Cooking with science may sound intimidating. But at Cook’s Illustrated it doesn’t refer to cooking sous vide or creating foams and powders. Instead, it means taking advantage of the scientific principles inherent in traditional, everyday cooking. Very often, this means unlocking the hidden powers of the most familiar ingredients in your pantry.
It all started with salt.
In the very first year of this magazine, we discovered that soaking your Thanksgiving turkey in a salt brine not only seasoned it more deeply but also caused the bird to retain more moisture as it cooked, so it ended up more tender. It was a revelatory discovery. (Though, amusingly, we boast in that article about testing 30 turkeys to make this discovery; these days, 30 turkeys would just be the beginning of our testing.)
For 22 years since then, we’ve been exploring the simple magic of familiar ingredients. It continues in the issue you’re holding now. Our goal for the Beef Stir-Fry with Bell Peppers and Black Pepper Sauce, for example, was to mimic the ultratender texture of stir-fried beef you find in high end Chinese restaurants. We ran through test after test trying to duplicate it, but in the end we discovered that the secret was just a bit of good old baking soda. Simply put, a quick bath with a little baking soda makes the meat more alkaline (as opposed to acidic). This in turn causes certain enzymes in the meat, called calpains, to become more active and cut the meat’s muscle fibers. As the meat’s fibers break down, its texture softens. And since the meat’s looser consistency retains water better, it’s less likely to contract and expel moisture when heated.
Yet another ordinary ingredient (though this one may be farther toward the back of your pantry) that has hidden culinary virtues: Molasses, it turns out, contains large compounds called malanoidins that, among other things, cause the oil-and-water emulsion of a vinaigrette to last not just for hours but for days.
We don’t deny the appeal of complex cooking, nor are we immune to the joys of technology. We use food processors, microwaves, stand mixers, and all the modern machines with pleasure and with appreciation of the way they can make culinary tasks faster and easier.
But very often, the key to a great, foolproof recipe is in a familiar box or jar in your pantry. Come along with us as we continue to explore the everyday magic that is cooking with science.
The Editors of Cook’s Illustrated