Jump to content
  • Welcome to the eG Forums, a service of the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters. The Society is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of the culinary arts. These advertising-free forums are provided free of charge through donations from Society members. Anyone may read the forums, but to post you must create a free account.

Listening to Sounds in Cooking


Chris Amirault
 Share

Recommended Posts

A lot has been written about the use of sight, touch, smell, and, of course, taste when one cooks, but I haven't read much about the importance of listening in cooking. In the last few days, however, I've found myself paying attention to food with my ears instead of my eyes, nose, or tongue, and I'm wondering when others do the same.

Some of the examples are obvious. Take popcorn, which draws your attention first by popping slowly, then by machine-gun fire, then by the slowing of pops that indicates it's time to dump out the pot before things burn. But a few others are harder to explain.

Does anyone else base their decisions about grinding spices on the pitch of the grinder's whine? I was grinding up cumin the other day and realized I do this as a matter of course: if it's too high, then I get dust, but a low, scratchy noise means I've still got whole hulls in there. The same is true for other seeds and for peppercorns.

Then there's deep-frying, which to me has always involved careful listening. I can't quite explain when I know a piece of fried fish is done, but it involves not only color but the slowly diminishing sound of moisture steaming off at the surface. If wait until you can't hear that sound anymore, you've got a slab of dry cod.

What other instances require us to use our ears when we cook?

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I've seen a couple of writers mention this recently, notably Michael Ruhlman in at least a couple of his books and Bill Buford in Heat. I frequently use sound as a measure of whether my pan is too cold or too hot: if that sizzle ain't there, the pan wasn't ready yet.

(Of course, by that point, there isn't always a lot you can do about it.)

Matthew Kayahara

Kayahara.ca

@mtkayahara

Link to comment
Share on other sites

The most obvious that comes to mind is sautéing: if you don't hear a good hiss when the food hits the pan, the pan is too cold. Too much popping of oil can tell you the food was still wet and isn't going to brown correctly, and when it gets too quiet it's probably time to toss the pan. You're using all your senses all the time, but some are more conscious than others. Sight, taste and touch are going to be deliberate actions, but hearing and smell blend into the background and can give you almost subconscious clues.

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I know people who listen to their cakes to determine when they are done. Cakes make noise as they are baking and it gets quieter and quieter the closer they get to being done. I guess it's the steam releasing.

I listen to my stand mixer to tell when the cake batter or dough is about ready. This works especially well for thick cookie and bread doughs - the mixer starts to whine a lot when they are done. The same applies when grinding meat with the KA attachment.

I also listen for water boiling when I'm making pasta or other boiled items. I'm usually several feet away from the stove doing other tasks so I can't see when it's boiling, but I know it's ready by the sound.

And of course I have a whistling tea kettle!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

This is funny to me, because I thought I was the only one who cooked by ear. When I was a personal chef I often had clients tell me to feel free to listen to their stereos while cooking, and I had to explain that I needed to listen to the food. All of the above examples are great, but for me at that time, when I'd always have 4-5 things on the stove at once, there was a certain sort of symphony. I'd be listening for the balance of sounds from the pots, none sticking out too much, in order to be sure that all was going well on the stove top while I had my back turned.

Foods still definitely "sound done" to me.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I always seem to have been good at telling exactly when a pot of jam is 'done' and never quite knew why - I used the same tricks as everyone else- the bit of jam on a cold saucer, the way it slid off a wooden spoon etc (which are not as easy to interpret as they seem). Then one day I read a comment in a magazine by a very old lady who was famous locally for her jam. She said she heard it when it was ready. I realised then that that is what I was doing - that at the right degree of done-ness, when the bubbles are just the right size, the slight 'plopping' sound changed.

Maybe those un-aware sensory inputs are what we call "instinct"?

Happy Feasting

Janet (a.k.a The Old Foodie)

My Blog "The Old Foodie" gives you a short food history story each weekday day, always with a historic recipe, and sometimes a historic menu.

My email address is: theoldfoodie@fastmail.fm

Anything is bearable if you can make a story out of it. N. Scott Momaday

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I listen hard when I'm cooking, and find the habit invaluable. If I have my back to the stove, I can still know when the water has reached a rolling boil, if the braise is cooking at too high heat, if the polenta is making that ploppy sound that indicates when it needs a stir. It's handy to know when a cat has made a soft landing on the counter and is heading for the butter sitting behind you!

Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Maybe those un-aware sensory inputs are what we call "instinct"?

Or culture in the broadest sense? It seems to me that the way that cooking has been taught through the ages, from one person to another, younger person, required full attentiveness to a variety of senses. You can't quite say "At just this moment, listen" in a cookbook the way that you can when you're standing in a kitchen with someone.

I just thought of another example that came up while I was having a drink with Toby Maloney (Alchemist) the other day: the sound of a shaken cocktail changes as the drink gets colder and the ice breaks up.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

Link to comment
Share on other sites

i listen to my sugar syrup or caramel as it simmers..when the "bloops" get low and slow, it's close.

i toss an onion shard into the pan to hear when the oil is ready to start the saute.

i heed the slapping sound bread dough makes when i use the dough hook and the kitchenaid.

i love the singing crackle of baguettes when they come out of the hot oven.

"Laughter is brightest where food is best."

www.chezcherie.com

Author of The I Love Trader Joe's Cookbook ,The I Love Trader Joe's Party Cookbook and The I Love Trader Joe's Around the World Cookbook

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I once worked in a place where we made a disgusting no-time baquette dough and I could always tell when it hit the nine minute mark in the mixer from the other room. I listen for the change in the sound when cream is whipping, when butter is creaming when it gets all mixed and creamy the bowl stops rocking on the cradle, mushrooms will squeak in the pan after a point when sauteed. Eggs will hiss just a certain way in hot butter when you make an omelette. You can always tell when fries are still frosty when dropped in hot oil rather than thawed or slacked (dumb word. And you can always tell when fries are dropped in cold oil, because nothing happens.

I'll tell you who really works by ear and that's machinists. I used to do that part-time and the guy I worked for had an amazing ear for the way a tool was running on the piece. I once came in with Frank Sinatra in a walkman and he said, great line...Headphones are voodoo in a machine shop.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I know people who listen to their cakes to determine when they are done. Cakes make noise as they are baking and it gets quieter and quieter the closer they get to being done. I guess it's the steam releasing.

This is spot on. I can listen to my quickbread and cake batters and know if they are done even before testing with a toothpick.

Baker of "impaired" cakes...
Link to comment
Share on other sites

What exactly does "done" sound like?

Not sure if that is a rhetorical question.

"Done" doesn't have a sound, but "raw" means I can clearly hear the batter cooking inside the product. (Actually, the batter continues to cook and I can hear it even after it is done, but the sound is less noticeable.)

Edited by sanrensho (log)
Baker of "impaired" cakes...
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I noticed a couple of months ago that I was using my ears to tell me when to turn down the heat while caramelizing onions. You know how you can start them out on high heat, but then when they start to turn color, you need to turn the heat down? I seem to be able hear that point now!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

That's how when I know the spices in the pan about to burn.

I cook better with butter than I do with oil because butter sounds different when it's hot enough for you to dump stuff in.

The listening to cakes thing has never worked for me because I can't figure out how to do it in a way that might not accidentally burn my ears. (I fear the most irrational of things.)

May

Totally More-ish: The New and Improved Foodblog

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I can hear when the sugar syrup is ready before the temp alarm goes off (similar plopping/popping sound ); I can also hear it when I'm beating egg whites for buttercream.

But mostly, I can hear when something doesn't sound the way it should. I'm embarassed to admit that yesterday I was making a tiny batch of cheesecake batter and I was really distracted. I walked away from the mixer after scraping the batter, thinking (just like Miss Clavel!) "something is not right" and realized that I'd forgotten to add the eggs to the batter. It just sounded wrong, and I'm glad that kicked in before I poured it into the individual rings I was baking them in!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

:cool:

I cook rice by ear: as liquid is absorbed, the burbling turns to hissing, and then, juuuuust before silence, it's time to uncover, and stir/fluff, and serve.

(The above doesn't apply to risotto, when I want and need the entire symphony of sight/sound/taste/touch/smell. There have been evenings when I almost had more fun cooking the stuff than eating. Almost, I said.)

:cool:

Me, I vote for the joyride every time.

-- 2/19/2004

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Maybe those un-aware sensory inputs are what we call "instinct"?

Or culture in the broadest sense? It seems to me that the way that cooking has been taught through the ages, from one person to another, younger person, required full attentiveness to a variety of senses. You can't quite say "At just this moment, listen" in a cookbook the way that you can when you're standing in a kitchen with someone.

One cookbook that does try to get the reader to listen to the food is The Zuni Cookbook. In the recipe for roast chicken the instructions say that you should be able to hear the chicken sizzling in the oven within 20 minutes or else the heat needs to be turned up. But it requires that kind of well-written, thoughtful cookbook that Judy Rodgers has produced to incorporate hearing as well. This threat makes me appreciate what is so great about that book and its narrative style.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I cook rice by ear: as liquid is absorbed, the burbling turns to hissing, and then, juuuuust before silence, it's time to uncover, and stir/fluff, and serve.

So do I. I think there's actually a little Japanese song about how the rice should sound when it's cooked, but I can't remember how it goes. But I know when I hear the bubbles around the edges stop popping, it's just right.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

i toss an onion shard into the pan to hear when the oil is ready to start the saute.

Yes! Exactly. I do that all the time and didn't realize it until you wrote that.

I do that, too!

"We had dry martinis; great wing-shaped glasses of perfumed fire, tangy as the early morning air." - Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado

Queenie Takes Manhattan

eG Foodblogs: 2006 - 2007

Link to comment
Share on other sites

 Share

×
×
  • Create New...