Some of the most important lessons I learned in culinary school were the gems of wisdom taught in cooking fundamentals class. It was within those classroom walls that Chef Richard explained how important it is for cooks to understand the facts and processes involved with the food that we use to feed our bodies.
Why should I care about basics? My microwave and I are a rock star team!
I consider myself to be rather adventurous, but I wouldn’t dare head into a deeply wooded forest without having some sort of map or markers to help me find my way around in the darkness. Without them, I could run into danger and hurt myself and/or others while trying to stumble around and find my way. A kitchen can be that scary and dangerous of a place, too! If the person preparing the food is completely clueless about how to operate the “machinery” (oven, small appliances,etc.) and they know little to nothing about the foods that they’re preparing, they’re paving a dangerous path towards burns, cuts, and food-borne illness. You can take it from me… I’ve been there, done that, and should have bought a t-shirt… it’s NOT a path you want to create, much less walk on! Since one of my passions is to help others learn from my mistakes, I feel that it’s important to share some of the kitchen basics information I’ve learned on to you. I’ll give you the facts, but unlike a culinary classroom, there will be no drawn out lecture and DEFINITELY no pop quizzes. I want to be known as the COOL teacher, m’kay? Like Alton Brown… Entertaining, smart, funny, endearing in a geeky sort of way. That’s totally me, right? Awesomesauce, then let’s get started!
Foods are made from a combination of proteins, carbohydrates (starches and sugars), water, fats, and small amounts of vitamins and minerals. When heat is applied to those components, significant changes take place. By understanding those changes, you’ll have a better chance of creating dishes that have a PLEASANT outcome. You know, crispy crunchy fried chicken versus something that looks like you could use it for a game of whiffle ball.
So HEAT… meet my food!!
PROTEINS = COAGULATION
These are large, complex molecules that exist in every living cell, When I hear the word “protein”, I instantly think of animals (meat), but there’s even protein in plant cells! When proteins are heated up, they coagulate, causing them to turn from a liquid or semi-liquid state to a solid state. Think of an egg white before and after it’s fried.
RECIPE TO TRY: Leek & Asparagus Quiche
STARCHES = GELATINIZATION
Starches are complex carbohydrates that exist in plants and grains like rice, potatoes, wheat, and corn. When a starch is mixed with a liquid and then heated up, the starch expands (like when rice and pasta get larger during cooking, or when flour in a cake absorbs the liquid from the eggs, water, or any other liquid in the recipe). Depending on what type of starch is being cooked, gelatinization will occur slowly, and at a temperature somewhere between 150 and 212 degrees Farenheit (66-100 Celsius)
RECIPE TO TRY: Asiago Vegetable Risotto
SUGARS = CARAMELIZATION
If you’ve ever seen and/or tasted caramel, crust from a loaf of bread, or a beautiful creme brulee, then you’ve seen perfect examples of what happens when sugar meets heat, is cooked, and caramelizes. It doesn’t just change the color of the food, it changes the taste as well. Common table sugar (sucrose) starts to caramelize at about 338 degrees Farenheit. That’s why you’ll always read safety warnings with candy recipes. That temp is WAY above the boiling point of 212. Drop some of that sugar on your hand and you’ll have a kitchen battle scar for life. Oh, and by the way, because water and other liquids like stock never reach temps above 212 F, you’ll never be able to brown anything that’s being boiled in them.
RECIPE TO TRY: Hot Fudge Brownie with Salted Caramel Glaze
FATS = MELTING
the reason behind my stretchy pants collection an energy source for the plants and animals that store it. Fats are smooth and greasy and don’t dissolve in water. They come in textures from liquid (cooking oils) to solid (butter). When fats are heated up, they melt, turn to liquid, but they never evaporate. That’s why they’re great for using to cook other foods, but why they aren’t so great for us to eat in any great quantity. Consider fat to be velcro on your hips. Yeah, not so pretty… I think I’ll just stick to the all things in moderation guideline with this category
RECIPE TO TRY: Snicker’s Cheesecake Browned Butter Bars
WATER = EVAPORATION
All food contains water. Certain foods, like milk, eggs, and leafy vegetables, are almost entirely water. Even as much as 75 percent of raw meat is water. As water heats up, it turns to a gas (steam) and evaporates into the air, causing whatever is being cooked to get drier.
So there ya have it. You’ve got boatloads of information to help you cook your way into great food. Get your cute self into the kitchen and have some fun, my lovelies!!