Tips & Tricks

How To Peel Onions Without Crying

Of all the kitchen inconveniences the cook has to live with, the one that generates the highest number of defensive strategies is no doubt the chopping of onions, and the associated teargas effect.

The reason why it makes you cry is explained in detail here, and if you like to read about enzymes and syn-propanethial-S-oxide, as do I, it is worth a read.

But to put it more simply, chopping onions causes the release of an irritant gas in the air, which, upon reaching your eyes, triggers a blinking and tearing reflex designed to wash it away. Yet another illustration, albeit an annoying one, of what a nifty machine the ol’ human body is.

Such an unusual tip could not go untested, so I soon tried it, using the butt end of a loaf of pain au levain and feeling both experimental and silly, but I am happy and amazed to report it worked perfectly.

Not all onions are created equal (the fresher the onion, the less you cry) and not all cooks are as sensitive, but this phenomenon explains the volume of tips and tricks floating about — some of them amusingly contradictory — designed to either hinder the release of said gas, or prevent it from reaching the eyes.

Some people rinse the onions in cold water after peeling, or chop them underwater. Some recommend keeping onions in the fridge, or plopping them in the freezer for a few minutes before chopping. Some chop from the stem end down, others from the root end up. Some recommend breathing through the nose, others only through the mouth, while others still hold a sip of water in their mouth, and try not to laugh and spit it out.

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Dehydrating Your Sourdough Starter

When people get curious about baking with a sourdough starter and I explain how it works, I can tell they are a little freaked out by this idea of keeping the culture alive, day in, day out, for ever and ever.

“This is too much responsibility,” they say, followed by variations on “This is why I don’t have kids!” or “Houseplants all die under my care!” and “What about my trip to Marrakech?”

I understand the sentiment, so I’m always quick to point out that a sourdough starter can be kept in the fridge for a little while without the skies caving in, and that if “a little while” becomes “indefinitely”, you can always dehydrate the precious blob into a dormant matter that won’t require regular attention.

This is a handy procedure if you’re about to go through a period of time when you won’t be able to care for it consistently or bake with it, but also if you’d like to share your sourdough culture with a friend who lives far away, and also if you’re smart and want a backup copy to restore in the event that your live starter has a disk failure (i.e. dies).

It’s very easy, and requires no special equipment.

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How To Tell When Meat Is Done

A few weeks ago, I read Tara Austen Weaver‘s book The Butcher and the Vegetarian, a memoir in which she writes about being brought up as a vegetarian and the challenges she faced as an adult, when she had to start cooking meat for herself to try to recover from a serious health issue.

The Butcher and the VegetarianIt’s a very good read, witty and honest, and even for readers like me, who don’t share her dietary background or meat-handling angst, there are a lot of elements to relate to in her story. I especially enjoyed the sections where she addresses the political and ethical sides of the meat question in a remarkably level and dispassionate way.

A number of things she wrote stayed with me after I’d turned the last page, but there is one short passage in particular, early on in the book (p.31), in which her brother gives a technique for testing the doneness of red meat. It’s a small thing, but I liked the tip so much I thought I would, in turn, share it with you:

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45 Things To Do With Fresh Sage

I recently remarked to a sympathetic friend how difficult it is to buy fresh sage around here. Sage isn’t used intensively in French cuisine, so it’s not part of the classic range of fresh herbs sold at produce shops or at the green market. But I enjoy its flavor very much, so I decided I would try and find seeds to grow my own.

Only days later, I walked past the sidewalk display of Etablissements Lion on my way home, and noticed that they sold potted sage plants that looked exceptionally healthy. I couldn’t resist; I chose the most beautiful one and adopted it.

It now rooms with our blooming strawberry plants on the bathroom window sill, but it is so bushy I thought I’d better start thinking of ideas to put it to good use. And I did what any modern person would do: I turned to twitter and asked, “What do you like to do with sage?”

The response was multicolored and inspired, and I thought it would be a pity not to share it with you. Surely there are other owners of expansive sage plants who would benefit. So here’s a compilation of the suggestions I collected — my sincere thanks go to the twitterers who kindly contributed their ideas.

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Chocolate Tasting: How To Taste Chocolate

Mast Brothers Chocolate

Last week I had the good fortune of visiting Tain-l’Hermitage, a town in the southeastern quarter of France, near Valence. It is right in the middle of the Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage wine country, in a gorgeous area that’s full of peach, cherry and apricot orchards. But me, I was there for the chocolate: Tain is also home to the Valrhona chocolate factory, and I’d been invited to take a tour.

We spent the day in paper hats, paper coats, and paper shoes (v. becoming), going in and out of large halls housing huge machinery, fat bags of cacao beans and ripples of chocolate, breathing in the intoxicating scents cacao emits as it is submitted to the many torments (cleaned, roasted, husked, crushed, ground, conched, molded, cooled, wrapped) that will turn it from bitter bean to the voluptuous antidepressant we know and love.

And the only thing I love more than chocolate is understanding how stuff works, so this was very much my idea of a happy Tuesday — despite the fact I’d had to get up at 4:45am to take the train, but I am nothing if not committed.

At the end of this full and instructive day, we were treated to a session with Vanessa Lemoine, the in-house expert in sensory analysis, a discipline in which the five human senses are used to describe and analyze products.

Among her responsibilities at Valrhona, she is in charge of training the chocolate tasters who assess the ten-kilo samples that are sent ahead of any cacao shipment. The beans from each origin are expected to conform to a particular flavor profile, according to the particularities of the cacao variety, the region’s terroir, and the production method that Valrhona and the growers have agreed upon. Any crop that differs significantly from that profile won’t be accepted for purchase. This is to ensure that the quality and personality of the single-origin chocolates as well as the blends remain steady, so that the chocolatiers and pastry chefs who have built their own recipes on a particular chocolate can in turn offer consistency to their customers.

The thing is, you can’t judge a crop by its bean: at this stage, the aromatic components are dormant, and its full potential will only be revealed after the beans are processed and turned into actual chocolate. So the sample beans go through a mini production line, and emerges as chocolate the tasters will grade along thirty different descriptors. A tough job, I’m sure — and I’m not being ironic.

It takes many training sessions to reach the finesse of palate that’s required of these tasters, but Vanessa Lemoine gave us a short primer on how to taste chocolate, and I thought it so interesting I wanted to share it here. The process is in some ways similar to wine tasting, so if you’re a honed wine taster, you’re that far ahead.

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