Tuesday, May 20, 2008


How a tiny bit of chemical know-how can put the fun back into cooking

Cooking happens through chemistry, but it’s not hard, and doesn’t have to be complicated. Ever watch “Good Eats” with Alton Brown? I highly recommend it as a very enjoyable show on The Food Network. Of course, you could just watch the show on TV! Alton is a mad scientist, a showman, and a good Southern boy. Above all, he’s a fabulous cook! I have to say that he might cringe a little at my laissez-faire treatment of some recipes. He is nothing if not a perfectionist, while I’m… not. So I hope he will forgive me, but I’m mostly into shortcuts.

Cool stuff:

· Roux- Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? This is equal parts butter (or another fat) and flour. That’s all. You melt the fat, add the flour, and cook for a minute or so. After that, it starts changing color, “carmelizing.” The darker the roux, the stronger the taste, and the less thickening power it has. Thickening is the major point of a roux, but as it gets darker, it gets nuttier, more complex, and adds flavor to sauces.

*A tip from chef/friend of the family, Nestor Ramires: Make some up and put it in the refrigerator to use whenever you need it. Instant thickening power!

· Ok, that was the most complicated, so relax!

· Self-rising flour: If you add liquid to this, then put it in the oven, it will rise. Add eggs, and it will rise more. Cool, huh? Say goodbye to pancake mix.

· Pasta water: Pasta water is delicious, has vitamins from the pasta, and, guess what, folks? It has tons of starch from the pasta, as well. Say goodbye to pasta dinner mixes. You don’t need them anymore.

· Powdered whole or nonfat milk: This is a lifesaver in sauces, soups, and breads, as I can add it to the water. No more “scalded” milk (a hassle which takes time, and makes me wash yet another pan). Add to the afore-mentioned pasta water, and you get the beginnings of a cream sauce. I’ll show you the right way, and my quicker, wrong (but oh-so-easy) way.

· Yeast: Nothing new here. Yeast are magical all by themselves. You add water to a package of yeast, and the little guys wake up, and start eating. This causes them to multiply, and party, all the while expelling great amounts of carbon dioxide. They make lots of little bubbles, which gives you rise. More on that in the Dough section.

· Leavening: baking powder, baking soda, and eggs make things rise.

· Oils and fats, including milk, make things moist. Eggs work this way, too, due to the fat in the egg yolk.

There's more, but I'm out of time. I'll add more as I can, and you'll find these and other tips within the recipes about to be published. So stay tuned!

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