In what might be their most geeked-out effort yet to foolproof recipes against the unpredictable habits of home cooks, the smart people at Cook’s Illustrated have just released “The Science of Good Cooking.” The latest book in the lucrative franchise features more than 400 Cook’s recipes grouped by 50 kitchen-proven concepts, such as “salt makes meat juice and skin crisp,” “two leaveners are often better than one” and “cocoa powder delivers big flavor.”
Cook’s founder and editor Chris Kimball, along with science editor Guy Crosby, made a pit stop on the book’s victory tour Wednesday night in the sold-out Warner Bros. Theater at the National Museum of American History.
By way of explaining the Cook’s/America’s Test Kitchen modus operandi for testing recipes — propose principle, devise experiment — Kimball related one of his own moments of rebellion, choosing not to follow his cooking instructor’s directions for making a bechamel, “like none of you do when you make our recipes.”(We feel your pain, Chris.) You know, in that joking-but-not-really-joking way that made the audience laugh in recognition.
Only a few minutes later, he was a little more forgiving: “The object is to figure out . . . why bad things happen to good recipes. It’s not your fault.” Whew.
During the latter half of the program, Kimball and Crosby took questions from the audience of about 300 people, mixing in humor with science, kind of like the dorky-yet-cool chemistry teachers you’d wished you had in high school. A sampling:
Does yogurt tenderize meat?
Crosby said the theory behind this is enzymes that break down proteins can be activated by calcium. The problem is that the calcium in yogurt is so tightly bound to be insoluble. To get a tender steak, Kimball suggested using the oven to heat the meat to 80 or 90 degrees — a sort of quick dry-aging — to activate the enzymes before finishing the meat in a skillet.
Why do fried empanadas taste better than baked empanadas?
“Everyone loves the taste of fat, right?” Crosby quipped, while pointing to recent research into whether people have taste receptors for fat.
Why are my chocolate chip cookies flat sometimes and fluffy at other times?
Kimball postured that perhaps the baker’s flour-to-water ratio varied between batches. Crosby said the culprit may be less-than-fresh baking soda, which loses its potency over time; it decomposes and its pH changes.
Should I use cornstarch or flour in my gravy?
Kimball said his preference is to reduce a gravy or sauce rather than thicken it. “I use both,” Crosby said, explaining that while flour is 75 percent starch and cornstarch 100 percent starch, there really isn’t much of a difference between the two for the purposes of a gravy.
Have you explored how to get sous-vide to the home cook?
“The trust fund appliance” is what Kimball called the machine for cooking food in a controlled-temperature water bath. Cook’s gadget guru Lisa McManus tested a $450 model and liked it. Still, Kimball said, “I’m not a big fan of it” and the bland food he thinks it produces. Crosby added that sous-vide is ideal for testing purposes, as it allows for precise temperature control.
What’s the rule of thumb for rising bread at different temperatures?
If you’re not sure how long you’re going to be able to let yeasted bread rise, or how hot or cold the conditions will be, go ahead and make a dough that can sit in the refrigerator for several days, Kimball advised. The flavor and texture will be better for the wait.
Will frozen egg whites be all right in macarons that call for an Italian meringue?
“That’s probably not going to work,” Kimball said, because the frozen whites won’t be able to incorporate enough air.
Why does butter pool out of my baking pound cake?
Kimball guessed that the butter wasn’t at the right temperature when it was beaten with the sugar — probably too warm. If that’s the case, Crosby said, it will be harder to incorporate the necessary air that will allow for the steam generated through baking to fluff up the air bubbles already present in the batter.
What would you have liked to ask Kimball and Crosby? Share in the comments below. You never know who might offer an answer.