, and baking powder.

Yeast is the biological leavener that is most used by the home cook. It is a single celled microorganism which grows, multiplies and works on it's little food supply. As it does each of these things, it produces lovely stuff which the cook can use. During food production, alcohol and carbon dioxide gas are produced, which do two things. The alcohol, during fermentation, is what gives us the 'yeasty' flavor and aroma so fabulous with bread. (Brewers and vintners love it for this alone). The carbon dioxide which is released in this process is released into the dough, where it is trapped by the matrix developed during the kneading process. Baking sets this matrix, so breads that are risen correctly retain their shape.

Yeasts are everywhere. Saccharomyces cerevisiae. It literally floats around wild - and you can set a trap for it if you wish to make Sourdough Bread. However, you can also run down to your Piggly-Wiggly and grab it if you're making any other type of bread. There are three types easily used at home. They're all basically the same - the difference is in how they processed and packaged.

Active dry yeast - probably the most common, this comes in either little packets for 'single use' or in jars at the grocery. Bulk warehouse stores carry it in larger one pound containers. Keep it in a cool, dry place, and once opened, store it in the fridge, tightly covered. Bring it to room temperature before using.

Fast rising active dry yeast - this can be used interchangeably with active dry yeast, it just works more quickly. Older recipes will need to have thier rise times adjusted. A benefit to this is that often a second rise in bread baking is not necessary - a downfall is that the second rise allows more flavor to develop. This one is often used in single rise bread machines, and the grains are smaller than active dry. This one can be mixed with the dry ingredients, skipping the proofing process.

Compressed fresh yeast - this one contains much more moisture than the dry yeasts, and must be stored in the fridge. It's also rather perishable - you'll need to use it within a couple weeks of purchase, or it will die. You can freeze it, but then you need to use it immediately upon defrosting. Compressed yeast comes in little cakes - so I've heard. It's hard to find in the United States because active dry yeast is so convenient. So I've never actually used it. In theory for recipe conversion the exchange is one cake of compressed yeast to a scant tablespoon of dry yeast.

Yeast doesn't ask much of us in order to produce incredible results. It needs food and warmth - just like we all do! Love it a little bit and you'll be well rewarded. In order to activate yeast, put it warm water, and give it a little food in the form of sugar. Yeast needs warm - not hot - water. Remember that this is a living organism. You don't want your own bath water over 120F - so when activating (also called 'blooming' or 'proofing') your yeast, think of the same bath water in which you'd bathe a baby, and you'll be good. The ideal temperature is 105-115F for proofing yeast, but I honestly never measure. I run the water over the inside of my forearm, and it it would make a baby happy, it'll make the yeast happy.

Much of the time bread recipes will call for two ingredients - sugar and salt. You won't need much of either, but both have an important part to play. Yeast uses sugar as a food source - so sugar in a dough allows for the fermentation process to work. Yeast can also use starch - in flour - so it's not absolutely necessary. But it also provides a little mellow flavor and a nice complexity.

Salt is a little trickier. It will have the opposite effect as sugar does - it will retard the fermentation process. I think almost everything needs a touch of salt - and in breads it helps with a finer crumb and better crust. Too much though will prevent the yeast from doing it's job, and result in bread that is salty, vs. flavorful. So be judicious.

Baking Soda

I actually have an early memory of baking soda. I'm not sure what that says about the early development of my obsession with food. In the first grade, at age six, a story teller gave a performance at my elementary school. One of the stories was called "Sody Saluratus" - and told a tale of an old woman trying to get her biscuits to rise. I don't remember what happened to her or her baked goods, but it did give me an easy way to remember the difference between baking soda and baking powder. Baking soda is older (hence the folktale), and is an ingredient in baking powder. So just remember that baking soda comes first.

The tale's title came from the name of the first commercially marketed bicarbonate of soda. Soda saleratus was the name given to the product when Arm & Hammer packaged it back in 1867 (from the Latin sal and aeratus for salt and aerated respectively). Of course it had been around before then, but American marketing made it widely available. Double acting baking powder came along in the late 1880's, and the first name brand - Calumet - is still found in millions of American homes.

Baking soda is alkaline, and requires an acid in order to work. In baked goods, the acid often comes in the form of lactic acid, via buttermilk or yogurt. The soda, when combined with acid, releases carbon dioxide, much like yeast does in the fermentation process. This is why it is often used in quicker recipes - it works immediately instead of over a 'rise' process. It will also react immediatly in the presence of water - for this reason it is mixed with the dry ingredients, and any batters or doughs in which it is used should be baked immediately. They will lose their lift if left too long.

Baking Powder

Baking powder is one step ahead of baking soda - primarily. There's a trick you need to know. Commercial baking powder, such as what you find in most grocery stores, is a type known as double acting - meaning it releases carbon dioxide twice. The first is on contact with moisture, and the second on heating - such as the in the oven. This type of baking powder already contains an acid - usually cream of tarter - so is used when no additional acids are used in a recipe. For this reason you can NOT substitue baking soda for baking powder in recipes.

You also need to keep in mind that soured milk products - yogurt, sour cream, and buttermilk - have a higher acid content than sweet dairy products such as milk or cream. For this reason, you'll need to keep in mind that acids in these ingredients will 'unbalance' your recipe if you don't adjust your baking powder, and you'll have less lift than you need to acheive a good result.

Single acting baking powders are harder to find - tartrate and phosphate - but can be purchased online through a little diligent searching. They are single acting because they have one release of carbon dioxide - when they contact liquid. Like double acting baking powder - the carbon dixoide is released upon contact so goods baked with these should be baked off immediately. They are worth hunting down though - especially if you have heirloom recipes or antique or vintage cookbooks. Just buy small amounts because baking powders lose their potency and freshness relatively quickly. The most you're going to get wtih cool, dry storage is a few months of active leavening power.

Mechanical Leavening

Mechanical leaveners are perhaps the simplest - you're using one of a number of methods to get air into a dough or batter. The creaming method is when fat and sugar are whipped together. The edges of the sugar crystals literally cut the particles of fat down, which allows for air to be trapped in the resulting mix. This is the first step to creating tender crumb and texture to many cookies and cakes, although sometimes an additional chemical leavener is used for additional lift.

Whipping egg whites or cream will also create the pockets of air that are necessary for lift. Egg whites are whipped for thousands of applications - from sauces to souffles, and when the resulting product is baked, the pockets are set - trapping the rise in place. Whipped cream will create rise, and is often used initially in a baking process, although there must be another element before baking, as the butterfat content in cream is rather high, and it will melt when baked.

The final mechanical method of leavening a dough is through steam. This is one of the tricks to great flaky biscuits- although a chemical leavener is used, much of the characteristic texture comes when the moisture in the dough encounters heat high enough to immediately vaporize to steam - create the pockets or holes you'll see on the interior. Any dough cooked at a temperature high enough to flash moisture to steam uses this method - including some deep fried batters.

For the complete article, including how-to videos and photographs, check the link above!

Monday, June 7, 2010


It’s difficult to imagine cooking without onion. They are so necessary to cuisines around the world that the basic prep step in cooking many dishes calls for mirepoix, trinity, soffrito or something similar. These are simply the names of a mix of vegetables, including onion, the preparation of which is considered essential. The French have mirepoix, onion, celery and carrot sautéed in butter. The Italians soffrito, the same with the addition of garlic and sautéed in olive oil. The Cajun and Creole cuisines of Louisiana use the Trinity – onion, bell pepper and celery. But they all begin with onion.

Onions have been used by humans for millennia, although the dates of cultivation aren’t clear. Use dates to the Bronze Age – 5000 BC, and it’s certain that the builders of the Egyptian pyramids were fed onion. It was worshipped in Egypt as well, with the concentric growth pattern symbolizing eternal life. Ever since it’s been an integral foundation stone for the cuisines of most of the world’s cultures, spanning the globe fully. They have been valued as a food source not only for immediate or fresh use, but also because they are easily stored, and handle transport well. The Middle Ages saw Europeans using them as a type of currency, the Greeks used them for their athletes. Romans rubbed them on the body to firm up muscles. They arrived in the New World with Columbus, and throughout cultures and centuries they have been ingested or applied in various ways as a medicine.

Onion can be eaten in any number of ways, fresh, frozen, canned, preserved, smoked, and pickled among others. The flavor, depending on the particular cultivar, can range from sharp and pungent to sweet and truly mild. The onion is full of natural sugars, which caramelize beautifully, deepening and mellowing the flavors, and becoming complex with cooking. They even change in different ways depending on the type of cooking method – the stir fry with a hot fire in an iron wok results in a different profile then the long slow browning in butter over low heat.

Onions are not often eaten alone, but they are used extensively as an accompaniment, to bolster and highlight the flavors of other foods, or as a garnish. Mechanical manipulation before use runs the gamut as well, from a rough chop to the finest dice. The word onion is commonly used to refer to the standard garden or bulb onion, and these are all members of the genus Allium . Green onions, or scallions, are the same as yellow, white, Spanish or Vidalias, simply harvested earlier and eaten or used whole. When mature the tops are discarded – usually because they are bitter when older – and the bulb alone is utilized. Colors can vary significantly, from a pure white, to cream, to the reds and purples.

Onions have been promoted for centuries for the various beneficial effects on health, however, recent research has shown that there may be some truly advantageous elements to the onion. Non fat, and low in protein, they are loaded with Vitamin C and folate. They also contain significant amounts of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Studies have not yet born out regarding claims that the consumption on onion is tied to a reduced risk of diabetes or osteoporosis, but there have been some hints that they assist with a lower risk of head and neck cancers. In general, the sharper the taste, the higher the content of the pertinent nutrients – phenols and flavenoids – thought to have the most medicinal properties.

Check out the USDA’s Nutrition Facts page. Onions can be a good source of calcium, manganese, phosphorus, Vitamin B6 and potassium.

There are myriad folk methods for making sure that the preparation of onion doesn’t cause tears – cutting them under running water, having them well chilled or partially frozen, holding a toothpick in your mouth, leaving the root attached while cutting – but the cause of eye irritation is simple. The lacrimal glands are irritated by the release of chemicals present when the outer layer of onion is pierced and combined with others in the interior. Water will prevent some of this – washing away the offending chemicals and preventing the compounds from reaching the eyes and nose. However, it’s long been common knowledge in culinary circles that the most effective preventative of tears when cutting onions is a sharp knife. Speed and effective knife skills are your best friends. Keep your tools in top order and your knife work honed and you’ll be fine.

Onions are easy to find – even the smallest, most poorly stocked grocery has onions. At the least a yellow and white will be available. Larger stores will have more variety, with shallots and scallions available as well. In the spring look for Vidalia or Walla-Walla sweets, which don’t fare as well cooked as more pungent varieties, but are unbelievable eaten raw or barely sautéed. Farmer’s Markets often have more rare cultivars, including heirlooms which are making a comeback for more complex flavors. Try them all! Experiment with different varieties – none of them will be anything less than delicious, and you’ll discover the wonderful differences that can be found.

When purchasing onions, make sure the neck – the stem end – is tightly closed. You want a firm onion without soft spots – these indicate spoilage. You also want to avoid onions with dark places – this can indicate a black mold that will quickly spread and make the entire onion – or batch – nasty and inedible. Don’t purchase onions that have sprouted, and make sure that they are very dry. Moisture is an enemy to your onions.

Storage is also simple. But in small amounts – yellow and white onions are often sold in five pound bags, or buy just the two or three you’ll use within a few days. The most important elements to storage of onions is air circulation and temperature. Make sure you have a cool, but not cold, location – room temperature is fine for just a few days. Keep them dry, and make sure there is adequate air circulation. Don’t keep them in plastic bags – they’ll quickly go mushy and begin to rot. A wire basket is ideal. Don’t let them have direct sunlight and you’ll be golden!

If you wish to store a partial onion – you have a couple of choices. In all cases the onion should be tightly wrapped and placed in the refrigerator, and used within just a few days. Many cooks will chopped an entire onion, using only what they need for an immediate use, and store the rest for another day. You can also chop only part of the onion, leaving the root end attached, and chopping the rest as you need it, preserving a bit more of the moisture in the onion, and therefore more of it’s flavor.