Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Sautéing Onions

In yesterday's posting about salmon pasta, I wrote:
Roughly chop a small onion and sauté in minimal oil. Cook it about two notches cooler and twice as long as you ordinarily would. "Gentle" is your mantra..
That's a perilous instruction for unskilled cooks. During the first 45 years of my cooking career, when I poked around in kitchens, able to rotely conjure up a handful of familiar dishes but with no real idea of what I was doing, I recall lots of time spent watching ingredients lie flaccidly in pans not doing much. Standing around waiting for stuff to boil, to sizzle, and to brown. Heat was scary, and was applied with hesitance, because I was afraid to burn stuff.

Picture a driving student, puttering hesitantly forward, afraid to press the accelerator 'cuz speed's the thing that makes you crash.

You cannot simply tell a newbie cook "C'mon, turn up the heat" any more than you can urge a driving student to hit the damned gas. First they need to be able to control the power, and that takes time. But sporadic cooks and Sunday drivers never gather enough experience to develop control. The former are perpetually not-burning, just as the latter are constantly not-crashing. Not-burning is not cooking, and not-crashing's not driving!

So my instruction to be gentle with the onion (which, by the way, applies for most onion applications, and for all garlic ones) will just further tie the hands of many home cooks, who'll spend long periods of time flustered about the onions basically just sitting there.

It was transformative for me to read, years ago, an article about a famous chef who’d been  invited over a famous food writer's house to accept the challenge of improvising dinner from leftovers in his fridge. First thing the chef did was turn up all the stove burners to high and crank the oven. When I read it, I understood that cooking is all about heat. It's kinetic. So conjure up all the heat you can, and then, if necessary, cut it down here and there. Wield all the power, but do so with control.

I eventually learned that burnt food isn't like a sore throat. It's not an inevitable bad thing that occurs from time to time. I haven't burned food in years. Burning is what happens when you don't just stop paying attention (i.e. caring), but stop paying attention brazenly and flagrantly. Car crashes are not inevitable. They only happen if you're stupendously inattentive.

I once wrote that
Amateur musicians sometimes play out of tune. This is because they're trying to play in tune. If you try to play in tune, that means that when you fail (and you will fail!), you'll be noticeably out of tune.

Professional musicians don't try to play in tune. They're preoccupied with trying to play really, really in tune. So when they fail (and they will fail), they're still reasonably in tune, though not precisely enough for their standards. They'll wince, and feel like failures, but you won't hear it.

Amateurs conclude that professionals fail less. Wrong. They fail as often as anyone, but they work within narrower tolerances. We're all failures, but pros fail well.
If you're trying not to burn, that means you'll occasionally burn. If you're watching like a hawk to spot extremely subtle degrees of doneness, you'll never burn. You'll still feel like a failure, because, being human and thus doomed to periodic failure, you'll sometimes miss the OPTIMAL point. But burning? That's not inevitable. It's not even imaginable.

So when I said to cook the onion and garlic gently, I didn't mean meekly and feebly. I didn't mean sullen chunks languishing in tepid oil. I meant that the robust inertia of kinetic heat powering your entire cooking enterprise should be confidently tempered to the lower end of the curve.

Imagine an eight year old scratchily playing a cheap plywood violin told to play a certain passage softly. She'd produce especially hesitant scratchings, some barely speaking due to all the tense restraint. Now imagine Pinchas Zukerman asked to play softly, fluently channeling every iota of his normal power and rich expression into a galvanizing whisper.

That's how you do the onions.

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