Archive for the How To’s Category

Questions about Breading Chicken

Posted in General food knowledge, How To's with tags , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2008 by restaurantouring

This question comes from my good friend Catie:

“What purpose does coating chicken in flour before the egg/flour-breadcrumbs serve [in fried chicken]? The egg never seems to stick to the [first coat of] flour, so I never do it. [I just do] egg/flour-bc (breadcrumbs).”

The reality is that the egg never really sticks to the chicken. I mean, raw chicken is wet and kinda slimy-feeling. Raw egg is the same way. When those two things meet, the egg just kinda sloshes around and eventually slides off of the chicken.

Egg sticks to an extremely thin layer of flour. The reason why it seems like the egg doesn’t stick to the flour is because there’s too much flour on your chicken. When dredging chicken in flour, it’s important to apply a very light coat and to vigourously shake off as much excess flour as possible. By ensuring that the chicken is as lightly, but completely, covered in a thin layer of flour as possible, you then ensure that as much egg can stick to as much surface of the chicken as possible.

The purpose of the egg is twofold: 1) it provides a sort of glue for the breadcrumbs to stick to, and 2) it provides moisture and protection for when you’re going to fry it. Foods that are frying have that characteristic, almost violent, bubbling because proper frying results in near-instantaneous boiling of water inside the target food. The water inside boils to create steam which tries to rush out of the food. This is good because it provides pressure against the oil which is trying to soak into your food. If your oil isn’t hot enough when you’re frying, the water inside the food won’t boil fast enough. Or, if you fry for too long and the food runs out of steam (literally), oil will soak into your food, which results in shamelessly greasy food. Since egg is made up of mostly water, the egg coating protects our food from getting too dry when it fries.

Finally, there is the breading. This is partially for protecting the chicken from the violently hot oil, but it is mostly there for texture and flavor. The breading (among other obvious things, such as seasoning) is what sets one piece of fried chicken apart from another one from a different recipe. For example, chicken coated in plain breadcrumbs can be very different from chicken coated in herbed, flavored breadcrumbs. These both can be very different from chicken coated in panko (Japanese style breadcrumbs, valued for their size and texture), crushed potato chips (whoo, trash cuisine!), or even crushed corn flakes (the breakfast cereal). Try different coatings and combinations and see which you like best!.

Toasting and Grinding Your Own Spices

Posted in Books and gear, General food knowledge, Home cooking and more, How To's with tags , , , , , , on November 29, 2008 by restaurantouring

Why you should toast and grind your own spices:

Spices are valued because of their essential oils, which remain locked up in whole spices.  To unlock, you simply grind those spices.

The reason why you should grind your own spices is because those essential oils are very volatile, meaning that they dissapate very quickly.  Logically, the pre-ground spices you buy at the grocery store are probably pretty flavorless already, since grocery store spices are typically months, if not years old already (And yes, this is true even if the bottle still has the stay-fresh-seal intact.  Sorry).

The reason why you should toast your own spices is because the act of toasting sort of “wakes up” those flavors and essential oils.  Suddenly, decent-tasting spices become extraordinarily deep and flavorful, and you really do get more bang for your buck.  Trust me, there is no substitute.

How to toast your own spices:

Toasting your own spices is easy.  Heat a clean, dry pan (I like stainless steel.  I use my clad pan.  A dry cast iron pan or a nonstick skillet both work very well, too) over medium or medium-high heat.  Once it gets hot, add the spices you wish to toast.  Keep the spices moving — toss the spices in the pan, stir it with a heat proof spatula, or just jiggle the pan vigorously on the stovetop, kinda like you’re making stovetop popcorn.  Once the spices start to smell really fragrant, remove the spices to a cool bowl or plate (plates are better, since there’s more surface area to spread the spices.  That way, the spices cool faster and steam doesn’t build up).  The whole process should only take a couple of minutes.  Just be careful not to burn anything!

Grinding your own spices:

This is where things get a little more creative.  There are many ways to grind your own spices.

First, before you grind anything, make sure that your spices have cooled.  Grinding spices that you have just toasted isn’t the best way to do things for two reasons: 1) steam may be built up in the spices, so that when you grind them, the spices get gluey and stick together in a clump, rather than in powder form; and 2) I think grinding hot spices promotes the dissipation of those volatile essential oils, which would negatively impact flavor and be counterproductive, considering the trouble you went through to toast your whole spices in the first place.

I own a terrible mortar and pestle, so that doesn’t really work for me.  My mortar and pestle is made of smooth, light-weight wood, which is why it does such a bad job at grinding things.  If I owned a marble, ceramic, or other stone mortar and pestle, I’d use it all the time.  There’s something quaint, satisfying, meditative, and cool about grinding your own spices with a mortar and pestle.  Just be sure that the grit on the interior surface / bowl of the mortar and on the end of the pestle is fine enough, and to your satisfaction.  Otherwise, your grind may be too coarse.  I should add that to my holiday wishlist: mortar and pestle, NOT MADE FROM WOOD.

When I grind spices, I use an electric coffee grinder.  It’s sweet.  It’s got a rotating blade in it, kind of like a mini blender or food processor.  The blades are thick and sturdy, and rotate extremely fast.  The model I own (which is actually different and more expensive than the one in the link above, yet they perform equally well) is actually detachable, which makes cleanup a snap.  The best part is that it only cost me around 20 or 25 bucks, and it makes things so much easier.  If your coffee grinder can’t be disassembled for washing, you can just run some dry, uncooked rice or kosher salt through it to clean it.

You can also simply use a knife to chop or crack spices.  Sometimes, this is even more advantageous.  Black pepper, for example, tastes very different when used whole, ground (especially when it’s finely ground), or simply cracked.  Cracked black peppers are great for brines and for steak au poivre, for example.  You can rough chop spices with a knife or even lay the knife flat and pound on the side of it with your fist to crack spices open.  Be careful not to cut yourself!

Alternatively, you can put your spices into a cloth bag or fashion a satchet out of a couple layers of cheese cloth.  Then, you can use a rolling pin, a meat mallet, or the bottom of a heavy pan to smash the spices until it reaches the consistency you desire.

There are tons of possibilities, really.  It is up to you how you wish to grind your own spices, but please do not be discouraged.  For the sake of flavor, it’s worth it.

Where to get spices:

Internet sources are probably best for buying spices, as long as it is a reputable, professional source.  Alternatively, you can usually sniff out spice markets in your area by simply looking around (especially in foreign, unknown places).  You can also search for stores nearby on the internet.  I go to my spice guy, Mark, whom I wrote about in a previous blog entry.

Thanksgiving Day Turkey

Posted in Books and gear, Home cooking and more, How To's with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 24, 2008 by restaurantouring

Note: If you read this recipe before 6:15 PM EST on 11/24/08, you should take note of the recipe changes I’ve made.  I had to go back and check the salt content and I realized I was recommending too little salt.  I’m sorry I goofed!

I apologize to the couple I bumped into at Bed Bath and Beyond last weekend, who ended up buying that All Clad roasting pan after I talked to them (Hey, All Clad!  Throw me a freaking bone here, please!).  I promised you a recipe for my turkey brine, and I’ve put it off until now to do it.  I’ve been very busy, but I hope you’re still out there, checking this blog (probably not.  I have 3 readers that I know of, and sadly, I am one of them and another reader is someone I charged with editting my rants).

But I hope you’re still there, or at least searching around for another brine recipe, because I’m a firm believer that brining your turkey is the single best thing you can do for your Thanksgiving turkey.  Brining ensures that your turkey is properly seasoned throughout, and also makes sure that your turkey is moist and flavorful, even after spending a couple of hours inside the oven.  Brining also gives you a bit of a buffer, in case you forget the turkey and leave it in the oven for a little too long.  Luckily, if you have a probe thermometer, you can eliminate that problem altogether.  Finally, brining is simple, even if some people say it is unnecessarily arduous.  Personally, I say it’s unnecessarily arduous to try to chew through another piece of tough, dry, flavorless turkey, but that’s enough of that.  Let’s cut to the chase:

To brine, you will need a couple of special tools.  The first is a clean 5-gallon bucket, or some container large enough to hold your turkey submerged in about 2 gallons of the brining liquid.  Home Depot sells them for about 5 bucks apiece.  Be sure to pick up the lid to go with it, and wash it really well in the tub when you get home.  Make sure that you’re not trying to reuse the old bucket from the last time you decided to repave your driveway or something, since that won’t taste very good.  The second item is the  probe thermometer I mentioned earlier.  I like Polder brand.  I got mine for about 20 bucks at Bed Bath and Beyond.  Or maybe it was Linens N Things?  I can’t remember.    Either way, you can get it on for 20 bucks, too (as soon as the price drops back down to $20 that is).  Anyway, let’s move on.

Brines should be around a 5% solution of salt in water.  To achieve this, it is best to weigh your ingredients.  Hopefully, you have a food scale somewhere in your home.  If not, you can approximate this solution by dissolving about 1 and 2/3 cup of kosher salt into a gallon of water.  A little more salt doesn’t hurt either — just don’t use too much, and definitely don’t use less.  I use Diamond kosher salt — the kind in the red and white box.  A cup of Diamond kosher salt weighs approximately 4.8 ounces, and you’ll need 8 ounces of salt for every gallon.  Things would be so much easier if we used the metric system. . . .  You’ll probably need about two gallons of water to brine your turkey, so you’ll need about 3 and 1/3 cups of kosher salt.  Unfortunately, I have no idea how much the equivalent amount of regular table salt would be, because I almost never use the stuff.  Tastes funny.  I think it’s the iodine.  Again, hopefully you have a scale.  You should be adding a pound of salt (16 ounces) to two gallons of water (that’s 5%).

You can either dissolve the salt in hot water, allow the brine to cool down, and brine your turkey in the refrigerator, or you can take your salt for a spin in your food processor for half a minute and dissolve it in cold water.  Processing kosher salt in a food processor creates a salt powder, which dissolves very very easily, even in cold water.  This way, you don’t have to wait for the solution to cool down before you dunk your bird inside.  Just be careful when opening the lid to your food processor — don’t inhale!  Lung-fuls of salt powder isn’t pleasant, trust me (not that I’m speaking from personal experience . . . or anything. . . .).

You can also brine your turkey on your porch or in your garage if the temperature outside doesn’t rise above 40 degrees Fahrenheit (I’d keep it outside at no higher than 37 degrees, just to be safe.  The windier it is outside, the better).  Alternatively, you can fill zip top bags with ice and slap them on top of the bird.  This serves to weight the bird down so that it is submerged, and also to keep the mix cold.  Replace the ice as needed, and make sure your zip top bags are good and waterproof, to prevent the melted ice from diluting the solution.  Brine overnight, and up to a day in advance.

That’s it.  A simple brine.

Of course, why should you be satisfied with just salt and water?  Sugar can be added to further enhance the effects of the brine.  White, table sugar will do in a pinch, but it has no flavor.  I try to add flavor whenever and where ever possible.  Here’s my recipe for my own turkey brine:

– 1 canister of orange juice or apple juice concentrate (it’s probably in the frozen section of your grocery store)

– 3 cups of kosher salt

– 1 cup of good soy sauce (I use Kikkoman because advertising works)

– 4-8 ounces of molasses (I believe they come in 12 ounce jars)

– half a cup of dark brown sugar

– a tablespoon of cracked peppercorns.  To crack peppercorns, lightly smash them with the side of a broad knife, or use the flat side of that meat mallet you have laying around somewhere.

– an onion, cut into quarters

– a couple ribs of celery, snapped in half or into thirds

– a couple of carrots, chopped into 1-inch chunks

– 3 bay leaves

– about 10 stems of thyme

– a bunch of parsley.  Also about 10 stems of it, torn up into pieces

– 10 sage leaves, shredded

– 5 star anise, smashed with the side of a knife

– a few cloves of garlic, smashed with the side of a knife

– a couple oranges or apples, cut into chunks

– 2 – 4 cinnamon sticks, snapped in half

– 232 ounces (two gallons, minus 3 cups) or so of home made vegetable stock.  If you use the canned stuff from the store, please be wary of the sodium content and adjust the amount of salt you add accordingly.  Also, please consider making your own veggie stock.  Just heat up two gallons of water and toss in some chunks of carrot, onion, celery, parsnip, and tomato.  Simmer for an hour or two.  Remove the solid chunks of veggies by straining.  Dissolve all the other ingredients into the broth.  You can probably (definitely) find better vegetable broth recipes online, since mine is very simple.

– You can also swap out some of the broth for wine or juice or apple cider.  It’s best to bring wine up to a boil, to drive off some of the alcohol, since alcohol may inhibit the brining process.

Again, brine your turkey for up to a day, flipping the bird (HA!  I swear that was unintentional.) halfway through the brining process to ensure that your turkey is seasoned evenly.  Then, remove it to your roasting rack and roasting pan, pat dry all around with paper towels, rub the turkey with oil, and roast it at 500 degrees Fahrenheit for half an hour.  This will give the turkey a very nice GBD (Golden Brown and Delicious) color on the outside of the skin.

If your turkey does not brown after half an hour in a 500 degree oven, a few things may be going wrong: 1) Your oven may not be calibrated correctly, so even though you set it to 500 degrees, it may not be reaching such a high temperature, 2) You may not have thoroughly dried the skin of the turkey before putting it into the oven, 3) There was too much acid in your brine (from citrus or vinegar or juice, etc), and the acid is preventing the turkey from browning properly, or 4)  You didn’t allow the oven enough time to preheat.  Allow an oven to preheat for at least half an hour before baking, especially when you need to bake at such a high temperature.  Other factors may be at play here, but these are the major factors that I can think of.

DO NOT STUFF YOUR BIRD.  Placing a rib of celery, a quarter onion, orange, or apple, herbs, spices, or other aromatics into the bird’s cavity is fine, but do not do not do not do not do not stuff the bird otherwise.  It won’t cook properly.

After half an hour, remove the turkey from the oven, put a double layer of foil directly onto the turkey breasts (to prevent the white meat from cooking too quickly and drying out), push the probe from the thermometer directly into the middle of one of the breasts (punching through the foil is fine).  Set the temperature on the probe thermometer to 160 degrees, and make sure you flip the switch on so that it will beep when the breast reaches that temperature.  You should also take this opportunity to wrap some foil around the wings and the ends of the legs, since those are small, thin areas that may burn easily if you’re not careful.

If you don’t have a probe thermometer, please try to get one.  If not, a 15-pound turkey should cook for another hour and a half or maybe slightly longer.  Larger birds will take longer and will most likely dry out more, even though you brined the turkey (don’t worry, the drying won’t be as bad as it normally might be).  Basically, try to avoid getting a turkey larger than 15 or 16 pounds.  Don’t be greedy and grab the 21 pounder.  It won’t cook properly.

Lower the heat down to 350 degrees and bake the turkey until the probe thermometer starts beeping at 160 degrees.  Do not open the oven door in the middle to check on the turkey or to baste it.  Leave the fate of the turkey up to the Thanksgiving Day / Polder gods.  Remove the turkey, let it rest for half an hour, and then you can carve and serve it.  It is important to let the turkey rest for two reasons: 1)  At 160 degrees, the turkey can still harbor salmonella.  Salmonella dies at 165 degrees, and the carryover cooking will easily bring the temperature of the turkey to above 165 degrees.  2) meat that has had a chance to rest after roasting has the benefit of being juicier, since the liquids in the hot meat have the chance to settle and become reabsorbed by the strands of protein in the meat.

Summary: Roasting a Thanksgiving Day turkey is easy.  All you have to remember is to avoid getting a bird larger than 15 or 16 pounds, always brine the bird, never stuff the bird, and once it is in the oven, don’t go futzin’ around with it and opening the oven door repeatedly.  The rest is simple, as well: 1) brine (repetition never hurt anyone), 2) pat dry and rub the turkey with oil, 3) roast for half an hour at 500 degrees, 4) cover the breasts, wings, and drumstick ends with foil, 5) finish the turkey in a 350 degree oven until a probe thermometer tells you that the temperature in the middle of a turkey breast has reached 160 degrees, 6) rest the turkey for half an hour, and 7) enjoy!

P.S.  Fans of Alton Brown’s show, Good Eats, will notice that this recipe basically follows Alton’s method for roasting a whole bird.  Clever, you.  Alton Brown rocks my socks.