Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Minimalist of Technique

I'm torn between ignoring this guy altogether and making hay out of his mistakes and sloppy technique by way of reminding myself and others how NOT to cook .

Once again the author of the New York Times column "The Minimalist" shows us that cooking does not have to take a long time as long as we minimize the degree of care and skill that we bring to the kitchen. But first let me point out what Mr. Bittman gets right or does well as he shows us how to cook a Tri-tip steak with romanesco sauce.

1) He gets the pan hot before he puts the meat in to cook.
2) The sauce, although not to my taste, is well-crafted

Now the stuff that I don't recommend.

His take on bovine anatomy would get him in a lot of trouble if he was butchering a cow for someone who understood the retail value of a Tri-tip steak. Last time I looked, cattle were quadrupedal and bilaterally symmetrical, which implies that there are two of each distinct muscles for every animal, making this statement false
"First, there is only one per cow, so it is not all that common."

Tri-tips are located at the posterior-ventral end of the sirloin between the round (hind leg) and the sirloin (think of sirloin as the hip). Since each cow has two sides then there should be TWO tri-tips per cow, not one.

His 500 degree oven is much too hot. The evidence for the overheated oven is in the appearance of the meat after it is cut. Notice the thick band of well-done and the small lens of rare towards the center. That type of layering is indicative of very rapid heating associated with high oven temperatures and usually results in
  1. Higher rates of moisture loss
  2. Reduced denaturation of connective tissue due to reduce availability of water (moisture) for hydrolysis
  3. More rapid coagulation and shortening of muscle fibers resulting in tougher meat that is also more prone to squeeze out water

Making an already bad situation worse, despite his advice to let the meat rest  he does not let the meat rest before slicing so juice leaks out at an accelerated rate. Also, while the meat may have been at 125 degrees F when he took it out of the oven the meat ends up being almost well-done because the overheated oven made the outer layers of the meat too hot, thereby making the meat "carry-over" too much.if he had used a more moderate oven temperature, say 350 or 375 degrees F, there would have been less carry-over and the meat would have been more homogeneously red (rare).

Further capitalizing on an already nearly ruined piece of beef he uses a serrated knife which exacerbates moisture loss by "sawing" instead of "snipping" the muscle fibers thereby maximizing their surface area for water loss. The serrated knife also makes ugly "wavy" looking slices for a highly unprofessional presentation.

"The Minimalist - Tri-Tip Is a Delicious Cut of Steak, but Hard to Get -


Warner (aka ntsc) said...

Minor point that cows usually end up as hamburger, or very low letter grade meat.

Ed Bruske said...

Other than that, how did you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

I've never been impressed wtih Bittman. I'll bet you could write a piece like this every week.

Bob del Grosso said...

Ordinarilly, I'd agree that it is imprecise to refer to cows as a source of beef. However, since I began working on a farm that raises cattle and has many cows, heifers, bulls and steer, I have learned that the reality is a bit messier and that cows do indeed end up in the beef market ( tenderloins especially).

Jessika said...

Instruction #2 in the recipe is kinda off the mark, first cook in pan until rare/medium rare, then finish in oven until medium rare.
I'd probably sear it and then finish it in the oven with a thermometer. Any ideas with that technique?

And you never know: a bittman cow might be anatomically different than other cows and only have ONE part of various muscle groups but you won't know which ;) (anyone with a little know how, well you know that already)

Carrie said...

Wish I had read this post before dinner - I seared a lovely flank steak, finished it off in the oven, let it rest, and then proceded to totally destroy it with a serrated knife. Doh!

I have no idea who Bittman is but I'm finding your posts about him very informative! You're also quite entertaining when you get on your technical high horse. :)

Bob del Grosso said...

I like that horse too. Although sometimes I think I like it a bit too much...

Jessika said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carrie said...

There aren't many people who have technical knowledge of food that you have, so I'm not sure high horse is the right term. Criticize and elucidate go together in the dictionary - I think you're more sharing your educated view of food and cooking than criticizing other's less educated assertions. At least I take away your knowledge more than your criticisms on my end.

Jessika said...

I agree very strongly with Carrie. It really is too bad when cooking columns teach bad technique that yields poor results.

Jamie Waldron said...

Thanks for doing this Bob. My girlfriend and I were watching this Bittman video and saying the exact things you so graciously posted.
One per animal... jeeez!

Keith said...

Good analysis. And thanks for the built in tips too. You could do this every week.

Wonder how long it would take the Times to pick up on that?

Natalie Sztern said...

On the other side of this informative discussion it is the 'let it rest' part that I can't quite understand.

I always let my meat rest at least 20 minutes because with all I read and watch I have been taught that meat must rest to encapsulate their juices back into themselves. It is what I practice and what I re-iterate in describing recipes

What I don't get is that 20 minutes is a long enough period of time to cool off the meat, so I wind up eating lukewarm roast beef as ex.

What step am I missing so that I can serve my meat hot?

Keith said...

Natalie, you could leave it to rest in the oven, with the door ajar, covered in foil (perhaps only at lower temperatures....recommended by Hugh Firmly Whippingboy in his Meat cookbook)

Sometimes I try insulating the joint against heat loss - If I'm concerned, I'll cover the joint in foil, leave it in a warm part of the kitchen, and cover the foil with a couple of towels.

If I can, I'll also try to use dishes or pans that I think will retain heat well - thick cast iron pans, thick ceramic dishes, or clayware dishes.

I'd be interested to hear what anyone else thinks.....

Bob del Grosso said...

"Hugh Firmly WHIPPINGBOY" is a real person? I can't believe it. That name is wonderful.

The subject of carryover cooking ought to be covered in detail somewhere, because it is not as simple as it might seem at first glance. (I'm sure you already know this.)

How much the internal temperature of something goes up is a function of 1) how hot the oven was 2) the mass and dimensions of the food 3) the composition of the food (i.e. % water/protein/fat 4) the "architecture" or structure of the food (Is there bone? Is it solid or hollow etc) 5) the ambient temperature of the area in which carryover will occur

But I suppose that whether or not you would leave the meat in the oven with the door ajar, or wrap it in foil would depend mostly on 5.

In other words, if the kitchen is cold (in other words the heat gradient to the kitchen is much steeper than it is to the interior of the meat) then leaving it in the oven or wrapping it in foil (shiny side facing the meat to reflect the heat back) makes good sense.

Keith said...

Some of that I knew, some I just didn't think of, some I had absolutely no idea about. So thanks for the info.

Sorry. Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall. Almost as good a name.

Resting, and the science thereof is something of a mystery to me.

That said, almost every house I've lived in has been freezing, so the oven thing made complete sense.

Bone. Quite a good insulator, I'm guessing, meaning a longer cooking time, but when warm, will hold heat longer? More so if honeycombed, or with marrow? Meat around bone both seems to take longer to cook (and remains juicier, even with the appearance of being raw, especially with younger, intensive, and more porous bone?)

Fat....protein structures, different types of muscle....

OK. I'm not gonna work it out. Please think about posting about it.....

Scotty said...

Oh, Goran, gonna be another one of those opinionated days. Bob, I agree with most of what you have said, but shiny side in for resting should have no effect. You are not dealing with my sister's ca. 1968 easy-bake. Reflective heat is not present in resting. It is convection and conduction.

In fact, I have great success using a warmed platter and a wok lid.

Bob del Grosso said...


Heat= Infra red radiation which can be reflected and so it's shiny side in during resting.

Scotty said...


No, it doesn't. Heat doesn't=IR.

Heat is the result of many things not just IR. Have you ever used a hand warmer at a football game. It totally chemical. No IR.

You can't have IR in the absence of an electromagnetic source. There are other sources of heat losses and heat transfers. Get me an Engineer!!

Mark said...

Deep breath. Pour wine. Deep breath. Exhale. Sit. Drink wine. Repeat as necessary.

Keith said...

Heat, specifically, is energy in transit.

The transition can be through conduction - where substances are in direct contact, and heat moves from warmer to colder body, specifically when the vibrating atoms or molecules of one substance come into contact with their counterparts in another, and transfer their energy.

Or through convection, where density of a fluid (or air - same dynamics) are altered and, in a gravity environment, the denser fluid displaces the less dense.

Or through radiation, which is where infra red comes in. All light and all forms of radiation are capable of generating heat in contact with matter. UV can scorch paper....

Isn't a joint of meat, sitting in a roasting tray going to transter heat using all these mechanisms?

Conduction through the roasting tray, convection through the air and liquid, and infra red from the surface?

The question is, for our notional roast, which is the main agent of energy transfer?

Scotty said...

Keith, you sound like you know what you are talking about, but when it is resting, outside of the roasting process where is the IR.

Keith said...

Scotty, I'm not entirely sure what I'm talking about.

But, IR exists at a wide range of temperatures. Zap your hand with your TV remote and you won't even feel it's heat. Hook up an IR camera, and, I think, you will clearly see the IR on your roast.

Hold your hand above, but not touhing the roast, and you will feel the radiation. As heat. The amount of IR will be relative, I think, to both density and temperature of the object radiating.

Any object which has a temperature radiates in the infra red. According to Nasa, anyway.

Bob del Grosso said...

Anything above absolute zero radiates energy. Food that is "hot" radiates energy that propagates in waves that fall into the IR portion of the electromagnetic spectrum."Heat, " no matter how it travels (via conduction, convection or projection/radiation) that is not the product of radioactive decay or fission or fusion, has a wavelenght and amplitude that falls into the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.

This explanation could certainly be finessed, but I believe it is adequate to defend the question at hand.

Keith said...

Heat is energy, or, more specifically the energy transfer, (as opposed to thermal energy, which may be static), between bodies of differing temperatures. Though the definitions are often jumbled up somewhat.

In both conduction and convection, the heat generated cannot travel through a vacuum. Meaning it's not infra red. It can, however, travel through a medium.

This seems to, perhaps, depend on how strict a definition you take.

Central here is the idea that heat is the transfer of energy, the movement. IR is one form of that energy. Heat is the process of energy transfer from one body or system due to thermal contact.

In Conduction, it's the movement of kinetic energy (not IR) through lattices, or from molecule to molecule. Specifically, it's either electron swapping, or the vibration of lattices or atoms against one another. Kinetic energy.

Convection is the movement of molecules with gases and fluids. And one which, for some reason, I find difficult to grapple with.

But it's also kinetic energy in transfer, and electron transfer, and phonon vibration in crystal lattices

In our notional roast, to ground this specifically in our discussion, the energy transfer from a body of one temperature to a body of a lower temperature may escape as kinetic energy - through the metal base of our roasting tin swapping electrons and agitating other molecules.

Hence my suggestion to use a good insulator as a dish. Cermamics - crysal lattices - don't transfer so much kinetic energy, or swap so many electrons.

Foil will be useful, as it will limit the IR loss, but also, as it will limit energy transfer though convection.

And insulating the foil will help reduce the amount of energy lost due to.....hell. I'm lost here.

Bob del Grosso said...

That's putting a much finer spin on the question than I had patience to for. Thanks

Keith said...

I'm unemployed Bob. Everything in my life is spin, fine or not.

Hadn't even occured to me how little I knew about heat until I had to think about it......

The Bad Yogi said...

You guys are hysterical. I ran some numbers (degree in Comp Sci, minors in physics and math) about the tin foil reflectivity, and I can say to a 90% certainty that the difference in heat reflectivity, over the temp range we're talking about (room 65-85 degrees, food 325 or cooler), the difference between the two sides of the foil will be approx:

.05% or less.

So, use whichever your hearts desire.

Bob del Grosso said...

Maybe so, but given that most people I've met and taught never consider that foil has an absorptive and a reflective side, I will continue to point it out and emphasize the properties of each: shiny side reflects heat, dull aide absorbs it.

Of course, it makes better science to qualify the conditions under which you need to consider the difference. But such subtlety is usually best left to discussions such as we have going here and not especially helpful when trying to teach people how to do something.

In any case, that business about how to orient the foil, was not really the focus of the discussion. Rather it was whether or not hot food was associated with infrared radiation. Care to weigh in on that?

Scotty said...

Bob, I am sorry if I am pissing you off, but every thing I have read online for the last 24 - and it is confusing - seems to indicate that heat loss by IR is insignificant next to conduction and convection.

Keith had it right, I think - it's more about insulation. As always, YMMV.

Isn't it great to discuss such trivia ;-)

Keith said...

Comp Sci grads are hysterical. Or is that not a polite way to preface a comment?


If so, I unreservedly apologise for such a gauche introduction on my behalf, (gasp,imagine......) and cordially invite your opinion on what were the more substantive issues under discussion.

Keith said...

Scotty....I've no idea, yet, how most heat is lost. And I'm not really weighing in on any side here.

My suggestion was to try to guard against all types of heat loss.

Just thinking out loud.

The Bad Yogi said...

Sorry, Keith, I meant hysterical as in Funny, not as in Womb.

Scotty is right, AFAIK: heat losses due to IR are orders of magnitude lower than those due to convection and conduction. But trying to quantify the differences is a bit tricky, partly because of language issues.

My point about the shiny side vs the dull side is that the reflectivity at the range we're talking about is so close as to be ignorable: on the close order of a few seconds per 10+ degrees drop (without better numbers from the foil itself, I can't get closer, and I don't have the equipment to test it.) That's largely because the shinyness is in the visible range, and heat is not. What matters here is the ability of the material to either reflect or accept "heat" not photons, of which there are too few to make a difference (if your meat is glowing in the dark, you've got other issues...)

Now, what we mean by "heat", is the question: energy transfer, for certain, and some of that energy is in the IR range, because after all, the IR range is just another name for energy at a given set of wavelengths. How much is absorbed by the material and how much reflected, and at which wavelengths and energy/electron levels, is something I have to go ask a friend whose speciality is materials. But in general, the higher the energy, the more important reflectivity differences become. Since we can touch the surface of a roast, this is not a large amount, where the surface of a frying pan is different.

I'm going to cook a couple of steaks and pieces of chicken over the next few days and I will try to get some numbers and report back.

Again, I'm sorry for the inadvertent insult. I don't think that little of you folks, it just struck me as funny: a tempest in a teapot type of thing.

Keith said...

I guess I have a (typically masculine?) fear of seeming ridiculous yogi.

There's gotta be a bad taste joke there about humourectomy.....

I take your point on foil, and the negligible difference in reflectivity. Good to know, as well, that convection/conduction allow for greater heat loss.

AS storm in a roasting tray?

Bob del Grosso said...

Hold on a minute. No one ever said that heat loss due to conduction and convection were not as important as loss due to radiation. The point of disagreement was this statement

"You can't have IR in the absence of an electromagnetic source. There are other sources of heat losses and heat transfers. Get me an Engineer!!"

The truth is that molecules and atoms in and around a piece of meat that has just come out of the oven vibrate at such a rate such that an electromagnetic wave in the IR range is produced.

This was what was in dispute, not the value of insulating the meat versus shielding it against IR loss.

Bob del Grosso said...

I just had a DUH! moment.

When I was teaching at CIA and wanted to illustrate surface temperature effects I bought an Infra red reading surface scanning thermometer (which I still own).

Suffice it to say that if a piece of meat just out of the oven did not emit Infrared radiation this thermometer would be useless. But the fact is that it will read the surface temp of the meat.

Now, does reflecting that IR back to the meat make a big difference in terms of heat loss? Apparently not- but this was never in dispute- at least I never argued the point.

Scotty said...

I'll give a giant mea culpa for that statement, Bob. Don't know where my brain was.

The Bad Yogi said...

Short update:
I did what I should have done first: go to the net for references: Hanlon, J. (1992). 1st ed. Handbook of Package Engineering, Lancaster, PA and Technomic Publishing: ISBN 0-87762-924-2. Chapter 3 Films and Foils. Difference between dull and shiny side is 80% reflectivity vs 88%, or about 9% less for dull. So far, all other references declare a negligent to non-existant difference in heat retention.

Has anyone called Harold McGee?

Bob del Grosso said...

Bad Yogi
I appreciate the info stream.

I'm not so sure I'd call a 9% difference in reflectivity insignificant in all applications but it may well be in the instance under discussion.

That said, one can point to dozens of products that are used to minimize heat transfer that are covered with reflective skin. And I am pretty sure you will find that although the intensity of infra red radiation from a warm object is inversely proportional to the distance from the object, that the distance the IR travels is greater than you might imagine.

Does this mean that the best way to reduce heat loss is to cover an object with material that reflects IR back to it? No. (For the record, no one in this conversation ever said that.) If I had to choose between wrapping food in clear bubble wrap or aluminum foil to minimize heat loss I'd choose the bubble wrap.
Then again, if bubble wrap covered in silver mylar was a choice I'd choose that!

I wouldn't bother Harold with this, we already know the truth.

The Bad Yogi said...

OK, Bob, no problem. I thought that one of the questions we were talking about was whether the shiny side was more reflective than the dull side and therefor we should wrap shiny side in. (From your comment above.)

Anyway, thanks for the interesting discussion.


Bob del Grosso said...

Bad Yogi
This is frustrating. There were actually two discussions going on. The first discussion was initiated by Scotty and was about whether or not meat just out of the oven produced infrared radiation.

The second discussion was initiated by you and turned on the question of whether or not it was necessary to turn the shiny-side of foil towards the meat to prevent the loss of IR radiation.

You seemed to be saying "no, not under the conditions described" (i.e. meat just out of the oven).
and "heat loss due to conduction and convection is a bigger problem"

I agreed with you although suggested that there certainly was no harm in reflecting the IR back to the meat.

These linear "discussions" via stacked comment boxes make it very difficult to respond to precisely what another writes. So much so that one can end up arguing with someone they agree with! :-O

The Bad Yogi said...

Yep! And I think both questions ended up answered.

But if not, well, there's always tomorrow!

BTW, my name is Yogi. When I'm "misbehaving" then I become the "bad yogi". Which is usually, ;-)


IdahoRocks said...

I think I'm stepping into a fray with a really dumb question, but, having seared my steak, and finished it in an oven, it seems to me that covering it with foil begins an even new process of cooking or finishing the meat which involves steaming, and in the dark recesses of a rather gray brain, that somehow doesn't quite seem like what I should be doing....

Don't answer if I'm really off mark, but since my cooking knowledge ranges somewhere between Edouard de Pomiane, Harold McGee, and archaic knowledge acquired over 40+ years of cooking, perhaps I have lost sight of the hows and whys of basic cooking techniques.

Bob del Grosso said...

The only reason you would cover a steak with foil (or anything) during resting is if the room was very cold. So you are correct, in most cases a steak just out of the oven and wrapped in foil would overcook.

Keith said...

It is difficult to follow the ins and outs.

Still, I've learned a hell of a lot.

I always cover resting meat in foil, and towels.

But I always live in extremely cold, uninsulated, and old houses, where food gets cold quickly....

Tags said...

I hate to bring this back to the original topic, (minimalism of competence) but I was lying in bed awake and I remembered that during "Bittman Takes On America's Chefs" they used to play "La Cucuracha," often while he was in the guest chef's kitchen. Is that really the right image one wants to cultivate for a place that serves haute cuisine?

And now, back to the technical riposterie.

Jessika said...

May I suggest The Science of Cooking by Peter Barham?

Trig said...

I guess ignorance has never been a bar to appearing on tv. After all, we had Jade Goody.

IdahoRocks said...

Thanks, Bob!