When I was in culinary school, kitchen timers were off limits for all but one thing, hard boiled eggs (see below). The first few weeks of school we thought this was absurd-no timers?! What would we do if a recipe said “cook 20 minutes”…could we remember when we put it in the oven while we were working on three other things at the same time? Our teacher, the amazing and incredible Catherine Pantsios, quickly taught us to judge the doneness of our food using visual and tactile clues. I’ve become so used to this way of cooking, I often have to dust off my kitchen timer when I really do need it. It has its place in a kitchen but, not for the day to day cooking most of us do.
It is really easy to fall back on time recommendations in a recipe but, any good recipe writer will include a suggested time plus a visual clue; “saute 5 minutes, or until soft and golden brown”. The ‘soft and golden brown’ is what you’re going for, forget the 5 minutes. Every stove and every oven on the planet are calibrated differently. Medium high on one stove might be medium low on another, causing the suggested 5 minutes to become 3 or 7. I had a student tell me that everything in his oven took at least 10 minutes longer to cook than his recipes said. I told him to get an oven thermometer ($5 at any hardware store or supermarket) and when he put it in his oven, he realized it was running almost 30-degrees lower than he thought. If he had been wedded to suggested cooking times in his recipes, he’d be eating food that was no where near done cooking.
Some of the visual & tactile clues to get used to using are touch/texture, taste, temperature, and color.
**Touch/Texture: When food is cooking, its texture transforms. Take a steak-when you feel a raw steak, it’s ‘squishy’ with no resistance at all. A steak cooked medium rare still has a bit of squish but, you will feel some resistance when you gently poke your finger onto the meat. Professional chefs almost always judge the doneness of meat by touching it.
**Taste: Say you are a reducing a wine based sauce, the recipe might say cook 10 minutes, or until reduced by half. If you taste the sauce in 10 minutes, it might be bland and have a strong alcohol flavor. Ten minutes or not, keep reducing! You want to taste a robust sauce with the flavor of the wine, but not the alcohol. Tasting it is incredibly important in detecting it’s doneness.
**Temperature: Larger cuts of meat are tough to judge by touch but, they still can’t be driven by a recipe’s time. If you’re roasting a chicken, there are a few visual clues to tell when it’s done-the meat starts to pull away from the leg bone, for example. But, the best way to tell if it is done it to take the temperature. An instant read meat thermometer is something everyone should have in the kitchen. Take the meat out of the oven, shut the oven door, take its temperature in the thickest part (in a chicken this is between the leg and thigh), and either leave it out to rest before cutting it or put it back in the oven to finish cooking. The time on a recipe like this is a good guideline but, the temperature is the only true test. I always start checking the temp at least 10 minutes before the recipe suggests.
**Color: One other way to judge the doneness of food is color. Fish and seafood are a great example here. When you cook a piece of fish, it is totally translucent to start. Once it cooks, the flesh of the fish becomes opaque. This is a cue to test if it is done. It is not the only one, especially on a thick piece of fish like halibut (in which case I rely also on texture by inserting a small knife into the center of the fish-it should go in and out with no resistance). Thinner cuts of fish, like sole, snapper and some salmon, can be judged by color. Shrimp too, they go from translucent to pink when they are cooked.
As you continue to cook, start becoming more reliant on the visual and tactile clues written in your recipes. Don’t be so time dependent and you’ll become a much better cook.
I mentioned the constant exception to my rule, hard boiled eggs. Catherine taught us to use the Julia Child method when hard boiling eggs and I can tell you it works every time. When I say it ‘works’ I mean you end up with eggs that have a bright yellow yolk, no green, and a yolk that is tender but not so tough you could bounce it like a super ball! Try it next time you cook eggs and let me know if it works…
Perfect Hard Boiled Eggs
Place your eggs (the number doesn’t matter) in a pot in one layer. Cover them with cold water. Put the pot on the stove over high heat. Bring the water to a rolling boil and, as soon as the water boils, remove the pan from the heat, cover it tightly, and set your kitchen time for 14 minutes. Meanwhile, set aside a large bowl of ice water. When the timer goes off, carefully transfer your eggs to the ice water. When the eggs are cool enough to handle, you can use them right away or drain them and put them in the fridge.