Monday, December 10, 2012

Better Living Through Chemistry (or Why Julia was Deluded!)

It's very rare when you can say that Julia Child was flat-out wrong. It's even more wondrous to say that not only was Julia wrong but that Escoffier was wrong too. It's almost downright iconoclastic to say that not only were they wrong but that they were wrong in that most classical of French techniques — stock making.

And yet they were.

Welcome to the modern world of technology and chemistry!

The first crack in the facade is that you frequently hear them talking about "refreshing the stock". You need to keep adding in spices, etc. to "freshen" the stock. Why would you need to do so? Shouldn't the stock already be fresh? Shouldn't the spices already be there?

The answer as many of you might know is that what we think of as taste is really smell and spices consist of volatile molecules that dissipate in the air. Particularly when they are boiled.

Classical stock making consists of boiling the living daylights out of a standard flavor mixture. The short version is that it consists of vegetables plus meat plus aromatics. First the vegetables are fried, then the meat and aromatics added. Then a ton of water and the whole thing is brought to a simmer. The oil allows the oil-soluble volatile compounds to get transferred to the water and you must skim off the fat that comes to the surface. When the meat and vegetables have given up all their goodness to the water, you have stock.

Classical stock makes the house smell good§. That's another way of saying that the volatile compounds are dissipating in the air and you will need to find a way to "refresh" them later because they are being lost.

The trick consists of not losing the volatile molecules in the first place. This is not a particularly original idea. It was first suggested by Heston Blumenthal a while ago and given more modern credence by Nathan Myhrvold in his epic Modernist Cuisine.

However, you must own a pressure cooker.

The fundamentals of stock making remain in play. The onions and vegetables must be fried. That's Maillard for you. The meat must be roasted (if making brown stock). That's also Maillard. However, instead of boiling it, you pressure cook for a much shorter time (at a higher temperature) and you filter it after it cools back to room temperature.

Your stock will be amazingly concentrated and you will have done it in half the time.

Given the absurdly cold weather, the CC had sourced some organic beef shin bones and went about making a classical "brown stock" in order to make French Onion Soup. The recipes for both follow below.

Here are a few tricks that you might not have heard of. They are actually quite common among chefs but the CC never sees any of these "dark arts" being published in the literature. (Why would they give their secrets away?)
  1. Toss in 2-3 pods of star anise into the broth when you are making it. Star anise contains anethole which is a polyphenol. It's both distinctly sweeter than sugar and also will react with sulfur in the onions to turn into the wonderful aromatics characteristic of the Maillard reaction. This intensifies the "meatiness" of the broth. If used in moderation, you will not smell the characteristic "anise smell" in the broth. (Consider this as the Vietnamese contribution to classical French cooking!)
  2. Toss in a handful of dried shiitake mushrooms. Alternatively, if you are feeling flush in cash, toss in some dried porcini mushrooms. The mushrooms amp up the existing umami from the vegetables and the meat by adding their own guanylates to the mix. (On a side note, chefs frequently "amp" up commercial beef broth by just tossing in a handful of the cheap dried shiitake mushrooms, boiling for a bit and filtering. Yes, it is that effective!)
  3. When roasting the meat, it's traditionally tossed with flour which will brown a bit. Toss it with condensed milk instead. Once more, this is Maestro Maillard riding to the rescue. The condensed milk just has more of the proteins in a concentrated framework.
And here are some of the tricks to really impress your chef friends:
  1. After cooking the stock in the pressure cooker ("no skimming, no hard work"), all the fat will be on the surface. This is the magic of high-heat, no boiling. You can just skim it off with a ladle. Then pass the broth through three layers of folded cheese cloth. Do not press the cloth but it's fine to let it drip dry. The volume will reduce drastically. This is clarification by filtration. Chill immediately in an ice bath. This is important.
  2. If you want to clarify it further, chill overnight, scrape the fat off the top, reheat without boiling, and do process [1] again. Your chef friends will be absolutely amazed at your consommé and you will have done it for a tenth of the classical effort which involves egg whites. (Incidentally, the egg whites are just a less efficient version of the same filtration described above AND they cause substantial loss of the volatile flavor molecules which is what we want in the first place!)

† To be fair to Julia, she did explore the idea even back then. However, the pressure cooking technology of her time kinda sucked. Modern pressure cookers are much more precise so she wasn't really wrong. At least, for her time. But times change and technology evolves.

‡ Just too early really.

§ There are many practitioners of "modernist cuisine" that think that the kitchen must have no smells whatsoever. They do have an excellent point but this is practically impossible for most of us so we must live with reasonable compromises while pursuing that flighty temptress, perfection.

Brown Stock


2 beef shin bones
1 large onion
1 large carrot
2-3 cloves garlic

2-3 pods star-anise
4 dried shiitake mushrooms

black pepper


First, roast the bones at 450°F for about 40 minutes. They will give off a lot of fat. Discard or use for other purposes. They should be lightly browned.

Fry the onions, garlic and the carrot in the pressure cooker. Add the bones and fry some more. Add all the ingredients, cover to the top with water and let pressure cook for at least two hours. You will need to fiddle with the heat so that there is no hissing at all. (No losses!)

Let the pressure cooker cool down naturally which will take the better part of an hour.

If you do this right, when the broth cools almost all of the fat will be on the surface. Another advantage of using a pressure cooker. Using a ladle you can just skim the fat right off.

On a coolness note, you can hear the bones crack inside the pressure cooker at some point. Not to worry. The goodness is being extracted.

You should chill the broth overnight and skim the fat that will accumulate at the top. You can freeze the broth at this point if you like.

French Onion Soup


16 large onions (yes!)
6 cups beef broth

1 tbsp flour

olive oil

stale bread (read below!)
1/3 cup grated gruyère
1/4 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano


At least, for this the CC is happy to report, there's no bettering classical technique so you'll just have to get down to it.

Cut the onions into semi-circles.

Heat the butter and olive oil in a large pot. If you follow Julia, it should be all butter but the CC has found that the mixture works better. Add the onions to the pot. Turn the heat onto medium-high and let cook for an hour. Stir every 20 minutes. Towards the end you will probably need to stir every 5 minutes or so.

The onions will turn into a rich dark color. It may take longer depending on the moisture content.

Add a tablespoon of flour, and let it cook for about 5 minutes.

Add the broth and bring to a boil. Let cook for about 25 minutes on medium-low heat.

You will need stale bread that is preferably naturally leavened and let it dry out. Cover the piece with the grated cheese and stick it under the broiler for about 3 minutes. Be very careful. This has a tendency to burn. 30 seconds the wrong way and you will have a burnt mess. Best to keep checking.

Ladle the soup over the bread-cheese combo. Slurp.

No comments: