Product and Cooking Methods
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Part of our Organization, the first of Smart Kitchen’s Four Levers of Cooking,™ is to consider our end goals and our ingredients, and to make smart choices about the types of cooking techniques we will use. Chef's are constantly thinking, “What is the best way to apply heat to a particular ingredient?” or “What is the tradeoff if I use this cooking method?” for a given item. As we know from life, there are good choices, safe choices, risky choices, bad choices, etc, depending on the circumstances. When choosing a cooking method we have a few considerations that impact safety, taste and texture and that will affect our choices, hopefully informing and guiding them so the freshness and the flavor of your ingredients will shine through. Often our final choice is a compromise, the result of weighing several factors.

When Organizing, we ask ourselves “Which cooking technique(s) is/are appropriate?” “Which technique(s) is/are the best choice(s) for our desired outcome?” Generally chef's consult a short mental pre-cooking checklist in making their decision:

1) Is the Food Product Risky to Eat Raw?

2) Is the Food Product Tender or Tough?

3) Is the Food Product Thin or Thick?

4) Is the Food Product Moist or Dry?

5) Is the Food Product Fat or Lean?

We have found that almost every specific ingredient can be ranked and categorized according to these 5 criteria. There are exceptions and variations but in most cases, the list is very helpful. Once we understand the nature of our ingredients, we begin to know how they respond to heat and we can start to limit and refine the types of cooking methods that are a good choice for that Tender/Tough, Thin/Thick, Moist/Dry, Fat/Lean food item. We will get into the differences in more detail later on, but here’s a quick analysis of the 5 criteria.

1. Raw/Cooked?

Whether a food item must be cooked is mostly a matter of Food Safety. Most pathogens are killed with sufficient cooking heat. Many of the worst pathogens require a minimum of 30 seconds of exposure to 145˚ F (63˚ C), which means that the Internal Temperature of your food item when measured by a thermometer, needs to read 145˚ F, but higher levels of cooking heat are needed to kill other very bad pathogens (Botulism comes to mind). Knowing your product helps determine what pathogens grow there. Also, some products contain harmful toxins that are neutralized by cooking heat. For example, Boiling Spinach, neutralizes its potentially harmful Oxalic Acid by 82%. Interestingly, Steaming only neutralizes the Oxalic Acid in Spinach by about half that amount (42%).

We said cooking is “mostly a matter of Food Safety” above, because cooking can also improve the palatability of foods. Tough Connective Tissues or plant fibers which render some safe raw foods inedible, can be tamed with cooking heat (more on this below). If you don’t believe us, try chewing on a raw Artichoke. Basically, when choosing a cooking method, it helps to know our product. We will repeat ourselves a few times below for emphasis.

2. Tough/Tender?

Because they have different internal structures, some ingredients are tougher, and some more tender than others. Typically, Connective Tissue and Fiber cause Meats and Vegetables to be tough. We use cooking heat to break down the tough fibers in the product, but there is a time window involved. Ironically, too much cooking heat can lead to a drier and even tougher product than the original! For meats, if you aren’t familiar with a particular cut and don’t know if it is Tough or Tender, a good rule of thumb is “how much work does that muscle do.” Hard working muscles are strong and tough. Tender Muscles are those that don’t get to the gym and exercise very much. In Beef, the most tender muscle is the center of the back and the leg muscles that transport the heavy bovine are the toughest. *Smart Kitchen has a Beef Tenderness Chart in the Resource section you may wish to study to familiarize yourself with an example of the possible cuts from an animal.

3. Thin/Thick?

"Thin vs Thick", is really a story of Conduction. How quickly will cooking heat penetrate through the item to thoroughly cook it? Is the product so thick that the bulk of the product will dry out before the center is warmed to the proper Finished Cooking Temperature and Level of Doneness? Will the cooking heat scorch the exterior to a charred wreck while the interior is still Raw? How will a Bone-In Product cook differently than a Boneless Product?

4. Moist/Dry?

When we talk about Moist or Dry when considering cooking techniques, we are referring specifically to water content. We are not referring to oil or fat, which have their own criteria. Because moisture impacts texture, Mouth Feel and palatability, the culinary definition of Moist or Dry is relative; and different than the everyday definition of “0% moisture,” with which we are familiar. Don’t believe this? Imagine taking a big bite of dry, 0% moisture, All Purpose Flour.

Humans are made of water and therefore we tend to desire high moisture content in foods that we eat. Think about a bad version of Thanksgiving Turkey. A moisture loss of a few percent can ruin a dish. To simplify the decision making, Smart Kitchen uses 70% moisture as a guideline for the cut-off between moist and dry ingredients. Vegetables and Fruits are typically 80% - 90% water and are considered Moist. Beef is generally around 60-70% water, and depending on the cut, can be either Moist or Dry. Chicken is similar and has a moisture content around 60% - 70%, depending on the cut. Let’s take an example. Raw White Chicken Meat (Skin On) is close to 70% water, while raw Dark Chicken Meat (Skin On) is closer to 65% water. As you may recall from The Effects of Heat on Proteins, cooking heat makes Protein break down and contract. The contraction forces out moisture. The heat of proper cooking can lower the moisture levels of Chicken by 7-8%. If you have ever tasted dry Chicken, you know that overcooking can lower the moisture level even more.

Chef's have to consider how much moisture their product has, how much moisture their final dish should have, and how to employ cooking heat, without blasting the product to a shriveled mess because some cooking techniques preserve moisture, and some destroy it. Ultimately, the only way to avoid excessive moisture loss is to avoid overcooking. The best way to avoid overcooking is to select an appropriate cooking technique and Manage Your Cooking Process, the 3rd of The 4 Levers of Cooking Remember, you can fix undercooking, but you throw out overcooking.

5. Fat/Lean?

The ratio of Fat to lean in a product is an important consideration for flavor, Mouth Feel, and to a lesser extent, for selecting a cooking technique. At Smart Kitchen, for cooking purposes only, we use 20% fat as our cut-off. Items below 20% fat are considered Lean. Items that are 20% fat or more are considered Fat. This definition is not for nutritional and dietary purposes and does not fit with the "EPA’s Low Fat Guidelines." Basically, fat is an insulator. The level of fat in a product changes the mouth feel (more fat = better mouth feel), but more importantly will impact cook time (more fat = longer cook time).  Fat’s affect on cook time can be a consideration in choosing between, for example, a Dry Heat Method (Grilling, Broiling, Roasting, etc) or a Dry Heat Method with Fat Added (Sauté, Pan Fry, Deep Fry, etc.) In a nutshell, food products that are high in fat can be cooked without adding fat, and leaner items may need to have fat added to keep them from getting too dry.  Scientifically speaking, when an item containing fat is cooked, some of its fat will be rendered out of it, so a cooked product, whether Fat or Lean, will contain less fat than when Raw. In general, it’s assumed that a Fatty item will retain enough fat even when cooked to taste juicy and moist when eaten Lean items, however, will also lose some of their small amount of fat when cooked, and will likely need to have external fat added so they don’t taste dry. If this seems confusing to you now, don’t worry. We will cover it all in detail in the upcoming lessons, and will continue to learn more about it in the Intermediate and Advanced levels.

Additionally, old school chefs are often quoted as saying, “Fat is Flavor.” You may even hear that phrase once or twice in a Smart Kitchen Instructional Video. The quote is technically incorrect, but it is relevant nonetheless. The quote is wrong because in reality, fat itself tastes completely bland. What is pertinent about the quote is that Fat is a marvelous vehicle for carrying flavor (and some vitamins), and a good lubricant that makes meat taste “juicy.” This is why well-marbled meats taste juicier than leaner meats. This is also why we add fat to some lean product or use Sauces (often containing fat) to carry flavors and improve mouth feel. The point is that the fat content (or conversely the lean content) of your product has a bearing how on it should best be cooked. When choosing a cooking method we have to know our product.