Sunday, August 9, 2009

Racial profiling for cooking videos

Recently I've been cruising the various video sites looking at cooking videos that show how to cook various foods from other countries. Other than America, that is. One of the best sites I've found so far has a Thai woman demonstrating how to make Thai food. Imagine that.

Why would I say "imagine that"? Because there are also plenty of videos out there that were made by white Americans, which purport to show how to make "authentic" Thai food. The word "authentic" in the description always makes me suspect it isn't, because to the person who actually grew up with a particular type of cuisine, it's just food. I wouldn't, for example, make a video showing how to make an "authentic American grilled steak dinner." To me, this would seem absurd, though no doubt someone in another country might be interested to see how we do it and what we typically serve with the steak. But they could certainly do so without my adding the word "authentic."

Of course, this doesn't apply only to Thai food. Google any cuisine from outside the United States, and you will find a video by some white guy from within it who claims to show the "authentic" way of making it. Not to say it is only the non-white nations who suffer such treatment. I am sure, for instance, there are also many traditional European and Eastern-European recipes that are cheerfully butchered by well-meaning or know-it-all Americans.

Which brings me to another point. I recently saw a video about how to make authentic (there's that word again) tacos. This one, however, was done by a woman of Mexican descent. Her English bore no trace of a Mexican accent, though, and when she went to her local Mexican market to pick up her ingredients, she spoke only English to the obviously Spanish-speaking people there. When she got home, and broke out the packet of powdered taco seasoning, I stopped watching. Now, I am sure that there are people in Mexico who use packaged taco seasoning. After all, there are lousy cooks everywhere. However, I don't really want to learn to cook traditional cuisine from them. Would you trust a chef who broke out a packet of powdered Alfredo sauce mix to demonstrate how to make Linguine Alfredo? I hope not.

I don't mean to bash my fellow Americans, here, and this is not really about race or color, except as applied to cuisine. I probably wouldn't listen to a Chinese guy who wanted to teach me about sushi, or a French guy who had a video about pizza, either.

Most people who make videos about how to make the food from other countries do so out of a genuine desire to help, and some of them even know what they are talking about. However, for each one who does, there are many who, despite their good intentions, really do not, and if you really want to learn how to do it properly, the odds are much better if you first find a video by someone who is actually from the appropriate country. And I mean from that country, as in they speak with the proper accent.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Reheating Coffee

One myth I repeatedly encounter regarding coffee is the one that it should never be reheated. People say this in the same tones as they might employ when saying something like "Never make tea out of Nightshade leaves."

The key, however is in what the coffee was doing before it became cold, and in how you reheat it. A half-pot of coffee in a drip-brewer carafe that sat on the burner for four hours yesterday before you finally got around to switching it off probably isn't going to taste very go0d if you reheat it. But you certainly may, and aside from bad taste, and perhaps heartburn, it won't hurt you.

A friend of mine makes a pot of coffee in his drip-brewer every morning, and immediately after it is done brewing, (and pouring a cup) he turns it off. Then, when he wants another cup. he pours and microwaves it. This is his method of making sure each cup tastes fresh-brewed, and it works pretty well, compared to coffee that has been sitting there cooking for hours.

I have occasionally filled my vacuum carafe, had a cup or two, become involved in something, and only realized the next morning that I hadn't drunk more than a little of my coffee, when I picked up the carafe to head for the kitchen. So, should I then pour most of my daily ration of coffee down the drain, and make a fresh pot? Of course not. There is nothing wrong with the coffee in the carafe from the day before, aside from the fact that it is no longer hot. At this point, I have two choices. I can either microwave each cup as I pour it, or I can heat the whole batch and pour it back into the carafe. As one of the reasons I have the carafe in the first place is so I don't keep having to return to the kitchen for a fresh cup, I usually opt for the latter. I pour the coffee into a saucepan, and heat it for a couple of minutes over a burner on my rangetop, then pour it back into the carafe, and continue as usual. I just take care not to boil it.

So, go ahead and reheat coffee, whether in the microwave or on top of the stove. Just remember that it will taste the same as it did when it got cold, so if it tasted lousy before, it will still taste lousy.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Home-roasting Coffee

Many folks don't know it, but you can actually buy raw coffee beans, and an inexpensive roaster, and roast your own beans.

Why would you want to do this? Well, for one thing, green coffee beans keep much longer than do roasted ones, so effectively, every time you roast a batch, you have fresh coffee beans. These, of course, are much fresher than anything that you might buy in the grocery store. Roasted coffee beans are at their best about 24 hours after roasting; the ones in the store have been roasted somewhere, shipped somewhere, and perhaps even shipped somewhere else before finally arriving in the containers in the store. Then, who knows how long they've been sitting in the containers in the store? Then, after perhaps a couple of weeks, you take them home, and take another week or two to use them up.

For another thing, you can discover the perfect roast for your favorite coffee beans. You might, for example, find that while you like the Sumatra beans in your local shop. you like Sumatra even better if it is roasted lighter or darker than what you are normally able to get.

On the downside, it is a bit of a hassle, compared to simply dumping roasted beans out of a bag. It can be anything from a moderately to a very smoky operation, as well, so unless you have a very good fan system in your kitchen, it is an operation best performed outside.

Also, though you may imagine that roasting coffee would smell wonderful, please let me assure you, it does not. In fact it smells a lot like burning popcorn while it is roasting.

But, for those of you who have mastered the art of brewing coffee already, it can be a fun next step. If you locate some raw beans, and don't want to spend the money on a roaster until you're sure it's something you want to do, many roasters like the one pictured above are essentially glorified popcorn air-poppers, with a few bells and whistles tacked on, like timers, and filters to catch the papery skins that come off the beans. So, if you have a popper like this, you can certainly roast your beans in it. Again, though, you will want to do it outside, not only because of the smoke, but also because this method will blow out a lot of the papery skins, and you won't want to clean them up afterwards. And, make sure to roast in small batches; if you simply fill the popper, the beans on the bottom will burn, and the ones on the top won't roast.

If this interests you, and you have trouble finding beans and supplies locally, they can be found at Please try locally first, although I will certainly not blame you if you can't find anything. I live in the Seattle area, and I haven't been able to find a supplier, and Seattle is pretty much "Coffeetown, USA."

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

How Not to use a French Press

Many people buy French presses and are disappointed with the results. So, in a nutshell, how not to use a French press is to merely follow the instructions you get from the manufacturer, or from some other source, and then to expect good coffee right out of the gate.

If you are an avid coffee drinker, you may have, somewhere along the way, purchased a French press. After this, three outcomes were likely (starting with the least likely):

1) It made the coffee of your dreams, and you and your French press lived happily ever after

2) It made coffee that you didn't much care for, and you chalked it up as another overblown gadget you'd wasted money on, stashed it away somewhere, and went back to using your drip-brewer

3) It made coffee you didn't much care for, but since you'd heard and read all the rave reviews about what wonderful coffee French presses make, you decided your palate was unsophisticated when it comes to coffee, and that you should learn to like what your French press turned out. So you use it, but secretly still like the coffee they serve at (insert name of restaurant or coffee bar here) better.

Why do I think it likely you got less than stellar results? Because a French press is a tool, not an appliance. Simply changing to a French press does not guarantee you will make better coffee, just as simply getting better pots and pans does not guarantee you will make better food. Better kitchen tools simply give you the opportunity for better results. You still have to learn how to use them.

In learning to use your French press, the first thing to understand about coffee is this: good coffee is coffee that tastes the way you want it to taste. Period.

You probably bought a French press, and then looked at the instructions for how to use it. Or perhaps, you read something online, or even in a book. The thing is, these instructions tell you how to make coffee that tastes the way the person who wrote the instructions likes it.

These instructions usually go something like this.

1) Heat X amount of water to X degrees

2) Put X amount of ground coffee in the press

3) Pour hot water over ground coffee, and let steep for X amount of time.

4) Pour coffee, and enjoy

I've often seen some other steps included, which contained nonsense like "pour a little water in first to allow the grounds to expand," but what I have listed here are the basic steps.

Here is the second thing to understand about coffee. And this is important, so pay attention. It contains "good" coffee flavors, and bitter flavors. The more water you pass over a given amount of coffee in a drip-brewer, or the longer you allow coffee to steep in a French press, the more bitter the brew will become.

Think of your coffee grounds as tiny, coffee-flavored candies, like those multi-layered jawbreakers. These layers dissolve in water, one at a time, so the more water you pour over them, or the longer they soak in water, the more layers dissolve. The outer layers are non-bitter coffee flavor, but each layer beneath gets progressively more bitter and less coffee-flavored, until at the very center, the flavor is almost all bitterness and no coffee. (Okay, the grounds don't actually dissolve; it's just useful to think of it this way, all right?)

Many people equate "strong" coffee with "bitter" coffee, and think they don't like strong coffee. Subsequently they don't put enough ground coffee in their drip coffee maker, and wind up with a weak, bitter brew. If they put more ground coffee in, they would have better flavor with less bitterness. Well, my idea of better, anyway. A French press has the advantage, here, because the ratio of coffee to water doesn't affect the bitterness of the coffee. Five cups of water, or five gallons, the flavor components are leeched from the grounds at the same rate, so the only difference will be in the strength of the brew. The steeping time is what controls the bitterness of the coffee. This is because in a French press, the grounds just sit there in the same water. In a drip coffee maker, new water is constantly being poured over them, which carries off first the good flavors, and then the bitter. It's like the difference between a stream and a pond.

So what does all this mean to you? What it means is that you need to find your own perfect method for using a French press. Maybe you like coffee with a little more bite to it. Maybe you like coffee that is very strong. Maybe you like coffee that is not so strong, but it's not bitter, either. Maybe you like weak, bitter coffee.

The wonderful thing about a French press is that, given the same amount of water, and the same same kind of coffee, it can produce brews of all these qualities and more. The awful thing about a French press is that, given the same amount of water, and the same kind of coffee, it can produce brews of all these qualities and more.

A French press is not like a drip machine, where pretty much all you control are the brand and type of coffee, and how much of it to put in. With a French press, you control every aspect of the brewing, or in this case, steeping process. The quantity and temperature of the water, the quantity of the coffee, the steeping time. Which can be a great thing. It completely frees you to learn to make the coffee you love. So, why jump back into the pen with the rest of the cattle by following someone else's method?

But, first, of course, you must learn how to make the coffee you love with the French press. To do this, I recommend starting with whatever coffee you like in your drip-brewer, whether it be whole bean or pre-ground. Start by following the manufacturer's, or that guy on the internet's instructions. Then see how you like the taste. Want it stronger? Next time either use more coffee, less water, or increase the steeping time. Want a little more bite? Increase the steeping time. And so on. Experiment, changing only one thing at a time, until you arrive at the perfect method for you.

Some myths, some dos, some don'ts

Myth: Many people say things like "Never pour boiling water over coffee grounds, it will shock them." Then they recommend grinding the coffee after turning the heat off, apparently because the water will cool sufficiently in the few seconds it takes you to do this. I'm not sure why they think a couple of degrees will make a difference. For that matter, I have no idea what "shocking" means, or what it is supposed to do to your coffee, and, as these things go, no one who says this seems to know either. Perhaps make it write scathing letters to the editor? This, to me, is just one of those things the "experts" say, in order to sound knowledgable, and fits right in with other stock phrases like "Always wash your chicken before cooking," and is equally meaningless. I've tried it both ways, and the only difference I have noticed is the cooler the water, the cooler the coffee.

Do: Purchase a good vacuum carafe to pour your coffee into once it is done steeping. This will keep it tasting exactly the same as when fresh, and will keep it hot for hours. These are great things to have even if you don't plan on using a French press. Your coffee stays hot without being left on a burner, and you can take it with you. As I write this I am sitting at my desk with my cup of coffee, and my vacuum carafe. No trips to the kitchen for refills necessary. Of course a thermos will do the same thing, it's just that a carafe is more convenient. To dispense the coffee, all you have to do is push down a lever, and pour.

Don't: Don't leave your coffee in the French Press, and serve it from there. The whole idea is to stop the steeping process at the perfect point. Leave it in there, and it will continue to steep. Do it this way, and you may as well be using a percolator. And, by the way, those travel mugs that have a French press built right in are nothing but useless snobbery, for the same reason.

Myth: You shouldn't put the plunger assembly in the pot until you are ready to plunge. Unless you like cold coffee, this is just silly. Heat rises, and it rises out of the carafe all the more quickly if you don't put the plunger assembly in while steeping. In fact, you will notice that the grounds actually float, so what I like to do is to put the plunger in immediately, and even press down on it just enough to make sure all the grounds are under the water level. This keeps the heat in, and doesn't waste coffee.

Do: Keep your French press and your other equipment clean, especially while you are still experimenting. The brown buildup that results after almost every pot contains bitter oils, which will throw off the flavors of the next batch. I'm not saying that you need to dismantle it and run it through the dishwasher after every pot, but you certainly may. If you choose just to rinse and wipe the plunger after use, just remember that those oils also build up in the crevices between the plunger parts.

Don't: Don't switch brands or roasts of coffee until you have your method perfected with the first one. Unless, of course, you are prepared to start your experiment over.

Myth: You should pay attention when "experts" say things like "Never steep your coffee for more than five minutes." Wrong! It's your coffee, steep it for as long or short a time as tastes good to you. Use what the experts say as a starting point, then adjust one thing at a time from there, until you like the way your coffee tastes.

A French press certainly can make the best coffee you have ever tasted. However, it won't do it automatically. If all this sounds like too much work for your morning cup of joe, for you, it probably is, and in that case, I'd stick with the drip-brewer. However, if you are willing to put in the effort, eventually you will be able to make the perfect cup of coffee, every time, with your French press.

Friday, June 12, 2009

How to avoid overcooking a roast

I was going to save this tip for another day, but, well, I have time, and it's important, soooo...

One of the major obstacles the cook encounters in roasting meat, whether it be a beef roast, or a chicken or a turkey, or anything else, is knowing when to stop.

This is further compounded by roasting instructions found in typical recipes: "Roast for three hours at 350°," or "Roast for ten minutes per pound." What's wrong with these instructions? Well, first of all, the author of the recipe has no way of telling how hot your oven really is when you set it to 350°. Ovens vary pretty widely in this regard. The other is that different shapes require different roasting times. If your roast is shaped like a ball, it is generally going to take longer to roast than one that is shaped more like a hockey puck, all else being equal.

The way to nullify these problems is to cook to temperature, rather than by time.

And, of course, to do that, you need a thermometer. You probably already have a meat thermometer tucked away in a drawer somewhere. And, you likely rarely use it, because you can't read it with your oven door closed, and in any event, if you went by the time suggested in your recipe, you may have discovered that all it is useful for is to tell you your meat is overcooked.

Polder Digital Thermometer

The digital thermometer above solves these problems. The probe goes into the meat, and into the oven, while the readout stays outside the oven and gets its reading through the cable the probe is attached to. No more trouble reading the thermometer.

Also, the digital thermometer's computerized brain can be set to beep when the target temperature is reached. So, for example, you put the probe into the thigh meat of your turkey, and set the alarm to sound when the turkey reaches 165°. Turkey gets done, thermometer goes beep-beep-beep, you pull the bird out of the oven. Simple as that, and no more dry, stringy breast meat. Ever again.

Of course this also works to accurately cook beef roasts to medium rare, pork roasts to done but still juicy, and so on. Most items that we roast are fairly expensive, and often reserved for special occasions. It can be heartbreaking to have them come out overcooked and dry. Imagine never roasting anything that didn't come out perfect, ever again.

Want even more convenience?

Wireless digital thermometers have all the advantages above, plus one substantial one. The readout isn't connected to the probe, so you can take it with you. Why would you want to? Well, say you are roasting something in the oven, but don't want to stay in the kitchen to monitor it. Just take the readout with you, and when it beeps, dash back to the kitchen, and take your roast out. It can also be quite useful when barbecuing, (not grilling, which is cooking over direct heat, and is what most people are actually doing when they think they are barbecuing.) as you can go inside the house, and still monitor the progress of whatever is in the bbq. This, of course, is also a useful thing when you are having a party, and want to mingle with your guests instead of monitoring your food.

As kitchen equipment goes, digital thermometers are pretty inexpensive, but they can make all the difference in your ability to cook expensive meats perfectly, every time. This is one gadget that I consider indispensable.

A Tip!

It occurs to me that the name of this site implies there will be tips here. Go figure. :) But so far what I've posted has been mainly a bunch of information about getting your kitchen easier to cook in, and taking care of your tools.

So, here's one of the best tips I've encountered: BRINE STUFF!

Why? Because it will be juicier and taste better. Instead of just seasoning the outside of your meat, the seasonings and flavors wind up dispersed throughout. And the salt will have caused the cells in the meat to absorb moisture.

I have witnessed people who waxed rhapsodic about how brining changed their turkey breast meat from dry and chewy to moist and wonderful. However, if you are used to dry and stringy breast meat, you are overcooking. All things being equal, brining will certainly help. But, stop overcooking, and the results will be nothing short of amazing. I'll get into how not to overcook in another post, however. Anyway...

What can you brine? Well, just about any kind of meat, but what seems to benefit the most (or at least the most dramatically) is white meat. Chicken, turkey, pork, and even some fish and shellfish.

What is a brine? It can be as simple as salt dissolved in water. Or it can be a good deal more complex, with a bunch of seasonings, and the water replaced with something like orange juice, or even wine. All it absolutely needs to be a brine, though, is some kind of water-based liquid, and salt. (Table salt; save your fancier varieties for when it matters.)

How hard is brining to do? It's almost ridiculously simple. A typical brine for pork would be 1/4 cup salt to 8 cups water. You mix this up, put it, along with your pork, in a large ziplock bag in the fridge. How long you should leave it there depends on the thickness of the meat. A roast you could leave overnight, while chops will only take three to four hours.

Shrimp benefits enormously from brining. Since they are so small, this is generally done more quickly in a stronger solution: 1/4 cup salt to 4 cups of cold water, for each pound of shrimp. Brine for 30 minutes. For added sweetness, which goes well with shrimp, you can also add 1/4 cup sugar, but this is not really necessary. Sugar or not, this will turn out plump, tender, juicy shrimp. Shrimp brining, by the way, can be done in a bowl on the counter, since it happens so quickly.

For the holiday turkey, brining can be an amazing thing. Use the same ratio of salt to water as the pork brine, but of course in a much larger quantity. Or, it can be done for a shorter time with twice the amount of salt at about one hour per pound. Since over-brining is possible, which makes the meat too salty, I prefer the weaker brine, over a longer period. I often thaw my bird in the brine solution. If you do this, make sure that your water never gets over 40 degrees, however. In my climate, this merely means that I must keep the container outside, making sure animals can't get into it. If you live in a climate where this is not feasable however, often a camping cooler makes a good brining container. Use a thermometer, and ice in the brine, and replenish the ice when necessary.

For many, this is enough information to begin brining, and is certainly enough to start producing juicy, flavorful meat.
However, if you know anything about me, you will know that I have to know why it works.

So, here is the admittedly over-simplified explanation. Cells, even no longer living ones, want the salinity (saltiness) of the liquid outside them to match the salinity of the water inside them. When you put meat in a brine, first the cells will release water to dilute the salinity of the brine. This is why packing meat in dry salt dries it out.

But, since a brine is a liquid, they will reabsorb the brine to replace the lost water. So, each cell of your meat will absorb some of the brine, and, of course, the flavor of that brine. And since brine is more flavorful than water, the meat will be more flavorful.

Brining is an easy way to make your cooking taste better and be more juicy. Try it. :)

Monday, May 18, 2009

Knife Care & Maintenance Pt 2- Cutting boards

One of the most important things in maintaining the edge on your knives is your cutting board. The biggest mistake a lot of people make here is in using cutting boards made of inappropriate materials. What is inappropriate? Good question, I'm glad you asked. Any material your knife can't cut is going to damage its edge, and is therefore inappropriate for use as a cutting board.

And no, I don't mean your knife should be able to slice right through your cutting board. I mean that every time you cut something on your cutting board, it should be able to make tiny slices in it. Something has to give, and it is better that it is the cutting board than your knives.

Glass Cutting Board- Evil!

So, the common materials you should avoid are things like glass and marble. Oh, I know, they're doing wonderful things with glass boards these days. Putting pretty patterns in them, and so on. Or, perhaps you recently had new marble counter tops put in and you got the contractor to cut a matching cutting board from the remnants, and it just looks so nice.

Marble Cutting Board- Evil Too!

Well, go ahead and keep using these, if, well, never being able to keep a sharp knife in your kitchen is of no concern to you. Yes, I said never. Even on a proper cutting board, after the first time you use a knife, it is a little duller than it was before you used it.

You see, the edge of your knife is made of a very hard material, but it is also very thin. Which is kind of the point. Even very hard materials that are only a couple molecules thick are very easy to bend. So what happens is the cutting edge of your knife comes in contact with the relatively hard cutting board surface, and folds over a little. Even with a proper cutting board. With a glass or marble cutting board, it folds over a lot, relatively speaking. Often the difference between a sharp blade and a dull one is only that on the dull one the cutting edge is knocked out of alignment. This is what sharpening steels are for; to put it back in alignment. Which is another topic we will get to in a future post.

In any event, your knife can't cut into glass or stone at all, and so a board made of one of these materials will instantly dull your knives.

We may get into the specifics of cutting boards at a later date, but for now, I will only say that the materials you should use are acrylic or wood.

Acrylic Cutting Boards- Good!

Well, and that regarding the difference between the two, a lot of people have a lot of opinions regarding the difference between wood and plastic, the difference between different types of wood or plastic, and so on. And, probably most of them are right. However, I like acrylic boards because they are very practical; low maintenance, and cheap. I can chuck them in the dishwasher, and I can easily replace them when they wear out. And that's that. So for now, if you like the practical aspect, go with acrylic. If you want pretty, go with wood. If you want to learn about the care of either, and about how sanitary one is vs. the other, there's plenty of info already out there. (Much of it conflicting.)

Wooden Cutting Boards- Also Good!

If you have a particular favorite, please leave a comment and let us know why. Oh, and if one of your criteria is that a particular material is "faster" than another, please explain what you mean by that. This is not one of my criteria; as far as knife technique goes, I'm usually not in a hurry. However, I grasp the broad meaning, but would like for you to flesh it out a bit, both for me and for my readers.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Knife Care & Maintenance Pt 1

Okay, at long last, care and maintenance of those very important kitchen tools, your knives.

First off, let's address some common misconceptions regarding knives.

Misconception One: You shouldn't put your good knives in the dishwasher because the heat of the dishwasher will ruin the temper of your blades.

This is just silly. In order for this to happen, the temperature in your dishwasher would have to get up in excess of a thousand degrees fahrenheit. And if you think about it, it would be pretty amazing if your various plastic items could survive temperatures that would ruin steel. If your dishwasher could get hot enough to anneal steel of any sort, it would be a smoking ruin by the time it had washed its first load.

Misconception Two: You shouldn't put your good knives in the dishwasher because the soap will damage the blades.

Well, the only reason I can think of for this one is that people had to make something up, because they knew they shouldn't put their good knives in the dishwasher, but didn't know why. Soap, even citrus-based soap, as some contend, will not harm your knives. Steel would have to be pretty fragile stuff if dishwashing soap could harm it, and as to citrus, would you hesitate to slice an orange or lemon with your good knives? Well, there you go. And if you do hesitate, stop it, you're being silly. Yes, yes, acid will discolor high carbon blades, but chances are yours are high carbon stainless. If you have a high carbon blade, it's gonna be next to impossible to keep it from developing a patina anyway, so you might as well give up and slice tomatoes and citrus with it. What good is a knife you can't use for all your veggie needs?

So, here is the main reason you shouldn't put most good knives in the dishwasher. It will ruin the handles. This may seem obvious, if your knives have wooden handles. However, what is perhaps not so obvious is that often the plastic material for the handles is chosen for qualities other than being dishwasher safe. You've no doubt seen dull and cracked wooden handles on old kitchen knives. And you may have seen plastic handles that started out being shiny black, but are now milky and dull. This is because they were put in a dishwasher. However, some knives, like the Forschners I mentioned in a prior post have dishwasher-safe handles. And yet, people will still say you shouldn't put them in the dishwasher either. Well, this is sort of true. The problem here is that if you put them in the silverware basket, they may be in contact with other metal items, and the water spraying around will cause them to collide with other metal items in any event, which will dull the blades.

Don't do this

So, here's the deal. The steel in your knives can't be harmed by the heat or soap in the dishwasher, but the handles probably can. Unless they are dishwasher-safe handles. And even if they are, the way most people would load them in the dishwasher would cause them to bang against other stuff and be dulled. So, you can put knives with dishwasher-safe handles in the dishwasher, as long as you take care not to put them where they will come in contact with other things. Where to put them, then? Probably the best place would be in the top rack, with the sharp part of the blade pointed up. and no way for the knives to come in contact with anything but the rack. However, you may find it is actually easier to just wash them by hand, after all. But, it is my feeling that you should know the real reason you are hand washing your blades.

Well, maybe this...

Misconception Three: The steel in your knife block is a "honing" steel, not a "sharpening" steel, and those two terms are completely different things.

Wrong, I'm afraid, although I wish it were right. It's so much tidier that way. "I use my honing steel to hone my knives, but when they need actual sharpening, I use..." Up until very recently, I believed this to be true. Then I encountered Murray Carter, 17th Generation Yoshimoto Bladesmith and Certified Master Bladesmith. Murray makes amazing knives, has demonstrated sharpening them to a point where he could shave with them, by using only a cinder block, some cardboard, and a 2x4. Obviously, the man knows knives, and not just how to sharpen them, but just about all there is to know about sharpening them. So, I wrote to him asking about honing vs, sharpening. And he very politely pointed out that I was wrong to make that distinction. And how did he convince me that my ideas of honing vs. sharpening were wrong? By quoting a bunch of blade-making lore at me, or by telling me he ought to know, and so on? Nope. He merely invited me to look it up in a dictionary. And, he was right, by the way. Sharpening, honing, stropping, it's all sharpening. According to him, the best distinction that can be made is that a steel is used for "touching up" an edge. So, go ahead and think of one as honing, and the other as sharpening, if you like. It's still easier that way, if not entirely correct. Just don't tell people they are wrong to call a steel a "sharpening steel." They're not. And that, folks, is why manufacturers like Wustoff, Henckels, and well, just about all of them refer to their steels as "sharpening steels." Because they really are.

This, by the way, is a large part of the reason my posts on knife care and maintenance have been delayed. Murray pretty much took what I knew about sharpening, and knocked it into a cocked hat. Politely, and with great patience. I finally pestered him until he became annoyed, and rightly so. He has paying customers to communicate with, and here was this guy only trying to find the truth for his blog.

Also, his standards of sharpness are much higher than mine. I'm happy if my knives can slice tomatoes without smooshing or tearing them, he is only happy if his knives are, in his words. "scary sharp." And, since I can no longer shave with mine, apparently he has the right of it. If you are interested in learning the correct way to sharpen your knives, take a look at his site. He even has instructional DVD's that will show you how.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Cleaning "ruined" pots

Ruined? Nope.

I'm happy right now. I have just resurrected an apparently hopelessly burned pot, and what is more, one of my favorites.

Okay, most of us have done it. We're cooking something in a pot, and we forget about it, or we serve out of it, and forget to turn the burner off. I've done it more times than I care to admit. (Okay, twice, but that's twice too many with good quality cookware.) And then what happens? Whatever is in the pot dries up, turns black, and molecularly bonds to the inside of the pot. If someone could make paint this tough, they'd make billions.

So, no matter what you do, the inside of your pot is coated black. Scrub it with Scotch-Bright, or Brillo, and it stubbornly stays black, no matter how long you keep at it. Scrub for ten minutes in front of the sink, or go watch a movie and scrub for the whole hour and a half, and the pot stays black.

So your beloved pot or pan is ruined, right? Unless you have access to some industrial grinding and polishing machines, you just have to buy a new pot. Or so it would seem.

As I said, I've been there. On the most memorable occasion, I had made a beef stock, and was reducing it to a glace, when this woman showed up, distracted me, and it wasn't until the next morning that I remembered my glace. When I got back to it, it was a thick coating of carbon on the bottom of the pot. I scrubbed, sanded, and chipped at it, and it never seemed to get any thinner.

Fortunately, my roommate at the time was one of those people with their own opinions, and the will to express them. Otherwise, I probably would have given up. But he kept at me. "No WAY are you going to get that pot clean," and so on. So, just to prove him wrong, I kept researching it. And then, one day, I came across a site that told me to use Cream of Tartar.

My Hero!

I could hardly believe it was that simple, but I went and got some Cream of Tartar anyway, poured a couple of inches of water into the pot, a couple tablespoons of Cream of Tartar, and brought it to a boil. I then took some steel wool, and pushed it around the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon. The black disappeared as if by magic, and soon my pot was all bright and shiny again.

And, that of course, is what I just did with the other pot last night. And that is what you can do if you ever burn a pot like that.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The perfect hash browns

I'm still going to get to the knife care and maintenance article. However, this is somewhat of a newsflash. After many years of searching for the secret, I've finally discovered how to make perfect hash browns from raw potatoes.

Would you like to be able to make hash browns in endless quantities, hash browns that are just like the ones you get from your favorite restaurant, from a large, inexpensive bag of potatoes? Would you like to forever forsake the need to pay five dollars for a bag of frozen hash browns that contains about fifty cents worth of potatoes, if that? Would you like to impress your family and friends with your hash brown prowess? Then read on.

I know a bunch of guys who, while they don't claim to be chefs, or even particularly good cooks, pride themselves on their ability to make breakfast. Eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, these they can make. But, if they want to make hash browns, they have to resort to frozen shredded potatoes, and proceed from there. Why? Because if they attempt to start with raw potatoes, the result is inevitably gray, gooey and heavy. Perfectly white potato shreds turn into discolored gelatinous masses in their frying pans, without fail.

Now, conventional wisdom states that in order to make the perfect hash browns, meaning crispy and light, with the only change in color being to golden brown, you must first eliminate the moisture. And this works, sort of. I have tried various methods, with various degrees of success. I tried wrapping them in a towel, and twisting the towel to wring the moisture from the potatoes. This worked as well as anything I'd previously tried, in fact, somewhat better. My hash browns only came out slightly gray and gummy, which lead me to believe I was on the right track. Slightly, after all, is better than completely.

But, as it was a real pain to get all the shreds off the towel, I decided to try a potato ricer. If you are not familiar with these, they are rather like a giant garlic press. (The rotary things people often call ricers are actually food mills, and something else entirely.) What ricers are designed to do is to extrude cooked potato out their myriad holes when you push on the handle. Because potatoes don't extrude the same way as something like Play-Dough does, they wind up in short extrusions, the resultant pile looking a bit like rice. Hence the term "ricer."

When raw potato shreds are put in a ricer, however, the results are different. Raw potatoes are tougher, and are not so easily smashed through the holes. What happens instead is that the water is squeezed out of the potato shreds, at which point it runs out through the holes, leaving you with mechanically dehydrated potato shreds. Exactly like what happens when you squeeze a wet sponge.

In regard to hash browns, however, what you wind up with is hash browns that are still a bit gray and gummy, but with a utensil that is a bit easier to clean. Rinse the ricer, and you quickly remove the potato shreds that stubbornly cling. Rinse the towel, and you wind up with a wet towel with potato shreds stuck to it.

With either method, however, you still wind up with hash browns that are still a bit gray and gloopy.

But, here's the thing. If you simply grate your potatoes and then put them in a pan to cook, they wind up a hopeless mess, right? So then, after you research it a bit, find an "expert" who tells you that the key is to get all the moisture out, try it yourself, and get markedly better results, you assume you are on the right track, right?

So the "wet" potatoes get all grey, gummy, and yucky, but the ones from which most of the moisture has been removed are only slightly grey, gummy, and yucky. The logical conclusion at this point would seem to be that your hash browns would be perfect, if only you could get enough of the moisture out of them.

And so I thought, for many years. I always thought that if I could just get enough of the moisture out, I would have perfect hash browns. And, so, though my quest for the perfect hash browns has spanned decades, I seldom even tried to make hash browns. It really bugs me when I can't figure something out quickly, and when something like this bugs me, I tend to shy away from it.

So, though I am pretty sure I encountered the actual solution many years ago, I'm also pretty sure I dismissed it out of hand when I heard it. First, because it flew in the face of the idea that the reason that the hash browns I cooked got gray and gummy was because they had too much moisture in them. As I said, I'd gotten better results when I squeezed the water out. Second, because it was too simple a solution. And third, because there is a lot of plain bad advice out there.

But, a couple of days ago, I watched a video by Chef Todd Mohr over at (Please go check him out. He has a an incredible amount of vids demonstrating cooking techniques rather than recipes, and can teach you a ton. And I'm a HUGE fan of his. Click his link in the link section. ) He was making potato pancakes. Now, the only potato pancakes I have ever been served were made out of leftover mashed potatoes, and I didn't much like them. But, I watched his video because I watch all of them, and because I was hoping to learn that potato pancakes don't have to be quite as awful as the ones I'd eaten.

Well, they don't, but what amazed me was that he made them out of shredded, raw potatoes.

Now, here is the "secret" I have been building up to. The first thing he did, after shredding the potatoes, was to put them in a bowl, fill the bowl with water, dump the contents of the bowl into a strainer, and rinse, repeat, until the water ran clear. He then coated them with, I think it was Parmesan cheese, and fried them in a pan.

Now, of course, since I still didn't want to believe it was so simple, I told myself that he wasn't making hash browns, and that it must have been the parmesan coating that kept them from turning grey and gloopy. So, I tried it myself.

I shredded a Russet potato, did the routine with the bowl and the strainer. Meanwhile, my pan was heating. When I got done rinsing them, I left them in the strainer to drain for a couple of minutes. (I made no further effort to get them dry, because Chef Todd didn't either.) When the pan and cooking fat were hot, and with a "here goes nothing" attitude, I dumped the shredded potatoes into the pan, spread them out a bit, and waited for them to get grey and gooey.

Guess what? They never did. The end result was the perfect pan of hash browns.
So, no more frozen shredded potatoes for me. No more trying to squeeze the water out of the potatoes. Turns out it's not the water, but the starch that turns the potatoes grey, and makes them gooey. Get rid of the starch and you get rid of the problem.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Cast iron addendum

I just read an article praising cast iron cookware, which is a good thing. It talked about the durability and even heating of cast iron, which I was thrilled to see after reading the ill-informed bashing the Consumer Reports site gave it.

However, it then went on to say that cast iron also imparts iron into the food cooked in it, and said this was a good thing because we need iron to make red blood cells.

Well... We do use iron to make red blood cells. This much is true. However, since most of us are not anemic, and make red blood cells just fine, iron is not something we need to worry about supplementing. Women tend to use it more than men, because, of course, women need to regularly replace blood. But, most of us seem to get plenty of it from the food we eat without even having to think about it. We get it from plants and from meat, and some of us even get it in the water we drink.

However, an excess of iron in the diet can be a problem. Excess iron is not something that simply gets flushed out of the body like other water or fat soluble vitamins and minerals. Iron hangs around, and where it hangs around is in your liver, heart and endocrine glands. Where it basically acts like a bunch of iron filings that are being pushed against the surface of meat. Ever been filing a piece of metal, and gotten a sliver of it that was so tiny it was invisible to the naked eye stuck into the end of your finger? If not, ask someone who does that sort of thing. It can be quite painful and annoying. And that's just one little sliver.

Okay, I hope I don't have to paint a picture for you, aside from telling you that too much iron in your diet is a bad thing. Not "can be," or "might be," but IS.

And speaking of pictures, my friend Jack tells me there should always be pictures visible, and never just text. However, since I am currently writing about internal organs, and what is more, distressed internal organs, I rather think I will forgo the pictures at this point. I'm also rather hoping my readers will actually be readers. From what I gather, many blog readers don't much like reading, which is something I find a bit perplexing.

At any rate, before you run screaming in terror from your cast iron cookware, remember this: I told you how to season it. Seasoning your cast iron puts a coating on it which insulates the food from the cast iron, and vice-versa. And the more you (properly) use it, the thicker that coating gets. And that coating is a lot tougher than paint.

So, neither will you supplement the iron in your diet by using seasoned cast iron cookware, or have to worry about it. :)

I have to wonder, however, how many people died of liver disorders as a result of the Geritol commercials I used to see back in the sixties.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Okay, I was going to continue here with some tips on knife care and maintenance, but my friend Jack over at the "The Best Sauces," and "Cooking With Jack" blogs is holding up his video demo of how to season cast iron pans until I get this article done. Jack is really a great guy, and has several good sites, you can see them in my links section. Go take a look at his stuff, you'll like it. And if you came from his site, and merely want to know how to season cast iron pans, please feel free to skip down to the bottom of this article. However, if you elect to read your way down, you may find out some interesting stuff. :)

Anyway, if you are like the average person, you have probably never used a cast-iron pan, nor can you imagine why you would want to. Cast-iron is the Rodney Dangerfield of cookware these days. "I don't get no respect." And this is a shame. Believe me, I know. I used to think the same way.

Cast-iron is heavy. Cast-iron is black. Cast-iron is old technology. If you have a cast-iron pan, it is probably because your granny or great-granny handed it down, and you probably use it as a decoration rather than cooking in it. Or, perhaps you take it camping, and only cook in it over the campfire, or in the coals.

After all, you don't want your good avocado-colored aluminum pans to be blackened and disfigured by a cookfire, right? The ones with the teflon coating that would bubble and flake, and the aluminum body that would warp, and eventually melt? On the other hand, you don't worry a bit when you plunge your cast-iron Dutch oven into the red-hot coals. Why? Because cast iron is extremely tough and durable. If you inherited your cast iron from an ancestor, this is why. Can you imagine your grandchildren inheriting your teflon-coated frying pan?

And, no, I am not building up to saying that after reading this article you will want to get rid of your regular pots and pans and cook exclusively with cast-iron. More modern pans do have advantages in many situations. However, the thing that cast iron has over almost all other types of cookware is mass. The more mass a pan has, the more slowly it will change temperature, all else being equal. Admittedly, this can be a disadvantage at times. Those of you who cook on gas ranges probably know the joys of quick response; you turn the burner to high, and it is almost instantly as hot as it will get. Turn it back to low, and it is almost instantly as cool as it gets, with the only lag being in the heat of the metal that supports the pan, and the pan itself.

Professional kitchens make good use of the responsiveness of their gas ranges by using aluminum pans. Aluminum is very low in mass, comparatively speaking, and so it heats and cools very quickly. Cast-iron, on the other hand, is high in mass, and so it heats and cools very slowly.

You may be wondering at this point where the advantage might be in using a pot or pan that heats so slowly, and holds on to its heat for so long. So I will ask you this: have you ever cooked something a batch at a time, and discovered that the first batch cooked in a certain amount of time, but then the second batch took longer, and so on? Perhaps somewhere down the line you burned a batch, because you just couldn't seem to get the hang of the rhythm of the temperature variations? This happens often with modern pots and pans, because they heat and cool so quickly. You get a pan hot, put cold food in it, wait 'til it is done, put the next batch of cold food in, which cools the pan, so you turn the heat up, wait 'til the second batch is done, put the third batch in, burn it, turn the heat back down...

Cast-iron is a wonderful medium in such cases. It gets hot, and stays consistently hot with very little variation. It is especially good for deep-frying, because once you get the pan and the oil up to temperature, it laughs at the comparatively small masses of food you put in it to be fried. Do this in aluminum, and the temperature of your oil will be yo-yoing all over the place.

But, the key here is "once you get the pan and the oil up to temperature." I recently read something on the Consumer Reports site that said that they weren't even including cast-iron in their revue of pots and pans because it cooks so unevenly compared to modern cookware. And, it does, if you don't understand cast-iron. The problem is that the Consumer Reports people apparently lack patience. They should have preheated their pans.

You see, if you were to hold a blow-torch to the middle of the bottom of a 12" cast-iron frying pan, and hold the pan by its edge, chances are you would begin to see a red-hot spot on the opposite side of where the torch was applied long before the edge of the pan became uncomfortable to hold. Do the same thing with an aluminum pan, and it would soon sear your fingers.

Put the same cast-iron frying pan on a burner, set the burner on high, and the pan is going to get very hot in the middle before the edges get much more than warm. So, for instance, bacon cooked this way is going to be crispy in the middle, and nearly raw on the outside.

So how do you get around all this? By pre-heating the pan, or in the case of deep-frying, by pre-heating the pan and the oil. Preheating the pan is easy; just put it on the burner and let it heat for awhile. Learning to preheat the pan and oil can be a bit tricky, but in most cases, if you know where to set the burner on your stove so the oil will be hot enough in an aluminum pan, but will never get to the smoke-point, the same setting will hold true for the cast-iron pan. And if you do know this, just set the burner at that setting, and let the whole thing warm up for twenty or thirty minutes. Only after both the pan and the oil are at optimal temperature can you reap the benefits of cast-iron.

This may sound like a huge pain to you, and it kind of is. The thing is, though, if you don't cook huge batches of things very often, and especially if you don't fry or deep-fry things often enough to warrant buying a fryer, but want to occasionally make southern-fried chicken, or deep-fried fish, or calamari, or even french fries, cast-iron is the way to go. Dedicated deep-fryers are expensive, and a cast-iron pan that will do the same job is pretty cheap, by comparison.

But, before you can use a cast-iron pan, you need to know how to properly season it. Many cast-iron pans these days come "pre-seasoned," but I have never seen one that was really done properly. Most of the time they have a very thin coating of oil, and if you look closely, there will be round spots of bare metal where the oil bubbled and then disappeared.

Here are the proper steps to season a new unseasoned cast-iron pan:

1) Fashion a “drip tray” out of aluminum foil that is larger than the pan you are going to season, and place it on the bottom rack of the oven. The top rack should be at middle height, with the bottom rack just below it. (DON'T use a sheet pan as a drip tray, as many people recommend. The oil WILL drip onto it, and bake onto it, and make a coating of burnt oil, which will ruin your sheet pan.)

2) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees

3) While preheating the oven, soak the pan in hot, soapy water for about five minutes, then scrub well, rinse, and towel dry. (Omit the soap if your pan is pre-seasoned.)

4) Put the pan in the oven just long enough to dry completely. Any water left will result in incomplete seasoning, so make sure it is completely dry. (but be careful not to burn yourself when you remove it.)

5) Remove pan from oven, and use a paper towel to coat it entirely with vegetable oil. Don't forget to do the entire outside, and the handle. Go over it twice to make sure you haven't missed any spots.

6) Put the pan back in the oven, upside-down in the center of the top rack, directly over the foil. Allow it to cure for an hour with the oven set to 350, then turn the oven off.

7) Let it stay in the oven until it is cool, remove it, (this will take a couple of hours) wipe any excess oil off with a paper towel, and store the pan.

A couple of points, here. First, a new pan that is not pre-seasoned will usually come with a coating of food-grade wax,and any wax left on the pan will prevent the oil from sticking. What's more, in the oven during the seasoning process, the wax will essentially evaporate, leaving a bare spot behind, which will eventually rust. This is why you must soak the pan in hot water, then scrub thoroughly.

With the pre-seasoned pans, they say you can go ahead and start cooking with them right after the initial rinse, but this does nothing to add to the thin seasoning they've applied on the outer surfaces and the handle. And since in my experience the factory pre-seasoning often leaves bare spots, it is a good idea to go ahead and season it yourself. It will certainly not hurt anything, and will prevent rust spots from developing later.

Second, if the bottom of the pan is not perfectly flat, (and it often isn't, especially on import pans) the oil will pool in the low spot, and polymerize there. Which means it will basically turn into plastic, which will be next to impossible to remove. This is why you must put the pan in upside-down.

Third, ideally, the entire cooking surface of your pan should be a rather shiny black. Any dull spots are going to be places where food may stick. Also, when you see pictures of "well seasoned" cast iron that look like they have rust spots on them, they are not well seasoned at all, merely used, and what's more, misused. Your pans should be uniformly black, with no rust-red anywhere.

As far as continued maintenance goes, whenever you are done cooking with the pan, get any crud off the bottom by deglazing with some water, then pour the water and residue out, and dump in a handful of salt and a little oil, scrub with a paper towel, wipe it clean, and store. A little common sense is in order, here. People tell you to never put cold water in a hot cast iron pan, and they are right, within reason. If you suddenly fill a very hot pan with ice water, chances are it will crack. Small amounts of cool tap water added slowly won't hurt anything, however. You needn't boil the water first like some paranoiacs suggest. Often, if I have been frying with oil. I will simply pour out the oil, give the pan a good wipe with a paper towel to remove any excess, and then plunk the pan right back on the burner for a few minutes over medium heat. This, of course, only adds to the seasoning inside the pan. Don't use the salt if you are doing it this way, and do make sure not to leave any excess oil that might pool in any low spots.

Regarding the salt, don't use expensive salt for cleaning, you're using it as an abrasive. Kosher salt will do fine. Save the sea salt for when you want its flavor. Don't wash your pan with soap, and most certainly do not put it in the dishwasher. You want that "burnt on" oil on the surface, and you don't want to subject your pan to anything that might remove it. A well-seasoned cast-iron pan can be as slick as a greased weasel, as long as you don't do anything to screw it up.

They say not to cook acidic things in cast iron, but I have found that after the pan is well broken in, it really is not a concern. Every time you cook something fat or use fat in the pan to cook, you are adding to the seasoning, and after a few uses you establish a coating on the surface that is pretty impervious. Acidic things will react with the metal, but not with the oil coating. I probably wouldn't marinate something in vinegar for hours in a cast-iron pan, but on the other hand I wouldn't be afraid to cook tomatoes in it. If acidic foods actually removed the seasoning from cast iron, as many claim, you could easily remove the accumulated grunge on a misused pan simply by soaking your pan in vinegar for a week or two. This, obviously, is not the case.

If you have a cast iron pan in your kitchen arsenal, give it a try the next time you need something that will keep the temperature even over many batches. And, there is no substitute when it comes to frying chicken, believe me. Want to sear a bunch of steaks? Get a cast iron pan rockin' hot, and go for it. You can even sandwich a steak or two between two hot cast-iron pans, and cook them that way, using only the heat already present in the pans. Quartered duck works especially well in cast-iron, and you can fry up a bunch of the greens in the duck fat afterwards, in the same, still-hot pan. In short, there are many things you can do with cast-iron. It just takes a little imagination, and the knowledge that it will stay hot. If that is what you want for your application, cast-iron is the way to go.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Kitchen Equipment Pt. 2: Knife selection

As you may have noticed, knives come in a bewildering array of shapes and sizes, and some of them are really only good for one or two fairly rare operations, like, say, an oyster knife. If you are fortunate enough to live in a house on the water, where you can go right out your back door and down to the beach to harvest oysters, you may want to have one of these. Otherwise, there are other tools you can use for occasional shucking. Here's a basic rule of thumb regarding knives, and most culinary tools, for that matter. If you don't know what it's called, or at least what it's used for, you don't need it.

I used to think that more was better, and in years past would probably have jumped at the offer made on late-night TV for that huge set of kitchen knives (pictured above) for "Three easy payments of..." These days, I have a total of six kitchen knives, and a pair of kitchen shears. I regularly use only four of these knives, but need the other two often enough that to me it justifies owning them.

Before I discuss which knives I use, allow me to offer this disclaimer; the knives you use can and probably should vary, in both selection and in the size of any given knife. Your selection depends on what you need your knives to do. What you will feel comfortable with regarding the size of any type of knife has to do with a number of factors, like how big your hands are, how big you are, the strength of your hands and arms, and so forth. Before you spend any serious money on any knife, you should be able to try it out in the store, at least for feel and balance. If they won't let you, shop elsewhere (or endeavor not to look so much like a slasher who is only lacking a weapon, at least while shopping for knives.) The measurements given refer to the length of the blades, and are approximate.

8" Chef's- My "go to" knife

First and foremost, I use my 8" chef's knife. The chef's knife is the knife the great majority of cooks use every day, and is the closest thing to an "all-purpose" kitchen knife you will find. It is very rare that I cook a meal and do not use this knife, unless of course I am doing something like heating some canned soup. Chef's knives vary in size from 6" to 14" or better, but I find 8" to be the best for me in most cases. The longer knives are good for the occasional job, like slicing a watermelon or chicken in half the long way, but for most jobs would be so large as to be unwieldy. And I'm not a little guy. :)

My second most-used knife is a 7" Santoku, with a granton edge. A Santoku is a Japanese-style knife of quite a different shape from a chef's knife, but it cuts vegetables just as well, and slices cheese like a dream, thanks to the granton, or fluted edge. This edge discourages things like cheese and other items from vacuum-sealing themselves to the blade, thereby allowing them to stay on the cutting board where they belong, rather than stacking up on the blade. It is by design a more delicate knife, however, and that combined with its shape will assure I never use it to cut up a chicken or anything of that nature. No, it is far more useful for chopping up vegetables. Also, as the cutting edge of the blade is very nearly flat,it doesn't rock as well as a chef's knife. It's better for chopping and slicing.

Probably the third knife in order of use would be my 10" Slicer. Indispensible when it comes to slicing bread or bagels, and also quite useful in slicing tomatoes. So if I am having a bagel with lox, cream cheese, and tomato, you can bet I'll be reaching for my slicer. It works great for slicing roast beef as well.

6" Boning

Next in line comes my 6" boning knife. This is the knife I will probably reach for if I plan to dismember (joint) a chicken, at least if I plan to make the breast portions boneless. It is also useful in boning a chicken entirely, and in slicing the meat from the carcass of any bird, prior to storage or sandwich or taco making. I also use it to good effect to remove the meat from oxtails when making oxtail soup. What it is not good for is cutting board work; your knuckles will contact the board before the blade does. By the way, while you will see the word "deboning" on a lot of cooking sites, and while this is technically a real word, it is not the correct culinary term. Need evidence of this? Okay. This knife, for example, is a boning knife, not a deboning knife.

Second to last comes my 6" chef's knife. While it may not sound like this is much smaller than the 8" version, it really is. It's only two inches shorter, but where the difference comes in is the width of the blade.

Cooks use the side of the blade of a chef's knife for a couple of important things. First, it comes in handy to pick up the stuff you've just chopped in order to dump it into a bowl or a pan. Next, and perhaps most importantly, in order to peel, crush, or do both to a clove of garlic, the classic move is to place the garlic between the flat of the blade and the cutting board and give the blade a whack with your hand. A wider blade is much more useful for either operation. Easier, and safer.

The blade of my 6" chef's knife is only about two-thirds as wide as that of the 8" version, and so is not nearly as convenient as the larger one for either of these tasks, at least for me. What would I use it for? Well, for instance, lets say I needed to chop up a bunch of vegetables, then cut up a chicken. It does an excellent job of chopping vegetables, and it works better than the 8" version for cutting chicken into its respective parts. As to boning the breast portion, it works almost as well as the boning knife, and consequently it is the only knife I would use if when I started in on the chicken I had not yet decided whether to bone the breasts or not.

The least used knife I have (at least for actual cooking) is my 4" spear-point paring knife. I remember my mother using paring knives frequently when I was growing up, but most of the things she did with a paring knife, I do with other things, like a peeler, or even my 8" chef's. Yeah, a lot of people say that a chef's knife is too big for mincing small things, like garlic, or pickles for tuna salad, but what can I say, except that I feel I have more control with the chef's knife? I use the paring knife for doing things like removing the plastic from the portions of the TV dinner that the instructions tell me to. (Okay, so now you know my "dirty little secret". Sometimes its easier and even cheaper to just pop a TV dinner in the oven. It's one of my "comfort foods".)

You may know people who use a paring knife to cut things directly into a cooking pot. Like carrots, celery, and so on. They hold the paring knife in their fingers, and the veggie goes between the knife and their thumb. To cut the veggie, the knife goes through it, and stops against their thumb. While whatever they cook might taste good, this technique is terrible. The only way they can do this is with a dull knife, and dull knives are bad. They are dangerous and inefficient. If this is the way you've been taught to use knives, please do your best to abandon this bad habit, and to learn to use the proper technique and tool for the job.

Oh, I should mention here, there is also a technique that is almost identical to this bad one that is acceptable. This is where the veggie and knife are held about the same, and the motion is about the same, but the knife edge goes past the thumb, and never actually contacts it. This is, as I say, acceptable knife technique, but, A) just about no one does it this way, and B) I'd still rather use my chef's knife and a cutting board.

Oh, and one other tool you will need is a steel. We'll go into more detail in the article about maintaining and storing your knives, but just trust me for now, you need one of these.

These are the knives I use, and this may or may not have much bearing on what you will need. I will only say that almost everyone needs a chef's knife of whatever size feels the most comfortable, and that I have yet to find a job I can't do with this small selection of steel. Now, on to your situation.

Unless you plan on only cooking Asian food, your first knife purchase should be, you guessed it, a chef's knife. Now, here I am about to utter a bit of culinary sacrilege, so listen closely, and don't tell on me. You don't need to dash right out to the local kitchen store, and buy an expensive chef's knife. I know you are trying to learn to cook, and the last thing you want to do is invest hundreds of dollars in tools that you are afraid may prove useless, at least to you. So while you are learning to cook, that cheapo from your local supermarket, you know, the one on the "kitchen gadgets" aisle, will do just fine. Or maybe you already have one. It's fine too, as long as it is sharp or sharpenable.

Better yet, as I mentioned in the last post, there are knives that are regularly used in your local restaurant kitchens, are about the third of the price of expensive German knives, are available at your local restaurant supply, and are dishwasher safe! These knives have one piece-plastic handles, and while they are not as attractive or as durable as the pricey German ones, they get the job done, and will most probably last as long as you need them to, as you will not be using them for hours on end, as many of these restaurants are.

Whatever way you decide to go, it is up to you. I don't usually recommend buying sets of anything when it comes to cookware, but I have seen sets of knives that were not perfectly horrible that came with knife blocks, included sets of steak knives, and cost little more than a decent chef's knife from the local restaurant supply. While these sets might have knives in them you will rarely or never use, they will at least have the basics which you will need.

One safety issue I must mention here. Please buy full-tang knives. This means the material of the blade extends the full length and width of the handle, so you are holding the dull end of the blade with the handle there for your comfort while doing so. There are several other designs, among them a half tang, which relies on rivets to secure the blade to the handle. These are evil.

I have seen otherwise sensible cooking experts pooh-pooh this, but for practical rather than safety reasons, and I must think that the only reason they would do so is that they have never had the experience I did years ago, back when I was a true beginning cook.

This was nearly thirty years ago, and I was trying to cut a chicken in half, the long way. (So each half would have a wing, drumstick, breast, et cetera.) And I was doing it the decidedly wrong way. What I was doing was trying to cut through the whole bird, from top to bottom. Don't try this at home, kids. The proper way is to use a long knife, and only cut through the part that is against the cutting board, (put the knife in the cavity of the bird) then turn the chicken over, and once again cut through the part resting on the cutting board, or just use kitchen shears.

Anyway, I was pressing down with both hands on the handle, (never do this either) my left just in front of my right. Suddenly the middle of the handle gave way, just where the rivet was. The blade then pivoted on the remaining rivet, which was in front of my hand, kind of like a giant straight-razor. As it did, I fell forward as a result of the sudden loss of resistance. The blade pivoted almost to fully vertical, and I stopped my forward momentum only after pricking my throat with the tip of the blade. Granted, there were many factors involved here, perhaps the most prevalent being my own stupidity, but the fact remains that this wouldn't have happened with a full-tang knife. Or a sharp one.

To review:

1) Choose knives that are appropriate to the kind of cooking you do. Don't buy a particular knife just because "everyone" has one.
2) No matter what kind of cooking you do, you will need a Chef's, or a Santoku, or something that can perform the same task.
3) Choose sturdy full-tang knives that fit you physically.