Salt Cured Egg Yolks

There’s no telling how long people have been preserving eggs. As one of natures most amazing sources of energy and great taste, there’s always been great interest in having them available whenever desired. Whether by brine, smoke, or chemistry, there are a bunch of ways to do it. And it’s a natural progression to go from preserving the whole egg to just focusing on the yolk, since that’s where all the really good stuff is – and if you’re going to do that, there’s nothing easier or more effective that a simple salt cure.

Egg yolks are a nutritional powerhouse. All the fat and roughly half the protein an egg possesses is in there, along with a very long list of other things – carbohydrates, amino acids, vital trace nutrients, minerals, vitamins, and yeah, a healthy shot of cholesterol, but that’s had a bad rap for far too long. Donald K. Layman, Professor Emeritus of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Illinois has gone so far as to say that, “cutting dietary cholesterol is almost irrelevant when it comes to promoting healthy blood cholesterol levels and heart health.” While that’s not an endorsement to go off and start an all Twinkie diet, it does get eggs and a bunch of other formerly vilified foods off the hook.

Century Egg - Seriously acquired taste
Century Egg – Seriously acquired taste

There are a raft of preserved egg and yolk examples out there. The Chinese alone have been doing this for hundreds of years, exemplified by the so called Century Egg, which appeared in Hunan province during the Ming Dynasty. This, like rotten shark, is an acquired taste to say the least – They make durian seem tame – and yes, I’ve tried one, and I won’t do it again. To be fair, it’s the smell more than the taste that’s severely off-putting – think of a multi-feline cat box unchanged for weeks, and you get close.

Smoked eggs are sublime
Smoked eggs are sublime

Smoked eggs are as they sound, done either with cold or hot smoke. They too are sublime – The smoke, and as such choice of wood used, adds a lovely depth and complexity to the egg – It exemplifies egg versatility to a surprising degree.

Salt cured whole eggs
Salt cured whole eggs

Then there’s the brined or salt cured whole egg, which is an entirely different experience – good ones are lovely, like a really good egg with over the top concentrated richness and umami. The star of course, is the yolk.

This whole exercise begs the question – why would I want to do it? Well, you either love egg yolk or you don’t – If you don’t, go out and play – if you do, read on. Egg yolk has a savory, smooth taste absolutely brimming with umami, and they’re pretty, to boot. If we can create a version of that which intensifies the umami, and makes them instantly usable whenever the whim hits, it’s worth doing.

There’s also the transformational consideration – Great food is all about taking something common and doing uncommon things with them – When the whole process is stunningly simple, it’s that much sexier in the end run – And salt cured egg yolks are very sexy indeed. What you end up with is something that you can and will grate, with a gloriously bright yellow color. Preserved yolk tastes like buttery cheese – rich but not cloying – with a high level of umami added to whatever floats your boat – And it will, believe me – On pasta, pizza, salads, veggies, you name it, a little grating of this is stunningly good.

On to the process. It is a very simple thing, albeit there are a couple of versions, and we’ll cover both herein. As with all things simple in cooking, the first and most critical consideration is ingredient quality. If ever there’s a time to buy the freshest, most local eggs you can, this would be it. Since we’re merely concentrating that which already exists, mediocre will certainly breed mediocre. What you want is a stellar egg, one with a lovely orangish-yellow yolk, as fresh as you can get. Ditto for salt – you don’t need fancy, but you do want pure – high quality, coarse kosher or sea salt, with absolutely nothing else in it, is the key. Once you’ve got these together, do the deed the same day – It doesn’t take long, and that way you’re assured of taking full advantage of fresh stuff.

Set yolks in the salt cure
Set yolks in the salt cure

As for specific methodology, as mentioned, there are two primary schools – One uses just salt for the cure with passive secondary drying, while the other employs a salt and sugar cure coupled with mechanical drying in an oven or dehydrator. Both work fine, so it comes down to your predilection, and how fast you want to get done. Again, it’s so simple, it’s highly worth trying a batch of each and making your own comparison. From there, you can tweak whatever you like best to make it yours. Here’s the drill.

In both methods, the first step is the cure. You need a bunch of salt for this, depending on how many yolks you plan to do. Again, it’s super easy to do, so start with maybe four yolks, try out the results, then try the other method, pick your fave. To process a dozen yolks, you’ll need a pound of coarse kosher or sea salt. If you use the sugar/salt cure, it’s a 50%-50% blend of each – Use regular old cane sugar for that – Nothing fine or fancy needed. That’s the only difference in the cures.

Once you’ve chosen your cure, get an appropriately sized container big enough to hold how ever many yolks you want to process, as well as a bunch of cure. I like food storage containers with a snap fit lid for this – It’s gonna go in the fridge for a week, so it’s nice to have something that’ll stand up to daily use and exploration. Word to the wise, if you’ve got a bunch of folks in your house, tell them what you’re doing and point out the container – that can go a long way toward not having your stuff tossed or played with.

Pour an even layer of cure about 1/2″ thick into the container, then form a series of evenly spaced divots to receive how ever many yolks you’re gonna cure.

Have a second airtight container ready for your egg whites. Carefully separate yolks from whites, (You can and should freeze the whites for a future endeavor.) Slide a yolk into each little depression in the cure.

Now carefully cover the yolks with a nice, even layer of cure – Here again, you want about 1/2″ or so of cure over the tops of the yolks.

Seal up the container and slide it into the fridge, and leave it alone for a week.

Once your week is up, pull the yolks. Fill a small bowl with warm water, and have a clean piece of cheese cloth handy.

Cured
Cured

Take each yolk out of the cure, and brush excess cure off. Dip the cheese cloth into the water and use that to gently clean as much cure off of the yolks as you can – At this stage, they’re still a little tacky, which is just fine – Don’t freak out if the cleaning process is taking a bit of yolk with it, but again, be gentle.

Now comes the division between finishing steps.

If you’re going the passive route, then all you need is some more clean cheese cloth. Wrap each yolk in a hunk of that and tie it off with kitchen twine.

After that, hang it from a shelf in your fridge so that each yolk has good air flow all around it. Leave them there for at least a week, and two is better. When that’s done, you’re done, and you can go to town with them.

If you prefer the faster mechanical method, then you’ll set your oven or an adjustable dehydrator to 200° F. Put the yolks on a silicone pad or parchment if you’re using the oven, onto a rack if you’re going dehydrator. Let the yolks dry for 45 minutes. Remove from heat, allow to cool to room temp before refrigerating.

Grated salt cured egg yolk
Grated salt cured egg yolk

Either way you choose, the yolks, refrigerated in a non-reactive, airtight container will last at least a month, (but they won’t, ’cause you’ll scarf ’em down.)

Salt cured egg yolk on house made pizza - Si!
Salt cured egg yolk on house made pizza – Si!

Now, back there a ways I mentioned that you can tweak things, and you can – herbs and spices in the cure are par for the course, so have some fun, use your imagination, and let me know what you come up with, yeah?

Salt Potatoes

I have a favorite kitchen mantra that goes like this – Simple is always good, but not always easy. The implications are rife in that phrase – Simple is always good, but our inclinations sometimes work against it. And then as stated, simple just isn’t always easy, in fact sometimes it’s deceptively hard. Yet when we bow to the sublime, amazing things can happen. Salt potatoes are such a thing. Chances are you’ve never had them, and if you have, you’ve been given an origin story for the dish. It’s safe bet they’re far older than you were lead to believe, and more widely travelled to boot.

There are over 5000 potato varieties world wide
There are over 5000 potato varieties world wide

The potato, (most often Solanum tuberosum), is another gift from the Andes, specifically southern Peru and northwest Bolivia, where it was first domesticated somewhere around 8000 to 5000 BC – Yes, that means roughly 7000 to 10,000 years ago. Brought to Europe in the mid 1500s by, (yup, you guessed it), those marauding Spaniards, the spud is now cultivated worldwide, though of the roughly 5,000 varieties known around the globe, over 3,000 are still found in the Andes – Think about that the next time you’re picking between russet, gold, or reds at the store. If ever there was a crop begging to be expanded in your garden, this is it.

Initially, Europe wasn’t crazy about the potato, especially, and maybe most strangely, in the northern climes where potatoes do quite well. Part of the reticence may lie in their Solanaceae family roots, which includes some pretty dangerous plants, (and the leaves and green skins of potatoes exposed to light.) Over time, the nutritional punch made its way through the naysayers, and by the 1800s, potatoes were in heavy cultivation throughout most of Europe. A raw potato is 80% water, followed by 16% carbs, and about 4% protein, and are rich in vitamin B and C. While cooking degrades some of the nutrient value, they’re still a relatively good bang for the buck, which is why they’re the worlds forth largest food crop – And over 68% of those grown are eaten directly by humans, to the tune of an average of 72 pounds annually. These days, over 37% of world production happens in China and India.

And of all the myriad ways to cook a potato, who’d have thought to just boil them in brine? Turns out, pretty much everybody, although some lay heavier claims than others. Look up salt potatoes, and in this country, most of what you’ll find will claim that they were invented in Syracuse, New York. Now, that’s simply not true, but there is a reason that one of these far flung claims resides there – Syracuse was a major salt production and shipping center in the 19th century.

Syracuse New York, the American Venice.
Syracuse New York, the American Venice.

In the fall of 1825, the last section of the Erie Canal was completed. Running east to west, the Erie connected to the north-south running Oswego canal at a little town called Syracuse. With canals running right through town, Syracuse picked up the moniker as the American Venice. The Erie Canal had been built to move Onondaga Salt to New York City and the world, and for a while, it worked really well. As fate would have it, bunch of those old Salt workers were Irish, and they truly loved their potatoes, and regularly cooked those and corn in brine, but they didn’t invent the dish.

Papas Saladas - Andean Magic
Papas Saladas – Andean Magic

Who did remains shrouded in mystery, but it’s a good guess it started down in South America. There, among many local versions, you’ll find papas saladas, that hail from, of course, another salt mining town. In the Canary Islands, they’re papas arrugadas, (which we mentioned in our Mojo post), and in the Guérande salt producing region of France, they’re patate cuit au sel. And of course there’s many more – Chances are very good you’ll find a version in every country, and many will claim origination – imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?

Papas Arrugadas - Canary Island Magic
Papas Arrugadas – Canary Island Magic

If you’ve never tried salt potatoes, trust me when I tell you it’s time. They’re a perfect summer accompaniment to grilled meats and veggies, and they’re delicious enough to stand alone. While the method and ingredients couldn’t be simpler, there is a bit of slightly complex chemistry going on under the hood of this one.

Right off hand, it’s not outrageous to question how good a potato boiled in brine will taste. The assumption is that way too much salt will get into that spud, making for an unpleasant, out of balance experience. Fortunately, that’s not what happens. Here’s the magic – One, cooking in a brine solution raises the boiling point higher than plain old water, (just as it lowers the freezing point when making ice cream), and two, the thin salt crust that forms on the spuds acts as a barrier, keep excess salt and water out. As a result, the potatoes effectively steam in their own skins, and you only end up with that thin layer of crystallized salt on the outside of the skins. That leads to an amazingly fluffy spud with a super tasty skin, just right for dipping in melted butter, gribiche, mojo, sauce diable, or chimichurri. As I mentioned, they’re stunningly good, good enough to eat as a meal, with little bowls of this and that to add as you please.

There are slightly different cooking methods around the globe – Some boil in brine and drain, (The Syracuse method), others boil the brine completely away with the spuds still in the pan, (I prefer the latter method.) They’re all worth trying, but this one will set you well for your first endeavor. As with all simple dishes, quality and freshness count – Freshly dug, local spuds from a farmers market deserve this dish – Old, soft, mealy, bulk spuds do not. Same goes for salt – This is the time to use something good – Sel de mere, Bolivian Sunrise, Himalayan pink, or Maldon – Whatever the unique signature the salt bears will play out beautifully. All salts do not have equal volume so you’ll be best served by weighing it out.

Perfect Salt Potatoes
Perfect Salt Potatoes

Salt Crusted Potatoes

1 Pound fresh new or fingerling potatoes, (You want something in the 1″ to 2″ range, and pretty uniform in size)
1 Ounce really good Salt.

In a heavy sauce pan over high heat, add potatoes, salt, and just enough water to cover the spuds.

Once you reach a boil, reduce heat to maintain a steady simmer. Cook potatoes until fork tender, about 20 minutes.

Pour off all but about a half inch of water. Put the pot back on the burner and turn heat to high.

Use a wooden spoon to roll spuds through the remaining brine as it begins to boil off. You’ll see the salt crystalizing on your spuds as this occurs – It’ll take a few minutes for the brine to disappear.

Continue gently rolling the spuds in the dry pan for another couple of minutes, until the salt crust evenly coats each potato and the skins start to get slinky wrinkly.

Remove from heat to a serving bowl and serve promptly.

Sourdough

Sourdough. Yes, that. It’s funny that sourdough gets called things like ‘rustic’ or ‘rough’ as often as it does. Rustic is fine – if it’s not used in the pejorative sense – Rustic, as in, of the countryside, and of simple roots. The latter term, rough – Not so much. Great sourdough is anything but rough. And making great sourdough is far, far harder than many other breads. At work, we bake it every day, and it’s good sourdough, but it is, after all, production bread. Production is only half the reason that it’s good and not great sourdough – The other half of the equation is magic – The starter, because the real beauty of sourdough is fact that there’s arguably no food more tied to terroir – What you get is, eventually, exactly where you’re from – And that’s what makes great sourdough as much science as it is art. Interested? If you’ve ever wanted to do sourdough, but never dove in, now’s your time.

There are a lot of myths about sourdough, concerning everything from where and how we get it from, to how to properly make it. What we’ll endeavor to do here is to spell out some truths, deflate some of those myths, and offer a launching pad for future discovery, should you be so inclined. Even if you don’t decide to take the plunge, hopefully, you’ll have a better feel for what sourdough is, and the truly amazing amount of work that goes into making it. Believe that last statement, by the way – While making some form of sourdough is as easy as any other bread, doing it right is quite labor intensive. The parable that comes to mind is making farmhouse cheddar versus making real cheddar – The former is easy and fast – The latter takes literally all day, and requires such to be worth the effort. Sourdough done the traditional way is the cheddar of bread making.

Back in 1989, a pathologist named Ed Wood wrote a book, titled World Sourdoughs From Antiquity. Prior to that, Wood was working in Saudi Arabia. He did some traveling throughout the Middle East, and as a long time fan of sourdough, came upon myriad evidence of the long run sourdough has enjoyed in that part of the world. Wood noted that evidence of sourdough cultures that existed as far back as 10,000 B.C., and he’s right. He began collecting cultures, a thing a pathologist would naturally be quite good at. Eventually, he expanded his discovery and collection into the wider world, and ended up writing the book. He also maintained and cultivated all those various cultures, and to this very day, is more than happy to sell them to you. The book is, more than anything, a vehicle to do just that. This illustrates one of the most popular myths and challenges about sourdough – More on that in a bit.

Symbiosis at work...
Symbiosis at work…

First off, what exactly is it that powers sourdough – How does it really work? The root is indeed wild yeast, and that differs distinctly from the pure cultured yeasts used by the vast majority of bread makers. Back before Louis Pasteur figured out the fermentation process in 1857, bread yeast was largely sourced from yeast leftover from beer and wine making. The big problem with that lies in the fact that these yeasts were really chosen for their ability to make alcohol, not to generate the CO2 that bread makers needed.

Enter Charles Fleischmann eleven years later, in 1868. The Hungarian son of a distiller and yeast maker, when he emigrated to the U.S. and moved to Cincinnati, he was sorely disappointed in the quality of the bread he found there. He and his brothers developed a stable, reliable cake yeast for bakers, and the rest is history – And yes, those little bright yellow and red packages in your fridge are his work. That innovation was a major factor that lead to the mighty monolith that is industrial baking today, (over 75% of the bread sold worldwide is industrially produced). Sourdough plays some role in that, from big makers to small, it’s never died out. Yet real sourdough is very different from that tame, pet yeast the big guys are using.

What makes sourdough work is a critical symbiotic relationship between yeast and a couple of bacteria, namely Lactobacillus and Acetobacillus. Those little dudes work with the wild yeasts, breaking down and fermenting the sugars they find in dough. What’s unique about this arrangement is that, unlike most bread doughs, sourdough is acidic, and it’s that acidity that is largely responsible for the unique taste profile. Often enough, these bacteria are some of the same strains that turn milk into yoghurt and buttermilk. That’s not all – Sourdough bacteria have the distinct ability to resist other microbes that cause bread to go bad, and that’s why sourdough keeps better than most other breads.

Let it breath - Wild yeasts at work
Let it breath – Wild yeasts at work

So, here’s that first myth – That when in the comfort of your own home, you make a fresh sourdough starter, the wild yeast that becomes active is derived from the air around you. For the most part, at least starting out, it turns out that’s not true. The yeasts that’ll fuel your home starter comes predominantly from the flour you use – And if ever there was a fact warranting a wise flour buying choice, I’d say that’d be it. If and when you decide to make a starter of your own, (and you absolutely should), the flour you use should be the freshest, best quality, most local stuff you can find – When I made a batch for the writing of this piece, I spent over eight bucks for five pounds of local, organic, fresh flour from the town just south of ours, and believe me, were you able to stick your nose in my starter jar, you’d instantly know that it was worth every penny.

The other reason for local is this – Since the yeast that’ll power your starter comes off the flour, (and assuming you like the results), there’s a much greater chance that what you start out with is what you’ll get in the long haul, and therein lies the second myth we need to bust.

The Leaven - Sourdough Rocket Fuel.
The Leaven – Sourdough Rocket Fuel.

So, back to our buddy Ed Wood. He’s not a bad guy, and he obviously digs sourdough – He’s turned it into a successful business with a decades long track record. If you buy from a reputable place like Ed’s, you’ll get workable starters from where he says they came from. Yet, there’s one big problem with this whole concept of having your own San Francisco sourdough starter, if you don’t actually live there – and it’s not something that folks who sell this stuff necessarily want to talk about a whole bunch. Here’s the deal – Let’s say you make a starter with one of these legendary cultures, or even flour from some place well away from where you live – While any starter you make will rely on the culture you bought, (or again, from yeast in the flour you use), over time, the native wild yeasts in the air around you will indeed make their presence known. Eventually, your naive yeasts will prevail, and in the end run, that’s what will power your sourdough.

I did a pretty extensive review of foodie sites that had a lot of input and exchange from folks who have bought or been gifted starters from other places, and there’s a glaringly common thread therein – In essence, folks say that over time, all their various starters either started to taste a like, and/or less Iike they did when they first got it – A sure sign of native wild yeasts are stepping in and taking control. You can’t escape your local terroir, no matter how hard you try. I stopped making starters when we lived in Fort Worth, Texas, because to me, they just didn’t taste good. They worked fine, but tasted funky. Here, living right on the shore of the Pacific Ocean in the northwest corner of Washington State, I love what I get in my starter – It has a wonderful, briny nose to it that seems perfectly apropos. You get what you get.

So, you want to dive in – What to do? Well, rather than do my own step by step, I’m simply going to refer you to the best version I’ve seen in the subject anywhere, from the incredibly creative gang over at The Kitchn. You’ll find extensive text and pics for making and maintaining a starter, as well as several varieties of sourdough bread. While there are many ways to make sourdough, I find their primer the best out there – It’s as right as rain. That said, a few more thoughts on the process.

Weighing is always best, for everything you bake.
Weighing is always best, for everything you bake.

1. Pay heed to the caveats about how long sourdough takes to make. You really cannot successfully speed up the process. Wild yeasts are slower than their domesticated cousins, and you just have to be patient working with them. With sourdough, those friendly bacteria grow at a much faster rate than their symbiotic yeast partners – That ratio of growth eventually inhibits the yeasts ability to generate CO2, which is what gives us the lift for the rise. Additionally, those protein guzzling bacteria weaken the gluten in the flour, which mean your dough is less elastic – This also impacts the rise, but coincidentally contributes to the denser crumb sourdough is known for.

2. If you bake a lot, keep your starter at room temperature, and refresh them regularly with flour and water. When your starter is well established, you’ll want to toss half of it daily, and then refresh with 4 ounces each of flour and water. You can keep doing that, as long as you’re using it regularly. Whisking your starter a couple of times a day adds the oxygen your yeast needs to grow and multiply. Keep them relatively cool – under 74° F is ideal.

3. If you’re not going to use the starter for longer than 5 days or so, refrigerate it in an airtight glass jar. Once a week, pull your starter out before you go to bed, let it get up to room temperature overnight, and then feed it before refrigerating again.

4. If you’re taking a long break from baking, thicken your starter by adding 6 ounces of flour instead of 4 – Thick, doughy starters retard bacterial growth, which means less fussing with it for you. If you’re really gonna not be baking for a month or more, consider drying your starter out by spreading it thinly on parchment, waxed paper, or silicone baking sheets. When it’s fully dry, break up the starter into flakes and seal it in a clean, airtight glass jar. Dried, your cultures will last for months, just like Ed’s. 1/4 Cup of the flaked starter with 4 ounces each of water and flour will kick things back into gear for you.

Real deal sourdough
Real deal sourdough

So dive into those Kitchn posts and give them a spin – Your bread loving self and loved ones will thank you for it.

Creating Thick from Thin

I wish to make a declaration, and here it is – Monica makes better stew than I do. That’s because she unfailingly understands and implements the proper steps needed to separate a stew from a mere soup – She knows exactly how to thicken things up, and what to use in so doing – In other words, creating thick from thin.

Thickening is far more important to cooking than first glance might indicate. From baking to braising and sauces to stew, entire dishes, or critical components thereof, require a dependable thickening agent to turn out as expected. Let’s say you’re in the mood for pasta, and you want to keep things light. A pan sauce, made with stock, a little wine, a squeeze of lemon, salt and pepper would do nicely – Except that, as described, it won’t stick to pasta very well, and it will be watery – Not a very appetizing image. Add a touch of a decent thickening agent, however, and everything is transformed. The delicate flavors now have a stable framework to marry within, and your lovely pan sauce will stick heartily to your pasta. Three questions spring from this example – What are our options, how do they work, and which thickener works best for a specific application? Let’s find the answers.

In a word, what we mean when we say thickening agent, is starch. From flour to cornstarch, and arrowroot to potato starch, there’s a wide array of options for home cooks. In gnarly scientific terms, a starch is a polymeric carbohydrate, or polysaccharide – a really long chain of sugar molecules that most green plants use as a primary source of stored energy. These starches occur as really small granules for the most part, which is a big reason that they lend themselves so well to cooking. The ones that make their way into our kitchens come from cereals and tubers – Wheat, corn, potato, and cassava for the most part. Seaweed also gets the nod, although that’s not all that common in the home kitchen – Irish moss, carrageenan, agar, and eucheuma are common examples.

There are, of course, artificial versions as well, and if you eat the processed crap that lurks in the middle aisles of your local grocery, you’re eating those too – anything that reads ‘alginate’ is an industrially produced product, mostly seaweed derivatives, and variously labeled as a thickener, stabilizer, or emulsifier on product labels. Finally, the popularity of molecular gastronomy has lead to some hybridized versions of things that are actually pretty cool, and quite accessible to the home chef – More on those a bit later.

So, how do these little suckers work, anyway? The answer lies in the chemical properties of those long chains of sugar molecules when they’re heated. Thickening gone wrong in the kitchen is like hitting a deer in eastern Washington – There’s those who’ve done it, and them’s who are gonna. Almost without fail, what’s at issue is a failed introduction. The oldest and most common starches found in the average home kitchen are flour and cornstarch, and those two just don’t mix with cold liquids. Once you introduce a starch to something hot, the magic begins – The starch granules begin to swell almost immediately, absorbing water. Once they hit their saturation point, the granules burst, adding more of those long chain molecules to the mix, and serious thickening begins. The starch expands, acting like a net and gathering as much liquid in as it can, and you’ve got gravy. How hot is hot enough to make this tiny miracle work? Flour and cornstarch are rich in amylose, and that little beastie needs to be almost to a boil to really reach its prime, although they’ll begin to work above 140° F.

Tapioca and cassava flour, on the other hand, contain another starch, amylopectin, and they don’t need to get close to a boil to work well – And for the record, tapioca and cassava are not the same thing – Tapioca is extracted from cassava roots by washing and pulping, while cassava is the whole root, peeled, dried and ground, as we covered recently in a post. Similarly, arrowroot as a dried version of a tropical tuber, and may come from one of several varieties, including cassava. More on this a bit later.

While we’re discussing how and why starches work as thickeners, it’s important to highlight some things that will hinder the thickening process. Acids, like that lemon juice and wine in our pan sauce, (as well as Vinegar of course), will weaken the thickening power of starch – not critically, in most formulations, but enough that we should be aware of it. The other common cooks mistake is tossing starch straight into a hot liquid. As many have discovered, that dog don’t hunt all that well. What happens is a very rapid gelatinization of the outsides of each starch lump. This effectively traps the rest of the stuff, leaving lumps of thickening agent and an embarrassed chef. What’s better, (and proper, frankly), is to draw off a half cup or so of whatever you’re wanting to thicken into a measuring cup, add the starch to that, mix thoroughly with a fork, and then pour that into the dish in progress – Stir that in thoroughly, and you’re giving your thickener the chance it needs to do its thing.

Time to answer that third question – What are the various thickeners best at, and how should they be deployed?

Flour power - limited sweet spot, but great at what it does.
Flour power – limited sweet spot, but great at what it does.

First comes flour, the go-to for most home cooks. The first things we’ll do, then, is talk about why maybe you don’t want flour to be your go-to. The reason? Putting it simply, flour isn’t a pure starch, as many other thickeners are – There are other proteins and whatnot in there, so ounce per ounce, flour has roughly 50% of the thickening power of pure starches. That means that it not only takes more to do the same job, but you get definite taste, textural, and visual notes when thickening with flour that you may not always want. Flour works best for stuff that won’t suffer from those potential shortcomings – White sauces, like béchamel, stews, and fricassées, for instance, and of course nothing else will truly do in a roux.

If you’re going to use flour for thickening, I highly recommend investing in Wondra – You’ll find it in most stores, in a round, blue and white can – Wondra is a low protein wheat flour that is roasted and dried, so it’s kinda like the Uncle Bens of flour. Because of that, it doesn’t clump, and makes excellent gravy and sauces – Its also great for dusting stuff you’re going to fry – It makes a nice, light coating. How best to deploy flour? You can add it to your aromatics at the beginning of the build process for a soup or stew – It’ll combine with the oil you use to sauté those veggies, and effectively create a roux. You can also coat your proteins in it, and then brown them – That’s Monica’s preferred method and it works great. You can also add flour to a cup or so of whatever you’re wanting to thicken with good results. One important note – Just as you need to cook canned tomatoes or beans long enough to get the can taste out, so must you cook flour thickened dishes to get rid of the raw flour taste – 3 to 5 minutes minimum at a steady simmer will do the trick.

Cornstarch, clean and quick, but likes to clump
Cornstarch, clean and quick, but likes to clump

Next up, cornstarch. Derived from, yes, corn, it’s a pure starch and a potent thickener. It imparts fewer indicators of its presence than flour does, and it can stand up to quite a bit of cooking without losing power. Because of that, it’s great for cream pies and puddings that require fairly lengthy cooking times. The potential downside of cornstarch lies in the fact that it’s more prone to clumping than any other starch – combine it with sugar when baking, or to enough liquid to form a smooth paste before introducing it to the main dish, to counteract its desire to clump. Cornstarch also provides a clearer finished product than flour – Something to keep in mind when appearance matters, (and when doesn’t appearance matter?)

Tapioca, in pearl or powder for, shines in pies
Tapioca, in pearl or powder for, shines in pies

Tapioca, which is extracted from cassava roots, can be found in pearl and powder form. It has, for my mind, a pretty narrow window of use. It’s great with fruit pies, jams, and jellies because it gels up more firmly than other starches, and holds a lot of liquid, and those qualities can really help keep a sweet treat from getting soggy. That said, it can be quite overwhelming, even cloying, hence the narrow window of opportunity. Note that tapioca does not do well on baked goodies with an open or lattice top, because it will not dissolve well when so deployed – With any pie, it’s a best practice to let the tapioca marry with the fruit for a good 10 minutes prior to baking. It’s also not great for soups and stews because it tends to break down quickly when exposed to relatively long cooking times.

Arrowroot - potent, fast, and clean
Arrowroot – potent, fast, and clean

Arrowroot is not widely used as a thickener, though it sure was back in the day – The earliest cultivation evidence for this stuff goes back over 7,000 years – It is enjoying somewhat of a comeback lately. Arrowroot is a favorite for its light footprint and formidable thickening power. Arrowroot comes from several rootstocks – Maranta Arundinacea or Manihot Esculenta, (AKA Cassava) in the tropics, Zamia integrifolia (Florida Arrowroot), and Pueraria Lobata, AKA Japanese arrowroot, also known as the dreaded Kudzu vine. The only no-no for this stuff is use with dairy – doing that will result in a most unpleasant, slimy consistency.

Otherwise, arrowroot works faster and more efficiently than either flour, cornstarch, or tapioca. It will thicken at a lower temperature, and won’t make clear stuff cloudy. You can even freeze stuff thickened with arrowroot, something no other options does very well at all. You can substitute 2 teaspoons of arrowroot in recipes calling for a tablespoon of cornstarch, and 1 teaspoon for those asking for a tablespoon of flour. When you use arrowroot, add it to warm liquid and mix well prior to introduction to a hot dish. As soon as whatever you’re working on thickens, remove it from heat, as arrowroot has limited tolerance for long cooking, (As such, it’s not what you want to use for pies, tarts, etc). Arrowroot has excellent resistance to the weakening effects of acids, so those soups, stews, and sauces with citrus, wine, or vinegar are prime turf for its use.

Potato Starch, old school and very cool
Potato Starch, old school and very cool

Potato starch is another thickener that you’ve not seen much in this country until recently, though it’s always been popular in Europe. Derived from, yep, potatoes, its recent popularity here is due to the fact that it’s one of the latest crown princes of the gluten free/super food hype parade. Beyond that, it’s another one I like a lot. Bob’s Red Mill makes great potato flour and starch, and is widely available. Potato starch is highly refined, meaning it has very little protein or fat in it – This yields a thickener with a truly neutral taste, great strength, fast action, durability, and most impressive clarity – That stock, wine, and citrus pan sauce we started with comes out beautifully with potato starch onboard.

Ultra Sperse is an amazing thickener
Ultra Sperse is an amazing thickener

And then there’s that molecular gastronomy stuff. Poke around a place like Molecular Recipes, where I like to get my stuff, and you’ll find a raft of thickeners. All those industrial thickeners I mentioned a while back are here, if that sort of thing floats your boat. There are also elegantly refined versions of more traditional stuff, like the product they call Ultra Sperse. This is a highly refined version of corn starch – So much so that you can add it to almost anything, hot or cold, and it will thicken quickly, robustly, and without making lumps. Ultra Sperse yields a clean tasting, clear, bright thickened product you can cook to your hearts content, or. Ore to the point, not if you prefer or need to do things cold. It’s amazing stuff, and I highly recommend it. THE USUAL DISCLAIMER – No, I don’t work for or with this outfit, nor do I get free or discounted stuff from them. I bought it, with my money, same as you can, and I recommend it because it’s great stuff you’ll like too.

And finally, never forget the power of leftovers – Case in point, we’ve just had thanksgiving, which lead to the full blown turkey and all the trimmings dinner. On day three, I made turkey stew, and thickened it with leftover gravy and mashed potatoes. It was stunningly rich and delicious. And of course gazpacho, that heavenly cold soup, absolutely must have day old bread used as the thickener – Anything else would be uncivilized. And a little corn flour is the bees knees in your next batch of chili.

So there you have it, some new stuff to go find and try, and a solid reference for future explorations.

Why do we rest meats?

Great question came in today, too; this one from Rob in New Zealand, “Just read your Southwest Pepper Steak recipe, and I saw where you wrote, ‘do NOT cut any flesh for at least 10 minutes after it’s off the heat.’ I see that a lot, so what’s the big deal?”

Great question, Rob. I’m guessing, since you ask, that you’ve never committed the sin itself! Meats need that rest to allow their juices to redistribute evenly throughout the meat after cooking, as the protein gradually cools. This happens because the relatively long fibers of muscle that make up the meat we eat are constricted as we cook them. Those fibers are filled with juices, mostly water. As they’re cooked, the fluids get pushed toward the outside of the meat, predominately because that liquid just doesn’t compress, so it’s gotta go somewhere, and out is where it’s got to go. The post cooking rest lets all that liquid come back to relative equilibrium. If you don’t wait and cut too quickly, most of those juices are gonna wind up on the plate, leaving you with a tough and not very tasty hunk of meat. 

Rests for steaks, chops, chicken, and like relatively smaller cuts should be 10 to 15 minutes. Large roasts should get 20 to 30 minutes.

Just for the record, the only method I can think of that doesn’t require a rest is sous vide – cooking a protein in a vacuum sealed package immersed in water that is circulated at a precisely controlled temperature. 99.9% of us home cooks won’t ever try that, but you sure can if you’d like to – It’s easier than it sounds and doesn’t require fancy equipment.

Sous Vide Steak

2 steaks, about 6 ounces each.

Sea Salt

Fresh ground Pepper
Have the steaks at room temperature, and season with salt and pepper about 30 minutes before cooking.

Fill a stock pot with water and put it over a large burner on medium heat. Have an instant read thermometer close at hand and monitor the water temperature. When it hits 135° F, reduce the heat until it’s holding that temperature quite closely – Maintaining that temp is key to the success of the process.

Prepare a cast iron skillet over a large burner on high heat, and have 2 heavy zip lock type bags big enough to each fit a steak.

When the skillet is smoking hot, sear each steak thoroughly on all sides, and make sure the biggest surfaces are well caramelized – This helps seal in flavor, and also kills bacteria before the proteins are immersed.

Remove the steaks and allow them to cool enough to handle briefly.

Slip a steak into a bag, seal 90% of the zip, and then suck the last air out, (try using a straw as my Sis advises. You can also immerse the bag in water, leaving just the unsealed corner above the surface, and let the water pressure do the job for you, but make sure no water gets in the bag.)

Slip the sealed bags gently into the hot water bath and allow them to cook, covered, for 60 minutes, (although up to 90 minutes won’t hurt anything at all.

Slide the bags out of the water, plates the steaks, add a little unsalted butter to each and serve right away.

Here’s a great sous vide time and temp guide from Chef Steps as well, including all sorts of veggies.

And for everything else, like I said – before you slice, give it a rest.

Blanching & Freezing Fresh Peas

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. Received this PM earlier today, from alert and hearteningly honest reader Sarah, who lives in the wilds of Cleveland, Ohio.

‘Recently saw the photos of your wife’s garden. It just so happens that I planted peas for the first time this year, and lo and behold, they actually grew! I ended up harvesting a big pot, and then realized that I really don’t know the step by step for preserving these things! Naturally, I though of you, so, what do I do?!’

Well, Sarah, first and foremost, I hope you know how much it thrills us that you thought of us first with such a great question. Secondly, good on ya for asking, and third, your timing couldn’t be better – Monica and our two lovely Granddaughters picked a whoppin’ big bowl full of fresh peas last night – They’ve headed for the park, and I’ve been tasked with pea processing – so let’s get after it!

Freezing really is the best thing to do with fresh peas. You didn’t mention the variety you grew, so first we’ll touch briefly on the three most common versions, shell, snow, and sugar snap. Shell, (also called garden, English, or Sweet), are thin skinned peas with an inedible shell. Snow peas, (also called Chinese pea pods), are smaller peas with a thicker, edible pod. Sugar snaps, (or just plain snap), peas are a cross between the former and the latter, with a very thick, edible pod and relatively large mature peas.

Snap, Snow, and Shell peas, respectively.
Snap, Snow, and Shell peas, respectively.

For both snow and snap varieties, while you can and should eat some whole when they’re just picked, it’s best to remove the fibrous strings that run along the seams before you do so.

Regardless of what variety you’ve grown, you’ll want to freeze them. Canning peas is laborious, and frankly, doesn’t yield very good taster or appearance. Shell peas must, of course, be shelled prior to freezing. Snow peas can be frozen whole, as long as they’re blanched first – If you don’t do that process diligently, you’ll end up with nasty, mushy results.

With snap peas, I’ve found that whole peas just don’t freeze very well; they’re really delicate things, which is why their freshness is so fleeting. For my mind, it’s best to eat and cook whole peas at the peak of their freshness, and to shell anything you’re going to freeze. Don’t toss the pods however; sauté them in a stir fry, or better yet, make a pea stock, which makes a phenomenal base for split pea soup. Here’s how.

Fresh pea stock is great for split pea soup
Fresh pea stock is great for split pea soup

Snap Pea Stock

10 Cups Water
4-6 Cups empty Snap Pea Pods
1/2 Cup Sweet Onion, rough chopped
1/4 Cup Carrot, rough chopped
2 Tablespoons Celeriac or Celery Leaf
1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
1 Bay Leaf

Put everything in a large stockpot over medium high heat.

As soon as the stock begins to simmer, cover and reduce the heat until you’ve got a very slow simmer; cook for 45 minutes.

Pour the stock carefully through a chinoise, or a colander lined with cheese cloth into a clean mixing bowl.

Allow to cool to room temperature.

Transfer to clean glass jars, or a freezer bag. May be frozen for up to 4 months, or refrigerated for 3-4 days prior to use.

Pea stock is surprisingly fragrant and lovely stuff to boot
Pea stock is surprisingly fragrant, flavorful, and lovely stuff to boot

To preserve those peas, you’ll need to shell them. As with all production cooking processes, set yourself up an area where you can have everything arranged right at hand. To shell fresh peas, grab one and turn it wide seam side up, with the stem away from you. Grab the stem between thumb and forefinger, and zip it back toward you – that’ll remove the fiber along the seam. Now zip your thumb nail along the seam and viola, your pea will open up like a book. Push the peas out of the pod and into a mixing bowl.

Now it’s time to blanch. There are a lot of questions about blanching, and most, if not all of them are answered here at one of my favorite cooking sites, serious eats. Blanching is a short, high temperature cooking cycle done in boiling water, followed by an immediate plunge into ice water. We blanch for three reasons when – To
destroy enzymes that begin to break produce down once they’ve been harvested, to preserve great color, and to keep them crisp – All very worthwhile pursuits, indeed.

The fine print for blanching is that you want two things without question – First, you need water at a steady boil through the relatively short cooking time, and secondly, you need to plunge what you blanched into ice water immediately after cooking. Those things are non-negotiable for the success of the process.

The old adage about using lots of water to blanch really doesn’t translate all that well to home kitchens – The logic ran that a relatively large volume of water won’t lose temperature as drastically when food is introduced. That’s true for commercial stoves, but not so much for home cooks – If you’re blanching in small batches at home, a pot with one quart, (4 cups), of water will actually recover a boil far faster than larger volumes.

Second issue is salting. The sages say ‘salt heavily’, and to some degree, that’s true. You want water about as salty as the ocean, or about 3%. The wonderful website Pickl-It has a super handy brine calculator that’ll let you dial that right in, (and its 1 ounce of salt for 1 quart of water). Now, this requires weighing, because the fact is, all salt weighs differently. I can’t recommend a small kitchen scale enough – They’re cheap, easy to use, and if you get at all serious about baking, you’ll want to have one anyway. I’ll give you a cheat and tell you that 1 ounce of the most popular kosher salt is roughly 5 teaspoons. While Harold McGee notes in his epic reference volume, On Food and Cooking, that salt tenderizes veggies by interacting with natural pectins, this also means that too much can make your peas soft.

Finally, there’s time. I don’t know how many folks I’ve heard say that you ‘blanch for about a minute,’ and frankly, that dog just don’t hunt. Blanching time varies depending on what’s being blanched, and you should pay attention to that. The Reluctant Gourmet has published a great blanching time list, so head over there, read and heed.

OK, now we’re ready. It’s possible I just made blanching sound really laborious, but it’s not at all. Set up a station so everything is close at hand. You’ll want a stock pot of salted water, a large bowl with ice water, and a single mesh strainer handy.

Everything set up to blanch
Everything set up to blanch

Shelled peas do indeed blanch for about a minute. For peas, corn, and a whole lot of veggies that are small individual things, I add about a half tablespoon of butter to the blanching water. It doesn’t impart much taste, and it helps them freeze without turning into a block of peas or whatnot.

A little butter in salted blanching water helps frozen veggies seperate
A little butter in salted blanching water helps frozen veggies seperate

Once your water is boiling merrily, throw in those shelled peas and count off a minute. As soon as the time is up, carefully pour the peas into a single mesh strainer and immediately into the ice water. Work the peas around gently with a slotted spoon to help them cool. Let them sit in the ice water for about 3 minutes, until they’re thoroughly cooled. Scoop off any remaining ice, pour the peas back through the strainer, then transfer them to a clean mixing bowl. Viola – bright, crisp blanched peas.

Blanched peas drained and ready for the ice water bath
Blanched peas drained and ready for the ice water bath
Plunge blanched peas into ice water immediately
Plunge blanched peas into ice water immediately
Fresh peas ready for the freezer
Fresh peas blanched and ready for the freezer

Now it’s time to package for freezing. A vacuum sealer is the bomb for such things, but not everybody has or really needs one. Next best thing is a nice, heavy freezer ziplock style bag. Portion the peas into bags based on your anticipated use – I portion for two, as you can always whip out an extra bag for guests. Seal about 90% of the bag, then suck all the air out that you can, and zip it all the way closed while you’re still sucking. That’ll do about as good a job as possible to deter freezer burn and keep things fresh. Label your stuff with the date, pop them in the freezer and you’re good to go.

Fresh peas ready for the freezer
Fresh peas ready for the freezer

So, there you go, Sarah – Maybe more than you asked for, but hey – You got me started! Happy preserving.

La Réaction de Maillard

If I told you that a French scientist working in the early twentieth century was responsible for the understanding of how a whole bunch of things you like to eat get the way they do when we cook them, would you be surprised? Louis Camille Maillard, (May-yard), was his name, and his work resonates throughout the kitchens of the world to this very day. What Maillard did was to explain why many foods turn brown, and why we like it when they do – La Réaction de Maillard.

Louis Maillard
Louis Maillard

For a guy who did such seminal work in the science of food, very little seems to be know about the man. He was born in 1878, in Pont-à-Mousson, a little town on the river Moselle, between Metz and Nancy, about 200 miles due east of Paris. Pont-à- Mousson was a village of roughly 8,000 souls in Maillard’s day. Since the late sixteenth century, there had been a Jesuit university there, with studies in theology, law, medicine, and the arts. The area was predominantly German speaking, and part of the Holy Roman Empire until 1766, when France claimed it and King Louie the Beloved moved the university to Nancy.
The town remained a center for the arts, sporting a bustling papier mâché factory. Located on a strategically important river crossing, Mousson was torn by war throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For such a tiny place, it sports more than its share of celebrity. In addition to Maillard, a saint, (Guarinus of Sitten), a Queen (Margaret of Anjou), a General (Geraud Duroc), and the inventor of the modern bicycle, (Pierre Lallement), all hailed from there.

Louie’s father was a medical doctor, his mother, a housewife. While there were professional bakers in the extended family, (who all hailed from the Lorraine region), nothing in the sparse information available regarding Maillard’s upbringing points to food. He began university studies at the tender age of 16, and excelled in mathematics and chemistry. He married in 1909 and divorced four years later, without producing any progeny. He never remarried; he was clearly bound to his work. I’ve never found anything to indicate if Maillard cooked, was particularly fond of eating, or ever realized that his work would so deeply affect food science. Look at the few photographs taken of him throughout his life, and you see a guy who looks like he ate because he had to, (although he did have a fabulous mustache).

Louis Maillard in his lab, circa 1915
Louis Maillard in his lab, circa 1915

His work was predominantly medical and physiological in nature. He studied the metabolism of urea and kidney function, and this research was fruitful toward better understanding and treatment of kidney diseases. In 1912, pursuant to this line of research, he began studying the reaction between amino acids and sugars. This work lead to his discovery of certain reactions, and was quantified as the Maillard reaction was named after him. He received a variety of scientific accolades, including the French Academy of Medicine award in 1914.

Maillard’s seminal work toward the discovery of the reaction that bears his name was focused on kidney function, specifically, the reasons why and how us humans pee in a variety of shades of yellow. He was curious about processes that would lead relatively clear substances to change color and produce CO2 when heated. His gut told him this would be important knowledge toward a better understanding of diabetes. Nothing he found initially would necessarily have lead him to a realization that his work would have bearing on food science for decades to come. After discovering his namesake reaction, he went on to other work, sometimes making rather sudden and pronounced changes in area and venue of study. One of these jumps occurred post WWI, when he left France altogether and began studying pharmacology. For all practical purposes, he gave up the life of research he’d been pursuing for a couple of decades. Maillard died in Paris in 1934, at the age of 56.

The heady scent of freshly baked bread owes its allure to the Maillard Reaction.
The heady scent of freshly baked bread owes its allure to the Maillard Reaction.

How does Maillard’s discovery segue to food? In more ways than you might imagine. Everything from the browning of meat to toasted bread, and much more – biscuits, frittes, roux, pretzels and crackers, dried and condensed milk, crusty bread, maple syrup, roasted coffee, dull de leche, and barley malted for beer or booze all speak to the human appetite largely because of the Maillard’s Reaction. Some of these specifically address color, but the lions share are tied to our senses of smell and taste.

Roasting coffee beans owe their allure to Maillard as well.
Roasting coffee beans owe their allure to Maillard as well.

And what of that science? Browning of food happens, in big picture form, one of two ways – one is enzymatic and the other, well, isn’t. The non-enzymatic branch narrows into three shoots, one of which is the Maillard Reaction. This occurs when a compound known as a carbonyl, (a functional group composed of a carbon atom double bonded to an oxygen atom, like for instance, sugar), reacts with an amino acid, peptide (AKA two or more linked amino acids), or a protein. The reaction process is rather complex, but in essence, heat is the catalyst that causes changes in those constituents, leading to browning and associated flavor and smells. Relatively high heat in cooking terms is usually required, although the reaction can occur at lower temperatures when concentrations of amino acids and sugars are high.

The Maillard Reaction
The Maillard Reaction

While browning tells us that many foods are cooked to a satisfactory level, it’s the smell of seared steak, freshly baked bread, roasting peanuts, or a dumpling being pan fried that really illustrates the power of Maillard’s discovery. Over the millennia that humans have cooked food, the process has gone from arcane knowledge to quite common, and yet the why behind the process remained hidden until the early 20th century – pretty fascinating, if you ask me.

Seared steak, it's all in the smell...
Seared steak, it’s all in the smell…

Yet it was the desire to better understand physiological processes within the human body that drove Maillard’s discovery, and his reaction does indeed occur within us. Studies have shown correlation between the reaction and degenerative eye diseases, diabetes, pulmonary fibrosis, and neuro-degenerative disorders.

I’m probably just being a romantic, but for some reason, I get a visual of Maillard, sitting at a little table is his lab, absently munching on a chunk of baguette, pondering his research, without realizing that his answer was literally in the palm of his hand, all along.