Monday, January 14, 2013

Running Hot and Cold

Water is perhaps the most vital and least discussed tool in any kitchen.  We here in the States don't often appreciate the fact that clean water comes flowing into our homes and businesses with ease and abundance, which is not true of many communities in the world.  Try to be grateful every time you turn on the tap that you did not have to travel to the community well to get it, you did not have to carry your family's entire daily supply home on your back and you did not have to boil it first in order to have a drink.

Tastes a tiny bit sweeter now, eh?

Water in all it's forms can be used in the creation of many culinary delights, but I am here today to talk about the water inside your ingredients.  Just about every creature on this Earth is made up mostly of water, including the food we eat, and the water inside the food reacts the same to outside forces as the free water outside.

So what does the bound water have to do anything?  Plenty, if you own and use a freezer or a microwave.  Anyone who has ever put a block of cheese in the freezer can attest to that, once they have thawed it out and then tried to grate it only to end up with a pile of cheese crumbles.  That was the water talking to you.

When water freezes, the molecules form crystals inside the food, the slower the freeze (such as home freezers), the larger the crystal.  The crystals attract the other molecules of water and rearrange themselves, still inside the food, and carve out tiny holes.  Once the food is thawed out, that water just flows out leaving the food somewhat beaten in the process.  Unless you own a flash freezer unit, this is unavoidable at home, but understanding what goes on can inform how you prepare things for the freezer.

Cheese can be frozen, but it doesn't work very well for creamy or soft cheeses.  Semi soft cheese like cheddar should be grated first and tossed with a bit of cornstarch while hard cheeses like Parmesan need very little prep.  Those soft cheeses are too wet, all that water will ruin the texture of the cheese once thawed; semi soft has less water and hard has very little.  Meats have a lot of bound water, so wrap them individually in plastic wrap and freeze in a single layer on a sheet pan before putting them all into a freezer bag together.

Now we're going to the other side of the thermometer to hot and how to understand microwave ovens.  The firstest, bestest thing to know about microwaves is that they move water molecules, microwaves excite water molecules specifically.  In science, movement equals heat, so microwave ovens heat food by heating the water inside the food.

If you have ever nuked a piece of bread and gotten a leathery postcard when the timer beeped, it's because what small bit of moisture that was left in the bread was all evaporated away in the microwave.  I routinely splash drops of water onto whatever I am putting into the microwave, from sandwiches to burritos to left over rice.  It gives the microwaves plenty of fuel without taking too much away from my food, but bread will still always toughen up quickly when nuked.

My last thought on this topic is about the bound water in vegetables that are destined for preparations like sauteeing.  Let's use sauteed onions as a for instance; you slice them up nice and thin, toss them in a preheated pan with some butter and olive oil only to see them steam up and stew instead of turning that gorgeous golden brown.  Once again, that's the water talking to you.

Removing some of that bound water will stop your food from steaming in the pan, just lay your cut veggies out on some paper towels and sprinkle with salt.  Salt pulls moisture from tissue, sugar will do the same, and these drier veggies will be much more suitable for frying.

Being familiar with how everything works in your kitchen makes you a better all around cook.  All the recipes and shiny cookware in the world are useless in the hands of a chef who doesn't understand that her most important tool is between her ears.

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