Everything I Know About Cooking, I Learnt From Making Stew (part two)

The first part was very broad-brush stuff: here I get (slightly) more specific.

Learning to cook is a lifelong project.

Learning to cook is a cumulative process. Some bits of it are widely applicable, but there are also many small pieces of specific knowledge. They aren’t generally complicated or difficult, but there are a lot of them, because there are so many different ingredients and cooking techniques. You build up a stock of knowledge as you learn new recipes. You can’t really rush that process, short of going to catering college or working in a restaurant so that you’re cooking all day every day. But learning is part of the fun.

It helps to have proper equipment.

I sometimes find myself cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen, on holiday or at a friend’s house, and apparently most of the world seems to cook with blunt knives.

Why make it harder for yourself than it needs to be? Cooking is about 50% chopping and slicing, so if you keep your knives sharp it just makes it easier. A really heavy frying pan that retains heat makes it easier to brown meat. Even the simple things, like a larger chopping board or a potato peeler that feels comfortable in your hand, will just reduce the little aggravations that can make cooking stressful.

I’m not talking about the fetishistic end of the market, necessarily, fun though it is. I mean, I have a Japanese chef’s knife made of steel that has been folded 63 times, so it has rippled patterns in the blade like a samurai sword; but much as I love it, I’m willing to concede it’s not strictly necessary. But it is worth spending a little bit more for a good solid bit of steel, and then sharpening it regularly.

Since this post is aimed, to some extent, at people who are just learning to cook, I don’t want to imply that you need to go out and spend masses of money on cookware before you even start. As long as you have some knives and some pans and a source of heat, you can cook. But, over time, it is worth accumulating some better equipment.

Seasoning doesn’t just mean salt.

Seasoning is absolutely vital. There’s nothing more deflating than getting some nice ingredients, investing time and energy in them, and ending up with something which is just a bit… boring.

Salt is certainly part of that. There’s a reason why food manufacturers and restaurants put so much salt into their food: the way it enhances the flavour of everything else is almost magical.

But I find it helpful to think of seasoning more broadly than that. At the risk of turning these posts into Everything I Know About Cooking I Learnt From Onions: take onions. Just about every stew in the entire European tradition starts, like my generic stew recipe, by browning some onions. If you want to make a meat sauce, for lasagne or moussaka or shepherd’s pie: start by browning onions. The same for a lot of curries. Is that because every cook wants their food to taste noticeably of onions? No, of course not. It’s because the sweet, savoury background flavour of browned onions acts to enhance the main ingredients of your dish. Cooks don’t conventionally refer to onions as ‘seasoning’, but to me, it’s all part of the same thing.

It’s similar with the bouquet garni (i.e. the bundle of herbs). You’re not really putting them in because you expect people to be able to pick out the flavour of bay or thyme; you’re trying to make the whole stew richer and more rounded.

Once you use this broader definition of ‘seasoning’, the dividing line between ‘seasoning’ and ‘main ingredient’ becomes a little blurry. Chunks of bacon make a good addition to a stew; they add savoury browned meat flavours, salt and fat. Ingredient or seasoning? It doesn’t actually matter; the point is to always remember that, however good your ingredients, they need a little help to be at their best.

One approach I find quite helpful is to think about the five basic flavours: sweet, salt, sour, bitter and umami. Often we think of seasoning as adding salt to things, but equally when something seems bland you can try to add sweetness (onions, carrots, tomato, fruit, or indeed sugar or honey), sourness (citrus juice, vinegar, tamarind) or umami (stock, tomato, mushrooms, parmesan cheese, soy sauce). You can also think of hotness as another basic flavour (pepper, chilli, ginger, horseradish, mustard).

It’s noticeable that the classic condiments are all concentrated ways of adding these flavours to food: parmesan is salt and umami; tomato ketchup has sour, sweet, umami and salt; salad dressing is usually sour, salty and sweet. We squeeze lemon juice on fish: sour and sweet.

Not every dish needs to hit every one of these flavours, but it’s worth just bearing them in mind.

Sometimes you have to burn things to give them flavour.

When people joke about cooking disasters, they always talk about things getting burnt. Perhaps that’s why when I started cooking I was always paranoid about accidentally burning things. So when I was browning onions or meat, or frying a steak, I was always too cautious with the heat.

Well, I’ve since learned that the flavours that are produced by the browning process are absolutely crucial to many recipes. Apparently the effect of heat on all those proteins and amino acids produces a whole mess of different complicated chemical reactions and a whole rich, complex combination of savoury flavours. So let the heat do its job. If you want to brown some meat, let a heavy frying pan get really hot, put the meat in and don’t move it around: leave it to really get some colour. And while you don’t want to reduce it to charcoal, if some bits of it actually get burnt black around the edges, that is completely fine. The same with onions: I would generally brown onions more slowly, but again, it is just fine, even desirable sometimes, to get them quite dark and a bit burnt looking.

And if you’re frying a steak, or perhaps some scallops, something which you want to be quite browned on the outside and barely cooked in the middle, don’t be afraid to make the pan really hot. Producing a bit of smoke when you fry a steak is completely normal.

Cheap cuts of top quality meat are nicer than prestige cuts of rubbishy meat.

Stew is a way of turning the problems with cheap meat into virtues. You start with the toughest cuts of meat, full of sinew and bone and cartilage, and you brown them, which makes them even tougher; but gentle simmering over a long period eventually makes the meat so tender that you can break it up with a fork. And the sinew and bone release savoury flavours and gelatine and fat, and make the liquid thick and unctuous. So for making stew, shin of beef is a better choice than fillet steak anyway.

But if you have to choose between making a stew of  really good quality shin of beef (grass-fed, rare breed beef, properly aged) or roasting a joint of sirloin that is as cheap as the supermarket can produce (from a dairy/beef cross, raised in a shed, packaged as soon as it’s butchered) the stew will make a tastier, more impressive dish than the roast sirloin. Which is why slow-cooked pork belly and lamb shank are such fixtures on restaurant menus.  And if you want to do a roast, a less expensive cut of top quality meat will be more impressive than a glamour cut of rubbishy meat. So shoulder of pork rather than rolled rib of beef.

Even cheap cuts of really good quality meat can be expensive, of course; but then, the nature of meat is that it should be expensive. Animals have to be fed; raising them is labour-intensive. The only way that it’s even possible to sell meat so cheaply at the supermarket is to use breeds bred for growth rather than flavour and raise them in intensive conditions. And whatever you think of the ethics of it, the result is inferior flavour and texture. It’s like eating tomatoes in winter, in Britain at least: it doesn’t matter how much you have a craving for tomato salad, it’s always going to be disappointingly bland and watery. Because although it is possible to grow tomatoes in a greenhouse in Spain or Holland in December, you have to fight against the basic nature of the tomato plant to do it.

» El Cocido en Gelida is © Joan Grífols; the essence of being hungarian is © hungaro phantasto and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

6 Comments

  1. jill
    19 February 2010 at 12:49 am | Permalink

    When I’ve taught cooking classes, I love to start with stew. The smell of browning onions is one of the most appetite-inducing cooking smells. I’ve wondered whether that’s conditioning, or some sort of universal human truth; I’ve never read about a culture that finds onions repulsive but there must be one.
    And for your next beef stew, if you haven’t tried it before, I recommend a cut off the chuck called (over here) either round bone roast or arm roast. HF-W’s Meat Book doesn’t seem to reduce the chuck into its various possible cuts, but it has a big round bone that runs through it. It cooks down into longer threads than other chuck cuts and is just slightly less fatty.

  2. Harry
    19 February 2010 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Not only do English butchers have different names for the cuts of meat, they divide up the carcass differently. So trying to work out how the more obscure cuts translate is surprisingly hard :)

  3. 2 March 2010 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    I agree with you about the need to brown food properly. A lot of supermarket in store bakery bread looks so anemic compared to a properly baked loaf. There’s so much flavour in the crust that’s missing when not baked fully.

  4. Harry
    2 March 2010 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I think it’s true of most food except things like green vegetables. And even those are often quite nice cooked on a hot griddle or something.

  5. 3 March 2010 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    I did wonder if food manufacturers had one eye on the risk from acrylamide, found in higher levels in baked or fried food, and perhaps this was the reason for products being underbaked but I suspect it’s just to save time and money.

  6. Harry
    3 March 2010 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    Maybe their process isn’t accurate enough to brown it more without burning a certain percentage.

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  1. […] NOTE: this turned into a sprawling monster of a post, so I split it into two; part two is here. […]

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