Monday, January 25, 2010

All the senses at play in culinary school

Taste and smell are the most obvious of the senses needed for cooking, and certainly both have become more developed in me the last four months in culinary school. Or, perhaps, I have simply become more keenly aware of those senses.

"Did you taste it?" often is Chef Dan Fluharty's first question when he critiques a plate and finds something amiss in the seasoning. The only right answer is "yes."

Smell is a close second to taste in culinary sensory need. "What's burning?" Chef will shout above the kitchen din, his nose thrust into the air. Invariably, someone has left a pan too long on the fire, and whatever is in it is now inedible.

Sight and feel also play important roles, sight for many obvious reasons -- for color in meat, vegetables and overall plating design and appearance -- but also as a partner with feel to check for doneness.

As we prepared to grill skirt steak a while back, Chef Dan advised: "If you see moisture rising (in the form of blood) on the steak's surface, it's an indicator that it will be medium. This is mostly visual based on what you see on the grill; you're not going to be looking at the clock."

Combine that with the sense of feel:

"Is it practical to push a little thermometer into (the grilling steak)?" he asked. "No. So what do you do to detect doneness? Touch, touch and push, push." Fingertips on a piece of meat can tell a lot -- softness generally means it's not done, firmness may mean it's overdone; springy resiliency is the best outcome for red meat.

In what may seem a curiosity, the sense of hearing also plays a role, more so than what one might think. Here's an exchange between Chef Dan and classmates during a cooking demo last week:
Chef: "I'm putting the julienned leeks into the oil now. They'll cook fast, so keep a close watch."
Leeks hit the oil and begin to sizzle.
Chef: "What do you hear?"
Student John Briggs: "It's talking to you, Chef."
Chef: "Yes, it's talking. And it's a good thing for us to listen to."
The sizzling sound, as we are learning, can help judge when something is nearing doneness.

There's a sixth sense at play, too, I am learning. It's both the accumulation of the other five and an inner knowledge, based mostly on experience, that something is ready to serve.

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