Friday, April 27, 2012

How to Steel a Knife Video

"Just please don't do the Gordon Ramsey thing," said the rep from DMT when I called her to ask a few questions about my ceramic steel.  "That's how people hurt themselves, their knives, and their steels, and then they call us to complain."

Ok.  No Gordon Ramsey thing.  Here is Helen's version.

YouTube Link: How to Steel (Hone) a Knife

As I was making this video, I noticed that it's much easier to align the knife to the guide if you can see it in the camera screen (mine swivels so that I can see what I am recording).  I am not suggesting you buy a video camera, but placing a mirror in front of you the first few time you steel might be helpful.

Here are some frequently asked questions from my Knife Skills classes about steeling knives.

How often should I steel my knives?
At least every day you are going to cook.  Additionally, I steel after very hard vegetables (butternut squash, parsnips, sweet potato), and right before cutting tomatoes.  I know this sounds like a lot, but the more you do it, the better you'll get and it shouldn't take you more than 10 seconds.

What steel do you recommend?
I love my DMT ceramic steel.  It's exceptionally smooth (2200 grit), which produces a nicely polished edge. Your steel should be at least 1000 grit according to Patti Small from On the Edge Knife Sharpening and if there is someone who knows her knives, it's Patti.  I also love that this steel is long (the rod length is 12 inches).  The length of your steel should be at least as long as the length of your knife's blade.  

How do you take care of a steel?
Normally, you don't have to do anything to a steel.  Just be careful not to bang it on anything (including your knife) so that it doesn't get nicked.  Most of the complaints on amazon are from people who don't know how to steel.  Don't apply much pressure and don't do the Gordon Ramsey thing.  If you nick the steel, there is no way to fix that.  Fast chopping is efficient.  Fast steeling is showing off.  Because this steel is round, you'll be holding it differently each time, which gives you plenty of new surfaces to work with.  A few times a year, I scrub it with ajax or bar keeper's friend using a sponge (don't use steel wool).  This removes the trace amount of metal that gets embedded in it.

How long does a steel last?
This depends on a steel.  Round steels last a lot longer than flat ones because you have more surfaces to work with.  My last ceramic DMT steel lasted at least 3 years (might have been even 5, but I don't remember exactly when I bought it).  The way you know you need a new steel is that it remains shiny smooth even after you scrub it with ajax.

Do you need to wash a knife after steeling?
Ceramic steel is so smooth it barely removes any metal, so I don't bother washing my knife after steeling.  Just make sure your knife is clean before steeling.  You don't want to clog your steel with food.

What if I have Japanese knives?
Steel is not the right tool for one-sided Japanese knives (their edge is like a guillotine with an angle only on one side).  But I've been using it with great results on my Japanese hybrid knife.  That's what most home cooks have when they buy Japanese knives (Shun, Global, Mac, etc).  These knives are shaped like Western knives, but their edge is two sided with 15 degrees on each side.  I steel my Mac just like a western knife, but use a slightly more shallow angle.  Most Japanese manufactures say that you shouldn't steel their knives.  I wonder if the reason for this is that most steels are very coarse.  But since my ceramic steel is 2200 grit, it seems to work well.

I tried steeling my knife, but it didn't get much better.  Why?
Most likely your knife doesn't have an edge.  The steel can only bend an existing edge back into alignment (that's called honing), it doesn't remove enough metal to give you a new edge (that's called sharpening).  To get a new edge, you can take your knife to a professional sharpener or buy yourself a new knife.  Here is a great chef's knife for about $25.

Should you steel serrated knives?
No.  Serrated knives don't need regular maintenance.  Take them to a professional every 2-5 years.

How is a steel better than AccuSharp?
AccuSharp produces a wider angle (about 22.5 degrees).  Wider angles last a bit longer, but make you push harder when you cut.  If you took your knife to Patti and she put an 18 degree angle on it, AccuSharp will get rid of it pretty quickly.  Since AccuSharp removes metal, you need to wash and dry the knife after using it -- extra step.  AccuSharp works great when it's new, but wears out pretty quickly.  If you cook regularly, you need a new one every 6 months or so.  But AccuSharp actually sharpens, so it will work on a knife that's been somewhat neglected, while a steel won't.

If you are a passionate cook who doesn't let other people mess with your knives (put them in the dishwasher, cut with them in glass dishes, bury them in a sink full of dishes, or kitchen drawers where they bang on other utensils) you might want to learn to steel.  If your life is a bit hectic right now, and you have little control over who uses your knives and how, I would order a few AccuSharps to have on hand for resuscitating your knives.

Here is a video on how to use AccuSharp and general information on how knife sharpening works.

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Monday, April 23, 2012

Ruhlman's Twenty

"What were you doing?!" asked Jason when I finally got in bed at 1am.  "Reading Ruhlman's Twenty," I said.  Then I tried to fall asleep, but couldn't.  I've never been as conflicted about a cookbook before.  My reaction after the first 5 minutes of reading was "Oh no.  He wrote my book!"  Not that I have a book, or even a proposal for a book.  All I have is a feeble hope that one day I could write a book about cooking techniques --  and that's what Michael Ruhlman has done.  But after a few hours of reading, I realized that he wrote about only half of what cooking is all about: flavor.  The other half is texture; and that's something that requires much more care and technique than he gives it in this book.

For the chapters on salt and acid, I am grateful to him from the bottom of my heart.  Not because I agree with all of his advice, but because someone is finally talking about what makes food taste good.  No, you don't need "organic" salt, black lava salt, or Fleur de Sel.  All you need is plain old Diamond Crystal Kosher salt.  But most home cooks need much more of it than they currently use, and much earlier in the process -- very often a whole day before the ingredient is cooked and throughout the cooking process, not as an afterthought when the dish is done.  Acid is another secret weapon usually left untouched by home cooks.  Vinegar and citrus juice are not only for dishes that are explicitly sour.  Most dishes can use a touch of acidity to brighten their flavor.

I am also grateful to him for not jumping on the organic, local, sustainable, free range, cage free, humanly raised, allergy friendly, good for you band wagon.  Enough is enough.  The most local, sustainable beef can taste like an old shoe if you overcook it, and don't salt it.  And a 2 day old egg from a free range chicken in your back yard can easily turn into an egg drop soup if you don't know how to poach.

Another thing I like about the book is that Ruhlman describes what things should look like, feel like, and taste like without trying to sound overly scientific.  Knowing the theory about chemical reactions is only helpful if you know how to recognize this behavior with a naked eye and manipulate it to your advantage.  I feel that the food science community sometimes forgets that we don't cook with microscopes and test tubes, but with our hands, eyes, skillets and meat thermometers.

What I found frustrating about the book was lack of thought given to doneness of proteins, which makes the biggest impact on texture and juiciness.  In one recipe he suggests testing cod for doneness, by inserting a knife into it and then touching it to your lip.  If it's warm, it's done.  I've seen professionals use this technique, but it feels too vague for home cooks.  How long should you keep the knife in the fish to make sure it reaches the temperature of the fish?  How warm is warm?  How do you make sure that the part of the knife you are touching to your skin is the part that was in the center and not near the outside?  Wouldn't it be easier to see if the flakes separate and the center is still translucent?  In the poached salmon recipe, he suggests cooking to 135-140 for medium-rare.  By no stretch of the imagination is that medium-rare.  That's well done and then some, because the fish (as everything) continues to cook once it's off the heat.  Medium-rare salmon should come off the heat between 110F and 120F depending on the heat intensity and the thickness of salmon.

I felt that the internal temperatures at which Ruhlman suggests you take the proteins off the heat almost always ignored the concept of residual heat.  A rib roast and steak taken off the heat at 130F will not be medium-rare as he suggests.  Of course, you can say that's just a matter of definition.  Maybe his medium-rare is not the same as mine.  But the point is not what we call it.  The point is that the proteins don't release their juice until they get to 120F, but start to toughen up and squeeze the moisture out aggressively after they get to 130F.  If you want to optimize tenderness and juiciness, you need to stay under 130 during cooking and during resting. I wonder if he is bumping up most temperatures to appease the food safety nuts.  Though that doesn't sound like Ruhlman.  In the ceviche dish, he suggests that sole is ok to eat raw in spite of its proneness to parasites, and he is definitely not cooking cod to 135 (which would feel hot to your lip, not warm).

Another thing that bothered me about the book is omission of the details that seem obvious to people who cook professionally, but are not at all obvious to home cooks.  His lovely pan sauces will not work in non-stick cookware most home cooks use.  I wish he was more explicit about that.  It would also help if he would make a bigger deal about drying the proteins before cooking.  The roast chicken recipe mentions that you should rinse the chicken (a step that is completely unnecessary), but doesn't mention that you should dry it.  Most home cooks would rinse that chicken even without his instructions, it's the drying that needs to be banged into everyone's heads.  That's what will solve the classic home cook problem of "my meat is sticking and not browning."

In spite of all my gripes, I think the book has great merit.  I guess Rennie's Twenty would be different than Ruhlman's Twenty, but we all have to choose our battles.  I don't remember last time a cookbook made me stay up till 1am.  It was a great joy to read a book that's all about cooking, and not some romantic story with a few recipes thrown in.  This is a book that will make you think in the kitchen, not day dream about cooking in your cubicle.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Seared and Grilled Asparagus (Video)

Here are two more asparagus ideas -- both take about 3 minutes of active time and are a great way to convert people into asparagus lovers.

YouTube Link: Seared and Grilled Asparagus

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Monday, April 16, 2012

Asparagus 2 ways: ribbons and blanched (video)

I first saw asparagus on the packet of McCormick's Hollandaise sauce. We were invited for dinner to Nancy and Howard’s – an American family who was helping us adjust to our new country when we moved here in ’91. I was 13, and found US fascinating, particularly all the interesting foods. Baltimore suburbs were not what you’d consider a culinary destination, particularly in the early 90s. But I didn’t know that. All I knew was that this place had 5 brands of butter, cool fruits like mango, and strawberries in December -- completely unheard of in Russia at the time. So when I saw Nancy cooking asparagus and then pouring the yellow sauce from the special packet all over it, I was intrigued.

What was even more intriguing was that her kids wrinkled their noses when asparagus dish reached them, and passed it on without a moment’s hesitation. Since I was determined to try everything at least once, I plopped a few slippery spears that threatened to fall apart onto my plate. I barely managed to cut these mushy sticks into bite-size pieces. Not only were they mushy, they were stringy too. When I finally got to tasting one of them, I learned that Nancy’s kids were right. These frog-colored sticks were pretty bad.

US has gone through such a culinary revolution in the past 20 years that it’s hard to believe it’s the same country. You can now find celery root and sorrel in many supermarkets, figs are found not only in Fig Newtons, and restaurants serve duck liver and sweetbreads. By now, asparagus is as exotic as potato. And yet, most asparagus served as home is still the same brownish stringy mush it was 15 years ago. Most men and children still hate it, and most women righteously cook it (or dare I say overcook it) and pretend to like it because it’s good for you.

So, throw away that asparagus steamer (it’s a useless piece of equipment) and get ready to cook all the wonderful spring asparagus that’s now in season.

YouTube Link: Asparagus Ribbon Salad and Blanched Spears

Videos you might want to watch before this one:
Claw and Pinch Grip (how to keep blood out of your veggies)
How to keep your knives sharp

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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Poached Eggs for Company (Video)

There is no denying that poached eggs are sexy.  They have a way of transforming whatever is on a plate into a rather fancy looking meal.  So what better dish to serve your company for an Easter brunch than poached eggs on a bed of something yummy?

Wait!  Where are you going?  I know what you are thinking.  "I can't even poach 1 egg without ending up with an egg drop soup, and you want me to poach a dozen and risk serving them to company?!"  I feel your pain.  Poached eggs can be rather unpredictable, but there is a little trick called sous-vide that can solve all your egg problems.  

Wait!  Are you leaving again?  Please don't go.  Is it because I said "sous-vide?"  This will not require any expensive machinery.  A huge beer cooler or a large pot of water will work just fine.  If you've tried sous-vide eggs in restaurants and hated them, there is a solution for that too -- cook them to 142F and re-poach them to firm up the white.  Is that easier than normal poaching?  Absolutely.  After being held in a controlled water bath at 142F, the eggs keep their shape perfectly when poached and you can cook as many of them at the same time as you'd like.  Take a look.
YouTube Link: Sous-vide Poached Eggs

I forgot to mention in the video. My timing assumes you start with fridge temperature eggs.

Sept 20, 2013 update:
In the video, I recommend 142F.  But I have recently found other good temperatures.  Each has its pros and cons.

Besides looking and tasting great, these eggs will also provide you with a fabulous topic of conversation. Trust me -- sous-vide cooking is a much safer topic for family gatherings than healthcare policy or religion.

Cooking time for large eggs (~57g): 45min, can continue up to 2 hours
Cooking time for extra large eggs (~64g): 50 min, can continue up to 2 hours
Pros: Lots of time flexibility
Cons: White too soft for some

Cooking time for large eggs (~57g): 40min is ideal, but can continue up to 50 min
Cooking time for extra large eggs (~64g): 45 min is ideal, but can continue up to 55 min
Pros: White is more set than at 142F
Cons: Shorter serving window.  If not ready to serve, the eggs can be removed from the water bath and kept at room temp for up to an hour, then returned to the water bath for 5 minutes to warm up.

Cooking time for large eggs (~57g): 13 minutes exactly
Cooking time for extra large eggs (~64g): 14 minutes exactly
Pros: Ideal white – solid, but very tender.  If you are using a pot with a thermometer method, you only have to watch it for 13 min.
Cons: This is a very time sensitive method.  The results will vary based on the egg type, shape, exactly size, and the size of the yolk  Unless you are cooking 1 egg and eating it immediately, you’ll need an ice-water bath after 13 minutes at 163F to prevent the yolk from overcooking.  Warm up at 140F for 30 minutes before serving.  Can be kept at 140F longer if needed.  I suggest you don't use a beer cooler for this temp since it's pretty hot.  

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Sunday, April 1, 2012

Stirring the Pot

What is the secret to perfectly cooked pasta, bechamel, or risotto? A well stirred pot, of course! How confident are you about your stirring technique? Does the length of your spoon matter? What about the quality of water? Direction of stirring? Salt type? Find out the answer to all your stirring questions in this enlightening video.

YouTube Link: How to Stir a Pot of Water

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