"I'm embarrassed," she admits as she dips her fingertips in the salt cellar, her voice barely perceptible over the breathy drone of the stainless exhaust fan, her brow shiny with a film of perspiration. She pinches the seasoning at eye level above a half-sheetpan on which six chicken thighs have been arrayed. She inclines her head. "Like this?"
"Yep," I confirm, hovering close to the pan responsible for the condition of her forehead, checking the viscosity of the oil it contains. Typical kitchen newb that she is, she scatters the salt with a little more care than necessary, then reaches for more. I tilt the pan (it's warped).
When she finishes seasoning the skin side, she moves to flip the thighs, and I caution her. "Wet-hand -- dry-hand, remember?" She nods and resumes, tucking her right arm behind her.
"Embarrassed about . . . ?"
"I don't have one of these," she explains, turning toward me and holding her hands apart, fingers splayed, to indicate the cooktop: five high-output gas burners, two of them blazing beneath iron grates as thick as my thumb and ensconced in an expanse of brushed steel.
"Is your fat ready?" I ask. She peers over the rim of the pan; I fear that the tiny drop of sweat depending from the tip of her nose will fall, splatter and send her running from class.
I teach at a local cookware store. For the most part these are two-hour avocational affairs -- how to throw a cocktail party, main–dish salads, that sort of thing. But the most popular course I direct is anything but frivolous: a three-day marathon for "beginning" cooks. The students range from complete novices whose expertise ends at mixing the cheese powder into the microwaved macaroni; to widowers and recent graduates with a sudden need to feed themselves; to experienced cooks looking to fill holes in their repertoire. But these students are hardly empty vessels even when they report for class. A majority of them carry a burden of fear: fear of heat, of sharp pointy objects, of making something that tastes awful. They're also jam–packed with myth and misinformation.
Perhaps you've heard the story (versions abound on the internet) of the woman who grew up knowing that to prepare a pot roast for cooking, you trimmed an inch from one end. It's what her mother had taught her; her mother had learned it from her mother. After a few years of propagating this custom, the woman grew weary of the chore, not to mention the waste. So she confronted her mother, who referred her to her mother.
"Because otherwise it wouldn't fit in the pan," the lady disclosed, solving a three–generation mystery while simultaneously delighting fans of Occam's Razor.
If you cook or eat, you will trip over misinformation and misrepresentation in every direction. These are rarely the result of malice; rather they evolve as folk "wisdom," errant utterances that are repeated often enough to become indistinguishable from the truth, or specious customs of dim origin that are nevertheless too stubborn to dislodge.
That's why people cook in cast–iron pans encrusted with Grandma's crud; how people end up spending more than they need to for equipment and appliances; and what might explain greasy fried chicken, a broken sauce, lumpy gravy, overdone chicken, underdone pot roast, exploding potatoes and gray asparagus.
People even continue to believe things we know for sure that just ain't so. A myth, like grandma's crud, is scraped off only with great effort. Cooks who should know better just from their own experience still swear that searing a steak seals in the juices, though it was disproved many years ago. The list goes on: dried beans must be soaked; bread must be kneaded; pork must be cooked to sawdust; great sushi has never been frozen. None of these things are accurate, but it's a piece of cake to find true believers in these and many other falsehoods.
And so we encounter our shameful student, who fears she won't be taken seriously -- who won't even take herself seriously -- as a cook because she lacks a fire-breathing dragon in her kitchen. It's ungracious to blame her; cooking shows run almost exclusively on gas (the ranges, and often the chefs), foodie forum denizens casually denigrate electricity (unless it powers an induction burner) as a Hobson's choice, the way Henry Ford offered colors for the Model T. Those beleaguered with a coil- or smoothtop range pine for deliverance.
It's too bad, really. When it comes to professional-style ranges in home kitchens, the case for gas is mostly hot air.
"Skin side down?" She has the tongs, and the chicken they clasp, in a death grip, her fingers stiff with apprehension, her elbow raised. Nevertheless, she flips the thigh back and forth, her head tilting in counterbalance, the corners of her mouth frozen.
I nod. "That's right. Start at 12 o'clock -- I'll tell you why later." She commits food to pan. Soon, six chicken thighs are chattering away. The sauté pan is immense -- at least a foot across. "Chef," (students always call me "Chef" until I ask them to stop because it makes me giggle) "Do you always use pans this big?"
"Only when I have to feed two dozen people," I answer, gesturing at the other groups of students, assistants and store staff. She nods. Her interest is genuine; that she's committed three days to a beginner's class is proof. But her question also reflects the common neophyte wish to fast-track competence with emulation.
Imitating professionals is the honorable pastime of enthusiastic amateurs. A-Rod-autographed baseball mitts, Les Paul electric guitars, and spoilers on the family sedan all testify to the power of the halo principle: if Rafa Nadal plays with a Babolat AeroPro Drive GT, getting one will surely improve my forehand. Practicality limits application, though. Few people replace the windows on their Ford Fusions with reinforced netting and install removable steering wheels; Marshall stacks are the province not of basement-bound Stevie Ray wannabes, but of working musicians.
When it comes to furnishing our kitchens, we aren't so bound by sensibility. The odd and often overlooked fact is that in many ways, the home kitchen of an advanced amateur cook features better equipment than the typical professional shop -- fully-clad pots and pans instead of bare aluminum; utensils with comfortable handles rather than knife-like edginess; digital scales that don't remind one of either a medieval barber or a jack-in-the-box; ventilation that doesn't require shouting to be heard. Yet we still want -- many of us, like my student, would say need -- a professional-level cooktop in all its flaming glory. To quote the eminent philosopher Hannibal Lecter, "We begin by coveting what we see every day. Don't you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice? And don't your eyes seek out the things you want?" We want what we see on TV. We want what we can glimpse through the service door porthole or across the pass of an open kitchen.
What Clarice discovers is that what we want isn't always what's good for us, and that ascertaining the reasons why we want a particular thing can comprise a harrowing journey, rife with mistaken assumptions and baffling diversions. If you covet a restaurant-style range, it's helpful to understand why they're designed the way they are, because the design decisions that manufacturers make can be irrelevant -- and sometimes at direct odds -- to what a home cook wants or needs.
She's browned the chicken and removed it to a plate. During the sear, we accumulated rendered fat, and using a kitchen towel on the pan's helper handle, she poured most of it off. Onions, sliced in an earlier lesson, went in to soften and color a bit. She's absorbed a lesson on reductions through successive additions of sherry and sherry vinegar.
"Now the stock, tomatoes, sugar and mustard. A few grinds of pepper." It takes but a few minutes to bring the mixture to a boil.
She's biting her lip as she stirs. "Isn't gas more, um, responsive?" she asks. "I mean, you turn the dial and the flame pops up. Turn it off, it's off."
"Yes," I agree from across the counter. "But let's try something. Kill your heat and push the pan off the burner." She obeys, and the braise calms. "Now pull it back toward you." Within seconds, the stock returns to a lively simmer. "The burner is off," I say. "But you can't fight physics."
A controlled flame is responsive. So is a good cook, who reacts intuitively to the presence or absence of that blue flame with corresponding notions of "on" and "off." But a stove burner is part of a system, and there's the rub. The problem is not the fuel or the burner, it's the grate that reposes above it. It's five and a half pounds of cast iron -- weighing more than a 10-inch Lodge skillet. Cast iron is a great material for cooking, if you're prepared to take advantage of its particularities: low conductivity and high specific heat per volume. The former means that it takes a long time to heat up (and cool down); the latter means that once you do get it hot, it holds that energy for a long time (and it will hold a lot of it). You can flick the flame out, but the grate above it will ooze residual heat for many minutes -- which makes one wonder why a range manufacturer would choose a responsive heat source, then saddle it with such a pokey playmate. It's because (setting aside the fact that as a system, a gas range isn't very responsive) responsiveness and precision in a heating source is of little value to a restaurant line cook. When restaurants have to be precise, they turn to sous vide, where the simplicity of controlling a electrical heat source rules.
Go to the website of any commercial range company: Garland, Vulcan, Southbend, Wolf, U.S. Range (note that none of these companies make ranges for the home, any more than Five Star or DCS manufacture true professional products; among major producers, Viking alone maintains both domestic and commercial lines). Read the blurb that introduces their range or cooktop products. If verbiage relating to toughness isn't within the first 25 words (almost always before you find BTU ratings), I'll eat a gas regulator valve. Despite recent steps towards energy efficiency (Garland touts its second Energy Star Partner awards), the picture is easy to parse: what restaurateurs prize above everything is durability. Home cooks care about it, too, but their cooktops aren't subject to a couple of dozen pan-slammings every night, nor to the predations of heedless dishwashers. A commercial grate must be sturdy; it's constantly abused but cannot fail -- a replacement costs hundreds of dollars and can take weeks to procure.
While a restaurateur wants a stove that's built to last, on the other side of the kitchen pass, a good line cook desires consistency. Without it, a restaurant is by definition a failure. Cooking is a nettlesome panoply of variables; removing even one from the equation that starts with raw materials and ends at the table is manna from heaven. So when a pan is on the burner, the burner is always full-on, converting a variable to a constant. That's why those massive grates, so hardy and dutiful, please the cook as much as the owner. They mitigate the very thing that home cooks adore about gas: responsiveness. If you want to stop pumping heat into the food, take it off the stove.
These substantial bastions provide two additional benefits. The first addresses another shortcoming of burner design. Proponents of gas cooktops praise its flexibility; one can adjust the flame size to the diameter of the pan in use. This is true, and it's helpful for heating things quickly. What lies unacknowledged is the inherent flaw in the shape of the flame that the burner creates. When you crank up the fire, a bit more heat will be delivered to the pan where the flame touches it. That's going to be the outer edge of the flame, because the burner itself sits below the flame. Much of the time, the difference isn't an issue. Radiance, convection and conductive materials team up to even things out well enough. But at low heat settings, there's an unavoidable mismatch between flame and pan diameters: the ring o' fire dilemma. Burner design (like BlueStar's eponymous profile) and heavy grates, thermal sponges that they are, mitigate scorching of a pan's contents – but they can't eliminate it because they still emit energy. It takes a cook's careful attention to do that.
The second benefit -- and it confers more to the commercial kitchen than the home cook -- is that grate topography forgives warpage. In partnership with the flame's natural flexibility, the open center and limited number of contact points let the cook claim a few more weeks' use out of a nine-inch Wearever with a bottom rendered as round as J Lo's by thermal shock and employee abuse. (Electric burners demand flat or even slightly convex surfaces, which level out as they heat up, for efficient contact.) The domestic chef's solution to warped cookware -- not that for home-pampered All-Clad, Sitram or Demeyere it's a common occurrence -- is replacement and a humble promise to be more careful.
She tears a paper towel from a handy roll and pats her cheeks and forehead, She lifts her pony tail and fans the back of her neck. "Aren't gas cooktops more powerful? All those BTUs and stuff?"
According to the US Department of Energy, only about 35 to 40 percent of the heat generated by a gas range actually reaches the pan. A domesticated commercial-style range will have at least one, and sometimes four, 15- to 18,000 BTU burners on a 30-inch model (a commercial range burner will be at least double that). With 60% of those energy units being employed in doing things other than heating your food, the practical rating of a unit like that is really six or seven thousand BTU. The rest goes out through the vent hood, and heats up the room -- and anything in it; hence the sheen of sweat on my student's forehead.
There's not much to be done about this. You can't enclose the burner because it needs oxygen to operate, and a system to feed air (in a safe way) to a confined fixture would be a prohibitive expense. The one thing you can do is capture some of that heat and store it . . . in a colossal chunk of dense metal. (The downside of this is that every BTU used to heat a grate is one that isn't heating your pan or your food in a direct way.)
But even after the efficiency hit, isn't gas more potent? Let's compare.
A typical electric burner is 70 percent efficient (we're excluding induction ranges, which approach 90 percent efficiency). Electric burners aren't rated in BTUs; they're rated in watts. This is confusing, because the proper comparison is BTUs to watt-hours: one of the former equals 0.293 of the latter, give or take. So those 6000 usable gas BTUs are worth 1758 watt-hours, again, give or take. A typical high-performance electric cooktop will have at least one burner that consumes between 2500 and 2700 watts (though some boast up to 3000 -- this one, for example). At 70% efficiency, we're looking at, hey, 1750 watt-hours, a negligible difference.
"I don't get it. Gas is responsive, but it doesn't matter. It's not more efficient than electric. Whatevs. Why do restaurants use gas in the first place?"
"How 'bout you get the sauce from the sauté into the Dutch oven? Then add the chicken without getting sauce on that skin you did such a good job of browning." (We have a logistical issue: that giant pan we used to sear the chicken and construct the braising liquid won't fit in the oven. On the other hand, flipping chicken thighs in a Le Creuset or Staub pot is awkward tong-wise, and distracts from the lesson.)
"While you do that, I'll tell you a story."
It might happen before dawn, or maybe just before lunch: a guy (it's almost always a guy), quite possibly hung over, surely sleep-deprived, shuffles through the back door. He carries a bindle of cutlery that he totes from job to job like the kitchen hobo his résumé proves he is. He flips on the lights. Lumens, vicious as rabid sugar gliders in the hot Aussie sunset, ricochet from multiple steel and glass surfaces, incising his bloodshot eyes. He blinks in pain.
But he recovers, and before withdrawing to the locker room to don his checks, he lights the stoves. The ovens are set to 350°F; the front of the flattops are on medium and the rears are on high. Once they reach temperature (it takes quite a while for a steel griddle to suck in all the heat it can hold), they will stay there for many hours, until the last lowly commis to exit the kitchen extinguishes the flames (assuming he remembers). In the United States, this happens about a quarter-million times a day, at least six days a week.
And that's why restaurants use gas: if you're going to blast three or four stoves' worth of professional-level BTUs for eighteen hours at a stretch, you want the cheapest power source you can find. In the US, that's natural gas. Should you require an exception that proves the rule, note that when Alain Ducasse opened his eponymous restaurant in New York City's Essex House -- a cost-be-damned enterprise if ever there was one -- he chose . . . electric ranges.
In the home, the difference in the cost of running an electric range compared to a gas range is dwarfed by the voracious maws of water and home heating, air conditioning and keeping food cold. Cooking consumes less than five percent of the average household energy budget. (If you're really concerned about how much carbon it takes to satisfy your appetite, consider vegetarianism. The little bit of power used to cook meat is but a fly on the pile of energy expended in raising and transporting it -- irksome, but not the root cause of the problem.)
"So what are you saying? I should just get over having a crappy electric stove?" She's crossed her arms; the silicone spatula in her hand sticks up like a flag.
"Hmm. Chefs used to call their ranges pianos. If you play piano, you'd probably rather noodle a Steinway grand than an upright Yamaha, and a Yamaha more than a two-octave plastic Casio sampler. Good tools are a pleasure, but they're just that -- tools. You're the cook, and even a four-hundred dollar Kenmore is miles ahead of what Jacques Pepin apprenticed on: a wood-burning behemoth it was his job to stoke."
"Crappy is as crappy does?"
"We need to get this in the oven. You know," I wind up for another pontification. "It's a poor craftsman that blames -- "
"Chef," she says, hefting the pot toward me and smiling at last. "Dave, I mean. Put a lid on it."
Preheat the oven to 300˚F.
Slice the onion and set aside.
Sprinkle the chicken pieces with salt. Melt the fat or oil in a large skillet (or oven–proof braising pan if you have it) over medium heat. You want a thin, even coat of oil over the bottom of the pan. When the oil is hot, add the chicken pieces, skin–side down, and fry to a light golden–brown on both sides and remove from the pan. Work in batches if necessary; don't crowd the pan.
Pour off all but a light coating of the fat. Sauté the onions or shallots until slightly browned, about 3 to 4 minutes.
Add the sherry and stir to dissolve the browned fond from the bottom of the pan. Simmer for a few minutes to reduce by about half. Then add the sherry vinegar and cook for several minutes to reduce again by about half.
Add 1 cup of chicken stock, a pinch of salt, a few grinds of black pepper, the tomatoes, sugar and mustard and stir to combine. Bring to a simmer.
If your pan is oven-safe, add the chicken pieces skin side up. If not, transfer the liquid to a large oven–proof pan (with lid) and add the chicken. Add more chicken stock, if necessary, to bring the level of liquid about half to two-thirds up the sides of the chicken pieces -- do not submerge the tops of the thighs.
Cover the pan and bake for 25 minutes.
Remove the pan from the oven and turn the oven up to 400˚F.
Take the chicken out of the sauce and set aside for a few minutes. Strain the sauce into a large grease separator and allow the sauce to clarify. Reserve the solids.
Pour the defatted sauce back into the pan and add the chicken and the solids. Return the pan—uncovered—to the oven for another 25 minutes. The liquid will reduce and the chicken skin will get brown and crisp.
Take the chicken out of the oven. If you want to reduce the sauce further, remove the chicken, put it on a rack and stick it back in the oven (with the oven off). Put the pan on the stove over medium–high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce as desired.
Season with salt and pepper to taste.
First appeared in the Daily Gullet (www.egullet.org) 21 April 2011.
Recipe courtesy of Janet Zimmerman.
Illustration by Dave Scantland. Eye photo by Doortjah, used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.
So this guy's walking down the street. He's passing a row of bushes -- what's that called? -- yeah, a hedge, and he hears this little teeny voice. So he checks it out, and there's this frog! And the frog says: "I'm not really a frog. I'm a rich, beautiful princess. C'mere and gimme a kiss. I'll switch back, we'll get married, and you can, uh, rule my kingdom. Yeah."
Guy looks around, grabs the frog, and stuffs her in his pocket protector. That frog was wailin'. "What the hell are you doin'? You could be rich! You could be powerful! Look at you -- ugh. This is your best -- maybe your only -- shot at a babe like me. And I'm yours -- all yours. KISS me!"
Guy pulls the frog outta his pocket and looks at her.
"Geez," he says. "I don't have time for a girlfriend. But a talking frog? That's cool."
That man was an engineer.
In the Spring of 1938, at a DuPont laboratory in Deepwater, New Jersey, Roy J. Plunkett was investigating replacements for the ammonia and sulfur dioxide used in the refrigeration equipment of the day. Despite the fact that fluorine research was already considered a well-traveled road, one of the compounds under study was a synthesized substance based on fluorine -- tetrafluoroethylene (teh-tra-flor-oh-eth-a-leen), also known as Freon 1114. He and his crew had pressurized a cylinder with this exotic concoction in preparation for the day's experimentation. But when they went to release it, they observed . . . nothing.
Now, I don't know what you would have done at this point. Most likely, your experience with pressurized gases is not much greater than mine, which can be neatly summed up as: nearly equivalent to zero. But that "nearly" includes a handful of important items like automobile tires, spray paint, and deodorant. It also leaves the refrigerator door open just wide enough to pluck that shameful can of Reddi-wip from the shelf. If you were to shake it as directed, then invert it and give the nozzle a tweak, you'd expect it to spew a dense froth of light cream. If it didn't, you'd simply conclude that it was probably empty.
When the cylinder of Freon 1114 refused to cooperate, the first instinct of the participants was -- well, it's easy to imagine: jiggling of the valve, scratching of the head, booted toe or ball-point pen gingerly applied to steel can. Resigned to disappointment, someone picks up the canister to get it out of the way. And notices that it's too heavy to be empty.
So if your Reddi-wip doesn't feel depleted yet refuses to spew, what do you do? You shrug, swear to thrash your own damn cream from now on, and throw the can out. There's not much else you're allowed to do. The can practically shouts at you: Contents under pressure. Do not expose to temperatures above 120 degrees F. Do not puncture or incinerate can. A normal person comprehends this, and interprets it appropriately: No Screwing Around; This is Serious Shit. As in: Somebody Could Get Hurt.
But we are not dealing with normal people, we are dealing with engineers. So when it dawns on Roy J. Plunkett and his crew that something still inhabits the Can That Will Not Spew, they do not shrug and throw it out. In fact, it probably dawns on one of them that they just might have a talking frog on their hands. So instead of rolling the can out to the dumpster, instead of doing the sensible thing -- eschewing punctures and incineration -- with glee and anticipation unappreciated by the common man, they send somebody out to get a saw.
Their luck is better than yours would be if you took a Ginsu knife to a can of Krylon. The pressurized canister doesn't go ballistic, and it doesn't explode. Despite the mounting apprehension of Roy J. Plunkett, it doesn't even hiss. When they breach the can's steel jacket and the halves roll apart to reveal the contents, what they find inside does not appear to be a talking frog at all. It looks like a trove of delicately bleached and lightly pulverized earwax.
Who knows which one of them first touched the stuff, and who scooped a glob of it onto the bench to scrutinize? It was slightly greasy, but repelled oil -- oliophobic. It also repelled water -- hydrophobic. In fact, it repelled everything. It wouldn't melt unless it got really hot (620 degrees F/327 C), and even then it didn't get sticky and it didn't separate. It was unmoved by whatever they dripped, brushed or spilled on it, and it was slicker than Wayne Newton on a Saturday night. What Roy J. Plunkett had discovered, or possibly invented, was polytetrafluoroethylene (pahl-ee-teh-tra-flor-oh-eth-a-leen), or PTFE (pee-tee-eff-ee), the world's first thermoplastic, and one of the 20th century's true talking frogs. When DuPont turned it loose on the post-war world after a few secretive years dedicated to the allied command, they called it Teflon. Today it's made by a number of companies that incorporate it in a wide range of products under a growing variety of names.
The revolution that started with that deceptively empty cylinder continues to this day. Overcoming initial manufacturing problems, DuPont eventually bred hybrids for differing environments. And though from an economic standpoint it's the tip of the Teflon iceberg, what most interests cooks about PTFE is, of course, cookware. Non-stick pots and pans have been around for 40 years now, on a track of continual improvement. But like any technology, PTFE sometimes appears to be magic, and anything with that kind of aura is a magnet for myths. If your notions of non-stick cookware still cling to the carcass of your mom's first Teflon pan, maybe it's a good time to do a reality check.
Myth 1: Non-stick cookware can't stand high temperatures
This depends on your definition of high temperature. It's true that non-stick cookware manufacturers recommend moderate heat. But read the little booklet that came with your Calphalon Hard-Anodized, Demeyere Apollo, or All-Clad Stainless -- you know, the one that tells you how to take proper care of your $140 pan -- the one you threw away? You'll see that they recommend the same temperature routines for their standard (i.e., not non-stick) lines. In fact, leaving any All-Clad pan on high heat for too long voids the warranty. PTFE withstands 500 degrees F (260 C) continuously, and won't substantially degrade until it hits 600 (315).
Myth 2: Don't put non-stick cookware in the dishwasher Since the patent for PTFE expired a number of years ago, many fabricators have entered the market, and each one is likely to have a slightly different way of making and applying PTFE coatings. But according to DuPont, licensed manufacturers using the most recent technology -- techniques for improved PTFE-metal adhesion, textured and filled surfaces, and more durable formulations -- produce coatings that are unquestionably dishwasher safe. However, this doesn't mean you can put the pan in the dishwasher -- because PTFE is not all there is to the pan. Again, look at the care guidelines for your stainless steel, copper or aluminum (anodized or not). With few exceptions, you're not supposed to put that stuff in the dishwasher either. Don't blame PTFE for your daily appointment with the Scrunge. It's those other, supposedly more durable, materials that are responsible.
Myth 3: PTFE particles will insinuate themselves into my omelet and poison me
There's no denying that early coatings were flaky. Teflon used to peel out of pans in blisters and shavings the size of silver dollars. This simply does not happen with today's coatings. But whether this ever represented a substantial danger is another question.
Remember that the principal characteristic of PTFE is that it sticks to nothing. Fluorine atoms are eccentric. Once they combine with other atoms to form a molecule, they resist combining with other atoms -- they're not even particularly eager to combine with another instance of fluorine. So it's a miracle that polymerization -- the process that creates PTFE -- results in an exceptional bonding of carbon with fluorine. It's a marriage you couldn't split up if you dressed Heather Graham in the latest from Victoria's Secret, lashed her to a Tomahawk missile, and aimed it at the bedroom.
And while TFE, Plunkett's proto-frog and the monomer on which PTFE is built, is a known carcinogen, PTFE itself is almost completely inert. The human body does not produce an acid or enzyme that can crack the polymer, and PTFE is not interested in anything your digestive tract has to offer. It passes through the body intact, leaving nothing in its wake. After all, if it won't stick to eggs, what's the attraction of your lower intestine?
Myth 4: PTFE fumes will kill your beloved pet birds
Yes, they will. But so will lots of other fumes -- remember the cautionary canary in the coal mine. All plastics emit gases, especially in the period shortly after their creation. The ineluctable and ephemeral aroma of a new car is mainly due to plastic fumes trapped in the sealed container of the passenger compartment, and they would topple Tweety, too. So PTFE shares collective guilt, but blaming Roy J. Plunkett is disingenuous. Curse Alexander Parkes, inventor of the first man-made plastic (Parkesine) in 1862, for all the good it will do you. But the best thing to do is keep your bird out of the kitchen -- think about all the other plastics in there with the potential to fume -- and put the brakes on late-night joyrides in your new Mercedes.
It's hard to imagine what the culinary world would be like today without PTFE. It is used to make not only vessels for stove-top and oven, but utensils, fan housings, pan liners, aprons, pot holders, and even wallpaper. If you're the recipient of replacement body parts, there's a good possibility that a Teflon heart valve, arterial shunt, or artificial joint also hangs around your kitchen.
And that's just one part of your house. Many things that we take for granted -- including the computers and phone lines that allow you to read this -- would not be possible. All because Roy J. Plunkett -- horn-rims, pocket protector, and all -- couldn't resist the geeky allure of a talking frog.
Cows seem so simple. Placid, ruminant, not too smart. But some parts of them defy sense -- or maybe it's our approach to them that's out of whack. Check off a few primals: round, sirloin, short loin, plate, flank, chuck . . . as we used to say on Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the others. From the rib, you get two, maybe three cuts, with a couple of minor variations: the rib steak (bone in or out), the deckle (an overlooked and delicious cut) and back ribs. The plate gives up short ribs and well, plate. The flank is eponymous, and the round is a large rough globe of homogenous tissue, most of it tasteless.
But the chuck: it's a bundle of criss-crossing muscles that makes an Atlanta highway cloverleaf look like the simplest of Euclid's shapes -- the 3-D chess of ungulate physiology. For the most part, we ignore that. Parse a seven-bone roast -- the ne plus ultra of chuckery -- and you'll note that it might as well be called the seven-muscle roast. The chuck is synonymous with shoulder; if you palpate your own blades, you'll grasp my point: you got a delt, a pec, the start of the bicep, and even a lat. All those muscles hang off of a poem of serious bones: scapula, clavicle, sternum; humerus, vertebra, rib. A cow is no less complicated.
The chuck deserves more respect. Unlike its primal siblings, it doesn't yield self-similar Mandelbrot-like miniatures of the whole. Given a whole chuck, a butcher will slice a few arm steaks from the bottom, then flip it 90 degrees and cut a bunch of roasts in parallel, transecting the muscles with band-saw abandon: seven-bones, chucks, boneless amalgams. And why not? It's efficient and it makes tasty pot roasts. It's what happens to chuck.
Here's why not: we deny the complexity of chuck, and in doing so we sacrifice the potential of giving each muscle its due.
This is changing. In 2002, the University of Nebraska and University of Florida, funded by the Cattlemen's Beef Board, profiled the entire musculature of the cow, searching for underutilized cuts. One discovery was the flatiron steak, fabricated by splitting a blade roast along a nasty stripe of connective tissue. You can only take this so far, though. Some muscles are too small or too oddly shaped to be useful, or can't be easily separated; some go together well enough in terms of tenderness or marbling that it's worth taking them as a group.
The chuck-eye steak, for example. It's a cluster of four muscles that stretch from the shoulder into the rib primal (two of them -- longissimus dorsi and multifidous dorsi -- go even further. They make up the bulk of the strip steak.) Unlike the larger limb muscles of what's called the shoulder clod, these don't do heavy lifting. They move the spine and perhaps assist in breathing; the toughest job is done by the complexus, which extends the head and neck. In other words, as chuck muscles go, the chuck-eye group has it easy. Maybe this accounts for its relative tenderness (although the flatiron, widely recognized as the second most tender cut on the whole animal, moves the cow's arm in and out, and acts like a ligament, connecting other muscles to the shoulder blade. Sounds like hard work to me).
Chuck-eyes packages are often labeled as the "poor-man's ribeye," and it's a claim more valid than many a marketeer's promise, since some of the same musculature is involved. In a few ways, the chuck-eye is a more valuable cut: it's cheaper, it's just as flavorful, and it survives overcooking better than anything you'll find in the rib or the short loin. An overcooked rib steak is moist, mealy sawdust in your mouth; a well-done chuck-eye just gets nicely chewy and remains beefy.
That's not to say that the chuck-eye doesn't present some problems. The muscle group is held together by the thinnest of tissue that begins to disintegrate as soon as it hits the heat. Depending on where in the length of the chuck-eye roll the steak came from, it might be bound on one side by a strap of tough sheathing. You can put them on the grill or under the broiler, but the density of the meat makes this a less-than-ideal -- though still appealing -- application.
In fact, the grill used to be my preferred method. But that was before a hot (don't turn on the oven) rainy (grilling is out) Atlanta night when the only protein in the house was chuck-eye. As I salted the steaks, I thought, "Fine -- let's treat this poor man's steak like a rich man's indulgence. Let's treat it the way, say, Alain Ducasse would treat it."
The Ducasse method browns the steak, then turns down the heat and applies liberal -- frightening -- amounts of butter, spooned over the lazily browning beef. Ducasse has his steaks cut thick, requiring oven treatment. It's rare (pardon the pun) to find a chuck-eye cut more than an inch thick, so it made sense to stay on the stovetop. I got out my Gray Kunz sauce spoon, a cast-iron skillet and a stick of unsalted Land o' Lakes.
Cooked over medium heat, the steak was terrific: crusty and cooked just to the pink side of medium, where the cut's taste and texture are best. Triumphant, I pinged a friend to brag about my application of haute technique to lowly chuck. The computer fan whirred as he typed his response.
"Um," he said. "That's not Ducasse. I believe that's more accurately called 'the Colicchio Method.'"
I was somewhere around the age of 11 when I came to realize that the world of acting wasn't the sole province of Adam West and Dick Van Dyke (there were these British dudes Richard and Laurence) and music meant more than the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Monkees (Bob Dylan -- who's he?) In an afternoon, I metamorphosed from comic book aficionado at Jerry Marks's drug store to leafer of Life magazine. Though my world got bigger, so great was my ignorance that five years later I was still lagging. At the first practice of a band I joined in 1972, the guitarists alternated between figuring out where to find a bass player and tossing song ideas back and forth while I practiced paradiddles. It was like watching Olivier act without speaking: my comprehension of anything was dim. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young -- law firm? Alice Cooper -- who's she?
That's how it was discovering Tom Colicchio. It's not like I'd never heard of him, but he just wasn't in my circle of cooking friends -- the people whose advice I seek through cookbooks and whose approval I imagine when a dish turns out well.
I uncovered Colicchio's Steak with Potatoes on the Esquire web site, where he deals with hanger (another very forgiving steak cut) in what I would find out was a typical straightforward-but-comprehensive Colicchio way, balancing the rich beef with bacon, onions and vinegar. Further investigations into his excellent Think Like a Chef revealed a kindred spirit. It's not that I don't enjoy excursions into other realms, but I always return to what Tom espouses: "intense, but honest and unaffected," "cooking is a craft best learned through observation and practice," "of course you're going to want to alter the recipe!" and the all-important, "I like butter. Butter is good." Even when I indulge in molecular gastronomy, there's no point unless it looks good, tastes good and can at least approach -- with practice -- lots of practice, usually -- excellence.
Because I'd made my discovery backwards, I didn't hear the same approval that I usually do (maybe Prudhomme's lusty hurrah or Bertolli's calm smile). In excitement and obsequiousness, I sent a note:
Hi, Tom --
Here's the deal: I've been assigned a series of articles on the versatility of beef shoulder, highlighting less obvious cooking methods (roasting short ribs, for example, rather than the usual braise). One of the potential stories is about using your method for preparing hanger steak, but applying it to the easier-to-find-and-afford chuck-eye steak.
Since I'll be invoking your name, I thought you might want a chance to say "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard," or something like that. Of course, substantive commentary would be welcome, too. So, what do you think?
Tom is a busy guy. I'm still waiting on a reply, but I like to think that he would approve of:
If Colicchio Cooked a Chuck-eye2 one-inch-thick chuck-eye steaks
* * *
First appeared in the Daily Gullet (www.egullet.org) 24 July 2008.
I know my father never put up a ham; I doubt that his father did, except maybe in his youth, and Grandpa Cecil moved away to the big city at his first opportunity. But I'm certain that his father -- a farmer in Arkansas, where they know pigs -- did. Like many practiced rituals that once marked a change in the season but are now hailed as artisanal, it would have been an annual autumn assignment. I doubt that great-Grandpa counted the days 'til Christmas in order to make sure he'd have something splendid on the table. He'd have been done by late October, and could stroll to the shed and pick the best one hanging. Besides, tradition, routine and decades of precedent meant that he wasn't doing anything special. He was just making ham.
Last year, I lost my job and got a smoke box. Somewhere there's a list of life's biggest bummers: the death of a family member, moving across the country, divorce, driving in Atlanta. In the space of four years, I'd checked all the boxes except the one next to "getting laid off," but there, in late October of 2006, it was: the last black bar rotating to rest in the slot-machine window. In the back of my mind was a niggling voice that told me I'd made it happen; what's more, I'd induced all the other things too, through neglect, willful self-misdirection, miscalculation of value, plain old procrastination, or some combination of those skills.
Despite that recrimination, and (even more, since I discount self-examination as a matter of constitution) despite the assumptions of family and some friends, the last thing I wanted to do was find another 9-to-5 job. Yes, the bills piled up. No, the severance wouldn't last past February, even if we went into immediate miser mode. But the idea of showing up every day to wallow in office politics and struggle with inefficiency -- to fight inevitable and wrong battles for silly reasons -- filled me with a despair that most of my peeps couldn't fathom. So while agreeing to an active search for work, I ignored Monster.com while it fertilized my inbox, and I waited to see what would happen.
Which, for a while, was enough to keep financial ends in near-contact, if not meeting. Life became episodic: an extended pursuit for wages punctuated by the scrum of a freelance project, the pleasure of a friend's visit or an occasional trip. It felt inevitable, and comfortable: the ineluctable lifestyle for someone who'd always felt rootless, and whose habits reflected -- even reinforced -- that, if not in overt acts, then in quiescent self-subversion. But the cognizance came with an apprehensive edge. At the age of 51, I was either too late in realizing that I was a bum -- because I'd acquired all the accoutrements of the upper-middle class, and the stack of responsibilities to prove it -- or I was too early in deciding I could settle for a life that no longer required ambition or energy, and might obviate occasional excess. In response to this, I grew a beard, and a dear friend suggested that I might be looking for a hobby, since besides disguising a weak chin, that's what a beard amounts to.
So I turned to my smoker. Like many a food-obsessed person, I hold bacon in reverence, and that was my first project. It seems easy enough on paper: cure a pork belly, let it air out, smoke it and cook it until it reaches 155 F. Simple instructions belie the complexity of the task. First: it's not that easy to find pork belly at a reasonable price. You have to find out who has it (Hispanic and Asian markets), you have to be able to explain what you want to someone who doesn't speak English (practice your hand gestures, especially one that spreads your leveled hands outward from diaphragm to collarbone and crotch) -- and is sure that you're an INS agent (leave your camera at home) -- since it's usually sliced into thicknesses ranging from three millimeters to two inches. And on the day you're to pick it up, you must arrive at the store before they decide that you're not coming and slice it up anyway (5 am is most promising). Second, no recipe will warn you of the anxiety attending a process that consumes almost two weeks. Yes, it's just two-buck belly, but it's belly that carries salt: a pinch of nitrate and a box of Diamond Crystal, your sweat if not your tears. Measure the temperature -- or the nitrate -- incorrectly and your bacon might be beyond saving: too tough to eat or too tender to keep. Too much sugar and you overpower the pork; too much salt and all you've made is soup seasoning.
When I felt I'd achieved a decent product, I dropped some off at a friend's restaurant, where they astonished me by putting it on the menu. To my bigger surprise, the restaurant started giving me meat to smoke: sides of salmon, pork belly, brisket; by late July, eight Kobe beef tongues and the hind leg of a Niman Ranch hog had made their way through my box. There's nothing like your own hands on a big hunk of elite meat (not to mention an expensive piece of equipment) to foment nervous appreciation for the things that wander into your universe. I paraphrase Peter Parker's Uncle Ben: with great stuff comes great responsibility.
Smoking for hire was a tasty soupcon. But I was finishing the product, and I couldn't ground myself in the craft if all I did was pick out the species of wood and decide how long the meat would hang over the smoldering bits. Though validated in my new hobby, I also felt a bit used. You can smoke without curing, but you have to hot-smoke unless you're willing to risk disease or rot, and the results are much like barbecuing -- not that there's anything wrong with that. I do my share. The long cure and the slow smoke together add up to something more than either can achieve on its own. The results weren't mine, and wouldn't be unless I could do the cure, too. It wasn't only the smoke that engaged me, it was the salt.
With the energy that only the naïve can possess, I drew up plans for a charcuterie kitchen: prep tables, grinder, stuffer, brining fridge, cold box, curing room, a larger smoker. I even located an investor, and began talks with the restaurant, which had the room and had proved the desire. Along with all the other occupations I've sampled -- marketeer, writer, designer, musician, cook -- I started wondering how "charcutier" would taste as a late-life supplement.
Then the restaurant closed, its backers disappeared, and the chef left town.
I wasn't going to be a charcutier. I didn't have the contacts to make it happen, and I didn't have time to develop new ones. I went back to hustling for work and trimming my beard.
Late in the summer of 2007, an instructor at a local cookware store asked if I'd help out with a three-day, hands-on beginner's class. As I went through the menus -- spaghetti carbonara with shrimps, braised chicken in vinegar sauce, steamed asparagus with Hollandaise, grilled zucchini, roasted short ribs -- it didn't strike me as a pulpit for the sermon of sodium chloride; it's certainly not what it was meant to be.
But: salt the pasta water to imbue the starch with flavor (a lesson reinforced by the late addition of macaroni and cheese, thanks to a participant who'd never had any version but the blue-box Kraft Dinner); brine the shrimp to make them sweet; salt the chicken to bring out the proteins that precipitate browning; a pinch of NaCl makes the lemon and butter brighter; salt the squash to relieve it of excess moisture; season the meat early for full flavor and tenderness. I reached for the cellar again and again, and explicated.
We set up an impromptu lab using a cream of asparagus soup that we showed the class how to make: simmered long and low with wine and leeks, then blended and refined through a sieve and finished with cream. Each student got a bowl of soup and a teaspoon of salt. They added a few grains at a time to the mixture, stirring and tasting each time. Brows unfurrowed and eyes lit as the wide gray line between seasoned and salty narrowed and brightened. We didn't create any great cooks that weekend, but we made them less afraid. Maybe, I thought, that's where a chore starts to become a craft.
Paying work picked up as the year hurtled towards its end. Busier than I'd ever been when I had a real job, I struggled to cram the holidays between writing contracts and design projects. If that wasn't enough, on December 12th, someone gave me half of a fresh pork leg from a Berkshire pig pastured and harvested not an hour's drive from my home.
Yes, no less for great-Grandpa than for me, good meat is an obligation, though his proper and complete use of every scrap would mean, if not survival, at least the difference between a fat winter and a lean one. Most of us don't think about meat that way any more. You want a ham? Go buy one. If we consider at all, it might lead us to respect for the animal, the farmer, the soil and grass that nurtures them, and the sun that makes it all possible -- as close to a religion as many will ever get. This was one obligation that I didn't really need -- or even have time for. I could have just salted it well and roasted it for Christmas -- like barbecue, there's not a thing wrong with a roasted leg of pork.
I heard that voice again -- the one had that accused me of subconscious self-destruction -- repeating the litany. But upon reprise, I caught a different tone, or more likely a year later I was a better listener: a string of afflictions wasn't luck to be rued; it was a lesson waiting to be learned. I sighed and did the arithmetic: brine for 36 hours per pound, dry for a day, smoke for a day, rest a day, soak a day. Nineteen days, all told, to do something special: make a ham for New Year's Day.