What did we learn in class, children? To read the assignment completely before beginning our work. This applies to cooking as much as to chem class, or that obnoxious trick test in grammar school, in which the last instruction is to ignore everything but item #1 (writing your name at the top of the page.) You will always be graded on your ability to follow instructions. But when the instructions are bad, you are guaranteed to fail.
Cooking websites have continued the deceitful traditions of hardbound cookbooks, and straight-up LIE about times needed to cook certain things. I have determined that any cooking time given in a recipe should be read as the Biblical term “40 days and 40 nights”: “we honestly don’t know how long, but it’s a really, really long time, much longer than you would expect. ”
Five minutes means fifteen; fifteen minutes means forty-five; anything over thirty means “I hope you’re not expecting guests.”
The usual suspects:
- Caramelizing onions: “saute chopped onions over medium heat until soft and golden brown, about five minutes.” The onions won’t even be completely translucent in five minutes, much less soft and golden brown. That will take 15 or 20 minutes at least.
- Adding raw chicken to the pan: don’t look at the “simmer for five minutes” part; focus on the “or until cooked through” part. If you cook that chicken for five minutes, a hologram of Gordon Ramsay will materialize and exclaim, in an angry/aggrieved tone, “Look at that! It’s raw! You’ll KILL someone!”
- The same goes for roasting chicken in a 350F oven for 30 minutes. This might have been accurate when cavedwellers were roasting pigeon-sized proto-chickens over open flames, but a five pound bird in an electric oven has only just started to lose its varnish. It’s still chicken sushi on the inside, and nowhere close to being browned or crackling.
- Artichokes: “steam for 15 minutes in acidulated water.” Unless you are using a pressure cooker, it will still be like a rock, Mr. Spock.
- Pot roast: “cook uncovered for 2 – 2.5 hours in a low oven.” This does not result in tenderness, much less browning. The fat won’t roast, the gelatin won’t melt, and you will have a stringy grey mess of meat. (Enjoy?)
- Baked potatoes: another “medium oven for one hour” lie. While we probably shouldn’t be eating those big, beautiful Idaho bakers anyway (unless we split one Volkswagon-sized tuber between the 4-6 people all recipes seem to serve), if we throw the potatoes in the oven for the last hour while the lamb finishes, as instructed, they will only be ready to eat the next morning. Seriously, it’s like cooking a brick until it’s fork-tender.
I could go on. But since I’m on the subject, let me continue to speak heresy.
Roasting meat. While it’s true that even slightly undercooked chicken makes my throat close and my eyes swell shut (as with undercooked eggs — including soft cookies, Hollandaise sauce, mousses, mayonnaise, creamy dressings, brownies, Caesar salad, and runny yolks — oh how I miss you all!), I am a fan of over-roasting most meats. I take my steak on the rare side, so it’s not squeamishness; if anything, it’s a love of roasted fat. The crackling, the grebenes, the parchment-like poultry skin shattering in my mouth. The fat from beef ribs, nearly charred on the bone, or seasoned and roasted to a crisp around my prime steak. The gods are pleased by the smell of roasting fat, and who am I to argue with the gods?
As for the cooking itself, it’s my firm belief that chickens and pot roasts should be cooked high, hot, and fast. Low and slow cooking is great, if you want to leech all the juice from the dish, but I don’t like dry, grey meat. I was brought up by Norwegian farmers in the northern Rockies. They were not afraid of fat, but they raised their meat, traded with the folks up the road for variety, and hunted; cooking meat to dry greyness was a valid safety precaution. (These days, my meat comes from the butcher, and I am more likely to get e. coli from a dirty knife chopping my salad at a diner than I am from my home-cooked rare steak.) But I grew up eating food that was the very apotheosis of bland. And that often meant chops and roasts that fought the knife and chewed like woolen mittens.
Get the fat to liquefy, get the gelatin to melt, get the roasty brown goodness going. Pop that thick seven bone roast into a hot 450F oven with a good broth to cover; let it cook down, but keep adding water to keep a half inch of fluid in the bottom. (This won’t work with a lean roast, but you shouldn’t be roasting lean meat anyway.) To some extent, the meat will steam. In a couple of hours, you’ll be able to cut it with a spoon, and the drippings will be suitable for Yorkshire pudding. But it will have the rich crust sought after by steakhouses, with browned fat bits for the discerning deity.
Same thing with chicken. Make sure the skin is dry; season it well; rub it with oil. Fill the small roaster hip-deep with broth, and give it 400F for 90 minutes or so. (You know the test: wiggle the thigh. If it’s not tight, spear the hip joint and make sure the juice runs clear.) The best way to attack the bird is to eat the beautiful, crackly breast skin as soon as it becomes crisp (chef’s prerogative, but she may share it if she likes), and then turn the bird breast-down in the fluid. The skin on the bird’s undercarriage gets crispy and brown, and the breast stays moist and tender. Eat the dark meat for dinner, and let the breast sit overnight in the liquid. The next day, the breast will be moist, tender, flavorful…really superlative. And the gelatinous stock, scraped from the carcass, is delicious on its own, but can be scooped into a plastic bag and frozen, ready to enrich soups or vegetables on the fly, no thawing time needed.
This is contrary to conventional wisdom, folks, but keep in mind that a lot of cooking traditions started a la bonne mère, and some circumstances have changed. Our meat is fattier now, if it’s not grass-fed, and can stand up to high heat. Our animals drink fresh, clean water, and that is what we use to cook; we don’t need to worry about killing parasites. We also don’t need to slow-cook stuff all day while the men plough the fields and we weed the garden. And roasts, and birds, like us, are bigger these days.
We can talk dietetics some other time, but for now, we’re in flavor country.