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Which tests do you find useful?

post #1 of 11
Thread Starter 
Hi again :)

I continue to practice slowly, trying to build up some confidence/competence in the kitchen. To that end, there are some tests that as a beginner I've found to be useful, such as the thud test for bread to see if it's baked, or the poke test to give an idea of how beef should feel at different stages of cooking.

As I'm sure they are only the tip of the iceberg, it occurred that this was the ideal place to ask - what are the tests, tricks of the trade etc. that you have found useful?

I'm looking for anything from how to judge when a pan has reached the right temperature, to using a skewer to test if a cake is done.

Thanks
Andy.
post #2 of 11
The cooking knives section has a thread on sharpness tests.

Candy cooking has all the different soft/hard ball/crack tests.

Pasta is more about actually biting to test for al dente than time until you gain lots of experience.

You should couple your poke tests for meat with an actual meat thermometer so you get an accurate feel for meat doneness. Similar tests are to insert a metal skewer into the meat then touch the skewer to the skin just under your lip to feel the actual heat.

Hand tests over the coals to judge heat at the grill.

Bread dough has a poke test for kneading and rise.
Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
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Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
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post #3 of 11
I don't like the skewer test for cakes. Too often leads to deflating an undone cake IMO.
post #4 of 11
Thread Starter 
Thanks phatch - I do have a meat thermometer that I use while roasting beef. I've not got onto working with syrups, jams, candy etc. but I hope to do so and try those tests out for myself.

I'm not familiar with the poke test for bread during kneading/rise, I have come across the window pane test when kneading.

Many of these things I can see the value of as a guide whilst developing experience - which is why I'd be grateful for any tips, links to guides etc that may have helped others in the past.

There are other tests like that which rouxbe.com calls the 'Water Test' to achieve an ideal temperature to introduce oil/food to the pan without sticking. This is achieved whereby a dry pan is heated to the point at which a droplet of water when introduced to the pan will retain cohesion, and run about the pan like a small ball of mercury. As much as that is interesting to reproduce and very doable, I can't imagine that many people consistently calibrate their pan as it were like that before cooking - do chefs do this in their culinary school days? I'm still quite tentative with pans - not getting anything like the heat in them that I seem to see chefs on TV use.

jbd - I've only made a few cakes so far. Would you say that the skewer test is safe to use if the cake shows that it is starting to pull away from the sides of the cake tin?
post #5 of 11
I like it, but you have to use two other tests first, before going and poking a hot cake - first look at the edges, and they may not yet be detached from the pan, but they 'look cooked' and then the touch test, where you very very gently touch the surface - i use my palm so i don;t make a hole - and feel i9f there is any resistance to your very slight pressure. The worst that ever happened to a cake when i did this was that i got a very very slight depression where i touched, that didn;t collapse. Then if the cake passes that test, I proceed to the toothpick/skewer test (wood or bamboo, not metal, because it has some texture that the crumbs will stick to) and i like my cakes to have a crumb or two stuck to the toothpick, but no wet dough.
"Siduri said, 'Gilgamesh, where are you roaming? You will never find the eternal life that you seek...Savour your food, make each of your days a delight, ... let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.'"
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"Siduri said, 'Gilgamesh, where are you roaming? You will never find the eternal life that you seek...Savour your food, make each of your days a delight, ... let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.'"
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post #6 of 11
I rarely pull out my thermometers, since they always have some problem or other, the instant reads end up without battery because they hit something in the drawer and stayed on, they take longer than instant, and i don;t have the patience, the traditional ones don;t stay put and anyway are around the edge of the pan where the heat is often greater (if you have a small pan) and you can't stir while you have that thing hanging there... so i use the glass-of-cold-water soft ball/hard ball/ etc test for sugar syrup and i found that the thermometer is ABSOLUTELY USELESS in making jams, because it depends on how much pectin is in the fruit - some are ready at a lower temp than others, depending on how green the fruit is. I think the eye and hand are better judges of these things. I use the dish in the freezer test for jam - put a couple of saucers in the freezer and when the jam seems to be getting thick, drop a half tsp on it, and tilt it - it should sort of harden a little, and you push your finger along the dish under it, and it makes little wrinkles on top.

This is the best, in my opinion. Double in volume is not really as good, doesn;t tell you what the dough is really like inside. If you poke the dough with a wet finger, up to the first knuckle, and the hole slowly fills in, but leaves an indentation, it's ready to either press down and re-rise, or to bake, if it leaves a hole and sort of collapses, you shouldn;t bake it, but press it and let it rise again - it's overrisen and will make a bread with a huge cavity inside and it will be dry and awful. If it is very elastic still and there is no sign of indentation, it's not risen.

I ALWAYS use this for pancakes. It's the only one that really tells if the pancakes will cook right.
For a pan i'm going to cook something at high heat, and need to put oil, i heat it till it radiates heat if i hover my hand over it (don't touch it!!!) and then put the oil or butter in.
Oil is nice and hot when it looks ripply, or when it runs fast when you tilt the pan. Slow oil is not ready. Smoking oil is usually too hot, and if i understand correctly, produces toxins at the smoke point.
Butter is ready when it foams up and then the foam subsides (good old Julia Child's words there).

As i said above, yes, but in some cases, if it's pulling away from the sides it's already too cooked. If you want a dry texture in the cake that's ok, but not if you want it moist. It might barely detach in some points when it's ready. It might look as if it's about to detach.
Oh and when you use the skewer test, don;t pull out the cake, because often it's the jiggling of the rack being pulled out that makes it fall, not the skewer - in fact, i've put skewers in very wet cakes where the skewer came out really coated in batter, and the cake didn;t fall. But i stick my hand in the oven. (i have a big one, so that might not be possible for you without burning yourself.)

Another intuitive test is for creaming in cakes. I always taste all along the way (one of the joys of baking is you get to taste the raw batter!) - if it's unpleasantly grainy, it's not ready for the eggs. If, once the eggs are in, it's beautifully soft and fluffy on the tongue, like a nice buttercream frosting, it's creamed enough.

Personally, unless you are baking for a bakery or something, I think too much reliance on mechanical means detracts from your cooking and certainly from the enjoyment. It's similar to medicine, when doctors had few tests, they had to really look at the patient, touch him, listen to him, not only his heart and lungs but what he had to say. Now most doctors just send you to the lab. They've forgotten how to diagnose, and often miss things. Formulaic methods take away your participation in the process. I can say that for many years i had an oven without a thermostat - it was just on or off. I learned to bake everything in that stove, like my grandmother did in a wood stove. I weould put a rolled up ball of foil in the door, and the amount it was ajar would regulate the heat. I have an old cookbook that says to put a piece of fine writing paper in the oven, and count - if it turns brown in x seconds, it's ready to cook cakes, if it takes y seconds, it's ready to cook bread, etc. When you can do that sort of thing, i think you've truly mastered the art of cooking. But if you salt your food with a measuring spoon, and even if something looks wrong you continue to follow the recipe exactly, you aren;t really cooking - in my humble (or not so humble?) opinion.
"Siduri said, 'Gilgamesh, where are you roaming? You will never find the eternal life that you seek...Savour your food, make each of your days a delight, ... let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.'"
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"Siduri said, 'Gilgamesh, where are you roaming? You will never find the eternal life that you seek...Savour your food, make each of your days a delight, ... let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.'"
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post #7 of 11
Thread Starter 
Many thanks for that Siduri - very thoughtful :cool: . Yes absolutely, a feel for the food, understanding of the process etc. very much the aim as opposed to being a slave to formulae that ignores what's happening in front of me.

Also thanks so much for adding that detail about the poke test for bread dough - I look forward to bringing that into play next time.

Andy.
post #8 of 11
This is one of the better reasons to use the old standby: heat the pan dry, then add fat, then add food. If you do it exclusively with oil it really depends on which oil, how hot or cold it was to begin with, how much you added, and so on. Besides, you may not be adding fat.

In any event, to tell if the pan is hot, the water test works quite well, and can be given greater range: if a droplet of water instantly zaps into steam, the pan is VERY hot, and ready for high-heat stir-frying (e.g., a good deal of Chinese wok cooking). Another test popular with many professionals is the cheek test: pick up the pan by its handle and hold it several inches to a foot from your cheek. You will detect heat very precisely that way, whereas your hand may become rather inured to high heat as you cook more and more. I do not recommend the cheek test with a wok, not so much because the heat is high as because the shape is such that by the time your cheek is close enough, the edge is searing your ear.

The metal skewer test is excellent for fish. Stab into the thickest part, wait several seconds, and then press the tip sideways just below your lower lip. Cold: raw. Warm: ready (depending on what you're cooking, of course). Hot: probably overcooked. Remember that the temperature will continue to rise just a bit after you remove the fish from the pan or oven, so it needs to be just underdone when you take it out. Anyway, it's much faster than any "instant-read" thermometer, and with practice easy and automatic.

All these temperature tests require practice, of course. If you get used to skewer-probing fish, you just shove it in there a few seconds before you think it's really going to be ready, yank it out, test, and then either pull the fish or wait a bit longer -- and if you're used to this test and the cooking method, you don't have to test again, because you know how hot it's going to be. You see?

Incidentally, if you are being tentative about pan heat, you're going to have trouble with a number of things. Just crank it up. You're not going to hurt anything. I'll give you an example.

Cut up about a cup each of onion, celery, and bell pepper, and mix well. Cut up some peeled raw potatoes. Cut some boneless, skinless chicken into large cubes. Have on hand about 8 cups of chicken stock, preferably unsalted homemade, but certainly low sodium. You can also use stock diluted with water, if you prefer. Get some of your favorite hot sauce (Tabasco, Crystal, etc.) and a couple Tb of some kind of Cajun/Creole/Louisiana premade seasoning mix. You'll also need a few Tb of high-smoke-point cooking oil, e.g. canola, and a big, deepish skillet or saucier.

Toss the chicken with half the seasoning mix and a couple shakes of hot sauce, and let sit for a few minutes or so.

Crank the heat. Maximum. Wait a minute -- literally a minute, not a few seconds. Flick water: does it run or flash into steam? In between would be great, but it really doesn't make a whole heck of a lot of difference so long as it's in that range.

Pour in the oil, swirl the pan around to glaze the bottom, and toss in the chicken. Toss it up in the pan with a wooden spoon, kind of scraping up stuff that sticks if need be -- but if the pan is very hot, chances are it won't stick. When the chicken is distinctly brown in a lot of parts -- not tan but golden brown -- pull it out with a slotted spoon and immediately add half of the onion-celery-pepper mix. Stir and scrape the bottom vigorously for about 15 seconds. Notice that the moisture in the vegetables deglazes the pan, i.e. removes the brown stuck chicken stuff. Let the mixture cook undisturbed (yes, still over very high heat) for 2 full minutes. Add the remaining seasoning mix and stir vigorously, scraping up any brown stuff -- there won't be much. Wait another 2 minutes and repeat the scraping. Repeat this process another couple of times, until you cannot scrape everything up and some of what's down there is looking worryingly close to black, i.e. burnt. Now add 1/2 cup of stock and scrape everything down there -- this is normal deglazing. When it's all cleared, add 3 cups of stock and the potatoes. Cook over high heat, stirring occasionally; if you have a cover for the pan, that's helpful, but not necessary. When the liquid has nearly boiled off, start stirring pretty often, and pay attention. As you get close to dry, the starch in the potatoes and other vegetables is going to start to stick HARD, and you need to scrape scrape scrape it up. Continue this process until you can't get it to clear and it's close to burning, and, once again, add 1/2 cup of stock. Stir-scrape to clear, add 2 cups stock, and boil off again as before. This time, deglaze with 1/2 cup stock, then add the reserved chicken and the remaining stock. When it comes to a rapid boil, turn down the heat and simmer gently until the chicken is cooked through. The stew will be brown and thick, with chunks of chicken; very little of the potato will be recognizable, because it should have broken down nearly completely. The flavor will be intense, both because of all that stock reduced to nothing and because that process of boiling off, crusting, and deglazing turns a lot of the vegetable starches into sugars.

The point of the exercise, of course, is that you are doing this entire dish, until the very last step, over as much heat as you can muster. The fact that the dish is also extremely healthy and inexpensive is just icing on the cake.
post #9 of 11
Thread Starter 
Wow ChrisLehrer - another reply that is just so considered and well presented, it really is a treat to come here.

The extra pushes, like your recipe really do make a difference and I'm looking forward to turning up the heat, testing that for myself, and learning from it.

Andy.
post #10 of 11
ChrisLehrer, thanks for that.
Whenever i cook with someone else in the kitchen, i find if i so much as turn my back, my high heat is turned down by some panicked observer! Drives me crazy. I bought a stove with a central burner that has two rings, so it can get really hot all over, and i almost always cook with that to the max. It began because i was always in a hurry, but then i discovered it tastes much better.

Back in the days when my oven was only on or off, with thermostat broken, I made the absolutely best roast chicken with roast potatoes - no liquid, no low heat, and indeed i put the roasting pan on the floor of the oven as often as not, and the potatoes are outrageously wonderful, crispy and browned outside, creamy inside, no parboiling, nothing. I cut them like very large fries, lenghthwise in wedge shape, so they cook fast. I still do it that way, and i really like the gas for that.
Of course, you have to watch the stuff like a hawk while you cook. So andydude, go for it, turn up the heat!

Oh, and Andydude, when you do the bread poke test, push it in to the first knuckle for the rise in the bowl, not for the last rise in the pan - for that, don't push so much or if it's ready it will leave a hole.
"Siduri said, 'Gilgamesh, where are you roaming? You will never find the eternal life that you seek...Savour your food, make each of your days a delight, ... let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.'"
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"Siduri said, 'Gilgamesh, where are you roaming? You will never find the eternal life that you seek...Savour your food, make each of your days a delight, ... let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.'"
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post #11 of 11
Thread Starter 
Got it - thanks.
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