Frank Chen

Frank Chen

how to approach a recipe to cook better part 3

Here's a letter I sent to a friend a couple of days ago. I'm sure someone else will find it useful.

In your text, you talked about moving beyond the realm of recipes. I think the world of recipes and cookbooks has really damaged the way the general population has looked at cooking. It turns cooking into a black and white, right or wrong sort of thing, and discounts the fact that everyone has different tastes. It also discounts ingredient and measurement differences. An onion in a recipe is going to be different than an onion at the grocery store or the farmer's market. Here in the States, Americans still refuse to use the fucking metric system, so really, "one cup of flour" in a recipe can vary wildly.

If you follow the actions of a recipe but you don't understand the reason why you are performing a step, you are doomed to repeat following a recipe. Take a coding example. If I never understood how a recursive function actually worked, I'm doomed to look it up over and over again, copying and pasting from Stackoverflow. If I really understand why a recursive function is written the way it is written, I can modify it, chop it up, and incorporate it wherever I please.

I'm not saying you'll never need another recipe again, but what I am saying is, you can get to a point where you're looking at cookbooks for creative inspiration rather than an instruction manual. You can see how different cultures use different ingredients, and by reading the recipe once or twice, know how to proceed quickly because you understand why

To start, I use recipes but ignore the numbers, and instead, pay attention to what the essences of a dish are, with the goal of understanding the science behind why things are done the way they are. Let's take something like a simple beef stew. Without needing to Google anything, I know I'll need these ingredients:

for the beef stock:

  • beef bones, mix of marrow & joint
  • mirepoix (celery, onion, carrot)

For the stew itself:

  • beef chuck
  • mirepoix kinda (celery, shallot, carrot)
  • tomato paste
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • dry sherry or red wine
  • the beef stock from above
  • fresh oregano
  • fresh thyme
  • bay leaves

Notice already I don't have any amounts. It's completely up to me. I look first at the ingredients. The funny part is, you could quite literally throw everything in a pot with water and boil it and you'd probably come out with a B- meal. Obviously, that's not what you're here for. I still consult recipes for ingredient directionality, but for the most part, I understand 95%+ of the science behind the actual "cooking" (step-by-step instructions), which leaves me room to just flow. I'm not going back and forth in the kitchen between the recipe and my knife.

There's also a time and place to question the ingredients of a recipe. If you're just starting out, understand that certain ingredients are what they are because of cultural context. This begins to delve into food history and culture, which is separate. Cook enough, and you'll naturally be able to predict what kind of ingredients constitutes "Chinese" or "Mediterranean", as two examples. You'll also find out that the local agricultural milieu strongly influences the outcome of recipes. Because I can't find a specific species of achiote chili, my al pastor is going to taste different from something I've had during my travels. This is important to understand.

Let's walk through this story of beef stew. I'm sure you've made something like it in your lifetime. I'll give you the scientific reasons why each step happens. This is essentially knowledge that has been gathered over the years from constantly questioning recipes. Why do I have to do this before that? Why does it ask me to do this? What happens if I don't do that? To each of these questions, I'll go and look it up if I it doesn't make sense to me. It's simply a mindset where you aim to understand why something is done rather than what is done.

Start by making the beef stock. Because it's a mix of marrow & joint, it tells me the stock will be gelatinous and that it will take at least several hours to breakdown the collagen. Collagen is found in tougher cuts of meat but also bones and joints. At elevated temperatures for long periods of time, this breaks down to gelatin, which leads to that "jello" effect when mixed with water. This means you'll likely start the stock a day before the stew is actually made and consumed

Most stocks in restaurants require it to be clear, so throw the bones in a stockpot with water, bring it up to a boil for 20-30 minutes, and discard the water. Then, scrub the bones of any coagulated blood, bits of bone, or impurities. We discard and scrub to improve the color and the taste of the broth. Coagulated blood is essentially a denatured protein, a brown impurity that clouds the broth and fucks with the taste. You don't want that. Roughly chop the onion, celery, and carrot, throw it in with the scrubbed bones, top off with clean water, and simmer everything for several hours. Simmering keeps any lingering impurities from emulsifying with the stock, keeping it clear. You may choose to ladle off the surface fat as it rises. We want the broth, not the tallow. Do not add salt at this stage because you'll eventually reduce this liquid. Stocks are generally unsalted because they are added to other things and then reduced. Adding salt now would simply make it way too salty after reduction.

Just with the stock alone, you already have a handful of scientific concepts. Next time a recipe asks for a chicken broth, you won't need a recipe. You'll understand why you boil and discard, why you roast vegetables or don't, why you simmer versus boil, and why you might want to ladle off the surface fat. There's a reason for every action, and depending on that reason you get a different output. Understand the reasons and the recipe instructions become irrelevant.

After making your stock, cube the beef chuck and salt with kosher salt and leave in the fridge overnight. What we're doing here is a dry brine. Salt is a combination of sodium and chloride. Positively charged sodium on the surface draws the water out, and the negatively charged chloride attaches itself to the muscle fibers, causing repelling forces. Over time, the sodium is drawn back into the meat along with the original juices. This results in more seasoned meat, not only from the addition of salt but also from a slight drying effect in the fridge overnight.

On the day of making your stew, medium dice your celery, shallots, and carrots. We do a medium dice because it's a low and slow cook. We don't want our vegetables breaking down into mush over a period of 3-4 hours.

In a dutch oven, brown your beef chuck in small batches, and remove to a separate bowl when the majority of the sides are browned. Browning essentially means the Maillard reaction, when proteins breakdown at high heat, which produces hundreds of flavor compounds. I use small batches because high heat contracts meat protein fibers which squeeze out juices, and juices mean water. Too much meat all at once equates to a lot of liquid being released at once, which means the juices begin boiling and thus, lowers the heat in the pan. Water has a very high heat capacity and because it can absorb that heat (and subsequently boil) the maximum temperature of your pot ends up to be around 100 Celsius, which is not hot enough for Maillard reactions to occur. So don't crowd the pan. We remove the meat as soon as it's browned because we're really looking for the brown in the pan and the brown on the meat. This is a form of flavor development. With just one ingredient, you're able to make hundreds of interesting compounds.

Keeping the heat on, add your medium diced celery, shallots, and carrots, sweat them off, and add a pinch of salt. Vegetables go in quickly after the last batch of meat is removed because I don't want the brown at the bottom of the pan to burn. When my vegetables go in, they begin to release water, which absorbs the heat of the pan. The result is sizzling, as the vegetables begin to "sweat" (release their water), and begin dissolving the browned bits at the bottom of the pan. To some degree, they also undergo some caramelization, which is the browning of sugars, not just protein.

Add your tomato paste and a pinch of salt. Cook off the tomato paste because the heat breaks down certain compounds that give it a metallic taste. A small degree of caramelization also happens, which is the browning of sugars. More flavor.

When the vegetables have a sheen on them, deglaze the dutch oven with your dry sherry or red wine. This is the first liquid to go in. This completes the deglazing process, essentially using water or alcohol as a solvent to dissolve a solute (browned bits), which subsequently turns it into a flavorful liquid. Alcohol is added first because we want the alcohol to burn off, and leave behind the sugars of the wine/sherry, which establishes a layer of body, sweetness, and flavor. Alcohol has a lower boiling point. If we added the stock first, we would still get the deglazing effect, but the addition of alcohol to a larger body of water would result in still, a large body of water. This means we would have to boil the entire pot for longer to burn off the alcohol. I don't want to wait. Adding the stock first also makes it impossible to reduce the wine or sherry properly. Reduction improves flavor based on concentration, which is essentially solids per volume of solvent (water). Reduction (boiling) decreases the volume of either alcohol or water, thereby increasing the number of solids per volume of stew you eat. So add the wine first, quickly boil the alcohol away, reduce it, and then add your beef stock.

After deglazing, add your unsalted beef stock in, until the solids are 3/4 covered. I leave some of the solids uncovered because eventually the dutch oven will be finished in the oven, a dry environment that will induce further browning on the solids that are not covered by the liquid. More flavor.

We then add a couple squirts of Worchestershire sauce and begin adding salt. Worchestershire is a source of umami and also acid. At this point, tasting is very important, as now is the time to adjust. It should be lightly salted because as we cook it, the liquid will reduce, and that reduction will mean it gets saltier as we cook. Again, the definition of concentration means there will be more solids per volume of liquid as water evaporates. The particles are all the flavor molecules - salt, sugars, proteins, etc.

Once the seasoning is adjusted to your liking, bring it up to a boil on the stove, and add a twined bouquet of fresh oregano, thyme, and bay leaf. Twine it so you can easily remove it later. Turn it down to a simmer, cover it 3/4 of the way, and then pop it into a 250 Fahrenheit oven for 3-4 hours. Give it a healthy stir at the 2-hour mark. We bring it up to a boil and then to a simmer because if we just pop it into the oven without the stew being at boiling temperature, all the heat from the oven will be used to raise that body of liquid up to temperature instead of maintaining it. We leave the lid cracked so the dry environment of the oven will caramelize the solids (proteins and sugars) that are poking above the surface of the stew, and cause some reduction. This is what we call "braising".

Take it out when the meat forks apart easily, discard your herbs, and dig in.

Let's preview a few of the concepts you would've employed for flavor development:

  1. make your own stock, it already is better than boxed crap
  2. discarding impurities gives a cleaner flavor
  3. dry brining gives you more tender, seasoned meat
  4. browning meat gives you flavor on the pan and on the meat and eventually in the stew
  5. sweating vegetables gives you caramelization flavor
  6. sweating tomato paste gives you additional caramelization flavor and umami
  7. addition of alcohol deglazes the pan, adds body and flavor through reduction
  8. Worchestershire adds additional umami, and salt bridges the gap between the food and your taste buds
  9. Low and slow in the oven via the braise adds additional slow-heat browning on sugars and proteins above the stock
  10. Low and slow in the oven reduces the liquid further, improving flavor
  11. Low and slow in the oven breaks down collagen to gelatin, improving mouthfeel

That's 11 steps of flavor development simply based on actions and not ingredients. Let's say you conservatively get 10-15 additional flavor compounds from each step. That's 100-150 additional layers of flavor beyond just the 5-10 you'd get from throwing shit into a pot. That's all from the "recipe instructions", but now that you know why you're doing it, what you really know is how to develop flavor.

This is perfecting the craft of cooking. Now, if you understand the science, then you can start being creative, and dick around with the recipe. Some examples:

  • What happens if I start really caramelizing the shallots before all the other vegetables? (it'll be sweeter since the sugars in the shallots will begin to caramelize).
  • What happens if I cook off some of the Worchestershire sauce before I add the sherry? (reduction of an acid and the concentration of umami - maybe some caramelization resulting in a more intense, molasses-like flavor).
  • What happens if I add rosé instead of sherry? (it'll be sweeter or more tart, depending on the rosé).
  • What happens if I roast the bones and vegetables for my stock? (your stock will probably be very brown, and have a deeper, beefier flavor with more Maillard and caramelization compounds).
  • What happens if I replace carrots with turnips? (I think turnips are less sweet when cooked, so less caramelization when sweating and a little bit more of a vegetal quality to them).

This is when cooking gets fun.

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