Cooked to perfection: Tips to becoming a culinary whiz
WACO, Texas — Gaining a simple mastery of five basic cooking techniques can make any hapless cook into an accomplished home chef, says Mark Schneider.
One of two chef instructors at Texas State Technical College’s Culinary Arts program, Schneider advocates basic cooking methods that help people overcome their fear of frying and enjoy the creative process of feeding themselves, family and friends.
“What people fail to realize is that having proper cooking technique will allow them to open any cookbook and know how to modify (the recipe) in order to personalize it,” he said.
To get a quality product, Schneider recommends setting up a clean and organized “chef’s station”: for example, a good cutting board and three bins. The first bin is for waste, such as paper wrappers and trimmed fat. The second bin is for “usables,” materials to be consumed at another time, such as pieces of meat or vegetable matter, and the third bin is for what goes into the particular dish.
This method is used in traditional southern cooking for such items as chicken-fried steak or pork chops. The key, he said, “is adding enough oil to come halfway up the side of the item.”
The oil needs to be hot before you start: too cold, and too much if it will be absorbed into the product. But too hot, and the oil will burn.
Using one-inch-thick pork chops for this demonstration, Schneider takes a chop with the hand he uses for wet ingredients and dredges it through seasoned flour, then an “egg wash” (a tablespoon of milk per beaten egg), and then through flavored bread crumbs before putting it in the sizzling pan.
“Keeping one hand dry and one hand wet is pretty elementary,” Schneider said. “Otherwise, you get ‘Barney Rubble’ fingers.”
He also said cooks shouldn’t stack the chops on a plate, because they won’t be pretty.
For food safety reasons, make sure the pork chop reaches at least 165 degrees before serving it. He prefers to brown each side, then finish cooking the meat in the oven for 10-15 minutes for 325 degrees.
Trussing a chicken
Why truss a chicken? Because it compacts it down to one unit. If you don’t, heat escapes out the body cavity.
Tuck the wings under the neck; using two to three feet of string, tie the feet together and bring the strings down the channel of the thigh (above). Season the surface and roast at 350-375 degrees for an hour, basting with butter every 10-15 minutes.
Prep the grill by giving it a good scrubbing with a wire brush and oiling it. Schneider rubs a rolled kitchen towel dipped in cooking oil over the grill, but canned cooking sprays can be used.
He generously seasons his cuts of meat with a mixture of ground white pepper, salt and granulated garlic. Schneider said using herbs, onion powder or garlic powder in this mixture would lead to burning.
Schneider uses a three-quarter-inch cut steak. To achieve the “diamondback” grill pattern that consumers like, he applies the steak at a 45-degree angle for 60 to 90 seconds, then rotates it 90 degrees and grills it for another 90 seconds. For a rare steak, you’d only leave the meat on the grill another 30 seconds each side, he said. For well-done, it could be 3-5 minutes total each side.
To avoid the propane taste of a natural gas grill, be sure to keep the product out of the flame. Schneider said he prefers wood chips to charcoal briquettes, for the taste. Most home grillers can get the flavor by laying wood chips over a charcoal base.
This cooking method uses less oil than the similar technique of pan-frying. For white meat items, he dredges them through flour imbued with dried herbs, which gives the pale item a better color. For red meats, this step is not necessary, he said.
“People don’t season enough,” Schneider said. “You season the raw product so it will permeate into the meat.”
Start with a warm pan; just before it starts smoking, add a small amount of oil. “You want to use a clarified butter (unsalted butter that has the milk solids and water removed so all that remains is pure liquid golden-yellow butterfat) or peanut oil here, not extra virgin olive oil,” because it can’t take the high heat, he added.
Using tongs, he places the meat “show side,” or top, down first, so it is in the cleanest oil. “The pan should be talking to you,” he said, referring to the sizzle.
A common amateur mistake is to take the spatula and press too hard, a move that wastes all the juices, he said. These natural juices, called “fond,” can be made into a pan sauce by adding some minced garlic, onion, red wine and oil, and reducing it over the heat.
To ensure the meat is thoroughly cooked, he recommends using digital thermometers. A chicken breast, for example, is done when it reaches 165 degrees.
After getting the crispy outside, you can take the partially cooked meat and slide into a 350-degree oven for another 8-10 minutes to finish.
It is better to cook the meat longer, in a slower oven (such as 275 degrees at 30 minutes per pound of meat) for a rare roast — because it “melts” the connective tissue, Schneider said. An oven set for 350-375 toughens the cut, he said.
He is an aggressive seasoner, rubbing kosher salt and ground white pepper into the roast on all six sides (left). He places the roast fat-side up on a rack that has a pan to catch drippings.
For medium rare, make sure the meat reaches 140 degrees before serving.
A popular method for gently cooking seafood, poaching starts with a simple bouillon of water, white wine, lemon, thyme, leeks, bay leaf, onion, carrot and garlic. Bring it to a simmer first; add lightly seasoned fish (such as salmon, skin down) and cover with a buttered parchment paper (below). The dish can be finished on the stove top (as soon as the center no longer looks raw) or put into a 375-degree oven for 10 minutes to finish.