Principal Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking - Volume 2: Techniques and Equipment

Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking - Volume 2: Techniques and Equipment

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VOLUME 2 - Techniques and Equipment

Learn about the techniques and equipment of Modernist cuisine in Volume 2. It includes a chapter on the science and techniques of traditional cooking, such as barbecuing and stir-frying, which it explains by making extensive use of illustrations and photography. 

This volume also contains chapters on the science-inspired tools of the Modernist kitchen and its modern cooking approaches, including baking in combi ovens and water-vapor ovens, cooking sous-vide, and cooking with a wide range of advanced equipment and ingredients, from homogenizers and vacuum pumps to liquid nitrogen and dry ice, as well as centrifuges, dehydrators, and cryogenic freezers.

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Modernist Cuisine -The Art and Science of Cooking 2
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2 · Techniques and Equipment 


The Art and Science of Cooking 

Nathan Myhrvold 
with Chris Young 
and Maxime Bilet 

Photography by 

Ryan Matthevv Smith 
and Nathan Myhrvold 

Copyright © 2011 by The Cooking Lab, LLC 

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of 

this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any 

means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission 

of the publisher. All trademarks used are property of their respective owners. 

The Cooking Lab 

3150 139th Ave SE 

Bellevue, WA 98005 

ISBN: 978-0-9827610-0-7 

First edition, 2011 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data available upon request 

Printed in China 

Modernist Cuisine 
The Art and Science of Cooking 

Volume 2 

and Equiprr1ent 

The Cooking Lab 




Origins of Cooking .................. .................................... 6 
Evolution and Revolution ......................................... 14 

The Seeds of Modernism .......................................... 33 
The Modernist Revolution ....................................... 52 

The Story of this Book.. ............................................ 83 
About the Recipes ..................................................... 93 

Microbes as Germs .................................................. 106 
Foodborne Illness .................................................... 110 

Parasitic Worms ....................................................... 120 

Protists ..................................................................... 126 
Bacteria .................................................................... 130 

Bacterial Growth ..........................................; ........... 142 
Bacterial Death ........................................................ 148 
Viruses ...................................................................... 152 

Prions ...................................................................... 156 

The Complex Origins of Food Safety Rules .......... 166 
Common Misconceptions ...................................... 174 

Understanding the FDA Rule Book ....................... 182 
Simplifying Food Safety with Science ................... 190 

Hygiene .................................................................... 196 

Dietary Systems ...................................................... 214 
Medical Dietary Systems ........................................ 222 

Nonmedical Dietary Systems ................................. 240 
Modernist Ingredients ............................................ 250 

The Nature of Heat and Temperature .................... 264 
Energy, Power, and Efficiency ................................ 272 
Heat in Motion ........................................................ 277 

Water is Strange Stuff.. ............................................ 296 

The Energy of Changing States .............................. 300 
Freezing and Melting .............................................. 304 
Vaporization and Condensation ............................. 314 

Sublimation and Deposition ................................... 326 

Water as a Solvent .................................................... 330 
Water Quality and Purity ........................................ 335 

Page references of the form 4·381 refer to volume 4, page 381 










Grilling ............... ......................................................... . 7 
Broiling .... ..... ..... .......... ... ... ..... ..... .. ............ .......... ...... 18 

Roasting .............. ........ .......... ..... ......... ...... ........... ...... 28 
Panfrying a Ia Plancha ..... ...... .... ......... .......... ............. 37 
Sauteing ........... ... ....... ............................... ....... ...... .. ... 44 

Stir-Frying ...... ... .............. ............... ...... ...... ................ 48 
Covered Sauteing ... ... ....... ... ..................... .. ...... ..... .. ... 58 

Boiling ..................... ... ..... ..... .... ............... ..... ...... ... .... . 63 

Steaming ............................................. ...... .. .......... ...... 70 
Canning ...................................................................... 75 
Pot-Roasting and Stewing ......... ....... ..... .................... 93 
Baking ..... .. ... .. .... .... ......... .... .. ... ... ......... ... ... ... ......... ... 101 

Cooking in Oil ..................... ....... ................. ..... ....... 115 
Smoking ...... .. .. ............................... ... .. ... ..... .. .......... . 132 

Cooking with Moist Air ... ......... ....... ..... .................. 154 

Cooking with Microwaves .............................. ........ 182 

Why Sous Vide? ... .................... .. ... .... ....................... 198 
Packaging Food for So us Vide ....... ............ ....... ..... . 208 
Sous Vide Equipment ... ..................... .......... ... ......... 228 

Strategies for Cooking So us Vide .............. ... ...... ... . 242 
Strategies for Chilling and Reheating ....... ....... ... ... 252 
Blanching and Searing for Sous Vide ......... ....... .. ... 267 

Extracting Flavors ........ ....... ............. .... ........ ....... .... 288 
Infusing Essences ......... ....... ........ .......... ... ... ............ 318 

Juicing ....... .... ..... ...... .... .......... ... .............................. . 332 
Filtering ................... ....... ... ...... ......... ............. ..... ... ... 351 
Concentrate! ........ ................ ... ...... ........................... 3 79 
Cutting 'Em Down to Size ...................... ........ ... ... .. 398 
Drying ....................................................... ....... ..... ... 428 

Cryogenic Freezing and Carbonating ..... .. .. ...... ..... 456 


How Muscle Works ..................................................... 6 

Converting Muscle into Meat.. ................................. 32 
Cutting ....................................................................... 44 
Cooking Meat and Seafood ....................................... 70 

Cooking Skin and Innards ...................................... 116 
Salting and Drying .................................................. 152 

Marinating ............................................................... 190 
Smoking ................................................................... 208 

Restructuring ........................................................... 220 

Plants as Food .......................................................... 262 

Cooking So us Vide .................................................. 286 

Pressure-Cooking .................................................... 298 

Microwaving ........ .................................................... 310 

Frying ................. .. ............. ........ ............................... 314 

Preserving ................................................................ 344 

Modifying Textures ................ .. ............ ............ .. ..... 374 


How Thickening Works ............................................ 12 

Strategies for Thickening .......................................... 14 

Starches ............. .. ... .... ....... .. ....................................... 20 

Hydrocolloids ... .. .. ..................................................... 38 

How Gelling Works ................................................... 70 

Egg Gels ............................................... ...................... 74 

Dairy and Tofu Gels ................................................ 102 

Gelling with Hydrocolloids .................................... 124 

Fluid Gels ................................................................. 176 

Spherification ..... ... ... .......... ... .......... .. ..... .... .... .. ...... . 184 

How Emulsification Works ................. .. .................. 200 

Methods of Emulsifying .. .. ..................................... 206 

Modernist Emulsions .............................................. 214 

How Foams Work .................................................... 244 

Forming Foams ....... ............... .................. ................ 252 

What Makes a Great Wine ..................... ................. 322 

Tasting Wine .................................... .. ...................... 334 

From Cherry to Bean ............. ... ............................. . 358 

Brewing ..... .... ... .. ... ... .. ........................................... .. . 364 

Espresso ................................................................... 3 72 

The Art of Milk and Coffee .................................... 391 

Achieving Consistency ......... .. ....... ... ..................... .. 396 


Beef Rib Steak 

Mushroom Swiss Burger 

Autumn Harvest Pork Roast 

Rack of Lamb w ith Garl ic 

Blanquette de Veau 

Choucroute Royale 










Braised Short Ribs 


Hungarian Beef Goulash 

Ossa Buco Milanese 

American BBQ 

Cassoulet Toulousain (Autumn and Spring) 

Historic Lamb Curries 

Sunday Pork Belly 

Foie Gras a Ia Vapeur 
Crispy Hay-Smoked Chicken 

Duck Apicius 

Pigeon en Salmis 

Guinea Hen Tajine 

Fish and Chips 

Hamachi Maltaise 

Monkfish with Mediterranean Flavors 

Skate in Black Butter 

Salmon Rus 

Malaysian Steamed Snapper 

Black Cod "Fredy Girardet" 

Hawaiian Poke 

Shrimp Cocktail 

Lobster Amfricaine 

Thai Crab Miang 

Pulpo a Ia Gallega 

Shellfish Omakase 

Oyster Stew 

The Breakfast Egg 

Mushroom Omelet 

Oeufs en Meurette 

Cocoa Tajarin 

Spaghetti aile Vongole 

Russian Pelmeni 

Paella Valenciana 

Astronaut Ramen 

Shanghai Soup Dumplings 

Onion Tart 

Lentil Salad 

Sweet Pea Fricassee 

Strawberry Gazpacho 

Crispy Cauliflower 

Watermelon Bulgogi 
















Cooking is as old as humanity itself-it may 
even have shaped our anatomy. Our large brains, 

small mouths, dull teeth, and narrow pelvises can 

all be traced to Homo sapiens's taming of fire as a 

tool to convert raw food to cooked. When we bake 

a loaf of bread, roast a leg oflamb, or even flip a 

burger on the grill, we're invoking time-honored 

techniques passed down not only from generation 

to generation but from the dawn of the species. 

These traditional methods of cooking have become 

as familiar and comfortable as our own kitchens. 

So it may come as a surprise to learn how 

traditional cooking techniques actually work-

and don't work. The practices are enshrined in 

centuries of folk wisdom that, quite frankly, isn't 

always accurate. Baking, for example, wasn't 

originally about getting things hot; it was about 

drying things out. Raising the height of a grill 

won't significantly lower the heat that's irradiating 

your food. Deep-frying is more closely related to 

baking than it is to panfrying. And although it's 

true that steam is hotter than boiling water, 

boiling water often cooks food faster than steam. 

Skeptical? Read on. We can prove it. 

What's more, many of the cooking techniques 

that we think of as traditional have evolved 

considerably in recent history. The braising and 

pot-roasting of the 17th century are extinct today; 

contemporary braising is actually stewing, but no 

one recognizes the difference in taste because we 

lack a point of comparison. Smoking has been 

transformed from a technique for preserving food 

into a technique for flavoring food . Oil is not 

essential for making a transcendent confit. 

All of these techniques are worth a closer look 

because a deeper understanding of the scientific 

principles involved in each empowers you to 

perfect them. If you know how the masters control 

the heat of a saute or a wok by keeping food 

constantly in motion, you're that much closer to 

achieving their results. Knowing the science of 

traditional cooking can save money and effort, 

too. You' ll learn, among other things, that fancy 

copper pans can't compensate for a bum burner. In 

these and many other examples, we've found that 

it's worth reconsidering some of our most cher-

ished notions about the cooking traditions we 

thought we knew. 

Pit steaming, still used in traditional imu cooking in Hawaii (far 
left), is an archaic form of cooking that combines elements of 
several traditional techniques-including baking, steaming, and 
roasting-to achieve a unique result (left). A peek inside a pot 
roast in progress (opening photo) reveals the many ways in which 
even the simplest cooking methods transfer heat to food. For more 
details, see The Lost Art of Pot-Roasting, page 94. 



Older than humanity itself, grilling was the 

cooking technique that set our primate ancestors 

on the evolutionary path to becoming civilized 

humans. The ability to conquer and control fire 

distingu\shed Homo erectus from other animals 

and allowed the most basic level of culinary 

refinement. Little wonder, then, that our craving 

for the flavor of food charred over an open flame is 

practically universal. 

Our ancestors must have fast discovered that 

cooking over towering flames is for the less 

evolved and that grilling is best done over the 

glowing coals of a dying fire. No doubt they also 

soon discovered that building a fire and waiting 

for it to burn down is time-consuming. With the 

invention of charcoal some 30,000 years ago, 

primitive man learned to circumvent this step. 

Charcoal has many advantages: it burns cleaner 

and hotter than wood, it burns more evenly and 

longer than wood, and it can be made from 

materials other than wood-a useful attribute 

when firewood is scarce. For early humans, its 

usefulness extended beyond cooking. The slow, 

steady burn provided intense heat for the smelting 

and working of metals, and the spent coals became 

drawing tools for the cave art that marked the 

beginnings of pictographic knowledge. Indeed, 

the virtues of charcoal are so numerous that it is 

no exaggeration to say that if cooking with fire was 

the technology that made us human, charcoal was 

the technology that gave us civilization. 

Charcoal also gives the cook greater control 

over heat than open flames allow. To understand 

Direct grilling can produce heat so intense that the skin of a 

pepper chars before the interior is fully cooked. Only by under-

standing the counterintuitive ways in which radiant heat works can 

you master the art of the grill. 

why, you need to know how a chimney works. Fire 

is the engine that drives air up a chimney. The 

flames and hot coals heat the surrounding air, 

cau$ing it to expand and become more buoyant. 

The heated air floats to the top of the chimney like 

a stream ofbubbles rising through water. Stoke the 

fire, and the hot air flows faster; choke the fire, and 

the flow of hot air slows. The flow of air is called 

the draft, and it's directly related to the intensity 

of the heat from a fire. 

Just as the draft is controlled by the fire, the fire 

can also be controlled by the draft. To burn, fire 

needs oxygen; indeed, it consumes oxygen much 

more quickly than it does coal. The draft pulls 

oxygen into the fire: as hot, oxygen-poor air rushes 

up and away, cooler, oxygen-rich air flows in to 

replace it. Increase the draft, and you will thus 

make the fire burn faster and hotter; dampening 

the draft slows the fire and cools it. 

Watch a master griller stoke a fire, and you'll see 

him rake coals around or perhaps adjust a vent 

under the grill. Rarely will you see him add more 

coals. Instead, he's making the fire hotter by 

increasing the amount of draft. Slowing the draft, 

in contrast, starves the fire of oxygen; reduce the 

draft too much, and the fire will smolder. 

If you can control the draft, you can exert 

masterful control over the heat of a charcoal 

grill-once you can get the hang of the lag in 

response. Hot coals cool slowly, so you must adjust 

the draft well before you want the temperature to 

drop. Experience builds an intuition for this, 

which some have called the art of the grill. 


To compare one grill with another, 
calculate the heat flux of each one. 
First, take the grill power (in BTU/ h 
or watts), then divide it by the grill 
area (in in2 or cm 2) to obtain the 
heat flux . For example: 

100,000 BTU/ h 
+1,000 in2 

= 100 BTU/ h ·in' 


=4.5W/ cm2 

Heat flux, of course, tells you 
nothing about important real-
world factors such as the hot and 
cold spots of a grill. For more on 
the evenness of grills, see The 
Sweet Spot of a Grill, page 14. 

Beneath a very light coating of ash, this 
hardwood charcoal is radiating heat with 
incandescent intensity. Although the 
temperature of the glowing charcoal is 
significantly cooler than that of burning 
gas, it radiates heat with an intensity 
much greater than can be mustered by all 
but a few exotic catalytic gas grills. That's 
why charcoal has an unrivaled ability to 
quickly sear food on a grill. 


Charcoal vs. Gas: Lies, Damn 
Lies, and BTUs 
Charcoal grills may be traditional, but gas grills 

offer such convenience that they have become 

vastly more popular. Gas grill manufacturers love 

to quote the British thermal unit (BTU) power 

ratings for their grills. A single number reduces 

the complexities of comparison shopping to 

"bigger is better." 

Here's the problem: the BTU is not a unit of 

power. It's a unit of energy, like the calorie and the 

joule. Marketers erroneously use the BTU as lazy 

shorthand for the unit of power that they actually 

mean, the BTU/ h (or its metric counterpart, the 

watt), which measures the amount of energy 

delivered over time. 

With this confusion cleared up, the question is, 

do BTU ratings matter? The unequivocal answer is 

no. BTU ratings do not matter. What does matter 

is the intensity of the power: how much power is 

delivered to each square inch (or square centime-

ter) of grill surface. This is the heat flux from a 

grill, and it is what does the searing and cooking. 

Quoting the peak performance of a grill in 

BTU/ h · in2 (or W/ cm2) allows you to compare 

one grill with another. Manufacturers apparently 

see no advantage in advertising these numbers. 

But that's okay because calculating the peak heat 

flux for a gas grill is straightforward: simply divide 

the maximum power rating given by the manufac-

turer by the area of the grill. 

Charcoal grills are not so easy to analyze. 

Coaxing maximum power from a charcoal grill 

takes experience and skill. Hence charcoal grill 

manufacturers don't bother to provide power 

ratings, which vary with the talent of the person 

manning the fire. But even without the numbers 

to quantify power precisely, experienced grill 

cooks know that gas grills simply wilt by compari-

son with charcoal grills. But why? 

The surprising answer is that charcoal fires 

deliver more heat to the grill because they burn 

cooler and dirtier than gas flames do. Confusing, 

perhaps, but true. 

To understand how this works, think about how 

the cooking heat arrives at the food. Yes, hot air 

rushes past the grill-this is the chimney effect 

described on the previous page. But hot air 

convection is not what sears your steak. Most of 

the energy in that rising air is wasted as it flies by 

without ever making contact with the food. 

Rather, it is intense radiant heat that quickly 

browns the meat. Charcoal grills simply radiate 

more heat than do gas grills of comparable size. 


Once the flames and smoke of initial combus-

tion burn off the charcoal, they leave behind 

red-hot coals made from nothing more than 

carbon and ash. Note that the coals do not burn, 

exactly: they glow. Supplied with ample oxygen, 

the carbon in charcoal chemically reacts with the 

oxygen to form carbon dioxide, which reacts in 

turn with the charcoal to form carbon monoxide. 

These chemical rearrangements release lots of 

heat, which raises the temperature of the charcoal. 

The higher temperature then speeds the chemical 

reactions, forming yet more carbon monoxide and 

releasing yet more heat. Eventually, the coals reach 

temperatures near 1,100 •c I 2,000 •F-hot 
enough that they glow with the visible orange 

luminance of blackbody radiation. 

Propane and natural gas burn at a much hotter 

temperature, around 1,900 ·c I 3,500 •F. The 
main chemical reaction involved in their combus-

tion is fundamentally different from that in 

glowing coals, however. Gas burns cleanly in 

flames that visibly emit only an ethereal blue light. 

Although the temperature inside those dim blue 

flames is quite high, they actually radiate very 

little energy. 

Gas grill manufacturers understand the impor-

tance of radiant heat, and they know that clean-

burning gas doesn't produce much of it. They 

overcome this difficulty by converting some of the 

hot gases of combustion into radiant heat by 

placing lava rocks, ceramic plates, or metal bars 

above the flames. As these surfaces heat up, they 

emit radiant heat, but much less of it than glowing 

charcoal does. Think about it: when was the last 

time you saw lava rocks on a gas grill glowing with 

the same brightness as charcoal embers? 

As the hot gases travel from the flame to the 

radiating surface, they mix with cooler surround-

ing air. That mixing makes it difficult to raise the 

temperature of the radiant emitters in a gas grill to 

much higher than about 800 •c I 1,500 •F-a 
good 300 ·c I 500 •F below the radiant tempera-
ture of glowing charcoal. That is a large difference 

in effective temperature, and it has a dispropor-

tionate effect on radiant heating power. 

So although a gas grill at full tilt may produce 

5 Wl cm2 (110 BTUi h. in2) of radiant heat, a 

charcoal grill can easily deliver more than twice this 

heat flux, or about 11 Wl cm2 (250 BTUi h · in2). The 

awesome radiance of glowing coals is what gives 

charcoal grills their unrivaled ability to sear in a 



For more on blackbody radiation, see Heat 

Rays, page 1·284. 

The amount of heat rad iated by the 
heating elements in a grill increases 
proportional to the fourth power 
of the temperature (see page 
1284), so the hotter the element, 
the higher the heat flux. 

Clean-burning gas produces very little 

radiant heat directly. Gas grill manufactur-

ers overcome this limitation by placing 

ceramic plates, lava rocks, or metal 

searing bars between the burner and the 

grill. The hot gases of combustion heat 

these objects until they emit a searing 

radiant heat that does the grilling. These 

hot surfaces also provide a place for 

drippings to fall and burn, thus contribut-

ing much of the flavor unique to grilling. 




Where There's Smoke, There's Flavor 

Two distinct groups swear by charcoal grills: briquette 
devotees and those who favor hardwood charcoal. Advo-
cates of the pillow-shaped lumps of charcoal cite their ease 
of use and consistent, steady heat. Grilling purists, on the 
other hand, point out that honest-to-goodness blackened 
chunks of hardwood burn hotter, faster, and cleaner. These 
are all fair points. 

Some evangelists for hardwood fuels also claim that char-
coal made from hickory, mesquite, or other fragrant-burning 
woods imparts flavor that is the secret to grilling nirvana. They 
scoff at briquettes and claim that the only flavor they impart is 
the taste of lighter fluid. But science tells us that this can be 
nothing more than zealotry. Once the flames of ignition have 
died and the coals are glowing hot, neither briquettes nor 
hardwood charcoals have any flavor left to impart. Any aro-
matic compounds the fuel once harbored were vaporized and 
destroyed long before the food was laid on the grill. 

The composition of the charcoal does affect its ash content. 
Briquettes contain more incombustible minerals and thus 

A setup that can quickly raise the grill is 
the best way to handle flare-ups Dodging 
the flames works better than dousing 
them with a spritz of water from a spray 
bottle. However, raising the grill doesn't 
reduce the intensity of the radiant heat. To 
make an appreciable difference in the 
intensity of the heat, you must raise the 
grill surprisingly high above the coals. This 
is explained in The Sweet Spot of a Grill, 
on page 14. 

leave behind a lot of ash . The blanket of ash insulates the 
embers somewhat but also diffuses their heat, so they burn 
cooler but also slow and steady. Hardwood charcoal leaves 
less ash, so it burns hotter but usually faster and less 

Neither of these effects matters to the flavor, however. 
Carbon is carbon; as it burns, it imparts no flavor of its own to 
the food being grilled . 

The real secret to the flavor of grilled food is not the fuel but 
the drippings. Dribbles of juice laden with natural sugars, 
proteins, and oils fall onto the hot coals and burst into smoke 
and flame. By catalyzing myriad chemical reactions, the 
intense heat forges these charred juices into molecules that 
convey the aromas of grilling food. These new molecules 
literally go up in smoke, coating the food with the unmistak-
able flavor of grilled food . 

The real debate among the faithful, then, shouldn't be 
about which charcoal is best. It should be about whether 
charcoal is necessary at all. 


For more on the physics of radiant heat. see 
chapter 5 on Heat and Energy. page 1·260. 

A black, hibachi-style grill cooks unevenly 
near the side walls because the dark cast 
iron absorbs the radiant heat of the coals. 
Lining the sides with reflective aluminum 
foil causes radiant heat from the coals to 
bounce upward and heat the food near the 
edges of the grill more evenly. 


The Sweet Spot of a Grill 
Direct grilling happens fast, and a fire that gets 

ahead of you all but guarantees burnt food. The 

great challenge of grilling is thus controlling the 

intensity of the heat experienced by each part of 

the food. To do this on a gas grill, you twist knobs 

on the burner controls. On a charcoal grill, you 

adjust the flue to enliven or suffocate the embers, 

and you also time the cooking so an appropriately 

thick blanket of ash covers the coals and tempers 

the intensity of their radiant heat. On every kind 

of grill, you must turn the food at appropriate 

moments to even out the cooking. 

Those are the basics for which most grillers have 

some intuition. But to truly master grilling 

requires a new perspective. We mean this quite 

literally-if you want to understand why some 

grills cook faster than others, why grill size 

matters, and how to find that sweet spot on your 

grill where the food cooks best, you must look at 

grilling from the food's point of view. 

Remember that most of the heat produced by a 

grill hits the food in radiant form as rays oflight. 

The light is primarily in the infrared part of the 

spectrum and thus invisible, but a hand held above 

the coals perceives it well enough. Like visible light 

rays, infrared heat rays travel outward from their 

source in every direction, following straight paths 

until they are absorbed by a dark surface or reflect-

ed by something shiny. Unlike the hot bits of 

matter that transmit heat by convection or conduc-

tion, rays of heat do not flow around obstacles. 


Beams of heat thus cast shadows of coolness, just 

as beams of light cast ordinary shadows. 

The light-like behavior of radiant heat has 

surprising consequences for grilling. It means that 

there is no truth to the common claim that you 

can slow the cooking by raising the food a little 

higher above the coals. It also means that black is a 

terrible color for a grill and that the ubiquitous 

kettle shape is among the worst possible. Once you 

have intuition for the behavior of radiant heat, 

you'll want a cooker that has a large bed of coals, 

straight sides, and a shiny interior. 

To understand why, imagine replacing the bed 

of coals in your charcoal grill (or the radiating 

elements in a gas grill) with a flat, fluorescent light 

panel of the same size and with the light shining 

upward. Now imagine that you are a steak (or, if 

you prefer, a pepper) lying face down on the grill 

1 em I l/2 in above the lamp. Looking down, you 
see light flooding up at you from every direction. 

Unless the cooker is tiny, you can no more see the 

edge of the lamp than a person looking down at 

his feet can perceive the horizon. 

Let 's say the cook raises the grill to 10 em I 4 in 
above the lamp. Now what do you see below you? 

The view at this height is almost precisely the same 

as before. Assuming the lamp has a modest width 

of at least 56 em I 22 in, it occupies nearly your 
entire field of vision even at this distance. 

So it is for radiant heat as well. What matters to 

the food is how much of its view is filled by glowing 

coals or hot burner elements. That perspective 

changes slowly with distance. As a result, the 

intensity of heat that the food receives from the 

coals does not fall in any meaningful way until the 

food is at a much farther distance from the heat 

source than any commercial grill can attain. 

Every grill has a critical distance from the coals; 

food at that distance or closer experiences the full 

intensity of the grill 's heat. The critical distance is 

equal to 18.5% of the width of the grill if its sides 

do not reflect heat. For grills with reflective sides, 

the critical distance is 3 7% of the width. 

As the SO% line on the graph on page 16 

illustrates, to knock the heat down by half on a 

grill that is 1.2 m I 4ft wide, you must raise the 
food to a height equal to more than one-half the 

grill width-a whopping 66 em I 26 in above the 
coals! For a grill this size, food at a height of23 em 

I 9 in experiences, for all practical purposes, heat 
just as intense as it would if the food were sitting 

right next to the coals. 

The inescapable conclusion is that using dis-

tance to slow the cooking really only works in 

rotisseries or when using spit-roasting techniques, 

such as the Argentinean asado, that keep the food 

far from the fire. 

Point of view also determines how consistent 

the heat is from the center of the grill to its edges. 

The extent of this horizontal sweet spot and how 

rapidly the heat collapses at its edges depends on 

three major factors. The first two variables- the 

size of the grill and the height of the food above 

the glowing coals or burner elements-are hardly 

surprising. Think again about looking down from 

the grill at a fluorescent lamp in the bottom of the 

cooker. The bigger the lamp and the closer you are 

to it, the farther off center you can move before the 

light ceases to dominate your field of view. 

A third, equally crucial factor is much less 

widely appreciated: it is how well the sides of the 

grill reflect the heat rays. Just as restaurant owners 

sometimes install a large mirror on one wall to 

make a small dining room appear twice its actual 

size, a reflective surface on the side of a grill can 

make the burner surface or bed of coals appear (to 

the food) much bigger than it really is. Indeed, if 

all sides of the grill reflect infrared heat rays, the 

food is effectively in a hall of mirrors that makes 

the heat source appear to extend infinitely. 

Reflective sides can extend the sweet spot to 

cover about 90% of the extent of the grill, which 

makes it much easier to get even cooking across the 

entire grill surface. So it is unfortunate that many 

grills are painted black on the inside and are thus 

almost completely nonreflective. The good news is 

that you can easily and dramatically improve the 

performance of a mediocre black grill for a few 

dollars. Just install a simple reflector: a vertical wall 

at the edges of the grill made from shiny polished 

metal. Aluminum foil works reasonably well. Keep 

it clean, and enjoy cooking in your newly enlarged 

sweet spot! 


Getting a big sweet spot with the 

ubiquitous kettle grill is hopeless. Even 

lining the sides with aluminum foil won't 

help because the reflecting angles are all 

wrong. The only solution is to use a ring of 

metal to create vertical reflecting sides. 

Another easy way to knock down 
the heat coming off a bed of coals is 
to cover the grill with aluminum 
foil, then put the food on the foil. 
The shiny surface will reflect the 
radiant heat back down, prevent-
ing the food from scorching. It also 
helps prevent drippings from 
flaring up. On the other hand, it 
blocks the flavor that flare-ups 




The original broiler was just an iron disc with a 

long handle. Known as a salamander (a reference 

to this amphibian's mythical connection with 

flames), it was stuck into the heart of a fire until it 

glowed. The cook then held the red-hot iron near 

the surface of the food to sear it. Today, the term 

salamander has become synonymous with the 

specialized broiler that provides a way to grill 

upside-down. Although modern broilers are more 

complex in construction, they are no different in 

function from the primitive iron salamander. 

Broilers, like grills, cook food with radiant heat. 

But a broiler places the heat source above the 

food-an arrangement that sometimes offers a 

great advantage. Broilers can easily brown the 

surface of foods that would be difficult, if not 

impossible, to brown over a grill or on a range. The 

broiler offers a convenient tool for quickly brown-

ing and crisping food on the plate just before 

serving. And flare-ups from fat- and sugar-laden 

drippings are much less of a problem under a 

broiler than they are over the grill. The downside 

is that broilers don't give food the chargrilled 

flavors that waft up from burning drippings. 

Despite these advantages, broiling can be 

frustrating. Uneven browning is one common 

complaint. Another is the tendency for foods to go 

from underdone to burned in the briefest moment 

of inattention. As with grilling, these problems 

result because radiant heat behaves in fundamen-

tally different ways than conductive and convec-

tive heat do. You are cooking food with invisible 

(infrared) light, and it is hard to develop an 

intuition for a process so far removed from 

tangible experience. 

Some rules of thumb can help. Every broiler, 


like every grill, has a sweet spot-or perhaps we 

should call it a sweet zone. Place the food above or 

below this zone, and it will cook unevenly. The 

intensity of the heat is also at its maximum in the 

sweet zone. There is no point in raising the food 

any closer to the heating elements because moving 

the food higher won't make it any hotter; it will 

simply make the cooking more uneven. 

You can find the height of the sweet zone in 

your own oven with a bit of trial and error or by 

applying some simple math (see Grilling from the 

Top Down, page 22). 

Another important detail to keep in mind is 

that if your broiler is open on the sides, the heating 

will diminish appreciably toward the edges. So 

don't let the food get too close to the perimeter. If 

you want to make a broiler cook evenly near the 

edges, install shiny vertical reflectors on the sides; 

these will bounce the heat rays back toward the 

food, effectively making the heating element look 

(to the food) much larger than it actually is. If 

reflectors are not an option, set the food in a 

baking dish lined with reflective foil. 

Finally, it's not the imagination of the hapless 

cook that his gratin burned under the broiler the 

second he looked away. Shiny or light-colored 

surfaces, like fish skin or a bechamel glaze on a 

gratin, tend to reflect and scatter most of the 

incoming infrared radiation. That means they 

absorb only a small fraction of the radiant energy, 

so they heat slowly. Conversely, dark surfaces heat 

quickly because they scatter less radiation and 

thus absorb most of the incoming energy. 

The tricky part, of course, is that many foods 

change from light to dark as they cook. Think of a 

marshmallow toasting over a campfire and how 


For more on the phenomena that cause heat 

intensity to be strongest in the sweet zone, see 

Grilling, page 7. 

1 9 

Three Kinds of Broilers 

The electric broiler (top) is ubiquitous and 
reliable. Browning food evenly under one 
can be tricky, however. Home ovens fitted 

with electric broilers have an additional 
deficiency: to avoid overheating the oven, 
they cycle on and off every few minutes, 
which can be annoying. 

A newer design for the electric broiler has 
improved the evenness of the radiant heat 
by dispensing with the glowing rods 

altogether. Instead the newest electric 
broilers embed a large number of small 
electric coils in a ceramic plate. These 
coils quickly heat the plate, which in turn 

emits radiant heat evenly. This approach 
mimics the operation of traditional gas 
broilers (middle), in which flames from a 

burner heat a conductive surface that then 
radiates heat fairly evenly. 

A catalytic gas broiler (bottom) avoids 
burning the gas at all. Instead, it forces 
gas through a ceramic plate covered by a 
catalytic mesh. The gas reacts but never 
combusts, and it efficiently generates a 
large amount of heat. which the glowing 

ceramic plate then radiates evenly. 


quickly it can go from white to brown to flaming. 

A broiler can similarly burn food that moments 

earlier hadn't even started to toast. Cooking goes 

slowly at first because most of the incoming 

energy bounces off the surface, which heats 

gradually. Then, as browning reactions begin, the 

darkening surface rapidly soaks up more and more 

of the heat rays. The increase in temperature 

accelerates dramatically. If you aren't watching, 

the food will go from golden brown to charred 

black before you know it. 

How Broilers Work 
If you stay alert, though, you can avoid such 

pitfalls and use broiling to great advantage, 

particularly if you have good equipment. The 

features that make for a high-quality unit depend 

on whether the broiler generates its radiant heat 

with electricity or with gas. 

Nearly all gas broilers work a lot like the ances-

tral salamander. They spread flames across a 

diffusing plate, which is often made of steel. 

Eventually the plate becomes hot enough to emit a 

large amount of radiant heat. This approach works, 

but it is very inefficient. Most of the burned gas 

needlessly heats air rather than raising the temper-

ature of the diffusing plate. These broilers thus 

produce less radiant heat than an electric broiler 

can with the same amount of energy. 

Catalysis offers a far more efficient way to 

generate radiant heat with gas. Although catalytic 

broilers are still somewhat exotic and so more 

expensive than other broilers, they are beginning 

to appear in professional kitchens and some 

high-end consumer ovens. Catalytic broilers don't 

actually burn gas. Instead, they push gas through a 

porous ceramic plate that is either impregnated 

with a metal catalyst or covered by a mesh of 

catalytic metal. When the gas mixes with air near 

the catalyst, it oxidizes to generate heat, water 

vapor, and carbon dioxide. This reaction happens 

inside the pores of the ceramic plate or right on its 

surface. The plate readily absorbs the heat, then 

radiates this energy onto the food below. 

It may seem counterintuitive, but the ceramic 

plate never actually gets hot enough to ignite the 

gas. In other words, catalytic gas broilers are 


flameless. The heating element hits a maximum 

temperature around 540 •c I 1,000 •F. This might 
not seem hot enough to broil effectively, but it still 

works well enough for browning food. Catalytic 

broi lers are also very energy efficient-they 

convert about 80% of the chemical energy in the 

gas to infrared light. And because the ceramic 

plates are large and heat uniformly, these broilers 

radiate heat more evenly than conventional 

broilers do. 

Electric broilers are more affordable and more 

common, however. They use bars or rods made 

from an alloy of nickel and chromium called 

nichrome, which heats when electricity passes 

through it. With reasonable energy efficiency 

(although nowhere near that of catalytic broilers), 

electric broilers can heat quickly and reliably to 

temperatures as high as 2,200 ·c I 4,000 •p, 
Maximum settings are typically restricted to 

1,200 •c I 2,200 •p in order to extend the life of 
the heating element and avoid charring food. 

Unfortunately, the typical electric broiler 

delivers its heat unevenly to most of the oven. 

Food placed too close to the heating elements 

develops hot spots directly underneath the rods 

and cool spots between them. That phenomenon 

is intuitive enough: if you place your right hand 

just over a hot grill, it feels the heat much more 


A catalyst is a material that acts like 
a matchmaker: it helps two 
chemicals (such as methane and 
oxygen) react faster than they 
otherwise would, and, after the 
reaction, it is freed to perform 
more matches. Catalytic broilers 
typically use a metal such as 
platinum as the catalyst. 



intensely than your left hand hanging a few inches 

farther away. 

Surprisingly, however, the opposite problem 

occurs when food is too far from the element: 

cold spots appear directly below the rods, and the 

hot spots fall in between the rods! What has 

changed is that the distance to the element no 

longer causes heat intensity to vary much from 

side to side, but reflections do. 

If you stand across the room from a fireplace 

and hold out your hands, the heat on your face 

and hands feels about the same-the relatively 

small difference in distance doesn't matter. But 

the top of the oven reflects heat rays from the 

upper half of the glowing metal. Food between 

the rods receives both direct and reflected radia-

tion, whereas food directly beneath the rods 

cannot "see" the reflections in the top of the oven 

(see illustration below) . Odd as it seems, the food 

there is shadowed by the heating element itself! 

To use an electric broiler effectively, you thus 

must find its sweet zone. A simple approach is to 

use this rule of thumb: the center of the sweet 

zone, where the heat is most even, is about S mm I 
0.2 in below the heating element plus just a bit less 

than half ( 44%) of the distance between the 

heating rods. If the rods are 10 em I 4 in apart, for 
example, the sweet zone is centered 4.9 em I 1 'l"s in 
below the heating element. 

If you want to make a broiler cook 

more evenly, then installing some 

shiny vertical reflectors near the 

edges will help a lot. Another good 

way to ensure that food browns 

evenly under a broiler is to wrap 
the dish with a reflective foil collar. 

0 minutes 

50 °C/ 122 °F 

To skillfully judge the best distance 
for roasting takes experience, but 
some guidance can be found in 
recipes from the 17th- and 18th-
century royal courts of Europe. Spit 
jacks for large roasts were typically 
set up two to three feet in front of a 
great hearth. Only when the roast 
was fully cooked was it moved to 
within inches of the fi re to brown. 


Just about everyone everywhere loves a great 
roast. The problem is that just about no one 

anywhere actually roasts food. Roasting has been 

nearly hyphenated out of existence, yielding to the 

pressures of economy and convenience to become 

pan-roasted or oven-roasted. These are admittedly 

more enticing adjectives than shallow-fried or 

oven-baked-both of which are important 

cooking techniques-but strictly speaking, 

neither actually roasts food. 

True roasting cooks with radiant heat at a 

deliberately slow pace. When roasting, the food is 

held farther from the embers and flames of a fire 

than it is during grilling. The greater distance from 
the heat lowers the intensity of the radiation and 

thus the speed of cooking. But the extra distance 

also solves the dilemma of how to evenly cook 

large portions of meat and whole birds or other 

animals. Often the food rotates slowly but steadily 

as it roasts, so the heat varies, unlike the static heat 

that occurs during baking. The constant turning 

helps manage the pace at which heat accumulates 

in the food and assures even, consistent cooking. 

A skilled roaster is able to balance the heat 

received with the heat absorbed. The trick, in 

other words, is to adjust the intensity of heat 

reaching the surface of the food so it matches the 

rate at which heat diffuses into the interior. Put 

the food too close to the fire or turn it too slowly, 

and heat will build up on the surface. That imbal-

ance inevitably leads to a charred exterior and a 

raw center. Place food too far from the heat, and 

the opposite kind of imbalance occurs, so cooking 

takes much longer than it needs to. 

Whether roasting the canonical chicken-a 

feast for a few-or a whole hog to feed a large 

gathering of friends, there are really only two 
significant decisions to make: how far from the fire 

should the cooking be done? And how quickly 

should the roast rotate? 

Judging the right spot to roast from is tricky. A 
lot depends on the fire-is it a roaring outdoor 

bonfire or just an old-fashioned steady fire in a 
home hearth? If it's an indoor fire, then how well 

does the fireplace reflect radiant heat? The shape, 

depth, and wall material of the hearth all affect its 

ability to reflect heat. 

The size of the food matters, too. Bigger roasts 
should be cooked farther from the fire and smaller 

ones closer, for two reasons. First, the time it takes 

for heat to penetrate to the center of a piece of 

food varies in proportion to the square of the 
food 's thickness. So, all else being equal, a turkey 

that is 25 em I 10 in across will take four times as 
long to roast as will a hen that is half that width. 

As luck and physics have it, the intensity of heat 

from a blazing fire varies by the inverse square of 
the food's distance from the fire (with the proviso 

that the food must be several feet away from the 

fire for this relation to hold). That means that if the 

turkey is twice as far from the fire as the hen, the 
fire will deposit one-fourth as much heat on the 

surface of the larger bird as it will on the hen. If 
you keep these relations in mind, you' ll find it 

easier to judge that perfect distance for roasting, 

where the speed of surface heating and the speed 

of heat penetration are balanced. Unfortunately, 
myriad other factors determine the ideal condi-

tions for roasting, so this is more principle than 

formula. Experience helps a lot. 

A lobster is an unconventional choice for the spit but in fact is 
ideally suited for roasting. The dark shell efficiently absorbs the 
intense radiant heat of the fire, quickly steaming the delicate flesh 
beneath the exoskeleton. The conventional approach of boiling the 
crustacean is easier but dilutes the natural sweetness of the flesh. 


Heat varies as the inverse square of 
the distance from the radiant 
source only when roasting is done 
relatively far from the fire. As 
described in Grilling, page 7, and 
Broiling, page 18, this relation does 
not hold for those cooking tech-

Lamb roasted asado-style is a favorite 
traditional meal of the gauchos who herd 
cattle and sheep across the Patagonian 
grasslands in South America. Asado is one 
of the few examples of true slow cooking 

done by radiant heat. 


The second reason to cook bigger roasts 

farther from the fire is to ensure that the rays of 

heat fall evenly on the surface of the roast. The 

analogous situation in grilling is to position the 

food so it all falls within the sweet spot-that 

cooking zone where the intensity of the heat 

varies by less than 10% from one edge to the 

other (see page 14). 

The width of the sweet spot for a fire of any size 

is shown graphically on page 16. The sweet spot is 

broad when the food is very close to the fire. Then 

it narrows in extent at awkward middling distanc-

es before broadening again farther from the fire. 

The absolute numbers depend on the size of the 

fire, of course. But where the sweet spot is narrow-

est, it might be large enough to fit only a single 

chicken. A beef rib roast would cook unevenly at 

this medium distance because too much of the 

roast extends beyond the zone of even heating. 

Move the meat away from the fire just a little, 

however, and it will then cook evenly. 

A tradeoff sometimes exists between the 

evenness of roasting and the speed. Where the 

food will roast fastest without burning often 

happens to be right where the sweet spot is 

narrowest. This coincidence is just unfortunate 

dumb luck. What to do? 

One option is to build a bigger fire. A large 

enough conflagration will accommodate a roast of 


any size. A more pragmatic approach is to be 

patient. Move the roast away from the fire until 

the size of the sweet spot is sufficiently large. This 

approach extends the cooking time, but the roast 

will cook evenly. 

If the food is now so far from the fire that the 

surface doesn't brown, move the roast close to the 

fire after it has cooked. Historically, this is exactly 

how the royal roast masters did things in Europe. 

They began cooking enormous beast-sized roasts 

far from a blazing fire, and then browned the meat 

close to the fire just before serving. Today, such 

skill is rare, but it can still be found in remote 

corners of the world unencumbered by a need for 

quick, convenient cooking. 

To Turn or Not To Turn? 
Roasting is often most effectively done on a spit. 

The spit may be horizontal or vertical; it may 

pierce the food, or the food may be tied onto the 

spit. But in all cases the spit makes it easy to evenly 

turn a roast in front of a fire. Spit-roasting, also 

called rotisserie, is so closely linked to roasting 

that it's often thought to be an essential feature, 

and sometimes it is. But other times it isn't. 

Authentic Chinese Pekin duck is roasted 

without turning. The duck is hung from a station-

ary hook inside an oven that is fired to tempera-

tures more akin to those in a potter's kiln than to 

those in domestic or even professional ovens. At a 

temperature near 450 •c I 840 •p, the brick walls 
and iron door of this specially-constructed oven 

emit an intense radiant heat that roasts the duck 

simultaneously from all sides. 

The only Western ovens that work in a similar 

way are wood-fired pizza ovens; these roast 

rather than bake pizzas (see page 26) . There are 

differences, of course, in the products of these 

ovens. Pizza, unlike duck, is flat and cooks 

quickly from both sides. And a great Peking 

Duck experience is all about the crispy lacquered 

skin rather than the flesh below, which too often 

is gray and overcooked. 

To achieve both crispy skin and juicy flesh 

when roasting a Pekin duck, you have to forego 

the traditional oven and spin the food in front of a 

fire instead. The rotation effectively lowers the 

cooking temperature, but in a way different from 

simply lowering oven temperature or pulling the 

duck farther from the fire . Those actions lower 

both the peak and the average intensities. Turn-

ing a roast lowers the average intensity, but the 

peak heat remains high. 

Alternating between heating and cooling is the 

secret to cooking a sublime roast. During each 

rotation, a given portion of the roast spends only a 

fraction of the time basking in a fire's glow; the 

remaining time is spent resting in the shadows, 

where it cools slowly. Some of the heat it absorbs 

while facing the fire convects and radiates away, 

and some of the heat slowly diffuses into the meat. 

These two competing processes balance out 

such that the average heat flowing just below the 

surface of the roast is only a fraction of the peak 

heat at the surface. If everything is judged just 

right, the interior of a roast ends up, over a dizzy-

ing number of rotations, gently cooked to a 

shallow gradient of doneness from just below the 

surface all the way to the center, while the surface 

itself gets cooked to a crisp, deep-brown finish. 

Fixed roast 

Spit roast 


Cooler Hotter 

We used a computer model to simulate how heat flows within an idealized roast as it cooks 

when fixed facing a fire (top), on a rotating spit (center), or baked in an oven (bottom). The 

differences are startling. Radiant heat shines on only the fireward face of the fixed roast; 

the rest is shadowed from the heat. 

Turning the rotisserie spit gives equal cooking time-and cooling time-to all sides of the 

food. Oscillating between cooking and cooling moderates the flow of heat through the 

interior of the roast. cooking it very evenly while still searing the surface for a flavorful 

crust. In contrast. baking cooks all sides simultaneously (by convection rather than 

radiation), overcooking more of the meat than spit-roasting does. 



The daily existence of a short-order cook revolves 

around a never-ending battle for speed, very often 

waged in front of a griddle. Waves of orders come 

rolling in: eggs sunny side up, with bacon and a 

side of hash browns; cheeseburgers and grilled 

cheese sandwiches; pancakes and patty melts. The 

list is as long as the menu, and everything com-

petes for space on the griddle. Speed is everything. 

A moment of hesitation or carelessness, and the 

cook will quickly be " in the shit." 

But in the hands of a seasoned pro, a griddle-

also known as a plancha-is unmatched for speed 

and versatility. If a food can be panfried, then 

usually it can be cooked on a griddle, too-and 

with fewer dirty pans to boot. You cannot change 

the temperature of a griddle on a whim, however, 

the way you can with a pan. So griddle cooking is 

more or less limited to one speed: fast! 

The plancha pro starts with food that is flat and 

thin enough to cook quickly. For even cooking 

and no sticking, spread a thin layer of oil across 

the griddle to fill in the gaps between the food and 

the hot metal. Some fatty foods, like bacon, will 

render this oily coating on their own. Fluid foods 

such as pancake batter or raw egg flow across a 

griddle so smoothly that no oil is necessary. 

A panfried egg on its way to perfection. 

Does it matter what kind of pan it's in? No! 

(See page 41.) 

The intense heat of the plancha will quickly 

polymerize oils and juices into a sticky film, which 

makes a mess and all but guarantees the food will 

stick. So it is important to regularly scrape away 

any grease or charred bits left behind on a hot 

griddle. Indeed, this need for constant scraping is 

the reason that nonstick coatings aren't applied to 

commercial griddles. The coatings wouldn't 

survive the abuse. 

Foods that are a bit too large to be cooked 

quickly by the conductive heat of a griddle can be 

tamed with a simple trick: squirt a bit of water 

around the food on the griddle, then promptly 

cover it with a lid. The puddle of boiling water 

under the lid surrounds the food with steam, 

accelerating cooking. 

Foods too large or thick for this trick, such as 

steak, need to be moved to an oven to finish 

cooking slowly. Alternatively, we can precook 

them and then finish them off with a quick sear on 

the plancha. Both of these approaches slow things 

down a bit and increase the complexity of finish-

ing a dish. Consequently, short order-style restau-

rants usually avoid putting these kinds of dishes 

on their menus in the first place. In a battle, you do 

what you can to win. 




Day-to-day changes in the humidity 
of the kitchen are bigger than most 
people think-and they can wreak 
havoc on tried-and-true frying 
times. On a relatively dry day, 
resting food will cool more than 
you might expect because evapora-
tion accelerates. The core tempera-
ture thus doesn't increase as much. 
Conversely, on a very humid day, 
evaporation slows and sucks less 
heat out of the resting food, and the 
final interior temperature ends up 
hotter than you might expect. 

The solution is to tightly cover 
resting food with foi l so that the 
humidity is consistently high-and 
predictable. For more detai ls on 
how humidity affects cooking, see 
It's Not the Heat, It's the Humidity, 

A pan loses heat constantly through 
radiation. This effect can be large 
for pans with dark surfaces, such as 
black cast iron, and is much smaller 
for shiny pans. 


Flip Food Frequently 
Whether cooking a Ia plancha or in a frying pan, 

people usually cook food on one side and then, 

about halfway through, flip it over to finish 

cooking it from the other side. The assumption is 

that this will cook the food more evenly from edge 

to edge. But is it the best approach? 

No! A single flip cooks the food neither fastest 

nor most evenly. It just takes less thought. Food 

flipped twice will cook with greater uniformity; 

flip it four times for more even cooking still; and 

so on. Surprisingly, the more you flip, the faster 

the food cooks, too. Food science writer Harold 

McGee discovered these flipping effects, and we 

have verified them (see next page). 

Uneven cooking happens whenever there is a 

gradient between the surface temperature of the 

food and the temperature at its core. The bigger 

the difference between these temperatures, the 

more uneven the cooking is. When food is cooked 

in a pan or on a griddle at 300 •c / 572 •p, the 
layers just below the surface of the food quickly 

reach the boiling point of water, even as the core 

remains much cooler. The temperature of the food 

surface rises the boiling point and stays there until 

the food dehydrates and browns. If you cook it for 

too long, the dry crust eventually burns. 

Typically, the cook flips the food over before 

that can happen. Unfortunately, by that time, 

much of the food beneath the surface has been 

overcooked. Yet the core of the food is still under-

cooked. That's why you have to continue cooking 

the other side for nearly as long again. 

While the flipped food cooks on its back side, 

the just-cooked surface temperature starts to cool 

down. Three mechanisms are at work simultane-

ously. First, some of the built-up heat at and near 

the surface diffuses through conduction toward 

the center of the food. Second, the hot water at the 

surface evaporates as steam. Finally, some of the 

built-up surface heat slowly convects away into the 

relatively cooler air of the kitchen. The total effect 

is to cool the cooked surface and heat the core. 

Because the heat doesn't brake to an immediate 

stop but keeps on rolling toward the center, 

experienced cooks know to pull food from the 

griddle just before it's perfectly done. They then 

allow time for the residual heat to sink in, a 

process called resting. But how do you know 

exactly when to remove the food? Predicting how 

much the core temperature will rise during resting 

is difficult. Usually, cooks build up an intuition for 

the timing during years of trial and error. 

Fortunately, there is an alternative approach 

that, although more laborious, is more likely to 

succeed for most cooks: frequent flipping. The 

more often you flip the food, the less time it 

spends against the griddle, and the less time the 

heat has to build up below the surface of the food. 

The result is that the overcooked layer is mini-

mized, and more of the center is done just right. 

In essence, constant flipping reduces the size of 

the swings that the surface temperature takes as 

the food surface alternates between cooking and 

cooling. It also lowers the average temperature of 

the surface, which means that, edge to edge, the 

food ends up more evenly cooked. 

This effect shouldn't be too surprising. Most of 

us intuitively understand that rotating a roast on a 

spit helps cook the roast more evenly. Flipping 

food back and forth creates pulses of heat that 

produce very much the same result-both a 

golden crust and an evenly cooked interior. 

Repeated flipping also speeds the cooking a bit 

because, in much the same way that it minimizes 

how much excessive heat builds up on the cooking 

side, it also reduces the amount of cooling that 

occurs on the resting side. Flip too frequently, 

however, and you'll get diminishing returns. 

How often, then, should you flip? There is no 

single optimum, but somewhere in the range of 

once every 15-30 seconds seems reasonable. 

Give it a try, and you'll discover the advantage 

of this unorthodox approach. Because the surface 

and core temperatures of the food never get very 

far apart, the interior temperature rises just a few 

degrees during resting. It thus becomes easier to 

estimate when to stop cooking, and timing things 

just right becomes less critical. 


Flipping for Speed and Evenness 

When a steak 2.5 em I 1 in thick is flipped over halfway through 
cooking (top graph below), the temperature just beneath the surface 
of the food (red) rises rapidly and plateaus at the boiling point of 
water. As cooking progresses, the temperature a few millimeters 
further below the surface (orange) rises to about 80 •c I 175 •F, and a 
significant fraction of the steak overcooks. As the core temperature 
(yellow) nears 40 •c I 104 •F, the steak is removed from the heat and 
rested until the core temperature climbs to 50 •c I 122 •F. 





E 60 

50 OJ 




Temperature just 
below the surface 

. . . . . . . . . 
Target temperature 

2.5mm /~ in 
below the surface 

Steak is flipped over 

By comparison, a steak flipped back and forth every 15 seconds (bot-
tom graph) cooks faster and more evenly. The temperature a few 
millimeters beneath the surface peaks nearly 10 •c I 18 •F lower than 
that in a steak flipped only once, and less of the steak overcooks 
(bottom photo). The temperature at the core doesn 't waver at all, 
and it rises faster than it does in the steak flipped once. You can thus 
stop cooking sooner- when the core temperature reaches 32 •c I 
90 •F-and resting is complete minutes sooner, too. 





140 t 

122 OJ a. 



Flipped once 

10 ~==~~~::~====~~==~o:n:ce~a:ft:er~5~m=i~nL-____ -l ____ _J ______ ~ ____ _L ____ Jj50 





E 60 
OJ 50 a. 






Steak is flipped every 15 s 

100 200 300 400 

A steak flipped 
frequently during 
cooking can be 
removed from 
the heat about 
4 min ea rli er ... 


Cooking time (s) 



... than a steak ... and its cente r 176 
flipped just once. will be done 
It cooks more about 3 min 
evenly{see 158 
picture at right), ... 

140 t 





Flipped every 15 seconds 

600 700 800 900 1,000 



What's in a Griddle? 
A griddle might seem to be nothing more than a 

flat, heated plate of metal. That it is, of course. But 

look beneath the surface. How a griddle is heated 

has an enormous impact on how it performs. 

Electric griddles tend to run a little hotter than 

those powered by gas, and it's easier to design 

them to heat evenly. Gas burners offer more raw 

power and so tend to be better at maintaining 

their temperature during heavy use. Both electric 

and gas griddles, however, have trouble handling 

large amounts of cold food placed on the griddle at 

once. The griddle responds by firing up the heat 

beneath the entire surface, not just warming the 

cooler spots below the food . As a consequence, 

annoying hot and cold spots quickly appear, 

making the griddle unpredictable and prone to 

burn food. To address this problem, larger grid-

dles offer separate zones that are heated somewhat 

independently. These griddles are usually also 

made of thicker metal that stores enough heat to 

hold temperatures more constant. 

But one company has developed a different and 

particularly interesting solution to this problem: it 

heats its griddle with water. AccuTemp builds a 

sealed, stainless-steel box that contains water and 

regularly spaced electric rods similar to those in 

an electric broiler. The rods heat the water to a 

temperature of roughly 200 ·c I 400 •f-well 
above the usual boiling point. Because the water is 

sealed inside a strong pressure chamber, however, 

it never boils. Instead, as pressure builds, high-

temperature steam fills the space above the 

superheated water. 

It's the steam-not a gas flame or an electric 

element-that directly heats the surface of the 

griddle. Because the steam remains at a consistent 

temperature, the surface of the griddle does, too. 

Even better, when cold food hits the griddle, the 

steam responds by condensing against only the 

cooled parts of the metal plate. The condensation 

releases a tremendous amount oflatent heat (see 

page 1-314) just at that particular spot, rapidly 

restoring the griddle to an even temperature. It's a 

clever approach. 

Skimp on the Pan, but Choose 
Your Burner Wisely 
Expensive, gleaming copper pans are coveted by 

many people, even those who never cook. Hang-

ing in a kitchen like trophies, they are gorgeous to 

look at. But do they really perform better than 

much cheaper aluminum or steel pans? Well, that 

depends on what you mean by "better." 

Will a copper frying pan heat fast? Yes. 

Will it respond quickly when you adjust the 

burner? Yes. 

Will it diffuse heat evenly across its surface? 

Maybe; maybe not. 

There is a lot oflore and pseudoscience sur-

rounding what makes one piece of cookware 


Thick aluminium pan 
over a small burner 

Thick aluminium pan 

\:"'a Ia <go b"'"" 

Thin copper pan 
over a small burner 

better than another, but a rigorous analysis of the 

mathematics of heat transfer and material proper-

ties leads to some simple rules of thumb-and a 

few surprising conclusions. 

Let's start with the basics. All of the heat 

flowing upward from beneath a pan must go 

somewhere. At first, most of it goes to raising the 

temperature of the pan. As that occurs, conduc-

tion spreads the heat throughout the pan, from hot 

spots to cool spots. 

You might think that eventually the tempera-

ture across the bottom of the pan would even out, 

but it doesn't. No pan can ever be heated to perfect 

evenness. That's because, while conduction is 

distributing heat throughout the pan, convection 

is carrying heat into the air above the pan. 

As temperatures rise, conduction slows, where-

as convection accelerates. Eventually the pan loses 

heat through convection faster than heat can 

spread across the pan. This competition between 

Pan center 

6 em I 2'/s in burner 

14 em I S'h in burner 

conduction and convection ultimately limits how 

hot a pan can get, as well as how even that heat is. 

It's easy to understand why most people believe 

that pans made from copper and other metals that 

are good heat conductors will be highly responsive 

to burner temperature changes and will cook 

evenly. We're not saying high thermal conductivi-

ty doesn't matter at all. But it guarantees neither 

evenness nor thermal responsiveness. The thick-

ness of the metal matters as much as or even more 

than the metal itself. Indeed, just how much it 

matters might surprise you. 

The thicker a pan is, the bigger the conduit it 

offers for conduction to quickly move heat from one 

spot to another before convection at the surface can 

carry it away. Think of it as a freeway congested 

with traffic. If you want to get more cars (or heat) 

from A to B, raising the speed limit (or conductivi-

ty) a little will help. But adding a couple more lanes 

(a thicker base) will make a much bigger difference. 


\ :hin copper pan I 
~~o•v•e•r•a .. la•r•g•e•b•u•r•n•e•r ......................................................................... ., 

When it comes to even heating, the thickness of a pan matters more than the material from 
which a pan is made, and the size of the burner matters most of all. On a small burner, an 
aluminum pan (top) performs just as well as a thin copper one (second from bottom), and 

both outperform stainless steel-even if the steel pan is 70 mm I 2'!. in thick (right). A large 
burner produces even heat in all three kinds of pans, whether thick or thin, although the heat 
is not quite as even in a steel pan as in one made from copper or aluminum. 


So as a pan gets thicker, it also distributes heat 

more efficiently, which results in a more uniform 

temperature across the surface. This isn't surpris-

ing. Most of us have noticed that thick, sturdy 

pans have fewer hot and cold spots. But this 

evenness comes at a price: the extra mass of metal 

makes a thicker pan less agile. It is slower to react 

than a thinner pan when the burner is turned up 

high or down low. 

How thick is thick enough, then? The answer 

does depend on the conductivity of the metal. Take 

a typical copper pan, 25 em I lOin wide and 
2.5 mm I 1/s in thick, heated by a gas burner 14 em 
I 5V2 in. in diameter. The temperature across the 
bottom will vary by no more than 22 •c I 40 •f. But 
if the pan were made of stainless steel, then it 

would need to be more than 70 mm I 23,4 in thick 
to perform similarly-and never mind that the 

weight of such a pan would make it impossible to 

lift! Fortunately, bonding a lightweight, 7 mm I 

Very thick steel pan 
over a small burner 

Very thick steel pan 
over a large burner 

'II in plate of inexpensive aluminum to the bottom 

of the thinnest, cheapest stainless steel pan pro-

duces a pan with nearly the same performance as 

that of the copper pan (see illustrations below). 

Now imagine that these same pans were heated 

instead by a small domestic gas burner only 6 em I 
2V2 in. in diameter. Even copper isn't conductive 

enough,to spread the heat evenly to the far edges 

of the pan. Any pan made from any material of any 

thickness will cook unevenly if the burner under-

neath it is too small. 

What's the take-home message here? Whether 

the heat comes from the flames of a gas burner, the 

radiant glow of an electric coil or halogen element, 

or the oscillating magnetic field of an induction 

heater, the most important factor for ensuring that 

a pan heats evenly is burner size. With a properly 

sized burner-ideally about as wide as the pan 

itself-any pan, even a cheap and thin one, can be 

heated evenly. 



70 mm/ 2'!. in 



To an experienced cook, nothing seems simpler 
than a quick saute. Yet it is surprisingly difficult to 
do it well, especially amid the rush and impatience 
that too often prevail in professional kitchens. In 
such circumstance, a return to fundamentals can 
be helpful. 

The overriding goal is to cook the food quickly. 
Cooking speed depends mainly on how fast you 
deliver heat to the surface of the food and how 
long it then takes the heat to flow all the way to the 
center of the pieces. Because heat almost always 
moves more slowly inside the food than at its 
surface, one rule of thumb is that smaller pieces 
are better. If you skip the small amount of extra 
effort needed to cut food into small pieces of 
uniform size, you are all but guaranteed a raw 
center, a charred surface, or both. 

Oil is the second key to a great saute. Use too 
little fat or oil, and you're risking undercooked 
food with burned bits. The reason is evident if you 
look closely at how food pieces rest in a pan. Even 
with relatively flat ingredients such as sliced 
mushrooms, only selected points on the edges and 
sides of the mushrooms touch the pan directly. Air 
gaps insulate most of the food from the hot 
surface. A generous layer of oil fills these gaps and 
conducts heat far more quickly from the pan to the 
food than air does. 

Most cooks jerk the pan while sauteing to 
expose every face of the food pieces to the hot film 
of oil (see Flipping Good Flavor, page 46). Adding 
enough oil to match the amount and absorbency 
of the food you're sauteing is crucial. Otherwise, 
thin spots will develop in the film midway through 
the saute, the food will start cooking unevenly, 
and some pieces may even stick to the pan. To 
avoid this problem, especially with meats, sea-
food, and other ingredients that tend to stick, mix 
oil with the cut-up pieces before beginning the 

Not long into the cooking process, the food 
starts to release juices-mostly water. Water is the 
enemy of the perfect saute. If the pan is over-
crowded or the burner is too weak, the watery 
juices will accumulate and quickly depress the 
temperature to at most 100 ·c I 212 •F. Food will 
not brown at such a low temperature, and the 
mouth-watering aromas from the Maillard 
reaction will not develop. Sauteing under such wet 
conditions really devolves into boiling or, worse 
yet, into stewing! 

Allow plenty of free space in the pan, and use a 
burner with plenty of power. Most of the water 
released by the food will then evaporate in a flash 
as steam. Some of the water vapor will even 
condense back onto the surface of the food, 
releasing latent heat and improving heat transfer. 
As the surface of the food dehydrates, its tempera-
ture increases, browning begins, and enticing 
aromas rise from the pan. 

If you listen carefully, the sounds coming from 
the pan tell you a lot about whether you're doing 
a good job. The saute should start with a loud 
sizzle. That hiss is the sound of water rapidly 
boiling and escaping as steam. The sizzle also 
signals that you have good heat conduction 
between the pan and the food. If you don't hear 
anything, you have a problem: it means you're 
not cooking quickly enough. Perhaps the pan was 
too cold when you added the food, the pool of oil 
is too thin, the burner is too weak, or the pan is 
too crowded with food. 

If all is going well, the sizzle is loud at first and 
gradually quiets as the surface of the food dries 
out. When that happens, pay attention to the 
aromas coming from the pan; they should be 
enticing. When the saute starts to smell great, 
keep a close eye on it: the food will go from 
pleasantly brown to burned black with a mere 
moment's inattention. 


For more on of the physics of boiling, steam, 
and condensation, see chapter 6 on The Physics 

of Food and Water, page 1·292. 


For nearly 2,000 years, the wok has been the 

principal instrument of cooking in China. Origi-

nally cast as a thin, round shell of iron, the Can-

tonese-style wok is today more commonly forged 

from carbon steel, which is less brittle. Whether 

stamped into shape from the single blow of a 

machine or painstakingly hammered into shape 

by hand, a good wok is judged mainly by the 

quality of its patina. On both cast iron and forged 
carbon steel, the patina provides a protective 

barrier that inhibits rust from forming and food 

from sticking. 

Traditionally, a wok is set over a very hot wood-

or coal-fired stove, a practice still common in rural 

China. In the commercial kitchens of Beijing, 

Shanghai, and Hong Kong-or, for that matter, 

New York, London, Sydney, and everywhere else 

in the world that Chinese and Chinese-influenced 

cooking has taken hold-powerful gas-fired wok 

burners heat woks to temperatures more familiar 

to blacksmiths than to cooks. 

Why such extreme cooking temperatures? It's 
all about achieving wok hei (pronounced "hay"), 

the almost indescribable flavor that is the defining 

quality of great wok cooking. Intense Maillard 
reactions on food surfaces combine with the 

partial breakdown of cooking oil at extremely high 

temperatures to produce this potent melange of 

flavor compounds. The chemistry only works, 

however, if the burner has enough power to bring 
the surface of the wok to peak temperatures well 

above the boiling point of water. 

Driving off the water (as steam) takes a tremen-

dous amount of energy. Most of the foods we 

stir-fry release prodigious amounts of water as 

they begin to cook. The water quenches the heat of 

the wok, lowering the temperature to the boiling 

point until it has evaporated away. An underpow-

ered burner will allow the juices to build up in the 
pan, and the food will stew rather than stir-fry. 

The resulting collection of aromas and tastes 

bears little resemblance to wok hei. This is the 
reason that domestic burners-or even Western-

style professional burners-cannot reproduce the 
flavor of a true wok stir-fry. It's not the wok: it's 

the heat source. 

Wok cooking involves intensely hot metal, 

searing oil, piping-hot steam, and shimmering 
waves of hot, dry air. Needless to say, this is a 

complex cooking environment. For simplicity's 

sake, let's divide it into three distinct cooking 

zones, which we'll call conduction, condensation, 

and convection (see Taming the Breath of a Wok, 

page SO). 
In the conduction zone, on the surface of the 

wok, food cooks by direct contact with the 

oil-coated metal. This zone is by far the hottest of 

the three. Just above the surface of the wok lies 
the condensation zone, where the constant 

tossing action of the stir-fry keeps food cooking 

in a layer of steam. You can see wisps of fog in this 

zone as the steam condenses both in the air and 

also on the relatively cooler food, depositing 

significant amounts of energy as it changes back 

from vapor to liquid. 

Well above the pan is the convection zone, a 

region of hot but dry air. Because air conducts 

heat poorly when it is devoid of water vapor, food 

cooks more slowly in this region. By lifting the 

food up off the wok and into the air, you can 
regulate the amount of time the food spends in 

each of the three heating zones. The true skill of 

the wok cook is thus a balancing act that manages 

the intense heat and speed of stir-fry cooking by 

keeping all of the ingredients in constant motion. 

The results can be delicious, but also a little 

dangerous: at these temperatures, most of the 

ingredients can become flammable, and a mo-
ment's hesitation could end in disaster and very 

possibly bodily harm! 

Wok cooking is a balancing act in more ways than one. To achieve 
the authentic flavor of stir-fried dishes such as Pad Thai, one must 
master the intimidating heat of the wok with dexterity and 
unwavering focus. 



Power to Burn 

Running at full tilt, a wok burner can deliver up to 59,000 W 

(200,000 BTU/ h) ofthermal power. A burner oft his capaci-

ty roars with a sound more akin to that of a jet engine than a 

stove top. By comparison, Western-style professional gas 

burners deliver 4,400-8,800 W (15,000- 30,000 BTU/ h), 

and domestic gas burners burn with a comparatively ane-

mic 1,750-4,100 W (6,000-14,000 BTU/ h). High-powered 

The awesome power of wok burners can quickly get out of hand. 

wok burners are capable of raising the temperature of 

a wok to almost 1,200 oc I 2,200 °F, a temperature well 
beyond that encountered in Western-style cooking. Heat 

this high softens steel rapidly and causes the wok to warp 

with use. In a busy professional kitchen, a wok may need to 

be reforged into shape every few days and replaced every 

few weeks! 


Meat and seafood cooked in a wok 
is often coated with a cornstarch 
gel before cooking, a process 
known as "velveting" that is 
discussed in chapter14 on Gels, 

The patina of a wok-as well as the 
generous use of cooking oil-provide the 
nonstick qualities that make the bao 
technique possible. 


The Basic Techniques: 
Bao and Chao 
In China, wok cooking involves two fundamental 
techniques, known as bao and chao. The bao 
technique is the true stir-fry. The wok must be hot 
enough that it glows a dull red color. Only then 
does the cook add oil (usually a generous amount), 
seasonings, and meats, in very rapid succession. 
There is no room for hesitation; oil combusts, and 
food burns, almost instantly at temperatures this 
high. Water in the food evaporates in a flash into 
steam, so juices do not leach out, accumulate in the 
bottom of the wok, and "stew" the food, as can 
happen in sauteing. Food browns very rapidly in 
wok cooking, and the rapid browning generates 
more of the flavorful compounds that result from 
Maillard reactions, more of the partially combust-
ed cooking oil, and thus more of the characteristic 
wok hei flavors. 

An expert at bao cooking keeps control by 
continually tossing the food in a circular motion, 
stopping for at most a few seconds to add vegeta-
bles or broth. With each rhythmic beat, the cook 
gathers the food together and flings it into the 
steam-filled air above the wok, which is cool in 
comparison with the metal glowing incandes-
cently below. 

Using food cut to the right size is crucial to 
success with the bao technique because the 


temperature gradients are so steep. Pieces must be 
small enough to cook all the way through before 
the outside of the food burns. Small pieces are also 
easier to gather and flip. Wok cooks using the bao 
technique exploit the curved shape of the wok by 
tilting it on the burner so that less of the wok is 
heated. The food comes into direct contact only 
with the cooler metal on the far side of the wok. 

The chao technique is more akin to the Western 
technique of the covered saute, which is described 
on page 58. To cook using the chao approach, heat 
the wok to a moderate temperature (not as hot as 
in the bao technique), then add cooking oil. Dry 
ingredients, typically garlic and ginger, come 
next. Meats, if called for, are then added and 
quickly seared. Vegetables and any liquids go into 
the wok last. 

Usually you cover the wok to let the liquids 
finish cooking the other ingredients by a combi-
nation of boiling and steaming. Because the chao 
technique does not require the staggeringly 
intense heat used in bao cooking, it is a good 
approach when using a burner of modest power. It 
is also an easier technique to master, whereas bao 
cooking demands the speed and agility that come 
only with years of practice and a healthy fear of 
the fire's bite. 


In the previous section on Stir-frying, we dis-
cussed the Eastern chao technique for cooking 
large or very wet foods. The counterpart to this 
technique in Western cooking is often called a 
covered saute. The technique works well for 
ingredients so big that the intense heat of an 
uncovered saute pan would scorch their surface 
before the interior cooks through. 

There is more to a covered saute than simply 
putting a lid on the pan. Often you first sear the 
food in a generous amount of hot oil. This ap-
proach works best for meats and seafood whose 
surface can be quickly seared before a torrent of 
juices floods the pan. Wait for the food to finish 
searing and for juices to begin accumulating 
before covering the pan with a tight-fitting lid. 

The simple addition of a lid changes the cook-
ing process in surprisingly complex ways. High-
heat sauteing is transformed into a gentler, lower-
temperature combination of boiling and steaming. 
The boiling juices lower the temperature at the 
surface of the pan to 100° C / 212° F, thus pre-
venting the food from scorching (but also pre-
venting it from browning). Nevertheless, it is still 
important to give the covered pan periodic jerks 
that move the food around and keep it cooking 
evenly. When cooking very dry foods, add water 
or some other flavorful liquid to moderate the 
heat and finish the cooking. 

Many varieties of vegetables are nearly impossi-
ble to sear because their juices leak out so fast. In 
such cases, there's much less benefit from quickly 
searing the surface anyway. Unlike protein-rich 

foods like meat and seafood, vegetables tend to 
lack the chemical components that make the 
Maillard reaction work. Vegetables do contain 
plenty of natural sugars that will caramelize, but it 
doesn't matter whether this process happens at the 
beginning or the end of cooking. 

We thus often apply a variation to the covered 
saute, called glazing, to many plant foods. As far as 
we know, glazing is a uniquely Western cooking 
technique. You usually begin by adding the food 
to a cold, rather deep pan along with some butter 
or other fat. You then cover the pan tightly and put 
it over moderate heat. The butter soon melts and 
covers the bottom of the pan, aiding efficient 
conduction of heat from the pan to the food. 

Unless the ingredients are very dry, add no 
water (beyond the trivial amount in the butter) 
because that would dilute the juices sweating out 
of the warming vegetables. As the juices begin to 
boil and steam, the vegetables cook in their own 
essence. Again, be sure to jerk the pan every so 
often to mix the food and even out the cooking. 

Traditionally, the final step is to make a sauce 
from the drippings. Once the vegetables have 
cooked nearly through, remove the lid, strain out 
the vegetables, and allow the juices to boil down 
and concentrate the natural sugars they contain. 
The turbulence of the boil emulsifies juices with 
the butterfat or oil to form a rich, sweet glaze that 
can be used to coat the vegetables. Although 
glazed vegetables, being more caloric, are more 
fattening to eat than are steamed or boiled 
veggies, the glazed variety are certainly tastier. 

Fernand Point. the father of modern French cuisine, famously said 
"Beurre, beurre, donnez-moi du beurre, toujours de beurre!" 
For glazing vegetables, we can only agree: butter, give us butter, 
always butter! 


Although somewhat ill-defined as a culinary 

term, a I'Anglaise translates loosely as "cooked in 
the English manner." Francophiles tend to fling 

the term as a barb to suggest the manner in which 

they believe the English would cook something: 

boiled to death, insipid, and with no sauce. 

Ridiculed though it may be, boiling is a classic 

method for cooking food quickly. 
The very simplicity of boiling a pot of water 

makes it a useful cooking strategy for many foods, 

especially vegetables. Take the classic French dish 

haricot vert a I'Anglaise, a.k.a. boiled green beans. 
The instant the beans plunge into boiling, salted 

water, their color changes from dark green to a 

bright, intense, and quite appetizing spring green. 

Cooks typically describe this effect as "fixing" the 

color, but fixing the color doesn't make vegetables 

any less raw (see page 66). Delicate vegetables such 

as green beans may be pleasantly crunchy and still 

raw after a quick blanching, whereas larger vegeta-

bles need to boil a bit longer in order to soften their 

tissue while still leaving just enough firmness for a 

toothsome bite. 

Cookbooks often insist that when boiling food 

you should never let the pot of water come off the 

boil. To the scientifically minded, that advice 

might seem dubious at first glance. How could 

blanching in water a degree or two cooler than the 

boiling point possibly make a difference? After all, 

heat transfer is proportional to the difference in 

temperature between the food and the heat 

source, so a couple of degrees shouldn't make 

much of a difference-yet experience shows that it 

clearly does. 

Boiling water may be only slight hotter than 

near-boiling water, but it is far more turbulent. 

The boiled egg: simple to boil, 

diffi cult to perfect. 

Because boiling water moves chaotically, it 

conducts heat into the surface of the food two to 

three times as fast as stagnant water a few degrees 

cooler does. If that seems counterintuitive, think 

about what you do when you get into a really hot 

bath. You try to stay as still as possible because 

stirring the water makes it unbearably hot. The 

overall temperature of the water is nearly the same 

in either case, but flowing water feels much hotter 

because it hasn't had time to cool off against your 

skin. The greater rate at which boiling water 

transfers heat makes it worth the extra effort in 

many cases to blanch food in small batches and in 

a big pot so that the water maintains its roiling 

boil. The food will cook faster and will retain more 

of its flavor, color, and nutrients. 

Boiling cushions food in water and maintains a 

constant, relatively low temperature, so it may 

seem to be a gentler way to cook food than roast-

ing, frying, or baking. The boiling point of water is 

actually far hotter than necessary or ideal for 

meats, seafood, or even eggs, however. Moreover, 

water transmits heat so much more efficiently than 

air that it raises the food temperature extremely 

rapidly, which makes it tricky to time the cooking 

perfectly. Boil a chicken breast or fish fillet for a 

few dozen seconds too long, and it overcooks. A 

perfect boiled egg is hard to achieve even with a 

The proteins in eggs, meats, and seafood are 

much more delicate than tough plant tissue. They 

are at their most succulent and tender when 

poached at temperatures far below the boiling 

point, at which heat transfer is slower, the temper-

ature gradient within the food shallower, and the 

margin of error for perfect doneness wider. 


A high-tech approach to cooking 
meats, seafood, and even the 
proverbial "boiled" egg at low 
temperatures is to use a digitally 
controlled water bath, which can 
achieve unrivalled accuracy and 
precision, as is described in 
chapter 9 on Cooking Sous Vide, 
chapter 11 on Meats and Seafood, 
and chapter 14 on Gels. 

6 3 


A classic method for cooking food quickly, boiling owes its speed to the 

outstanding ability of water in motion to conduct heat. The "in motion" 

part is crucial, at least for small pieces of food. Simmering water cooks 

relatively slowly, but a rolling boil cooks fast because the turbulence lifts 

the hottest water up to the surface, drags colder water down toward the 

bottom of the pot, and accelerates the transfer of heat. The large break-

ing bubbles of a rapid boil also conveniently signal that the water is hot 

enough for cooking. 

Evaporation cools the water slightly. · · · · · · · · • • · · 
Covering the pot slows evaporation, 
reduces heat loss, and brings the 
water to a boil faster. 

Hot water seeping into the vegetable · · · · · · · • · · · 
dissolves the molecular glues (hemicellulose 
and pectin) that hold plant tissue together, 
and weakens the cell walls that give it rigidity. 
The carrots then change from raw and 
crunchy to cooked and tender. Slightly salty 
or alkaline water cooks the carrots faster than 
hard or slightly acidic water does. Because of 
that effect, you can speed up the cooking by 
adding a few spoonfuls of salt to the pot. Slow 
the cooking by adding a slug of vinegar. 

Water also dissolves the sugars that · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · 
make vegetables naturally sweet. This 
result accounts for why boiling makes 
a carrot bland: much of the sugar 
content of the carrot ends up in the 
water. Steaming or sauteing carrots 
with butter in a covered pan spares 
their natural sweetness. 


Heat is lost as water on the 
surface evaporates into vapor. 

Bubbles are filled with steam, 
which is hotter than the 
boiling point of water. 

The Birth of a Bubble 

Even the largest of bubbles in a roiling pot of water has humble origins. 

It starts small, in a fissure or at some other especially rough point. 
Steam inflates the bubble like a balloon until its buoyancy overcomes 

the resistance of the surrounding fluid, and at last it achieves lift-off. 


· Cracks· ·· ·· ·· 

Boiling begins in microscopic 

cracks that cover the bottom, 

even in brand new pots. Liquid 

water has such high surface 

tension that it is unable to fill 

these grooves and pits. 

Air pocket serves as 
a nucleation site 

Bubble swel ls 
with steam as 
cooler water 
moves down 

As the water heats up, steam 

collects in the crevasses, inflating 

bubbles. If the water above the 

bubbles is too cold, the steam 

condenses, and the bubbles pop. 

Cold water fills the 
void left by a bubble 
breaking free ( 


3 Eventually, the water reaches its boiling temperature, and the 
expanding bubbles break free, 

drawing cooler water into the 

spots left behind and allowing the 

cycle to repeat. 

A rolling boil cooks small pieces 

offood faster than a simmer 

because the churning water 

creates turbulent convectio n, 

w hich doubles or triples the 

speed of heat transfer. In a 

simmeri ng pot, coo ler stagnant 

water covers the carrots and 

slows the ir cooking. This charac-

teristic is less important for larger 

pieces of food, for which the 

limiting facto r is how fast heat 

can move within the food via 


Convective currents mix hot and 

cold spots quickly and leave the 

bulk of the water exact ly at its 

boiling point. 

A crowded pot traps water into 

stagnant pockets and creates 

cool spots. 

Water superheats along the bottom 

to 102-108 •c I 216-226 •F when the 
pot is at a fu ll boil. 




Why We Stir the Pot Before Poaching an Egg 

To make a decent poached egg it is important to stir the 

boiling water in the pot so that it is swirling rapidly, then 

crack the egg and drop it in. The white and yolk will nicely 

collect themselves into a single mass at the center of the 

pot. If you don't stir, the egg white will tend to spread out all 

over the place. 

Many cooks know this trick, but not many of them under-

stand why it works. The phenomenon at play here, called 

Ekman pumping, also accounts for why, in the days before tea 

bags, the bits of tea leaves that sank to the bottom of the cup 

would collect at the center when you stirred. 

When you stir the pot, centrifugal force flings the water 

molecules outward, as if they were kids on a schoolyard 

merry-go-round . Water thus piles up around the outside and 

gives the surface a convex shape. 

As any diver knows, the deeper you are underwater, the 

higher the pressure. That's true even ifthe difference in depth 

Drop an egg into a pot of hot, still water, and you're likely to end up with something closer 

to egg-drop soup than a poached egg. 

is small, as it is in the pot, where the convex surface makes the 

spinning water slightly deeper toward the outside. So at any 

given height above the bottom, the water pressure is lowest in 

the center and increases slightly toward the sides ofthe pot. 

That difference in pressure creates a force directed toward 

the center. The inward force counteracts the centrifugal force 

and keeps the water from sloshing out of the pot. At the very 

bottom, however, friction between the liquid and the solid 

pot causes the deepest water to rotate slightly slowerthan the 

water above it. Because the bottom water spins more slowly, 

it doesn't experience quite as much centrifugal force . But the 

inward pressure force is just as strong at the bottom as it is 

higher in the pot. So here the inward force wins out. 

The net result is that the water near the bottom is pumped 

toward the center, pulling the egg along with it. So the egg sits 

nicely in the middle, spinning gently as it gets poached to 


Stir the pot vigorously before the egg goes in, however, and a phenomenon known as 

Ekman pumping will gather the egg for you into a nice, compact mass at the center. 



For more on the several stages of boiling and 
how sugars and other dissolved solids affect 
the boiling point of water, see page 1-316. 


• • 


Burning a Thick Sauce 
Water is such a convenient lubricant and solvent in 
cooking in large part because it doesn't burn. But 
many of the liquids that we boil and simmer, from 
a bechamel to a marinara, can and will burn, 
despite the fact that they contain lots of water. 
Two principal factors determine whether or not a 
sauce or puree will burn: the thickness of the 
liquid and the temperature of the pot. 

Thick liquids do not distribute heat as quickly 
as thin liquids do. In a pot of thin liquid, hotter 
fluid at the bottom of the pan can rise rapidly 
toward the surface, which pushes cooler parts of 
the food down in turbulent cycles of convection. 
A thin liquid, in other words, largely stirs itself. 
The temperature never gets any hotter than the 
boiling point of water, and as the pot heats further, 
the turbulence and rate of evaporation simply 
speed up. The technical term for this behavior is 
nucleated boiling. 

A thick liquid, such as a tomato ragit, behaves 
differently, for two reasons. First, concentrated 
sugars and other solids in the sauce increase the 
boiling point of the liquid. The ragu thus approach-

, • 

• • 

The annoying belches of a boiling 
thick sauce that leave the stove 
covered in splatter are a sure sign 
that things are starting to scorch 
at the bottom of the pot. 

• . ~ 

es the temperature at which it starts to burn. 

.. . 
. . . . 

Second, natural convection within the viscous 
sauce is so slow that hot spots begin to form on the 
bottom. Small bubbles of steam still form at the 
bottom, but they aren't buoyant enough to rise to 
the surface of the thickening liquid. The part of 
the sauce near the pan bottom grows increasingly 
superheated until the small bubbles become so 
numerous that they form into solid columns of 
steam that feed into big, sluggish bubbles. Occa-
sionally one will break free and belch sauce all 
over the kitchen and the chef! This is a stage of 
boiling known as slug-and-column boiling. 

The big bubbles are telltale signs that the water 
remaining in the sauce is superheating at the 
bottom of the pot to ll0-130 •c I 230-266 •p or 
higher-temperatures high enough to cause the 
sugars and solids in that region to scorch. To boil a 
thick liquid without scorching, you have two 
options: increase convection by constantly 
stirring and scraping the pot, or lower the burner 
power, so the pan bottom doesn't get hot enough 
to burn the sauce. 



• • 




Slug-and-column boiling kicks in when a thick, slow-flowing liquid 

becomes superheated at the bottom of the pot. Small bubbles of steam, 

lacking the buoyancy to lift off, eventually aggregate into columns that 

break up into oversized bubbles. Left uncontrolled, the superheating 

ultimately will burn the natural sugars in the sauce . 



For more on the use of steam in home canning, 
see Canning, page 75. For the role of steam in 
water-vapor ovens and combi ovens, see chapter 
8 on Cooking in Modern Ovens, page 150. 

For large or thick pieces of food, the 
insulating effect of the air and water 
layers created by steaming doesn't 
matter much. That's because the 
major limiting factor in cooking big 
ingredients is how fast heat moves 
through the food itse lf, not how fast 
heat can penetrate the food 
surface. Boiling and steaming are 
thus about equally rapid