How We Do What We Do
by Josh Perkins, Off-site Kitchen Manager
In many ways, this month’s article is an extension of the last one, as kitchen safety is the biggest “trick” and most important factor guaranteeing the success of any working kitchen, restaurant or otherwise. In this edition, we’ll look at some of the techniques that make it possible for us to cook food on a large scale while maintaining stringent standards of food safety and quality—and how they can translate into safer and tastier food in your own at-home kitchen.
By a wide margin, the factor that dictates the majority of our decisions on method here at the Willy Street Co-op Kitchen is temperature. Because we are trucking food from the Kitchen to the main store, we have to ensure that what leaves here is out of the temperature “danger zone”—that being 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. That is the window within which conditions are most favorable for the growth of foodborne pathogens. These are the various microorganisms which may not make food look or smell “off” but which can be the agents of illness resulting in anything from mild intestinal discomfort to fever to much more severe consequences, especially in the immunocompromised. (All young children, pregnant women and elderly persons fall into this category by definition—it has nothing to do with their relative state of health or well-being. Foodborne illnesses which might pose no significant risk to the general population can be considered life-threatening for people in this group, and we serve them all, so we can’t afford to be careless.)
Cooling foods rapidly
While we do have some tools in our Kitchen that would not be practical for home use, many of the methods we use are. Two simple tips for cooling foods rapidly that you can easily use: spread cooked food out in as thin a layer as possible on a stainless steel pan and stir it often while under refrigeration. Why stainless? The surface, unlike plastics, is nearly invulnerable to either serious scratching or staining, plus metal is a great deal more thermally conductive than plastic. This adds up to an environment for cooling food that is both safer from residual contaminants and more efficient at wicking heat away from cooling food. As with any cooling process that happens from the outside in—which is to say the vast majority of them—the surface temperature lowers much faster than the inside temperature. Stirring helps distribute this lower temperature, circulating it to the interior and bringing down the average temperature of the food as a whole much more quickly. This is especially important when cooling starchy food such as rice or pasta, which typically have a very low acidity (another factor which can help retard pathogen growth) and also have the ability to generate heat from within even while “cooling,” much like a compost pile will do. At the Kitchen, we use a high-powered blast chiller to cool foods, but this method can be nearly as effective if used well.
Using a thermometer
So, how do you know when your food is hot or cold enough? With a thermometer, of course—pretty tricky, I know. Most home kitchens I’ve visited either have no visible thermometers, though, or else they have one unused candy thermometer and perhaps one meat thermometer crusted over with caramelized essence of turkey that sees use once a year. What you want is a $10 dial thermometer that runs from 0-220 Fahrenheit. These can be had at any reliable kitchen store and in many groceries as well. You can spend plenty on a digital model if that’s what puts the tiger in your tank, but a simple model is quite effective enough.
To calibrate the dial: fill a glass with ice and add just enough water to create a solution. Let stand five minutes to come all the way down to 32 degrees, then insert the stem of your thermometer all the way down—most have a dimple or dot halfway down that must be covered for the thermometer to read accurately. If the final read is 32 degrees, you’re calibrated. If adjustment is needed that is usually accomplished by turning the hex nut mounted just below the dial. Once the needle hits 32, you’re all set. Full resources indicating safe cooking temperatures are easily accessible online, but suffice it to say here that foods cooked or reheated to 165 degrees for a duration of 15 seconds are considered to have received maximum protection against pathogens that are susceptible to heat. Food should be cooled from that temp (or whatever the highest temp reached is) to 70 degrees within two hours, then to 40 degrees within four hours after that. If you get that far, you’re already in a different league than the vast majority of non-professional cooks. Well done.
Another of our biggest “tricks” is an old one and one that is in no way unique to kitchen work: organization. Proper organization is, for a cook, second only to actual knowledge of food and cooking in determining success or failure. In fact, it can sometimes be hard to assess which is more important or if they are even separate. Here are some quick examples from our kitchen that might translate for you:
• When executing multiple recipes, spread them all out before you and try to prepare things in groups or in steps. Nothing slows you down more or is more psychologically taxing than, say, dicing up three onions for one sauce, crying your eyes out, then realizing you have to dice a total of 10 more for various recipes needed to fulfill your Goodfellas theme party preparations. Get a bird’s-eye view of the whole list of tasks in your mind and knock them down one at a time, then go on to the next thing. Usually, knife prep comes first, then cooking, then final mixing, carving, portioning or garnishing. This alone will save you a colossal amount of time and energy. You can also cook this way, which will cut down on dirty dishes a lot—for example, you need potatoes cooked for potato salad and for chicken potpie; cook them all, then measure out the separation. This last tip applies most to fundamental ingredients that are used as flavor bases like onions, garlic, carrots and celery.
• Season food in stages—that is to say, as you go. When you start some onions or other vegetables frying away in a sauté pan, season them lightly. Salt the water you cook your pasta in. When cooking a batch of rice, season the liquid you use to cook it in. Doing your seasoning in small progressive steps like this helps amplify the flavor of each ingredient or step in the cooking process and makes it much easier to achieve the desired level of seasoning at the end. It’s much more difficult to try adding all the salt and pepper needed in a dish in one big go at the end—for one thing, it takes time to marry with the food, and for another, it won’t have had a chance to blend well, so the whole dish is apt to taste like all that stuff sitting on the surface. Season lightly, but confidently, then check one last time before service. If you’ve oversalted, correct with a little fresh lemon juice. Its flavor is almost never amiss, and it can do wonders to tame a heavy-handed salting.
• Make sure you understand the recipe before you pick up anything besides the cookbook. Innumerable hours and pounds of food have been lost for want of following this simple advice. You’ve picked out your recipe. Make coffee or tea. Sit down with it in a quiet spot and read it through at least twice. If you need to read it again to understand it all, don’t feel dumb. It’s a much better choice than getting halfway through only to find out that you’re going to have to start again. By the time you start cooking, you should be looking at the recipe only to confirm amounts and measurements. This will save you the wonderful experience of being thoroughly engrossed in a rereading of the possible fillings for éclairs only to smell your pate a choux scorching on the stove. Not that this has ever happened to me.
Okay—that’s a lot to chew on (pun intended). There are plenty more tricks from the cook’s repertoire, but these are a good intro to the ones that we use most frequently and effectively in our kitchens. The more you cook, and the more you read about cooking, the more you will realize that the majority of “tricks” used by professionals are nothing more than applied science and familiarity with the medium. Many can only be communicated effectively through physical demonstration and conscientious repetition. And, of course, the biggest trick of all, the one that many cooks never master, is having confidence in yourself and your palate. No recipe by a star chef can take the place of your own good judgment. And, after all, aren’t you the one who has to eat it? Cook accordingly and you won’t go wrong.