The Quest for the Perfect Matzo Ball: Traditional, Sweet and Deep Fried Variations

15 Dec Sweet matzo ball in creme anglaise "soup"  topped with crushed candy cane

There are many great foods that have been born, or, at least, popularized in America, from Jewish tradition- taglach, charoset, potato latkes, and those chocolate covered marshmallow things you eat on Passover. Some might even argue that gefilte fish is one of Judaism’s great gifts to the world, though I’d argue otherwise. But, there are few traditionally Jewish foods as revered as the matzo ball.

I love a good matzo ball more than just about anything. Unfortunately, if you ask me, it’s hard to find a great one. Most Kosher-style deli’s in New York don’t pass muster; their matzo balls have the wrong mouth feel (not fluffy enough) and are way too big. And if you’re one of those people who likes your matzo balls dense, then remind me never to take you to a steak house—I’m sure you like your filet well done too.

Basic matzo ball ingredients: 2 eggs, 2 tbsp oil, 1/2 cup matzo meal

Basic matzo ball ingredients: 2 eggs, 2 tbsp oil, 1/2 cup matzo meal

I’ve probably made hundreds if not thousands of matzo balls in my lifetime and think I’ve perfected the method for getting them to be the perfect texture. In fact, my oldest son, Jamie, recently proclaimed that “everybody is good at something” and making the perfect matzo ball is “what Daddy’s good at.”

Making the perfect “traditional” matzo ball isn’t what this post is about, but before I get to the good stuff, let me start with a primer on making great fluffy matzo balls.

Basic Matzo Ball Recipe:

  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tbsp. cooking oil
  • 1/2 cup matzo meal
  1. Combine the oil and eggs in a bowl until well combined
  2. Mix in the matzo meal until the mixture comes together
  3. DO NOT over mix. The secret to the fluffy matzo ball is handling the mixture as little as possible and keeping it as “loose” as possible
  4. Refrigerate mixture for at least 20 minutes. If you do not properly refrigerate the mixture, then you’ll end up having to over-mix and over-press the ball to keep it together when cooking
  5. Remove from fridge and LOOSELY form into 8 or 9 balls about 1 inch in diameter. When forming these balls DO NOT compress them as you might a snowball. Again, the secret to a fluffy matzo ball is handling the mixture as little as possible and keeping it as loose as possible.
  6. Drop into rapidly boiling liquid (e.g. soup) and cook at least until it doubles in size
  7. Test one by cutting it in half with a fork and, if it looks the same in the center as it does outside, the matzo balls are done

I’ve spent many a moment pondering why the matzo ball is such a comforting food and if it’s even possible to improve upon it. In this quest for matzo ball perfection, I’ve come up with two insights:

Insight 1: Matzo balls don’t have to be savory

Sweet matzo ball in creme anglaise "soup"  topped with crushed candy cane

Sweet matzo ball in creme anglaise “soup” topped with crushed candy cane

Matzo balls are generally served as a savory dish, usually in chicken soup. If you think about it, that fact is actually an odd phenomenon. The actual ingredients and flavor profile are rather neutral, like a piece of bread which can cater to savory items (e.g. cheese) or sweet items (e.g. peanut butter and jelly).

Similar to many dumpling-like foods of varying cultures, what makes a matzo ball so scrumptious is primarily the mouth feel, not the flavor. With that in mind, I decided to create what I think is the world’s first dessert matzo ball soup—a crème anglaise “soup” with a vanilla matzo ball topped with crushed candy cane for texture and irony.

Dessert Matzo Ball Soup:

For the Matzo Ball:

  • Follow basic matzo ball recipe above, adding the scrapings of ½ vanilla bean and ½ tsp of vanilla extract to the mixture
  • Cook mixture in boiling sugar water—use a ratio of about ¾ cup sugar to 64 ounces of water

For the Crème Anglaise:

I decided to try using my Polyscience immersion circulator for a foolproof crème anglaise. If you don’t have an immersion circulator, you can use the traditional method.

  • ½ cup milk
  • ½ cup cream
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 3 tbsp sugar
  • pinch salt
  • ½ vanilla bean, scraped
  1. Combine the above ingredients (sans the pod from the vanilla bean) in a blender.
  2. Seal the mixture and the vanilla bean pod in a vacuum pouch
  3. Cook sous vide at 179.5 for 20 minutes
  4. Remove from water bath and vigorously shake or agitate mixture
  5. Cool in ice water to desired temperature

To Finish:

  1. Pour the warm crème anglaise in a shallow bowl
  2. Place Matzoh ball in the soup
  3. Top with crushed candy cane
Sweet matzo ball with chocolate sauce and crushed candy cane.

Sweet matzo ball with chocolate sauce and crushed candy cane.

Variation:

You can also try serving with chocolate sauce instead of crème anglaise. I found in my tests that the matzo ball tastes quite “eggy” without a savory liquid so if the “eggy” taste is too much for you, a more robust liquid (such as chocolate) will help soften the edge.

Insight 2: Almost everything tastes better when fried

Though matzo balls are all about texture and, in my opinion, are close to perfection as far as food texture goes, I decided to see what happens when you toss one in the deep fryer. The result is the amazing fluffiness of the matzo ball in the inside with an outside crust that closely resembles my second favorite Jewish food, potato latkes. This method turns the matzo ball from a “soup accessory” to a starchy side that can be served with just about any protein. As you can see in the picture, my personal favorite is to serve it with pork belly glazed in a Manischewitz wine reduction and Jerusalem artichoke purée.

Fried matzo ball served with Manischewitz wine-glazed pork belly and Jerusalem artichoke puree.

Fried matzo ball served with Manischewitz wine-glazed pork belly and Jerusalem artichoke puree.

Happy Chanukah!

Find the Hotspots in Your Grill With This (Not-So) High-Tech Device

4 Aug 2012-07-29-14-29-44

A couple of months ago, I bought a new grill.

This grill is a reflection of me. Quite literally.

I LOVE it. But I also HATE it.

To me, grills are like running shoes. New shoes look pristine, don’t have worn-down treads or frayed laces and sometimes have enhancements over your old shoes like “moisture wicking technology.” But those old shoes are, well, like an extension of your foot. They’re broken in, comfortable beyond belief, and you know how they perform, for better or for worse.

My new grill is a thing of beauty. I didn’t opt for the super expensive model or any of the high-end features like a rotisserie or the searing burner. I’m a “middle of the line” kind of guy. But when I found myself in a triple discount situation (weekend sale + coupon + Internet price match), I opted for a few extra bells and whistles like the stainless grates and the natural gas conversion kit. But, like a new pair of shoes, my new grill just isn’t the same as my old grill. As quirky as it was, I knew exactly where on the grates of my old grill to put my steak to get a perfect sear every time. My old grill had really hot spots and really not-so-warm spots. My new grill has hot spots and hotter spots. But I haven’t figured out where they are—until today!

A Grill Heat Measuring Device for Only $1.99

This morning, I went out and purchased a handy calibration device that tells me exactly where the hot spots are in my new grill. It’s amazing. In fact, it has a retina-quality display that gives me a visual heat map of the cooking surface. And I paid less than $2 for it! So what’s the name of this wonderful device and where can you get one? Drum roll please… it’s a loaf of bread from Target.

Thanks to a scientific principle known as the Maillard Reaction, when bread gets hot, it starts to brown and turns into toast. As it continues to cook, it continues to darken. And then it eventually burns.

With this in mind, I was able to plop sixteen slices of bread across my hot grill, leave them there, each for equal amounts of time, pull them off and reassemble them on my countertop into a mosaic-like heat map of the cooking surface.

This is the resulting grill heat map. The darker spots are hot spots in my grill and the lighter spots are the cool spots.

My grill has four burners, spaced evenly left to right. As you can see from the above picture the very front and very back of the grill tend to be cool spots. The very center of the grill is definitely the hottest, which makes scientific sense since it’s the closest point to all four burners. Most interesting to me, though, is the fact that the left quadrant of this photo (which is actually the right side of my grill because the map ends up being a flipped image of your grill surface-see bullet 3 below) is darker than the right. This seems to indicate one side of my grill is hotter than the other. I suppose it could also mean that I left the bread on that side longer (see bullet 2 below), but I’ve always had a hunch that the right side of my grill (which is the left side of this image) burns hotter. This may very well be because of the way the natural gas is fed into the grill (from the right hand side), though it’s more likely that the right-most burner is calibrated to burn a little hotter. (I happen to know from looking at the schematic of the burners, that inside each control dial there are tiny screws that Sears uses to calibrate how hot the burners are supposed to burn.)

If you want to try this test on your own grill, here are a few things you should know:

  1. I decided to conduct my test using a preheated grill and burners set to high because that’s how I usually cook my food. However, you might get more color variation (and have more time to put the slices on the grates and pull them off) if you keep your burners on a lower setting and don’t preheat the grill.
  2. The key to getting accurate results is to ensure that each piece of bread stays on the grill for the same amount of time. This is quite difficult to do because the bread toasts in fewer than 90 seconds and it takes at least 30 to get all 16 slices of bread on the grill. I was able to load and unload the bread at an even clip by; (a) removing my bread from the bag beforehand and stacking it beside my grill; (b) using a steady and even pace to put the slices on my grill and a similar pace to remove the slices and; (c) use a stopwatch to understand the elapsed time between putting the first slice on and taking the first slice off (which should be the same elapsed time between putting the last slice on and taking it off).

    Lay 16 slices of bread on a hot grill, toast them and remove them, being careful to leave each one on for the exact same amount of time.

  3. When you remove the bread, you actually want to reassemble it as an image flipped horizontally. The picture you see above actually shows you a heat map of the grill as if you were lying on top of the burners looking up at the bread as it toasts. When I removed the bread, I took the top right-most piece and put it down on the top left of the counter and the bottom left-most piece and put it on the bottom right-most corner of the counter. It’s basically like turning a page in a book.

And the bonus of all this work is that at the end of the measurement process, my high-tech tool goes quite well with a few slices of tomato, a few strips of bacon, some lettuce and a schmear of mayo!

Hot Summer. Dry Ice. (Making the Perfect Slushy with Your At-Home Dry Ice Maker)

22 Jul IMG_0610

I am a kitchen gadget snob. Not a whore, but a snob.

What’s the difference? Think back to high school. The girl (or guy) who had the reputation for being “such a whore” was the person who kissed every guy she met. The snob, on the other hand, sought kisses from only the most popular guys. For the snob, the quantity was lower but the quality was higher. Her selectivity created a demand for her kisses among the guys, which, in turn, fed her ability to be selective.

Similarly, I’m selective over my kitchen gadgets and the more selective I am, the more selective I want to be. Thus, gadgets aren’t allowed to enter my kitchen—or at least stay for long—unless they are extremely useful and/or extremely cool. (Okay, I will admit that my kitchen served as the foster home for a Yonanas Frozen Treat Maker for a short while. But that was the result of a bet (which I lost) and will be a different blog post for a different time.)

Probably the most sought after kitchen gadget for home cooks who love gastronomy is liquid nitrogen (LN2) or, rather, the liquid nitrogen Dewar.  LN2 is nitrogen that’s so cool, it exists in a liquid state. It puts almost anything it touches into a deep freeze and, thanks in part to the high end cooking shows of late, makes wanna-be Top Chefs like myself believe you can create endless unusual yet tantalizing dishes with it. LN2 is actually quite inexpensive, but storing it requires an expensive device (a Dewar), obtaining it requires a relationship with a supplier who is unlikely to deliver it to your home, and using it requires knowledge of what not to do with it, lest you hurt yourself and others. The dream, therefore, of a LN2 supply at home for my cooking is a nice one but somewhat impractical at this juncture.

So what’s a guy to do?

The Dry Ice Maker is fitted onto a 20 LB CO2 cylinder fitted with a syphon tube.

While dreaming up schemes to convince my local LN2 supplier to deliver 30 or 40 liters of the stuff to my house, I happened upon this device, which allows you to make dry ice chips on demand. Dry ice is solid Carbon Dioxide (CO2) and is sometimes referred to as the little cousin of LN2. I think that accolade is a stretch, but at only a hundred bucks and change, it seemed like a good poor-man’s alternative to the LN2 Dewar. I also happened to have a few cylinders of CO2 stored in my house because I use it to power the soda fountain in my kitchen. (I said I was a kitchen gadget snob, right?)

So about a year ago, I picked up dry ice maker and fitted it onto a CO2 cylinder fitted with a syphon tube. The first thing I decided to do was to see how quickly the dry ice could cool things down. At its extremely low temperature (less than -321 degrees Fahrenheit), LN2 can freeze things almost instantly. But dry ice is about -109.3 degrees Farenheit (3 times warmer than LN2). So I was curious to see how quickly it could chill down a drink.

Seeing that it was the middle of the summer and I am an iced coffee fanatic, I decided to brew a pot of coffee and dump a snowball-full of dry ice into the coffee pot after I removed it from the brewer. While mixing it, I noticed four important food-related results:

  1. The coffee cooled. Certainly not as quick as if I had used LN2, but the dry ice did cool my coffee pretty quickly.
  2. The coffee did not get diluted. As it cools, regular ice turns from a liquid to a solid (water) and in turns dilutes the coffee. However, dry ice goes through a process of sublimation (turning from a solid directly to a gas) and the strength of the coffee does not change.
  3. While there was no impact to coffee strength, per se, there was an impact to mouth feel / texture. That is to say, the coffee actually became slightly carbonated. This is because as the dry ice “melts” and cools the coffee, some of the carbon dioxide actually dissolves into the coffee, essentially leaving you with coffee soda.
  4. As I added more dry ice and the coffee got colder, it started to turn into a frozen slush. In fact, when I tasted the slush it seems to be the most perfectly semi-frozen texture that’s ever hit my mouth.

So what did I learn in this experiment? Dry ice plus tasty liquid equals the best slushy you’ve ever had!

So far I’ve tried this method with two different liquids and both times the results have come out wonderful, especially on a hot day:

Pour the cold Sunny D into a cup or 2 of dry ice chips.

Stir the dry ice / Sunny D mixture until it turns into a slushy and all the dry ice has evaporated.

The final product looking quite tasty.

My son, Jamie, enjoying a Sunny D Dry Ice Sushy

Recipe 1: Orange Sunny Slushy

This one’s so easy to make that even my son can do it (see pictures):

  1. Chill 2-4 cups of Sunny Delight (Sunny D to you hipsters) in the coldest part of your fridge or warmest part of your freezer. Getting the liquid as cold as possible without letting it freeze will yield the best result in the next step.
  2. Place the liquid into a mixing bowl. (If you’re using a metal bowl, you should chill the metal bowl before using it.) Add about a cup of dry ice and mix with a wire whisk. Add more dry ice as needed.As you stir, the liquid will turn to a tasty slush. Make sure as much of the dry ice as possible has evaporated before serving. There are fewer things worse than getting a mouthful of dry ice.

Recipe 2: Mojito Slushy

A mojito is usually made with a splash of seltzer to give it some fizz. In this case, the dry ice will carbonate the mojito mixture as it freezes.

  1. Create a mint simple syrup by combining equal parts of sugar and water in a saucepan and heating it until the sugar dissolves. Then turn off the heat and add a handful of fresh mint that has been washed and bruised (or muddled). Let the mint steep for at least 30 minutes. Then strain the mixture and discard the solids.
  2. Mix the simple syrup with white/light rum, freshly squeezed lime juice and water. The exact ratios are up to you, but keep in mind that as the mixture cools your ability to taste its sweetness will get considerably less. So you want this to taste like the sweetest mojito you’ve ever made. It’s also important to note that the more alcohol you add, the harder it will be to turn the mixture into a slushy. So use the alcohol for the taste and not for the physiological effect. I generally use a ratio of about equal parts of all ingredients except for simple syrup, which I double compared to all other ingredients.
  3. Chill the mixture in a freezer. Because there is alcohol in this mixture you should be able to (and will need to) chill it below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. If you don’t chill the mixture enough, it will not properly freeze.
  4. Place the liquid into a bowl. Add about a cup of dry ice and mix it with a wire whisk. Add more dry ice as needed.

I believe you can use a similar technique with most sorbet recipes. Once you make the base sorbet mixture, chill it and mix it with dry ice for a delicious treat.

For added pizzazz, buy an Erlenmeyer flask or two when you pick up your dry ice maker and prepare your concoction tableside. I’ve done this as a palette cleansing sorbet course for a few dinner parties I’ve thrown and the guests are always stunned.

Author’s Notes:

  1. Still want a way to get LN2 at home? Then read Dave Arnold’s Liquid Nitrogen Primer
  2. Getting (and storing) CO2 is much easier than LN2. CO2 can be obtained from any welding supply store. If you’re using it for dry ice, you need to get a CO2 cylinder fitted with a syphon tube. If you’re using it for other purposes, such as carbonating liquids, you can use a standard CO2 cylinder. The cylinders come in different sizes by weight (5 lb, 20 lb, 50 lb. etc.) and are fairly cheap to refill. You can also store them almost indefinitely whereas LN2 evaporates quickly if gone unused.
  3. Using a CO2 cylinder to carbonate liquids is way more economical than using a Soda Stream or other soda-making device. Using straight CO2 or dry ice is also way cheaper to use than ISI CO2 cartridges to carbonate fruit, a technique that was popularized several years ago by Homaro Cantu. (If you’re thinking about getting a CO2 cylinder  or commercial soda equipment for home use, send me an email or leave a comment. I’ve done a ton of research over the years about where to get what you need and how to create the perfect at-home setup.)

Tortilla or Not Tortilla, That is the Question (Or, The Secret to Making Restaurant Style Tortilla Chips at Home)

13 Jul The selection of tortillas about to be fried.

Introduction

The folks over at ScienceFare.org (a favorite food blog I read regularly) recently published two articles about those amazingly light yet amazingly crunch tortilla chips you seem to be able to get at Mexican restaurants but nowhere else. In their first article, they theorized that spraying atomized water from a spray bottle on store-bought tortillas and then frying them would produce a restaurant-quality tortilla chip. In their second article, they made flour tortillas from scratch (using a recipe from Matthew Kayahara’s blog) and compared the differences in frying the raw flour tortilla dough vs. cooking the dough (to make an actual tortilla) and then frying the result. Unfortunately, neither experiment seemed to yield the tasty goodness they were searching for.

As an avid reader of ScienceFare.org and a new fan of kayahara.ca, I figured I’d get in the ring and make this a tortilla three-way….

The Backstory

Those of you who know me, know I’m a Cinco de Mayo zealot. In my house, Cinco de Mayo is always celebrated with good homemade Mexican food and, in the past few years, some Mexican food experiments. This year, however, I ended up with an experiment gone wrong. In fact, I had no intention on admitting my food defeat in such a public forum until I saw that Kevin Miklasz  over at ScienceFare.org and I were in the same boat. You see, sometime in April my wife and I went to Dos Caminos in Manhattan and enjoyed a Mexican dinner that yielded significant leftovers. The following weekend I was frying up a batch of fish and chips and tossed the leftover restaurant tortillas in the deep fryer. The result, surprisingly, were restaurant-style chips from my own kitchen!

Frying the Flour Tortillas on Cinco de Mayo
Photo Credit: Kris Arnold

Fast-forward a few weeks when I have a half dozen folks at my house for Cinco de Mayo. Within what seemed like the first five minutes of my guests arriving, the first (and only) bag of tortilla chips I had bought were gone. This wasn’t just a “we’ve eaten all the whole chips and left the broken ones” situation. It was a “not a crumb to be found” emergency. I guess my guacamole-making abilities have surpassed my guacamole-making confidence level.

So what is one to do? Well, my deep fryer happened to be all fired up ready for a batch of plantains. And tortillas are to my fridge as a six pack of beer is to the fridge in a frat house. So I tossed some of those puppies (the tortillas, not the beer) into the fryer and proclaimed victory. Victory, that is, until they came out of the fryer. Within 3 minutes, the once-perfect flour tortillas became a dismal embarrassment to the Mexican culture and the U.S factory that made them. They were both underdone and overdone at the same time. They were flaky like a piecrust and tasted like one too. I love my fryer, and, until that moment, held a firm belief that it’s impossible to make an ingredient taste worse by frying it. But something had gone horribly wrong. On to Plan B—sending one of the guests to the corner store before it closes to pick up some respectable tortilla chips.

So how could I go from leftovers-turned-tasty-chips to mid-party embarrassment at the blink of an eye? My theory: it’s all about the tortilla. My guess was that my local Mexican restaurant makes them fresh while my local grocer’s tortillas undergo a manufacturing process that make them unsuitable for frying. And what better way to prove (or debunk) a theory than to perform a controlled experiment.

The Experiment

The selection of tortillas about to be fried.

I scoured the shelves of two local supermarkets and one local Mexican specialty store for both flour and corn tortillas of varying brands and varying level of authenticity in their packaging. I also haggled with my local Mexican restaurant (Little Mexican Café in New Rochelle) to supply me with some house-made chips to act as the control and a few raw tortillas.

The tasting panel consisted of 4 tasters:

  1. Me
  2. My wife, Laura
  3. My sister, Bethany
  4. My sister, Abby, who, for the record, was involuntarily roped into the experiment

The first taste test consisted of 7 items:

  1. The control house-made chips from Little Mexican Café
  2. Tortillas from the Little Mexican Café
  3. Mission brand yellow corn tortillas
  4. Mex America brand white corn tortillas
  5. La Escondida brand white corn tortillas
  6. Baja flour tortillas
  7. Trader Joe’s organic white corn tortilla chips

In an effort to keep the experiment controlled, I first tried frying each tortilla for about the same length of time. I quickly found that the optimal cooking time for each brand was wildly different. So I refried a few of my initial samples and took them out just before they were a golden brown. It’s interesting to note that once removed and allowed to drain, the chips kept cooking for about 30-60 seconds. So if I removed the chips when they looked perfectly done, they ended up being overdone by the time they were served.

The chips used in the first taste test. The control is in the bowl while the homemade varieties are on the plate (items 2-6 from the list shown left to right). The store bought chips are not shown.

The tasting panel was given the six samples of chips in the same order and a glass of water. The tasters knew which chips were the control and which were the Trader Joe’s brand but did not know the difference between the different homemade varieties

Tasting Notes:

  • Of the homemade chips, 3 of the 4 tasters preferred the Mission yellow corn tortillas and the fourth taster preferred the Mex America brand white corn tortilla. That being said, the supermarket-bought corn tortillas were all very similar in taste and mouth feel.
  • The chips I made from the restaurant tortillas has a great crunch but were overly dry. I believe the dryness might be because I had them leftover from 3-4 days prior. The crunch, I’m guessing, was because they were the thinnest tortillas of the samples we used.
  • The flour-based chip was completely rejected as a tortilla chip. It was described as “fried pastry dough” and noted that it “would be good with cinnamon and sugar.”
  • Though a bit stale, the restaurant-made control chips were still my favorite, however the rest of the panel liked the homemade chips the best.
  • The Trader Joe’s brand chips were absolutely horrible. I suppose I might consider eating them if I wasn’t presented with six other varieties. But in comparison to everything else on the table, they were nearly inedible and I think I may never be able to eat store-bought chips again.

The second test was a taste-off between the two favorites from the last round, the Mex America white corn tortillas and the Mission yellow corn tortillas. The purpose of this test was to try to see if there really is a significant difference between two corn varieties. The results were split 50/50 with half of the tasters preferring the yellow corn chips and half preferring the white corn chips. Interestingly, I was the only taster who switched my preference from the first test to the second.

The chips (at the top) cooked much more evenly when sprayed with water just before going into the fryer.

The third and final experiment was a recreation of the water test the folks at ScienceFare.org performed. Using a spray bottle filled with water, I sprayed one yellow corn tortilla and fried it. Then I fried a dry yellow corn tortilla and served both sets to the tasting panel. In this case, I did not tell the tasting panel the difference between the two sets. As Kevin Miklasz at ScienceFare.org had found, the wet chips cooked much more evenly than the dry chips (see photo) and were preferred by the whole tasting panel.

At last, it was time to let the tasting panel dig into the guacamole and enjoy a few homemade margaritas. Within minutes, the chips, except for those darned flour-tortilla ones, vanished.

The Conclusion

There are quite a few things that we learned from this experiment that will come in handy the next time we make tortilla chips at home:

  1. It’s the chip that counts. That is, flour tortillas just won’t do for homemade tortilla chips. Your favorite (or the cheapest) corn tortillas are definitely the way to go. If you’re a flour tortilla purist, I’m sure there’s some alternate universe where you can easily make flour tortilla chips in your fryer. But my two experiments using store-bought flour tortillas failed miserably.
  2. Wet chips make for an even fry. Spraying the chips with water just before they go in the fryer helps them cook more evenly. As an aside, I wonder if a lower oil temperature might also slow the cooking process and produce more consistent doneness, but that’s a different experiment for a different time.
  3. Take them out before they’re done. Once removed from the fryer, the chips keep cooking as the hot oil drains off. Take the chips out the fryer just as they start to turn a light golden; they’ll turn that perfect golden yellow while they cool.
  4. The thinner the better. In my opinion, it seems that thinner tortillas make for a crunchier chip that is more like those you get in a restaurant.
  5. Once you fry your own tortilla chips at home, you may never want to eat another store bought chip again. In fact, if you’re thrifty like me, you’ll quickly notice that, at about a buck and a half for a bag of tortillas, homemade chips are much cheaper per serving than those store-bought national brands.

The tasting panel after filling up on chips and about to dig into the guacamole.

Happy frying!

It’s Cherry Season, So Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em

3 Jul Smoked Cherries

Late spring into early summer is by far my favorite season for cooking and eating. The grill is fired up at least 7 times a week (sometimes more). And all my favorite foods are at their peak (like soft shell crab and peas). But it doesn’t get any better here on the East Coast than the week or two at the end of June or beginning of July when the cherries reach prime sweetness.

The final product.

If you know me, you know I can’t resist a deal – especially when it comes to food prices – and during that two week period, there’s an added bonus. The period between the time when the kids finally get out of school and the Fourth of July, cherries usually come down to a price we can all afford. (I scoff terribly at the folks who buy the early season Bing’s that are $7.99/lb or more, especially because they’re not nearly as tasty as the later season ones that are $2.99-$3.99/lb.).

But my madness for buying mass quantities of cherries whenever I set foot into a store that has them below 4 bucks a pound leaves me with a lot of cherries. Over the years I’ve found many uses for them. For a while my favorite use was to brew cherry wheat beer with my friend Dave. However, the beer-making process is a long one and in it you lose out on that meaty and juicy yet sweet bite that one gets from sinking their teeth directly into the flesh of the cherry.

My new favorite (and somewhat unusual) use of the cherry is to smoke it. (Think smoke like a Brisket; not like a joint.)

The smoker box in my grill with hot coals.

The process is quite easy, even if you don’t have a smoker (which I don’t). You can eat them by themselves or you can use them in a ton of recipes such as:

  • Smoked Cherry margarita
  • Smoked Cherry Bacon Scones
  • Smoked Cherry Pie
  • Smoked Cherry Chocolate Chip Pancakes

And once you smoke your cherries they seem to keep in the fridge for a few weeks.

To make smoked cherries:

  1. Pick cherries that are as plump and sweet as possible. I like the late June/July Bing cherries.
  2. Wash and dry your cherries and then pit them. My OXO cherry pitter makes it super easy, though I don’t recommend wearing a white dress shirt.
  3. If you have a smoker, use it. If not here’s what I do:
    • Go to home depot and look in the grill section for smoking wood chips. I like hickory for my cherries but you can also use mesquite or any other wood that’s commonly used for smoking. I suppose you could even use cherry wood though I haven’t tried it.
      • If you prefer to buy your smoking wood from a higher end source, feel free, though I find that Home Depot sells them at an exceptional price.
      • If you’ve got an extra $11.48 burning a hole in your pocket, you’ll also want to pick up a smoker box.
    • Soak a handful of wood chips in warm water for 30-45 minutes.
    • Fill your smoker box with a combination of wet and dry chips.
    • Set your smoker box in the grill directly on the burner or as close to it as possible.
    • Turn the burner on high and let it heat until the chips start to ignite and/or smolder and smoke pours out your grill.
    • Now turn the burner as low as possible and set your cherries on the other side of your grill (so they are not directly on top of a heat source). I find that putting them on a wire rack and putting the rack on top of your grill grate ensures the cherries stay safe and are easy to remove from the grill.
    • You can smoke your cherries for as little as 30 minutes or as long as a few hours. The amount of time varies depending on how well your smoker is working but I find that somewhere between one and two hours is usually good. I judge doneness by (a) tasting a cherry and (b) taking them out before the cherries are cooked so much that they are mushy, though they should be somewhat shriveled – almost wilted.
    • Let your cherries cool and then refrigerate for up to a few weeks.

My homemade smoked cherry margarita.

Smoked Cherry Margarita

  1. Smash 3-4 cherries in the bottom of a glass using a muddler or other blunt object
  2. In a shaker combine:
    • 1 oz Cointreau
    • 0.75 oz fresh lime juice
    • 1.5 oz quality tequila (I like Patron Silver)
    • 1 tsp. agave
  3. Shake vigorously with ice
  4. Pour cocktail over smashed cherries

(Optional: Rim glasses with smoked sea salt.)

Lime Basil Rum Drink with Smoked Cherry

A lime basil rum drink with smoked cherry.

  1. Combine 2 oz light rum, 2 oz lime juice and 0.75 – 1 oz simple syrup with 6-8 basil leaves in a blender. Blend. (Optional: For extra cherry flavor, add 2-3 smoked cherries.)
  2. Empty contents into an ice-filled shaker and shake vigorously.
  3. Pour over ice.
  4. Add two or three smoked cherries (on a toothpick, if preferred) into the glass and enjoy.

Epilogue

A few additional thoughts from my notebook:

  1. Some argue that you can’t effectively smoke anything using a gas grill because of the water vapor that is created when the propane or natural gas burns. The theory goes that that water vapor coats the food being smoked and prevents the smoke from really penetrating the target. I have no idea if this is true but I can assure you my cherries are quite smoky and tasty. I’d love to see an experiment or some research to prove or disprove this theory.
  2. The large wood chips can be hard to get smoking and keep smoking. I just bought some smoking “sawdust” from Amazon and intend on trying my luck with it. The sawdust is generally used for cold smoking rather than this process which is hot smoking or smoke-roasting. See this Wikipedia article for more.
  3. An alternative (quicker) approach might be to use a Polyscience Smoking Gun. I own one but based on my experience with it, I think my method above produces better results.

Sleeping Turkey: The Tryptophan Myth

21 Nov

Photo Credit: Tiny Banquet Committee on flickr.com

By Ross Goldenberg
November 20, 2011

L-Tryptophan is an amino acid found in turkey that is a natural sedative. (Tryptophan helps the body produce the B-vitamin, niacin, which, in turn, helps the body produce serotonin. Serotonin calms the brain and plays a key role in sleep.) When people talk about how eating turkey makes you sleepy or the nap they’ll be ready to take directly after their Thanksgiving meal, they’re usually referring to the effect most people attribute to tryptophan.

I’ve recently become interested in the chemical reactions that occur inside your body when you eat different foods, thanks to Tim Ferris and his explanation of how the body metabolizes starches and sugars in The 4 Hour Body. As a result, I started wondering if there were ways we could control our sleepy reaction to eating turkey and avoid the seemingly-unavoidable post-meal Thanksgiving food coma. I figured maybe there are foods or other dietary supplements that will reverse or counteract the effects of tryptophan. What I quickly found when I began my research absolutely surprised me: Your Thanksgiving turkey will not make you sleepy. Let me repeat that in case you missed it:

Eat as much turkey as you want this Thanksgiving, because it’s not going to make you sleepy!

Really? Well, sort of.

It turns out that the effects of tryptophan are really not felt unless you ingest the stuff on an empty stomach, without much other amino acids or proteins in your digestive system. And it turns out that other foods, including chicken, seafood, and soy contain about as much tryptophan as turkey (see chart); and none of them get a bad rap for inducing lethargy. But the tiredness you feel after the Thanksgiving meal is certainly not a figment of your imagination. There are several other factors that contribute to that drowsy feeling such as:

1. Alcohol

Booze is a depressant and slows your system down. Drinking copious amounts of alcohol, which we often do on Thanksgiving, most certainly makes you lethargic.

2. Fat Consumption

Fats take a lot of energy to digest and slow down the digestive system. Consuming a lot of fat focuses the blood supply in your body on the digestion process and makes the rest of your body feel tired.

3. In-Law Anxiety

It takes a lot of energy to deal with stressful situations. Many folks find it quite stressful to spend time with their family and their spouse’s family on Thanksgiving. In fact, studies have shown that domestic disputes and domestic violence increase significantly on Thanksgiving. (Of course, I feel nothing but bliss when my in-laws come over!) Such stress can make you physically and emotionally exhausted by the time you sit down for your meal.

4. Overeating

The more you eat, the more your body has to work to digest your food. And the process of digestion involves redirecting oxygen-rich blood from other parts of your body to your digestive tract. In turn, other parts of your body are getting less blood flow and you feel more tired.

5. Relaxation

Even though you may have guests that include a dozen screaming nieces and nephews, a drunk uncle with a loud mouth and a few siblings who still fight with each other like they did when they were 6-year-olds, the Thanksgiving meal can be euphoric and relaxing. That feeling (hopefully) persists long after the meal is over and the feeling of calmness is very similar to the feeling of tiredness.

All these factors together, therefore, and not so much the tryptophan, make you want to settle in for a long winter’s nap after that Thanksgiving meal.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sources:
– HowStuffWorks.com: Is There Something in Turkey That Makes You Sleepy?
– About.com: Does Turkey Make You Sleepy?
– World’s Healthiest Foods (whfoods.com): Tryptophan 

Getting Fried on Thanksgiving: What Nobody Ever Tells You

10 Nov

By Ross Goldenberg
November 9, 2011

Frying your turkey this thanksgiving? Whether you’re a first-timer or a veteran of this fun, dangerous, quick and most tasty method, there’s one element of the deep fried turkey that nobody ever talks about.

I’ve read dozens of articles about the perfect way to fry a Thanksgiving turkey and dozens more about the not-so-perfect way to endanger yourself, your house and your friends while frying your turkey. (My most favorite method for frying my turkey is the Alton Brown Rig and my most favorite source for jaw-dropping what-not-to-do videos is YouTube.)

But everything I’ve ever read about a deep fried turkey seems to stop at the cooking part or, sometimes, the eating-the-leftovers part. Having deep-fried my turkey for several years now (see slide show), the conundrum I’m always stuck with is what the heck to do with 8 or more gallons of leftover cooking oil.

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It’s never a good idea to pour it down the drain or dump it in a sewer or storm pipe. Such an action can leave a nasty residue in your pipes and possibly contaminate your soil. Some articles I’ve read suggest that you freeze used cooking oil in an airtight container to solidify it, making it less messy, and then dispose of it in your trash. I guess if you contain it similar to the way radioactive waste is buried, it can certainly sit in a landfill for thousands of years.

But after spending almost as much money on oil as I do on my turkey, I’m not about to dispose of my cooking oil until the stuff has no useful life left. And, in my humble opinion, a vat of hydrogenated oily goodness that has merely touched the life of one piece of meat for only a few minutes has a long future ahead of it.

The first year I fried my turkey, I think I spent the months between Thanksgiving and St. Patrick’s day frying just about every food I could get my hands on just to make use of as much of the stuff as I could before it went rancid. I was able to use a significant amount of the oil before it went bad, but I’m not so sure it was the healthiest thing to do. Don’t get my wrong, I love my deep fat fryer and use it regularly at home. But the amount of oil I was challenged to use in the 3 months fulfilled my usual fried food quota for a year. Plus, after about two months, the oil was really not that fresh anymore and it was starting to affect the taste of my hush puppies.

So two years ago, I took on the challenge in a different way – attempting to figure out:

  1. How to increase the longevity of the oil
  2. If possible, scientifically measure the rate at which the oil went rancid (or at least quantify how rancid it was)

The ideas was that if I could stretch the consumption of my Thanksgiving oil across a 12-month period instead of a 3-month period, I’d feel I would have done my oil (and my wallet) justice. If I was successful, I’d be able to rationalize the oil purchase the following year.

So began the process of the conservation of oil….

Cleaning the Oil

The first step in my experiment was to “clean” the oil. This is method is commonly recommended in preserving any fry or cooking oil. Whenever I deep fry foods and plan to reuse the oil, I take the following steps:

Filter the nasty bits out by passing oil through a cheesecloth

  1. Let the oil cool to a temperature between room temperature and bathwater temp (80-100 degrees Fahrenheit). If you’re starting with cool oil (maybe because you forgot to clean it or were too focused on eating), that’s okay too. Just heat the oil slightly in your fryer or on the stovetop. This step will help with the filtering process.
  2. Let the oil rest undisturbed for at least 5-10 minutes so the heavier particles fall to the bottom of your container.
  3. Strain the oil through a couple layers of cheesecloth or a fine mesh sieve (or both). When doing this, try to agitate the oil as little as possible. I do this by using a coffee pot to scoop the oil out of the vessel it’s in and into the filter; pouring the oil directly from the giant vessel into the filter agitates the fry bits in the bottom and can get quite messy.
  4. When there’s a cup or two of oil left in your original vessel, you’ll probably have a thick mixture of oil and fry sludge. Don’t try to pass this through your filter. Instead, discard it. You can discard it by using the method I mentioned earlier (sealing your oil in an air tight container) or mix it with spent coffee grounds and throw it in the trash.
  5. Then, put a coffee filter in a funnel (if it’s cone shaped) or a strainer (if it’s cupcake shaped). Pass the warm oil through the coffee filter. Depending on how “dirty” your oil is, you may need to use several coffee filters. And if your oil starts to get cool, you may want to heat it slightly—the warm oil seems to pass through the filter quicker. Note that sometimes after frying I get lazy and skip this step. I’ve found that if you’re going to use your oil relatively soon (within a week or so) skipping this step is okay.

The Molecular Challenge

Once my oil was clean, I turned to my food scientist friends at the molecular gastronomy Google Group. Here’s the challenge I gave them:

  1. Since contact with air increases the spoilage rate, might the life be extended significantly if the oil was stored in a vacuum bag? Alternatively, what if a heavy inert gas like nitrogen was put into the storage container to create a layer between the air and oil in the container? (This is sometimes done with nice wines to extend their storage life once opened—see www.privatepreserve.com.)
  2. What if the used oil were spun in a centrifuge before storage? How might that affect the taste and shelf life of the oil? I see this as a critical step in “cleaning” used oil for the commercial production of biodiesel and have to assume that it would significantly reduce the solid particles left in the oil that might increase the spoilage rate.
  3. Would storing the oil at very cold temperatures (i.e. in a deep freezer) significantly extend the life beyond storing it in a “cool” place?

I assume all three ideas above would extend the shelf life of the used oil somewhat, but I wonder how significantly the life would be extended? This leads me to another interesting question:

What scientific method might I use (other than smell and taste) to quantify when the oil has become rancid (or how rancid it is)? I’m not a scientist, but I presume the specific gravity of the oil will change over time as it goes rancid. But, again, I’m not sure how much the specific gravity will change; will it change enough for me to measure it outside of a lab setting? Finally, and most notably for the scientists out there, the ultimate question I am left with is:

Is it possible to re-refine the oil or separate the oil molecules that have started to break down in the cooking process with the ones that have not yet oxidized?

The overwhelming response I got can be summed up into four main points:

  1. Oil goes bad primarily from oxidation, which generally occurs from contact with oxygen (air) and light (photo oxidation).
  2. Lower temperatures slow down the speed of chemical reactions. Oil kept in the fridge goes bad at a sixth the rate of oil kept on the shelf. Presumably, oil stored in the freezer would go bad at an even slower rate.
  3. There is no commonly used scientific way to measure the oxidation or rancidity of oil.
  4. An oil-soluble antioxidant such as vitamin E or flax seed oil may slow down the oxidation process. Some commercial fry oils have a small amount of silicone added to them, which creates a film on the surface to help slow the oxidation, but the toxicity and adverse health effects come into question.

Given the points above, I decided to set up a year-long controlled experiment. Because the fourth point is a bit over my scientific head, I decided to stick with three variables in my experiment – light, air and temperature. I figured that the antioxidant additives might help but probably would only be a secondary way to preserve the oil, extending the life even further if any of my other experiments worked.

For my experiment, I created three samples:

  1. A quart of oil stored at room temperature in a Chinese takeout container with moderate ventilation holes cut in the top.
  2. A quart of oil stored at room temperature in a vacuum-sealed bag.
  3. A gallon of oil stored in a vacuum-sealed bag and stored in a dark freezer (about -10 degrees F).Note that the first two samples were stored in my basement where they were exposed to a low to moderate amount of light. The third sample was kept in my mostly-dark freezer.

A failed attempt to measure the specific gravity of oil

When packing my samples I also attempted to measure the specific gravity of the oil. Specific gravity is a measurement of the density of a liquid. It’s commonly used in beer making, which is where I know it. I wasn’t sure if the specific gravity would change as the oil oxidizes but I was hopeful it would provide some meaningful scientific calibration of just how oxidized or spoiled the oil was. I quickly learned that measuring the specific gravity of oil (which is a lot less dense than water) using beer-making equipment just doesn’t work. Beer is largely water based and the specific gravity is extremely close to that of water, which is 1. Oil on the other hand is A LOT less dense and my tools were quite inadequate to measure the specific gravity of oil. So much for that angle!

So I resorted to two of the good ol’ five senses to measure how spoiled my oil was—smell and taste. If you’ve never smelled or tasted rancid oil before it seems there’s just no way to describe what it tastes or smells like. I scoured the Internet looking for accurate descriptions and really did not find anything close. The closest I got was that it smells like crayons. I also found people describe it as musty, similar to burning silicone, and the smell of old house paint. To me it tastes soapy—possibly because it’s only a step or two away from the process of saponification and could actually turn into soap if treated right. It’s also described to have a more greasy mouth feel than regular oil.

A well ventilated container of oil, which has a short shelf life

Based on the advice I got from my food-scientist friends, it seemed pretty clear to me that the oil in the Chinese food container would go rancid first, followed by that in the unfrozen vacuum bag. And finally the oil in the freezer would last the longest. (Since I felt pretty confident in my hypothesis, I also cheated and froze another 6+ gallons of oil in my freezer for use over the coming months.) The question remaining was what the differential would be.

I proceeded to smell and taste the first sample in the soup container every few weeks until it was clearly spoiled and unusable. Like most oil I’ve left out for a long time, it only took a few weeks to start to turn and was surely unusable between the 30 and 60-day mark. Once that went bad, I left the vacuum-sealed bag along for another 30-60 days and tested it. It was tasty as ever. Because I had so much frozen oil and by March was ready to do some more frying, I started digging into my stockpile of frozen oil. Not surprisingly, the frozen oil was as fresh as the day I had packed it. In fact, I continued to use the frozen oil for another year and a half and to this day have not been able to get my frozen oil to go rancid. And because I had sucked out all the air and moisture from the bag the oil does not get freezer burn or “wet inside.” Moreover, because I froze the oil in 1 gallon batches, when I’m ready to make use of my fryer, all I need to do is take a packet of frozen oil out, let it defrost until it’s semi-liquid and pour the pre-measured amount into my fryer. It couldn’t be simpler than that!

So what I have I learned through all of this? Here’s a summary of takeaways:

  1. The first step in prolonging the lifespan of your oil is to clean out the nasty bits (solid chunks) as soon after frying as possible.

    Non-frozen oil samples were stored in my basement ceiling atop cold water pipes

  2. When storing your oil, suck out as much air from the storage vessel as possible. Using a vacuum sealer is ideal, however if you don’t have one of those, you can also use a vacuum pump commonly used for preserving wine or add a food safe inert gas that is heavier than air (see www.privatepreserve.com).
  3. To prolong the lifespan of your oil store it in the fridge or freezer. I used to shy away from buying oils in bulk. But with my little freezer trick, I can by a gallon of sesame oil from a restaurant supply place for about as much as I pay for two of those little jars in the ethnic section of my grocery store. I separate the gallon into containers that carry a 30-60 day supply and freezer them. I have yet to have bad oil after it’s frozen.

    A plethora of vacuum sealed oil ready to be stored

  4. It’s still unclear how much light affects the rate at which oil oxidizes, but it’s pretty common knowledge that light is not a friend of oil. So store your oil in a dark place.

So now that you’re able to

preserve your oil indefinitely, you’re left with the burning question of what to do with it, right? Here are some final thoughts:

  1. Fry more food! I use this exorbitant amount of oil to go on “frying binges” where I heat up the fryer on a Friday night and try to fry anything I can get my hands on before Monday morning. It turns into quite a fun challenge. My two favorite inventions that have come out of these fry-fests are fried matzoh balls for Chanukah (explained in my next post) and fried apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah. (The Jewish theme is just a coincidence.)
  2. Craft some handmade soap. The process of saponification starts with oil and a very strong base such as lye. It calls to your fight club side and your Martha Stewart side at the same time.
  3. Make an oil lamp. This might also be a good use for your slightly rancid oil as well, though I presume you’ll have to add perfumes or other scented additives to any oil that’s turning bad.
  4. Fry some more food! Challenge yourself to figure out ways to take classics such as macaroni and cheese and create a fried version of it.

    A freezer with the bottom full of oil

Special Thanks To:

  • Greg, my brother-in-law and Thanksgiving fry-daddy partner-in-crime.
  • The guys in the Molecular Gastronomy Google Group, especially Scott Garrison, Derek Lindner, Roy and W Keith Griffith.
  • Alton Brown’s turkey frying rig  and primer on how and why oil goes rancid, both from Good Eats
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