As I promised last month, this is Part 2 of What’s Your Biggest Challenge in the Kitchen? I told you that I have a new gig as a Chef Instructor at a cooking place. It’s not a professional culinary program; it’s a place for home cooks to spend an evening cooking a meal and learning about ingredients and techniques.
During introductions at the beginning of each class, I ask each person: “What is your biggest challenge in the kitchen?” This column answers more of those questions.
Calibrating Your Oven: I don’t bake much. I use my oven to roast things all the time, but when I’m roasting a chicken or some vegetables and they aren’t done when I check, I just leave them in a little longer.
As a result, I didn’t realize that my oven in New Jersey wasn’t getting as hot as it indicated. One year, for Rosh Hashanah, I decided to make a Honey Cake. It was a new recipe to me but didn’t look difficult. I followed the instructions but after leaving it in longer than the recipe said, the outside started to burn and the inside still wasn’t done. I tried again, several times, trying different baking pans. The cake never came out right and I couldn’t figure out why. I bought a cake for the holiday.
The next time I baked, it was for Thanksgiving. I mixed up a Pumpkin Cranberry Bread that I had made many times before. I had the same result. The outside burned; the inside was still raw. The light bulb went on over my head. I remembered the Honey Cake fiasco and realized that the problem was not my baking skills, the recipe, or the pan. It was my oven.
I called an appliance repair company. It turned out the thermostat was not calibrated properly. I knew that a kitchen thermometer can lose its calibration, but it never occurred to me that was also true about the one inside my oven. So, if you’re having trouble with your baking or roasting or your oven seems too cold or too hot, call a repair company to have a look at it.
One more oven tip: Even when calibrated properly, many ovens have hot and cold spots inside. On a single baking sheet, lay out rows of bread slices. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for about 7 to 10 minutes. Check the bread periodically. If some slices get more brown than others, you know where your hot spots are. Be sure to turn your cakes and cookies accordingly.
Cooking Too Hot: Along the same lines, many guests in my classes complain that they often burn things on the stovetop. It’s probably the most common mistake home cooks make — cooking over too high a heat. Many home cooks turn their burners up to high or medium-high for everything. Unless you’re searing or blackening a piece of meat or boiling water, high is usually too hot. Eggs, for example, should be cooked on low or medium-low heat. So, start on a lower heat. You can always turn it up, but once something is burned you can’t unburn it.
Gas stovetops are easy to control and respond quickly. When you turn the flame up or down, it changes immediately. When the coils on an electric stovetop are too hot, it takes a couple of minutes for them to cool down, so remove your pan from the burner until that happens.
At the place where I work, they have induction stovetops. These glass topped burners, which require specific types of pots and pans, don’t get hot themselves. They create heat in the pan using an electromagnetic field. So, the pan gets hot, but the stovetop doesn’t. Some people, including professional chefs, love induction cooking. It is more energy efficient and environmentally friendly than both electric and gas. It gets hot more quickly than traditional stovetops so it cooks faster; especially boiling a large pot of water. But if you remove the pan or even move it around too much, the electromagnetic field breaks and it disrupts the heat. For me and for my guests at the cooking school, it’s very hard to break the habit of shaking a pan or lifting it to toss what’s inside.
Knife Skills: I can’t demonstrate knife skills in writing. I can only direct you to take a knife skills class or to watch videos online. After you watch, the best thing to practice on is celery, because it isn’t round and it’s easy to cut. Use an entire bunch; cut it into different shapes — mince, dice, chop, sticks, julienne, and bias. When you’re finished with it, eat as much as you can, make some tuna or chicken salad, and freeze the rest for soup.
Over the ten years I worked in the kosher deli at Wegmans, I cut hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds of vegetables for salads. All that practice made me a very fast chopper. I can break down a case of onions in about 20 minutes. But your goal, as a home cook, is not speed. You should practice for safety and consistency.
Use the biggest knife you can safely handle. Let the large blade do the work for you. If you hold a knife correctly and it’s sharp, you put less pressure on your hands and wrists.
When buying a knife, look for a well-made utensil. You don’t have to spend a fortune, but a $10 knife will never be sharp enough and won’t last long. I like a lighter knife with a polycarbonate handle, as opposed to wood, which can be heavy. I also look for a very thin blade. The thinner the blade, the finer the cut.
There are two steps to keeping a knife sharp — sharpening and honing. Although you can’t see them, a knife’s edge has thousands of tiny teeth, sort of like a serrated knife, but not visible to the eye. When a knife is sharp, all those teeth point in the same direction — towards the knife tip. As you use the knife, those teeth begin to “bend” ever so slightly, so that the edge is no longer as smooth as it should be. Honing, or swiping your knife along the edge of a steel, moves those tiny teeth back into position. If you don’t have a steel, get one. You should hone your knife before every use; you can even hone it more than once during a long day of chopping. Frequent honing will keep your knife’s edge sharp longer.
However, eventually the tiny teeth can no longer be honed into place and they wear away. That’s when you need to sharpen your knife, which means you actually create a new cutting edge. Many professionals use a sharpening stone and oil, but a mechanical or electric sharpener does the job too. If you don’t have a sharpener, you can take your knives to be professionally sharpened; some hardware or cookware stores do this. Here in Cincinnati, there is a guy with a mobile sharpening truck whom you can find at farmer’s markets. If you hone your knives frequently, they only need sharpening every four months, give or take.
Here’s a fun fact — according to the Orthodox Union (OU), your kosher knives can be sharpened on equipment that is also used to sharpen non-kosher knives. Because the knife must be absolutely clean before being sharpened and because the process actually removes a small amount of metal to create the new edge, your knife remains kosher.
Cranberry Pumpkin Bread
This recipe makes 2 loaves and freezes beautifully, so it’s great for both Sukkot and Thanksgiving. To freeze: Let bread cool completely, wrap in parchment paper, then tightly in foil. You can leave out the nuts and/or add chocolate chips. I usually make it with white whole wheat flour.
3¾ C all-purpose flour
3 C sugar
4 tsp pumpkin pie spice
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 (15 oz) can pumpkin
½ C canola (or other neutral) oil
2 C fresh cranberries, picked over, washed and dried
1 C chopped walnuts
1. Preheat oven to 350°
2. Grease two 9×5 inch loaf pans with spray oil or wipe with paper towel and margarine.
3. In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, pumpkin pie spice, baking soda, and salt. Whisk together.
4. In another bowl, whisk eggs, pumpkin, and oil together.
5. Stir pumpkin mixture into dry ingredients until just combined. Don’t overwork the batter.
6. Fold in cranberries and walnuts.
7. Spoon batter into loaf pans, dividing evenly.
8. Bake for 70-80 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
9. Cool in pans for 10 minutes, then remove to wire rack until cooled completely.