Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Fundamental Secret of Cooking

Here's the tiny but game-changing realization that marked the moment I became competent in the kitchen: Start cooking just about everything slightly too hot, and then turn down the heat.

Cooking's all about heat. There are countless modern stand-ins for "fire", but make no mistake about it, it's always about fire. No fire means no cooking. You need that kinetic energy to make things happen.

I once read an article by a writer who'd challenged a famous chef to come to his apartment and try to prepare something brilliant just from the so-so ingredients on hand in his refrigerator, using his non-professional cookware and appliances. The first thing the chef did when he entered the kitchen was to turn the oven and all stove elements onto "high". This was before examining ingredients, let alone cutting or slicing.

When I read this, it dawned on me that, really, it's all about heat. Recalling my pre-competency cooking, I mostly remember food sitting in pans laboring to get up to speed....and meals emerging piecemeal as certain items took far longer to cook than expected.

Imagine, for a moment, a good chef at work. You're visualizing sizzling, hot, kinetic action, no? Now imagine an amateur. I'll bet you see someone hesitantly stirring away at some silent static pot. The trick is to use heat as a professional driver uses fuel: boldly. Though, of course, you must be focused and careful, too, lest you (respectively) crash or burn!


Big Fella said...


I've been teaching my brother-in-law, who helps me during the day to cook. After my tutelage he has mastered sauteed salmon:

Put a teflon saute pan with some olive oil coating it on a burner set at the highest setting. While the pan is coming up to heat, prepare my salad. After the pan has come up to heat, grind some pepper over the flesh of a hung of salmon. Place the salmon, flesh side down in the saute pan and reduce heat to medium, cook for four minutes. Turn over the salmon so it is skin side down, continue cooking for eight minutes.

Then remove salmon to a plate, and you will have a perfectly seared piece of salmon, that is just past medium rare in doneness.

Jim Leff said...

Sorry to contradict, but you should never EVER heat a teflon pan on high heat. It destroys the non-stick quality, and releases toxic fumes.

From the entry for teflon in Wikipedia (not the greatest source, but there are tons of confirmations out there, as well as the notice shipped with every teflon pan about staying at medium heat or lower):

"While [teflon] is stable and non-toxic, it begins to deteriorate after the temperature of cookware reaches about 260 °C (500 °F), and decompose above 350 °C (662 °F).[These degradation by-products can be lethal to birds, and can cause flu-like symptoms in humans."

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