Week Three: Now We’re Cooking!

I am happy to report that we were finally unleashed in the kitchen.

Crazy? Maybe. But the theme for week three was “major cooking techniques” and ready or not, we did it–in groups of four no less. Hey, no time like the present, right?

So what were we newbies allowed to cook in the class kitchen?

We shallow-poached fish and deep-poached eggs.

We pan-fried chicken and fish, and deep-fried fresh-cut french fries.

We simmered rice and boiled pasta, roasted onions and carrots, and braised chicken thighs.

We sauteed shrimp and bell peppers, and seared pork loin.

Because our group was so large, the chefs not only divided us into foursomes to tackle the list, but they also had half of us work from the top of the list down and the other half from the bottom of the list up. It was crowded, er, EVERYWHERE. It was hot and loud and chaotic. It was hard to find open burners or clean pans. And most of all, it was messy: Greasy stovetops, tabletops, floors and culinary students.

I am pleased to report, however, that the group my husband and I ended up in did pretty well–and our mise en place was MUCH improved. No big blunders. In fact, curiously enough, I believe the things we had some trouble with were actually those I thought would be easiest: rice and pasta. The chef rated both as underdone initially. I guess al dente is in the eye of the beholder … And we learned the trick of cooking french fries twice. Very cool.

Here is a short-list of some of the kitchen wisdom gained from this week’s class:

1. Cooking is basically nothing more or less than applying heat to food. There are three types of cooking: dry, moist, and a combination of the two. Dry cooking would include roasting and baking, grilling and broiling, sauteing and frying. Moist methods include simmering, poaching and steaming. Combination techniques include braising and stewing.

2. Fat application is a big deal since fat plays a big role in the flavor profile. The right amount of fat enhances flavor. Under-fatting means no base, body or finish to your food. Over-fatting muddies the palette. Apparently, I have a problem with over-fatting. Tricky tricky…

3. No cooking times are accurate. You cook the food until it is done. There are too many variables to know exactly. Cooking times are ballpark figures. Learn to recognize doneness by using the senses. Even the best thermometer still has an error range of +/- 5 degrees.

4. Do as the restaurants do: get the color you want on a piece of meat using the stopetop and if it isn’t done, finish it in the oven. It seems so simple and yet I never really thought about it that way!

5. The magic temperature when cooking proteins is 120 degrees (120-125 degrees = rare). That is the temperature at which proteins start to denature. A temperature of 140 degrees is ok (135-145 degrees = medium rare), but anything over 160 is ick (160 degrees = medium). EXCEPTIONS: ground meats and poultry (bring to 165 degrees for safety reasons).

Why not cook meat to more than 160 degrees? Because heat makes protein molecules coagulate and the more they do, the harder, drier and tougher they get. Also, if you aim for a temperature of 150-155 degrees, you have to pull it off the heat earlier because the carry-over cooking (off the heat) can be 10 degrees or more. This is why you may have heard of the concept of letting meat “rest” before eating. It gives the meat a chance for the juices to redistribute.

This edict about the 160 degree cut-off also applies to pork. If the meat is white throughout, it is overcooked. Aim for a hint of pink. Ignore older cookbooks that state otherwise. If diners insist on overcooked pork, you can increase the moisture and tenderness of the meat by brining it (basically a water-and-salt solution at its most basic) before cooking to help lock in moisture.

6. Sugars caramelize, not proteins. To say that you are caramelizing meat is a misnomer. What we call caramelization is actually a mayard reaction in the amino acids. This process gives the dark crust on the exterior of meats that does add flavor but does NOT seal in juices.

And for the record, while we are talking about it, starches gelatinize and fats melt when heated.

7. Ninety-five percent of all cooking starts with a very hot pan … and cold fat. Add the fat to a hot pan to keep it from overcooking and going rancid. While we are talking about hot pans … don’t heat a pan until a smokes, particularly a nonstick pan. A nonstick can give off noxious fumes, and smoking metal is not a desirable flavor in our food.

8. When sauteing, don’t overcrowd the pan or you will end up steaming it instead.

9. Pan-frying always involves some sort of coating on the food, even if it is just flour. Otherwise, it is a saute. When deep-frying, caoting is optional but get as much moisture out of the food as you can, or it can cause an explosion.

10. When cooking pasta or rice, if you break a grain of rice in half or piece of pasta and there is still a bit of white in the center, it is not done. The doneness also depends on the ultimate use for the rice or pasta. Will it be served hot or cold? Will it undergo a second round of cooking? These factors must be considered.

But perhaps the MOST important thing I learned that night is something simple, something I already knew but we somehow all forgot in our culinary fervor:


That night, we had to clean, as usual. But this time, we had been very messy children. To top it off, we had the joy of taking apart ALL of the very large and steaminig hot stovetops, and scrubbing them down with steel wool soaked in degreasing solution. By the end, my arms were sore, I was dripping sweat, my jacket was stained an odd shade of black-brown, I smelled of grease, and I had several steel wool splinters.

It reminded me of the summers when I worked in my grandfather’s gas station and had to clean the popcorn maker, which like the stovetop burners, cleans best when it is scalding hot!

Not my first dirty job, and the chefs assured us, not our last … But we all swore we’d be cleaner next week. Somehow, I doubt it.

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