Monday, March 26, 2012

How to Poach an Egg Video

If you have 2 cooks, you’ll have 3 opinions on how to poach an egg. Why can’t anyone agree about something so simple? Some use a vortex, some use vinegar, some drain the egg through a sieve, some use a skillet, some use a pot, some use all of the above while hopping on one foot and mumbling a poaching egg incantation. When nothing works, people blame it on the pedigree of the egg: not fresh enough, or maybe too fresh? Did you check if they were organic, local, free range, and humanely raised?

Here is the bottom line. Eggs vary a lot, just like people. We might follow the same poaching procedure, and you’ll get a perfect egg, while I’ll get an egg drop soup. In my kitchen, an egg getting into a pot of simmering water is like a student getting into Harvard – she needs to take the admission test. The admission test for the egg is the slotted spoon. If all the white runs through the spoon, the egg is not a poacher. It might be a very yummy egg, and you can save it for other uses, but if you want to poach eggs from that batch, you should use the sous-vide technique.

Can’t you judge the poachability of an egg based on its freshness and origin? It works as well as judging the smarts of a student based on the wealth of their parents, their sex, and race. Until you break that egg and look inside, there is no way of knowing how well it will poach.

YouTube Link: How to Poach an Egg

Sept 20, 2013 update: I got feedback from my students that poached eggs can be difficult to take off the paper towel. It's usually not a problem for 1 egg since you can flip it into the palm of your hand, peel off the paper towel and serve, but when you have multiple eggs, it becomes tricky. If cooking more than 1 egg, store them in a bowl of cold water. When ready to serve, warm them up in 140F water for 15 minutes, then dry them off on a paper towel one at a time and serve. If poaching many eggs, keep them cold since they hold together better this way.

In the last year, I have poached a lot of eggs taking careful notes and experimenting with many techniques, egg types, and freshness levels. Here are my findings:

Does freshness matter?
Kind of. As the eggs sit in the fridge, more of the white will convert from gelatinous to liquid. However, 2 day old egg from one batch might behave like 2 week old egg from another batch. Besides, the liquid white is not all that big of a deal. You can drain it off. What makes all the difference in poaching is the thickness of the gelatinous white that’s left. Unfortunately, that depends on the egg type and not only on freshness.

Does it help for the egg to be organic, local, or free range?
No. Some of the worst offenders were organic, local, free-range, 2 day old, tastiest eggs from Ameraucana hens. Some people say that too fresh is not good either, so I’ve tried poaching eggs from that batch after keeping them for 3 more days and then for another week. No good – the white was just too thin. That being said, I am definitely not saying that organic, local, or free range is a bad thing for poaching. It’s just not a factor you can use to predict how well an egg will poach. A different batch of Ameraucana hen eggs might have poached quite well.

Does the vortex help?
Yes. It wraps the white around the yolk, and keeps a beautiful round shape. It also helps the white coagulate faster. When you put a 40 or even 70 degree egg into 212 degree water, the water around the egg cools off and the white takes longer to coagulate giving it more time to spread. When you make the water move, new hot water is washed over the egg to replace the cooler water surrounding it and the white coagulates faster. It works just like the fan in the convection oven.

Unfortunately, this rules out poaching in a skillet or poaching several eggs at the same time.

How much water do you need?
You need at least 2 inches to create a vortex and give the egg a round rather than flat shape. I use a 2 quart pot that is 3 inches tall and add just over 2 inches of water into it. Unless you are very practiced with the vortex technique, I suggest you use a 3-4 quart pot to make stirring without spilling easier.

Does vinegar help?
Yes, but like many remedies it’s not without side effects. Most people expect the egg to taste sour. The sourness is not very noticeable, but the outside of the egg becomes a bit tough and chalky tasting. The more vinegar you add, the more it helps to keep the egg together, but the worse the egg tastes. Out of curiosity, I put an egg with completely liquid quite (a hopeless poaching prospect) into a bowl of room temperature vinegar for 4 minutes. Then I drained it on a slotted spoon and poached it. It came out as a perfect oval. Too bad it was not edible. The outer layers of white were awfully chalky and tough.

At least now I had proof that vinegar was not an old wife’s tale. It definitely coagulates the egg, so I tried to find the amount of vinegar that could help eggs keep their shape without ruining their taste. 1 Tbsp vinegar per quart of water helped a bit, and didn’t taste too bad. But I find that I never use it. For eggs that don’t lose all their white through a slotted spoon, vinegar is not needed at all. For eggs that fail the slotted spoon test, the vinegar helped avert a complete disaster, but the resulting egg was nowhere near perfect in either shape or taste.

Can’t I trim the white off after cooking?
Sure, you can trim a bit of the white off after cooking. The reason I like to remove the thin white before cooking is to give me a way out in case I know I’ll be dealing with a lousy poacher. If all of the white is thin, it might completely separate from the yolk during poaching and trimming it will leave you with just the yolk. If I know this up front, I might either add some vinegar to the water, or change my plans entirely and cook my eggs sunny side up, scrambled, or soft boiled.

Scalability and Reliability
After watching the video in this post, you probably noticed its limitations. It works on eggs that pass the slotted spoon test and is most practical for a few eggs. What if you are cooking poached eggs for 12 people, or have uncooperative eggs, or both? That’s when the sous-vide technique comes in, but we’ll leave it for another post.

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Friday, March 23, 2012

Homemade Pasta Part 3: cooking and saucing

Homemade Pasta Part 1: the dough video
Homemade Pasta Part 2: the shaping video
After all the work we've done in the dough and shaping videos, it's about time we cook ourselves a bowl of pasta. How does trofie al pesto sound? I am sure you have cooked dry pasta before, but fresh pasta is a completely different animal.

YouTube Link: Cooking Fresh Pasta (Trofie al Pesto)

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Homemade Pasta Part 2: shaping video

Homemade Pasta Part 1: dough video

I find shaping hundreds of tiny dough pieces while listening to music the best meditative therapy.  The good news is that there are no equipment barriers for you to try it.  Orecchiette (top right), trofie (bottom left), and pici (bottom right) require no more than your hands and some cutting device (knife or a pastry scraper).  For  cavatelli (top left), I use a sushi mat (costs less than $5 and available at almost every supermarket).  If sushi mats were widely available in Italy at the time cavatelli pasta was invented, I am sure they'd be the tool of choice.

YouTube Link: Shaping Cavatelli, Orecchiette, Trofie, and Pici Pasta

I am partial to using a dough scraper when working with any dough because it's safe to use directly on the counter.  But a board and knife work just fine.  The reason I am using a sushi mat instead of a gnocchi / cavatelli board is because it's cheaper, available in every supermarket, and multi-purpose.  Just make sure to get one with thin round sticks instead of the wider sticks that are flat on one side.

Trouble shooting
When things go wrong, they are usually a result of using flour in all the wrong places.  Whenever you are rolling a piece of dough into a rope no matter how thick or thin, flour is your enemy.  It will make the dough slide.  Also, letting dough sit unwrapped can cause all sort of problems.  For example, trofie don't want to curl up and pici don't want to roll out if they dry even a little.  So, work with a small piece of dough at a time, and keep the rest covered with plastic.  After the pasta is shaped, be very generous with flour and keep everything in a single layer.

Homemade Pasta Part 3: cooking and saucing video

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Homemade Pasta Part 1: the dough video

When Jamie Olive says that making pasta from scratch is almost as easy as opening a box, he is lying. Pasta from scratch is definitely a project, but a really fun one. It's just like playing with play dough.

Today, I am starting a mini-series on unfilled pasta that is shaped by hand. In Italy, there are hundreds of shapes that belong to this category. The ones I've mastered so far are cavatelli (top left), orecchiette (top right), trofie (bottom left), and pici (bottom right).
But before you start playing with dough, you need to make the dough.  The pasta that is shaped by hand instead of rolled into thin sheets is usually made from flour, water, and salt. No eggs.

9 oz flour mix (see the options below)
2 tsp kosher salt (or 1 tsp table salt)
5 oz warm water (about 100 degrees)

About the flour mix: I like to use 4.5 oz all-purpose and 4.5 oz semolina (but you can use 9 oz all-purpose). For an earthier taste, try 7 oz all-purpose and 2 oz farro or whole wheat flour.  Semolina and whole wheat flours are available at Whole Foods.  If you are looking for farro flour in the Boston area, try Formaggio's Kitchen or look for it on amazon.


YouTube Link: Pasta Dough (water based)

So what's the deal with weighing the ingredients?
Flour is a compressible ingredient and measuring it with cups can result in 25% variation from day to day, cook to cook, etc.  If you are not convinced, read this post.  But water is not compressible, so why ounces and not cups?  It's because I have watched hundreds of people make pasta dough in my classes and here is what I've observed.  If you tell someone to get 1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp water (that's what 5oz of water is by volume), you never know exactly what you are going to get.  Some people don't bend down enough to have their eyes level with 1/2 cup mark.  Some don't realize that liquids are measured by the bottom of the meniscus.  Some don't fill the Tablespoon to the brim.  Some spill half of that Tablespoon while carrying it to the bowl.  In a small batch of pasta, these small differences are not all that small.  In the last 5 pasta classes, I have told students to weigh the water, and what do you know -- everyone's dough was perfect.  So, you got a scale for flour already, why not put it to use for water too.

What scale do you recommend?
I have used digital Escali scale for at least 5 years.  It is cheap (around $25), small, easy to store, and reliable.

Homemade Pasta Part 2: shaping video
Homemade Pasta Part 3: cooking and saucing

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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Trying out some new salt ideas

The salt conversation with Tony Maws has inspired me to do some salting "lab" work.  Here are my findings and thoughts:

French Gray Sea Salt vs Diamond Crystal Kosher 
I've been living very happily with Diamond Crystal Kosher salt.  But Tony assured me that there is a huge difference between salts and that fine grain French gray sea salt (called sel gris in French) is one of his favorites for basic seasoning of proteins.  

Try number 1: 365 fine grain sea salt
I set out to find gray sea salt.  When I surveyed the salt selection at my local Whole Foods, I found all different colors, but no gray.  Given the options, I thought I'll give 365 brand of fine sea salt a shot. When I opened the container, I found the crystal shape and size awfully similar to table salt.  They were so fine that the salt was difficult to pinch with fingers.  When you use salt with a salt shaker, it's hard to tell how much you are using.  That's why I prefer to pinch it with hands.  It was also very hard to distribute this salt over a piece of protein without over-salting some parts.  This can becomes easier to understand when you look at the weight of these salt.  

1/4 tsp of table salt = 1.5g
1/4 tsp of fine grain sea salt (365 brand) = 1.2g
1/4 tsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt = 0.7g

The weight is what determines the amount of sodium chloride (and thus salinity).  Since I need much more Diamond Crystal kosher salt by volume to get the same level of salinity, I have a bigger margin of error.  It makes it easier to distribute the salt evenly over a protein since a few crystals don't make or break it nearly as much.  

Try number 2: Fine grain gray sea salt from France
I finally found fine grain French gray sea salt on Amazon and 2 days later it was at my door.  The texture was way better.  The crystals were smaller than Diamond Crystal Kosher, but bigger than table salt, and were easy to pinch.  Unfortunately, there was no nutritional info on the package, so I had to weigh it to find out how it compares to other salts.  

1/4 tsp of fine gray sea salt = 1.1g

Since my scale confirmed the official measurements of other salts pretty well, I decided to trust it on the gray sea salt weight.  Now it was time to put it to use.  

I seasoned one trout fillet with Diamond Crystal Kosher salt and one with gray sea salt.  I weighed both the fish and the salt to make sure they had exactly the same salinity.  I pan seared both fillets in grapeseed oil, but added no other ingredients.  Jason and I had them side by side.  The verdict?  We couldn't tell the difference.  Tony talked about the beautiful mineral flavor of this salt.  When I put my nose a couple of inches from a bowl of salt, I did detect an iodine smell (I guess what people refer to as mineral or metallic smell).  Can't say I loved it, but it's a personal preference.  I didn't detect any smell from Diamond Crystal Kosher.  But that's when I was smelling a whole cup of salt.  Once it was on the fish, the two salts seemed identical.  Of course, people's pallets are very different and quite possibly others can tell the difference.  Though according to this article by Harold McGee, it's questionable how much difference most people can tell.

A few days later, I encountered another issue with gray sea salt.  As it sits in an uncovered bowl, it gets a bit clumpy (kind of wet looking).  This makes is more difficult to distribute evenly over proteins.  

% of salt by weight
For about a week, I've been weighing my salt when seasoning fish (I'll try to weigh it for meats too, but we've mostly had fish last week).  Why was I being so anal?  I feel that I am not always consistent when seasoning.  Craigie line cooks are lucky.  They have Tony standing next to them and evaluating their seasoning.  Since that's not an option in my own kitchen, I figured some quantitative information could help.  Tony said that we start to perceive salinity when it's 0.7% by weight.  When he cooks, he aims for 0.7% - 1% by weight depending on the recipe.*  After a few experiments, I settled on 0.7-0.75% of salt by weight for fish.  Not sure what it is for meat yet, but my intuition is that it's a bit higher for medium-rare meat and maybe a bit lower for braises and stews (because you lose way more water during braising).

You don't need a super expensive scale to try this experiment at home.  You just need 2 cheap scales:

Basic kitchen scale that sells for about $25.  You'll use it to weigh your proteins.

Tea scale that sells for about $15.  You'll use it to weigh your salt.  It is extremely accurate (1/100 g increments), but can only handle tiny quantities.  

When to salt and how?
In this experiment, I tried salting fish with 3 different methods: salt right before cooking, salt 2 hours before cooking, and brine. For brining, I tried 5% solution for 10 minutes, 5% solution for 30 minutes, and 6% solution for 1 hour.  It's hard to tell if comparing brined protein with presalted protein is like comparing apples and oranges.  Without sending my fish to the lab, there was no way for me to tell the exact salinity level of it after brining.  I went with how it tasted to me and Jason.  10 minutes in the brine seemed to be too bland.  30 minutes tasted about the same as a protein salted with 0.7% of salt by weight, 1 hour in 6% solution tasted about the same as 0.8% of salt by weight.  I did these experiments with swordfish, since it's one of the fish that could benefit from brining according to Tony.   

There seemed to be no difference in juiciness of the fish.  I weighed the pieces before and after cooking and they all lost roughly the same percent of water during cooking and tasted equally juicy.  The conventional wisdom is that the brine makes the protein absorb water.  From my experiments, it took an hour in a 6% solution to make swordfish gain 1.5% of its weight.  Considering the fact that some of this extra weight was salt (about 0.8%), it really doesn't leave much for extra water.    

Although juiciness didn't vary between the pieces, the flavor did.  The brined and presalted fish was more balanced.  There was no distracting salty outside that we got in the pieces that were salted right before cooking.  The brined and presalted fish seemed more flavorful, but less salty.  But we couldn't tell the difference between brined and presalted.  

I am not discounting brining for pork, poultry, etc.  It might indeed help a protein hold on to its moisture (or compensate by making it absorb additional moisture) when it's cooked to high temperatures.  But the highest I cook any fish is 135 (I take it off the heat even earlier), so a brine is not necessary.  

One more pinch
Generally, everyone in my family prefers proteins seasoned in advance.  But I found an interesting pattern.  We rarely reach for a bowl of salt while eating fish, but frequently want another sprinkle on our meats and chicken that were salted a day ahead unless I am serving them with sauce.  There is something desirable about not just flavorful, but noticeably salty chicken skin or roast crust.

* since all proteins lose weight when they are cooked, the final percentage of salt to weight is higher.  

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

How to make cooking videos

"Did you make a video today?" asked Jason when he got home from work.  I looked around the kitchen for evidence.  The lights and umbrellas were packed away.  The camera and the tripod were back in my study.  There was no script on the counter.  "What gave it away?" I asked.  "You are wearing lipstick," he said.  Oh that.  If you met me in person, you know that I don't wear make-up.  But cooking videos will make you do all sorts of things you don't do in normal life.  I have a whole new appreciation for the movie industry now.

After making 25 cooking videos in the last 6 months, I have learned a lot.  Although I still feel like a complete beginner, I thought I'll share my "recipe" for a cooking video with you.  Maybe it will inspire more people to share their cooking knowledge.

This procedure assumes that you are filming yourself.  If you have someone shooting the video for you, your process might be different.

  • Video camera -- it doesn't need to be expensive, but a swivel screen does help.  This way you can make sure you are positioned correctly.  I started out with the cheapest possible Flip video camera, but upgraded to a Sony Handycam for better video quality, optical zoom, and a swivel screen.  The one I got is no longer available, but here is a similar (and probably better) option.  My Sony camera doesn't have an external mic hookup, but the procedure I use for filming allows me to maintain an even level of audio without an external mic.
  • Tripod -- to film yourself, you need something to hold the camera.  Any professional will tell you how important a good tripod is, but I have lived relatively happily with a $10 one.  Sure, it's a bit crooked and flimsy (I wouldn't put my nice SLR camera on it).  But I compensate by extending one of the legs a bit more and the tiny video camera is secure on it.  
  • Lighting -- I can't emphasize enough how important good lighting is if you want people to see and understand what you are doing.  You need light to be coming from the same direction as your camera.  No matter how pretty the view of your garden is from the kitchen window, never position yourself with the window as the background.  This will put the light at your back instead of your face and hands.  Of course, relying on daylight is not the best idea.  It's unpredictable, and not movable.  So you'll need a few lights on tripods that you can move around.  If you have umbrellas to diffuse the light that's even better so that you can avoid sharp shadows.  Professionals would probably use a ton of these lights strategically positioned.  I only use two that you can buy for about $30.
  • Video editing software -- I use Sony Vegas Movie Studio.  It does everything I need and then some. It's $60, but well worth it.  
Here is the basic principle of how this works.  You shoot everything twice.  First shoot the actual cooking procedure setting the camera to zoom in on your hands, skillet, etc.  Then shoot your face narrating the process.  When you edit, you alternate between your face and hands as necessary.  The audio from your face track is the main audio.  The audio from the actual cooking procedure can overlap the narration, but you might want to turn down the volume if the skillet sizzle of knife hitting the board is too loud and distracting from your narration.  Here is the process step by step.
  • Write a script.  I don't care how simple the recipe or technique that you want to demonstrate.  You'll want to give people tips and draw their attention to particular handholds, equipment, particularity of an ingredient.  It helps to know exactly when to do it without stumbling.  
  • Buy twice as much food as you'll need for one demo.  The first take is not always the best and you need back up ingredients to re-shoot.
  • Do a dry run of filming your hands to test the lighting and camera angle.  If you are working with an ingredient, include it in the dry run, but don't cut it or do anything with it yet.  
  • Record the cooking procedure following your script.  You might have to pause at certain points, point to things, etc.  Go through the script in your head as you are cooking, but don't talk!  You only want the cooking noises from this track.  If you are filming cooking on the stove top, set the camera a good distance away and zoom in.  You don't want grease splatters on your lens.  
  • Edit the cooking procedure with your software and adjust the script as necessary so that your narration fits the actions exactly.  
  • Record your face narrating the cooking procedure.  You can read the parts of the script where you'll be showing your hands, but for the parts where you'll be showing your face, you need to memorize the script.  
  • Edit the narration and put the two tracks together alternating between them as necessary.