Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Once upon a time in the 1950s, before the days of nonstick cookware, my former husband and I started a boy’s boarding school. Thank goodness we started with just a few boys.

I knew very little about cooking, and scrambled eggs were my nemesis. I would frantically stir, trying to keep the eggs from sticking. They stuck all the more. I scrambled a dozen eggs at a time but, with my frantic stirring and sticking, they came out a knotty mess.

Fortunately, my German mother-in-law, Anna Hecht, came to visit and showed me how to scramble eggs: Heat the empty pan first. She got the pan hot, then poured in a little oil and tilted the pan to coat. Instantly, she poured in the beaten eggs and simply allowed them to stand on the heat for what seemed like forever.

If she thought they were cooking too fast, she lifted the pan from the heat but did not stir. When the eggs began to set, she took a big spatula and pushed the curds from the bottom to one side, which allowed the uncooked eggs to get to the pan. With just a few strokes of the spatula, she could make two eggs puff and look like more than my dozen.

Heating the empty pan is the secret. The metal expands, closing some imperfections, but most important, there is a hot surface. Eggs are liquid protein. When I poured them into the cold pan, they ran into every pit and scratch. Then when I heated the pan, I literally cooked the eggs into the pan. When the pan was heated first, the eggs cooked on the hot surface, not into it.

Grandma Hecht waited until the eggs were set before she shoved them to the side. A major part of sticking relates to whether the food in the pan is done. When foods cook, the proteins coagulate and the starch granules absorb water, swell, pop and exude starch. This thickens any free liquid, and the food becomes firmer. It is when this firmer state is reached that food generally stops sticking.

With many foods, the hotter, now dry, food surface browns. When this surface browning occurs, the food will no longer stick. This happens with pan-sauteed foods on top of the stove and with baked goods in the oven.

Let’s follow the preparation of boneless chicken fillets with a fabulous reduction sauce. For two breast halves, take a 10-inch skillet (not a nonstick skillet because you get better browning with a heavy skillet, such as cast iron or Calphalon). Heat the empty skillet first. It should not be smoking hot, but it should be hot enough so that the upper edge of the pan is warm to a quick touch.

Lift the skillet off the heat, pour in 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, and tilt to run the oil all over the bottom of the pan. Place the pan back on the heat, and immediately add the chicken breasts (rib side up). The breasts will sizzle and stick. You will see that they are really stuck, but don’t panic and start chiseling them. They will not come loose. As Chris Tracy at Calphalon says, “This is a Zen moment.” Think happy thoughts. All is at peace with the world. Look to the heavens. Have a sip of zinfandel if you are desperate. Just don’t touch the chicken.

After about 90 full seconds, which will seem like eternity, the breasts will brown and release from the pan all by themselves. You will be able to simply slip a spatula under each and flip it over. Now it will stick on the other side, offering you opportunity for another Zen moment.

Leave it alone until it browns. Then when it is free and unstuck, lift it to the serving platter. Add 1/2 cup of liquid to the pan. Scrape any browned stuck-on particles from the pan, add desired herbs, and reduce the liquid over high heat until only a few tablespoons remain. Stir in a little heavy whipping cream, and continue to reduce until the sauce thickens. Spoon this over the fillets, garnish and serve. (For specifics, see recipe that follows.)

These are the techniques for making a basic fowl with a quick reduction sauce. But they also work with fish fillets, pork, lamb and beef. (See salmon fillets with sweet mustard dill glaze recipe that follows.) Whatever the protein, when you drop it into the hot pan, it will stick and stay stuck until it browns and releases all by itself.

All of these same steps will occur in your oven. If you have greased or sprayed the pan with nonstick cooking spray (which you could also have used in the skillet on top of the stove) and cooked the cake, muffins or cookies until the bottoms are lightly browned, they will release and come out of the pan nicely.

A few words about cookies: Cookies can be so cemented to a pan that you have to soak them off. Some cooks erroneously think that not greasing the pan will prevent cookies from spreading. The cookies spread because of the type of fat or because the batter is thin.

Not greasing the pan will not solve this problem. To prevent cookies from sticking, bake them on the new release foil or silicone sheets. Or line the baking sheets with parchment or use a heavy cookie sheet sprayed with nonstick cooking spray.

Cookies have a brief moment of perfect opportunity. When you first take the hot pan out of the oven, the cookies will tear apart if you try to remove them. After about 2 minutes, they will have cooled enough so that you can remove them intact perfectly. After 10 minutes, they may be cemented to the pan.

I do all my baking on a large pizza stone that I keep on a shelf about 8 inches above the oven floor. With baked goods, there is a fight between the dough or batter getting warm and rising and the heat from the top of the oven forming a crust, which holds it down.

I preheat the oven (including the stone) for at least 30 minutes and then place the baked good on the hot stone, which gives it instant heat from the bottom. Because it is low in the oven, it gets a good head start rising before the top starts to crust.

The hot stone also provides even heat, which minimizes the effect of the heating cycles of the oven. Also, with the even heat of the stone, I end up with a beautiful, lightly browned bottom crust and never have to worry about the bottom burning.

So to minimize sticking, make sure you grease with oil, melted shortening or butter with oil, or spray the pans with nonstick cooking spray. Then you must be patient. Wait until the food is done or lightly browned before removing it. The recipes that follow illustrate stove-top nonstick cooking.

Lemon chicken with thyme

For a quick, delicious dinner dish, try these seared boneless chicken breasts with a classic reduction sauce. I love to serve this with fresh asparagus that has been oiled and cooked under the broiler for 4 minutes flat and/or broiled tomato halves topped with vinaigrette and buttered bread crumbs.

2 medium boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Salt and white pepper, to taste

2 tablespoons very mild olive oil or vegetable oil

1/4 cup dry white wine, such as sauvignon blanc

1/4 cup chicken broth

1/2 teaspoon instant chicken bouillon

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, pulled from the stem

1 bay leaf

1/3 cup heavy cream

Zest (grated peel) of one lemon

Sprinkle chicken breasts with salt and pepper. Place each breast between two pieces of waxed paper and lightly pound the thick end to make breast more equal in thickness.

Over medium-high heat, heat a 10-inch skillet until upper edge of pan feels hot to a quick touch. Remove from heat, pour in oil and tilt to run oil over the pan. Return to heat and immediately drop breasts into the pan. The breasts will sizzle and stick.

This is a Zen moment. Think happy thoughts. Twiddle your thumbs, but don’t touch the chicken. After about 90 seconds, which will seem like an eternity, the breasts will brown and release all by themselves. Turn each over. Again, they will stick. Wait again until they brown and release and then remove them to a platter.

Pour wine and broth into hot pan. Scrape pan to loosen any stuck-on particles. Add bouillon, thyme and bay leaf. Boil on high heat and reduce until only a few tablespoons remain. Stir in cream and continue to reduce until sauce thickens, then stir in lemon zest. Remove bay leaf. Slice each fillet at an angle into 3 pieces. Spoon sauce over fillets and serve immediately. Makes 2 servings.

Salmon fillets with sweet mustard glaze

The hint of sweet apple gives an interesting complexity to the mustard and perfectly sets off the salmon.

1 medium (12-ounce) skinless salmon fillet

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper

2 tablespoons very mild olive oil

3 tablespoons apple jelly

1/2 cup prepared mustard with seeds

1 teaspoon chopped fresh dill weed

Several sprigs fresh dill to garnish

Sprinkle fillet with salt and pepper on each side; rub to spread around. Over medium-high heat, warm a 10-inch skillet until the upper edge of the pan feels hot to a quick touch. Remove from heat, pour in oil and tilt to run oil over pan.

Return to heat and immediately drop fillet into pan. Fillet will sizzle and stick. This is a Zen moment. Think happy thoughts. Twiddle your thumbs, but don’t touch the salmon. After about 90 seconds, which will seem like an eternity, the salmon will brown and release all by itself. Slip a spatula under it and turn it over. Again, it will stick.

Wait again until it is brown and releases. You will be able to see from the side how deeply the fillet is cooked. If you like salmon medium-rare, you will probably want to remove it to the platter right after it browns. If you like it medium-well, you may want to cover the pan and allow it to cook for a minute more and then remove it to the platter.

Add 2 tablespoons water, plus jelly and mustard to hot pan. Scrape pan to loosen any stuck-on particles. With constant stirring, boil until sauce thickens. Boil down until you have only a few tablespoons.

Remove from heat. Stir in dill and spread sauce over salmon. Garnish with sprigs of dill. Makes 4 servings.

Food scientist Shirley Corriher is the author of “CookWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking” William Morrow).

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