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!
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 the 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 that 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 (see above). 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.
11. How do you prevent lumpy gravy?
Lumpy gravy is a disappointment. These annoying bits of thickeners are typically the product of mixing too much at one time or not mixing them well enough with a whisk. To create a classic gravy, start with a roux. Use an equal amount of fat (butter) and flour. Heat the fat in a pan; then gradually whisk in the flour, creating a paste. Once you have this, you can add the drippings from your turkey or roast, as well as stock, to reach the desired thickness, all while whisking on medium-low heat.
Another option for a quick way to make a gravy without needing a roux is to create a corn starch slurry by thoroughly mixing equal amounts of corn starch and a stock of your preference. Once this is completely mixed, you can pour it into your drippings, keeping it on medium heat, and whisk until it begins to thicken. You might have to adjust the amount of stock you use to thin it out or make a smaller amount of slurry with the corn starch, later adding more to thicken it. Whatever method you use, be sure to taste it along the way and adjust seasonings accordingly. If you still have some lumps, you can always press the gravy through a strainer. But, by using either of these methods and employing a whisk instead of a spoon, you should not need to.
12. What’s the secret to a perfect pie crust?
For the best flavor, butter is recommended. Lard and shortening have higher melting temperatures, which creates that flaky crust. Or use half lard or shortening and half butter for the best of both worlds.
A perfect pie crust is a thing of beauty—flaky with a rich, buttery flavor. Obtaining this reward takes practice and a few hints from the experts. There are proponents of lard, butter, or shortening, with sound arguments for each.
Whichever fat you choose, the real secret to the perfect pie crust is keeping everything cold. This means put your fat of choice in the freezer before you use it and drizzle ice-cold water into the dough as you mix it. And if you really want to be hardcore, chill the bowl full of flour prior to using. This also requires not over-handling the dough because the heat of your hands can melt the fat. Using a food processor to mix the ingredients together eliminates this problem.
Practice makes perfect when it comes to making a pie crust. Keep everything cold and try each of the fats and see which one works the best for you.
13. Should you wash your meat, poultry, & fish before cooking
It used to be common for cooks to rinse meat prior to cooking, either because they felt it was more sanitary or because they needed to wash off debris, such as bone fragments, from the butcher-ing process. But since much of our meat comes from regulated facilities, this practice is not necessary and is not recommended by the USDA due to the possibility of cross-contamination in the cooking area. Washing will remove bacteria, but these same bacteria are also killed during the cooking process. Many experts suggest that washing meat and poultry may cause the bacteria to spread onto other cooking surfaces and/or your hands and clothes, which then comes into contact with other foods. So, it’s recommended not to wash your meat, poultry, or fish.
14. What is the difference between wax and parchment papers?
Both wax paper and parchment paper are used to keep foods from sticking, but there is a key difference—you cannot use wax paper in the oven!
Wax paper is coated with a thin coating of wax. Parchment paper, on the other hand, has a silicone make-up, which means it’s nonstick, as well as heat resistant up to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. This means you can line baking sheets or cake pans, as well as wrap foods, especially fish, to cook in packets of parchment paper for quick and easy cleanups.
Wax paper is better used as a liner, or a way to keep surfaces clean (works well on countertops and tables before rolling dough or kneading bread). It can also be used to wrap food for cold storage or line a pan or tin when storing cookies or fudge.
15. If your recipe calls for wine, what kind/type should you use? And what can be used as a substitute for wine?
Wine adds a complexity of flavor to both sweet and savory dishes. It also provides acidity to tenderize some of the tougher cuts of meats. What type you choose — whether white or red — depends on what you’re cooking.
Reds are typically recommended for savory dishes. Pinot noir, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon are the most popular options used with meats, with the pinot being the lighter option for those looking for a milder flavor.
For sauces, vegetables, fish, and chicken, look for white wine, such as sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, or unoaked chardonnay.
If you do not wish to use wine, or you don’t have it on hand, opt for chicken, beef, or vegetable stock, juices (such as apple, or pomegranate, depending on the dish), or plain water to replace the amount of wine called for in the recipe.
Note: You can and should use wine you also like to drink, but sometimes, depending on your palette, you may opt for a less expensive bottle than your favorite kind.
16. What is the best way to cook a steak?
Whether you are cooking steak outdoors on the grill or indoors in a cast-iron or stainless steel pan, there are a few tricks to help you create a sublime meal. First, take the steak out of the refrigerator at least 30 minutes prior to cooking to allow it to warm. This allows it to cook more evenly. Salt your steak generously with kosher salt at this time, as well. This dries out the exterior of the steak, giving you a better sear.
Whether on the grill or on the stove, start cooking the steak when the grill or stovetop is fairly hot; then bring it down to a lower temperature to finish it to the desired cooking level.
Have another cooking question you want answered? Ask us in the comments below!
With contributions from freelance writers Ed Higgins and Amy Grisak.