hapenny_gourmet (hapenny_gourmet) wrote,

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Answers to Culinary Cooking

I have recieved some questions regarding cooking, ingredients and suchlike, in my personal journal and so I've decided to move them over here. These are the answers to the questions I previously recieved.

deza asks: "You know that lime sauce from that burger recipie? I'm trying to figure out how to thicken it to a ketchup consistency without altering the flavor. Suggestions?"

There are two ways of thickening loose sauces, or in this case something closer akin to a marinade than a sauce, which I am particularly fond of. One is reduction and the other is the use of a thickening agent. Reduction is exactly what it sounds like -- one keeps the sauce over low heat and allows the water to evaporate until the desired thickness is achieved. This has the effect of not only giving a better consistancy but also concentrating the flavor. Thickening agents, such as a roux (cooked flour-fat mixture) or slurries of either cornstarch or arrowroot, allow for a pleasant sheen and a quick set instead of the long and sometimes tedious reduction process.

In this case, you have two acidic compounds, namely the lime juice and the Worchestershire sauce, as well as a strong spice (black pepper) and a sugar. If you were to use a reduction technique, I would be afraid that you would increase the acidity of the two base liquids and possibly scorch the pepper and sugar. For this, I would recommend a slurry of cornstarch, no more than 1/4 tsp in 3 tbs of water for the recipe that you sent me. Add it to your sauce, set over medium heat and simmer. Do not allow to boil. That should get you not only a nice consistancy, but also a glossy sheen. Be very careful with the cornstarch though as it has a nasty tendency to congeal when it gets cold.

reannon asks: "What's the secret to using a wok?"

There are two main skills you need to master to be able to cook well in a wok. The first and definitely the most important is speed. You absolutely MUST move fast in wok cooking. If you are cooking correctly with a wok, you are going to be using very high heat with small amounts of oil. This means that you must move everything fast and constantly to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the wok and burning or absorbing too much oil and having the final dish come out greasy. You absolutely MUST learn to work quickly and accurately. This does not mean hastily or sloppily. You can be fast, neat and accurate. But it takes practice. Expect to burn more than you cook the first couple of times.

The second skill you have to master is consistancy in your cuts. Prepping your ingredients for wok cooking is important because of the speed with which everything cooks. All the different bits of each individual ingredient need to be cut as close to the same as possible. For example, if the recipe you are using calls for carrots to be in 1/2" squares, you need to try to have ALL of those carrots cut to that dimension. The reason is that if everything is the same size, then everything will cook the same and in the same amount of time. Very important when cooking over high heat and with speed. Please note that ALL your ingredients do not have to be the same size and in fact SHOULD NOT be. But each ingredient should have its bits be consistant with each other.

heathrow asks: "Is brining really all that?"

The one word answer to this question is "Absolutely." The more complex answer is this: In our race to create a food animal that is almost completely safe, sanitary and low in fat, we humans have managed to take a whole lot of taste out of the meats that we cook. For better or for worse, fat equals flavor. Ask any chef you find and they'll say the same. Natural fats have the most flavor and meat fats have a lot of very good flavor. Unfortunately, because of this afore-mentioned rush for bigger, leaner and NOW meat, most of the white meat that we consume here in America has very little fat. Enter brining.

Brining is basically just another form of marinade. There is a reason that there are dozens of marinade mixes in the meat section of your local supermart. Spice companies and meat producers know that the meat being put out today needs some help being flavorful. Brining takes the marinading process a step further. Brining actually not only enhances the flavor of the meat, but also adds critical moisture to the meat. Again, since we have gone for leaner meat, that means drier meat. Not so juicy. Brining actually adds juiciness to meats that would be lacking, specifically pork and chicken.

The way it does this is courtesy of that old process everyone remembers from junior high, osmosis. Take a very salty brine and drop in a porkchop. What is going to happen is that porkchop (which has less salt than the surrounding water) is going to start absorbing salt very quickly. But then, as it is absorbing salt, it realises that it needs water too, since the salt is absorbing water on its own! So basically, it starts pumping itself full of salt and water and plumps up. Meat companies will do this with a big needle, a brine and a large roast. The difference being that if YOU make the brine, then YOU can control what does or does not go into your meat. I personally am against stuff with more than five syllables in my meat. And if you add spices and flavorings to your brine, as most people do, then you will infuse your meat with the taste of whatever was in your brine.

So, let's review. Plain, unbrined white meat = dry and bland. White meat, brined in an herb and/or vingar infused brine = juicy, seasoned and flavorful. And this is personal experience talking here, not just me repeating what I may have read elsewhere. So, yes... brining is in fact all that.

olliesmama asks: "Are there cooking classes that aren't for "gourmet" dinners, but simply to expand filling, inexpensive family dinners?"

There are lots and lots of places offering cooking courses these days, thanks to a resurgance of food awareness and the success and popularity of FoodTV. I would say yes to your question, but you need to go on the offensive here and start looking around your neighborhood grocery store, farmer's market, cooking supply shop and newspaper for times and classes offered. Most will charge but they are quite reasonable compared to what I am paying for my courses.

twelveoaks asks: "I love Thai food, but haven't braved cooking it at home yet. Do you know any good resources for recipies or general tips on cooking Thai style?"

The best thing I can recommend you doing is going to a used bookstore and finding a couple of books on Thai food that appeal to you, then taking them home and trying some of the more basic recipes. Red curry, green curry and the various satay types (with peanut sauce!) are good starting points. Another thing to do is to find an Asian grocery store in your area and make sure they have a good selection of actual Thai spices and pastes, as opposed to the crap that the chain supermarkets try to pawn off on people. And most importantly, DO NOT BE INTIMIDATED. Thai food may seem really mysterious and difficult at first, but it is really quite easy once you get your mind wrapped around the ingredients.

You'll do fine, but you have to understand that being new at something means making mistakes. Learn from them and keep trying.

indigoskynet asks: "What's your opinion on turducken?"

I think that turducken is the end-all, be-all in many amateur SCA cooks minds and certainly they are ascribing to the very period opinion of "Bigger is better!" Turducken, for the unaware, is a dish wherein a deboned chicken is stuffed into deboned duck which is then stuffed into a deboned turkey and the whole is roasted in an oven and served in a manner not unlike the presentation of a boar's head at a madrigal feast. Some talented cooks can maintain some bones in the turkey and duck to provide structure to the ensemble. I think it is the culinary equivilant of jumping the shark, truth be told. I find it more impressive when someone can turn out a "period" feast for a hundred people, appropriately sauced and presented, than when someone makes turducken and serves it with frozen rolls and canned green beans.

Turducken, 90% of the time, is a dish that is held up as an ideal that it never should or could be.

necessary asks: "Sauces and curry: the secrets to Indian and Thai sauces from scratch"

Well, I am certain that bionicgrl might argue the point with me, but I think that the most important thing in Indian and Thai sauces from scratch is the freshness of the ingredients. Namely, that you buy whole spices and grind them as you need them. This sounds complex until you remember that, living in the 21st century, we have these marvellous contraptions called coffee grinders, which you can get pretty cheap at Wal-Mart and Target and sometimes even cheaper at Goodwill. Instead of beating the spices to death in a mortar and pestle, you can just drop them in the bowl, grind them up and use them right away, which guarentees you a MUCH superior flavor over the pre-ground stuff in the stores.

All that Indian and Thai curries and sauces have are ingredients that SOUND exotic to people who have never actually attempted to find or cook with them. Given your current location, finding an Asian market or two to get these ingredients should be child's play. After that, just look online for a recipe that you think sounds good, make a couple of batches and tweak it to your satisfaction. Experimentation for your own satisfaction and the willingness to find, buy and use fresh ingredients will ALWAYS make for superior food.

ijk and manhattan, I haven't forgotten you. You guys get a post all on your own. More to come!
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