Friday, August 15, 2008

Checking for Doneness

Herein lies the biggest challenge for a new cook, I believe: knowing when something is done. Unfortunately, the most common way to check for doneness of, say, a piece of meat--cutting it open--is also the worst way. Cutting meat while it's still cooking is a good way to get really dry meat. Along with ways to check for doneness of meat, I'll also go through a few ways to ensure that you do not have doughy breads or gooey quickbreads. So, here we go.

The Thermometer Method
Used for: Meat, primarily

Certainly, this is the most accurate way to check for doneness. I would suggest purchasing a digital probe thermometer which has a cord connecting the probe to the readout. This way, you can check on an item in the oven without having to open the oven. You can also set an alarm on the readout which will tell you when it's done.

A couple of rules about this method: First, make sure the end of the probe is as close to the center of the thickest part of the item as possible. Also, make sure it is not touching a bone as this will cause a false reading. Once the item has reached the desired temperature, leave the probe in there for a few minutes (3 minutes for small items up to 15 for things such as a roast or turkey).

You should cook the following items to the following temperatures (all Fahrenheit):
Poultry of any kind - safe to eat at 165°, white meat is most pleasant to eat at 161°, dark meat at 175°
Ground meat of anything but poultry - 155° is safest
Other solid meats - 145° is safest
Doneness levels of things like steak - 125 °=rare, 130 °=med-rare, 135 °=med, etc.
Yeast breads - 190°

The Poke Method
Used for: muffins, cupcakes, quickbreads

When you poke the top of one of these items, it should spring right back. If your finger leaves a dent, let it cook longer.

The Other Poke Method
Used for: meat, esp. steak

Hold your hand relaxed and open, and then press your finger against the fleshy part near your thumb, that's what a rare steak should feel like. Now touch your thumb to your forefinger. This is what a medium-rare steak should feel like. Each successive finger represents the next level of doneness.

The Toothpick Method
Used for: cakes, brownies

Stick a toothpick in the middle of the item. It should come out clean.

The Jiggle Method
Used for: cheesecake, quiches, frittatas

If you shake the pan, the contents should still have some jiggle when you take it out of the oven or off the stove. If you only see jiggle within the center third or less of the item, you're good.

The Bubble Method
Used for: pancakes

When you see bubbles really start to get going on the top of a pancake, flip it. Then, cook the other side to a nice golden brown. (It's okay to peek.)

The Tasting Method
Used for: pasta, veggies

Sometimes, the best way to check for doneness is just to eat some of it. It should go without saying, but don't do this with anything that isn't safe to eat raw.


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Thursday, August 7, 2008

Ice Cream Basics: The Custard Base

I've been on an ice cream making kick lately. I can't help it. It's summer and it's hot, and my ice cream maker is still relatively new. I find that the best ice cream starts with a custard base. It doesn't freeze up as hard as a base with no eggs in my experience, and I also find it has a smoother, creamier mouthfeel.

Sweet Cream Custard Base

1 qt half and half
1 c sugar
4 eggs (or 8 egg yolks)
a pinch of salt

1) Stir together 2 c half and half, sugar, and salt in a saucepan over low to medium-low heat until the sugar is completely dissolved.
2) Whisk together the eggs and slowly whisk in the half and half mixture until you've mixed in about a third, then pour it back into the saucepan. This is called tempering and will prevent the eggs from scrambling when added to the milk.
3) Cook over low to medium-low heat, stirring and scraping the bottom constantly until the custard thickens. It should coat the back of a spoon, and when you run your finger across the spoon, it should leave a track that the custard does not run into.
4) Once you've reached the correct consistency, strain the mixture into the rest of the half and half to stop the cooking.
5) Either chill over an ice bath or in the refrigerator overnight. The colder the mixture is before you freeze it, the better. You will have a better consistency because the ice crystals will be smaller.
6) Freeze according to manufacturer directions on your ice cream maker. I have a Cuisinart ice cream maker with a freezable core (it should be in the freezer at least 24 hours before freezing). I let it go for at least 20 minutes before I check it. I look for the ice cream to be heaping up in a spot before I call it finished. It should be the consistency of soft serve.
7) Put the ice cream in the container of your choice and put it in the freezer. It should be at the right consistency in a few hours.

Vanilla -
steep a vanilla bean in the milk and sugar at the beginning of the process, or add a teaspoon or two of vanilla extract just before freezing.
Chocolate - add 1/2 c of cocoa powder to the half and half before adding sugar and salt. Let it get completely incorporated before adding sugar and salt.
Mint Chocolate Chip - steep up to 3 cups of mint leaves in the half and half and strain before adding sugar and salt (I'd suggest using more like 1 cup. I find 3 cups far too minty, but this is the amount I've seen in most recipes), or add a teaspoon of peppermint oil just before freezing. Add the chocolate chips near the end of the freezing process. Keep the chocolate chips cold.
Strawberry - Halve the above recipe. Use 1 c half and half and 1 c cream instead of 2 c half and half. Once the custard is ready, add it and a 10 oz package of frozen strawberries or a pint of fresh, hulled strawberries to a blender and puree.


photo via Flickr user laffy4k

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Saturday, August 2, 2008

Posh Nosh

Just in case you're starting to take yourself a little too seriously, a good dose of Posh Nosh ought to fix that for you. Posh Nosh is a short-lived BBC show featuring the husband and wife team of Simon and Minty Marchmont. Minty makes ridiculous meals using ridiculous methods (like alienating chorizo or interogating mussels) while Simon looks on, usually critiquing Minty's cooking or describing a bottle of wine in a way that leaves me with no desire to drink it. A choice quote from Minty: "We make our own stock, but by all means buy stock cubes if you have low self esteem."


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