Thursday 1 November 2007

The interpretation of Recipes....

...from recipe books is a process every cook needs to learn, if they want to work to good effect and with optimal efficiency. The fact is that all published cooks - without exception - when they commit recipes to paper, do so with a specific set of circumstances in mind, and more often than not those aren't the same circumstances that apply for the cook-hopeful who is reading the recipes at some later date.
In many instances, the disparity is because the writer comes from the environment of a restaurant kitchen, and so includes steps in their recipes which are irrelevant for domestic cooks: even Bruno Loubet is guilty of this on occasion, when, for instance, he will needlessly include directions for laboriously making italian meringue as part of a particular dessert - a good idea in a commercial kitchen when the dish has to sit around for half a day before being cooked, but completely unnecessary for a domestic dinner party, when the same effect is achieved by merely whisking egg whites and incorporating them at the last minute, just before baking.

Or, sometimes the unnecessary step is a reflection of the age of the recipe book - for instance, the fact that Julia Child carefully protects all of her custards with a film of melted butter is for the simple reason that when she was writing those recipes Cling-film hadn't yet been invented! Other steps that can be filtered out as part of the interpretation process are often a reflection of the received wisdom from the period when the recipe writer learned their trade, but which subsequent analysis has shown to be entirely without basis or value - marinating meat, is a good example of this (see below for more on this subject).

And then, finally, there are those steps in a recipe that should be excised from the process on the basis that rational analysis clearly indicates that they are completely bonkers: Stephen Bull, in his otherwise generally excellent book 'Classic Bull' is occasionally guilty of this where, for example, he wraps haddock fillets in cling film along with a couple of slices of lemon (the latter to be discarded before cooking) or again where he 'marinates' salmon fillets with orange peel for half a day in the vain hope that the fish will take on any of the scent of the fruit, before he then chucks away the orange and cooks the salmon.......Madness!

Very, very rarely is it the case these days that I find myself following a new recipe exactly as written (Bruce Weinstein on Ice Cream being a definite exception; this man knows his stuff!). More normally, the course I follow is the result of a process of rigorous interrogation, and ruthless editing, of what is on the page even before I've begun.

The following are some pointers where there are generally opportunities to save time and trouble when addressing a new recipe for the first time:

Italian meringue. Typically made by drizzling hot sugar syrup at 116°C into well beaten egg whites. This meringue while raw keeps its volume for hours and so it is ideal if you think you may need some meringue in, say, 6 hours time. Perfect for a dessert chef who may, or may not, be required to produce a Grand Marnier souffle at short notice 15 minutes before the end of his shift, but no earthly use to a home cook who can make French meringue by beating egg whites and sugar as and when needed.

Repeated Reductions. It is very common to come across recipes for sauces where something is reduced by 1/3 and something is added and then reduced again by 50% and something is added and then reduced again. Who can tell by eye if it is reduced by a third anyway? Of course this is all totally dotty unless each step is separate and the intermediate result stored for future use over the next few days, as is the case with, say, shallots cooked in wine, or stock reduced to demi glaze, or other sauce components. If you are just making a single sauce then just ignore the steps, fry what has to be fried, add all the remaining ingredients and reduce until the end volume is correct. It makes no difference if the water is boiled off at the start, in the middle or at the finish. Remember 2-3 tablespoons of sauce per person is enough.

Marination. Another complete waste of time and irritating too since it usually means one should have started the recipe two days previously. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in his book 'Meat' has exposed the simple truth that soaking meat in wine or vinegar can only toughen it, thus the main reason for the process is at best unwise. The secondary reason - imparting flavour - is also somewhat dubious because the uncooked vegetables and herbs don't lose much if any of their flavour to the completely cold liquid, let alone pass it on to the equally cold raw meat. The truth is that the process, which was traditionally used for game such as venison or boar, was firstly, before refrigeration, to protect the freshly killed meat as it relaxed and aged a bit, and secondly to make sure that any external bacteria or - worse - infestation was drowned in a mildly acidic dunk. Bathing perfectly hung beef in a vinegar solution for a day or two can only ruin it.

Blanching. True blanching - the whitening of meat or the par cooking of vegetables to mute the flavour - is almost never necessary. Sweetbreads, if you ever cook them, can be blanched if you like, the principle advantage is to be able to press them to a useful thickness as they cool by placing a heavy weight, such as a large brick, on top. As for vegetables, par cooking them for a few minutes doesn't mute the flavour: why would it?
This is different of course from par or completely cooking vegetables in advance so that they can be quickly reheated when needed. In fact there is a lot to be said for doing this, particularly for green vegetables, and it is best done just after they have been bought since they don't improve through storage, rather the reverse.

Rubs, insertions or stuffings. If left for a couple of hours or so, none of these change the taste of the meat or fish one jot, although they might flavour any juice which runs out. The flavours don't infuse the flesh at all. Nine times out of ten it is all just a fiddly waste of time. Better to save the flavourings to make a sauce or just to sprinkle on the dish when cooked. If you want garlic lamb it is better to make a garlic flavoured juice to pour over the freshly sliced meat than to abuse the guiltless beast by stabbing it all over and pushing garlic cloves into the open wounds.

Sealing meat. This is really a misnomer rather than a mis-step. Frying meat all over doesn't stop juice falling out of it and makes not the tiniest difference to the juiciness, or not, of the end result. Nothing is being sealed. Frying meat does develop some useful flavour by 'caramelising' the outside and can give the joint an attractive colour. However, usually the real flavour hit comes from the sauce which is often made of much more than just the cooking juices. If you want juicy meat, buy well and let it cool down a lot before you cut it.

Soaking Vegetables in water. This is a favourite of Giuliano Bugialli for whom I have a lot of respect, but every time I read 'soak the beans/carrots/etc for 30 minutes in cold water' I ignore it. Yes, give them a rinse but frankly the soaking does absolutely nothing, sorry Mr B. If you are worried they are impregnated with a vile insecticide then throw them all away and shop for your vegetables somewhere else!

Tonight's Dinner:

Terrine of Chicken Livers and Veal

Fricasée of Rabbit, with Yellow peppers and Chili

Oranges in Caramel


Anonymous said...

If only you could reach a wider audience with these wise words, the cooking world would be a richer and less fraught place. Thank you for confirming what I have thought for a long, long time.

Joanna said...

Great post ... wonderful to have so many of my prejudices confirmed. Particularly about not marinading meat, and not "sealing" - the very best recipes I have for stews all involve just chucking the cubes in ... which shortcut speaks loudly to my inner slut ;) ... but I do it again because it tastes just as good as with the so-called sealing


Ed Bruske said...

Actually, meats do not caramlize. They brown according to the "Maillard reaction," which is the conversion of certain amino acids in the protein. It's a complicated process, much studied in the processed food business, and not the same as what happens when you boil off sugar in a pot.

The Passionate Palate said...

Very thorough, well-thought out and informative post. Toffeeapple was right - "if only you could reach a broader audience". Why not try? Your knoweldge is helpful to us. Thank you for sharing!

Pomiane said...

On the 'caramelisation' point, you're absolutely correct, being strictly scientific: the Maillard reaction is indeed the process whereby in the course of being heated the proteins in the meat can be seen to change colour in a way which is consistent with a noted and specific change in flavour. Using the cook's argot, though, when one refers to caramelisation of meat, all we're talking about is the browning of the surfaces of the meat which is not unlike the change in colour when making caramel; it happens to taste good, too! It may be linguistically sloppy, but there you go......I think it's fairly well-accepted kitchen-speak.

Ed Bruske said...

It's well accepted because people have been misled by incorrect usage. It can't do any harm to teach people the difference...

Tango said...

Actually, inserting slivers of garlic and bay leaf in a beef roast does, indeed, dramatically change the flavour. I make it both ways, depending on the ultimate recipe (cold roast beef, eg for sandwiches, is particularly well-served by the garlic-and-bay method).

The same is true of stuffings involving strong herbs (like rosemary, which I can't stand) - you can definitely taste the flavours in the chicken, even with scrupulous removal of the stuffing itself.

As for marinades -- they may or may not alter the flavour (depends on the marinade, and the amount of it left on the meat when it's cooking), but what they do is prevent the formation of advanced glycocylation endproducts on meat that is being grilled or barbecued. These are carcinogenic, and it's definitely good practice to marinade meat that will be in contact with flames or be exposed to smoke from dripping fat (as on a barbecue).

Pomiane said...

1. I didn't mean to imply that adding herbs and flavours makes no difference to the taste if used to marinate, infuse, or lard meat or fish. Sometimes it does. The point is that these techniques can take a lot of time and there are easier ways to add exactly the same flavour later - by using a sauce, a flavoured juice, or adding a gremoulade at the last minute. For terrines or joints of meat for cutting cold, these methods are unsuitable and, thus, the flavours need to be added from the beginning. See Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, though, on the toughening action that adding a marinade will have on the meat being treated in this way - in his view pointlessly deleterious to the end result.

2. I am not on your side over AGE [advanced glycation end products] a.k.a. Maillard reaction or, popularly, 'caramelisation' of meat. Unfortunately, or fortunately, lots of things come up positive in a test for carcinogens: coffee, mushrooms, parsley, oregano, sage, rosemary and thyme to name but a few. Bruce Ames who invented the carcinogen test says, "Almost every plant product in the supermarket is likely to contain natural carcinogens". The question is whether the products are carcinogenic in practice in the amounts consumed. I have seen Prof. Ames saying he thinks his test is being misused by people who assume a positive reading means a product is dangerous. It doesn't, the test is very, very sensitive.

Barbequed meat is as old as dirt and there is absolutely no evidence that anyone has enjoyed a day off work because they ate too much flame broiled steak. Frankly I think we can relax.

osie said...

I love the recipes I have so far read... as the cooking style appeals to me.

The areas I would question are the browning of meat... as I think it does produce a more tender joint. I know my Normandy friends do not brown the meat and the end product has something missing.

Also, I personally think multiple reductions are very necessary, especially in French cooking....
I think you want the food to be sweet throughout the cooking process and not to come together towards the end.

Thanks for offering your food for thought... as it is this which rounds our knowledge.

Pomiane said...

Osie: I'm glad you approve.Thanks for your comment!
1. Re browning of meat, I don't actually disapprove of the process, I (significantly) criticise the idea that this process 'seals' the flavour in - with regard to the beneficial effects of 'caramelising' the outside of the meat, I wholeheartedly agree.
2. Not sure I get your point re reductions. The end result is the point of the exercise, surely, and not how it tastes along the way...and the logic of constantly adding water-heavy ingredients to an already reduced sauce only then to have to spend more time in removing the water from the newly-added element completely escapes me. For example, see

osie said...

I read the article and as a side note must say that I am not such a fan of Blumenthal. I think it is great to utilise his technical knowledge but do the cooking your own way... I am a fan of roast potatoes and battered fish and his results did not look very appetising; although very crispy.

I am just making a blanquette de veau as we speak.. which is very similar to your veal stew except I use sage instead of lemon. I thought about the reduction principle you mention but could not action it... in fact I do it as stated in your stew recipe.

I thought to myself, if it was so, then I could put raw onion, garlic, leeks, wine and water, all in a pot and cook till ready; which I know some do.

However, I thing the reality is that you need to cook the acid out of the garlic, out of the onion and then out of the wine otherwise the sauce would not be correct. In fact I think the thing that can spoil a food is this first few minutes of the cooking process.

I know in Italian cooking you can add some more wine during the cooking process... but I would imagine the reason for this is because one specifically wants a wine taste in the final product.

I also have a spiritual opinion that if the food is happy throughout the cooking process then it will be much more happy at the end too. This means for example constantly adjusting the seasoning as for food cooks, and not doing the adjustment at the very end.

Pomiane said...

1. Blumenthal, IMHO, behaves more like a scientist or a mechanic than a cook. His relationship with the process of cooking seems quite strange, and in practice leaves me entirely cold.
2. My point about reduction was purely that it is illogical to add various different liquids to a dish at different times in the process of cooking it, when in fact all you are doing at each of these reduction stages is removing water in order to concentrate the flavour - much more efficient to add all the liquids in one go, and have one reduction process. I'm not saying that preparation of dishes doesn't legitimately involve different stages, with the addition of different ingredients at different points so that they are cooked for the appropriate time and in the appropriate way within the overall context of the recipe being followed.
3. Have a care about dishes tasting 'good' at all stages during preparation - if you've added sufficient seasoning for things to taste good very early on in a slow-cook recipe, then you risk the seasoning being unpleasantly strong once the flavours have become more concentrated at the end of the process.

osie said...

I think the idea of boiling the wine off is to remove the acidic alcohol rather than reduce the water. If there is an extra amount of water in the wine, then it will be more difficult to remove the alcohol.

I quite agree that by cooking, hence concentrating, the sauce you are also concentrating the seasoning. I just think that a dish going from bland to adjusted at the end will be missing the xfactor. Indeed, care needs to be taken not to salt foods where the water will be drawn out and therefore burn it.