[Ed Levine and fries photographs: Vicky Wasik] At the end of every week, Ed Levine—a.k.a. Serious Eats founder, a.k.a. Serious Eats overlord, a.k.a. “missionary of the delicious,” a.k.a. Ed “The Good Ones Eat Through the Pain” Levine—hosts intimate conversations with food lovers of all kinds,…
Month: June 2019
Thick, luscious yogurt is easily achievable at home. [Photographs: Vicky Wasik] There have been more than a few nights in the past year-and-a-half when I’ve flopped into bed exhausted, forgetting to empty the unfinished milk from my son’s bottle. Opening it the next morning, instead…
How long it takes the yogurt to set will depend on the temperature at which it is held. This can be as short as 3 or 4 hours and as long as 18 hours. Once the yogurt has set, allow it to sit out at room temperature for up to an additional 12 hours to ensure a strong culture; if you’re working with a culture you know well, you may not need to let it sit out for so long, especially if you don’t want it to grow too sour. There’s no one good rule here except to give the yogurt the time it needs to sour and thicken properly.
1. Line a fine-mesh strainer with cheesecloth or a large coffee filter and set it over a large bowl. Spoon the yogurt into the prepared strainer, transfer to the refrigerator, and allow the whey to drip out until the yogurt has thickened to your desired…
[Photographs: Vicky Wasik] From time to time, you may find a recipe that calls for blanched almonds, and mercifully, that’s something you can readily buy in stores or online, although blanching almonds at home isn’t hard to do. But blanched pistachios? That’s not something I’ve…
“It’s impossible to make restaurant-quality Neapolitan pizza at home.” That was the opening line of Kenji’s 2010 article “Bringing Neapolitan Pizza Home.”
Never one to mince words, Kenji didn’t try to sugarcoat the issue. He made it clear from the jump that even the most skilled pizzaioli working in home kitchens couldn’t turn out Neapolitan pies that could hold a burning log to ones made in a real-deal wood oven. Skill and technique had almost nothing to do with this problem; it was an oven issue.
The defining characteristics of Neapolitan pizza—a puffy, leopard-spotted cornicione (rim) that still has a tender and pillowy interior, along with a charred undercarriage—can only be achieved with a ripping-hot oven that has a deck temperature of at least 700°F (370°C). Most conventional home ovens can reach a maximum temperature of only 550°F (290°C).
Baking pizzas at lower temperatures translates to a longer cooking time, with less charring. It also messes with the texture of the dough. A longer baking time means that more moisture is pulled out of the dough, turning the crust from pillowy to crunchy. Stella’s maxim for cookies also applies to ‘za—”All [pizzas] are crunchy if you bake them long enough.” That’s not something you want with Neapolitan pizza.
Kenji’s workaround techniques for home-kitchen Neapolitan pizza produce pretty damn good results, but if you placed them next to wood-oven pies, you wouldn’t have a hard time picking them out of the lineup. It’s like the difference between food photography shot with a cell phone camera versus a DSLR.
But don’t despair! Just like smartphone cameras, at-home pizza-oven technology has improved dramatically over the past decade.
First came the Baking Steel, which gave traditional home-oven pizza stones a run for their money. Then came a wave of backyard pizza ovens that can reach the infernal temperature needed to make Neapolitan pizza, without the space-eating footprint of a real wood oven.
The only problem: These ovens require outdoor space, something that a lot of us city folk don’t have.
Last year, Breville introduced the Smart Oven Pizzaiolo, a countertop electric pizza oven that can reach 750°F (400°C) and is about the size of a large microwave oven. Kenji got his hands on one of these ovens, and, after playing around with it himself, he shipped it over to Serious Eats HQ for us to give it a try. So a few weeks ago, I decided to throw a Friday-afternoon office pizza party to take this machine for a test drive. Here’s how it went down.
For this initial test run, I wanted to see how good the Breville is at turning out Neapolitan pizzas, and compare those results with pizzas made using Kenji’s oven-broiled method. I made six different batches of Neapolitan-style dough, experimenting with different varieties of flour and hydration levels.
To get a side-by-side comparison for each dough, I baked one pie using the Breville and one using the conventional oven. I kept the toppings pretty classic—traditional margherita; marinara (which, in Italy, is not a term for tomato sauce but rather refers to a cheeseless tomato pie with garlic and oregano); and some margherita pies jazzed up with little gobs of spicy ‘nduja.
For the pizzas baked in the Breville Pizzaiolo, I used the machine’s programmed “wood fired” setting, which bakes pies in the range of 700°F (370°C) to 725°F (385°C) for two minutes.
Bringing the Heat
The first thing that impressed me about the Breville was how easy it is to operate, and how quickly it heats up. As I mentioned above, for this trial run, I used one of the machine’s preset programs, which takes care of both regulating the oven temperature and timing the bake of the pizza once it’s in the oven.
Along with the “wood fired” setting, there are programs for frozen, pan, New York, and thin-and-crispy pizza, which you can toggle on a dial similar to that found on a traditional toaster oven. If you prefer to control the temperature and time yourself, there’s a “manual” mode that lets you do just that, allowing you to crank the temperature from the minimum (350°F) all the way up to 750°F.
The Breville Pizzaiolo plugs into a regular outlet and draws 1,800 watts of power to heat up the oven’s three coil heating elements—one underneath the ceramic deck, and two concentric coils above the deck. These heating elements, paired with the oven’s well-designed insulation, can bring the oven up to baking temperature in just 15 minutes. That’s crazy fast. In comparison, our oven-broiler method calls for preheating a Baking Steel or pizza stone for at least 45 minutes prior to baking.
And then there’s the issue of temperature recovery time between pizzas. The Breville recovers its target temperature in the time it takes to stretch and top the next pizza, while a regular home oven takes some toggling (switching from broil back to bake) and at least a few minutes to come back up to temp.
The Breville actually allows you to have a fun, fast-paced production line for your pizza party. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten frustrated with all the waiting around between rounds of pies when hosting a pizza night, with guests unsure over whether to dig in while the pizza was hot or wait for more pizzas to come out of the oven. While you can still bake only one pizza at a time using the Breville, even a novice pizzaiolo can churn them out at a much faster clip.
As for the results, the Breville oven produced, hands down, the best Neapolitan pizza I’ve ever made in a home kitchen. I grew up in Italy, I’ve worked a wood-burning-pizza-oven station in a restaurant kitchen, and I eat Neapolitan pies here in New York on a weekly basis. The Breville Pizzaiolo is damn impressive.
Just check out the leopard-spotting that it’s able to produce. I’ve never come close to that with a regular home oven.
And the same goes for the undercarriage. Even using MacGyver-esque tricks, it’s almost impossible to consistently get proper charring on the underside of a pie using a home oven. Above is a side-by-side comparison of the underside of a pizza made using the Breville and one baked on a Baking Steel in a regular oven. No contest.
Here’s how their top sides compare. You can see how it’s possible to get char on the cornicione of a pie in a regular oven, but to do that, the pizza has to be in the oven much longer, which adversely affects other components. The crust of the pizza on the right is much more dehydrated and crunchy, lacking the airy puffiness of the pizza on the left, which was baked in the Breville oven. The toppings are also overcooked: The mozzarella is starting to brown, the basil is on the edge of burnt, and the sauce is dried out.
Don’t get me wrong—both pizzas were still delicious. But if you’re a stickler for pizza details, the Breville produces a much better Neapolitan pie.
So are there any drawbacks to this wonder gadget? Of course! Nothing is perfect, and the Breville Pizzaiolo is no exception.
First off: the price. This machine will run you a cool $800. That ain’t cheap. If you spend $15 on a margherita from your local pizzeria, you could have one pizza a week for a year for that kind of money. I’ve personally never dropped anywhere close to that kind of cash on a single piece of kitchen equipment, and I have some pretty decent knives in my knife kit.
Following that line of thought, I use my knives every day. I do not make pizza every day. While the folks at Breville point out that you can use the Pizzaiolo to cook things besides pizza, you’re essentially buying a very, very expensive unitasker.
Second, it takes up a lot of space. On the one hand, this machine is only a little bigger than a large microwave oven; on the other, you must position it on a counter to operate it. That eats up a lot of kitchen real estate, something that’s at a premium for most of us. I barely have room for a coffee maker in my kitchen, so a pizza oven is definitely out of the question. That said, if I had Ina Garten’s kitchen and bank account, I’d absolutely buy one of these immediately.
Third, it doesn’t bake pizzas perfectly. Despite its advanced heating-element technology, the Breville oven doesn’t heat completely evenly. As you can see in the photo below, there are definite hot spots that can lead to portions of over-charred crust. Rotating your pizza halfway through the cooking process can alleviate this issue, but considering the high cost of this “smart oven,” it’d be nice for beginner cooks not to have to fiddle around in 750°F temperatures.
Apart from the oven’s hot-spot problems, the low clearance between the oven deck and upper heating elements can be an issue for the puffy cornicione of a Neapolitan pizza. Big air bubbles can easily come too close to the heating elements and char to a crisp before the pizza has finished baking. You definitely have to keep this in mind when stretching your pies, which also can’t be larger than 12 inches in diameter.
Neapolitan-pizza perfectionists may also nitpick that baking in an electric oven means sacrificing flavor that you get from a real wood-burning oven. I agree that there’s something lost in that respect, but most of us don’t have a wood oven at home anyway. And those fortunate enough to have one can attest to the fact that tending to it is a lot of work: You have to purchase and store the wood, build the fire, get the oven up to temperature, and maintain that heat. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s a project. There’s something to be said for a machine that you can plug in, dial on, and use to bake a very legit Neapolitan pizza (or three) in less than 30 minutes.
The Early Verdict
Overall, I was pretty blown away by the Breville Pizzaiolo. It’s a very intuitive-to-use piece of equipment, and it produces pretty spectacular Neapolitan pizza in a home-kitchen environment. I’m really looking forward to playing around with it some more, making different pie styles as well as testing it out for other cooking applications (steakhouse-style broiler beef, anyone?). If only I had extra money burning a hole in my pocket, and a lot of spare counter space…
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[Photograph: Max Falkowitz] If you hear someone claim that a food item was invented at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, you can be almost certain that they’re wrong. That particular event, officially named the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, has become a uniquely powerful magnet…
[Collage photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt, Joshua Bousel] Burgers, steaks, and chicken are all well and good, but don’t let vegetables become an afterthought this Fourth of July! Not only will a few carefully chosen vegetable dishes round out and lighten up a spread of heavy…
If you don’t have Cambodian relatives or friends, it’s quite possible you’ve never had the good fortune of eating the delicious food of this coastal Southeast Asian country. In cities with small Cambodian communities, restaurants and grocery stores serving or selling Cambodian dishes and ingredients are few and far between. But if you find yourself at a Cambodian restaurant, or if you’re lucky enough to score an invite to a Cambodian friend’s home for dinner, you’ll immediately understand what sets this food apart from that of neighboring Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Cambodian cuisine is more pungent and tart than that of most other Southeast Asian countries. Many dishes owe their intense flavors to prahok, a powerfully fragrant fermented fish paste made by leaving fish in the baking sun for a day, then piling it into jars or baskets with plenty of salt. Often, the fish is fermented for so long that when it’s added to a dish, it dissolves on contact, its flavors melting into the mix.
Tamarind or tamarind soup powder is used to flavor a variety of dishes as well, lending a balance of sweet and mouth-puckeringly sour. Cambodian cooks also pound herbs and spices into a wide variety of pastes, known as kreung, which act as the base for countless stir-fries. These pastes often include makrut lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal, ginger, and plenty of fresh herbs, though the ratios of these ingredients vary depending on the dish they’re being incorporated into.
To get a better sense for what really defines Cambodian food, I spent a day cooking with my friend Chinchakriya Un. Chinchakriya, who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and moved to the US with her family while she was still a baby, hosts pop-up lunch and dinner events in New York City. (The pop-up, Kreung, takes its name from the above-mentioned ubiquitous Cambodian flavor base.) Hosting these events is a way for Chinchakriya to preserve Cambodian culture and to create a gathering space for other Cambodians far from home.
Before we started cooking, Chinchakriya set up camping stoves in her sunny Brooklyn backyard, so the smell of fermented fish and the punch of chili wouldn’t soak into her walls and linger. We were lucky enough to be joined by Chinchakriya’s mother, Kim, the culinary matriarch of the family, who watched over and advised us as we prepared a small feast.
As I chopped galangal and Chinchakriya sat on the floor pounding spices and curry leaves in a mortar, she walked me through the dishes we were making. We started with cha kreung satch moan, a chicken stir-fry colored green by a pungent kreung of makrut lime leaf and lemongrass. Then we moved on to somlor machew srai, a fish and crab soup with crisp water spinach, made with a tart tamarind base.
While we cooked, Chinchakriya laid out the most important components of Cambodian cooking. There’s the layering of varied textures—crisp jalapeños added to the chicken stir-fry right before it’s pulled from the heat, for instance—and the way in which salt and fish sauce and chicken bouillon are all added to the wok in turn, in order to provide as many different sources of salt and flavor to each dish as possible.
The ingredients themselves are important, too. Plenty of prahok, fresh galangal, lemongrass, ginger, spicy little peppers, tulsi—the herb, also known as holy basil, has a peppery, menthol-like bite—and fish sauce were all within arm’s reach while we cooked. The chicken bouillon added to the chicken stir-fry and the tamarind soup mix stirred into the soup in place of pounded fresh tamarind are a testament to the way many immigrants adapt when resources and time are short, and there are families to feed.
Kim cooked these same dishes with her own mother in Cambodia. She ate the fresh seafood soup with vegetables plucked from the rice paddies surrounding her home, with fish the men in her family caught. When she came to the US as a refugee, she continued to make these dishes from memory, adapting them to fit her new life and growing fresh herbs and vegetables in her garden to incorporate into each meal. On this trip to visit Chinchakriya, she brought her own fermented fish paste and makrut lime leaves grown in her South Carolina garden.
As we sat in Chinchakriya’s backyard to eat the bright chicken stir-fry and light seafood soup, Kim and Chinchakriya debated the best way to serve the dishes—over rice, in separate bowls, or all piled together. Chinchakriya didn’t learn to cook Cambodian food until she was an adult living in Brooklyn, so when Kim visits, they spend most of their time together cooking and visiting Asian grocery stores searching for ingredients. Chinchakriya absorbs all of her mother’s tips and stories.
After watching Chinchakriya and Kim make cha kreung satch moan in their backyard, I took to our Serious Eats test kitchen to re-create the lemongrass chicken stir-fry. The recipe attached here is only slightly adjusted from theirs; it calls for cooking the stir-fry in two batches so the chicken doesn’t steam from overcrowding, and it gives the option to swap out the sometimes-difficult-to-find holy basil for Thai basil. Fermented fish, another tough ingredient to find if you don’t have access to Asian markets, is also an optional ingredient in this recipe. Otherwise, our cha kreung satch moan stays true to the flavors and techniques of the original dish.
For mother and daughter alike, cooking this food is about more than just nourishment or familiarity, though both are important—they cook to preserve and celebrate their culture, and to ensure it doesn’t get lost in a country where Cambodian flavors are still unknown to many.
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[Photograph: Joel Russo. Video: Serious Eats Team] If you’re hoping to familiarize yourself with the mouthwateringly delicious foods of Cambodia, look no further than cha kreung satch moan. This chicken stir-fry, adapted from a recipe from Chinchakriya Un and her mother, is salty, sweet, pungent,…