Which began with a couple of examples of extraordinary acts by extraordinary Chefs – And sometime, those can lead to pretty amazing places, such as it seems to have for Chef Jose Andrés.
This is going to be very short and to the Point. If you’re a visitor here, it’s probably not lost on you that I’m not a fan of the current administration, nor pretty much any of the party in power.
The last two years have been a nightmare. This country has fallen to lows I didn’t know we were capable of sinking to, and I experienced Nixon, Reagan, and Bush II.
They were amateurs compared to this lot. Hatred, intolerance, bleeding the poor and middle class to death, bigotry, misogyny, blatant racist and fascist forces growing by the day. We’re the laughing stock of the world, and still we sink lower.
Tomorrow is D Day, as in, take back our Democracy. We all must vote. It’s as simple as that. There are no more excuses. If you don’t vote, you’re part of the problem, and that’s just unacceptable to me.
This isn’t a day for food, or recipes. This is a day for sober reflection on what will happen if good people do not act. Complacency is unacceptable.
Do your part. Vote. Help others vote. Get the word out. Get it done. We’re almost out of time. Vote like your life depends on it, because in fact, it does. If you don’t realize or believe that, then God help you, because no one else can or will.
For most of us, Salt is a must in the kitchen. When the term ‘season lightly’ is bandied about, it almost always means add salt and ground pepper to taste. As I’ve noted here in many, many times, one of the major differences between home cooks and Pros is the judicious use of salt and pepper throughout the cooking process – Seasoning lightly in layers. If you often read electronically as I do, take any of your cookbooks and do a word search for salt – Guaranteed it’ll come up more than any other term in most, if not all of them you own and use. In other words, the influence of salt in cooking is felt damn near everywhere – So what to do when you simply can’t have that mineral any more? Time to explore some salt-free seasonings.
Salt’s ubiquity in cooking isn’t a mistake. In addition to being used as a preservative for thousands of years, salt does yeoman’s duty in waking up or suppressing certain flavors. Ever wonder why something like a cake recipe often calls for a pinch of salt? Its presence rounds out how we taste, smell, and feel food in our mouths – Even sweet stuff. Taste a fresh batch of soup or stew without salt in it, and the vast majority of us will note something to the effect of, it tastes bland, off, flat, no backbone, and so on. A dish that we expect to note the presence of salt within, and doesn’t have it, will seem incomplete or out of balance. As oft noted in the food world, we eat through our sense of smell as much as we do taste, and here again, salt plays a pivotal role – It enhances the volatility of many aromatic components, making their presence much more notable to our schnozes – It does this by freeing aromatic scents from the foods in question, thereby making them more intense to our perception. It wouldn’t be out of line to state that our brains have salt receptors – When it senses salt where we think it should be, it’s a happy brain, and vice verse when it’s not there – That’s powerful stuff.
Sodium chloride is a mineral, which is fairly unique, food-wise. Given its broad power in the kitchen, salt becomes an imposing thing to do without, or to adequately compensate for the absence thereof. An old friend contacted me yesterday, asking for salt free seasoning blends. Her Hubby recently suffered a serious medical setback, and as such, his Docs say no mas with salt. Medical and dietary restrictions are the primary reasons folks are forced to give the stuff up. When it’s medical, it’s serious – a guy really can’t cheat and expect to recover fully or quickly. The current trend in medical thinks says too much salt isn’t good for your blood pressure, heart, liver, or kidneys, and can lead to increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. But absolutely no salt isn’t that great for you either – The indication being that moderate salt intake affords some protection from those ills, while an absolutely zero salt diet probably does not. It has some critical functions, acting as an electrolyte to balance fluid, as well as aiding nerve and muscle function. But again, that’s moderate use.
The WHO calls moderate less than 5 grams daily intake, but that’s for sodium as a whole, not just salt. If one’s diet includes regular doses of fast food, and/or highly processed foods in general, chances are good you’re taking in far, far more than that – Often two or more times that RDA, in fact – The FDA claims that roughly 11% of our sodium intake in this country comes from an actual salt shaker, while over 75% of it is derived from packaged, processed food. Let that sink in for a sec…
In other words, it’s not at all out of line to say that most American’s problems with sodium doesn’t come from seasoning, but from eating shitty food. That’s easily remedied, in a way – Get rid of the junk, and you’re mostly good – Or as I used to teach in first aid classes, just go around the outer ring of the grocery store. That way, you’ll get produce, protein, dairy, and beer – And most of what’s in the inside probably ain’t all that great for you, anyway… Of course, just stopping eating a high sodium diet, and still enjoying what you eat, isn’t as easily said as done – Doing that takes some help – and that’s where low or no salt spice blends come in.
If you’ve poked around here, then you know most of the blends I’ve offered do contain a fair amount of salt. Many commercial seasoning blends contain salt first and foremost, for the reasons detailed herein, so how should we compensate? Salt free or damn near is an obvious step, but not a fulfilling one necessarily – Perhaps we should rephrase the question as, how do we compensate with something that will adequately fill the taste and flavor enhancing qualities of salt? The quick answer is acid and umami.
When reviewing the ingredients in commercial no salt seasoning blends, (and how many of us actually do that, by the way?), it becomes readily apparent that the most popular contain at least an acidic constituent, usually powdered citrus or vinegar. Yet quite a few have no viable salt substitute at all. To me, this is a no brainer – If we’re out to successfully replace salt, there must be something effective in its place. Flavor balance among the primary tastes, (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami, and possibly kokumi, described as mouthfulness or heartiness), is a key to great overall taste, and a key to many cuisines, especially Asian. Simply removing salt without compensating for and considering the other primary taste factors is unlikely to yield a satisfying result. Again, acidity and umami are the primary candidates to fix that.
Umami is often regarded as being closely associated with MSG, monosodium glutamate, the sodium salt of glutamate. Contrary to a lot of common myth, MSG is not unnatural – It occurs in many foods, (It’s why we dig Parmigiano-Reggiano and tomatoes, among others), and it’s found in our bodies as an amino acid. Granted, there are some folks who don’t tolerate it well, but there are also, to my knowledge, no viable studies that tie MSG to nerve damage, as has been broadly claimed in the past, and many of the studies that found it deleterious to health involved people ingesting quantities far above anything us relatively sane folk would do. MSG contains appreciably less sodium per weight than regular salt, and as such certainly can be considered as a viable constituent of a low salt seasoning blend. Pure MSG is available readily, as are MSG powered seasonings like Maggi. The latter is a good candidate for a spice blend, (it comes in cube form as well as liquid), as a very little bit added to an herb blend packs a big umami/salt punch. Maggi has a bunch of other things in it, herbs, aromatic bases, and the like, depending on where it’s made – Swiss in origin, there are variants made all over the world, and they’re all unique. All that said, if MSG just isn’t on your list, then consider acids.
When it comes to salt free home made spice blends, citrus or vinegar are excellent salt substitutes. Both can be bought powdered, as can lime, lemon, and orange, and all of those in very pure form – These are spray dried, and contain nothing but dried citrus juice. You can also buy, or dry at home, citrus and citrus peel, albeit they won’t have nearly the punch, weight per weight, that dried juice will. As stand alones, or perhaps with the tiniest touch of MSG or regular salt, acids can be effective and satisfying salt replacements.
Next, let us consider the best herbs and spices to employ. This is where things get fun, because replacing or reducing salt calls for the use of what may be considered somewhat exotic ingredients. While there really aren’t any spices, herbs, or aromatic bases that taste salty, there are quite a few that can add their own unique punch to a blend – Something that can contribute to that sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami balance and fill in the missing pieces. Alliums, like garlic, onion, and fennel can do a lot in this regard. So can chiles, throughout their range of heat and smokiness – everything from cayenne to Piment d’Espelette, urfa biber to pepperoncino, or Szechuan to Thai, and any of a hundred other regional gems in this vein. Then consider some of the warmer spices that may not usually make it into your thinking for every day spice blends – Cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, coriander, and nutmeg come to mind. No, these won’t replace salt, but they can provide a balanced flavor profile that intrigues a tongue dismayed by the lack of a favorite thing – This stuff is all about receptors – in our tongues, eyes, noses, and brains – Whatever we need to do to adequately fill the void is the ticket. Add to this the heady, heavier notes of traditional constituents like basil, bay, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, and sage, and you’re in the wheelhouse.
The final consideration is proportion. This really will depend on what you’re building. Let’s say we go for something you’d like to use as an every day blend, something that could go on a wide variety of dishes as a salt based blend might. If it’s me, I’m going allium heavy, with onion and garlic leading the way. How about a Mexican based blend? Chiles are the obvious lead, with pepper as a close second. Speaking of pepper, how about that as a lead? I’d follow it with alliums and sweet pepper notes. Something for poultry? How about paprika, onion, chiles, lemon and some floral herbs?
I think, and trust, that y’all get the idea. I’ll put a few of my ideas up, but here as always – and especially here, where it may be really important to y’all – I need you to take this and run with it. There are no truly bad choices. If you’re unsure of where you’re going, make a tiny batch and see what you think. Tweak that and get where you want to be, and then, guaranteed, one day you’ll use it and think, ‘this is good, but I should…’ and the answer to that is damn near always, ‘yes, do!’
With all of these blends, combine and mix thoroughly. If you’re starting with whole spices, grind them fine. I transfer blends to a shaker topped glass jar, stored away from direct sunlight. Depending on the gauge of your shaker top, you may need to run the finished blend through a single mesh strainer to make sure it’ll flow well. Caking can be an issue, especially in humid environments. Calcium Phosphate is yet another edible rock that does yeoman’s duty as an anti-caking agent. It’s readily available online, and yes, it’s perfectly fine to use and consume – A teaspoon or two in any of these blends should do the trick.
Urban’s Every Day Lo Salt Blend
2 Tablespoons granulated Onion
1 Tablespoon granulated Garlic
1 Tablespoon Smoked Paprika
1 teaspoon dried Mustard
1 teaspoon ground Pepper
1 teaspoon powdered Lemon
1/2 teaspoon Sage
1/4 teaspoon Maggi seasoning
Urb’s Low Salt Pepper Blend
2 Tablespoons ground Black Pepper.
1 Tablespoon ground Red Pepper
1 teaspoon ground Green Pepper
1 teaspoon granulated Onion
1 teaspoon granulated Garlic
1 teaspoon powdered Vinegar
1/2 teaspoon ground Celery Seed
1/4 teaspoon Maggi seasoning
Garlicky No Salt Blend
2 Tablespoons granulated Garlic
2 teaspoon powdered Lemon
2 teaspoon ground Tellicherry Pepper
1 teaspoon Urfa Biber
1 teaspoon Vinegar powder
Urb’s No Salt Mex Blend
1 Tablespoon ground Ancho chile
1 Tablespoon ground Pasilla chile
1 teaspoon ground Chipotle chile
1 teaspoon granulated Garlic
1 teaspoon granulated Onion
1 teaspoon powdered Vinegar
1/2 teaspoon ground Coriander
1/2 teaspoon Mexican Oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground Cumin
Urb’s No Salt Poultry Blend
1 Tablespoon sweet Paprika
1 Tablespoon granulated Onion
1 teaspoon powdered Lemon
1 teaspoon ground Pepper
1/2 teaspoon Chile flake
1/2 teaspoon granulated Honey
1/2 teaspoon Sage
1/2 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
Urb’s No Salt Italian Blend
1 Tablespoon Basil
1 Tablespoon Oregano
1 teaspoon Rosemary
1 teaspoon granulated Garlic
1 teaspoon granulated Onion
1 teaspoon powdered Vinegar
1/2 teaspoon powdered Lemon
1/2 teaspoon Marjoram
Urban Chinese Five Spice Blend
1 Tablespoon whole Szechuan Peppercorns
3 whole Star Anise
1 stick Cassia Bark (AKA Chinese Cinnamon)
2 teaspoons whole Cloves
2 teaspoons whole Fennel Seed
Allow a dry, cast iron skillet to heat through over medium heat.
Add Szechuan pepper, star anise, cloves, and fennel seed to the pan. Toast the spices until they’re notably fragrant, about 3 to 5 minutes. Keep the spices moving constantly to avoid scorching.
Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
Add the toasted spices and cassia to a spice grinder, blender, mortar and pestle, or whatever you use to grind spices. Pulse the blend to a uniform rough powder.
It’s more than a sad day. It’s a genuine wake up call, to boot. Today is the day I’m resigned to going without some of my various sea salts. Why? Well, to quote Mr. McGuire from The Graduate, “One word – Plastics.” Yes, you heard me right – Pretty much all the sea salt out there is infested with the shit.
We started to hear rumblings about this last summer, when a bunch of articles came out in popular media. I decided to look to source material, and I gotta say, I’m not at all thrilled with what I found. It’s rather interesting that the majority of news pieces I looked into quoted one study, ‘The presence of microplastics in commercial salts from different countries,’ from the journal Scientific Reports. That vehicle is owned by the Nature Publishing Group, who “highlights its editorial policy as one that is focused on scientific rigour and validity, rather than perceived impact.” Scientific Reports, in their FAQs, states further, “Scientific Reports publishes original articles on the basis that they are technically sound and scientifically valid, and papers are peer reviewed on these criteria. The importance of an article is determined by its readership after publication.” Of course, how you feel about the validity of that process and philosophy has obvious bearing on the perceived validity of the works published therein.
I looked at several studies from various academic sources, to achieve what I felt was a good balance of findings. Across the board, the news was indeed rather dire – sea salts from all over the globe are contaminated with microplastic fragments, fibers, filaments, and films. Studies from the U.S., Europe, Asia, China, and South America all reported the same thing, with remarkably similar findings of the volume, nature, and origin of the contaminants. Dr. Sherri Mason of the University of Minnesota lead one such study – Her synopsis was simple and to the point – “All sea salt—because it’s all coming from the same origins—is going to have a consistent problem. I think that is what we’re seeing.”
So what, exactly, is this stuff? Naturally it varies somewhat, but not as much as one might think – The ubiquity of it is alarming. Microplastics are micrometer sized pieces, (A micrometer is 3.937 × 10-5 of 1” – meaning it takes 25,400 of those to equal an inch – The symbol for a micrometer is μm.) These are very tiny shards, fragments, and fibers, which speaks volumes about just how much plastic has broken down to pieces this small, all around the world. Sobering, isn’t it? It’s not just the giant trash island in the Pacific, it’s that microscopic shards infest every ocean, coast, and to some degree, lakes, rivers, and even wells. Polymers, pigments, amorphous carbons – Polypropylene was the biggest contaminant, followed by polyethylene and cellophane – No big surprise there, huh?
Study samples averaged roughly 500 – 700 particles of microplastics per kilogram of salt. The Scientific Reports piece was bold enough to state that, “According to our results, the low level of anthropogenic particles intake from the salts warrants negligible health impacts,” while adding the caveat, “However, to better understand the health risks associated with salt consumption, further development in extraction protocols are needed to isolate anthropogenic particles smaller than 149 μm.” AKA, we can’t measure stuff smaller than that accurately with our current test methods, and we got no idea how much or how harmful smaller stuff might be. For my mind, their statement sidestepped the well established fact that plastics are excellent absorbers and carriers of all kinds of hazardous substances. I had to switch a daily medication recently, because the stuff I was taking, (which is made in China), had a highly carcinogenic industrial solvent in it – A substance not allowed in the US or EU, and that shouldn’t be anywhere near a pharmaceutical manufacturer. If that happens, how much of a stretch is it that tiny shards of plastic could harbor things that are absolutely not good for us? Not much, far as I’m concerned.
We all know how out of hand plastics are on this earth. Plastics infest every facet of the planet at this point – Land, sea, inland waters – Everything – affecting humans and wildlife every bit as much as our environments. Leachate from plastics has been tied to cancers, birth defects, inhibited immune systems, and disrupted endocrine systems, for starters.
And how well do we handle the stuff? A recent study published in the journal Science Advances, lays claim to being, “the first global analysis of all plastics ever made.” And the verdict? How about this, “Of the 8.3 billion metric tons that has been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. Of that, only nine percent has been recycled.” Ouch – And we’re not getting better at that, by the way. As former second and third world countries ‘advance’, they not only aren’t interested in dealing with first world trash any more, they’re generating epic volumes of their own. So 90% of over 8 billion tons of plastic, (and counting!), goes where? Landfills, and all too often, the ocean, lakes, rivers, streams, and so on. Plastic in landfills can take a thousand years to decompose – Hell, those plastic bags we use for veggies from the store last at least a decade, and as long as a century depending on where and how they’re disposed of. And water bottles? How’s five hundred years grab ya? Like I said – It’s sobering, when we’re staring at real world numbers.
So now we come to sea salt, and why it’s so susceptible to microplastic contamination. The answer may seem obvious to some, not so much to others. Most sea salts, including the legendary stuff like Fleur de Sel, San Francisco, Malden, Trapani, or Sal de Anana, to name but a few, are produced in shallow impoundments, where sun and wind gradually evaporate the sea water, leaving behind salt and their signature minerals and elements – And microplastics. It is these long produced, famous named varieties that are most impacted, and at greatest risk. For me, as much as I love the distinct flavor profiles of great sea salt, it’s all just too much – I’m not willing to use it any more, or put it in blends, or recommend it to y’all.
Are there salts relatively free of plastics? Yes, thankfully, there are. The difficulty, in many instances, is knowing exactly where the salt you buy comes from. Take a famous name, like Morton – They’ll divulge that they produce salt from the three primary methods – Natural Evaporation, Mining, and Vacuum Evaporation. Most salt producers do the same, but getting more specific than that can be a bit more difficult. Morton produces sea salt “from the sparkling waters of the Pacific,” and from “the Mediterranean,” (Both of these are sun evaporated salts, so guess what…) Mined salts are relatively plastic free, as the ancient beds they derive from haven’t been exposed to plastic contamination. The same should be true for most vacuum evaporated salts, depending, of course, upon the salt source, but again, that’s not always easy to discern. Many of the latter are well-based processes, and while there is evidence of plastic contamination in wells around the world, it’s at a much lower rate than sea water. The bottom line is that, currently at least, the vast majority of non specific-origin salts divulge exactly where they come from or how they’re produced.
So, how does one know one is buying mined salts, which would be the most plastic free option? Cargill Corporation, which produces and supplies bulk salt to many brands, mines from Avery Island, Louisiana, among other sources – so product from that source would be quite safe. I think that the bottom line is that us end users will need to do some research, including contacting the consumer affairs departments for a given brand or brands, if we want to be assured as to the source of their salt – And they may or may not tell us what we want to know.
Must we then be resigned to giving up the unique flavors we’ve come to know and love from great sea salts? The answer is – thankfully – no. There are known source, mined sea salts that are plastic free. Here in the States, Real Salt comes from Utah, where it is mined from an ancient seabed that existed through the Midwest in the Jurassic period. Buried under many layers of rock, soil, and volcanic ash, this is about as pure as you can get, and it tastes great to boot – They produce coarse, kosher, fine, and powdered versions, in everything from a small shaker to 25 pound bags.
Hope springs eternal – May we wake up and start addressing the problem whole cloth – If it’s not already too late.
NOTE: As always, I give reviews or recommendations because I like what I write about. I don’t receive anything free, discounted, or in exchange for a favorable review here.
The root word I bastardized means, in essence, that the user finds, ‘a nation’s policy or attitude corrupt and exploitative,’ among other diatribes. Frankly, I can’t think of a thing more demonstrative of that than our massive use and abuse of plastic – Not even politics. There’s zero doubt in my mind that this abuse focuses more around food than any other aspect of modern life.
Look through your kitchen as we have ours, and chances are, it’s a plastic rich environment, indeed. Granted, some of that is reasonable, to a degree – The large plastic storage jars with wide lids that we’ve had for years, for example, don’t seem all that bad, nor might the other, smaller storage boxes that get daily use. We bought all those because they were cheap, light, and they worked, of course. Plastic wrap? Got it, albeit it doesn’t get used much at all. Plastic bags? Oh my, yes, in everything from snack to gallon. Hmmm… The garbage and trash bags have been biodegradable versions for a while now, but all that other stuff – Hmmm.
We could probably assuage our growing guilt if we considered that we recycle diligently – Well, M does, anyway – She’s the recycle Nazi in our house. That doesn’t mean I cheat purposefully, but it does mean she has to remind me that wine corks and metal foil don’t go in recycling, and anyway, I haul the bins out to the curb each week – That aughta be worth some kinda dispensation, shouldn’t it?
All in all, according to a recent National Geographic piece, ‘The world generates at least 3.5 million tons of plastic and other solid waste a day, 10 times the amount a century ago, according to World Bank researchers. The U.S. is the king of trash, producing a world-leading 250 million tons a year—roughly 4.4 pounds of trash per person per day.’ To not know that plastic is choking our oceans, landfills, land in general, everything, you’d have to be living in a cave, under a rock. So the question is, what can we do about it, us little folk? That answer has to be formed with our kitchens in mind, because the lion’s share of the overall waste we produce, and especially plastic, lives there. The answer is, surprisingly, quite a bit.
One of the easiest things to do is get rid of plastic wrap and plastic bags, because that’s where most of the kitchen use comes from. There are reusable silicone zip lock bags and sheets out there, but they’re expensive, and frankly, that doesn’t seem like a very smart answer in a busy kitchen. Nobody that I could find makes recyclable zip lock or food grade plastic bags, yet, but I’ll bet it’s coming. In any event, it seems a lot smarter to just eliminate that crap.
Most community recycling programs don’t accept plastic bags in your curbside bins, albeit you can recycle a lot of that stuff at many grocery stores – The list of what’s OK to drop off there looks something like this –
plastic shopping bags (from any store — remove receipts, etc.)
food packaging (Ziploc-type bags)
plastic liners from cereal boxes (do not include if they tear like paper)
dry cleaning bags (remove staples, receipts, hangars)
plastic newspaper wrapping
product wrapping (such as covers a case of water bottles, etc.)
bubble wrap and air pillows (popped)
plastic shipping envelopes (remove labeling)
And you should make sure that what you drop off is clean and dry – Stuff with food waste on it is gross and unsanitary, no matter where you drop it off, and it’ll contaminate the clean stuff other folks left.
What they generally will not take includes,
frozen food bags
cereal box liners that tear like paper
pre-washed salad bags
candy bar wrappers
There are makers of many things turning to non-plastic containers, and they’re worth pursuing if you can – Our laundry detergent even comes in what is, basically, paper packaging and is biodegradable – It’s found in the ‘natural’ stuff, which most mainstream grocery stores have at least some of these days. Those biodegradable trash bags are very decent by the way – Not super expensive, and they don’t fall apart with stuff in them, either.
The best route to go in your kitchen is to eliminate plastic wrap and bags, and that’s what we’re going to do – We’re transitioning to solid food containers across the board – Yes some of those are plastic, but a lot are glass – they last for many years, and as such, really can change the waste equation to a significant degree. The other side of that equation is to not collect a whole shitload of plastic when you hit the store. There are string and mesh bags designed for produce that you can bring with you, along with your reusable grocery bags – And if you bring those, you can get by without further plastic just fine. Stuff like lettuce, cabbage, cilantro, and so on does not need to sit in a plastic bag to last in your fridge. Moist paper towel, or clean kitchen towels work fine – Your crisper bins probably work better without an additional layer of plastic anyway, truth be told. If you get your meat, fish, poultry and such from the butcher counter, you get paper wrappers instead of plastic and foam, and that’s very good indeed. And frankly, not buying stuff like pre-whatevered produce is not only better for the plastic count, it’s better food as well. Better yet, find your local farmer’s market and buy there instead of the big name grocery stores. And frankly, if ever there was a plug for shopping as many parts of the world still do – What you need for a few days every few days – This strategy would be it.
The big picture view of all this is changing radically – China and various other countries don’t want our trash any more, because they’re all generating a hell of a lot more of their own – That makes our first world problems 100% ours, and we really can’t afford to be callous and clueless any more. We’re taking some significant strides to clean up our act, and we invite y’all to do the same – If every household does what they can, it’s a firm step in the right direction.
That might sound scary, and it sure would be, if you didn’t run a clean restaurant. Me, I welcome it, because frankly, this is Job #1, and I don’t ever want to be anything but stellar in our efforts to assure that folks who eat with us are absolutely safe in doing so.
That said, what about at the ol’ home front? While it’s a must in the business, it’s all too often lacking at home, so I thought we’d better revisit the ground rules and spell ‘em out in big letters. In this day and age when more and more foods are making folks sick and even killing some, you simply must take matters into your own hands.
You can and should print this one out and stick it to your fridge with one of those goofy magnets.
The Golden Rules
Understand and Respect the Food Temperature Danger Zone.
Bacteria love temperatures between 40º F and 140º F, so naturally, we want to strictly limit food from hanging out in that range. The mantra is ‘Keep cold food cold and hot food hot,’ and yes, it is that simple. Couple temperature with time, and you’re ahead of the curve. Don’t let anything hang in the zone for longer than 60 minutes, and that’s a total running time. Think about this: Between shopping, prep, and finally cooking, how much time has elapsed with food in the temperature danger zone? You buy a steak first thing at the store, and you’re doing a good sized shopping, comparing, saving, all that proper stuff. By the time you get that steak home and in the fridge, how long has it been in the danger zone? For most of us, I’ll bet you’re real close to an hour, and you haven’t even started prepping and cooking yet. Before we fix that issue, let’s look a bit closer at the spectrum itself.
Cooking, Prep, & Storage Temperature Ranges
165°F+ – Most bacteria die within seconds
141°F to 164°F – Safe range for holding hot foods. Bacteria aren’t killed, but don’t multiply.
40°F to 140°F – Food Temperature Danger Zone: Bacteria thrive and multiply. Perishable foods spend NO MORE than one hour here, period.
33°F to 39°F – Fridge range. Bacteria aren’t killed, but they multiply relatively slowly. Food is safe here for a limited time.
32°F – Freezer zone. Bacteria aren’t killed but don’t multiply. Note that, gang; freezing does not kill bacteria, it just puts them into suspended animation. If ever there was a reason to follow safe food handling practices at home, this is it, since this is the long-term food storage method the vast majority of us use.
Here are the specific methods you need to adopt.
1. Prep potentially hazardous food like the professionals do, which is ice to ice.
When you pull potentially hazardous foods out to prep, place them in a double pan or bowl, with a thin bed of ice beneath the one holding your food. Do the same with the plate, pot, or bowl you’re prepping into. This simple process will truly help keep you and yours much safer.
2. Cook smarter, not harder.
Use a thermometer when you cook, so you’re cooking to temperature, not to time. If you’re not using a thermometer and you’re not a seasoned cooking pro, how do you know what temperature you’re cooking something to? Fact is, you probably don’t, and that’s not good for food safety or quality. The top end of the Food Temperature Danger Zone, 140º F is not the temp at which bacteria die, it’s just the point at which they more or less stop multiplying. You need 165º F to kill most things that can hurt you, like salmonella and e. coli, and that’s 165º F internal temperature. No thermometer equals not sure, and not sure equals not good, so fix that. You’ll want a thermometer that allows recalibration, and you’ll need to read the directions on how to do so. Here’s a link to the model I use at home and at work; it’s the fastest, most accurate, reasonably priced model for home use I’ve found.
3. Get cooked food out of the danger zone ASAP.
Within the food safety danger zone, the temperature range between 125° and 70°F allows for the most rapid growth of microorganisms. As such, you’ve got to get leftovers that have been cooked out of that range as quickly as possible. The 2-stage cooling method is what we use in professional kitchens. That means you want to,
Cool from 140°F to 70°F with two hours, and then
Cool from 70°F to 41°F or below within four hours.
That initial two hour cool is the most critical time period, since that’s when the food is passing through the most dangerous temperature range. Here’s the hard and fast secondary rule you’ve got to strictly abide by:
If food has not reached 70°F within two hours, it must be reheated to an internal temperature of 165°F for 15 seconds and then properly cooled again, or thrown away.
Keep in mind the unassailable fact that food needs help cooling down quickly; it can’t do it on its own. Critical factors that affect how quickly foods will cool down include,
Size of the food item being cooled, (thickness, or distance to its center, plays the biggest part in how fast a food cools).
Density of the food, (the denser the food, the slower it cools).
What the storage container you use is made of. Glass and stainless steel transfer heat from foods faster than plastic. If you’re using plastic wrap, leave it loose at first, to allow cold air to freely circulate around the food; once it’s cooled, tighten up the wrapping to keep air away and avoid drying out and cross-contamination.
Size of the container. Shallow pans, (depth less than two inches), allow heat from food to dissipate faster than deeper ones.
And here is a concept you absolutely must embrace wholeheartedly – Food will not move through the temperature danger zone fast enough if it is still hot when placed in the fridge or freezer. In fact, sticking hot food straight into the fridge can actually raise the temperature of everything in there, putting a whole lot of your food into the temperature danger zone. Sound crazy? Ever put a big pot of soup or stew into the fridge, including the steel pot? I rest my case… Here’s how to properly handle things.
* Reduce the size. Cut large hunks of food into smaller pieces for storage. Take that soup out of the pot and transfer it to smaller containers.
* Use an ice-water bath, (50% each, ice and water), and stir foods that are stirrable for fast, even cooling.
NOTE: The only way to accurately know that time and temperature requirements are being met is by actively monitoring the process. That means that you need to use your thermometer for cooling as well, (Look closely at your favorite cooking show; I’ll bet you’ll see that the real chefs all have pocket thermometers). Get used to regularly check temperatures and monitoring the time.
4. Keep it all clean.
Wash your hands with hot, soapy water, actively, for at least 20 seconds. Do it before and after you work with food that has greater potential for bacteria, like meat, poultry and fish, and do it again before you move on to prepping something else. Wash and sanitize your cutting boards (Use a mild bleach solution on those; they’re semi-porous, so you really need to pay attention to cleaning them), knives, and anything else that touched potentially high risk foods before you prep something else with them. Does your sponge stink? If it’s not dirty and worn out, toss it into your microwave for 30 seconds; it’ll come out smelling much better, because you’ve offed some bacteria. If it is worn out and dirty, toss it and use a fresh one; same goes for kitchen towels.
5. Don’t defrost or marinate at room temperature.
Best practice is to defrost in the fridge. If you must defrost quickly, fill a bowl big enough to hold what you’re working with the coldest water you can get from your tap, immerse the food in the water and let it run as low as you can get it until it’s ready. NOTE: If you cannot get water colder than 70º F, do NOT use this method, period!
6. Use your senses and resources.
When food spoils, is it dangerous? The answer is, not always but quite possibly, so err to the side of caution, (Making cheese is basically controlled spoilage, as is fermentation). Bacteria like the same things we do, from food to comfy conditions, so always keep that in mind. When food spoils, rots, etc, it looks, smells, tastes and feels off; respect your senses and let it go if it ain’t right. I can guarantee you won’t get sick if you don’t eat it. Bacteria need pretty specific conditions to thrive, involving the temperature, moisture and PH level of the things they live on, AKA, our food. Know the attributes of the food you’re cooking and storing and act accordingly. Use the section of your fridge meant for butter, cheese, eggs, veggies and fruit; modern fridges really can help control moisture levels as well as temp, so allow them to do their thing.
7. Reheat properly.
When reheating hot food, get it back up above 165º F internal temperature before you serve it. Sad as it may seem, you only get one shot at it – No second reheats – So plan, portion and cook accordingly.
Follow these rules religiously. Take care when you buy; always look for quality and freshness, get to know your purveyors, buy locally whenever possible. Make it at home whenever possible.
Consider this shocker, courtesy of the Natural Resources Defense Council, “Over this Thanksgiving week, Americans will throw out almost 200 million pounds of turkey alone.” That’s one weekend, gang. They go on to state that, “The average household of four is wasting about $1,800 annually on food that they buy and then never wind up eating.” And there’s more – “A recent survey in three U.S. cities found that the average American tosses out 2.5 pounds of perfectly edible food each week. At the top of the list: produce and leftovers.” And the coup de grace, “Households are actually the biggest contributor to the amount of food going to waste across the country — more than grocery stores or restaurants or any other sector.” All that food is the primary thing sent to dumps and landfills in this county, and that leads directly to the production of a hell of a lot of methane as all that stuff decomposes. Methane is a serious greenhouse gas – Not good in a world that’s rapidly heating up.
Now if you doubt those household waste figures, let me share something with you – As the General Manager of a cafe that does well north of 4 million bucks in sales annually, I have a few real concerns to deal with – I need to keep my folks happy, my guests safe and happy, and make money for my company. That’s it, in a nutshell. Do those things, and everything else will fall in place. Now, we certainly have waste, but let me put it into perspective for you – Our waste, our total waste, from a full time bakery and a kitchen putting out those kind of numbers, is around 3%. That’s roughly 1.5% from both sides, café and bakery. Now, compare that to the figures from the NRDC above and tell me – Do y’all think you’re anywhere near that efficient? The answer is a resounding NO – Not even close. That’s what we need to fix, because friends and neighbors? Your concerns are not any different than mine are, truth be told – You have to keep your crew happy, safe, and fed, and you cannot afford to waste the kind of money those figures up there reflect – None of us can.
There’s your post holiday bummer for you. So, as I always like to ask when somebody brings me gratuitous doom and gloom – What are we gonna do about it? Well, again, what we’re going to do is go back to talking about planning, and about thorough use of the food we buy. Why? Because we must, without fail.
That concept I mentioned, thorough use of what we buy, starts with shopping. So let me ask – When you shop, you make a list, right? If not, (and I know there are some of you who just wing it, so stop fibbing), you’ve got to start planning, carefully, if you’re going to avoid the kind of food waste we’re guilty of here. That means going through your pantry, cupboards, freezer, and fridge, and seeing what you’ve got and what you might need.
The idea here is to change a critical aspect of the way most of us shop – Instead of thinking about what might be fun or nice to buy, we need to look at what’s already in your kitchen with a couple of perspectives – First, what do I already got that’d be great to cook with, and secondly, what do I got that needs to be dealt with right now – before it turns to waste?
When you do that, you find the things that are maybe on the verge of going bad, and you use them, convert them, make them into something you’ll cook with, rather than let them go to waste. Got tomatoes about to become long in the tooth? Put them in an airtight container and freeze them. You can make sauce, soup, or stew later, when you’re ready. In fact, any and every vegetable or fruit you’ve got that is ‘getting there’ should be treated this way – You don’t really think folks buy bananas intending to make banana bread, do you?
Case in point – M and I invented a Chicago Dog Pizza the other night, because, one – we wanted pizza, and two – We didn’t have any of the proteins we’d normally put on pizza, (No ham, pepperoni, mozzarella, etc) – What we did have was two very good locally made hot dogs that needed to get eaten, some sport peppers, and a couple tomatoes that needed to get used as well. I made some dough, and a sauce tinged with a little zing of yellow mustard and celery salt. We used cheddar cheese, and a little sweet onion, and it was actually fantastic – I’d go back to a place that makes that and order it again.
When I say ‘go through your freezer and fridge,’ I mean it! Touch everything there – EVERYTHING! We do this daily in restaurant work, and you should do it at least weekly at home – That’s the number one way to find stuff that needs to get used and get it in play before its too far gone, (And conversely, not doing so is the number one reason we waste so much food). I’ve seen a lot of fridges and freezers in my day, and many are downright terrifying. Don’t let yours get there – Police it regularly, and practice FIFO at home, (First In, First Out), combined with dating things in there, and you’ll be well on your way to running a tighter ship.
When you do make that list, think in much broader terms than one meal at a time. A chicken, one nice, fat fresh chicken, can easily make three meals – Roasted chicken, chicken tacos, chicken noodle soup. Turns that $15 bird into a much more efficient protein, doesn’t it? We talked pretty extensively about this in a couple of posts, one on Meal Planning, and one on Planning for Leftovers – Check those out.
And then, when you’re ready to go to the store, do yourselves a favor – Abide by the old adage, ‘Don’t shop hungry.’ Seriously – It’s why we shop on Sundays, our mutual day off, and go out to eat beforehand. Hungry shopping leads to binge shopping, and that’s bad for the wallet and the waste log. Stick to your list, and you’re good to go.
That’s not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t snag something that looks great when you’re there – Just be judicious in that vein. The reason we waste so much produce is because its pretty, and stores do a great job of presenting it. That’s fine, and it’s stuff you should eat, but if you go getting all crazy in that department, thinking you’re going to use all this stuff before it spoils, nine times out of ten, you’re dead wrong – Pick a thing or two at most, and make sure you use it. If it floats your boat, add it to your list downstream. If it doesn’t, then move on.
A lot, and I mean a lot of folks snag stuff because they’ve heard of it, seen it on Iron Chef, or something along that line – The question is, do you know what Jicama tastes like? (It’s great, by the way – Sorry…) This being the 21st century, whip out the ol’ smart phone and do a quick research on what it is that’s got your attention. You may or may not like turnips, Chinese long beans, or star fruit, and a quick check can give you enough of a clue to make a more informed decision than, ‘it’s so pretty.’
Finally, when you get your booty home, think about waste when you start to cook. What we throw away day in and day out isn’t always waste – A lot of it is food we didn’t use. Those NRDC quotes came from a piece NPR did with Massimo Bottura, a Michelin starred Chef who shows us how to think differently about what we throw away. He even got some friends together, like Mario Batali, Alain Ducasse, and Ferran Adrià, to name just a few, and wrote a cookbook aimed at reducing household food waste. It’s a spiral-bound gem titled, Bread is Gold, and you want it in your culinary library. Check out the NPR piece here.
To get you started, here’s the best potato stock you’ll ever make. It’s a great thing to make, divide into portions, and whip out to make amazing sauce, soup, or stews with.
Potato Peel Stock
5 Cups Water
Peels only from 6-8 Potatoes
1 medium Sweet Onion
1 stalk Celery
1 Bay Leaf
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon Fresh Ground Pepper
Rinse and rough chop onion, carrots, and celery.
Throw everything into a stock pot over high heat until it begins to boil.
Reduce heat to maintain a simmer, and cook for 2 hours.
Remove from heat, run the stock through a colander and discard the veggies
Allow to cool to room temperature, then portion and freeze, or use right away.
And finally, for the record, Kevin Rosinbum, a talented photographer and cook I know wrote this yesterday afternoon, above a picture of a glorious pot of homemade soup. “If you toss out your holiday carcass, you’ve already lost.” Truer words were never written.
We had that turkey dinner of course, followed by two rounds of stunningly delicious sandwiches, (I think I like them best of all). After that, what was left of the meat got pared off the carcass, and that got thrown into the oven to roast, and then into the slow cooker – Just the carcass and the aromatics it had cooked in – covered with water and left to do its thing for 8 hours. The result, strained once, is the most unctuous, fragrant, amazing stock you could ever hope for. With carrots, celery, garlic, leftover potatoes, and the rest of the meat, it’s now a pot of our own glorious soup, simmering away as I type.
I tweak and republish this post annually; I think you’ll see why when you read it.
See, I’m not out to be tragically hip, in fact quite the contrary. Or maybe Matthew Selman said it best; “I wish there was another word than foodie; how about ‘super food asshole’, or ‘pretentious food jerk’?” I just don’t wanna go there.
Granted, there are a lot of great food blogs out there, but right now, many are judged ‘Great’ because somebody took a really, really nice pic of some food, or is on the fast track to be the next Food Channel Super Food Asshole. Frankly, when the ‘best’ food blog sites reject people because they don’t meet criterion such as that, I’m more than not interested, I’m actively turned off.
I write about food from some pretty simple perspectives. I’m interested in sharing recipes, methods, processes and such. I’m interested in sourcing, using wisely, and preserving food that is good for you, in a world where much of what we are offered to eat is not very good. I’m interested in the science behind cooking, because I’ve never liked simply being told to ‘do it this way.’ I trust that if you’re reading this, you’re interested in these things as well. To be honest, if no one read this blog, I’d write it anyway, because I do it for me first and foremost; I gotta share what I love. That’s just how I’m wired.
So, when I look at ‘real’ food blogs, I see the stuff that, fairly often, folks ask me about here, or more to the point, ask me why I don’t do these things. There are three oft repeated comments, and they are,
Why don’t you list nutritionals and calories,
Why don’t you post prep and cooking times, and
Why do you post exotic ingredients that I’m not likely to have?
So, in a nutshell, here’s why;
Frankly, listing nutritionals means, more than anything, that I am determining what kind of portion size you and yours eat, and frankly, I don’t have any idea about that. If I list a casserole recipe and you make it, how much do you eat? How about your partner? Do you have seconds, are there leftovers, and on and on. This ain’t a restaurant, and I’d bet your house isn’t either; neither of us needs everyone to eat the same portion. For the record, I predominantly do recipes for two, with planned leftovers, the idea being general efficiency, and the fact that anything good will be great the next day. Other than that, you’re kinda on your own. I mean I can give you a great biscuit recipe, but how big you make ’em, and how many y’all wolf down is kinda your gig, right?
Don’t get me wrong, nutrition IS important and should be monitored in some way, shape, or form. The best way to this is to buy carefully and thoughtfully. Buy locally whenever you can. Read the labels on food and avoid the stuff that’s truly bad for you. Grow anything and everything you can. Preserve what you buy or grow so that you can notably extend the time it is available to you. Make everything you can, from scratch, at home. That may sound more intensive than what you do now, but if you really care about nutrition, you’ll do it. And as far as we go, whenever you need or want detailed nutritionals on our recipes, just click on our link for Calorie Count and go to town. There’s a mobile version out for your Apple or Android smart phone as well now.
Next comes prep and cooking time.
Weeeeeellllll, how do I say this? Listing prep time is, in my not even remotely close to humble opinion, one of the dumbest things I’ve ever read. The problem is actually pretty obvious. Listing prep time says we all prep at the same level, and nothing could be further from the truth. Heck, I have three preppers in my cafe and they all perform differently… So really, the question is who’s prep time are we talking about? Mine? Yours? Emeril’s? I’ve been cutting things for decades and have pretty damn good knife skills; do you? I can stem, seed and core a tomato blindfolded, without cutting myself, in about 15 seconds; can you? I don’t even think about process and procedure any more, it just comes naturally; does it for you? And if your answers are ‘No’, does that make you slow? If I can prep Dish A in 10 minutes and you take 20, should you not make that dish? Of course not! And really, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. How about what ingredients you have right on hand when you start your prep, how well equipped your kitchen is, how your day went, how many rug rats are flying around your feet, or how many critters need to go out right NOW?! Get the picture? My bottom line is simple – Who gives a rats ass how long it takes if you have the time and want to make it? If you’re cooking regularly, you either already have a decent sense of what you can and will accomplish in a given time, or you will develop one in time. If you really do like cooking and want to do it, you’ll do it.
Finally, there’s the exotic ingredient thing. Yes, I have a whacky spice cabinet. You may or may not have a pantry like ours, but I really don’t think that matters. We have all this stuff because we dedicated lot of time and energy into developing and perfecting recipes to share with y’all. Whether or not you need that much stuff is up to you. Does a couple avocado leaves and a little annatto really make or break good chili? If you’re asking me, I think the question is rhetorical. And frankly, I don’t buy the ‘why do you use ingredients I’m not likely to have’ complaint for a second; in this day and age, almost anyone in this country, and many others, can get anything they want. I recently shared a bacon recipe with a pal from South Africa. He ended up having to go all over creation to find several ingredients, but he did it, ’cause he really wants to try my recipe. Kinda like that last discussion on prep and cooking, huh? Ive mailed corn meal to Australia and mustard seed to Israel; if you can’t get something you wanna try, hit me up, I’ll help. I’ve also gotta point out that we constantly encourage and desire experimentation, so if you’re making it, put what you like in it: Give us credit the first time, and then it’s yours…
I say that if you love cooking and great food, maybe you should check out Tasmanian Pepperberry, or Urfa Bebir; who knows what you’ll do with them?
We do this because dear friends who love to grow, cook, preserve and explore as much as we do asked us to. We do this because we have a love for good food and cooking shared. We do this because we hope to inspire such in y’all. If that ain’t good enough, so be it.
It used to be plainly called High Fructose Corn Syrup – Now, the FDA in all its lack of wisdom is allowing it to be called, and I’m not making this up, ‘natural sweetener.‘
This stuff is insidious, responsible for major health problems all over the world.
Call bullshit when it’s when it’s necessary, and this is – Caveat emptor, gang!
For this week, here’s Real Farmacy making more sense than anything you see from our government. Check it out, and let’s get crackin’!