Things I've Learned About Cooking


My ability to cook was always fairly mediocre (or outright poor) until I happened to read a food science book by Alton Brown. The book basically showed me how all the things I had learned in my chemistry class in high school had to do with cooking. Had I been a tiny bit smarter, I might've figured it all out on my own, but for some reason it never occurred to me. Here are some of the things I learned:

- Smoke points (the temperature when an oil burns off) of oils: of the common oils, canola has the highest (600+), and butter has the lowest (~200). This means you can/should only use butter for low-temperature cooking or where you deliberately want to impart its flavor into the food, and pretty much use canola otherwise.

- Oil is not there to lubricate the pan or keep food from the sticking (I had long thought this). Oil acts as a flexible conductor, designed primarily to conduct heat effectively into the crevices of the food and over a broader surface area.

- Likewise, you can pull off a perfect omelette by heating the right amount of oil to the right temperature such that the amount of energy stored in the oil is exactly the amount of heat needed to cook the egg and warm the omelette ingredients and no more.

- The difference between boiling water and a rolling boil is that the rapidly rising bubbles agitate the water more and result in more effective heat transfer to whatever you've put in the boiling water. This can be used to heat things at different rates in boiling water.

- The difference between all those different types of pasta noodles is the effectiveness with which it absorbs sauce (broad noodles hold more sauce, thin noodles hold less), so you choose your noodles based on the sauce and the anticipated palette of other ingredients and flavors.

- Salt is not used to make things salty. It is used to bring out the intrinsic flavor of the food. The most common cooking mistake is underusing salt in the fear of making things too salty.

- Kosher salt does this best, because it comes in flakes (which can be crumbled more finely) rather than square grains in the manner of table salt.

- Throw away your table salt. It is useless.

- Pepper is also used to bring out flavors, not to make things spicy.

- Heat transfers gradually from the outside to the inside for large objects (e.g. roasts). Therefore, ambient (cooking) temperature needs to be set correctly so that the inside of the object reaches the desired temperature while the outside has not been too hot for too long. This is well-known for roasts but the principle also applies when microwaving things; for large masses, this is when microwaving for longer on lower power is appropriate.

- The secret to making pork and chicken that is fully-cooked without becoming dry is to cook the meat until it is almost fully-cooked and then remove it from the heat and cover it in foil for 5-10 minutes. The existing heat in the food will finish cooking it without drying it out. There is basically no other way to do it - either you will end up with undercooked meat or in trying to get it fully-cooked on the heat, the remaining heat in the meat after you remove it will dry out the meat.

- Eggs have a schedule to them. They last about 6 weeks in the fridge. When they are fresh, you should use them for omelettes or scrambled eggs. Once they are about 1 or 2 weeks old, they are optimal for hard-boiling. After that, they are best used to wet other food (like meats) in preparation for breading, or for french toast.

- Use Oat Nut bread (toasted) for your sandwiches and place your cheese diagonally.

Originally posted here on 2009 Apr 17, by Yishan Wong.