Friday, February 19, 2010

Judging Fraud

You know who they are.

They are writers who wrote about other things until the subject of food and cooking blew up in the early nineties and they turned themselves into culinary experts without ever taking the time to actually learn how to cook. (No, not you Ruhlman.) They are the talking faces who were chosen by broadcast media to "teach" the masses how to enrich their lives by cooking their own food, not because they actually had anything of value to teach, but because they looked good on camera and were quirky in a way that made them interesting to watch. Then there are the professional cooks who either did or did not go to culinary school but whose claim to be able to cook is belied by the mediocrity of the $25 pile of organic material on your dinner plate.

Their means to the kitchen varies, but what they all have in common is that even though they lack basic cooking skills, they earn their livings cooking and telling other people how to do it. The broadcast and print media are loaded with them and they nest in commercial kitchens like roaches. But, unlike a roach that will reveal itself as soon as you leave the room or turn off the lights, one of the best ways to flush these poseurs out is to watch how they perform the cooking techniques basic to the culinary tradition they claim to be following. For example, saute is a technique that is an essential element in all of the major idioms and, one could argue, all of the places in the where people cook in metal pans over a lively flame.So an examination of how someone sautés should tell you whether or not they know how to cook and by extension, should be trusted to be a reliable teacher of cooking skills.

To know the meaning of sauté, which is French for sprung or jumped, helps a little bit in understanding how to do it, because when you sauté food you sometimes shake the pan so the food jumps up. However, it’s more accurate to think of the technique of sauté as a way of browning food in a small amount of liquid fat (Warning: Menus that contain the phrase “sautéed in wine” or another watery liquid may indicate that the chef is an idiot.) so quickly that it jumps in and out of the pan in a matter of seconds or minutes depending on the type of food being sautéed. Usually the food is not cooked through before it is removed from the pan and if it is, the heat is usually reduced and the process is no longer called sauté but rather “pan roasting,” or if there is liquid, “braising.”

Like most essential cooking techniques sauté is not mastered in a matter of months, but takes years of continuous practice to get to the point where you feel like you know how to do it. There are lots of variables to consider before you sauté something (e.g.the thickness, degree of tenderness, starting temperature, water and protein and sugar content of the exterior and interior of the food are all important) but the single most common mistake I see happens during the actual execution of the technique which can be generalized as follows.

The basic steps to sauté:
1) Put the sauté pan on the burner and heat it up
2) Add oil or butter
3) Lay the food in the pan, brown one side, then the other

Most novice cooks make the mistake of either overheating or under-heating the pan before they add in the food. If the pan is too hot the oil or butter can smoke or burst into flames or the food burns up. If the pan is too cool the food takes too long to heat and overcooks before it has a chance to brown. This is because in order for the food to brown the cells at the he surface have to dry out very quickly (to about 12-15% water content). If the food does not brown before water from the interior of the food starts to come to the surface it will not brown until most of the water has leaked out and evaporated from the pan.

There are some who would argue that browning is not always the goal of sauté and that it more accurate to allow its definition to include fast cooking without browning. I suppose its alright to think about it this way although I've always thought of this variation on the basic method as "sweat-sauté."

Now back to the poseurs. Once you realize that someone who claims to be a culinary expert is actually a novice whose real claim to fame is that they are "cooking entertainers" someone who really loves the craft and works hard at trying to perfect his or her skills has to wonder what sort of response, if any, is warranted. Many times I've heard and read the argument that the most well-known of these are doing readers and viewers a favor by making cooking look easy enough that the intimidated will give it a try and find it easy enough that they will go on to cook more often. This argument has merit and I've known dozens of people who based their decision to go to cooking school on their experience with food media celebrities whose cooking skills are not nearly as impressive as their acting skills. However, no matter how many people these folks induce to pick up a knife we still cannot ignore the possibility that by letting their inferior execution of technique go unremarked, we may be degrading our own efforts.

On the other hand, maybe I'm just being neurotic :-)


Jessika said...

Neurotic or not, I do agree. If you are a "cook" and use the word sautee, you better be sauteeing.

Ryan said...

Wait, did Bittman do something silly again?

Heath said...

You might want to add lard as one of the mediums that one can saute in. E.g. I saute in Mangalitsa lard.

Tags said...

This electronic tongue-lashing could just as easily apply to the Food Network stable as anywhere.

Carri said...

oh Bob, your all worked up again, maybe your just hungry...I think you need a nice boneless, skinless chicken breast sauteed in white wine to soothe your troubled mind, lol! It's true that marketing cooking for the masses seems to be driving those people to make crappy cheap shows that appeal to a wide variety of people, sort of like 'pop' music. Some folks take that initial inspiration and learn to love jazz, but most will be happy to tap their feet and move on down the road. The part that I don't get is when did it become a big deal to learn to cook? Doesn't everyone have to eat, therefore, at some point or another, your going to have to learn how to cook SOMETHING, right?

Tags said...

Why stop at cooking? How about if Paula Deen gets a show instructing us about how to raise hogs? I'm sure Smithfield would sponsor THAT show.

Natalie Sztern said...

Bob, I hear you.

I cannot imagine the frustration you feel; having been in this industry both as an instructor, teacher (not the same) and a cuiseur de chair.

Silicon Valley went bust and a necessary illusive breed was born of its flesh: the Food Blogger cum Expert.

The Food Network in its infancy was a boon to the industry with hosts that taught, through explanation and action.

Those poseurs or charlatans if you will, can be a desperate breed - but in the end, the true end, they write of smoke and mirrors.

I firmly believe that those whose knowledge is thick in their skills will rise to the top like cream and the scum will be skimmed off and thrown down the drain.

Just give it time; it should begin happening around the time the NY Times stops publishing hard copy.

Right now the only food channels I watch is the Travel Channel and Bravo. Of course PBS – but that will never change in its intellectual and intuitive content because they rely on us for funding.

My own intent on reading this and a select other few blogs, is on learning. Seeking informative information and escalating my skills not just in the act or art of cooking but in the histrionics and nutritional aspects of it. Food for thought.

I have learned one thing though...there is always the subjet du jour...last week it was salt and by the end of the week and the last of my 40 RSS feeds; I didn't want to go near my salt pig. :))

Natalie Sztern said...

One more thing:

You can't go to sleep without watching will put a smile on your face.:)

Christian Hudon said...

Okay... I wanted to ask this the last time you talked about sautéing, so I'll ask this time. Is there any reason why you heat up the pan before adding in the oil? What's wrong why this way of sautéing:

1. Put the sauté pan on the burner and add oil or butter
2. Wait until oil starts to shimmer or butter starts to sizzle
3. Sauté away

For me at least, it's much easier to evaluate when the pan is hot enough if there's already some fat in said pan. Any disadvantage of this method that I'm missing?


Bob del Grosso said...

While it is certainly true that it is easier to evaluate the temperature of the pan by watching the fat heat up along with the pan itself, it is not good practice because it extends the time that the fat heats such that it is more likely to be degraded by the time you put the food in. In other words, it is better to heat the pan first and bring the temperature of the fat up fast before it has time to break down and potentially burn up.

Tags said...

Jeff Smith, the Frugal Gourmet, used to say "Hot pan, cold oil, foods don't stick."

Thomas said...

It seems to me that the meaning of the word saute is changing, and this post seems more to quibble with use of language than an actual problem in cooking today - there are people who "even though they lack basic cooking skills, they earn their livings cooking and telling other people how to do it." But packaging this complaint in prescriptivist poppycock is neither helpful, nor reasonable

Lou said...

@Thomas: it's not prescriptivist to adhere to a strict definition of the word "saute" by a chef. In a professional kitchen, the word "saute" can have only one meaning, or it has no meaning at all.

From the blog post to which you point: "...what I decry is not deviation from a standard merely because it is deviation but because it results in the loss of a useful distinction.".

It might help if you described how "...the meaning of the word saute is changing...", and how we can stop this lamentable trend.

Full disclosure: I'm not a linguist or a chef.