Rules are for Fools: Cook Like a Mad Scientist, Says Alton Brown

Food Industries

The most important ingredient in every meal isn’t salt, or pepper, superb olive oil or the freshest produce. It’s not even love – sorry, Grandma. The most important thing you can put into your food is relentless questioning, says Good Eats chef and presenter Alton Brown. This old adage says it best: rules are made to be broken. And sometimes, unlearning is as important as learning.

Having studied at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, VT, Brown learnt classic, tried and true methods of cooking. But why do we so readily accept cooking methods? They work, but there are very few other fields where we’ll settle for ‘this works’ and leave the methodology unchanged for hundreds of years, if not more. Innovation has skirted cooking for a long time, so Brown started to question what he’d been taught and experimented with his own methods for the most basic conventional food wisdom, like how to sear the perfect steak, boil pasta, and make pie dough.

How did he do this? By approaching cooking like a scientist. In its truest form, food isn’t made up of ingredients, it’s made of particles. So he switched an apron for a lab coat and got thinking about what his food was actually made of – the muscle fibers of meat, the dense protein and starch of dried pasta, the wheat within pie crusts – and found new, better ways to cook them.

In this video, Brown explains how to cook each of these staple food items through the lens of scientific enquiry. It echoes the mission of Heston Blumenthal, a British chef who once tried to re-invent classic French dish 'duck à l'Orange' MacGyver style by stuffing an orange-flavored smoke bomb inside a duck. It didn’t go well, but you can’t fault him for innovation. Brown’s food hypotheses are a little more down to earth, and will break outdated circuits in your cooking habits for the better, without the fireworks.

Alton Brown's most recent book is EVERYDAYCOOK: This Time It's Personal.

  • Transcript


Alton Brown:  I am constantly surprised by the number of cooking rules, accepted cooking concepts that can and should be broken. And even in the time that I've been making shows about food I've had to face my own lack of imagination. I used to be a proponent of the old fill a big pot of water and bring it to a boil to cook your dried pasta and I accepted it because I had been trained by people that beat it into me. And then later if you question these things you realize gee, I can actually cook dried pasta better in a very small amount of cold water that's brought to the boil. For very often searing a steak is best done after you've done most of the cooking, which is not what has been taught. So I think that when it comes to food innovation and kind of day-to-day tips to get better food on the table requires constant questioning. The word why, which most of us didn't ask in food 20 years ago, is now the most important word that we can use. Why? Why do we do this? Why have we always seared steak before we finished cooking the steak? Why don't we roast it and then sear it? These are all questions that we have to kind of constantly ask. But the pasta water one is probably the most simple one I can think of. We have all been taught to boil or pasta in massive amounts of water and it absolutely makes no sense whatsoever when you think about it and when you start asking the question why.

A lot of figuring out how to handle your food is based on trying to have a clear understanding of the actual food, what is in that food and the heat that you're applying and what you want to get done. Let's say that you want a nice big juicy steak that's medium rare but has a really great sear on the outside. Now a lot of people would say well fine we're going to take that out of the refrigerator and we're going to get a pan really hot or a grill really hot and we're going to slap it on there and we're going to turn it over and we're going to stick it with a fork a few times and then we're going to call it done. But when you start really thinking about what a steak is made up of, the system of muscles, myofibrils and the things that actually work inside a muscle and the chemicals that are involved you start to realize wow what I really need to do is think of it as three different thermal trips. I get it out of the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature because that is going to allow for a faster cooking. I want a really good sear but I want most of the interior of the meat to be medium rare. Okay, well in that case what I really need to do is to make my primary cooking method about what I want most of the meat to be.

So, what makes sense, I treat it like a roast. I put it in the oven at a lower temperature; let the inside of the meat get closer to that medium rare temperature; take it out; rest it for a little while; salt it and then sear the outside. So you actually start thinking about it as two different pieces of meat. I'm cooking the interior of the meat and I'm cooking the exterior of the meat and they're actually two different processes. That sounds complicated but actually it's not. It does however require that you understand something about what meat actually is and how it actually works.

Cooking pasta, we've always brought huge amounts of water to a boil and dumped it in. Why have we done that? Well, a lot of people kind of argue about how we got into the habit of doing that and it would take a really long time to discuss that. But in examining it as a practice say why does this make sense? What are we trying to do? We're trying to rehydrate something without overcooking it. We're trying to make it al dente, that is we want it to be a certain texture in the tooth; we don't want it to be mushy; we don't want it to be too done. Well, by cooking it in boiling water we still have to think about the fact that we're saturating a very dense dried piece of starch and protein, most dry pasta being made with relatively high protein wheat varieties. So what do we really need to do?

Well, we need to bring it to a boil. That's true. Because we've got some certain expectations for the outside of that noodle from a texture standpoint. But the wise thing is to actually start it, at least in my opinion is to start it in colder water so that we're slowly bringing it up to temperature, which gives more time for the starches to rehydrate without actually over cooking. And it's just a matter of kind of thinking about what does this food actually need from a realistic standpoint? What is it and how is heat and water going to affect it? And when you kind of break it down that way it leads you to some hypotheses, which hopefully lead you to some experiments, which hopefully lead you to better food.

Let's talk about pie dough. Pie dough is the reason that most people don't make pie because it's almost impossible to teach how to do it through a written recipe. You really do need to be able to do it next to someone. And that's why we used to be better bakers so we used to learn from our grandmothers, our parents being right is there doing it. We don't anymore we learn off of the Interwebs and off of books. But here's the thing, you've got to make something wet in order to bring it together to a dough. But the problem is is that water and the proteins in wheat flour very often form this very, very elastic matrix that we call gluten. Now there are a lot of ways to say well we're just going to use a gluten-free flour and we start laying in all these other factors and that's fine, but you can also just change the nature of the liquid. Nobody said that you should only use water. And in fact when I make pie dough I use vodka instead of water because it's a liquid but it's got a lot less actually water in it and that water tends to stay bound to the ethanol that is in the alcohol, rather than binding up as much with the wheat proteins. And we're not talking about enough, it's not like it's a martini or anything, but it will actually give you a better quality pie dough that won't be gummy, won't be as hard to work with and it will take a lot less liquid. So there's just another thing of thinking of I need to know what my ingredients are and how they act. Okay, water and flour do this I don't want that; what else can I use? Vodka. You've got some in the freezer probably.