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The New Kitchen Science: A Guide to Knowing the Hows and Whys for Fun and Success in the Kitchenby Howard Hillman
Are quality knives a bargain?
Yes, because quality knives should last you a lifetime. Inexpensive ones
normally need to be replaced every five years or so. That's why it is more
cost-effective in the long run to invest in a few quality knives than to
a broader assortment of less expensive and inferior implements. As a
your cutting, chopping, and slicing tasks will be quicker and easier. Our
recommended five-knife starter set performs a wide variety of tasks. It
comprises a 3- to 4-inch (blade length) paring knife, a 6-inch utility knife, an
inch serrated slicing knife, an 8-inch chef 's (chopping) knife, and a 10-inch
nonserrated slicing (carving) knife. You also need a 10-inch butcher steel for
Are dull knives more dangerous than sharp ones?
Without question. The sharper the knife, the less likely the cook is to cut
himself. This may sound like dull-witted reasoning, but the point is valid for
two pragmatic reasons. First, people tend to be more careful when using
sharper knives because the potential harm is more vivid in their minds.
Second, a duller knife is more apt to slip when cutting because it requires
more downward pressure to do the job.
There are more benefits from a sharp knife than just safety. It
makes cutting quicker and more efficient and minimizes ripping and tearing
How do the four basic knife-blade alloys differ?
Virtually all kitchen knives have blades of steel, an alloy consisting mainly
iron mixed with carbon and a smaller portion of other elements. The critical
difference between carbon and stainless steel alloys is that the first has a
higher carbon content, whereas the other amalgamation contains more
chromium, and often nickel.
The high-carbon stainless knife is betwixt and between the two—
its carbon, chromium, and nickel proportions lie somewhere in between
of the standard carbon and stainless steel varieties. Yet another variation of
the theme is the superstainless knife, the one with the scintillating silvery
look. Its alloy—at least its plating alloy—is impregnated with relatively large
quantities of chromium and nickel.
An alloy's precise makeup determines to a considerable extent a
knife's advantages and disadvantages for a cook.
What are the pros and cons of each knife-blade alloy?
A carbon steel blade is unequaled in its ability to take an extremely sharp
edge, and therefore it is preferred by most serious chefs. The major
of carbon steel is that unless the blade is promptly wiped dry after each
it will rust. The alloy is also vulnerable to attack by the acid in foods like
citrus fruits, tomatoes, and onions. If the knife is not washed soon after
contact with these ingredients, the acid will react chemically with the metal,
blemishing the blade's surface with blackish stains. Moreover, that
discoloration and its attendant off-odor can be transferred to the foods you
Superstainless steel is the least efficient of the four basic knife
alloys. It is all but impossible for a cook to restore the sharpness once the
knife loses its original well-honed edge (if the manufacturer gave it one in
first place). Kitchenware demonstrators speak hokum when they claim that
superstainless steel knives never need to be sharpened. What they should
tell you is that their product can't be sharpened.
Stainless steel, like its super cousin, resists rust, stains, and
corrosion caused by water and acid. Though it takes a sharper edge than a
superstainless one, a stainless steel blade will still be annoyingly dull in the
hands of a busy cook.
A high-carbon stainless steel knife—by far the most expensive of
the four types—will neither rust nor stain. Consequently, it is the answer for
cook who lives by the sea or in a humid climate, because salt can corrode
and moisture can oxidize (rust) nonstainless steel. High-carbon stainless
steel is also recommended for cooks who do not want to be bothered with
having to wash the knife and wipe it dry promptly after each use—or who do
not want the knife blade to become tarnished because the chore was
Although a blade made from high-carbon stainless steel can be
honed to a fairly sharp edge, do not believe the food writers and salespeople
who tell you that its sharpness will match that of a knife made with carbon
steel. As our kitchen tests verify, this is physically impossible.
What else should I look for when buying a knife?
Selecting the right blade alloy is not enough. You should buy only a knife
produced by a quality manufacturer because fine knife making requires
skilled workmanship involving a myriad of precision tasks, such as
the steel. In fact, unless you can buy superb carbon steel knives (they are
becoming difficult to find in America nowadays), we recommend that you
purchase the top-of-the-line, high-carbon stainless steel knives of a quality
manufacturer, such as Wüsthof (Trident trademark) or Henckels.
The tang (the part of the metal enclosed by the handle) should run
the full length of the handle and should be well secured with at least three
rivets. Otherwise, the handle and the metal part of the knife may separate
within a matter of years. The full tang also contributes weight and balance,
two essential qualities that inexpensive knives usually lack.
A knife's handle should be easy to grasp and feel comfortable in
your hand. Its material should be durable and nonslippery. Nearly all
hardwood and many modern plastic-and-wood composite grips fit the bill;
plastic hilts do not.
What is the best tool for sharpening knives?
Honing a knife on one of those extremely coarse grinding wheels or belts
are commonly used by peregrinating peddlers or key makers is one of the
most unsatisfactory methods. Repeated sharpenings on these instruments
wear away your blade within a few years.
Almost as bad are those small pairs of steel rotating disk-
cylinders that are supposed to be attached to a kitchen door or cabinet. Not
only do these gadgets devour the metal of the blade faster than need be,
tend to scratch the blade too much and throw it out of alignment. Electric
knife sharpeners perform better, though they are not recommended for high-
quality carbon or high-carbon steel knives. These countertop appliances
permanently alter the angular shape of the knife's cutting edge given by the
The best day-to-day sharpening implement is the butcher's steel,
a rough-surfaced, hard metal rod equipped with a handle. However, unless
you use the steel frequently to sharpen the knife, as a butcher is wont to
the edge of your knife may dull beyond the restorative powers of the honing
rod. In that case, you will need to sharpen the knife periodically with a
whetstone, a small, abrasive, bluish-black block made of the exceptionally
hard silicon carbide Carborundum (available in most hardware stores).
Sometimes the abrasive material is a thin coating of minuscule diamonds.
What is the ideal honing angle?
Some say that 15° is the correct honing angle, whereas other estimates
place the number at 25° or even 30°.We experimented and found that
approximately 20° produces the best all-around results. A good way to
whether you are honing at or near a 20° angle is to refer to the
graphic as you practice with an actual knife and butcher steel.
Where should sharp knives be stored?
Certainly not intermingled in a drawer with other knives and utensils. Every
time you open and close the drawer, knives jostle about, damaging their
cutting edges. One of the best storage solutions is a wood knife block
also makes knives very accessible). Buy one with horizontal slots. With
vertical slots, you drag a knife's cutting edge along the wood each time you
insert and remove the utensil.
Can I slice food with a chef 's knife?
Not if you want thin, attractive slices. A chef 's knife is designed to chop,
slice. As the accompanying illustration shows, there is a notable
for reasons of function—between the cross-sectional blade of the slicing
and the chef 's knife. Because the slicing knife blade is relatively thin,
and food crushing is minimized as the knife slides through the food. Just as
important, the thinner design allows the carver to cut narrower and more
uniform slices because the blade stays reasonably parallel to the face of
What about doing the opposite, chopping firm food with a slicing
knife? The chef 's knife does a much better job because its wedge shape is
broader on the top of its cross-section than the slicing knife. That extra
weight gives the blade extra momentum and therefore more power to help
cook chop through firm foods like garlic and carrots.
Should I buy a wood or polyethylene cutting board?
The harder a cutting surface, the more quickly a knife dulls. Hard surfaces
include metal, marble, china, crockery, enamel, glass, and most kitchen
countertops. The softest, and therefore the most desirable of the popular
cutting surfaces, is wood. Though softwood does less harm to the knife's
edge, hardwood is used most often because it absorbs less moisture and
Polyethylene boards are not as hard as, say, metal and glass,
they are harder than wood. Consequently, a knife becomes duller faster on
polyethylene boards than on wood ones. Even though polyethylene is
to clean, most good cooks insist on wood cutting boards because keeping
knife sharp is crucial.
Hard cutting surfaces are not the only anathema to a sharp knife
blade. A blade that nicks too many bones or scrapes hard kitchenware in a
dishwasher or on a drying rack also may not cut the mustard.
Are hardwood spoons worth their higher price?
Hardwood spoons cost more than softwood spoons because they are made
of more expensive material and are more difficult to carve. They absorb less
bacteria and cooking flavors because their wood is less porous. They are
less likely to scorch, stain, crack, or warp. They dry faster, are more
attractive, and last more than twice as long as softwood spoons.
Why is good heat distribution a virtue for a stove-top pan?
Unless heat can quickly spread through the entire bottom of a pan, "hot"
and "cold" spots will develop. The hot spots will be directly over the places
where the heat source comes in contact with the pan. Thus, if the gas
is starfish-shaped, or if the configuration of the electric coil is a spiral, the
spots will follow those patterns.
The problem of frying or braising in a pan that has hot and cold
spots is that you cannot cook the food properly—unless you do nothing
but constantly and thoroughly stir the contents (and when braising, you
not do that even if you so desired). The food over the hot spots will
Or, if you lower the heat to prevent scorching, the food will take longer to
cook or there will probably be insufficient heat to cook the other portions of
If you discover that your pots have hot spots and you do not wish
to replace the equipment, you can minimize the defect by using a heat
diffuser or by using a low heat setting.
When cooking food in a generous quantity of boiling or simmering
water, you need not worry so muchabout the negative effects of hot and
spots on the bottom of your pan. By the time the heat reaches the food, the
cooking medium (water) will have more or less equalized the two
extremes. The same principle holds true for steaming.
The speed at which heat can travel through a pan's bottom is a
function of how well it conducts heat (see "How is heat transferred to food?"
in chapter 2, pp. 28–29). Conductivity varies mainly according to the type of
metal as well as the thickness and finish of the metal.
Of the popular pan materials, which are the fastest heat conductors and
which the slowest?
The fastest guns in town are silver, tin, and copper. Aluminum is quick on
Middling-speed substances include cast iron and carbon (rolled)
steel, the type of sheet metal that is used to fashion traditional woks and
crepe pans. Stainless steel ranks even lower in heat-flow efficiency.
Even poorer conductors are glass, porcelain, earthenware, and
pottery in general. The sluggish attributes of these materials, however, can
be a plus in serving dishes. Providing that such a vessel is covered and its
walls are thick enough, it absorbs and gives up heat so languidly that it
should keep your food warm for a long time.
Factors other than the type of metal also determine how evenly a
pot heats food. The thicker its gauge, the more uniformly a pot will
heat throughout its interior surface. However, though a thicker gauge will
compensate for the mediocre heat-conducting properties of iron, the weight
the extra metal usually makes the pot unwieldy. A metal's finish also
Are copper pots worth the money?
We do not recommend purchasing mass-produced pseudo-copper
pots and pans—the lightweight, stamped stainless steel type with copper-
coated bottoms. The buyer gets the headache of the genuine copper
equipment (keeping the metal polished) without enjoying the heat
advantage. The copper coating that is used to produce this lower-priced
equipment is typically less than 1/50 of an inch thick—too thin to distribute
heat uniformly. Even the stainless steel is deplorably thin.
Authentic copper pots and pans, which are quite dear, are
excellent because the thick copper metal distributes the heat evenly
throughout the base and the lower sides of the cooking utensil. However, if
the copper base becomes mottled with black carbon deposits, the even
distribution is greatly impaired and hot spots develop, turning a positive into
negative. This is why we never recommend copper cooking equipment to
anyone who doesn't have the time and inclination to keep it clean and
polished—and it is a chore, to be sure.
Another drawback of authentic copper pots is that they must be
periodically relined with tin, an expensive process. The pan must be relined
once the tin starts to wear away appreciably because if too much copper
leaches into your cooking foods, your liver won't be able to remove the
excess from your blood. The results can be noxious. However, the amount
copper leaching from a few scratches in the tin lining shouldn't prove to be
dangerously toxic—that is, if you minimize or avoid cooking foods that are
high in acid or highly pigmented, which chemically hastens the release of
copper and its oxides. Finally, fat-based cooking (frying) will release less
copper than water-based cooking (boiling, braising, and stewing).
Is enamel cookware practical?
Enamel cookware resists corrosion, and its shiny, often colorful veneer can
make it quite attractive, both on the range and on the dining room table.
Unfortunately, its beauty is only "skin deep." Enamelware (a misnomer) is a
metal, not an enamel, pan. The enamel is no more than a thin coating
produced by fusing a powdered glass onto the metal (often cast-iron) pan in
kiln. This sheer layer can chip easily if the cook accidentally bangs the pan
against the hard sink. Thermal shock is another hazard; a stove-hot
enamelware pot can shatter if the cook sets it in cold water.
How do nonstick surfaces work?
Most nonstick kitchenware is made with chemically inert fluorocarbon
that is baked onto the cooking surfaces. These substances cover the pores
and microscopic jagged peaks of the metal (usually aluminum) and
deny food the opportunity to latch on to something.
Nonstick coatings in effect season the pan. The
commercial "seasoning" method produces a much slicker surface than the
home method—so slick that you can, if you want, fry foods with little or no
What are the pros and cons of nonstick coatings?
The nonstick surface is a blessing to people who must drastically restrict
their fat intake. However, for others, the main selling point of the nonstick
lining can turn out to be a drawback. When one cooks without oil or fat, the
taste buds and olfactory receptors are deprived of rich flavors that are
essential to superb dining.
An indisputable positive feature of a nonstick pan is that its
smooth surface can be washed free of food quickly and with minimum effort.
However, should metal utensils and scouring pads be used, they can easily
scratch, making it more likely that food will stick to the pan. A nonstick
also discolors with misuse, or in time, even with proper use. Too many of
nonstick coated pans are too thin and thus—because of the resulting
heat distribution —are not ideal for most stove-top cooking methods.
Finally, the nonstick coating is not truly nonstick ("low-stick"
would be a better appellation), and its surface will eventually wear away,
despite what some kitchenware ads and salespeople profess. Generally,
there is a correlation between how much you pay for a pan and how long
nonstick surface will last.
How does an anodized aluminum pan compare with a nonstick aluminum
An anodized pan will likely be thicker gauged and better built but, like a
nonstick pan, can be easily scratched and impaired by a careless cook or
dishwasher. Both pans help prevent food from sticking, though the nonstick
pan performs that mission demonstrably better. Unlike the nonstick variety,
an anodized pan usually needs to be seasoned occasionally.
The anodization process is based on the principle that an oxide
layer forms naturally on aluminum and that this oxide helps prevent food
sticking to the metal. The thicker the layer, the more effective the defense.
Manufacturers discovered that they could artificially create a reasonably
layer by means of electrolysis.
Why are pans that are constructed with multi-ply bottoms so highly touted?
Their bottoms have three layers: a middle ply (generally aluminum)
sandwiched between two stainless steel ones. The purpose of this design
to give the cook the best of both worlds by eliminating each metal's
The aluminum layer cannot become discolored, nor can it color or
flavor foods, because it is completely enclosed within the stainless steel.
upper stainless steel layer does not have the hot spots that are common in
100 percent stainless steel pots, because by the time it reaches that
stainless steel tier, the heat from the burner has been more or less evenly
diffused by the aluminum (which is, unlike stainless steel, an excellent
conductor of heat). And because the pan's entire metal surface is stainless
steel, it has an attractive shiny finish and is easier to clean. Still another
bonus is that multi-tiered construction has much the same effect on the
pan's bottom that it has on plywood: The possibility of warping is
Why must I season a cast-iron or carbon steel pot before using it for the
The surfaces of both of these nonstainless, iron-based metals are rather
porous and have microscopic jagged peaks. You season a pan or pot by
rubbing it with oil, heating it for 30 to 60 minutes in a 300°F oven, and then
cooling it to room temperature. The oil fills the cavities and becomes
entrenched in them, as well as rounding off the peaks. Two culinary benefits
result. First, the cooking surface develops a nonstick quality because the
formerly jagged and pitted surface becomes smooth. Second, because the
pores are permeated with oil, water cannot seep in and create rust that
give food an off-flavor.
Why do pans sometimes become deseasoned?
One common reason is that the pan has been scratched with a sharp metal
tool, such as a spatula. Sometimes the cause is indirect: If one lets a pan
rust, it probably needs to be washed and very likely scoured with soap or
detergent. When cleaned in this way, some of the oil that coats the pores
and minuscule jagged peaks of the metal bind themselves chemically to
some of the cleansing agent's molecules and flow down the drain with the
Naturally, the more fiercely one scrubs, the stronger the cleansing
solution, and the longer the pan is soaked, the more the pan becomes
deseasoned. If damage done by the cleaning is not too great, the pan will
automatically reseason itself the next time you fry in it—so no harm done. If
the damage is severe, you will have to start the seasoning process over
from the very beginning. If rust has developed deep inside the pores of the
interior surface, dump the pan into a trash bin—all the king's cooks couldn't
put it back in serviceable order again.
Once my carbon steel wok or omelet pan is seasoned, can I wash it with
Many cookbooks say "never," but that advice can run counter to sound
hygiene and pleasing taste. Unless you use these metal utensils daily,
should be washed briefly with a little soapy water (then rinsed and
dried) in order to rid them of excess surface oil. Otherwise, the surplus oil
become rancid within two days or so, giving cooked foods an off-flavor.
Washing your wok or omelet pan gently with a cleansing agent need not
your prized possession.
Some cookbooks recommend an alternative method: Scour the
pan with dry salt. Since that technique can also chemically precipitate
rusting, we do not follow that advice.
Why does an aluminum pot give a red tomato sauce a brownish tinge?
If an unlined aluminum vessel is used to cook a high-alkali food such as
potatoes, or if the cooking medium is hard water, or if the pot is washed
high-alkali cleanser, the metal's surface becomes stained. When the pot is
subsequently used to cook tomato sauce or any other high-acid ingredient,
such as onions, wine, lemon juice, or cabbage, the acid chemically
some of the stain from the pot and transfers the discoloration to the food.
Although the brownish tinge diminishes the aesthetic appeal of the food, it
poses no threat to your health.
Another drawback of aluminum pots is their propensity to warp
when subjected to abrupt changes in temperature extremes (more so than,
say, stainless steel of identical gauge). And aluminum implements dent
easily, especially if they are thin-gauged.
On the plus side, the heat-flow efficiency of a thick-gauge
aluminum pot nearly rivals that of a copper pot of similar gauge, which is
noticeably heavier and many times more expensive. Unlike cast iron or
carbon steel, aluminum doesn't rust (though it does oxidize slowly). If
with care, aluminum pots will last for decades.
Why can a quick temperature change shatter glass?
The natural brittleness and poor conductivity of glass make it susceptible to
cracking when it experiences a rapid change in temperature from hot to
or vice versa. Contemplate what happens, for instance, when boiling water
poured into a cold glass jar. Because glass has a low heat-flow efficiency,
the heat that is transferred from the water to the jar's bottom travels
slowly (by conduction) to the top of the jar. Since glass (or any other
material) expands when heated, the jar's bottom will quickly swell, and—
what is most critical—without a corresponding expansion in the upper part
the jar. This disparity creates a structural stress that cracks the doomed
Treated glass, such as Pyrex, is much less vulnerable to
shattering than is regular glass, though it, too, has its limits. Even less
susceptible is Corningware. Standard porcelain, earthenware, and other
pottery, however, do indeed have glass's "Achilles' heel," so it is a good
to preheat a vessel made with one of these materials (with, for instance, hot
tap water) before placing it in a preheated oven.
What makes a pan warp?
A metal will not shatter like glass, partially because it has a higher
efficiency, but chiefly because it has a sturdier intermolecular structure.
Metal does, nonetheless, warp for the same reason that glass cracks:
structural stress caused by a sudden and significant change in the relative
temperature of two closely situated areas of the cookware.
The metal of inexpensive metal pots and pans (except for the
iron variety) is typically thin-gauged, and that of higher-quality utensils is
thick-gauged. The thicker a sheet of metal, the greater its structural
and therefore the less likely it is to warp. Since warped cookware conducts
heat unevenly, cheap pots are seldom a bargain.
Are there essential differences between a skillet and a sauté pan?
Though many cooks freely substitute one for the other, each pan is
with specific functions in mind.
A skillet's sloping side allows you to turn and remove food such
as scrambled eggs more easily. In contrast, the comparatively high, vertical
wall of a sauté pan interferes with these cooking tasks. The rationale behind
its construction is different: The design is meant to reduce the amount of oil
that splatters beyond the sauté pan's rim when, for instance, the cook pan-
The sides of a sauté pan, incidentally, should not measure more
than 2 1/2 inches. Higher walls cause excess steam to build up in the pan
gaseous water molecules are released by the frying foods. Moreover, some
the imprisoned steam molecules then condense and fall into the oil,
needlessly causing extra splatter and lowering the oil's temperature at the
Why don't the wok-cooked dishes that I prepare at home equal those made
in a topnotch Chinese restaurant?
Even assuming that your cooking talents and ingredients match those of a
professional Chinese chef, your stir-fried food can't have the same intense
color, elegant flavor, and crisp texture. A difference in the heat power
available to you explains the disparity. A typical home stove-top gas burner
generates fewer than 10,000 British thermal units. (A BTU defines the
quantity of heat required to raise 2 cups—1 pound—of air-free, 60°F water
1°F at normal atmospheric pressure.) The BTU output for a gas range in a
first-rate Chinese restaurant is at least twice as high because of the stove's
special design features. It has much more gas to burn because the gas line
that supplies the fuel to the burner is much larger in diameter. Moreover, the
heating unit itself consists of many concentric burner rings; the normal
gas burner has but one. Finally, the restaurant burner apparatus is normally
several times wider.
The higher heat more effectively seals in the juices of the
ingredients and therefore helps lock in flavor and nutrients. Just as
since fewer of the internal juices in the cooking food emerge, the pan sauce
better clings to the food, making the dish more appetizing. A crisper texture
results because the higher heat firms the surface of the food before the
interior becomes overcooked. In addition, the higher heat more effectively
triggers the chemical reactions that heighten the color of the vegetables as
they start to cook. And because the cooking period is very brief, the vivid
colors developed do not have a chance to fade.
Can I use a wok on an electric range?
Unfortunately, the highly functional configuration of an authentic wok is
incompatible with the heating surface of an electric stovetop or cook-top.
area of contact between this rounded vessel and a flat surface is small, and
therefore heat is severely limited. Yet, a genuine wok must have a rounded
bottom as a matter of practicality. Stir-frying is best executed with a small
amount of cooking oil concentrated in the hottest zone, the heart of the
and a concave pan accomplishes this goal. In addition, the combination of
the height and slope of the sides facilitates tossing, an essential stir-frying
Electric ranges (and electric woks, too) are ill suited for stir-frying
for yet another reason. Many a stir-fry recipe calls for a quick lowering or
raising of the temperature in the middle of the cooking period. Electric
heating units generally respond slowly to temperature adjustments.
Do not buy one of those "woks" that has been designed with a flat
bottom specifically for use on an electric unit. You cannot properly stir-fry in
one of these vessels, which are essentially high-walled skillets. The
bottom is required for true Chinese stir-frying.
Are smoke hoods a good investment?
Two basic types of smoke hoods exist, both equipped with exhaust fans.
One sucks the polluted air out of the kitchen into the great outdoors, as a
fireplace chimney does. The other—a less efficient device—simply filters
recycles the adulterated air in your kitchen. Both reduce grime buildup in
your kitchen, minimizing the need for elbow grease and redecoration.
According to the results of a study conducted by the Lawrence
Berkeley National Laboratory in California, there seems to be an even
stronger reason for having a smoke hood, at least in restaurants where a
clutch of ovens bake or roast continually. The researchers found that oven
exhaust can contain excess levels of nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide (both
can create respiratory disorders), vinyl chloride (a cancer-causing agent),
carbon monoxide (capable of producing headaches, nausea, and death).
Most homes have a smoke alarm in or near the kitchen, but few
have a carbon monoxide detector to sound an alarm when it reaches a
precarious level. Unlike smoke, carbon monoxide is invisible and odorless.
How does a self-cleaning oven work?
When the oven is heated to nearly 1,000°F, at the "self-clean" setting, any
clinging grease on the walls disintegrates into fine particles that either free
themselves or can be easily wiped away with a damp cloth. Bear in mind
this feature comes at a price besides dollars. It consumes space inside the
oven unit. This reduces an oven's interior dimensions and—consequently—
the maximum size of a pot, pan, or sheet you can place inside the oven.
Which is better, a gas or electric range?
A range (also called a stove-top) is the open cooking surface where you fry,
sauté, and boil foods. Most good cooks prefer a gas over an electric range
reasons described later.
Which gas is better for range cooking, propane or natural gas?
Natural gas is superior. Propane generates 10 to 20 percent fewer BTUs
natural gas. This means, for instance, that propane will take longer to boil a
pot of water. And it more readily blackens the bottoms of pots and pans
because it does not burn as cleanly as natural gas.
Propane has its place. It fuels nearly all outdoor gas grills. If you
live in a country home that is not connected to a natural gas pipeline—and
you do not like the alternative of cooking on an electric range—then
is the answer. You will need an outside propane tank and a range that can
converted to use propane.
What are the electric range options?
The two basic electric range categories are coil and cook-top.
The electric coil variety uses a spiral heating element that sits
exposed on top of the range. This device heats and responds to
adjustments very slowly. It is difficult to clean. It is more likely to
than other range types. Avoid electric-coil ranges, even though they are the
least expensive range.
An electric cook-top is a flat, smooth-surfaced range. The heating
units lie hidden under the glass-ceramic panel. There are several electric
cook-top subcategories: radiant, halogen, and induction.
What are the pros and cons of the three cook-top types?
You need a range that can be adjusted in small increments and can
quickly to any heat adjustment. That is crucial when, for instance,
starts to boil that shouldn't. The range must also heat food reasonably fast.
The original radiant cook-tops disappointingly botched the above
duties. Although ribbon-style radiant cook-tops do better, they still do not
perform those jobs as well as the halogen and induction cook-tops. And
cooking area remains hot long after the pan is removed—a hazard.
Halogen cook-tops produce the cooking heat with a halogen bulb.
Like radiant cook-tops, they heat the cook-top, which heats the pan, which
heats the food. Because they become a great deal hotter than a radiant
top, they are even more hazardous.
Induction cook-tops heat a pan directly by means of a magnetic
field. They do not heat the glass-ceramic panel that lies between the pan
the magnetic induction device. When you remove a pan, the cook-top's
cooking area is not hot. What warmth it has comes from the heat
from the hot pan. Magnetic induction cook-tops heat and respond to
temperature adjustments as fast as halogen and gas ranges. A major
drawback is that you can use only pots and pans that contain a metal (like
iron or steel) that is responsive to magnetic fields.
You can purchase a mixed-unit cook-top. It is built with a
combination of radiant, halogen, and/or induction heating units.
Because of their flat surfaces, all cook-tops are easier to clean
than gas and electric-coil cook-tops. However, it is expensive to replace a
glass-ceramic cook-top that has been broken by an accidentally dropped
pan. Moreover, a pan has to be perfectly flat for optimum cooking on the
smooth cook-top. Gas burners—because they cook with flames—are more
forgiving if the pan's bottom is dented or warped. Another advantage of gas
that you can see the flames, which help you estimate without uncovering a
pot the intensity of the heat that is being applied to the food.
Overall, most good cooks cast their vote for a gas range. Those
who prefer electric ranges are partial to magnetic induction cooktops.
Which is better, a gas or electric oven broiler?
The electric oven wins hands down. Electricity is by far the best energy
source for the oven-broiler unit, for many reasons. An electric oven reaches
the desired temperature more quickly, and if the oven has cooled because
the cook opened the door, it regains the programmed temperature in less
time. Generally, an electric oven is more accurate (particularly at low
temperature settings) and maintains a relatively steady temperature. (Many
gas ovens, unless turned on full blast, fluctuate by 25°F or more around the
programmed temperature in a roller-coaster fashion.) Many electric ovens
self-cleaning because they can reach a very high temperature. Since the
broiler is built into an electric oven, it is easier to reach and can
accommodate thicker foods. Finally, an electric oven heats the kitchen less
(a boon when the room is hot; not so when it is cold).
Can I have the best of both worlds—a gas range and an electric oven
Although virtually all single-unit range-oven-broiler systems made for home
use are either the all-gas or all-electric variety, you can buy a gas range
electric oven-broiler unit separately. The first snugly fits into a hole cut into
your counter. The second is installed in a wall cabinet or under a counter
not directly under the separately installed range because of space
limitations). Go for the dual system the next time you remodel your kitchen.
Is a convection oven better than a traditional one?
Both the convection and traditional ovens depend on convection heating.
salient difference between the two is that the convection oven uses the
principle of convection more effectively. It has a built-in electric fan that
increases the circulation of hot air molecules within the oven. This increase
air circulation is a boon when you roast meat or bake breads and pastry
has no effect on covered foods). Since the oven temperature is uniform
throughout, the food's surface will be more evenly cooked and browned
(though the outside of a meat does not develop as appealing a crusty
texture). Another advantage of the convection oven is that it reduces the
required temperature and cooking time and therefore meat shrinks less.
Furthermore, most meats do not require basting, and so the cleanup chore
less bothersome because there is less splatter. Energy cost savings are
often realized because of the unit's efficiency and generally more compact
Should I buy an oven that combines the convection and traditional ovens?
The combined oven makes sense if you are short on kitchen space. Bear in
mind that when a manufacturer builds a convection oven system into a
traditional oven, the oven's interior dimensions shrink.
Is a pressure cooker worthwhile?
For someone who lives at a high altitude or who cans and preserves foods,
pressure cooker is an asset. In Denver, for instance, water boils at 203°F
instead of 212°F, as it would, say, in San Diego. Consequently, any given
ingredient takes longer to cook in Denver. The predicament of having a
relatively low boiling point for water can be solved with a pressure cooker,
since it allows water to reach a temperature of up to about 250°F.
Water inside a pressure cooker boils at a high temperature
because the atmospheric pressure within the pot is increased. The
ingredients also cook faster because the steam—most of which does not
escape the pot—is a better heat conductor than air. And thanks to the
increased pressure within the pot, that steam more aggressively penetrates
The higher temperatures of pressure-cooking also benefit the
home canner because the heat can more effectively destroy the pathogenic
microorganisms that contaminate the food. This capacity is particularly
critical when canning low-acid ingredients.
For other cooks, a pressure cooker can shorten the cooking
process and thereby reduce fuel expenditure, compared with the
nonpressurized boiling method. From a gourmet's viewpoint, however, the
texture of pressure-cooked foods like meat still resembles that of ordinary
Why are budget-priced food processors seldom a good value?
If you are planning to use your food processor only for tasks that require
relatively little power (such as slicing a cucumber or other soft vegetable),
then a budget-priced model may serve your purposes. Chances are,
that you also want your machine to perform more arduous chores, like
chopping meat, in which case a budget model is no bargain.
A key reason that a budget-priced food processor is ill suited for
chopping foods like meat is that it does not have enough horsepower. If the
motor is not powerful enough, it is apt to balk momentarily, or even
permanently, when you process a heavy load.
Another reason for poor performance is that nearly all budget-
priced models are belt-driven. (In other words, the motor turns a belt, which
turns the cutting-blade unit.) The belts in inexpensive models tend to slip
when you process a heavy load. This problem doesn't occur when the
motor's drive shaft directly rotates the cutting blade, as is the case with
of the better processors.
Motor-balking and belt slippage are major mechanical deficiencies
because they make it impossible to chop a batch of food uniformly. What
inevitably happens in the case of beef, for example, is that when some of
meat is properly chopped, the rest of the meat is too lumpy (underchopped)
or too pasty (overchopped). As good cooks know, a pasty grind guarantees
heavy and compact, and therefore inferior, meat loaf or hamburger patty.
Why is an electric deep-fat fryer unsuitable?
When deep-frying, you sometimes have to adjust the temperature quickly.
The conventional pan-on-a-flame method gives you reasonable flexibility, but
with an electric deep-fat fryer there is too long a lag between the time you
reset the thermostat and the time the oil reaches the desired temperature.
Deep-frying with a pan on an electric range causes almost as much trouble
as the electric pan method.
How does a microwave oven work?
A tube within the oven, called a "magnetron," emits high-frequency
electromagnetic waves (similar to radio waves). This radiation is scattered
the oven by a fanlike reflector (called the "stirrer"). When the waves
the food, they reverse the polarity of the water and other liquid molecules,
billions of times a second. This oscillation causes the molecules to vibrate
and bounce against each other. These collisions create friction and, as a
byproduct, the heat that cooks or warms the food.
The microwave's heating element does not heat the circulating air,
the oven walls, or the vessel holding the food. When a bowl or plate
warm in a microwave oven, either it absorbed the heat from the cooking food
or the surface of the vessel not touching the food was wet before the oven
was turned on.
What are the pros and cons of microwave cooking?
Speed is the name of the game in microwave cookery. Most foods cook in
one-quarter to one-half the time that other basic cooking methods require
because the food cooks from within. Microwave cooking costs less
it requires about one-quarter the power that a traditional oven uses. A
microwave oven also causes less splatter and hardly heats up the kitchen.
Baked goods rise higher in a microwave oven. On the other hand,
bread, rolls, and other baked goods do not brown as well as they do in a
traditional oven. Neither does meat, which means it won't develop the
desirably flavorful crust caused by the Maillard (browning) reaction (see p.
33). Some microwave producers deal with this problem by adding
fans and electrical heating elements. These devices do work, but their
pale compared to those of dedicated conventional and convection ovens.
Cooks face other problems as well. Microwave cooking tends to
give meats a dry, mushy texture. It's also harder to predict the proper
cooking time, especially for a large cut of meat. Consequently, microwaved
food is more likely to come out of the oven undercooked or overcooked.
Frozen foods can take a long time to cook in a microwave oven.
Since the water molecules are frozen solid, the electromagnetic waves
cannot agitate them. Until enough water molecules liquefy and then
hot enough to thaw the adjacent frozen water molecules, the cooking
process proceeds at glacial speed.
Another inconvenience is that of not being able to use your metal
pots and pans or aluminum foil containers in a microwave oven. Oven
manufacturers warn against the use of metal because of the possibility of
arcing—an electric spark jumping between the metal pot and microwave
wall when the pot is placed too close to the wall. Arcing can damage the
unit's magnetron tube. Although the chance of arcing is relatively low in
quality oven models, there is another strong reason not to cook in metal: It
reflects electromagnetic waves and therefore causes uneven cooking.
there is always a chance of radiation leakage, though, unless the unit is old
or damaged, the possibility of a radiation leak with today's equipment is
Should I buy a charcoal or gas outdoor grill?
If you relish grilled foods imbued with rich, sweet, woodsy, smoky flavor, as
most serious barbecuers do, then a charcoal grill is for you. But remember
that serious barbecuers use hardwood charcoal, not briquette charcoal.
Hardwood charcoal normally consists of whole chunks of seasoned wood,
such as hickory, apple, or mesquite. They produce clean, faintly sweet,
richly flavored smoke. Briquette charcoal is manufactured in a process that
compresses minute pieces of wood charcoal (normally not the best) into
A gas grill may be your best bet if you are a casual weekend
barbecuer and you do not require a grill that's portable. It produces a
decently pleasant smoke from the drippings. You do not need to make as
many fuel-restocking trips to the store. You wait 10 to 15 minutes instead
25 to 40 minutes for the grill to reach its ready-to-cook temperature. You
have greater control over the grilling temperature. Your cleanup is quicker
See chapter 2 (p. 27) for grilling tips and insights, such as how to
handle flare-ups or how to cook large roasts.
Is a fire-starter chimney helpful?
This device is a metal cylinder used to reduce the time that charcoal takes
reach its ready-to-cook temperature. It works like a chimney, hence its
name. The enclosed vertical pathway speeds the airflow, which increases
charcoal's heat. Moreover, the charcoal pieces heat more uniformly. You do
not need to use a liquid fire starter, which sometimes imparts a chemical
taste to grilled foods. You can construct your own fire-starter chimney out
a large can, but the manufactured ones will likely hold more charcoal and
a better job—and they do not cost that much.
What is the most underrated section of a refrigerator?
Many cooks look upon the crisper as a feature, not as a basic function like
the appliance's freezer and main section. The crisper is designed to retain
moisture. Without one, you would have to store fruits and vegetables that
need refrigeration in the appliance's main section. That would be
because the main section is notorious for dehydrating foods, particularly
fruits and vegetables with high water content. The resulting cellular water
shrinks the produce and severely shortens its storage life.
To extend the storage life even more, insert and seal a fruit or
vegetable in a plastic bag before placing it in the crisper. Be sure to pierce
the bag in a number of areas to allow air to circulate between the bag and
crisper. Otherwise, excess surface moisture could form on the produce,
hastening bacterial activity.
A crisper serves another important function. It prevents the
assertive odors of some fruits and vegetables from scenting lightly wrapped
foods stored in the refrigerator's main section.
Is it wise to keep a refrigerator as long as it keeps working?
A refrigerator—even a new one—is one of the biggest users of electricity in
your home. As it ages, it gradually becomes less efficient and has to work
harder, which mean more electric consumption. It usually pays to replace a
refrigerator when it's 12 to 15 years old. The money you invest in a new
refrigerator will be repaid in about 5 years by the money you save on
electricity (not to mention the cost of repair bills to fix an aging appliance).
Should I operate my kitchen appliances during a brownout?
A 5 percent or so voltage reduction may cause your television or computer
tube to flicker, but it shouldn't cause a serious problem for your kitchen
equipment. Your worst setback will probably involve heating appliances like
toaster ovens. They will generate a little less heat than they do normally.
A 10 percent or greater reduction, however, could cause some
motor-driven appliances, like an electric mixer, to struggle and overheat.
Since overheating harms the equipment, and you probably have no way to
measure accurately the drop in voltage, caution is in order. When you see
the lights dim, don't use your motor-driven kitchen appliances unless
If you cook and live in a brownout-prone city, keep in mind that
peak brownout period is typically just after 5:00 p.m., when most offices let
out en masse. The electricity-hungry elevators tax the local utility's
Copyright © 1981, 1989, 2003 by Howard Hillman. Reprinted by permission
of Houghton Mifflin Company.'
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