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Chef Stacy believes that cooking from scratch and using the best ingredients are the secrets to preparing delicious and memorable meals. She has created dozens of classes for the home chef and teaches students how to master culinary techniques and recipes in just one session. Read on to see what she's dishing up for The Oakland Press today....

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Grilling Gone Wrong

Yesterday at a picnic I attended, I happened upon a circumstance where a beautiful spread of potato salad, cole slaw, and bacon-scented baked beans was in serious jeopardy because of some very wrong misconceptions about how to use a grill.

I realize that I am an over-the-top food nerd, and proper cooking techniques are what I preach on a regular basis. I also know that most people, are unfamiliar with the rules of cooking, and puzzled about why I am so concerned with it. The only thing I can offer as an explanation is that I am a person with an overwhelming need to understand how things work and the reason why things are the way they are. The how's & why's of life are what make my mind race, my forehead crinkles with wonder, "why?"

The thing that attracted me to cooking was that cooking makes sense. There's a system, a format, rules, a framework. Though kitchens are notoriously fraught with chaos, there is a sense of organized chaos, if the kitchen is led by a chef who excels at logistics, strategy, and, also, a deep need for organization.

Good cooking and good food are not achieved by accident. Even recipes prepared with the finest ingredients are often a disappointment, because the cooking techniques were not correct. Worse, when inferior quality ingredients are used, in combination with improper cooking techniques, a bad meal is a guarantee.

Yesterday was an example of when these two culinary disasters collided at a picnic after a softball game. It started with a grill that was not preheated, followed-up with some frozen hamburger patties, and topped-off with someone in too big of a hurry to cook burgers for 40 people.

Now, I know that what I am about to say is going to make me sound like a total snob. My only retort is that I know I am a total food snob, and it's my job to be a food snob. Frozen hamburger patties are, to me, an example of what I am talking about when I say that I only eat meat when "I know it will be worth it". Frozen hamburger patties are just not very good. There is no polite way for me to say it, they are just not good at all.

Did you know that the only way to cook a frozen hamburger "properly" is to cook it while it is completely frozen, complete with it's indentations, white exterior, and ice crystals? It defies logic. Well, assuming that logic is predicated on the notion that cooking a frozen burger could turn out well.

Yes, the "best way" to cook a frozen hamburger patty is to keep it frozen until you place it on the grill. Because the meat was ground before it was frozen, so the meat is already 'compromised'. Also, the patties are thin, so it is easier for the patties to become "freezer-burned". Last, these patties are frozen for a long time, so when they are thawed, they're water-logged, making them impossible to work with when thawed. Also, the water-logged patties are nearly impossible to brown, even at very high temperatures.

Now that we've established that cooking frozen hamburger patties is a really bad idea, lets discuss how cooking them using a flawed culinary philosophy will end in disaster. Once it was determined that frozen hamburger patties were on the menu, and that they needed to be done instantaneously, the subsequent errors began.

Feeling the need to cook the burgers quickly, the first error was to try to cook as many burgers as could fit on the grates, thus cooling the temperature of the grill (which had not been pre-heated!). Now, lets review:

1. frozen hamburger patties are a waste of a cow's life. cows deserve better than to be ground up into hamburger, then left to ice over in a deep-freeze in a huge factory and wolfed down without conscious thought.

2. cooking foods while they are frozen is problematic.

3. over-crowding a pan, oven, grill, stock pot, etc., is a cardinal sin when cooking.

4. failing to pre-heat a grill, saute pan, oven, etc., is also a cardinal sin.

5. trying to cook 30 frozen hamburger patties on an already cool grill is a super-bad idea.

6. burger patties that were frozen are water-logged, once thawed.

7. ground hamburger, especially the cuts used for burgers, is fatty.

8. fat & water don't make for a safe combination when cooking.

Now that we've established some basic facts, it's time to revisit our little story. The apparent need to cook the burgers quickly, the grill was cranked all the way up to "high", the burgers were put on the lukewarm grates, and the oil and water started to drip, causing the flames to flare up, and a plume of black smoke.

The burgers cooked, but were torn and charred. It also took an incredibly long time to cook them since the grill was not preheated and was cooled significantly once the frozen patties hit the grates.

So, what do I want to you know about this long, sort of rude blog post?

1. bad food can happen to good people, when good people are given bad advice about cooking.
2. cooking methods matter.
3. hamburger is relatively inexpensive, using fresh ground beef is also easy to cook.
4. 'convenience' food is expensive, especially when it doesn't taste good, thus, there are some 'shortcuts' that are NOT worth taking.

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