Saturday, October 6, 2012

Don't be a chicken... think like a rat!

If you've seen Disney's Ratatouille, you may recall the words of Remy's idol, French super-chef Gusteau, repeatedly articulating the overarching theme of the movie: "Anyone can cook, but only the fearless can be great." LOVE IT. Truer words were never spoken in the kitchen.

I have encountered a great many people who assert their incompetence in cooking as if it were an unshakable handicap; they throw up their hands and simply live with it, eating frozen dinners and fast food and putting simpler-than-they-realize meals on an oversized pedestal. What these people don't know is that they are only limited by their own fear, most likely born out of past failures; and odds are, these past failures were born out of blindly following a recipe without bothering to understand why the recipe called for certain steps or ingredients.

Cooking, however, is all about the 'why.' Even with salt, the most basic and ubiquitous of ingredients, it is important to understand why you add it... and there are actually several reasons. First, it will offset other flavors, accentuating them; in a sense, it makes beef taste more like beef, tomato taste more like tomato, etc. Think of it like drawing paper: if you tried to draw a picture on black paper, it would be a lot harder to see, wouldn't it? White paper's contrast to all other colors allows you to add depth and complexity within your color, and that's exactly what you should be going for in your flavor.

Salt also absorbs the water out of foods (the scientific word to describe this function is hygroscopic), allowing you to replace it with flavor. If you've ever brined a turkey at Thanksgiving, you understand this. If not, listen up:


Start with enough water to cover your protein (pork chop, chicken, turkey, etc.), in a bowl or pot big enough to hold the water and the protein together.

Add roughly 3/4 cup of salt for every gallon of water; exactness is not crucial... once the salt has dissolved, your water should taste salty, but not so salty that it stings your tongue and tastebuds or dries out your mouth.

Now add WHATEVER YOU WANT: herbs, fruits, vegetables, aromatics, cinnamon sticks... have fun with it.

Bring it all to a simmer, then COOL IT in the fridge before you add your turkey. Salt doesn't dissolve properly in cold water, so getting your solution hot is important to make a solid brine; but then you also don't want to put your protein in lukewarm water unless you're trying to cultivate E. Coli or some other rid-raf.  

So once your brine is mixed and cooled, drop in your protein, refrigerate for at least 4 hours (or up to 24), then remove the protein and cook as normal, discarding the liquid. Remember that you won't have to season your protein as much as you would otherwise, and you should wait to season until just before cooking. Don't leave things sitting with salt or it will continue to absorb into the protein.

What happens in the brine (on a molecular level, actually) is that the salt absorbs the natural water present in the protein; but because the protein is submerged in water that you infused with other flavors, this flavor-infused water replaces the water taken out by the salt, so that you are literally filling the molecules of the protein with flavor. The same thing occurs any time you add salt to food. It assists in the blending of different flavors by breaking down the flavors of each individual food. Think of it like this: you have two large blocks of legos, one red and one blue. In order to create a block that has a unified balance of both red and blue, you need to disassemble each block first before you can combine them, right? This is what salt does; it disassembles foods and flavors in order to combine them.

Even on the most superficial of levels, you can understand the 'why' of salt if you pay attention: slice a lime in half and give it a lick; pucker up, buttercup? Now, sprinkle some salt on there and try again. You'll notice the acidity of the lime is a lot easier to handle with a pinch of salt. That simple, clear balance is one of the cornerstones of cooking.

So if something as seemingly mundane as salt can hold so much complexity, imagine what you can find out about a good piece of beef, or a summer tomato! Knowledge is power, and the kitchen is no exception. If you understand why you're doing something, you will be much better at it! So with salt, don't just blindly add it because a recipe calls for it. If it calls for two tablespoons, add one, then taste the food! If you feel like it's enough, then hold off; you can always add more later. Tasting your food often is the single most important thing you can do to make yourself a better cook. It will truly help you get a better sense of the 'why' behind each ingredient and step in a recipe, and it will give you the utmost control over whatever you cook.

Knowledge is power, yes; but what is power without the courage to use it? As Gusteau reminds us, "only the fearless can be great." You can read every book on food science, flavor, and technique, but if you aren't willing to press on, even in the face of failure, you won't succeed. I am reminded of a contest in culinary school, wherein one of the final challenges was to break down a whole fish into filets. It had been almost a year since butchery class, and I had been admittedly lax in staying sharp with the butchery of fish. When I finally brought my filets up to be judged, the chef stared long and hard at the result of my frustration. He paused, then said very slowly and deliberately, "I truly admire... the courage it took... to wrestle this fish away from the the bear that was eating it." Needless to say, I did not win the contest.

In spite of this failure, or perhaps because of it, I have made it a mission to never be intimidated by butchery. At the end of the day, it's less about following a step-by-step process, and more about feeling your way in the dark. The key to butchery is understanding how the animal is put together, where the meat will slide off the bone easily, and where it needs a bit more assistance. Recently, I wanted to prove this (as much to myself as to anyone else), so I decided to forego the consultation of my butchery notes from culinary school and just try to wing it. I bought a whole chicken, brined it, dried it, and slapped that baby on the cutting board. It had been four years since I had deboned a chicken from head to toe, but fearlessness was all I needed.

I worked carefully but confidently, using my fingers as much as my knife. At first I made only small incisions and pulled gently on bones, paying close attention to how the meat and skin behaved as I manipulated them. But by the time I was halfway done, I was moving quickly and making broad knife strokes, yanking sharply where I knew I could, and massaging gently where I knew I had to. I am completely aware at how dirty a lot of this sounds, but we all know food is sex anyway, so get your mind out of the gutter.

Before I knew it, I had a big, floppy, whole chicken, completely free of bones. I stuffed it with sauteed eggplant and sweet potato, then set out in the next challenge: trussing it. 'Trussing' is just a fancy word for 'tying' when it comes to roasts and other meats. There is, of course, a very specific process to "properly" tie a roast that we learned in culinary school; I did not remember it. I just sort of muddled my way through it, doing my best to be patient. Upon completion, it wasn't as pretty as it could have been, but it got the job done:

At this point, it was ready to roast. The entire process had been accomplished by the seat of my pants, not by following a set of instructions or a demonstration. In fact, I'm pretty sure I deboned the bird in the exact opposite order of that which was taught to us in school. Regardless of the 'how,' I was able to get it done by paying attention to the 'why' as I explored the meat. (I know: That's what she said.)

Into the oven at 350 for about 45 minutes and it was ready to eat:

Not too shabby, right?

So if you're still reading this, I implore you: go out, buy a chicken, and TRY THIS AT HOME. Even if you completely fail, chicken's not that expensive: buy two or three if you need to! You can google it first if you'd like, or check out a book, but try relying on your own sense of touch and exploration as much as you can. It's essentially the age old "Teach a man to fish..." situation. But believe it or not, you can actually teach yourself... if you are fearless.

Gusteau wouldn't lie.

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