Welcome to, uh, I dunno, let's call it Ask A Chefector, the column in which your internet food buddy (me) answers all of your questions about cooking and eating and food and pretty much anything else. Got questions about any of those things? Send me an email.
I am a pretty decent dad/home cook. However, I feel like Big Chef/ Big Cookbook is often telling us to take a number of unnecessary steps to improve recipes that I for the life of me think are a pain and not worth the effort/time and make very little difference to the end product. Three examples jump to mind Sandpaper
There are many many more (like do bay leaves really make ANY difference?). Curious your thoughts and if there is one that you would argue for the most as a true difference maker vs just “marginal” improvement.
I won't fight the bay leaf fight again! I won't damn do it! Bay leaves are good and it's not an accident that multiple normal cuisines from around the world have independently come to find uses for them as ingredients! If you are not sure what benefit they are imparting to your cooking, that is because you have an ass for a face!
Stock-making, to take one of your examples up there and make a point that I hope applies to all of them, can be a bit of a pain in the ass, it's true. For one thing if you have any kind of common-person's schedule of chicken-eating, it can take a long time for you to build up enough leftover bones to produce a genuinely rich stock with enough flavor and gelatin in it to stand apart from the store-bought stuff. And then actually making the stock takes a long time, and to make it worth the effort (and to accommodate all the uses you'll have for it before the next time you've assembled a sufficiently large frozen chicken-bone graveyard) you feel like you've got to make a lot of it. Measured against the ease of simply buying a quart of stock at the grocery store, all of this can seem kind of ludicrous.
And, for that matter, I'll grant that in many cases it's not strictly necessary; plenty of store-bought stocks are just fine, flavor-wise, and then you can do the Serious Eats thing of boosting the canned or bottled stock with powdered gelatin and it's almost like you cooked it at home. If you're using stock for the kinds of preparations that it will kind of disappear into—stews with lots of ingredients, things of that nature—then this is fine. So to the extent that Big Cooking tells you that you must make your own stock and use only your own homemade stock, or else be a cooking fraud, Big Cooking can cram it. I have bought, conservatively, a Lake Superior volume of chicken stock at the supermarket over the past couple of years. It's fine.
I still recommend making your own stock. Not all the time, but sometimes. For one thing because this way you can fine-tune it to your liking (and, for that matter, genuinely can make stocks that whip the daylights out of any plausible store-bought stuff), but also and no less importantly so that knowledge of stock-making, a thing that common people invented and have been doing for millennia, will not revert entirely to faceless corporate food-conglomerates that do not do anything with love or genuine care because by their nature and design they are totally incapable of either.
I make my poor Defector coworkers put up with my pointless Slack ranting about this from time to time, but: The inhuman machinery of the modern world does a really fantastic job at the evil work of alienating people, over time and over generations, from all the knowledge and practice that, taken together, amount to human culture. So that you end up with many tens of millions (at least!) of pitiable sad-sacks out there in these barren post-human United States who desperately want to eat better—not just nutritionally better, but spiritually better—than what they can find at their miserable commuter colony's bleak strip of corporate chain restaurants, who experience daily an inchoate grief for a more authentically human experience of eating, and who genuinely have no earthly idea how to use salt to make their cooking taste good. Who want to do more than reheat food prepared thousands of miles away by a machine in a factory and sold to them in a bag, but cannot even begin to imagine where to start.
It would be the acme of neoliberal foolishness to present any individual's, or any 20 million individuals', choice to make their own chicken stock as the remedy to any part of this sad condition. But still. For you. Where you can, where your resources permit it, you can do some things the human way, for the sake of doing them the human way, for whatever small piece of freedom that buys you.
And also, then, when you use your homemade stock to make risotto for someone you love, every bite of it will contain so much that is authentically from you, even if they never know it. Not to put too much pressure on you, Paddy, but the insistence that there's meaning in the fight to withhold some quantum of humanity from the machine's gnashing teeth is pretty much the animating cause of my professional life. Suit yourself!
What kind of knife-sharpening routine should I adopt and what do I need to carry it out? My current one is that I look at my knife (a perfectly fine but not fancy Victorinox) and think about sharpening it or getting it sharpened, don't, and consequently struggle chopping onions.
Before I begin, here is a photo I took.
That is a magnetic knife-rack thingy I put on the side of a cabinet in my kitchen. I post this photo not to show off my stupid collection of ridiculous knives, or so that wiseass commenters can own me for the ugly cabinet or the visibly shabby state of at least two of these knives or whatever—but rather, to get me to my first point, which is that the most important part of any keeping-your-kitchen-knives-sharp routine is storing them in such a way that they are not getting banged around and dulled inside of a drawer with a bunch of other shit in it. A magnetic bar, or a wooden butcher-block, or a plastic or leather blade protector, or, hell, just wrapping your knife snugly in a kitchen towel before you put it away, will help keep the blade sharp longer. So, uh, do that. Unless you are already doing it, in which case stop doing it, forget that you ever did it, and then give me credit for having taught you to do it, and do it.
But also I understand that you are not just asking how to keep a kitchen knife sharp: You are also asking how to make a not-sharp kitchen knife sharp. But also, I think that what you are actually asking, whether you know it or not, is not quite how to make a not-sharp kitchen knife sharp but how to make a kitchen knife that cuts badly cut well. Those are not exactly the same question, or anyway they aren't always the same question, even if they seem to be. This is because in most cases, and very likely in yours, what your knife needs so that it will cut well is not sharpening, but rather honing.
OK, so, for any readers unfamiliar with this distinction, let's discuss the difference between those two things. Sharpening a knife is removing some metal from its cutting edge, so that it has a new edge; over enough time, sharpening a knife makes the blade smaller. Knives do occasionally need that, and need it acutely if they've been chipped, but they do not need it nearly as often as an untended knife will start doing a noticeably worse job of cutting things, making its normal-person owner think, wrongly, "This knife needs sharpening." What the knife needs way the hell more often, pretty much all the way up to every single time you are about to use it or have just used it, is honing; honing, in basic terms, is re-aligning the existing (bent) edge of the knife, so that it will cut well.
All the time, events are conspiring to put a teeny tiny little bend into the cutting edge of your knife. Every time it makes a hard impact against the cutting board (even expert choppers sometimes bang that fucker down harder than they meant to), of course, but then also just, like, cutting through stuff. The edge is very thin, yeah? Like that is the whole idea of a knife's edge, and the basis for "the knife's edge" as a metaphor: It is very thin. Being very thin, it does not require the application of a ton of force to introduce a very small bend into it. And then because it has a very incredibly tiny amount of bend in it, it bends a little further the next time. And then after a while, if it has not been honed, then the edge is cutting into things at a weird slanted angle and feels dull and you get firehosed with onion juice every time you try to cut a dang onion because it's not slicing cleanly through the onion's cells, but rather brutally smashing through and spraying their liquids everywhere.
So. When you watch a movie that involves either a butcher or a chef or a scary knife haver, and you see them running that sucker up and down a leather strop or swiping it back and forth on a honing rod, that's what they are doing: honing the knife, which is not the same thing as sharpening it. (The other thing they're doing is being cool and menacing.) That's how honing works: You run the blade up and back against a surface, both sides, and this bends the edge of the knife back into a nice straight un-bent line.
Here is a very good video about honing a kitchen knife, that will do a better job than I can do in text of giving you an idea of how it's done:
My contribution here, other than the preceding 24,000 words of self-indulgent throat-clearing, is an admonishment: Do this. Do it either before or after every use of your big knife. It doesn't have to take more than a minute, and it makes a huge difference! Sometimes for fun I will take a chop at a tomato or an onion with the un-honed edge of one of my stupid knives, then clean the knife and hone it, and then resume chopping, just to marvel at the difference. The honed blade just slides right on through! It's so satisfying. It makes the un-honed blade seem like it was a baseball bat.
If you hone your knives each time you use them, and then you store them in a way that will not bash their edges to shit, you will not need to have your knives actually sharpened more than once a year, or twice at maximum if you use them a ton. And when it's time to sharpen them, you can have a professional do that part. I guarantee there's a nearby hardware store or knife store or even just some sole-proprietor micro-business on Yelp or Angie's List or whatever that is just a guy who will come to your home and sharpen your knives for a fee. Any of them will do just fine.
If you're determined to do your own sharpening, for as much as I would like to recommend finding a good stone and doing it the Paleo Way, I think you should just get an electric knife sharpener. I have this one; it's very good, and there are good Youtube tutorials for using it. But also it hasn't actually been all that smart an expenditure, since (as a habitual honer of my knives!) I have had to use it exactly once in the 18 months or so since I bought it.
Fresh basil and dried basil taste so different; dried basil has this very anise-y flavor to me. I attempted to substitute dried basil for fresh in an Italian recipe once and it turned out terrible. Ive also seen dried sweet basil - is that substitutable for fresh? My grocery store doesn’t reliably carry fresh basil and I make a lot of pizza, so I’m always looking for other options for the sauce.
For all practical purposes, you should think of dried basil and fresh basil as completely different things that just happen to have the word "basil" in their names. I genuinely cannot think of one single application for either one in which you can substitute the other. You would not swap fresh basil for dried or vice versa, in the same way that you would not swap, as an example, black pepper for raw egg. If you can't get fresh basil for a food preparation that calls for it, the only reason to pivot to dried basil would be so that you can say it has basil in it.
I think pretty much all dried herbs are this way. They have their uses! But "as a pinch-runner for the fresh stuff" is not one of them. They're just whole different cooking ingredients, with whole other applications.
Now, because the preceding two paragraphs have not given you adequate bang for your buck, let's address your pizza problem. Nathaniel, it pains me to say this to you, as your longtime friend who treasures what we have between us, but: I don't think your pizza sauce truly needs fresh basil. In fact, I think putting fresh basil into a hot sauce that will then go on a pizza that will then spend some time in a hot oven is a crime against fresh basil. A misdemeanor crime! A crime without malice or evil intent. But a crime nonetheless. One which, you may be sure, I have already brought to the attention of the authorities.
It's my sincere opinion that fresh basil should never get more than the absolute minimum of cooking, in order to preserve its flavor and color; extended exposure to cooking-level heat wipes out both (as it does for pretty much all of the tender herbs). If you are going to incorporate it into your pizza, incorporate it raw, maybe Chiffonade-cut, as a lovely and fragrant post-oven topping. Or, if you absolutely insist on cooking the basil, put some whole leaves on the pizza right before it goes into the oven. I'll still think that you belong in hell! But at least you will only have annihilated a mere 99.9 percent of their finest qualities long before you get a chance to eat them.
(On the other hand, dried basil is good in a pizza sauce. Add a small amount near the beginning of the process, so that it has time to do anything.)
I've got ten months until I need to think about turkey again, but I could use your help on this. I make an OK Thanksgiving turkey, but the skin never ends up with the golden, crispy skin that Youtube says should pop out of my oven. I rub butter all over the bird outside and inside the skin, but every time the turkey reaches the right internal temperature, the skin isn't crackling like it should be—so I choose moist meat over dried out meat/golden skin and live with the regret. Do I go higher oven temperature? More butter? Anyhow, any advice you've got on this would be great.
Dan, I'm very pleased to tell you that you are doing this 100-percent completely wrong. I'm pleased to tell you this not because I am a cruel or heartless person (I'm nice, a nice man), but because it means that you can learn the right way to do things and then crispy turkey skin will hereafter make sense to you; it will not be some baffling mystery anymore.
A very common and understandable mistake people make is thinking that frosting their turkey with all the butter the world ever had in it will aid the poor bird in developing a nice crispy skin. After all, you sauté things in butter, right? And some of them come out crispy sometimes, right? So that must mean that butter is the thing that makes things crispy, right? But no! That is not what butter does. What butter does to your turkey's skin is, it covers it with butter. Butter is partly made of water. The skin will not even get to begin turning crispy until all that water has evaporated away. All you've accomplished is greatly slowing down the process of turning your bird's skin crispy and crackly. Great job, ya dingus!
It may seem counterintuitive, but what your turkey's skin needs in order to become crispy is dryness. It needs to lose the water inside of it. The drier the turkey's skin is when it goes into the oven, the more readily it will crisp; if you get that skin nice and arid in advance of cooking, it will crisp up long before you have to begin worrying about drying out the breast meat. Thus you get a nice chance to appreciate the irony that the key to moist turkey breast is ... dryness. (And also you don't have to worry about using butter or oil to keep the meat moist, because you were able to simply take the turkey out of the oven when it was done cooking, but before it had a chance to lose all its native juiciness.)
So here is what you are going to do, Dan. The night before you cook the turkey, you're gonna take off any wrapping it has on, you're gonna plop that sucker on a wire rack set into a roasting pan, and you're gonna sock the whole shebang into your refrigerator. Just like that. (You can salt the outside of the turkey if you want, to get some dry-brining action going on, but you can also not.) The environment inside the refrigerator is going to dry out the turkey's skin, overnight, just enough for it to do some good crisping the next day, when you cook it. And then in the morning, if you like, just before you pop the turkey into the oven, you can rub some plain vegetable or canola oil all over the outside of it. Don't hose it down! Just rub a thin layer of oil over it. The oil will moderate and distribute the heat some, so that the skin cooks evenly, instead of getting too crispy too fast in some places without getting crispy elsewhere.
The other thing you're going to do is, you're going to purchase a reliable probe thermometer, so that you can take the turkey out of the oven no later than necessary, so that it will be juicy and delicious.
If all of this leaves your insatiable appetite for butter unsatisfied, eat a frickin' stick of butter! I don't give a damn!
What is a stupid simple dinner that you or another family makes that is really good and reliable?
Most of what I serve for dinner throughout the week is stupid and simple: A Protein Of Some Type, cooked simply, plus either a very straightforward salad or some vegetables blasted with heat either in the broiler or in a pan. But by its nature, involving reasonably fresh stuff, that type of meal requires a higher frequency of grocery shopping than, like, the stuff that you can throw together out of the nonperishable goods gathering dust in your kitchen's various crannies. Also it is not as comforting or cheap or universally popular as, like, starchy stuff. So then there is that other category of dinner: The "This isn't really the type of stuff we should eat a lot of, but everybody likes it and I didn't have time to plan anything" meal.
One of the very first home-cooked things my kids got a taste for does business around here under the name Spicy Noodles. It is just capellini pasta and cannellini beans tossed in a quick and dirty arrabbiata sauce, then topped with chopped parsley, olive oil, and some grated hard cheese. I don't make it as often as I used to, for reasons of trying not to eat pasta all the time lest I become dead, but I break it out from time to time and it is always a hit.
If you would like to try it, the arrabbiata is just an immodest double-pinch of red chili flakes cooked in olive oil with half an onion sliced thin; then some anchovy fillets; then a really stupid amount of minced garlic; then, seconds later, the contents of a 28-ounce can of whole peeled tomatoes (I crush the tomatoes by hand on their way in); this gets simmered however long it gets simmered while the pasta water comes to a boil. The capellini, one pound of it, cooks for two minutes, during which I drain and rinse the contents of a small can of cannellini beans. Then everything gets tossed together, without pasta water (because the pasta is so thin and will dissolve in the time it takes the pasta water to incorporate). Then I twirl big heaps of it into pasta bowls, drizzle them generously with fruity olive oil, and sprinkle them with finely chopped parsley and some grated cheese. Usually this is pecorino, for the sharpness.
The whole thing comes together very quickly, from what are mostly (other than the cheese) very cheap ingredients and/or kitchen staples, and it's punchy and oily and very extremely good to eat. You'll give yourself hiccups from eating too-large mouthfuls. I can't think of anything nicer to say about a food.
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