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A geek's approach to cooking

A geek's approach to cooking

Like many great discoveries in science, it was an accidental mistake that led Jeff Potter to begin delving into the scientific nature of cooking.

"I didn't have any other place to put my pizza stone," said Potter, author of "Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks and Good Food" (O'Reilly Media $34.99). "So I put it in the oven. When I took it out I found that food didn't cook as well and there was no other explanation but that the pizza stone impacted how the food cooked."

Thus Potter, a software engineer, surmised that the pizza stone posed directly above the heating element on the bottom helped produce more even temperatures.

At the age of 10, Potter began making pancakes with his father, a physicist. And he's enjoyed cooking ever since.

"I had fun doing it but never understood the biggest aspect – why things are done a certain way," said Potter, noting that one of his biggest discoveries once he approached cooking scientifically was understanding the importance of the role temperatures plays. "Most of us have the mindset that we put cookies in the oven and it gets hot and they bake."

Oh, if only it were that easy. The basics are that when we cook, it's not about the heat but that we're adding heat to the food specifically to trigger chemical and chemical reactions. Take steak for example.

"One of the things that really brought me great joy while working on the book was understanding, from a texture and taste point of view, why red meat should be cooked to at least 140 degrees," said Potter, acting very geeklike. "There are two different proteins: myosin, and actin. Meats that have the myosin denatured taste better. Meats that have actin denatured are tough and chewy. So if you're cooking meat above 140, most of the myosin denatures, but if you cook it above 155, the actin denatures and it becomes tough. Hit it in between the two and you get medium rare–a piece of meat that looks good and tastes really good."

Okay, so maybe that's more complex than some of us think we need. But this book isn't designed to be read like a text, it's more to dip into and take away tidbits that can up the flavors the of our food. For example, Potter points out when making stew, it's important to sear the meat and caramelize the onions before putting them in the stew pot because it adds a complexity of flavors that wouldn't occur if those two items hadn't been denatured. For those of us who have made complex and time consuming recipes that call for many steps in sautéing and browning and then made the same recipe in a "simple" form, that lack of complexity is always noticeable.

Yet all this science doesn't necessarily translate into more difficult recipes. I remember years ago making duck confit, a long process which required numerous steps and a long waiting period for the duck to marinate in its fat. Potter instead has a simple method for duck confit which still is flavorful.

There are more than 400 recipes as well as helpful hints in the book and the ones I found most interesting (though the geek in me did like the denaturing of proteins info) dealt with food safety. With all the talk about salmonella finding its way into the food chain, knowing hat salmonella is killed when it is cooked at 136 degrees, but only if that temperature is sustained for a sufficient length of time was important. And to be safe when dealing with poultry, it should reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees, the temperature at which Potter said salmonella dies a quick death. In his book, Potter provides scientific rationale for creating wonderful food. For example, he notes that if you're whisking egg whites, do so in a copper rather than a stainless steel bowl because what you're trying to accomplish (and I am sure most of us didn't know this) is to trap air bubbles in what Potter describes as a mesh of denature proteins. This is accomplished when the copper ions interact with the proteins in the eggs creating perfect meringue peaks.

But don't think Potter doesn't find cooking fun. "One of the litmus tests for me will be knowing my book helps someone cook a better meal," said Potter, noting that he cooked continuously when writing this book, testing the recipes on his friends. "It also helps people in understanding how to go off recipes too."

Greek–style Marinade

Mix in a bowl:

1/4 cup yogurt

1 teaspoon oregano

1 tablespoon lemon juice (about 1/2 lemon's worth)

Zest of 1 lemon

1/2 teaspoon salt

Japanese–style Marinade

Mix in a bowl:

1/4 cup low–sodium soy sauce (regular soy sauce will be too salty)

2 tablespoons minced ginger

3 tablespoons minced scallions (a.k.a green onions) – about 2 stalks

2 tablespoons honey

DIRECTIONS: Use on chicken or fish.

Simple Duck Confit

Cure the duck legs for a few hours by rubbing salt into the outside of the duck legs, covering both the side with skin and the sides with meat exposed. I use roughly 1 tablespoon /18 grams of salt per duck leg; you want enough to thoroughly coat the outside.

Place the salted duck legs in a bowl or plastic bag and store in the fridge for several hours. (Store raw meats in the bottom of the fridge, so if they drip, the runoff doesn't contaminate veggies or ready–to–eat foods.) Salting the meat adds flavor and draws out a little bit of the moisture, but if you're in a real rush (Five minute duck confit!), you can skip this step and just lightly coat the duck legs with a few pinches of salt. After dry brining the duck legs, wash all of the salt off. (This will allow you to use the gelatin generated as a by–product for other dishes; otherwise it'll be too salty. If you skipped the dry brine step, though, skip rinsing the duck legs.)

Arrange duck legs in the bowl of the slow cooker or multi–purpose rice cooker. Cover with oil and set to slow cook mode for at least six hours. You can cook the duck legs longer; they will become more tender given longer cook times. After cooking, the meat should be tender and yield with a bit of poking. The skin can either be removed (pan sear it by itself for duck lardons!); or you can pan score and then sear the skin side of the duck to crisp it up. For duck confit sugo, remove and discard the skin.

If your oven goes low enough, you can also make duck confit in the oven–just be careful that you don't "steam–dry" the meat!

Duck Confit Sugo

In a large pot, boil salted water for making pasta. Add:

4-1/2 ounces long pasta, ideally pappardelle (an egg–based noodle with a wide, flat shape) or spaghetti Once the pasta is cooked, strain and set aside.

Prepare the duck meat by pulling the meat off two legs of duck confit, discarding or saving the bone and skin for making stock. In a pan, lightly sauté over medium heat the duck leg meat, so as to brown it.

Add to the pan holding the duck meat:

12 ounces or 4 tomatoes, diced – ideally fresh, flavorful type such as heirlooms, but canned will work 6 ounces tomato sauce 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper Simmer the tomatoes until the flesh is broken down, 5 to 10 minutes. Then add and stir to combine:

1 tablespoon fresh thyme (dried herbs will not work) 3/4 cup provolone or mozzarella cheese, grated

 

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