Good cooks know that the secret to success in the kitchen is to follow certain rules. And yet true kitchen wisdom comes from asking questions, practicing techniques, following recipes, and being able to separate facts from assumptions. Here’s a list of popular cooking questions that will help you get to know your way around the kitchen like a professional chef!
10 Common Cooking Questions
1. Why is it sometimes difficult to remove shells from hardboiled eggs?
The fresher the egg, the harder it is to peel. This is because the membrane just under the shell of a fresh egg sticks more effectively to the fresh white of the egg when cooked. In eggs that have been in the refrigerator for several days, the normally low pH of the egg white protein, albumen, increases, and a bit of water begins to separate from the protein. Also, over time, a tiny air space begins to expand from the air sac (the “bubble” at the large end of the egg) between the inner membrane and the white, so when the white cooks, the membrane bonds more strongly to the shell. When the shell is cracked, the water which the albumen gave off, lubricates the area between membrane and white, making the egg easier to peel.
Always crack an egg first at the large end, and work your way to the narrow end. Shocking the egg after cooking in cold water can sometimes help create space between the membrane and the white. And peel eggs while still warm. You’ll need this tip when making deviled eggs!
2. What’s the difference between white eggs and brown eggs?
Actually, chickens lay a variety of colors of eggs — some lighter brown, some quite dark, some light blue, even speckled. But shell color does not determine flavor or nutritional value. The biggest factors with the quality, flavor and nutritional value of eggs are their freshness, the health of the chicken, and the quality of its feed.
3. Why does the first pancake always come out bad?
It seems inevitable, when we make pancakes, the first one in the pan always looks worse than any of the subsequent flapjacks. This happens for a variety of reasons. Primarily it’s because the pan or griddle needs two things before it becomes a stellar cooking surface that produces golden brown pancakes. First, it needs to heat up properly across its entire surface. Even heat is the secret of great pancakes.
Second, any fat on the surface needs to be heated and distributed into a thin, even layer. This is called “seasoning” the pan. Too much fat pooling up on the surface simply fries the batter, (which can add the crispness that some pancake aficionados prefer), but evenly browned pancakes are a result of maximum contact between the hot cooking surface and the batter, where the batter almost toasts to golden brown, with only enough seasoning to prevent the pancakes from sticking. Properly heating and seasoning the surface before you add the batter makes all the difference. The first pancake is in effect the trial run, working out the kinks before all the variables of even heat and pan seasoning come together. While that first pancake cooks the pan comes to temperature, and it absorbs just enough of the fat on the cooking surface so that second one will cook more evenly.
4. Why do foods stick?
Foods stick, especially to metal pans that are exposed to heat without any fat or oil, because proteins and sugars in the food bond like glue to microscopic irregularities on the surface of the metal. A layer of oil can fill in in these irregularities, which when heated creates a cushion of steam that raises the food off of the pan, creating a smoother surface which is less likely to cause food to stick.
5. Why do chefs call for day-old bread in some recipes?
Besides the economic advantage of using leftover ingredients, chefs prefer day-old bread in some recipes because drier bread and/or crumbs can absorb flavorful liquids while still retaining some lightness and texture. Adding liquids to fresh soft bread crumbs, for example, could cause them to lose texture and become a sodden paste. Crumbs from drier bread will make things like meatloaf and meatballs lighter and less dense.
6. What’s the difference between chicken broth and chicken stock (and is it OK to use them interchangeably?)
The only difference between broth and stock is that stock is created using bones in addition to other ingredients, so it tends to be cloudy. A broth is any liquid in which ingredients (such as meat, fish, vegetables, etc.) have been cooked. Most of the time the two can be used interchangeably. Broths can generally be created in less time, while a stock requires hours of simmering. Many chefs prefer stock because bones release more gelatin, resulting in a silkier feel in the mouth.
7. Why do some recipes call for the eggs to be at room temperature?
The reason for this is twofold. First, in recipes where melted fat is used and a smooth emulsified batter is required, such as that for popovers, cold ingredients like eggs can cause fat to harden and congeal, creating lumps and harming the texture of the finished product. Secondly, in any recipe where air needs to be incorporated into the mix, such as a soufflé, room temperature egg whites tend to whip higher than cold ones.
8. Is there a reason you cream the butter and sugar together first when baking? Why can’t you throw all the ingredients together at once?
Any baker will tell you that creaming butter and sugar together first, before adding eggs, is one of the keys to lighter cakes and better cookies. Incorporating the fat and sugar together begins to dissolve the sugar crystals and the fat begins to emulsify around them. This creates tiny spaces between the molecules, which expand when heated, resulting in a finer, lighter texture in baked goods.
9. Why do chefs add the oil after the pan heats up?
This is related to the question about foods sticking. If you look at the surface of a metal pan under a microscope, it’s a porous landscape of craggy peaks and valleys. A layer of fat fills in the valleys and makes a smoother, more nonstick surface. Chefs heat pans before adding oil or butter because heat tends to open up the pores in the metal more effectively, and hot oil is less viscous and seeps into all the microscopic valleys faster and more evenly.
10. Why should you start potatoes off in cold water?
Starting potatoes in cold water creates more even cooking. Throwing cold potatoes into boiling water gelatinizes the starches at the surface of the potato too fast, which will leave you with a mushy exterior that falls apart and dissolves into the cooking water before the center cooks through. By starting in cold water, the temperature in the potato rises more gently.
In fact, all root crops, or vegetables that grow below ground, should be started off in cold water to gradually soften their cell walls to make them more palatable and easier to digest. Because most green vegetables (aboveground crops) are small and/or thin, this doesn’t take long and should be added to boiling water.
Have another cooking question you want answered? Ask us in the comments below!