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The reasons given in cookbooks


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#1 patrickamory

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Posted 24 December 2012 - 10:19 AM

I always enjoy cookbooks most when they give the reasons for the instructions in a recipe. Then you have the background you need to start improvising on your own.

Which cookbooks do you feel give you the best "reasons why" when they tell you what to do? Which ones are not so good at giving you the reasoning behind the instructions?

I've found John Thorne's books, with their discursive history of foods and recipes, and his experiments with each in various chapters, to be models of explaining why we cook things the way we do (sometimes irrationally).

Here are some examples of questions that have come to mind when cooking from books by other authors:

- Marcella Hazan - bring the pasta water to a boil, then add the salt, cover again, bring to a boil again, add the pasta. Why add the salt after the water is boiling, rather than at the start?

- Anson Mills grits recipe - similarly, add the salt halfway through the cooking process. I know why not at the end (cooked grits don't absorb salt), but why not at the start?

- Madhur Jaffrey - Frequently spices are fried early on in a long-cooked dish, and then the same spices added at the end, often whole instead of ground, freshly fried in a tadka. Why? When wouldn't one want to do this?

- Fuchsia Dunlop - At various points in various recipes: Splash the wok with Shaoxing wine. What does this achieve, exactly? It's not deglazing as in Western recipes. Perhaps the wine doesn't serve the same function in various dishes - it's simply a flavoring element like soy sauce?

These are somewhat silly examples, since I can guess at the answers to most of them, but I think there's a lot more out there. (I realize McGee and Modernist Cuisine probably give answers to a lot of these questions - but perhaps less when traditional foodways are involved.)

#2 gdenby

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Posted 24 December 2012 - 11:22 AM

Yes, McGee and MC are great explainers. Also Shirley Corriher (Bakewise & Cookwise), Rob't Wolke (What Einstien told his Cook 1 & 2) and Herve This (Kitchen Mysteries, etc).

But, most of the cookbooks I have should probably be called recipe books. Very little information on the why of a technique. I suppose that because most cooking was traditionally something that was done over and over for generations, and practiced on a daily basis, loose terms like a "slow fire" were generally understood. For those of use who may never have boiled water (my SIL, for instance) explanations are necessary.

My guess on Madhur Jaffrey. The first roast/fry of spices breaks open seeds, releasing and enhancing some of the flavor compounds. The second addition adds flavors that work well when not cooked for a long time and which may also evaporate or break down.

#3 patrickamory

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Posted 24 December 2012 - 11:27 AM

I think you may be right on Jaffrey. Also, the second edition "freshens up" and echos the mellow flavors of the original spices with brighter enhancements, adding to the unity but also the complexity of the finished dish.

Another one - most Italian and all Indian recipes say to heat the oil or fat before adding the onions. But some Italian recipes say to warm the onions in the oil together. Why?

(Thanks for the recommendations on the other books - will check them out.)

#4 Syzygies

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Posted 24 December 2012 - 12:38 PM

I learned to cook from Michal Field's Cooking School, still available used. A chapter per dish, I needed that.

More recently, Tom Colicchio's Think Like a Chef and Paul Bertolli's Cooking by Hand were the first "conceptual" cookbooks I worked through, making me prefer this style of exposition.

Colicchio was the first to admit that rather than skimming stock, one should change the water. Even Keller didn't say he did this in his first books, though he says so later.

Bertolli explains computing brines more clearly than I'd ever seen before, changing barbecue forever for me; I now always salt by weight. He also inspired us to start grinding our own flour for everything, and we've been doing so ever since the book came out. Though we sieve out the bran, which makes whole wheat products taste like a roll of unbleached paper towels fell in, and we don't follow his recipes. I seriously doubt that they actually ground flour at the restaurant; me thinks it was delivered.

And for the antithesis of the reasons why, everyone I know of a certain age learned to cook Italian from remaindered copies of Ada Boni's Regional Italian Cooking, Sometimes one needs a comprehensive set of examples, not explanation.

Edited by Syzygies, 24 December 2012 - 12:44 PM.

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#5 chezcherie

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Posted 24 December 2012 - 01:11 PM

re:hazan--i believe the reasoning is that boiling water will dissolve the salt faster, so it won't sink to the bottom intact and pit the metal. (i use kosher salt, myself, which dissolves on the way down anyway, but i think that's the rationale.) i agree that the whys are important.
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#6 andiesenji

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Posted 24 December 2012 - 01:23 PM

I have the cookbooks authored by John Ash and he explains the "why" of things in language anyone can understand.
It's no surprise that they have won awards.
From the Earth to the Table - Winner of the Julia Child "Cookbook of the Year" from the IACP
and
John Ash, Cooking One on One - Private Lessons - with Amy Mintzer - Winner of the 2005 James Beard Foundation Award

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#7 Keith_W

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Posted 24 December 2012 - 03:46 PM

- Fuchsia Dunlop - At various points in various recipes: Splash the wok with Shaoxing wine. What does this achieve, exactly? It's not deglazing as in Western recipes. Perhaps the wine doesn't serve the same function in various dishes - it's simply a flavoring element like soy sauce?


Helps to evaporate the alcohol, perhaps?
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#8 rgruby

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Posted 24 December 2012 - 10:36 PM

re:hazan--i believe the reasoning is that boiling water will dissolve the salt faster, so it won't sink to the bottom intact and pit the metal. (i use kosher salt, myself, which dissolves on the way down anyway, but i think that's the rationale.) i agree that the whys are important.


Yeah, that's what I understand - it's more about the pot than anything else.

As for the Indian food one - I think the addition of spices at the end is for aroma, and the early addition is for flavour.

I also like books that get into the "why".

Cheers,
Geoff

#9 Broken English

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Posted 24 December 2012 - 11:07 PM

There's always this sort of thing in cookbooks. I think it's more the author saying "this is the way I do it", rather than being any actual rationale behind it.

It is kind of frustrating, but trying to understand the science behind what's happening is the best way to tinker with them.
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#10 NWsFirst

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Posted 25 December 2012 - 06:24 AM

Check out an edition of Cook's Illustrated.

#11 HungryC

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Posted 25 December 2012 - 04:28 PM

Re: frying/toasting certain things in oil at the beginning of the cooking process: certain flavoring compounds are oil soluble rather than water soluble, so the maximum flavor is extracted from (cloves, cumin, etc) if heated with oil. Their flavors will better suffuse the entire dish if melded with the fat components....

#12 haresfur

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Posted 25 December 2012 - 06:07 PM

- Fuchsia Dunlop - At various points in various recipes: Splash the wok with Shaoxing wine. What does this achieve, exactly? It's not deglazing as in Western recipes. Perhaps the wine doesn't serve the same function in various dishes - it's simply a flavoring element like soy sauce?


Helps to evaporate the alcohol, perhaps?

Perhaps it's to enhance that alternating searing and steaming like the Modernist Crew say's occurs with tossing the food in a wok?
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#13 budrichard

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Posted 27 December 2012 - 07:32 AM

Pepin!-Dick

#14 Toliver

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Posted 27 December 2012 - 05:04 PM

- Marcella Hazan - bring the pasta water to a boil, then add the salt, cover again, bring to a boil again, add the pasta. Why add the salt after the water is boiling, rather than at the start?

This could be just an old belief. Salted water takes more time to boil. But in the consumer kitchen, the difference in boiling times between salted water versus unsalted water is almost negligible so why bother?

- Madhur Jaffrey - Frequently spices are fried early on in a long-cooked dish, and then the same spices added at the end, often whole instead of ground, freshly fried in a tadka. Why? When wouldn't one want to do this?

Paul Prudomme did something similar in his old cooking shows. He would start cooking with the Trinity and then about halfway through the cooking process would add more of the fresh Trinity. Or he would do the same with some spices (heating them to bring out the oils/flavor and then making a sauce, only to add more of the spices towards the end of cooking). A chiffonade of basil that's been slowly simmering in tomato sauce for a couple of hours definitely has a different flavor, of course, than fresh basil tossed in just before serving. It's all about buidling layers of flavors.

- Fuchsia Dunlop - At various points in various recipes: Splash the wok with Shaoxing wine. What does this achieve, exactly? It's not deglazing as in Western recipes. Perhaps the wine doesn't serve the same function in various dishes - it's simply a flavoring element like soy sauce?

I believe you're correct. It's added for flavor, not deglazing.

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#15 Twyst

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Posted 27 December 2012 - 06:21 PM


- Marcella Hazan - bring the pasta water to a boil, then add the salt, cover again, bring to a boil again, add the pasta. Why add the salt after the water is boiling, rather than at the start?

This could be just an old belief. Salted water takes more time to boil. But in the consumer kitchen, the difference in boiling times between salted water versus unsalted water is almost negligible so why bother?


Not sure whether its accurate or not, but over the course of my career Ive been told by several chefs that putting the salt in at the beginning is bad for the interior of the pot and leads to pitting. I think thats where the rationale for this step is coming in whether its an actual phenomenon or not.

Edited by Twyst, 27 December 2012 - 06:22 PM.


#16 pbear

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Posted 27 December 2012 - 10:03 PM

FWIW, my reason for adding salt after the water comes to a boil is different. Depending on the pot, the water can become saturated with water vapor, which quickly comes out of solution when nucleation sites are added. If that's the pasta, you can get a rush of bubbles and a blast of hot steam. If you add the salt just before the pasta, it strips out the steam and the pasta goes in more quietly.

If you never have a problem with pasta water foaming up like that, your pot isn't producing steam-saturated water and this rationale doesn't apply.

#17 liuzhou

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Posted 28 December 2012 - 08:00 AM

I don't really expect cookbooks (as in recipe collections) to explain the whys and wherefores any more than I expect an atlas to give me a geography lesson on land mass formation. There are specialist books which can deal with these issues in greater detail and with greater authority. I just want to know how to make my dinner.

But I do sometimes wonder at instructions like 'stir in a clockwise direction*'. Like the ingredients know which way they are being stirred?


*from a well known cookbook already mentioned here.

Edited by liuzhou, 28 December 2012 - 08:03 AM.


#18 OliverB

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Posted 28 December 2012 - 08:38 PM

I think the salt later for water is just because salted water has a higher boiling point. But as suggested above, at home a minute more or less hardly makes a difference.

Never heard about the pitting, can't imagine simple table salt would do that to stainless? My pots are close to 17 years old and I see no evidence of anything in them. I'd not be overly concerned there.
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#19 MelissaH

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Posted 29 December 2012 - 06:43 AM

I think the salt later for water is just because salted water has a higher boiling point. But as suggested above, at home a minute more or less hardly makes a difference.

Never heard about the pitting, can't imagine simple table salt would do that to stainless? My pots are close to 17 years old and I see no evidence of anything in them. I'd not be overly concerned there.

Um, no. A favorite general chemistry practice problem is having students calculate the boiling point of salted pasta water, or calculating the amount of salt that you'd need to add to a pot of pasta water in order to make a noticeable difference in the boiling point. It's not for that.
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