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Chef's Table

A pinch of science, common sense

By GUI ALINAT
Published March 23, 2005


You've, no doubt, heard dozens of cooking tips such as these: Water will boil faster if you add salt and put a lid on the pot. Always salt meat before you cook it. Rinse pasta after it's cooked.

These kitchen myths are as old as the discovery of fire.

Have you heard the one about lobsters screaming before they are boiled?

Some tips are valid, others are debatable. And still others seem to suspend the laws of physics. That hasn't happened yet in my kitchen, and if it has in yours, then you should probably call your local TV station.

Cuisine is an elegant blend of art and physics, and has nothing to do with magic. Rather, it has to do with "molecular gastronomy." Yes, preparing a stock, and other foods, is science. Molecular gastronomy is a recent, but serious field. Think of it as scientists working with chefs to debunk well-anchored cooking tips. It all started with the late Nicholas Kurti, a physicist who argued that the best way to prepare a three-minute egg was to cook it for one hour at 140 degrees.

Today's "pope" of molecular gastronomy, Frenchman Herve This, has joined with chef Pierre Gagnaire. In their laboratory at the respected College de France in Paris, This and Gagnaire specialize in the chemistry of molecular interactions. In other words, they study what happens when you make toast, scramble eggs, roast meat or saute mushrooms. Like every cook, they play with molecules. The only difference is that their approach is analytical. They also do weird stuff such as whipping chocolate or decooking cooked eggs. I am not making this up.

Today, I offer a list of common tips and give you my interpretation as a professional chef. Before my inbox gets flooded with counter-opinion messages, let me say that these, like most cooking tips, are debatable theories.

*Chew on a match to avoid crying when peeling onions. False.

* Scrub a wooden chopping board with lemon juice and salt to get rid of lingering odors. May be true, but why bother?

* To know whether an egg is bad or not, hold a candle beneath it. If black spots are visible, don't use it. May be true, but if an egg is bad, you will know it by the smell when you crack it. Always, though, crack them one by one in a separate container before pouring them in your dough.

* Using shortening instead of butter produces fluffier cookies. True. Butter has water in it, which makes a thinner dough. Shortening, such as Crisco, has no water, so the cookie stands taller. The taste might suffer, though.

* A raw potato added to an overly salty soup or stew will soak up the extra salt and save the meal. False. I wished it was true a few times, but the potatoes are not that absorbent.

* Putting a lid on a pot makes water boil faster. True. But this only makes sense with a large amount of water. Otherwise the difference is too slight to be significant.

* Thanksgiving turkey tips: some make sense, some don't. You can brine the turkey, roast it, deep-fry it, grill it or bag it, but the bottom line is that thighs take longer to cook than breasts. Finding the right balance, the right temperature and resting the bird ensures moist meat.

* Putting an avocado seed in guacamole prevents it from turning brown. False.

* Salt meat before cooking it. That's debatable. Salting meat too long before cooking is not good because it draws out juices. However, salt will help form a crust on the meat, which is especially desirable when grilling.

* Adding oil to water will prevent pasta from sticking. False.

* Lobsters scream in pain before they are boiled. False. Lobsters don't have vocal chords. The sound you hear is steam venting from their bodies.

For more information

Several resources are available to help you determine what cooking advice works and what does not.

What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained by Robert L. Wolke (W.W. Norton & Company, $25.95).

Cook's Illustrated magazine and www.americastestkitchen.com a site administered by Cook's.

A fascinating Web site on applied molecular gastronomy by chef Pierre Gagnaire, www.pierre-gagnaire.com/anglais/index1.htm Good Eats, Alton Brown's show on the Food Network airs weeknights at 7.

Chef Gui Alinat welcomes questions about cooking and will respond to those of general interest in future columns. Sorry, he can't take phone calls or answer individual requests. Send questions to him in care of Taste, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or e-mail him at chefgui@chefgui.com Please include your name and city of residence.

[Last modified March 22, 2005, 09:38:05]


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