The publication this spring of Modernist Cuisine
, a gorgeous, six-volume, 2,400-page behemoth encapsulating the sum total of scientific knowledge on the subject of gastronomy, has emphatically underscored just how much cooking has changed in recent years. The thorough understanding of how foods behave under all sorts of conditions lets professionals engage in astonishing flights of fancy while at the same time allowing for substantial improvements to everyday home cooking. Many of the new techniques require expensive appliances, some of which cost a small fortune, and which would seem to be a barrier to anyone wanting to employ these methods at home. But there are plenty of inexpensive tricks for turning regular household items into multi-purpose gadgets that can make a profound difference on the variety and quality of foods we make for ourselves.
Some hacks are simple common sense substitutions or dual uses for things we already have on hand. Fine cotton handkerchiefs provide an affordable and reusable alternative to cheesecloth for straining almost anything. Just about any liquid in the kitchen can be made better by passing it through a cloth at one or more points during cooking; put a hanky in your colander or basket strainer and enjoy clearer broths and sauces without having to dispose of filters.
An oven with a pilot light offers an excellent place to proof bread dough and make yogurt, and with the door cracked open a bit (especially with a convection fan) it can also serve as an excellent dehydrator. Use a thermometer to determine the ambient temperature inside your oven, and regulate it (up to a point) by propping the door open a little to cool it or turning the light on for a bit more heat. If your oven lacks a pilot, buy a heating pad at the drugstore and put it in the bottom of a cooler (the insulation also retains heat, after all) and make your yogurt in there. An old window and its screen will also serve for a dehydrator on a sunny day (wash them both before using). On a table in a sunny spot, put the screen horizontally on some bricks or wood so air can circulate underneath it and spread out halved tomatoes, herbs, or fruit on it. Put the window on top, making sure there’s space between the glass and the food. Check it periodically, and stick the probe from your kitchen thermometer in there to make sure it stays in dehydrator territory (about 110˚F) so the food doesn’t cook instead of dry out.
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Pizza stones sell for $30-$50 and can break easily. There is no earthly reason not to grab a $4 quarry tile from the nearest home center and use it instead. If it breaks, you’re out 10 percent of the cost of a stone. If you add another few bucks for a large disposable aluminum roasting pan, you can invert it over a loaf of bread on your tile in the oven and create a moister baking environment that’s much closer to a commercial steam oven. Especially if you make slightly wetter dough than usual, the water evaporating from the baking bread will stay within the smaller confines of your oven within an oven and yield a far better crust than your oven can by itself. Remove the aluminum pan after 30 minutes or so to let the crust get nice and brown while it finishes baking.
If you have a grill and want to try making bacon or a similar project, there’s no need to spring for a fancy smoker. Any kettle or other grill can be easily converted to a hot smoker: Once the charcoal is lit, push the pile over to one side and put a metal tray of soaked wood chips on it. If you have grape vines or pruned branches from (unsprayed) fruit trees, even better. Put the food over on the other side and put the lid on. Careful regulation of the fire’s intensity and occasional stirring and replenishment of the wood chips can make for seriously good ribs, chicken, or anything else that likes a good smoking. Try putting a metal colander of dried pasta in there for half an hour, or smoke some coffee beans and grind them to rub on the ribs you put in next (for a gas grill, just add the tray of chips over one burner and leave the other one off).
Cold smoking is just as easy to accomplish, and allows for adding smoke flavor to more delicate foods like cheese, fish, or raw sausages meant to be cooked later on after aging. (It’s important to be aware of food safety issues related to cold smoking, especially meat; the Web has good resources). Take a new (residual solder is not good for you) straight soldering iron—not the kind with a trigger, use the kind that looks like a big awl—and stick it into a flower pot full of soaked wood chips down in one corner of your grill. Put food on the grill, and plug in the iron. Stir the pot of chips from time to time to keep it happy. As long as the temperature inside the grill stays below 90˚F, you’re cold smoking.
Depending on your level of food geekitude, you may have heard of the antigriddle. It’s a slab of metal that’s chilled to -30˚F so that liquids, purées, and foams can be made solid for canapés that quite literally melt in the mouth. Rather than dropping $1,200 on the cumbersome appliance, just order up a hunk of dry ice and put an aluminum cookie sheet on top of it. Then enjoy the possibilities of serving soup as crackers or your homemade smoked salmon on crème fraîche without any crackers at all. (Remember to chill your serving dishes so the food stays firm long enough to be eaten.)
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“Any time you get somebody excited to go in the kitchen and learn how something is made, you’ve helped that person cook more and better food,” says Jeff Potter, the Cambridge, MA-based author of Cooking For Geeks
. “If you try only one thing,” Potter encourages, “make it sous vide.” Sous vide cooking involves vacuum-sealing food in plastic bags and immersing it in precisely temperature-controlled water. The water brings food up to the desired temperature, but no higher. “Sous vide is like magic,” he continues. “You can’t overcook things, and it tastes great. Chemical reactions in food happen at different temperatures; careful cooking can make for amazing results.” Eggs can be cooked (at about 147˚F) so that when cracked open, they slide out as unctuous orbs that just hold their shape. Short ribs, after sitting in 150˚F water for 72 hours, fall right off the bone but still look pink. Rhubarb can be cooked to a sensual softness while still holding its shape and color. Seasonings of all sorts can be added to the bag; there’s no limit to the possibilities.
Potter says that having a vacuum sealer (about $120) is useful, but not mandatory; “just lower the (food-safe zip-top) bag down into the water and the air will get pushed right out” before sealing. Commercial sous vide units cost a couple thousand dollars, and there are now home units available for $300-$500. For a fraction of that price, there are two easy methods for duplicating the same effects at home. The easier but more expensive version (about $150) involves modifying a slow cooker by splicing a thermocouple and temperature controller into the power cord. The probe reads the temperature inside the vessel, and the controller switches the power on and off as needed to maintain the desired level. If you can rewire a lamp, you can do this. The cheapest version ($75) requires a bit more know-how; it combines a thermocouple with immersion heaters (the kind you stick in a cup) and an aquarium pump to circulate the water to provide even heating throughout the vessel of your choice. This version allows for better cooking and varying the size of the container, but either one works a treat. It’s hard to overstate how much this technique can do to make home cooking a lot more refined and pleasurable to eat.
Not everyone is adventurous in the kitchen, and we’re all pressed for time. Many of these techniques require no special skills and can save us time and money, in addition to allowing for superb homemade examples of foods that many people never make at home any more. It can also be a lot of fun. Potter concludes: “It’s a real joy to share with people how easy this is. They start eating better, and they start living better; it all dominoes together.”