03/28/2016 - 04:56Filed in: Grilling Tip | Prep Tips | Smoking Tip
Other than cooking on the grill in a limited fashion, I was pretty much a total newbie when it came to cooking for the first half of my life. When I got my first serious gas grill I began to get serious about cooking too. I wanted to learn more and I began gathering knowledge from various grilling and smoking cookbooks, websites and a few cooking classes or demonstrations. If you think about cooking on a superficial level your sense of taste would seem to be the sense most involved with cooking. But the more you think of it, your other senses are also deeply involved. Also I have learned that the more you let your other senses help you, the easier your task will be and the better the end results. This blog will discuss some of the ways your other senses can help you with your cooking tasks. It will mostly cover outdoor cooking, but some of these items apply indoors as well.
SOUND: Sound can actually be quite helpful as you cook. The more I have been learning about cooking, the more I use sound as a guide.
Warm Up Issues: Is your grill warmed up enough? If you are not using a remote read thermometer with a grill probe or an infra red thermometer, the temperature you are at can be a bit of guesswork. But if you put food on the grill and it doesn’t sizzle this is a sure sign the grill wasn’t hot enough. Knowing this, you may need to cook the food longer. It can also mean the food is going to try to stick to the grill when you turn it or flip it.
Fire Problems: Is there something wrong with the fire? I was direct grilling chicken wings on my gas grill on a cold winter’s day. Everything was going along fine and I noticed all of a sudden the sizzle had stopped. I looked at my propane tank and it was about 1/2 full. When I opened the lid and held my hand several inches above the grill grate, I found I was getting very little heat. I had a flame but no heat. On a hunch, I swapped out the propane tank for a fresh one. Sure enough I was getting flame and heat again. I learned that in cold weather your propane tank needs to be at least 1/2 full to have enough pressure to give you flames with lots of heat. By noticing the change in sound I caught this right away. If I hadn’t been listening I would have gone 20 minutes and opened the lid to find undercooked wings and no heat.
Are really you stir frying in your wok? When you properly preheat your wok and use the proper amount of food you will get a sizzle from start to finish. There are various tests you can do to make sure the wok has been preheated. If your wok isn’t preheated correctly you will not get a sizzle when you add the food. The first item may not give you a huge amount of sizzle, but you should hear some sizzling. When you try to stir fry too much food for the size wok you have, it will not cook and brown correctly like when you stir fry. The food will also stick to the wok. Stir fry cookbooks usually have a chart showing the amount of food you should be able to fit in a given size wok.
Excessive Sizzling May Equal Flareups-Gas Grill: The tight seal of a kamado style grill helps prevent flareups when the lid is closed. But if you are using a gas grill with the lid closed and are hearing lots of loud sizzling this probably means you are getting flareups from excessive fat or juices coming out of the meat. A few sizzling sounds are probably ok, but loud or long sizzling sounds are a good sign of flareups that may blacken and overcook your meat. You may need to move the food away from this area or off heat. You will often smell burnt food at this point.
Excessive Sizzling May Equal Drip Pan Issues-1: If you are using a drip pan to catch juices and fat running off the meat and you are hearing lots of sizzling, it may mean a problem. When I use a drip pan on my Egg I set it on shims to get it away from direct contact with the Plate Setter. When I use the Adjustable Rig with Oval Pizza Stone I often put the drip pan on a shelf one notch above the stone about a 1 1/2” separation. If the drip pan is in direct contact with the stone, the pan may get so hot that the drippings are vaporized upon contact and the resulting smoke is often acrid and not pleasant. You don't want to be adding this particular smoke flavor to your food.
Excessive Sizzling May Equal Drip Pan Issues-2: If you are using water or another liquid in your drip pan, sizzling sounds may indicate the liquid has evaporated and the drippings are falling onto the hot bottom of the drip pan. Check to see if you need to add more liquid.
Excessive Sizzling May Equal Drip Pan Issues-3: If you have a properly installed drip pan and you are still hearing sizzling (and smelling smoke) it may mean your drip pan is filled up and overflowing. It may also mean your drip pan is too small or is not placed directly under the meat. Open the lid and check for size and placement issues.
Food is Ready to Come to a Boil: If you are heating water in a pan to make pasta or cook potatoes or other veggies you will hear the pan of water starting to make a noise. The noise reminds me a bit of the noise a Kitchen fan makes. But if you start hearing this noise and you are not at the stove, you should get there to keep a close eye on things. I have a burner on my stove that is called a “Turbo Broil” burner. It is high wattage and you can go from zero to boil in the blink of an eye. I make sure I am at the stove when I hear the water noise I described. You may need to make a quick adjustment to the heat or slide the pan off the burner. Let your ears help you here.
SMELL: Your nose knows, often before your other senses tell you about potential problems.
Grill Not Ready: If you are smelling excessive smoke from your charcoal, it may be a sign that the charcoal is not ready to cook on. The second sign of this is the color of the smoke. If the fire is ready you will see a pale blue smoke. This is particularly important for me on the Egg I use for baking. I do not use any smoking wood on this Egg and I use a very smoke neutral charcoal on this grill, so I do not start baking until I get a minimum amount of smoke smell.
Quesadillas or Buns Ready: Rolls and other types of breads can cook up in the blink of an eye. I find it is best to toast then at around 350. This gives you time to get all the rolls on the grill without having to rush to get the first ones off again. When cooking Quesadillas, the outsides will toast up reasonably slowly and you still have enough time for the fillings to heat through. No matter what temperature you are using, if you smell “toast” drop everything you are doing and check the buns or quesadillas. If it gets to this point where you smell it, chances are the items are VERY well toasted. Act fast!.
Flare Up or Drip Pan Issues: As I described above in the sound section, excessive sizzling sounds often indicate problems with flareup or with the drip pan. The sizzling sounds will often be accompanied by the smell of burnt meat (flareups) or a noxious smell from burning fat drippings (drip pan).
Food is Done (Oven): Your mileage may vary depending on the type of oven and the degree of seal it has. With my electric wall oven, if I start smelling whatever food I am making this is a good sign that my food is about one minute from being done. I always set a food timer, but this gives me a cue that I should start heading to the Kitchen. Once in a while the food can be done early and smelling the food tells me I should go check it.
TOUCH:I will cover these items only in general since they are fairly well documented in most grilling cookbooks. But touch comes into play in two ways.
Grilling Temperature: There is the so-called 1-Mississippi test where you hold your hand 2 to 3” (5-7 cm) above the grill and count “1-Mississippi, 2- Mississippi, 3-Mississippi…” etc. There will be a chart telling you how many Mississippi’s (seconds) equals how many degrees or what cooking range: Low, Medium Low etc. Most grilling cookbooks have this documented somewhere in the front or back end material. It can be a reasonably reliable ballpark figure.
Food Doneness: These same cookbooks books also document a method where you touch the food item and parts of your nose or hand and compare the feel. Depending on where the match occurs this will correspond to a degree of doneness in the food. This too can be reasonably reliable if you do it right. I like to use my Thermapen instant read thermometer, but in a pinch the poke tests get you well with the ballpark.
FINAL RESULTS:When it gets down to the final step, eating the meal you have spent time preparing , it would seem like taste would be the main sense involved. To some degree, it is but your other senses come into play too. In particular sight. It is true what they say about eating with your eyes.
Sight-The Food: How the food is presented can play a big part in how much you appreciate the meal. Food arranged attractively on a serving platter “eats nicer” than food haphazardly tossed onto a plate. In some people’s mind the lack of attention to detail serving the food may translate into an equal lack of care being used preparing it.
Sight-The Environment: The Food Network had a show where they set out to prove that the environment you see can affect people’s perception of the food being served. They set up a test where they converted space into two different “restaurants”. They had the same chef prepare the same items for both restaurants. The same tasters were given free admission and were told they were rating two new restaurants that were about to open. One version had fancy decor with soft lighting, candles, tablecloths, cloth napkins, and fancy menus to look like a high end restaurant. The menus were hard bound into a menu book. The prices were higher and some of the items on the menu were described using their French names. The other version of the restaurant was closer to cafeteria style. Inexpensive tables with paper napkin and placemats, general area lighting, simple plain menus printed on paper with lower prices and no French titles. The results were amazing to say the least. Even though they were eating the same food, prepared by the same chef, the perceptions were totally different. The “fancy” restaurant got overall high marks, while the “generic” restaurant received average to poor marks. The same food item was often called “The best xxxx I have ever had” at the “fancy” restaurant and called “The worst xxxx I have ever had” . If I hadn’t seen this with my own eyes I wouldn’t have believed it. The take away from this test was that if you have a little time left and there is nothing further you can really do to help the food, take this time to make sure the environment and the way you present the food is the best it can be. This can often make more difference to your guests perception of the meal than any last minute tweak you might make to the food. As a result of this I have changed several things about the meals I make for guests:
- I try to have the Dining Room table all set and ready to go before my guests arrive. This way it looks like things are under control and there isn’t going to be a last minute scramble to pull everything together.
- If I can’t stay ahead of the dishes I am using as I cook, I do one of two things. Either bring them in through the Living Room door and not the Kitchen Door or if the come on through the Kitchen have the dirty dishes stacked neatly. Once again if it looks like things are clean and under control people minds are more at ease.
Oooh, Oooh That Smell…: How many times have people come to your house and commented that something you have made smells yummy? The Kitchen and the rest of the house are filled with the smell of some bread or dessert or something else you have made. Well if they can smell this, you can be sure they also can s have smell something burnt too. This may set your guests expectations lower where they may suspect something they will be eating may be burnt or overcooked This may not even be the case. You may have spilled something on a hot burner on you stove or the floor of your oven. The burnt food smell can linger for quite some time. Your guests have no way of knowing what is burnt, just that something is burnt. So before they arrive try to open some windows, put in the kitchen exhaust fan or anything else that may help get rid of any bad smells.
CONCLUSION: We were given 5 senses and while you may think food is mostly about taste, the other sense come into play too. As you are learning to cook or even as an experienced cook learn to make use of the additional information your other senses bring to the table (pun intended). In many cases they are giving you information that your other senses can’t supply.
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