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When former F&W editor and columnist Pete Wells became the editor of The New York Times dining section last year, the best change he implemented was the addition of “The Curious Cook,” a monthly column by Harold McGee, the world’s premier science-of-cooking guru. Through his columns, McGee does a terrific job of breaking down complex chemical reactions and applied physics in a way meathead cooks like myself can understand. Yesterday’s column was no exception, though it left me (and a few others, I’m supposing) hungry for more explanation. In it, he discusses what he calls “The Invisible Ingredient in Every Kitchen”—heat (and I always thought it was love)—and breezes through some very intriguing means of taming it (while saving energy). Here’s my best attempt at explaining them (and some places where I fail):
1. Buy an induction burner. It will change your life. By leaps and bounds, induction transfers heat more efficiently than gas or electric burners. (If you can’t afford to swap out your range, Viking makes a great portable induction burner).
2. Cover the pot when boiling water. Duh—it will come to a boil more quickly. Better yet: Use an electric tea kettle, then dump the boiling water into a pot set over high heat to keep it rolling.
3. Uncover the pot (partially or completely) when slow-cooking meat. Yes, yes, yes. It prevents the braising liquid from boiling (which WILL happen in a covered pot); just make sure the meat is completely submerged.
4. Soak grains, dry legumes and—gasp—pasta before cooking them. Grains and beans, yes, but pasta? I’ve never heard of soaking spaghetti before boiling it. But I’ll try it tonight, though I can’t see the payoff. Does it really save that much time or energy?
5. Start with high heat, finish with low. On the grill this is called two-zone cooking. On the stovetop it’s called pan-roasting. This ensures a nice crust without overcooking the meat.
6. Or start with low heat and finish with high. This is a basic tenet of sous-vide cooking. After a piece of meat has been cooked through to its target temperature, give it a quick sear over very high heat to form that delicious brown crust.
7. Cook cold meat. Hold on, Mac: Haven’t we been told to let meat come to room temperature before cooking it? I think McGee is referring mostly to steaks and fish prepared using the methods explained in #5. I do this with tuna steaks and beef steaks 1 inch thick or less.
8. Get flip-happy. McGee says that turning a steak or burger every 15 seconds or so while grilling it will result in—once again—a perfectly brown crust and properly cooked interior. This really works—and it seems to help the meat retain more juices. Flip away.