Thursday, November 19, 2009

Stick with it

Dear reader, the purpose of the present installment is to convince you that you should not be using non-stick cookware. After briefly reviewing the history of non-stick coatings, I present two distinct lines of argument against their use in the kitchen - particularly on frying pans. First, I examine the potential health hazards related to the use of non-stick coated pans. Secondly, and more importantly, I examine the disadvantages of using non-stick cookware from a perspective of culinary practice. I conclude by suggesting an alternative to synthetic non-stick pans that avoids both the hazards they entail and their practical shortcomings.

Frying pans with a non-stick inner surface are ubiquitous. You probably have one of these, dear reader, as I once I did. The material used to create most of non-stick cookware surfaces is polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), invented in the US in the 1930s and marketed under the Teflon trademark. Being highly non-reactive, Teflon was originally used for coating containers and pipes for reactive or corrosive chemicals. Due to its low-friction characteristics, it was also used (and continues to be used) as an ingredient in lubricants.

It was not until the mid-1950s that Teflon was first used for cookware. A French engineer found a way of binding Teflon to aluminum and produced a frying pan under the Tefal brand name (Tef from Teflon, al from aluminum). Aluminum is lightweight and has good heat conductivity but is highly reactive, making it a less than ideal material for cookware on its own. Coating it with the chemically inert Teflon solves the reactivity issue. The result is cheap, lightweight cookware with good heat conductivity and a surface to which food does not adhere during cooking, allowing less fat or oil to be used. As a further advantage, cleaning the Teflon coated pan is much easier than a conventional pan. At face value, a miracle product.

In recent years, this miracle has been the subject of scientific scrutiny. Research has found that, when heated to high temperatures, PTFE gives off toxic fumes. PTFE begins to deteriorate and release the said fumes at temperatures above 260°C (500°F). The fumes that are released have been shown to be lethal to birds and, at the very least, to be nauseating to humans. This is why most manufacturers warn owners of non-stick pans not to use them on high heat.

Even if you don't leave your non-stick pan empty on high for a while, you are still quite liable to heat its surface to temperatures above 260°C on a conventional stove. The probability of exposure to the fumes it releases is therefore high, if not imminent. Though there is no conclusive evidence as of yet, there are good reasons to suspect that repeated exposure to fumes from PTFE could pose a health risk to humans. One of the principal chemicals given off by heated PTFE, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), has recently been classified as a ‘likely carcinogen’ by the US Environmental Protection Agency. In the absence of conclusive evidence, I suggest that it is better to err on the side of caution and avoid PTFE coated cookware altogether.

The health question aside, from the perspective of culinary practice, there are many things you simply cannot do with a non-stick pan. For starters, for the reasons mentioned above, the use of non-stick pans at high temperatures is inadvisable, which effectively prevents their use for searing and stir-frying, both of which require extremely high heat.

Other limitations of non-stick pans are related to how foods interact with their surface. A non-stick pan’s low adhesiveness can limit the surface area of the food that comes into direct contact with the pan’s inner surface. As a result, the food in the pan is cooked by radiation rather than by contact. Contact with the pan is essential for various processes, such as searing, browning, and especially caramelization. Caramelization, which involves the slight burning of naturally occurring sugars within fruit or vegetables, is an indispensable process in certain recipes. One such classic recipe is French onion soup, whose characteristic taste and colour depend crucially on the caramelization of onions. I have tried making onion soup with a non-stick pan and it was an absolute failure. The onions shrank and began to dry up but just did not want to caramelize – or at least not within the amount of time they usually would on in a conventional pan.

Some sticking to the pan, or coating the pan with a brown residue, is actually quite desirable in many cases, especially where cooking meats is concerned. An elementary step in the preparation of many sauces for meat is the deglazing of a pan in which meat was fried or roasted. Deglazing, for the benefit of the uninitiated, involves pouring wine or another liquid in the pan and using it to dissolve the caked on residues from the meat. These residues, full of caramelized sugars and broken down proteins, are a goldmine of rich, meaty, umami flavour (see article), not to be wasted under any circumstance. You will find no such treasure at the bottom of a non-stick pan, dear reader.

An inexpensive alternative to non-stick coating is cast iron cookware. With use, the inner surfaces of cast iron pots and pans become ‘seasoned’ – i.e., coated with a waxy layer of residues from fats and oils. This waxy layer acts as a natural non-stick (or at least limited-stick) coating. Making delicate things like omelets and crepes on a well-seasoned cast iron pan is just as easy as in a non-stick pan, provided that you follow certain basic rules. These include the following:
  • Thoroughly heating up the dry pan. Do not add fats or oils until the pan is hot.
  • Not moving the food for at least a minute after placing it in the pan – that is, unless you are stir-frying. Avoid the temptations to push the food across the surface of the pan or jamming the spatula under the food. Many foods will initially seize to the bottom of the pan but will eventually come unstuck once they heat up.
  • Cleaning the pan with hot water only. Use a non-metallic brush to scrub any residues off of the pan. Using soap and metallic brushes or scouring pads can remove the seasoning from the pan and, as a result, make it stickier the next time you use it.
Another good practice includes letting your food warm up to room temperature before frying.You can do this simply by taking your food out of the fridge half an hour before cooking. This is especially critical for meats. Most meats are cooked when they reach an internal temperature somewhere between 70°C and 90°C. Warming meat up from refrigerator temperature (4°C) to room temperature (usually slightly over 20°C) makes a big difference. It will help the meat sear better when it hits the pan and will prevent its juices from leaching out. Moreover, it will allow the meat to reach the desired internal temperature faster, reducing the risk of over-drying or burning the outside before the inside is sufficiently cooked.

A new 25 cm (10 in.) skillet – the size that I use the most often – can be purchased at the likes of Canadian Tire for $25. If you go to any flea market, you are bound to find one for even less. Price is not the only advantage of buying used cast iron pans – they are likely to already be well-seasoned. If you pick up a new pan, you can pre-season it yourself coating the inner surface with a thin layer of cooking oil using a paper towel and then putting it in a hot oven for 20 minutes or so. You should repeat this a few times before using the pan for the first time – even if the manufacturer claims that it is pre-seasoned. Be patient the first few times you use your new pan – it will develop its natural non-stick properties only after a few uses.

Good appetite.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Exit Gazpacho, Enter Chłodnik

Dear Reader, you have probably tried borscht (in Polish, “barszcz”) before—a deep purple soup based on beets. Borscht is known all over Central and Eastern Europe, and each region has its own spin on it. Some are clear, others are chunky; some have sour cream, others don’t; some are chicken or meat based, others are vegetable based… But there is one version that, to my knowledge, is unique to Poland: chłodnik—pronounced who-wad-neek.

With chłodnik, Poland challenges Spain’s supremacy in the cold, savory soup category. Chłodnik is a deep magenta-coloured, creamy soup, with crunchy chunks of summer vegetables. It is replete with vitamins and insanely refreshing—a lifespan extending delight. The soup’s name is a modification of the word “chłód”, which is Polish for cool (the literal cool; “spoko” is the figurative cool). The addition of the suffix “-nik” has much the same effect as “-er” does in English. Thus, chłodnik translates approximately to “cooler”.

The key ingredient in chłodnik is whole, fresh young beets. Unlike the familiar hot borscht, the entire beet plant is used in chłodnik rather than just the bulbous beetroot. The purple, celery-like stems and the deep-green leaves of the beet – similar to chard – are an integral part of this soup and essential to its unique flavour.

Not unlike borscht, there are more recipes for chłodnik than there are households in Poland. Rather than giving you a precise recipe, dear reader, I will give a basic outline of the ingredients to be used and of the procedure to be followed. I believe that all recipes should be treated as guidelines and not as strict chemical formulas—do not take any of the quantities below too literally. I recommend that you play around with the quantities and adjust the different flavours to your taste. If you like pickles (as I do!) then you should throw more in; if you don’t like them, then leave them out—no worries! Important: use naturally fermented dill pickles – the ones in the murky liquid, not the vinegary ones in the clear liquid. (Here is how to make your own.) Most pickles labelled "kosher" fit this description. Anyway, after a little experimenting with the ingredients, your household should, like a respectable Polish household, establish its own chłodnik recipe.

  • 2 bunches young, fresh beets – roots and leaves
  • 2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
  • 1 cup naturally fermented ("kosher") dill pickle brine
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 2 cups sour cream
  • 1 large cucumber, diced
  • 2-4 kosher-type pickles, diced
  • 1 bunch radishes, diced
  • 4 hard boiled eggs, sliced
  • ¼ cup fresh dill, finely chopped
  • 1 bunch chives, finely chopped


  1. You will cut the stems off of the beetroots. You will peel and clean the roots and cut them into small dice (say 0.5 cm or ¼”). If you suffer from lazyitis, or perhaps if you lack dexterity and/or a decent knife, you will instead instead coarsely grate the roots. Either way, I recommend that you wear gloves for this part of the procedure or the beet juices will dye your hands a deep, murderous red which you will not be able to wash out for days.
  2. You will roughly chop the beet stems and finely shred the beet leaves.
  3. You will throw the stems, leaves, and diced beetroots into a large pot and pour in the stock. If the beets are not completely covered in liquid, you will add just enough water to cover them. Place the pot on medium heat. An important thing to remember when making any sort of beet based soup is that you must NEVER let the beets boil or else the soup will lose its bright purple color. If you see that the water is beginning to bubble, you will reduce the heat by a few notches. The surface of the water should be barely trembling. You will continue heating gently until the diced beetroots begin to soften. Remove the pot from the heat allow its contents to cool.
  4. When the beet broth is cool, you must stir in the pickle brine, buttermilk, and sour cream. You will then throw in the radishes, cucumber, and pickles. Stir gently and season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to the fridge. You will chill the soup for at least an hour or two before serving. Like gazpacho, this soup benefits immensely from being properly cooled.
When ready to serve, you will ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with the chopped herbs and sliced egg. Dear reader, equipped with this knowledge, you are now ready to chill like a Pole. Spoko.

If you live as deep into the northern hemisphere as I do, I urge you to try this recipe now (July/August) as all of the vegetables it uses are currently at their zenith. Also, it's hot outside and this soup is, as I said, insanely refreshing.

Good appetite.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Umami, you sexy!

Dear reader, I feel it is incumbent upon me to inform you about umami, the fifth sense of taste. You may have heard of umami already – it is a buzz word in culinary circles in the western hemisphere, even though it is old news in much of the eastern hemisphere. Unlike other, lesser food writers, I will not just inform you about the history and scientific nature of umami, but I will also instruct you on how to utilize this knowledge in your kitchen in view of improving the flavour of your food and, ultimately, the quality of your life.
Umami is a hot topic in the western hemisphere because scientists confirmed its existence only very recently – in 2001 to be exact. Yet, the concept of umami is one century old. A Japanese chemist called Kikunae Ikeda first documented umami in 1908. Professor Ikeda was intrigued by what made dashi – a broth made with a type of seaweed called kombu – so delicious. Ikeda was gifted with a highly discerning pallet; in dashi, he was certain that there was a taste component that was neither sweet, nor sour, nor salty, nor bitter. He eventually isolated a substance that was unusually abundant in kombu and that appeared to stimulate this fifth taste: monosodium glutamate (MSG). He noticed that the flavour of many savoury foodstuffs was enhanced when sprinkled with this substance. Hence, he dubbed the taste MSG imparted umami, Japanese for “delicious”.
Ikeda immediately embarked on a mission to save Japan from the blight of blandness by finding a cheap way of producing MSG. Within a year, he discovered that large quantities glutamate could be obtained by fermenting wheat gluten. The fermented gluten, when mixed with brine (water with lots of sea salt) would yield monosodium glutamate – the glutamate from the gluten would bind with the sodium ions floating in the brine. He began to market the product under the name Aji-no-moto or “the essence of taste”. The product took most of East Asia by storm and the humble chemist became a very wealthy man.
MSG did not cross the Pacific until after the Second World War. According to legend, American soldiers stationed in Japan, tired of Uncle Sam’s rations, began trying some of the rations the demobilized Japanese army had left behind. They found the Japanese rations to be absolutely delicious! Undoubtedly, this was because they were loaded with umami-tingling, MSG-laden treats. Upon completing their tour of duty, the legend goes, the soldiers went back to America with a collective addiction to instant ramen noodles. It would not take long for instant ramen, and their magic ingredient, to follow the soldiers back to the land of apple pie, where both would proliferate rapidly.
Initially, Americans, or at least the burgeoning American processed food industry, embraced MSG with great zeal. Alas, the honeymoon with this magical substance, which had the power to impart flavour to even the blandest can of soup, ended abruptly in the late 1960s. A Chinese-born American physician, Dr Ho Man Kwok, wrote a letter to a medical journal in 1968 in which he described a set of symptoms that he experienced whenever he ate at a Chinese restaurant. The symptoms, which began appearing within 20 minutes of starting a meal, included “numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, general weakness and palpitations…”. Interestingly, Dr Ho did not implicate MSG as the cause of these symptoms. Other scientists and the media began investigating other reports of similar symptoms; the phenomenon was soon dubbed “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” (CRS). MSG, a substance used widely and generously by Chinese restaurants, was singled out as the culprit. Mass panic ensued. Bans and labeling requirements on products containing MSG soon appeared in several western countries. Chinese restaurants across the western hemisphere started offering no-MSG options (and, some claim, often using MSG anyway). Meanwhile, people in East Asia continued wolfing down truckloads of Aji-no-moto with reckless abandon, totally un-phased by CRS.
The hysteria surrounding MSG appears to be completely unwarranted. In the 40 years since Dr Ho wrote his letter, science has repeatedly failed to conclusively link MSG to any health problem. MSG’s bad rep in the west is undoubtedly related to the popular misconception that it is a synthetic chemical, like the many dyes and preservatives commonly added to processed food. Yet, the molecule at the heart of MSG, glutamate, is nothing other than an amino acid - one of twenty that make up the proteins in our bodies. In fact, our bodies produce it.
Glutamate abounds naturally in many foods, although most of it is locked within proteins. Some foods, however, contain significant amounts of glutamate on its own, not bound to any protein – called free glutamate. Kombu is one such food; there are many others (see Table 1). Generally, fermenting, curing, and cooking foods with protein-bound glutamate releases free glutamate and therefore imparts umami taste. Curiously, the consumption of Roquefort and Parmesan cheese has never been linked to CRS.

Understanding Flavour
Before I tell how to utilize this newfound knowledge of umami in your kitchen, I would first like to briefly discuss with you the basic science of flavour. An understanding of the rudimentary mental underpinnings of flavour will allow you to better manipulate this perception.
Flavour is frequently confounded with taste. Strictly speaking, taste is the aspect of food that you detect with your tongue. There are foods that have taste but no flavour – take pure white sugar or salt for example. We humans detect a total of only five tastes: the traditional four – i.e., sweet, sour, salty, bitter – and of course umami. To have flavour, a comestible item must simultaneously stimulate our taste receptors and our smell receptors (see Diagram A). Our smell receptors recognize thousands of different odors.
There are two distinct ways to heighten the perceived flavour of a foodstuff: (1) to heighten the taste or (2) to heighten the smell. Generally, the former is much easier than the latter, as we have access to odorless substances such as sugar, salt, and indeed MSG which can augment taste (and therefore the flavour) without altering the overall smell of a food.
Something very interesting happens when you pursue the first strategy. If you heighten only the taste of a food, you will perceive an increase in both taste and odor. For example, if you are eating bland strawberries and you sprinkle them with some sugar, their perfume will seem more vivid. The inverse also works: if you strengthen only the odor of a food, you will have the impression that it also has more taste. To use the strawberry example again, if you have fresh, ripe strawberries with a strong perfume, they will taste sweeter than bland strawberries even if the actual sugar content in both is the same.
So, by heightening any of the five tastes in a food, you will increase the flavour and you will have the impression that the food has more odor, or aroma if you prefer (see Diagram B). You are undoubtedly already accustomed to adjusting especially the saltiness and sweetness of foods. I encourage you to also learn how to adjust the “umaminess” of foods, especially savoury foods.

Umami in Your Kitchen
Adjusting umami in a savoury dish, just like salting, will extend the flavour of the dish (see Understanding Flavour). In fact, by increasing the umami in a dish, you can reduce the need for salting. (As you have probably been warned, your salt intake is likely to be inversely proportional to your lifespan.) Obviously, you could just add Accent, the North American brand of pure MSG, to your cooking. However, even though there may be no health risks, I do not advocate the use of pure MSG. Instead, I propose manipulating the umami taste through the use of ingredients inherently rich in free glutamate.
To maximize umami in your cooking, I warmly encourage you to follow two basic strategies:
  1. Know your free glutamate sources. Keep them stocked in your kitchen. This is your Umami Arsenal.
  2. Use multiple weapons from your Umami Arsenal. You can maximize umami taste by combining several free glutamate-rich ingredients. Its better to combine a few rather than to max one particular ingredient.
You can equip your kitchen’s Umami Arsenal with the following items:
  • cured meats: prosciutto, pancetta, bacon
  • cured or fermented fish products: anchovies, fish sauce
  • hard, aged cheeses: Parmesan, Romano, Asiago, old cheddar
  • plant-derived free glutamate sources: kombu, shitake mushrooms, soy or tamari sauce, Bragg’s, nutritional yeast, miso paste, tomato paste
Looking at this list, you can see why, for instance, Caesar salad is so delicious. It contains three umami bombs: anchovies, Parmesan, and bacon. Traditional miso soup also caries a nice umami payload: kombu, miso paste, and shitake mushrooms. Add some shoyu (Japanese soy sauce) or tamari and you will be blasted to a four-dimensional umami paradise.
Cured meats as well as anchovies can be used especially in soups and sauces. The process of making many soups and sauces begins with sautéing aromatic vegetables, particularly onions and garlic. Before adding the vegetables to the pan, you can add a small amount of one of the cured meats listed above, finely chopped. You can also add a few anchovy fillets, which will dissolve in the oil on the pan within a minute or two. Do not fret about using anchovies – if you add only a few filets (say, three or four), they will not taint your dish with a fishy smell. Note that both cured meats and anchovies are salty; when you are seasoning your dish, be careful not to add too much salt.
Even if you disdain animal murder, there are still interesting avenues for enhancing your soups and sauces. In your case, you may wish to add kombu and shitake mushrooms to your vegetable broth. Neither of these ingredients need be restricted to the realm of Japanese cooking. Throw them into any oriental or occidental soup or sauce the same way you would throw in aromatics, such as bay leaves or thyme.
Umamilicious hard cheeses are generally added to a dish just before serving but they can also be blended into a dish at an earlier stage. Parmesan in particular is well suited for this. I especially enjoy adding a small amount of grated Parmesan to salad dressings. The Parmesan tends to dissolve in the olive oil and thickens the dressing. Yes, a thick and extra delicious dressing!
When seasoning any dish, I urge you to consider using a few drops of fish sauce in lieu of salt. Just as kombu and shitake mushrooms have a place beyond Japanese cookery, fish sauce too should flow freely beyond the cuisines of Thailand and Vietnam. Did you know that fish sauce was once quite at home in Europe? Garum, as it was called in Latin, was all the rage at the height of the Roman Empire. A few drops of this pungent potion in a soup or sauce, and even in a salad dressing, will tremendously enhance the flavour. Do not be turned of by the pungent smell that will emanate from your dish when you first add fish sauce – it will mellow with time. But do not overdo it either – add it in small amounts, a few drops at a time. Stir for a few moments, taste, and repeat if necessary. If your sense of ethics or general squeamishness prevents you from using fish sauce, apply soy sauce or Bragg’s in the same manner.
Dear reader, I could prattle on like this for several more pages. I think that this will have to do for the present installment. I am confident that I have convinced you of the paramount importance of the umami taste and that you will now take every opportunity to maximize it in your food. Take the above ideas and experiment a little bit. Get a feeling for the items in your Umami Arsenal. Free that glutamate!
Good appetite.

Brine Swine, Dine Fine

Dear vegetarian, in this article I discuss a highly rewarding culinary practice that, due to your choice of diet, you will not be able enjoy. You might as well forgo this installment of Culinary Propaganda – there is nothing here for you.
Dear omnivore, you should read this article with great care as it contains information that will dramatically enhance your quality of life. I will explain to you the paramount importance of brining pork, chicken, and turkey prior to cooking. After reading this article, you will never, ever eat a pork loin or chicken breast that has not been brined.
Brine is a strong solution of salt and water. In addition to these two basic ingredients, brines can contain a variety of flavourings such as sugars or other sweeteners, herbs, spices, and aromatics such as citrus zests, onions, garlic, and ginger. Brining is the process of immersing foodstuffs in brine for a prolonged period of time, ranging from several hours to several days. In times of yore, brining was first and foremost a method of food preservation. The salt in brine protects foods immersed therein from bacterial decomposition. But aside from preservation, brining also affects the flavour and texture of foods – often in very beneficial ways. This is very much the case for certain types of meat.

In general, brining enhances the flavour and texture of “white” meats such as, pork, chicken, and turkey. Although any part of a pig, chicken, or turkey is improved by brining, the ones that benefit the most are the lean ones. In the case of pork, this includes all cuts from the loin. In the case of chicken and turkey, this includes especially the breasts. Other meats, and beef in particular, are not considered amenable to brining as it has an undesirable impact on the texture.
Due to their lack of fat, pork loins and chicken or turkey breasts are easily overcooked and tend to be insipid and dry even if cooked correctly. By immersing them in brine for a certain period of time, you can transform these often-unsatisfying meats into something quite delectable. Brining improves these meats in a number of ways. First, it makes them more tender as the salt in the brine breaks down certain proteins. Second, it makes them more moist as the cells in the meat swell up with brine, resulting in increased water content. Third, brining will yield meat that is perfectly seasoned. A modest amount of salt will evenly penetrate the flesh, resulting in very consistent salting throughout each piece of meat. After soaking in well-balanced brine, there is usually no need to add salt during cooking or at the table. Finally, you can subtly enhance the flavour of the meat by adding flavourings to the brine. This will flavour the meat more delicately than a typical marinade, complimenting its intrinsic taste rather than masking it.
Basic Brine Recipe
  • 4 cups of water
  • ¼ cup coarse, iodine-free salt (e.g., kosher salt, pickling salt)
  • ¼ cup brown sugar, honey or maple syrup
  • Herbs: fresh thyme, fresh rosemary, bay leaves
  • Dry spices: coarse black peeper, paprika, cumin, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, mustard seeds
  • Fresh aromatics: onion, garlic, ginger, citrus zests
To make the brine, you will put the water in a pot and you will add the salt, sugar and any flavourings that you are using. You will need to heat the water until all of the salt and sugar dissolve. Let the brine cool to room temperature. Put the meat in a non-metallic contained and pour the brine over it. Be sure to completely submerge the meat in the brine. Cover the brine and immersed meat and refrigerate. For pork chops, chicken breasts or thighs, and small pieces of turkey, you will want to start brining the night before, or at the latest in the morning on the day you plan to eat them; for pork roasts, whole chickens, and bigger pieces of turkey, you will want to start brining two or three days in advance. Before cooking, remove the meat from the brine and pat it dry with paper towels. Cook the meat as usual.
You may have to multiply the above recipe to produce a sufficient quantity of brine. There are no hard and fast rules for this – you will have to figure out how much you need yourself. To minimize the amount of brine required, use the smallest possible dish for brining. To give you an approximate idea, if you are brining a pork roast or a whole chicken, for example, multiply the above recipe by two or three; for a whole turkey, by three or four.
Brining, it cannot be denied, entails a modicum of extra work and advanced planning. This extra work and advanced preparation will doubtless strike many of you as onerous. I contend that the work involved is minimal – no more than 15 minutes of your time are needed to prepare the brine. Please do not be lazy, dear reader. I promise you that this small time investment will yield considerable flavour dividends.

I opine that it is your duty to make the most out of every piece of meat that you cook. An animal’s life has been taken to provide you with the piece of flesh that you are consuming. You should make sure that this animal did not die in vain! Dear reader, if pork loin or chicken breast is on the menu, it is your duty to brine it. I am serious. Without brining, you are simply wasting these meats. And even if you plan to dine on parts of pig or bird that are well-endowed in fat – such as ribs and shoulders in the case of pork and thighs and wings in the case of birds – I command you to brine them as well. You will not believe the sensations in your mouth.
You will write to culinary (dot) propaganda (at) gmail (dot) com to thank me. You are at liberty to write to the same address to ask me sensible questions about brining and other culinary matters.
Good appetite.