Thanks, and buon appetitio.
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Thanks, and buon appetitio.
As I (hopefully) explained in my Cooking 101 Blog, heating certain foods, especially meats and vegetables, to temperatures above 300° F introduces new and wonderful flavors, aromas, and textures. Using non-aqueous liquids (oils, or lipids) is one way to do this. Whether we call it frying, sautéing, pan frying, stir frying, or anything else, the common element is the use of a hot pan or skillet and hot oil. To be sure, there are important differences, too, but the differences do not affect the objective of this discussion – which is to explain why the choice of cooking technique can dramatically affect the outcome. (You can Google “frying vs. sautéing” to learn more about the differences.)
Unless we are deep frying (which I’ll discuss separately in another Blog), cooking with hot oil has one disadvantage – the food only cooks upward from the portion in contact with the pan or oil. We remedy this, of course, by stirring and tossing and flipping, but these techniques work better with some foods than others. Think of trying to brown a whole chicken in a fry pan!
Cooking in the oven (i.e., baking and roasting – technically, cooking in hot air) easily overcomes this problem. Plus, high temperatures, higher even than oil, are easily achievable. The size and shape of the food are no longer potential issues; and the food is heated equally from all directions. Of course, there must always be a disadvantage, and there is. Heating with air is a much slower process than heating with a liquid. Heat just doesn’t “travel” through air as quickly as it does through liquids.
Baking and roasting also are drying processes. Since foods heat more slowly in the oven, the water and natural juices they contain have a longer opportunity to evaporate and slowly dry the food. We use this drying process to our advantage when we bake breads or cakes by removing most, but not all, of the water. With most meats, however, which we generally prefer moist and tender, we minimize the moisture loss by roasting at higher temperatures and reducing the total cooking time.
Clearly, each of the cooking techniques we’ve considered has some advantages and at least one disadvantage. In most cases we can easily compensate for the disadvantage. We stir and toss vegetables in the fry pan to ensure they cook evenly. In other cases, we achieve the best result by combining techniques. My classic example here is the Italian meatball. I first brown them in extra-virgin olive oil (without cooking them through), and then add them to my tomato sauce to finish. The crusty meatballs add wonderful flavors to the sauce, and the sauce reciprocates by flavoring the meat. I hope you will try both sometime!
P.S. I know that for many of you, reading these last two Blogs has been a chore – maybe even boring – because you already know all this. Some of you may be questioning why any of this is even remotely important. Others may not have thought of cooking in these terms before and may now have a new perspective on the importance of cooking methods. To the first two groups: I apologize, but I also thank you for sticking with me. To all three groups I can say: We now have a common baseline to begin discussing new food preparation opportunities and solving some cooking problems and dilemmas. Those discussions will come in future Blogs. I think we’re ready for Cooking 201, but I have more to write about homemade pizza first!
The dictionary definition of cooking is to "prepare foods through the use of heat." As an engineer, I can tell you there are only three ways of doing this: by convection (heat passing through a fluid such as water, oil, or air), by conduction (heat passing through a solid, and by radiation (heat passing through a vacuum, and in some cases through fluids like air). In practice, however, cooking typically involves all three simultaneously. Grilling is a great example. The heat source heats the grill and the meat via radiation and convection, and the grill creates those wonderful grill marks via conduction. As I mentioned elsewhere on this site, cooking is both an art and a science, and how heat gets from one place to another is clearly science. Much more important is knowing how and when to use this science in your kitchen. To me, this is the art of cooking.
To make my point let me begin as simply as possible – cooking with water. Heated water is an excellent medium for cooking all sorts of foods: pasta, potatoes, eggs, and even meat. When we use water to cook meat (e.g., braising) we typically call the result a soup, a stock, a stew, or a pasta sauce – all wonderfully delicious end results. While the virtues of cooking with water are seemingly endless, water has one serious limitation. It only reaches a temperature of 212° F. That's certainly high enough to cook any ingredient I can think of, but really special things happen when some foods reach much higher temperatures.
Non-aqueous liquids, fats or oils (chemically called lipids), comfortably reach much higher temperatures, typically 450° F and above. Oils generally begin to smoke before they boil, so their smoke point is the maximum practical temperature that can be used for cooking. When meats, for example, are heated to temperatures over 300° F, the amino acids and sugars in the meat begin to change into complex sugars via a process known as the Maillard Reaction (named after Louis Camille Maillard, who discovered it 1912) . The result of the Maillard Reaction is deliciously browned meat!
When vegetables, again for example, reach temperatures in excess of 300° F, the chemistry is different, but the results are similar. Browning (again) occurs, but this time because carbohydrates are being converted into complex sugars via a process called caramelization. As with meats, the result can be spectacularly delicious.
In both cases – and this is the point of this entire discussion – wonderful new flavors are introduced into these ingredients by the mere application of "extra" heat!
There is much more to say on this topic, but I will give both of us a break now, and then call the continuation Cooking 102!
If you asked me what my favorite cooking ingredient is, I doubt I could give you a single answer. Olive oil, extra virgin olive oil to be precise, would be one of my top candidates, however.
We all know that food tastes best when you use the best tasting ingredients – and that includes the oil you use. Some oils, like canola and vegetable (i.e., soy) oils have little or no flavor. Butter, pork fats (i.e., lard, bacon), chicken and duck fats are all delicious but contain the dreaded cholesterol that everyone prefers to avoid or minimize. Then there's extra virgin olive oil – full-flavored, readily available, with no cholesterol.
You may have heard that frying with olive oil is problematic because it has a lower smoke point than almost all other oils. True, but this is seldom, if ever, a problem. Olive oil's smoke point is about 450° F, well above the cooking temperature for most fried or sautéed (or even deep-fried) foods.
If there is any problem with using olive oil, it may be the issue of deciding which one to select because there are so many to choose from.
You might be surprised to learn that Spain is the world's largest producer of olive oil. That was news to me a few years ago. I always thought it was Italy. Today, Spain produces about 45% of the world's olive oil, while Italy ranks second at about 16%.
Most of the olive oil sold in the United States, however, in fact 75% of it, is imported from Italy. Which brings us to the next issue: much of the olive oil imported from Italy is actually olive oil produced in other countries and then exported to Italy! This doesn't necessarily make the olive oil inferior, but it certainly isn't Italian. If you are looking for Italian olive oil, check the label to ensure the olive oil was both produced and bottled in Italy.
I think the best tasting olive oils – and taste is what's really important here – come from Spain, Italy, Greece, and California, and not necessarily in that order. That's what you need to decide, and the only way I know to do that is by actually tasting a variety of oils available to you locally. This may take some time, but I can assure you the results will be worth the effort. Also, stick to the extra-virgin olive oils. They are by far the best, regardless of brand.
I keep two on hand at all times – one for general use and another higher quality oil (full disclosure: more expensive) for salads and finishing. You needn't go that far, but if you haven't done so already, you really should give extra-virgin olive oil some special consideration.
Without a doubt, in every Italian household, the most important family recipe will be their version of a pasta sauce. In the southern third of classic Italy (and all of Sicily), the family pasta sauce was a tomato sauce, and most likely a meat-based tomato sauce. Tomatoes -- especially the San Marzano tomato -- flourished in the lava soils surrounding Mt. Vesuvius. Even today, San Marzano tomatoes are prized for their flavor and texture.
My maternal grandparents were born near Naples and my paternal ancestors immigrated to the United States from Sarnano, in the Marche region, near Ancona. So it is not surprising that my grandmothers' recipes for pasta sauce were meat-based tomato sauces.
You will note first that my sauce recipes do not call for fresh tomatoes. My grandmother (and later my mother and father) used tomatoes for their pasta sauce that they themselves canned each year – typically seven bushels of tomatoes each, or enough to last an entire year! They used a quart of canned whole tomatoes for each batch of sauce. Also, they all preferred sauce with no seeds – a preference I have acquired, or more likely, “inherited”. They used a conical strainer (what the French call a chinois) to remove the unwanted tomato seeds. (This was frequently my job!)
Needless to say, canning anything is not one of my favored activities. Commercially available canned tomatoes are perfectly acceptable substitutes, but removing the tomato seeds is still an issue (for me). Fortunately, tomato puree produces a superb sauce, every time, and with the least amount of effort.
In short, my decision to use puree instead of canned tomatoes is solely one of convenience. In fairness to my ancestors, however, I must add that their decision to use and strain canned tomatoes was one of economics, not efficiency.
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Hobby Chef Grandpa Joe has been practicing Italian-style cooking for over 60 years. He enjoys cooking, entertaining, and sharing culinary experiences with family and friends.
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