It seems like such a simple issue: When is the food you are cooking ready?
When has the rice or pasta absorbed enough water, but not too much? When is the chicken on that flaming backyard grill cooked all the way through? How do you know when to pull out that cake? Or leave that loaf of bread in the oven just a little bit longer?
Seasoning food is vital. Combining ingredients in just the right way, crucial. But none of that matters if you don’t execute the cooking with the proper technique and with just the right amount of time.
Practically every cookbook deals with the issue of “done.” There is plenty of science and lore, too – from tossing a strand of spaghetti against the wall to pressing various parts of one’s own palm to measure how your steak is cooked. Much of this is covered in Harold McGee’s vital – and highly scientific – “On Food and Cooking.” In a different way, cookbook standard bearer “Joy of Cooking” addresses it in some fashion on nearly every page.
Now comes James Peterson, who will surely go down as the author of some of the most essential books for the home cook, to tackle the issue head on. His latest book is “Done: A Cook’s Guide To Knowing When Food Is Perfectly Cooked” (Chronicle Books, $27.50, 223 pages). It’s an ideal book for the novice home cook, but there are enough insights for the veteran chef, too.
Several of Peterson’s previous books should be considered essential resources for serious cooks, including the incredibly thorough “Sauces: Classical and Contemporary Sauce Making” and the endlessly enlightening “Meat: A Kitchen Education.”
His latest publishing effort is by no means an easy subject to tackle. One professional chef’s idea of doneness could easily be another customer’s moment of fear. I witnessed as much several months ago at Carpe Vino, the excellent restaurant in Auburn, where chef Eric Alexander was serving these beautifully thick and tender – and, to some, undercooked – pork chops. His medium done, slightly-pink-in-the-middle pork chop that I liked so much? The woman at the next table sent it back.
Yet, overcooking eggs, beef, poultry or seafood can alter the eating experience for the worse. Eggs lose that creamy mouthfeel and subtle flavor. Grass-fed beef can take on the taste of liver. Chicken or pork simply dries out and becomes hard to swallow.
“Many of us don’t even recognize properly cooked foods, much less how to prepare them,” Peterson writes in his introduction to “Done.” “A well-roasted chicken is still pink inside the thigh, and a grilled scallop should be translucent. … Every food has its optimum degree of cooking.”
Those traditionalists who cling to old-fashioned cooking standards may well conclude Peterson’s book should be called “Almost Done: A Know-It-All’s Treatise That Undermines All We Know About Cooking.”
Indeed, Peterson makes clear he is not one to go with the flow.
“Of all the mistakes we are likely to encounter in restaurants or make ourselves at home, most involve doneness, typically overcooking,” he adds. “Every fish book in my library says to cook a lobster for 20 minutes; I suggest cooking it just 4 minutes. Suggestions for roast chicken and turkey say that the internal temperature should be 160F/71C or even more, guaranteeing it will be overcooked. I say 140F/60C for a chicken or turkey.”
The author encourages cooks to use all of their senses – the sound of meat sizzling, the smell of a roast caramelizing or the feel for firmness when you touch meat or fish to help decipher doneness.
What is the most important sense? Peterson, surprisingly, says it’s touch. He explains a method employed by many professional chefs: When cooking meat, take a metal skewer and insert it into the center of a roast for 5 seconds, then gently press the skewer against your lower lip. A cool skewer means keep cooking; a warm skewer is medium-rare.
Use “Done” both as a textbook for learning the basics and as a handy reference to check from time to time. While this is not a recipe book, Peterson often takes you through a dish from start to finish. The book is best used as a guide while tackling recipes from other sources.
Eggs: Overcooked omelets have vexed home cooks for generations. Peterson advises warming the eggs in their shells by immersing them in a bowl of water before cooking. Cold eggs cool down the pan too much. Americans tend to prefer omelets cooked all the way through, he says, while the French, among others, like them slightly runny.
Vegetables: Don’t boil carrots – “You’ll simply extract its flavor and sweetness, leaving all its natural sugars in the boiling water.” Roasting or glazing is the way to go.
Roast beets in the oven at 500 degrees, wrapped in foil to avoid making a mess. Most mushrooms release their water when they hit a hot pan. To avoid having mushrooms cooking in a puddle of their own juices, start sautéing only a few at the outset, adding more little by little as they start to brown, which is a sign the water has been drawn out. Duck fat is preferable to butter because it allows you to get the pan hot enough to brown the mushrooms. Butter tends to burn at high heat. Steaming broccoli is easy, but remember: It can overcook in seconds. Steam for about 3 minutes and the broccoli is bright green.
Rice: Risotto, made with a short-grain rice such as carnaroli or arborio, is a bit of a mystery. When it is perfect? Peterson says, “Well-executed risotto should consist of perfectly cooked grains of rice held together by a savory sauce derived from the rice itself.” In Venice, they prefer their risotto soupy, in other parts of Italy, much stiffer.
Chicken: “Most people roast chickens to death,” the author quips. We’ve already covered his suggested temperatures. Peterson says it’s helpful to loosely cover roast chicken with foil for the first 20 minutes. This slows the cooking of the breast and helps it finish at the same time as the rest of the bird. For sautéing chicken, it’s crucial for the pan to be entirely filled with chicken; otherwise, the butter will burn.
Beef: “It may seem paradoxical – after all, hamburgers are supposed to be easy – but hamburgers are among the hardest foods for which to determine doneness,” says Peterson. They’re best cooked on a hot grill or heavy-bottomed pan. “When blood turns brown and starts to run out in copious amounts, the hamburger has reached medium,” advises the author.
For steak, a porterhouse should be thick and large enough to serve two. If a quality porterhouse seems too expensive, it’s better to pick a cheaper cut altogether than pick an inferior porterhouse. “The rarer you want the meat, the hotter the fire should be,” Peterson writes. The level of doneness for steak has a much wider range than pork or veal, which should always be cooked to medium.
While “Done” is not nearly as detailed as Peterson’s “Sauces” or “Meat,” it will seem very accessible to newer cooks and will provide enough foundation for them to handle more advanced – and complex – kinds of cooking and baking.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.