Thursday, August 11, 2011

Cool Tools

I recently read a couple of articles about Modernist Cuisine and Nathan Myhrvold et all:  "Better Cooking through Technology" by Corby Kummer in the July/August Technology Review  and "Extreme Cuisine" in the June issue of Smithsonian.

I found Kummer's review particularly interesting and came away covetous of the first three volumes of Myhrvold's project: 1. History and Fundamentals, 2. Techniques and Equipment, and 3. Animals and Plants.  Given I'm not  interested in trying deconstructive cooking and the chemicals and additives it often entails as well as the expensive and space consuming equipment it requires, based on Kummer's review I would not spring for volumes 4. Ingredients and Preparations and 5. Plated-Dish Recipes.  Until the first three volumes are available separately or I can justify the $478 and counter space for the set now in its second printing, I am happy to refer to my copy of Harold McGee's  On Food and Cooking and would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in an extensive discussion of the science of food and the techniques of the preparation and cooking (for the bargain price of $22.72).

In discussing Techniques and Equipment, Kummer notes that while much of the equipment in terms of size and expense is currently beyond home use, "The authors do list cool tools that are within the reach of many home cooks, like digital scales and thermometers.... and my favorite all-purpose tool a pressure cooker, something I use almost every night." I second the digital scales and thermometer.

This spring Christopher convinced me that I should acquire some digital scales; a small investment with a great return. While my old scales got me more or less to the closest ounce, these are great for measuring dry ingredients for baking resulting in accurate measurements with much less work. (Note Julia Child's method How to Measure Flour: "All the recipes in this book [Mastering the Art of French Cooking] are based on the following system: Place a flour-measuring cup over a sheet of waxed paper on a flat surface.  Sift the flour directly into the cup until it is overflowing. Do not tap the cup or press down on the flour.  Sweep off the excess flour even with the lip of the cup, using the flat part of a knife.  Measure fractional cups and spoonfuls in the same manner."*

It is interesting to note that when I just scoop and level a cup of the flour I usually use (Whole Foods 365 Organic Unbleached White Flour), the weight is ~4.85 oz.  When I sift the flour using the Julia Child method, the weight is 4.05 oz.  The difference, up to .8 oz is shown at left, up to almost 1/4 cup difference. Not only is measuring more accurate but it is also much simpler; place the mixing bowl on the scales and just reset to zero after adding each ingredient.

Also thanks to Christopher for my remote digital thermometer.  It was January 2009 and I had recently overcooked both a Christmas roast and his "birthday roast".  Looking at my instant read thermometer, Christopher asked me how much I had spent for the thermometer and how much for the roast (much less for the thermometer), admonishing, "If you're going to buy good roasts, you really should get a good thermometer." The 2008 elections fresh in his mind, he added, "If you don't mind having a Maverick in the kitchen you should get one of these."  Again another great investment.  I now cook not only beef but fish and chicken as well to temperature, never by time alone.  More on that in a future post.

Finally,  the pressure cooker.  I remember my Mom using one when I was growing up in the pre-microwave days.  I am very tempted to try one again especially since according to Kummer "They [Modernist Cuisine authors] give everyday tips for ways to use the device, including making risotto (a long time guilty secret of time-pressed Italian cooks, who will reveal it only after receiving compliments on how good their risotto is)...."  Stay tuned for revised risotto recipes.

 *Mastering the Art of French Cooking,1963 edition, page 17

16 September 2001:  A good discussion of cooking using digital scales is found in in the September 13 edition of the New York Times: "Tipping the Balance for Kitchen Scales".  The author notes that in addition to measuring flour (which depending on how it is scooped can weigh from 4 to 6 ounces) these scales are great for determining exact quantities of grated cheese (a "cup" of which can vary greatly depending on the type of grater used), and chopped veggies.

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