- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Foods look wonderful when they are a beautiful golden brown, but browning also means big-time flavor. Everything from an English muffin to a roast is made marvelous by browning.

What is browning? Essentially, it is using heat to break down big compounds in foods. Harold McGee, author of “On Food and Cooking” (Scribner), points out that large compounds, such as carbohydrates, don’t have as much flavor as their component sugars. Large proteins are not as flavorful as their building-block amino acids.

Breaking down big compounds into smaller ones produces wonderful flavors, whether the breakdown is done with heat, such as browning and caramelizing; with aging, such as with fine cheeses; or with fermentation, such as with wine.

Let’s start with caramelizing, one of the most basic types of cooking that turns foods brown. To make caramel, we begin with table sugar, one compound, and heat it until it melts. (The temperature must be higher than 300 degrees.) As we heat more, the sugar breaks down and gets darker and darker.

We know that a light-colored caramel tastes different than a medium or dark caramel. Actually, chemists have identified 128 different sugars that are formed from the time sugar begins to melt to the time it becomes dark caramel.

Caramelization is a chemical madhouse, with large sugars breaking down and small sugars joining. Many of these sugars are brown and have the flavors we associate with caramel, but some are colorless and others bitter.

At any given time in the caramel-making process, there will be a different mixture of sugars. It’s no wonder, then, that a light caramel tastes so different from a dark caramel.

A more complicated type of browning occurs at much lower temperatures. It occurs in, among other things, the browning of cookies or a bubbling casserole. This browning can begin at a little above 200 degrees and is caused by a series of reactions called Maillard reactions (named for the chemist who first analyzed and wrote the formulas).

This type of browning involves not just sugar but also proteins. For it, we need protein and a reducing sugar, a sugar with a particular kind of end structure.

Most natural ingredients contain mixtures of sugars, and some are reducing sugars. Corn syrup, for example, is essentially glucose, a great reducing sugar. So, for wonderful browning, just think corn syrup. Adding as little as 1 teaspoon of corn syrup to a batter will change pitifully pale cookies into a beautiful golden brown.

Sometimes, no matter how much the heat is turned up, food won’t brown. Three things are necessary to make sure something browns well: protein, a reducing sugar (such as glucose or regular corn syrup) and an environment that is not too acidic.

If something is too acidic, it will not brown. A good example of this is sourdough bread, which sometimes appears pale. That is because it is too acidic to brown well. Many cookie recipes contain large amounts of baking soda, too much for good leavening. But there is a reason for this. The purpose is to make the batter alkaline so the cookies brown well.

Occasionally, cooks have the reverse browning problem. The issue is not how to brown, but how to prevent a food from browning before it is cooked through.

What can be done? I had a call from a chef in New Orleans who made wonderful light beignets, the fried dough rectangles sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar that are so good with coffee.

No matter how thin he sliced the dough, the beignets would get too brown before they were done in the center. He wanted to keep the high-protein flour that made the beignets light, so he couldn’t reduce the protein.

He did not have any sugar in the dough, so we couldn’t reduce the sugar. We were left with acidity. So I suggested he add a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar to the dough and, sure enough, the beignets were perfectly done in the center before they became too brown.

I was invited to critique a new restaurant before it opened. The chef had added sugar to the onion ring batter. Actually, what makes onions sweet is longer cooking. Those onion rings were deep brown with raw onions inside and they were terrible. The lesson here is not to add sugar to a batter when the food inside needs time to cook through. Since you don’t want a cake layer to brown too much, low-protein flour is generally used for cakes. And cake flour is acidic, which helps minimize browning.

To brown a roast chicken, basting with melted butter yields better browning than basting with oil. Butter is about 80 percent fat and 16 percent water, but it does contain a small amount of dairy products with both protein and sugars enough to promote good browning.

To make a magnificently browned roast chicken, I add a little corn syrup to melted butter for the juicy roast chicken recipe that follows.

Joel Antunes of Joel in Atlanta, named the 2005 best chef of the Southeast by the James Beard Foundation, is a master of flavors and makes maximum use of browning. For braised beef ribs, he places a coarsely ground spice rub on the meat, browns it, marinates it, vacuum seals it and cooks it below 220 degrees for 2 days.

He finishes it off by reducing the drippings to a few tablespoons and browns the meat again in this glaze. It is unbelievably delicious.

For juiciness, brining is the way to go, so I created a brine for the juicy roast chicken that follows. Normally, meat loses 30 percent of its moisture during roasting but brined meat loses only 15 percent. This translates to a much juicier product.

A mild salt solution goes into the muscle cells and causes some of the proteins to denature (unwind) and expose bonds, which then bond with some of the water, holding it in the cells during cooking. A mild salt solution also dissolves some proteins in the muscles, increasing juiciness.

Legs and thighs need to cook to more than 165 degrees to taste done, but the chicken breast dries out at more than 155 degrees. To ensure that the legs and thighs get more heat, I cook the chicken, breast side down, with the chicken placed near the back of the oven so that one leg and thigh will get more heat. Then halfway through, I turn the pan so that the other leg and thigh are near the back to get more heat. Finally, I turn the breast up just long enough for it to brown well.

The corn syrup and butter basting mixture provide sugar and protein for good browning. This produces a juicy, beautifully cooked chicken.

Juicy roast chicken

The 1 cup salt used here is to create a brine for the chicken. I gave this recipe out on a radio talk show and listeners called in to report that they had never had such good chicken.

1 6-pound roasting hen, chicken neck and giblets reserved, liver discarded

1 cup salt

Water

2 onions, quartered, divided

Leaf ends of 3 celery stalks, divided

10 sage leaves, divided

10 sprigs fresh thyme, divided

1 small orange, quartered

1 bay leaf

3 tablespoons dark corn syrup

1/4 cup melted butter

3 tablespoons cornstarch

Remove neck and giblet package from chicken and pull off flap of fat if there is one. (Discard liver.) Rub inside and out with salt.

Place chicken in a pot that is just large enough to hold it and tall enough to completely cover it with water. Add ice water to just cover the chicken, add remaining salt and stir until most of the salt dissolves. Place in refrigerator for 3 hours.

While chicken is in refrigerator, make a stock by simmering the neck, giblets (no liver), 1 quartered onion, leaves from 1 stalk celery, 2 sage leaves, 2 thyme sprigs and 1 quart water in a large saucepan over low heat for 1 to 2 hours.

Strain, discard vegetables and save stock and meat. Pull meat from neck, chop, if desired, and add to stock. Cut up giblets and add to stock.

Remove chicken from brine and rinse for several minutes under cold running water to remove all salt, inside and out. Arrange a V-rack in a roasting pan with sides. Pour 11/2 cups of just-made stock into prepared roasting pan. Place remaining 4 onion quarters, leaves from 2 stalks celery, 8 sage leaves, 8 thyme sprigs, orange quarters and bay leaf in chicken cavity.

In a small bowl, stir together corn syrup and melted butter. Brush chicken lightly with this mixture and place chicken on V-rack, breast side down. Place pan near back of preheated 475-degree oven so that chicken is parallel to the back. Roast 20 minutes, basting with pan drippings once. Turn pan so that other side is now close to the back of oven and roast for 20 minutes more, basting once.

Remove chicken from oven and turn oven down to 325 degrees. (Leave oven door partially open so oven temperature will come down quickly.) Turn chicken breast side up, brush well with corn syrup mixture and return to oven. Baste every 3 minutes until done. In 5 minutes, check breast meat temperature.

The ideal temperature at which to remove it is 150 to 154 degrees. If necessary, return to oven for an additional 5 to 10 minutes until chicken reaches this temperature. (Breast meat temperature rises about 2 degrees every minute in the oven at this temperature.)

To make gravy, add some of pan drippings (which are salty) to the stock with giblets and neck meat. Taste and add as much as possible, stopping before gravy becomes too salty. Add cornstarch to 1/4 cup cold water and stir this into stock and drippings mixture in a saucepan. Heat over medium flame, stirring constantly, until gravy thickens.

Allow chicken to stand at least 15 minutes after removing from oven. Discard bay leaf, onions and herbs. Cut up, carve or partially carve chicken and arrange on a serving platter. Drizzle with a little gravy and pass remaining gravy in a separate bowl.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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

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