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Special Sauce: Kenji on Freezing Chicken, Simone Tong on Making Mixian

Special Sauce: Kenji on Freezing Chicken, Simone Tong on Making Mixian

[Simone Tong photograph: Afra Lu. Mixian photograph: Vivian Kong]

This week’s episode of Special Sauce kicks off with our new culinary Q&A segment, “Ask Kenji.” At the behest of listener Dave Shorr, Kenji lays down the law on the best way to freeze chicken. It’s a simple process that includes placing chicken pieces into a zipper-lock bag and pouring in a saltwater brine. Tune in to learn more about why—and be sure to read up on the benefits of freezing flat.

Next, Little Tong Noodle Shop owner Simone Tong explains how she came to open a restaurant serving mixian. These rice noodles, which are typically served in a brothy sauce with an array of toppings, hail from China’s Yunnan Province, and were largely unfamiliar to her customers. We both agreed that building a restaurant around a relatively unknown dish might not have been the wisest business decision, but she was undeterred. “I was naive and I was brave,” she says. “I was like a New Yorker, confident.”

Tong’s confidence and bravery were well rewarded. “Yeah, like you and many other food writers, supporters and foodies, they eat my food and they decided that they like it and they share the stories…and slowly, gradually people come. People come and I cook.”

Finally, we listen to Serious Eats’ very own pastry wizard Stella Parks as she tackles an at-home version of the famed (enormous) Levain chocolate chip cookie. “These cookies are no joke,” she says. “They came not to play, but to slay. You can kill a man with these cookies. Not that you should, but if you needed to, it would certainly get the job done.” You can watch the full video of her process and get the recipe for those cookies right here.

Special Sauce is available on iTunes, Google Play Music, Soundcloud, Player FM, and Stitcher. You can also find the archive of all our episodes here on Serious Eats and on this RSS feed.

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Want to chat with me and our unbelievably talented recipe developers? We’re accepting questions for Special Sauce call-in episodes now. Do you have a recurring argument with your spouse over the best way to maintain a cast iron skillet? Have you been working on your mac and cheese recipe for the past five years, but can’t quite get it right? Does your brother-in-law make the worst lasagna, and you want to figure out how to give him tips? We want to get to know you and solve all your food-related problems. Send us the whole story at specialsauce [at]


Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce 2.0, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce, we begin with Ask Kenji, where Kenji Lopez-Alt gives the definitive answer to the question of the week that a serious eater like you has sent us.

J. Kenji Lopez Alt: Freezer burn can happen even when you store food in plastic bags. Freezing submerged in brine will prevent that from happening.

EL: After Ask Kenji, a conversation with our guests, Simone Tong, chef proprietor of Little Tong Noodle Shop in New York City.

Simone Tong: Instead of telling, saying that I’m inauthentic, ask yourself this question. Is it delicious? Would I put a smile on you?

EL: And finally on today’s podcast, a teachable moment from the Serious Eats test kitchen.

Stella Parks: These cookies are big. How big? Extremely big. Six ounces a pop. If anyone leaves a comment on this recipe, can I make these cookies smaller? The answer is no.

EL: First up, our chief culinary consultant, author of The Food Lab, Kenji Lopez Alt. And Kenji, serious eater Dave Shorr says, “I live in Manitoba, Canada, and I have a contact on a Hutterite farm who sells me chicken right from the farm. Nothing comes close to the taste, flavor and quality of these particular chickens. The problem is he only sells them frozen. If I’m making Kenji spatchcock chicken, no problem, but I would like to be able to quarter some and use different parts for different uses.

JKLA: First of all, I have, I actually happen to have a Hutterite chicken in my freezer right now.

EL: Is Hutterite like a kind of chicken? Is it a place?

JKLA: No, no, no. Hutterites are a religious group, an ethnic religious group. They’re similar to sort of Amish and Mennonites. Just like you can get, you can probably near Pennsylvania you can probably get Amish chickens.

EL: Any tips?

JKLA: You can defrost the chicken carefully, let it defrost in the fridge overnight. You could break it down, you could then refreeze it if you want. Even though the government recommends you don’t, as long as you’re careful about not letting it stay defrosted for too long between. Let it defrost, break it down as soon as you can with clean hands, freeze it again. Then as far as safety goes, it should be fine. Quality wise, you definitely you lose, it’s detrimental to both texture and sort of moisture level. Chicken tends to get a little fibrous and drier, the more defrost and freezing cycle it goes, cycles it goes through. And this is because water crystals inside the chicken, water inside the chickens muscles, it freezes and it forms crystals and those kind of jagged crystals will break up muscle structures.

It kind of can turn the chicken a little mushy. It makes it so that it doesn’t retain moisture as well. Yeah, so it can definitely harm texture. The way I would get around that texture issue would be to freeze it in brine. Freeze your chicken pieces in brine. Rather than freezing them just to kind of bare in bags, I would make a brine, maybe a 3% to 4% saltwater solution. Put your chicken into plastic bags, pour enough brine in there that you can seal the bags off without any air in them so that the chickens are sort of completely surrounded by that brine, and then freeze them flat on a tray.

What this does is, first of all, it protects the surface of the chicken from freezer burn, which is an issue when you do sort of extended storage. Freezer burn is what happens when ice crystals inside a frozen food, they do, they go through a process called sublimation, which is where they convert directly from solid to gas without turning into liquid water in the interim. They go directly from being frozen ice crystals to water vapor and they leave the food. It’s the same process as what happens in freeze drying. It’s just that freeze drying is a controlled process whereas freezer burn is something you don’t want. Freezer burn can happen even when you store food in plastic bags and the more you freeze it and the more you defrost and freeze it, the easier, the more likely it is that that’s going to happen. Freezing submerged in brine will prevent that from happening. That’s one way to sort of save texture a little bit.

More importantly, the brine as the chicken is freezing and defrosting, it acts as if you were sort of soaking the chicken and a brine overnight, so it’ll help that chicken retain more moisture, which you’re really going to want to do because chicken that’s been frozen repeatedly is much more prone to losing moisture. That would be my solution.

EL: No pun intended. That would be your solution.

JKLA: Yes, my saline solution. The real question I would have is though, if you’re defrosting one chicken, I don’t know, it just feels like surely there are things, there’s enough things you can do with a chicken. Even if you live by yourself, that you could get through one whole chicken before it goes bad. You can roast it whole and have all that cooked chicken meat to use in other dishes through the week. You could portion it and cook the, braise the legs or grill the breasts, whatever. There’s a lot of things you can do with a chicken that even if you’re eating it for a week, I think, I don’t know, I just, I personally can’t imagine a scenario where I would defrost the chicken, break it up and then freeze it again only to defrost it a second time.

EL: When you say a 4% brining solution, how do you know what’s 4%?

JKLA: You use a scale. And you just go by weight. A liter of water weighs exactly a kilogram. And so a kilogram is a 1,000 grams and so 4% of that is 40 grams of salt. For every liter of water you would add 40 grams of salt.

EL: Dave Shorr is now in so much better shape as a result of your explanation. He’s going to be thrilled.

EL: Kenji Lopez-Alt is Serious Eats’ chief culinary consultant and author of The Food Lab. Do send in your questions to Kenji to [email protected]

EL: Now it’s time to hear more from Simone Tong. Simone Tong is the chef proprietor of Little Tong Noodle Shop in New York City.

ST: Thank you.

EL: You went on some wacky adventure.

ST: When I was traveling in China, yes. I picked a province. Before I traveled to China, I met my business partner. I gave him three options or three ideas in my head. He picked one. I stuck with the one that I’m going to, which is visit to Yunnan because I grew up loving the rice noodle, mixian, in Yunnan, but I have actually never been to Yunnan. Yunnan mixian is very famous, very popular all around China. I grew up eating a lot of that in Changzhou every time I visit my grandparents, my relatives in Changzhou in summertime.

EL: But not popular here.

ST: Not popular here. Not popular here. It’s as popular if not more popular to like Vietnamese pho in China.

EL: Got it. You decided you were going to explore?

ST: Yeah, I decided that I should understand, get inspiration, know the stories of all these places in Yunnan. To eat all different kinds of rice noodles, all different kinds of mixian.

EL: And you went all over the place.

ST: I did.

EL: Where did go?

ST: I did. I went to, honestly, I went to some of the touristy cities or old towns. They call it because they’re very old. Lijiang is one of them. Kunming is the capital.

EL: Kunming it’s called?

ST: Kunming.

EL: Kunming.

ST: Yes. Perfect pronunciation. Kunming, it’s the capital. I add a lot of the Kunming style, little part, which is they cook mixian in copper pots. It’s a little sour. Means pork with chives, chili oil vinegar, peanuts.

EL: Sounds familiar.

ST: One of the mixian dish in Little Tong, it’s called little pot. Little pot, in a copper pot.

EL: And then you also went to ancient towns like Dali.

ST: Dali, yes. Lijiang. In Dali I found this woman run, hole in the wall, mixian place that specialized in black chicken mixian.

EL: Nice and black chicken of course they’re famous black chickens which you can get in Chinatown, for being spectacularly tasty.

ST: Yes. Good for making soup but tough meat. But in in Dali, that black chicken is the size of a turkey. It’s a different breed of a black chicken.

EL: Wow.

ST: I can’t get those chicken, but what I can get is very good chicken and get inspired from that and create my own stuff.

EL: Got it. And then you hiked through the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.

ST: Yeah, I did. It was very cold and very beautiful. Very snowy. It was five, like 4,000 meters above sea level. I don’t know how much.

EL: It’s like over 12,000 feet. That’s pretty high up.

ST: Clean oxygen. Clean oxygen. But it was an adventure. Yes.

EL: And who was on this adventure with you?

ST: I picked up a few friends. On that particular adventure it was actually a friend of a friend from Chicago. He’s American. He, it was his first time traveling in China. He was traveling from Shanghai, Beijing and all the way he came to Yunnan. He had a great time too.

EL: And then you went to all these places I’ve never heard of, the Tiger Leaping Gorge.

ST: It was very angry, yellowish, muddy water that went through from the high mountains all the way the gorge and through the river out into Shanghai. In that section it was like chocolate milk in anger.

EL: Chocolate milk, angry chocolate milk.

ST: Angry chocolate milk.

EL: And then you went to some place called the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery.

ST: It was the second biggest monastery outside of Tibet. Built in I think Chin dynasty, by a famous Emperor, which it’s fading. My memory is fading, but yeah.

EL: Probably so is the monastery.

ST: It’s fascinating. I think they renovated it so it looks very glorious, very glorious with Tibetan monks walking around.

EL: And when you went on this trip, did you even know exactly why you were going? Or did you just…

ST: I know as far as I’m going there so to understand the food culture and the people and talk to the people, really get a feeling, a sense of what they do over there. I carried that sense and feeling with me back to New York and do what I do over here. But the details and specifics, I don’t really have a plan. I was very nervous, but I know I could depend on the app on my cellphone, which will be able for me to pay like Airbnb. I use Expedia, Airbnb and Uber. And DiDi the the equivalent of Uber there. Along the way I make a lot of friends.

EL: Got it.

ST: They were very good people and they were very friendly, very helpful.

EL: You flew back to New York?

ST: Yes. After a few months I flew back to New York and then I opened the restaurant in East Village. I did a lot of popups first and then open the restaurant.

EL: You did a lot of pop ups and did you do, you didn’t do Smorgasburg though, right?

ST: No. I just, some good friends who run restaurants offer me their space and I did the menu of like Little Tong 1.0, over there while the restaurant is renovating.

EL: Got it. And so you opened the restaurant and you’re serving food that nobody knows. To me it’s not maybe the best business plan I’ve ever heard.

ST: No, it’s not. It’s not. But I was naive and I was brave. I was like a New Yorker, confident.

EL: They go hand in hand, by the way. You have to be naive to be brave and brave to be naive.

ST: Yeah, I still want to be naive and brave. Yeah, like you and many other food writers, supporters and foodies, they eat my food and they decided that they like it and they share the stories and one to 10, 10 to a 100 and slowly, gradually people come. People come and I cook.

EL: Simone Tong is the chef proprietor of Little Tong Noodle Shop in New York City. I was struck the first time I went to the restaurant. It’s like, okay, there’s like six bowls of soup or whatever there is and it was maybe six small plates and it was just like, I really appreciated the fact when the second time I came back and there was the lunch special where you could get a small plate and a bowl of noodles. The first time, as you know, I ordered all the noodles and all the small plates, but they were really delicious and unusual. Were they direct descendants of what you’d tasted? Or where they filtered through your culinary imagination?

ST: Really it’s the second. It filter through my experience, my learning in the Blue D50 in 15 East, all my traveling over the different places where I grew up. You can’t taste Little Tong’s food and love it and then go back to Yunnan. You can’t find it there. You can’t find what’s authentically Yunnan at Little Tong either. You get the creative aspect and the structure of it. It is rice noodles. It sometimes it’s brothy, sometimes it’s cold, it’s sometimes it’s dry. And you get the idea that best flavors with seasonal ingredients that are local, that happened with using Chinese techniques. Also American techniques, also modern techniques and traditional techniques. And you’ve got this, all these dishes that are still changing.

EL: Yeah. And you sort of combined ingredients in unusual ways. These were not your typical chicken soups.

ST: They’re not. They’re not the typical chicken soup, but what is typical chicken soup?

EL: That’s true.

ST: Because every culture, every family are different.

EL: Yeah. And people took to it right away?

ST: A lot of the, I have to say, not a lot, some Chinese take it as not Chinese food.

EL: They were disappointed.

ST: They were disappointed or they were angry. They are like, some of them are like, “I am from Yunnan and you’re not from Yunnan and you shouldn’t call this mixian because these are not mixian.”

EL: Wow.

ST: Some of them are like, “Why are you charging this so cheap?”

EL: This is like intra-Chinese cultural appropriation.

ST: In a way.

EL: Have you thought about that?

ST: In a way. In a way. But I think everybody has the right to do what they feel right with their own passion. That’s why we open different kinds of restaurants. That’s why everybody has different tastes, different interests. That’s why we don’t like all the same thing. Yet we still like one another.

EL: Right. Yeah. I’m with you. And were you surprised and excited when Pete Wells gave you a full review?

ST: Again, with my naivete, I hope that he would come. I really do. I think I thought too highly of myself, but he did come so I didn’t realize, oh my God, he actually came. We didn’t know that he came three times. We only saw him the last time, on the third time when he was asked for a new chopstick because he dropped it on the floor. Clearly we weren’t trained really well. I remember when I first read the articles, my publicist sent me the article. I was carrying 15 bags of things in Chinatown and I was like, okay, let me put it down on the street and take out my phone. My hand was shaking. I’m like, oh, what did he write? And I was like, let me just scroll down and see what’s the report card. What did the report card say? I was like, oh, okay.

EL: Every time I’ve been in there, you’re there. You do a lot of work. You are not afraid of hard work. You are not, you don’t have a big staff do you?

ST: No, I don’t. This is New York.

EL: I noticed that.

ST: Labor cost is very high. I do work. I came, yeah, I just came from the restaurant.

EL: And so now you have two.

ST: Yes.

EL: Right? One in the East Village, the original and one on Midtown East.

ST: Yes, Midtown East.

EL: And you’re about, and you’re going to open a third?

ST: Yeah. We are going to open a third one in the Garment District, but the third one is in a food hall.

EL: In a food hall.

ST: We’re one of the seven.

EL: Got it.

ST: Seven vendors in the food hall.

EL: Do you worry that you lose control when you’re in a food hall?

ST: Oh yes. I’m always worried. I’m a little bit of a control lover.

EL: Really, I kind of figured that out.

ST: I like everything to be organized, but I’m also chaotic. I need people to help me organize things. And I don’t like to, yeah, lose control because if I lose control, I lost consistency. I lose consistency. I lose the trust from the people that love the food and I would lose everything.

EL: I’ve sent some people to Little Tong and the flavors are too strange for them. I never felt that. I was like, the food always made sense to me. It had great internal logic.

ST: Yeah. Thank you.

EL: Do you ever get that? Like this is just too weird for me?

ST: I can see that. I can see that because if I grew up only eating authentic Chinese food from the Canton area and then suddenly you asked me to eat Yunnan cuisine that has cheese, has fermented rose petals, has different kind of rose wine, I would feel very strange. I would say, “This is not very Chinese food that I know of.” Cross-regional, everybody would already think, they’re not used to eat different regions of Chinese food and all the more, if they come to me, they’re like, wow, you’re using black garlic aioli with cumin lamb and then with baby pea shoots. And so that’s a little strange.

ST: But however they go well, the flavor goes well. If you are willing to try it instead of telling, saying that I’m inauthentic, ask yourself this question, is it delicious? Are you willing to eat it? Would that put a smile on you? Then if you don’t prejudge me, maybe you will open your mind and heart. It’s like appreciating music. Some of the music are really funky, if you are used to jazz, you probably don’t like hip hop. I don’t know, I’m not a music expert.

EL: And now I just read that you’re opening another concept, which is nothing like Little Tong.

ST: I’m growing braver and more and more naive.

EL: I love that. And so tell us about this because this is going to be in the Village.

ST: Yeah, in the West Village.

EL: On Cornelia Street and it’s called Silver Apricots.

ST: Yeah, Silver Apricot.

EL: And what’s going to happen at Silver Apricot?

ST: Silver Apricot is a celebration of Chinese Americans, overseas Chinese, Chinese Americans that grew up in this land and all the regions and all their flavors and it’s going to be a celebration of that in a nontraditional way.

EL: What will we find on the menu?

ST: For example, you know this thing called zongzi. Zongzi is a sticky rice wrap in sometimes banana leaf, sometimes bamboo leaf, sometimes lotus leaf. You can find that in a lot of Cantonese restaurants.

EL: Pronounce it again.

ST: Zongzi. It’s like Chinese tamale.

EL: Got it.

ST: Everybody loved it. If you go to dim sum, the Cantonese like it. That is a very, a truly Chinatown, New York, Chinese American, Chinese dish, Chinese American dish. I want to celebrate that and many other very homey ingredients or homey style of cooking in Silver Apricot, but elevate it.

EL: Elevate that.

ST: Elevate that.

EL: And then also serve some non-Chinese oriented food. Or is it all going to be based on some kind of Chinese?

ST: It’s going to be based on some kind of Chinese romantic stories and history that people are very familiar with. That everybody’s familiar with Peking duck, but perhaps I won’t be serving Peking duck for example. I might be serving right now I’m thinking, this week I’m thinking I’m trying to, grawls or Rohan duck.

EL: Got it.

ST: Or pigeon, not pigeon, squab.

EL: Squab, sure.

ST: Not pigeon, pigeon would be bad. Not pigeon, squab.

EL: Especially in New York.

ST: Or quail.

EL: People have a bad association with pigeons. But so you’re, what I read, you’re also going to be playing with house-made cheeses for example.

ST: Yeah. I’m also maybe not so much house-made cheeses. Perhaps some sausage.

EL: Got it.

ST: Some ham, some dry aged ham. But definitely the Murray Hill Cheese is our neighbor so we’ll talk with them and see if they can partner with us.

EL: Yeah. You said something in this story I read in Edible Manhattan, you said as Chinese Americans’ identity is something we think a lot about whether we do so of our own volition or because social constructs compel us to. And that’s not unique to just Chinese Americans. We’re sure that like us, any immigrants or first generation children of immigrants are acutely aware of how difficult it is to concisely qualify their identity. It is through Silver Apricot that we will be able to show rather than tell New Yorkers and visitors alike what it means to us to be Chinese American today.

ST: Very ambitious.

EL: Very ambitious, and very eloquent on your part.

ST: I didn’t write that. That was my idea, our idea, but my general manager.

EL: Got it. Excellent writer.

ST: Yeah, she’s after half a bottle of wine, she’s even better. But that is the true essence of what we want to do in Silver Apricot.

EL: And again, it’s like you’re not afraid to just go for it.

ST: I’m sure I’ll get a lot of people that doesn’t like me.

EL: Have you thought about just like opening a ramen shop?

ST: Yeah, I opened a ramen shop. It’s called Little Tong Noodle Shop. People don’t think that my noodle is ramen enough.

EL: Right, right. It’s not ramen in the way they think. It’s a noodle shop.

ST: Yes. But ramen is a type of noodle shop. Noodle shop is a terrible sin.

EL: It sounds like you’re going to be, you have a lot of Chinese oriented concepts inside your head rattling around.

ST: Yes. Yes. I want to do Chinese technique that makes sense in this Silver Apricot concept with New York or tri-state ingredients. Good seasonal ingredients, which is actually very Chinese in and of itself.

EL: The most important question is, are your parents cool now with what you’re doing?

ST: Oh they are, definitely.

EL: They must be really proud. Because you could send them the Times review. Once you send them the Times review they’re like, Simone, she’s all right.

ST: She’s all right. Yes. They are very proud and very happy. They just want me to have a life outside of restaurants if possible.

EL: If possible.

ST: Yes. Find love and all that.

EL: All right, so all right, it’s time for the Special Sauce all you can answer buffet, but don’t worry, take as much time as you want. But so who’s at your last supper? No family allowed.

ST: Oh, no family.

EL: No family.

ST: Just one person though?

EL: No, four people.

ST: Four people. Okay. Okay. Mother Teresa, Picasso.

EL: Good, Picasso’s awesome.

ST: I know, Salvador Dali. I just need one more. Ah, John Lennon.

EL: John Lennon. What a great table.

ST: He likes Chinese food. He goes to Mandarin at the San Francisco a lot.

EL: He used to.

ST: He used to.

EL: Wow.

ST: I think. Mandarin restaurant.

EL: What are you eating?

ST: I want to serve them the Manchurian, the Chinese Manchurian feast. Is that what it’s called, feast? Yeah. I’m going to serve them farmer’s food.

EL: Farmer’s food.

ST: Yes. There’s such a thing of farmer’s food because the farmers have chickens and they grow on their farm and they just stir fry and kill the chicken and make some very peasant food. Peasant food, that’s what it’s called.

EL: Got it.

ST: Delicious home cooked peasant food.

EL: Deep braised things.

ST: Deep braised things.

EL: And stews.

ST: Stir fry, stews, herbs from the mountains and make a salad. Throw a chili vinaigrette on it.

EL: All right, and what are you listening to?

ST: Mozart.

EL: Mozart.

ST: Mozart.

EL: Okay.

ST: Universal.

EL: Do you have guilty pleasures that you wouldn’t like us to know about, but when you get hungry that you just have to have?

ST: I think it would be coffee ice cream.

EL: Coffee ice cream. Does it matter what brand?

ST: It does. But I don’t want to say the brand, it’s so mass produced. Should I say the brand?

EL: Yeah. You could say the brand.

ST: Haagen-Dazs coffee ice cream.

EL: It’s an excellent coffee ice cream.

ST: I love that coffee ice cream.

EL: We had a Nicolas Morganstern here from Morgenstern’s ice cream, and he brought some Vietnamese coffee ice cream. And you need to try that. It’s not even far from your restaurant.

ST: Is this too sweet? Is this sweet?

EL: It’s not very sweet.

ST: Okay. Because Vietnamese coffee has condensed milk, I think.

EL: Yeah. No, no, it’s not very sweet.

ST: I love coffee ice cream. I’ll definitely try it.

EL: Three things in your kitchen you can’t do without.

ST: Chopstick.

EL: Okay.

ST: A chef knife.

EL: Okay.

ST: And a peeler.

EL: A peeler.

ST: Peeler.

EL: And what do you cook when there’s nothing in the house to eat?

ST: Fried eggs.

EL: Fried eggs.

ST: Chinese fried eggs, the crispies and the runny, crispy bottom and runny yolk. With some soy sauce.

EL: Which those you call Chinese fried eggs. And I associate them with Spanish fried eggs. Because you get the crispy bottom. And then do you spoon the oil to cook the top?

ST: Yes, to baste it. Yeah. Spanish Chinese eggs.

EL: Spanish Chinese eggs.

ST: Everybody’s fried eggs. Yes, yes.

EL: I like that. All right. It’s just been declared Simone Tong day, all over the world.

ST: Oh wow.

EL: In your case, all the places you’ve lived.

ST: Wow.

EL: What’s happening on that day in Melbourne? In Singapore? And Macau?

ST: On that day, all children must cook for their parents. In whatever, however they can gather whatever ingredients, they must cook a dinner.

EL: Because their parents deserve a little time off.

ST: Yes. And the children should find that very fun and the parents should try to swallow whatever food that the children put on, whether it’s delicious or not. It’s mutual appreciation thing.

EL: It’s mutual appreciation day. I love that. All right. Thank you so much for sharing your Special Sauce Simone Tong.

ST: Thank you.

EL: Such a pleasure.

ST: Thank you so much for having me. Thank you.

EL: If you find yourself in New York City, visit one of Simone startlingly different and seriously delicious Little Tong Noodle Shops. And now it’s time to head over to the Serious Eats test kitchen where our pastry wizard Stella Parks, author of Bravetart: Iconic American Desserts, will lead us through the creation of a killer confection. By the way, no need to take notes, her detailed recipe is at along with a video.

Stella Parks: Hey everybody, we’re here today with some really epic cookies. These are Levain-style copycat chocolate chip cookies fashioned after a bakery in New York that makes these giant monster cookies. These cookies are no joke. They came not to play, but to slay. You can kill a man with these cookies. Not that you should, but if you needed to, it would certainly get the job done. It would also make for an interesting game of Clue.

We’re making this cookie dough. It’s really easy because there’s a standby so he’ll do all the work for us. We’re going to throw in all these ingredients. First up, some light brown sugar. This is the kind of situation where light brown sugar matters. Dark brown sugar is going to have molasses content that’s a little too high and it’s going to cause the cookies to spread more. Do not want, we want these cookies to stay thick.

Crowd favorite here, toasted sugar. This recipe does not require toasted sugar. If you don’t have any, don’t worry about it. You can start making cookies right now with plain white sugar. It’s not going to be a real deal breaker if you don’t have it, but if you do, push it over the top. Salt, baking powder and baking soda. Next up, a little bit of butter, a little bit, it’s a whole stick. It’s a quarter pound of butter. It’s plenty of butter. There it is. It’s been softened to cool room temperature about 60, 65 degrees. Vanilla. The vanilla, going to do a whole dang tablespoon that’s a half an ounce for you all doing the math at home.

A little bit of a secret ingredient here is an extremely small amount of nutmeg. We’re talking the smallest amount of nutmeg. It’s like 0.1 grams if we were to weigh it out. Nutmeg has this cool power or it makes butter tastes more buttery, so that’s why we’re putting it in here. If you can taste the nutmeg, you’ve added too much. Don’t overdo it. This is a real delicate matter so just go on. That’s it. Okay, going to pop this on the mixer. Trusty paddle attachment. I’m going to start out on low speed just to get everything combined and then crank it up to medium so we can get some light and fluffy business going on. Going to crank up the speed.

Just waiting for that light and fluffy magic. These are eggs straight from the fridge. I’m kind of cavalier and I’m just going to crack them straight in. If you’re not comfortable doing that, you can crack them into a little bowl and then tip them in. Boop. When it starts to smooth back out, it’s time for egg number two. Boop. Going to decrease the speed here to low and add our all purpose flour. Do, do, do, do, do, doot. Once the flour is mostly incorporated, it’s time to the walnuts, raw walnuts. You’re using pecans, I’d recommend toasting them first.

If you’ve been baking with me along on or in my book, Bravetart, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of chopped chocolate in cookies, so you might be surprised to see that I’m using chocolate chips in this recipe. Historically in America, chocolate chips have been made of a very low quality chocolate, tends to be a little bit harsh and unbalanced. Nowadays there are a lot of different chocolate chips on the market and in fact, I have made my own chocolate chip blend using eight different brands of chocolate chips. We’ve got some big guys and some little guys, some chocolate chunks. This recipe has more chocolate than butter and sugar combined. For that reason, using a mix of different chocolates is really going to make the flavor pop overall instead of every single bite tasting like the exact same chocolate, you get some different nuances and it really adds some depth of flavor. It creates a more interesting chocolate profile.

That’s it. All right, so these cookies are six ounces a pop. Got a little wax paper on the scale here so I don’t have to wash it in between uses. Here goes, five and one eighths ounces. I was close. I was close. Six and one eighths, that’s like one chocolate chip too many. Shout out to my friend Cheryl who described this as a threatening amount of cookie dough. Anyhow, it’s time for little dough wrangling. These monsters need to be wrestled into some spherical like shape, so the best way to do that is by hand. If you guys are squeamish, you don’t want to touch dough, I don’t know why you’re baking. Just round it up into a nice spherical shape. Plop it on a baking sheet. We’re not baking them right now. This is a type of dough that benefits from aging overnight in the fridge. Kind of helps kick start Maillard browning, so the cookies get some nice color in the oven. It also helps keep them nice and thick. Lets the flours hydrate, promotes a little bit of chewiness. I’m just going to cover these in plastic and I’ll see you tomorrow.

Whole day has passed. If you can even believe it. I know it seems like only seconds. This is some dough that has been chilling for 24 hours in the fridge. You can tell I’m not lying because that’s the thud of six ounces of chocolate chip cookie dough intimidation. I’m only baking four because there’s not that many people here at Serious Eats today and there’s no way all eight because these will be eaten. We would die. All right, going to pop these in the oven. See you later.

Look at these three perfect angels and a hell spawn. We have three perfect cookies and one intentional screw up. This cookie is what happens when you don’t roll up the dough. After portioning all the dough, I roll it into a nice smooth ball that ensures the cookie spreads at a slow even rate and it keeps them nice and thick. If the dough is just left in our rough hodgepodge pile, this is what happens. It spreads every which way and it spreads a lot thinner. If you’ve ever wondered why someone went to the trouble to write such an obnoxious detail in a recipe, this is why.

These cookies are so thick and chunky that using a thermometer is a really good way to test them, to make sure that they’re fully cooked. You want to see them somewhere on the upper 170s to low 180s. It’s weighty. It’s a six ounce wad of dough. It’s hefty and it’s loaded with chocolate chips and walnuts. The gang is all here guys, so thanks for joining me on this emotional roller coaster as we tackled the largest cookies known to man. These cookies can end a person, but we’re here. We’re alive. We made them. Well, I did and you can do too.

EL: No staff members were harmed in the eating of these dangerously large cookies. Again, details of Stella Parks’ recipe are at More from our test kitchen next time. That’s it for today. Next week on Special Sauce Kenji will be back to answer with his usual scientific precision, your culinary question of the week. Do send in those questions to [email protected] All this and a special guest on next week’s Special Sauce. So long, serious eaters. See you next time.

All products linked here have been independently selected by our editors. We may earn a commission on purchases, as described in our affiliate policy.

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Overnight Chocolate-Hazelnut Breakfast Buns

Overnight Chocolate-Hazelnut Breakfast Buns

If you’ve tried our overnight cinnamon rolls, the dough for these breakfast buns will be familiar. But the experience itself will be all new, thanks to a filling of homemade Nutella, made from dark chocolate and caramelized hazelnuts, and a whipped-mascarpone frosting. Get Recipe! Source […]

These DIY-Nutella Rolls Are Our New Favorite Chocolate Delivery System

These DIY-Nutella Rolls Are Our New Favorite Chocolate Delivery System

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik] It doesn’t matter if I’m having friends over for brunch or staying with family through the holidays—my only wish is to keep things simple. I have absolutely no desire to get up early and bang around the kitchen trying to whip up […]

Everything You Should Know About Yams

Everything You Should Know About Yams

Chinese yam on wooden table.

[Photographs: Shutterstock.] Chinese yams are braised, stir-fried, dried, and more.

Knobbly and brown, with little, wispy, hair-like roots shooting off at random, yams aren’t the stateliest of foods. But if you get past their slightly odd appearance, you may very well fall in love. That is, if you even cross paths with a real yam. Chances are, unless you’re doing most of your grocery shopping at African, Carribean, or Asian markets, or grew up eating and cooking these tubers, what you imagine when I say “yam” is actually just an orange sweet potato.

As I dug into just a little bit in my field guide to sweet potatoes—way too many puns here, I know—the practice of calling sweet potatoes yams started in the early 20th-century, when Southern farmers introduced softer-fleshed orange sweet potatoes to the American market. Farmers called orange tubers yams to differentiate them from the white-fleshed sweet potatoes people were already familiar with. The name stuck, and all these years later a good portion of us still couldn’t point out a real yam in a lineup. And that’s a shame, because their flavor and texture is completely unique, and they take well to all sorts of cooking methods and seasonings. A true yam is much starchier than a sweet potato, with a milder sweetness that becomes only slightly more pronounced when the root is cooked.

The History of the Sweet Potato-Yam Confusion

Garnet sweet potato, sliced open.

Orange sweet potatoes (pictured above) are often referred to as yams, though they come from an entirely different plant family.

Calling sweet potatoes yams in America wasn’t just a money-making ploy. For the first enslaved West Africans forcibly brought to America, sweet potatoes offered as close to a taste of home as they were going to get. Though sweeter and more watery when cooked, these orange sweet potatoes resembled the yams of Africa both in texture and appearance. “Slavers transporting captives from [West Africa] on the Middle Passage provisioned themselves with yams sufficient for the voyages,” wrote culinary historian Jessica B. Harris in an op-ed on the cultural significance of the yam. “But once ashore in more temperate America, the slaves found that the African tuber was unavailable, and thus substituted it with the sweet potato—leading to centuries of botanical and gastronomic confusion.”

Really, yams aren’t remotely similar to sweet potatoes. They belong to the dioscoreaceae family of flowering plants, and grow in temperate and tropical climates, including in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. A yam is the extremely starchy tuber at the base of winding, bright-green herbaceous vines. While sweet potatoes generally don’t grow much longer or thicker than a baby’s forearm, yams can grow to be more than six feet long, and on rare occasions weigh in at over 150 pounds. That’s a very, very big tuber, and needless to say, not the sort of produce you’ll find squeezed into a grocery bin. There are more than 800 varieties of yams, and a majority of those are cultivated in Africa, with Nigerian farmers producing more than half of the world’s supply.

Some of the most common yam varieties you’ll come across include the popular white and yellow yams native to Africa, which resemble large potatoes in shape. In Asian markets you’ll find Chinese and Japanese yams, which have lighter-brown skin, and are cylindrical. Because yams are grown and eaten in different parts of the world, methods for cooking vary enormously from one kitchen to the next.

How to Buy and Cook Yams

Yams are very resilient, and they travel well. This means that, for the most part, you don’t have to worry about accidentally picking up a yam at the store that’s already spoiled—unlike the cursed-but-seemingly-fine avocado that is always rotten in the middle, no matter how beautiful its exterior is. If a yam’s skin is intact, and the root doesn’t have any soft or mushy spots, consider it good to go.

Cooked yellow yam.

Cooked yellow yams are served alongside jerk pork and chicken in the Caribbean.

In Jamaica, you’ll find yams slowly roasting, skin still on, over an open fire. When they’re done, the interior can be easily pierced with a knife, but the skin isn’t burnt—an impressive feat. The meaty flesh of the yam, slightly smoky from the fire, is served alongside flavorful chunks of jerk pork, chicken, and other meats.

In Nigeria, where so many of the world’s yams are grown and the tuber is central to everyday life, they’re cooked into porridges, and cubed and stewed slowly with tomatoes, peanuts, greens, and spices. They’re also boiled then pounded into a version of fufu, one of West Africa’s most iconic dishes. The doughy, starchy mixture is perfect for absorbing sauce, and is eaten alongside more or less everything.

Slices of dried yams.

Slices of sun-dried yams are reconstituted and used in all sorts of Chinese dishes.

The yams eaten in the Carribean and throughout Africa are larger and more bulbous than Chinese yams, which are also known as nagaimo in Japan. In China, the yams are sliced into rounds and boiled in soup until tender, stir-fried with fresh vegetables, blended into savory steamed cakes, and more. You can find wild Chinese yams pre-sliced and sun-dried in Chinese grocery stores. The dried yams are known as huia shan, and cooks reconstitute them in rich broths, simmering along with chicken, pork, goji berries, and dried jujubes.

Chinese and Chinese-American cooks like Lisa Lin, a food blogger and expert on Chinese cooking, also utilize a yam called yamaimo or East Asian mountain yam. This variety has a sticky, slightly slippery texture, and is often sliced finely and eaten raw. “One way to prepare the yams is to boil them in a soup,” says Lin. “My mom (the kitchen matriarch) says that the best ones for boiling are smaller ones or the ones that look very twisted and crooked—usually found in farmers markets. They don’t break down and turn to mush when they’re boiled.”

Okonimiyaki on plate with chopsticks.

Grated yam is used to bind okonomiyaki batter.

In Japan, among other applications, the starchy nagaimo and yamaimo yams are grated into the batter of okonomiyaki—chewy, savory pancakes showered in toppings and a mixture of a sweet and savory sauce and mayonnaise. The starchiness of the grated yams helps bind the pancake batter together, without adding too much moisture.

I’ve only touched on the very tip of the yam-shaped iceberg. There are hundreds of varieties of yams out there, used in more culturally diverse preparations than I could count. The knobbly root takes well to frying, braising, sautéing, boiling, roasting, and more. You just have to decide where to start.

All products linked here have been independently selected by our editors. We may earn a commission on purchases, as described in our affiliate policy.

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Where to Eat and Drink in San Francisco: A Local’s Guide

Where to Eat and Drink in San Francisco: A Local’s Guide

Many an eater has left their heart in San Francisco. Some, like me, stuck around for good after that first bite. When I first told my mother that I wasn’t going to law school, but was instead moving to San Francisco to start a career […]

How Silicone Baking Mats Are Ruining Your Cookies

How Silicone Baking Mats Are Ruining Your Cookies

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik] When I’m writing a recipe for cookies, I always make a point of expressly calling for a parchment-lined baking sheet. Details like this may be easy to gloss over, but they can make a big difference in how a cookie turns out. […]

How to Buy, Prep, and Cut Green Beans

How to Buy, Prep, and Cut Green Beans

Lifting blanched green beans out of a pot of boiling water with a metal spider.

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik and J. Kenji López-Alt]

Green beans feature prominently at the American dinner table for holiday meals in the fall and winter. In anticipation of the holidays, we’ve put together a little primer for how to purchase them and the best ways to prepare them, while answering some common questions along the way.

What Are Green Beans?

Closeup of whole raw green beans.

Green beans are the young, unripe form of the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), that grow either as “bush” (shrubs low to the ground) or “pole” beans (with vines running up poles). In their immature state, the beans housed inside green bean pods are small and underdeveloped—as with snap peas—so they do not need to be shelled; they can be eaten whole, pods and all. Green beans can be served raw or cooked, and because there’s no shelling or de-stringing required, preparing them for recipes doesn’t require a ton of knife-work.

No Strings Attached: What’s the Difference Between Green Beans and String Beans?

Green beans in serving dish.

Green beans and string beans are one and the same, but the “string” term is, for the most part, outdated. Green beans used to have characteristic fibrous “strings” running down the length of the pod that had to be removed bean by bean, just like snap peas. But thanks to careful breeding, they were eliminated in the 19th century. Today, only heirloom varieties of green beans tend to have strings.

What’s the Difference Between Green Beans and Haricots Verts?

Closeup of green beans Amandine in a skillet.

When shopping for produce in the United States, you may find bins of similar looking beans next to each other, one labeled “green beans” and the other “haricots verts.” You wouldn’t be wrong to find this a little amusing; after all, “haricots verts” is just French for “green beans.” While the two are very similar, American green beans and haricots verts (or French beans) are different cultivars. Haricots verts are thinner and longer than American green beans, and are usually more tender. There aren’t huge differences in flavor between the two; French beans have a slightly more earthy flavor, while American green beans lean a little more to the sweet and herbaceous side. For most recipes, haricots verts and green beans can be used interchangeably, but for recipes that call for cooked beans, you will just need to adjust cooking times according to their size.

What’s the Difference Between Green Beans and Wax Beans?

Closeup of blanched whole green beans.

Yellow wax beans are just green beans that have been bred to have none of Billy Madison’s favorite plant pigment, chlorophyll. Beyond their color differences, wax and green beans are nearly identical in flavor and texture. Purple wax beans also taste pretty much the same as green beans, and their color comes from chlorophyll-masking anthocyanin, also found in purple cauliflower and Okinawa sweet potatoes. Unlike with purple sweet potatoes, this color is not preserved during cooking; purple wax beans turn green when cooked.

Bean Buying 101: Fresh or Frozen? Whole or Trimmed? How About Canned?

Gathering green beans into a bunch for trimming.

Green beans are at their best during their peak growing season: summer and early fall. Once picked, they quickly degrade in quality, becoming limp and wrinkled, losing sweetness and moisture in the process. Refrigeration doesn’t solve this problem, and in some ways makes it worse; cold temperatures damage their plant cells and cause them to lose chlorophyll.

For this reason, it’s best to use green beans as soon as possible after purchasing. If you have access to a greenmarket, unrefrigerated fresh green beans from a farm stand will almost always be better than beans from a supermarket that have been bred with more fiber to help them survive transportation by cold storage.

Fresh green beans are preferable to frozen, and both are vastly better than canned green beans. For recipes that feature green beans as the main ingredient (rather than something like a stew, where they might play a supporting role), use fresh green beans. Along with having better flavor, only fresh green beans maintain their characteristic crisp texture. Buy whole beans, and avoid pre-packaged and trimmed beans whenever possible.

Do You Need To Trim Green Beans?

Closeup of green beans trimmed at the stem end with a santoku knife next them on a cutting board.

No matter what color or variety of green or wax bean you end up with, you will need to give them a little trim before eating them. Do this just before you will be using them, as the trimmed ends will quickly dry out and shrivel up. The only part of the bean that always needs to be removed is the tip of the stem end (this is sometimes called “topping” the bean), where the pod was once attached to the rest of the plant. There is no practical need to remove the tail end of a green bean—the choice to do so is aesthetic. When you come across a recipe that calls for “topping and tailing” green beans, you can make the call if you want to make an extra knife cut, but I never bother.

Green beans with damaged stem ends.

To top your beans, sort them so that they are all oriented in the same direction. As I sort through a haul of green beans, I like to separate out intact beans from damaged ones. Even if you buy whole beans, there are often some that are torn at the stem end, along with others that are blemished and broken in other spots. Sorting them all right away makes the rest of the trimming process easier.

Photo collage of trimming the stems off of green beans.

For the whole, undamaged beans, work in batches, gathering a handful at a time: Line up their stems and then trim them off with a knife. Discard the stems, and set the trimmed beans off to the side. With an organized set-up, you will breeze through this prep in no time.

Photo collage of trimming the broken, gnarly tops off of green beans.

For green beans with broken or already cut stems, you will need to re-trim them, as those broken ends are usually dried up and sometimes may have begun to discolor. Again, just line them up and trim off the ends.

Closeup of a green bean that needs to be trimmed at both ends because it has been damaged at the bottom.

Finally, keep an eye out for gnarly bits on any of your beans. Use common sense to trim off discolored and damaged parts. They’re easy to spot.

A green bean that has begun to rot on the inside, and is not worth saving.

Any unappetizing browning on the interior of the bean pod is bad news. As you can see in the photo above, you may come across green beans that arrived damaged, and have started to turn. These ones are beyond saving. Compost them and move on.

Can You Just Buy Pre-Cut Green Beans?

Closeup of the shriveled, dried out end of a green bean that was already trimmed before purchasing. This needs to be trimmed again.

So if you have to trim green beans, can’t you just buy the bagged pre-cut ones at the supermarket? No, please don’t. As mentioned earlier, whole green beans already don’t hold up well under refrigeration, and further damaging their cell walls by cutting them just makes it worse. If you’ve ever bought a bag of trimmed green beans, you know that those trimmed ends look pretty gross: all shriveled up, discolored, and dried out. And you end up having to trim those gnarly ends away again. So you’ve now paid more money for beans that are in worse shape, and you have to perform the same task that you were trying to avoid. Just buy whole beans; trimming them doesn’t take that long.

Beyond Trimming: Some Other Green Bean Knife Cuts

Slicing blanched green beans into thin rounds.

Once you’ve trimmed your green beans, they’re pretty simple to work with. They can obviously be left whole for plenty of recipes, like Sichuan dry-fried green beans or haricots verts amandine.

Cutting green beans into 2-inch segments.

They can be cut into 2-inch pieces for green bean casserole, with a little help from a ruler for those who like to be extra-precise (the cutting board in the photos is a sneak peek of a prototype of one we’ve been working on with the folks at BoardSmith, so stay tuned for that).

Photo collage of slicing raw green beans on a steep bias for salad.

I like slicing raw or blanched beans straight across into small rounds or into slivers on a steep bias to add bright, sweet snap to salads.

Splitting a blanched green apart lengthwise.

Blanched beans can also be pulled apart lengthwise, if that’s something you’re into.

Blanching Green Beans

Overhead of green beans cooking in a pot of boiling water with an ice bath set up next to the stove.

We have covered the truths and myths of beans and big-pot blanching before, but in case you need a little refresher, here it is.

Photo collage of blanching green beans in boiling water and then shocking them in an ice bath.

When you want to cook green beans, but maintain their green color and some of their snap, blanch them in salted boiling water (you don’t need a giant cauldron of water, just something large enough to keep them submerged) until crisp-tender, and then transfer them to an ice bath to halt the cooking process. This method of cooking maintains their bright color, develops new flavor compounds, and tenderizes the beans without turning them to mush.

Now go out and pick up some haricots for dinner. It’s bean real.

All products linked here have been independently selected by our editors. We may earn a commission on purchases, as described in our affiliate policy.

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The Best Cast Iron Skillets

The Best Cast Iron Skillets

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik] Like a hammer, a quality mattress, and at least one comfortable place to sit and read (no, not the toilet), a cast iron skillet is one of those things just about every home needs. Cast iron requires a little more attention and […]