By Lori Weisberg
Walk into any cooking store or thumb through a favorite culinary catalog, and chances are you’ll be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of gadgets and machines at the ready to chop, dice, mix, press, extrude and stir the makings of most any dish. We have become so mechanized in the kitchen that we tend to overlook two of the most important — and obvious — instruments we already have: our hands.
Making a meatloaf for Sunday supper? Don’t bother mixing all that ground beef, seasonings, eggs and breadcrumbs with an unwieldy spoon. Dig in, and use your hands.
Planning to wow your dinner guests with a warm apple pie encased in a killer crust? Don’t even think of touching that food processor sitting on your counter. Transform the butter, flour and ice water into a flaky crust, deftly using your palms and fingers.
Professional chefs frequently rely on their experienced hands for preparing dishes and testing the doneness of meats and baked goods, so why not get back to basics and give it a try at home?
It’s time to erase from your memory bank that childhood admonition from your parents to stop playing with your food.
“I think the overriding reason to use your hands is because they’ll tell you something your eyes can’t, and feeling something tells you the most possible information,” said Jack Bishop, editorial director of America’s Test Kitchen. “People often forget this. Their hands are a tool, and that doesn’t just mean they have a knife in them. Your hands are your fifth sense, and you’re using all your senses when you cook.”
At Hash House A Go Go, there are very few machines in the San Diego-area restaurant, points out executive chef and co-owner Andy Beardslee. What you will find are plenty of latex gloves because most everything is made by hand, including their irresistible buttermilk biscuits.
“It’s the way I grew up in Indiana. No one had machines in their kitchens. (At the restaurant) we go through thousands of gloves a month. Being a cook, you want to have your hands on the food, which is the only way you’ll learn how it should be.”
Among the restaurant dishes best made by hand are the meat loaf, biscuits and corn bread, crab fritters, crab cakes and chocolate bread pudding, noted Beardslee, who also co-owns The Tractor Room.
“For the bread pudding, we cut the bread by hand, toss it by hand, soak the bread with our hands because you have to do it by feel,” he explained. “You want to soak it in the chocolate cream just enough so it doesn’t fall apart but enough where it can get the chocolate cream soaked into the bread, and you can only tell that with your hands.”
Because cooking or baking by hand is second nature for the pros, they sometimes find it challenging putting into words the tactile sensation of preparing a dish that way. Pressed to describe the consistency of his biscuit dough, Beardslee finally comes up with an apt illustration.
“With the biscuits, it’s pretty much of a pressing thing and stirring thing with my hand as I’m pushing it all together,” he said. “Once it’s a formed dough, I’ll give it two turns. The texture should not feel like a bread, but almost like a thick oatmeal — sticky but not too sticky.”
Ultimately, it’s not the specific recipe that yields that perfectly tender biscuit or flaky pie crust, but the technique, he advised.
“You can use any biscuit recipe you want, but it’s how you make it that will determine the final outcome. Machines are just a shortcut and will make things tough,” Beardslee said.
That’s especially true when it comes to making pie dough, which loses its buttery, flaky texture if overworked by a whirring food processor. San Diego pastry chef Michele Coulon insists on making all her pie crusts by hand, including the 100 pies she makes herself during Thanksgiving for her La Jolla, Calif., dessert shop.
To watch her prepare pie dough is to understand the simplicity of it but also the practice needed to turn out consistently tender crusts.
She speedily uses two knives to cut the butter into the flour, quickly reducing the cold, large chunks into smaller pieces the size of hazelnuts. But once she adds the ice water, her hands are the only instruments in the bowl as she converts the loose mixture into a solid mass until there are no longer any bits of flour clinging to the bottom of the bowl. While it’s important to use your hands to mix the dough, she cautions that one should not overly handle the pastry because you risk warming up the butter, which should remain as solid pieces.
“This is the fun part where you get to be messy,” said Coulon, as she mixed her Southern Pie Pastry in preparation for making a berry pie. “Cooking is so much about feeling, tasting, smelling. Pies are my favorite thing to make, probably because I get to be messy and get my hands into it. Once it’s all in that one mass, you don’t want to knead it any more than that because you want to keep those pieces of butter, which is what will make the crust flaky.”
Bishop, of America’s Test Kitchen, offers a number of examples where using one’s hands is far superior to any instrument or gadget:
— “When you’re trying to see if a dough has risen enough,” says Bishop, “my trick is to press lightly on the dough, and if the indentation slowly fills back up, you know the bread is ready to be baked.
— “If you’re making a cake that’s supposed to be fudgy or has a streusel filling, instead of using a toothpick, use your finger to gently press the top of the cake. If it goes through the cake, you know it’s not done.
– “With a baked potato, the only way to know if it’s done is to grab it by its sides and see if it’s soft.
— “Rubbing spices into meat with your hands ensures you get a really even coat.”
San Diego chef Andrew Spurgin, executive director of Waters Fine Catering, prefers separating egg yolks from the whites in his hand as opposed to transferring them back and forth between the halves of the shell, and he always dresses a salad with his hands.
As for checking the doneness of meat, especially steaks, he relies on the finger test embraced by many professional chefs. To get a feel for what rare vs. well done meat should feel like, use your thumb and forefinger of one hand to grasp the fleshy area between the thumb and index finger of your other hand. That’s what rare meet feels like. Working your way up the underside of your index finger while squeezing it, it will feel progressively firmer, much like more well done meat. The more it is cooked, the less malleable it becomes.
“If you’re obsessed with using a meat thermometer and you keep stabbing that steak with a sharp object, the juices will come out, and you’re basically stabbing your steak to death,” says Spurgin.
Here’s another tip, says Spurgin: Tear your herbs and lettuce, which is usually preferable to cutting or mincing with a knife.
As he muses about the benefits of using one’s hands in cooking, Spurgin becomes almost rhapsodic.
“When you think of all your nerves and receptors in your hands, it’s amazing the tools we’re given,” he said. “It’s also a much more sensual thing working with your hands. Just cracking an egg in your hands is an erotic thing. I truly think it is.”
HASH HOUSE A GO GO’S FAMOUS CHOCOLATE BREAD PUDDING
1 large loaf French bread, crusts removed
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
5 egg yolks
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup Hershey’s syrup or melted dark chocolate
1 cup chopped Snickers bars
4 to 6 servings
Cut bread into 1 1/2-inch squares. In mixing bowl, whisk together brown sugar, egg yolks and heavy cream. Whisk in chocolate syrup. Add bread to liquid mixture and soak until two-thirds of liquid has been absorbed. Spray 8- by 10-inch baking dish with nonstick spray. Place chocolate bread mixture in pan, and scatter Snickers pieces on top. Additional chocolate syrup may be drizzled on top before being placed in the oven.
Place baking dish in a larger pan, and fill with hot water that comes halfway up the sides of the dish. Cover with foil, and bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour. When done, it should have a crusty edge and all Snickers pieces should be melted and absorbed by bread.
— From Andy Beardslee, Hash House A Go Go
Lori Weisberg writes about food for The San Diego Union-Tribune.
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