Monday, July 21, 2014

Medium-rare Burgers (Video)

YouTube Link: Medium-rare Burgers (grilled or seared)
More Videos: Helen's Kitchen Channel

Burgers in the oven?  Don't knock it till you try it.  I wish I could take credit for this brilliant method, but it was inspired by Kenji Alt's slow roasted steak method that was published in Cook's Illustrated in 2007.  It became a master technique for how I cook all meat to medium-rare.

How does this weird method work?
For even doneness, we want to do most of our cooking with air and not with metal or flame.  Metal is a great conductor of energy and air is not.  By transferring the energy to the burgers slowly using air, we ensure perfectly even cooking.  If we put the burgers directly on a baking dish, they'll be in touch with a metal object which will cook the bottom faster than the top.  It will also make the bottom surface damp since the moisture won't have a chance to evaporate and this will inhibit browning during the grilling or searing stage.  Since the burgers are thinner than the steak Kenji's recipe was optimized for (1 inch vs. 1.5 inches), I drop the oven temperature from 275F to 200F to ensure even cooking.

What's the fat percentage of the ground beef?
In the video, I am working with 85/15 from Whole Foods.  Ideally, it would be 80/20, but my health obsessed Whole Foods in MA doesn't carry it.  I've seen in at Whole Foods in other states.  Of course, I can stop by a regular supermarket and pick up 80/20 beef, but for medium-rare burgers, I choose my source of beef very carefully.  To tell you the truth, I think I got cheated out of some fat by Whole Foods this time.  85/15 means that it's at most 15% fat, so the actual percentage will vary batch to batch.  I could barely feel any fat on my hands as I was shaping.  Not a good sign.  But this method is so forgiving, even lean ground beef will taste good.

July 22 update on safety
Ever since this post, I've been getting a lot of e-mail about the terrible danger of my burgers, so here is the scoop on safety.

There is a difference between a med-rare burger and a med-rare steak. Bacteria is only found on the outside of the muscle and when a steak is seared, they die instantly. So if you like your meat cold inside, you are not taking any risk eating it that way. However, after you grind the meat, some of that bacteria ends on the inside, so an under-cooked burger is a tad risky. The question is how big is this "tad." You take plenty of risks every day. Driving is probably one of the biggest for an average civilian. How many people do you know who were injured in a car accident? How many people do you know that were injured with a med-rare burger? Of course, you could argue that you drive more often than you eat a burger. But let's look at some numbers. An average annual death toll from E. Coli is in the low 20s. An average annual death toll from automobile related accidents is more than 30,000. So in the grand scheme of things, that burger is unlikely to significantly change your risk of getting hurt.

To reduce the risk further, you could grind your own meat. This way, the grinder touches only a few pounds instead of a few hundred pounds of meat, which will reduce the risk of cross-contamination. You could take it even further and briefly sear the meat on the outside before grinding thus killing most of the bacteria.

Besides e coli, there are other, not so dangerous bacteria that grow on meat when it decomposes. My conclusion is to buy meat at a reputable place, keep everything (meat, grinder, bowls) extremely cold, and stop worrying.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Diplomat Cream

Fold whipped cream into pastry cream and you get diplomat cream.  I don't know how this pastry filling got its name, but I can tell you that if you arm yourself with some diplomat cream all conflicts would melt away because everyone would be too busy swooning and licking their fingers.  It's one of those fabulous kitchen marriages where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Use it to fill cream puffs, eclairs, fresh fruit tarts, brioche style cakes, or just layer if with fresh fruit and leftover cake for a beautiful trifle.

Diplomat Cream

Important: Don't reuse the bowl or whisk after whipping cream to whip your pastry cream!  I once made that mistake and the remaining whipped cream that was clinging to the bowl and whisk turned to butter and made the pastry cream grainy.  

Fold about one third of the whipped cream into the pastry cream to lighten it.  Then fold the rest of the whipped cream in.  The proportions are not set in stone.  You can adjust the ratio of whipped cream to pastry cream to your liking and application.  Use immediately or store in the fridge.  Best if used the day it's made.  It will start to thin out after sitting in the fridge for more than 24 hours.

The Easiest Stabilized Whipped Cream

Whipped cream is as easy to make as it is to ruin. What could possibly go wrong with a recipe that has 1 ingredient and take about 1 minutes of work? If you over-beat it by as much as 5 seconds, it can become grainy and there is no going back. If you let it sit in the fridge longer than a couple of hours, it will become runny. 

The remedy for over-whipped cream is yet to be found, but there is a solution for the gradual thinning out.  For years I've been stabilizing whipped cream with gelatin when using it for icing, but it's a finicky procedure and a pain if you just need a bit of whipped cream as a topping. Gelatin poses another little issue. Gelatin is a meat product, and as I was testing diplomat cream recipes for my upcoming Pate a Choux class, I wanted to find a way to do without gelatin so that my vegetarian students wouldn't miss out. I've tried all sorts of tricks with variable level of success. But none were as tasty or as easy as Nancy Silverton's technique of adding a small dollop of creme fraiche.

The first benefit of this little addition is that cream became easier to thicken without over-whipping.  Most professionals use extra heavy cream.  The higher fat content helps the cream thicken before it over-whips giving you a larger margin of error.  Unfortunately, I can't find extra heavy cream in stores.  I read an explanation of this technique saying that creme fraiche helps because of its higher fat content.  This might be true, but I couldn't find a way to verify that since the differences are slight and nutritional information on the packages is rounded.  I did however notice that my cream wasn't over-whipping in a split second, which made me happy.  The added tang from creme fraiche is delightful.  It's actually a tastier whipped cream!  And after 24 hours in the fridge, it didn't thin out one bit.  It might have lasted longer, but we ate it all.

For icing a cake, I would still use the gelatin or Rose Levy Beranbaum's corn starch technique, to ensure your icing won't start running at room temperature.  But for most other purposes, this whipped cream is my go to recipe.

Creme-Fraiche-Stabilized Whipped Cream

1 cup cold heavy cream
1/4 cup cold creme fraiche

Chill the bowl and whisk style beater in the fridge for at least 15 min.  Everything needs to be very cold. Warm cream doesn't whip.

For 1 cup or less, I prefer to use the whisk attachment of my immersion blender or some other hand mixer since the KitchenAid stand mixer is not great with small quantities of whipped cream.

Combine heavy cream and creme fraiche in a cold bowl and beat on low speed until small bubbles form on the surface.  Gradually increase speed to high and beat until the cream thickens and the whisk leaves trails in it.  Err on the side of softer rather than firmer cream.  Scrape the bowl with a rubber spatula to redistributed the cream and make sure the bottom of the bowl is not runny.  If the cream is too runny, finish beating it on medium-low speed.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

ThermoPop -- great thermometer for $25

I am not a type of cook who spends her disposable income right and left at William and Sonoma. Most students are pleasantly surprised when they find out how much my pots, pans, and knives cost. But I always get a bit embarrassed when they ask me about meat thermometers. I used to use flimsy little digital thermometers from Taylor and Maverick that cost $15. They were functional, but infuriating. The electronics were flimsy and the display would sometimes flicker. They took as long as 15 seconds to come up to temperature once you stick them into something. They have a thick probe that is hard to stick into meat.

One day, Jason surprised me with a Thermopen for my birthday. It's $100. "What an extravagance for a thermometer," I thought. But I am addicted and can't go back. The temperature stabilizes 3 seconds after you are in the meat. The probe has a slender tip that goes into meat like it was butter. The body is water resistant. Using this thermometer is pure joy.

You can imagine my excitement when Thermoworks put out a $25 version called ThermoPop. With all the features of Thermopen, but slightly toned down precision and response time. It should stabilize in 5-6 seconds and the reading should be within 2 degrees Fahrenheit. The range is still huge -58 to 572°F.  I ordered one right away.  I tested it in a glass of water against my expensive Thermopen at 40F, 100F, 120F, and 160F.  I got the same reading on both the $100 and $25 thermometers.  The difference in response time was negligible.  Thermopop was a couple of seconds behind.

Don't be surprised if the readings you get when you turn both of your thermometers on is quite different.  They are not designed to measure air temperature.  The cheapy ThermoPop stabilizes very slowly in air and was 5 degrees higher than Thermopen.  Not that I would trust Themopen with air either.

At this point, I don't know how well Thermopop will hold up.  I'll try to give you an update in a year (or earlier if it breaks ;)

12 inch Winco Stainless Steel Skillet

It took me a long time to buy a 12 inch stainless steel skills -- 5 years to be precise.  It wasn't for lack of trying.  When we moved from our little condo into our current house 5 years ago, I thought that I'll finally have space for a few large pans.  But after trying a number of 12 inch skillets, I realized that large pans came with a few unexpected problems.

Problem 1: They are not as large as they look.
Pans are sold by the size of the diameter from rim to rim.  The cooking surface depends on how sloped the sides are.  I found that many brands like to slope the sides so much that the cooking area of a 12 inch pan is barely larger than that of a 10 inch pan.

Problem 2: The bottom warps causing the oil to go to the sides.
Many large pans tend to warp a bit as they heat up forming a slight bump in the center of the pan.  This causes the oil to flow towards the sides and the food doesn't cook evenly.

I gave up on the idea of finding a 12 inch skillet and was happy with a few 10 inch skillets instead until I walked into China Fair in Newton.  I saw a large, thick, and heavy Winco pan with an oven-safe handle and it had my name all over it.  For $60 it was too good not to try.  Turns out I didn't need to spend $60.  It's available on Amazon for $40!  So before I tell you about the virtues of this pan, I want to remind you to do as I say, not as I do -- buy your cooking equipment on-line.  Why didn't I take it back even though I haven't even unpacked it?  Because China Fair doesn't take anything back even in its packaging.  The whole reason I was going to this store was to see what the hype was all about.  Everyone in Boston loves China fair and it's hard to get a good feel for the store without buying something.  Considering their prices, I think the return policy is unacceptable and customer service and knowledge about equipment was non-existent.

Enough about China Fair, let's talk about the pan.


  • Large cooking area that's almost twice as large as a 10 inch pan.
  • Even heat distribution.
  • Excellent browning.  By the way, don't listen to a few people on Amazon who say that food sticks.  They don't know how to cook.  The pan and oil need to be hot, the protein needs to be thoroughly dried, and it should't be disturbed until it browns.  It behaves like any other stainless steel pan
  • The handle is oven safe up to 450F.
  • Affordable price
  • The pan is heavy.  It doesn't bother me, but if you don't like heavy pans, this one is not a good option.
  • The silicon handle stops pretty far from the pan.  My guess is that it's to protect it from heat on restaurant burners.  It's not a biggie.  I just use a towel or mitt to help myself lift it when it's full and hot.