If You Can’t Stand the Heat…

Cooking has become a pretty serious hobby of mine, so much so that Jonathan once joked about putting up a grate (a la convenient stores) that he can pull down to lock me out of the kitchen.

It all started with my insane collegiate work ethic.  I was one stressed-out undergraduate.  Diploma in hand, I needed to find a relaxing activity, and over time cooking gradually fulfilled my stress-busting objective.  In its visceral immediateness, cooking is also pretty darn gratifying; if I feel stuck in some aspect of life, I can always head for the stove and whip up a delicious and satisfying accomplishment in an hour or two.

These days I consider myself handy and smooth in the kitchen.  I can work pretty swiftly in the knife skills department, and have gotten good at juggling multiple dishes at once.  So you can imagine my surprise a few weeks ago when I was quite literally unhanded by the heat.

I was getting ready to sear short ribs in hot butter.  While I was salting and peppering the meat, the grease was busy burning itself on the stovetop.  When I discovered the burnt butter, I thought, “That’s okay, I’ll just rinse out the pan and pop it back on the stove with a fresh slab of butter.”

Now, at this point, some of you, like me, have no idea of the seriousness of my efficiency-minded train of thought.  Others reading, however, will be seriously questioning my sanity and intelligence.  This post is dedicated to the former group of readers.

I put that pan in the sink, turned on the water, and within half a second, all hell broke loose.  I felt the spray of hot butter, released the pan, and ran for shelter.  KEY TAKEAWAY: YOU CANNOT POUR WATER ON HOT OIL. In my haste, I had left the water running, so the butter just kept erupting and sputtering all over the place.  My screams brought Jonathan into the room.  He quickly figured out what happened and came to the rescue with a broom to shut off the faucet from a safe distance.  Lucky for me, I was wearing glasses, long sleeves, and an apron.  Also lucky for me, I have ridiculous reflexes, probably an evolved defense mechanism from 26 years worth of klutzy living.  Here’s a photo of the aftermath:

Why, as a serious cook of three years, had I not known that I could not do what I just did?  Why doesn’t every cookbook come with some such warning?  I was pretty shaken up, because my stress-relieving hobby had just made me pretty stressed out.  It brought to mind Sara Miles account, in “Take This Bread,” of the time she slipped and dumped boiling water down her legs and feet, deeply scarring herself.  Albeit, she was carrying an industrial size pan of water, but still–this is the dark side of cooking, where even a splash of boiling water can do damage.

About a week after Jonathan and I finished wiping away every last drop of butter (including off the ceiling), we got an e-mail from a family member with the below video made by a fire fighting training school, demonstrating what happens when you throw water on a grease fire.  (Now, I did know that you’re not supposed to throw water on grease that is on fire; what I hadn’t realized was that it can still be pretty dangerous even when it’s not on fire.)  Basically, the fire erupted onto the ceiling and consumed the whole kitchen in seconds.  This scared the bejeezus out of me.

Lesson learned:  we think of cooking in terms of the physical, visible pieces of meat or vegetables.  But we need to be mindful of the invisible force of heat, without which, cooking just couldn’t take place.  I got thinking not only that heat can be very dangerous, but also that a good cook needs to understand and control heat in order to make good food.  (As the overcooked pieces of fish and limp vegetables from my early cooking days can attest.)

I don’t want to get so scared of the heat that I give up my beloved hobby.  Rather, I’m working on properly understanding and respecting it.  Alton Brown has the right idea, in his book “I’m Just Here For The Food”.  He says “A lot of the ink in this book is dedicated to the pondering of heat.”  (Just one more reason I love Alton.)  He continues: “Cooking is not defined by seasonings, glazes, sauces, infusions, dusts, rubs, or relishes.  It is defined by the application of heat.  Since most of us live in a world where heat is conjured by the stroke of a switch or the twist of a knob, we’re not inclined to give it much thought… Until a cook comes to terms with the intricate tango of matter and energy that defines cooking, he or she will remain in a world of darkness and doubt.”

Amen, brother.  May you all properly honor heat the next time you’re in the kitchen.

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