Thursday, October 4, 2012

Should Food, Like Martinis, Be Dry?

Many recipes for meat and vegetables instruct the cook to pat the food dry before cooking. Is this really a necessary step?

As it turns out, patting food dry removes surface moisture (no surprise here). When food comes in contact with heat, any surface moisture converts to steam. Thus, two things happen. The food, instead of contacting the heat source directly, is first steamed before it cooks with another method, even if it is only for a few seconds. If you're steaming vegetables as the first step, then, you can probably ignore the "pat dry" instruction.

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The second thing that happens is that, as the surface moisture converts to steam, the temperature surrounding the food is temporarily lowered. For some food, it may not matter--for baking bread, for example, we add steam to the hot oven to create that crunchy crust. But if you are sauteing, stir frying, deep frying, or grilling, you will want to pat your food as dry as possible to gain the most flavor from your cooking method.

For fruits and vegetables, the best method I have found for drying surface moisture is the reliable salad spinner. For meats, I use paper towels, wrap the meat up completely, and press until the paper towel stays dry on the outside (this may require a few tries). Yes, it's an extra step, but it means much more flavorful and better-cooked food!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What Our Grandmothers Didn't Know They Knew

Buy at Most of us who are old enough, remember our grandmothers putting baking soda in with green beans, and being served those amazingly bright green vegetables. Nothing ever tasted quite the same afterwards. Well, that wasn't just our perceptions--that is food chemistry, and it comes about because of the chemical reactions between baking soda and sulfur compounds.

Now many foods have sulfur compounds, which add quite a bit to flavour: in eggs, cabbages and other cruciferous vegetables, olive oil, coffee, and wine, just to name a very few foods, and those sulfur compounds take multiple forms. But baking soda breaks those sulfurous bonds and modifies the flavour of food. So if you don't like a certain food, in all probability it is the sulfur compounds that are responsible, and it is possible, therefore, to significantly alter the flavour of food (for better or worse) by using baking soda.

So I challenge all my readers: if you are interested in food chemistry, add a few grains of baking soda to your food over the next few weeks, and carefully observe and increase and decrease the amount of baking soda and note the results. Those dishes you didn't like before might take on new life, and even the ones you already like might benefit. Of course, if you try this and prefer the original, you will also benefit, because you can avoid other primarily basic ingredients, and stick to the more acidic ingredients in dishes that rely on sulfurous compounds for their flavour. By understanding the role of sulfurous compounds in food and flavour, you can make that understanding work to your advantage in coming up with the best possible taste for your cooking!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


What with so much going on, I haven't had much time to devote to food chemistry or pattern recipes. My apologies, and to make up for it, here's an actual recipe! Soon I should be back to regular posting routines, but sometimes life just happens!

Hypocras is a medieval drink, dating from the days when the Roman Catholic Popes moved to Avignon. This is a refreshing and hearty wine punch which can be served either hot or cold, and will certainly add flair to a Medieval- or Renaissance-themed party!

Dry Red Wine (Syrah or a mixture containing Syrah and Cabernet is best--you want rich tannins)
Honey, Brown Sugar, or Sugar
Grains of Paradise
Mace (the spice)
Black pepper

Pour the wine into a heatproof dish with a tight lid that can later be placed in the refrigerator. Add spices and sugar or honey, and mix with a wooden spoon until the honey or sugar is completely dissolved. Cover and leave to sit in a cool place overnight. The next day, taste it. If it's too sweet or too spicy, add more wine. If it's not sweet or spicy enough, add more sugar or spices. Reseal and leave overnight. The next day, filter your wine by pouring it through a towel. (The original medieval recipe specifies filtering it nine times through a clean sock.) Seal tightly and keep in a cool, dark place. As with other wines, once you open it, try to drink it within a week. Serve hot or cold.

  • For a shortcut, most pumpkin pie spice mixes contain ginger, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice.
  • Medieval recipes do not have precise measurements, so start with a small quantity until you work out the correct proportions to suit your taste. I like mine very spicy! 

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Herbs, Part 4

Without a doubt, I'm a big fan of fresh herbs. I grow them myself, not only on my own property but at my friends' and neighbours' houses, too. And always people ask me, "How do you use all those herbs?"

One of my favourite ways to use herbs is infusions. Whether I infuse them in water (to make tea), in cream (to make sauces or custards); in stock (to make soups or gravies); in liquor, or in just about any liquid, herbs add a great kick to just about anything.Buy at

Need to spice up a recipe? Simple. A day or so before you make it, look at the recipe (you have to look at it anyway, before you go to the store, right?) and see what liquid it calls for. Okay, now take that liquid and measure it out. Stick some fresh herbs in it and put that liquid in the fridge. Now when you go to make that recipe, simply pick out the herbs with a tweezers and voilĂ ! You've just found a way to use those fresh herbs!