[Illustration: Biodiversity Heritage Library] You did it! Another week down! We’re putting up a post very much like this one every Friday afternoon, to celebrate the fact that the week is done. Down with the lame week days! Up with not-lame weekend days! We think […]
Month: September 2019
[Collage photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt] When I was growing up in the Midwest, “Mexican food” meant neon-hued nacho cheese sauce, cheese-packed enchiladas, and crunchy tacos. It wasn’t until college that my horizons were broadened beyond the world of Tex-Mex. Since then, I’ve worked hard to […]
This week Serious Eaters get to see the all-new Special Sauce format we’ve cooked up for the new season. Every episode of Special Sauce 2.0 will start off with “Ask Kenji,” a brief section in which J. Kenji Lopez-Alt will answer a pressing question one of our readers has sent in. We’re going to do one of these every week, so keep those questions coming. This week the question comes from Tucker Colvin, who asks Kenji which outdoor pizza oven Kenji recommends.
After “Ask Kenji,” each week we’ll have on a guest, and this week that guest is ice cream wizard Nicholas Morgenstern, whose eponymous ice cream shop in New York’s Greenwich Village offers 88 flavors. As my friend Brian Koppelman said on his podcast, “The Moment,” Morgenstern is Willy Wonka of ice cream. He also happens to be an extremely thoughtful person; for example, when I asked him why he chose to devote his life to ice cream, he replied, “The product itself is a terrific vehicle for expression for me…It’s become more and more interesting to me to think about it as a cultural reference point, especially in America, and what it means to Americans, and why it’s so important.”
Finally, at the end of every episode, we’ll check in with the test kitchen crew at Serious Eats World HQ. This week, Daniel Gritzer gives us his definitive take on the pros and cons of refrigerating tomatoes.
So do give Special Sauce 2.0 a listen. I hope you, like me, think it’s snappy, informative, and surprising.
You Could Be on Special Sauce
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] seriouseats.com.
Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce 2.0, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life with an expanded menu. Every week on Special Sauce, we’ll get invaluable bites of wisdom from Kenji Lopez-Alt, Serious Eats’ Chief Culinary Consultant.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: It’s a rotating platform with a flame thrower. It’s basically designed just to make pizza. There’s not really much else you can do in it.
EL: After Ask Kenji, a conversation with our guest, ice cream genius, Nicholas Morgenstern.
Nicholas Morgenstern: I’m inspired and influenced by one of the greatest culinary destinations in America, Dairy Queen. I mean it.
EL: Finally on today’s podcast, Daniel Gritzer, our Managing Culinary Director dares to say …
Daniel Gritzer: It’s okay to sometimes put a tomato in the fridge.
EL: We’re going to start with Ask Kenji. Kenji, our question of the week, Serious Eater, Tucker Colvin wants to know currently, what is your favorite outdoor pizza oven?
KLA: Oh, that’s a good question. Currently I have three pizza ovens in my backyard. I have a Roccbox, which was one of the recommended ovens in my testing a couple of years ago. I have a Ooni Pro, which was not released at the time of that testing, but would now be also one of my recommended ovens. Then I also have the Serious Eats edition of the KettlePizza insert, which goes onto a Weber Kettle grill.
KLA: I find them all great for different things. The reason I have the Roccbox and the Ooni Pro is because I do plan on someday maybe doing some kind of comparison of them, although I think now there’s a new Ooni out anyway, so maybe that’s outdated, but both of those ovens work great. The Roccbox is a little smaller, fires up a little faster. I think it looks a little nicer. It’s great if you’re only planning on making things up to maybe an 11 inch pizza and maybe like a skillet with food foods in a skillet that you’re going to sear.
KLA: The Ooni Pro is much bigger. You can do probably, I think like an 18 inch pizza in there. It takes longer to fire up, longer to preheat, but you can do much bigger things in there. You could probably roast the chicken in there even.
KLA: If you plan on doing a lot of big cooks, then maybe the Ooni Pro or I think the new one is called the Ooni Coda is where you should go. Then if you want, what I think is sort of the best real pizza oven experience, where it’s really going to get to those really blazing hot temperatures, then the Serious Eats addition of the KettlePizza insert. It’s a lot more difficult to work with. It requires a lot of babysitting and management of the fire. But once it gets going, it gets really, really hot. Your pizzas cook as fast as they would in a real wood fired oven.
KLA: Those would be my three recommendations. They’re all on the pricier side, but with these things, as I found out in my testing, you get what you pay for. The only sort of cheaper alternative, I would recommend, is the Black … Oh, what’s it called? The Blackrock. Is that a pizza oven company or is that a investment bank?
KLA: Blackstone’s the name of the oven company. They make an outdoor pizza oven, propane powered. That’s around 200 bucks or so, maybe 250 bucks. It’s pretty unique. It has a gas jet underneath and above, like a little flamethrower above and below, and then it has a rotating metal plate. You put your pizza in one place in the center, and it just spins it around, and it kind of cooks it one section at a time on its own. It works great. A lot of backyard pizza makers swear by it. I find it to be a little ugly. That’s its main problem. Is this really ugly, I think. It’s also limited in what you can do because it’s a rotating platform with a flamethrower. It’s basically designed just to make pizza. There’s not really much else you can do in it, as opposed to these other ovens where you can also cook other things.
EL: Okay. I thank you Kenji, and I know that Tucker Colvin thanks you for your pizza oven wisdom.
KLA: Well, you’re welcome. Thanks for having me.
EL: Kenji Lopez-Alt is Serious Eats’ Chief Culinary Consultant and author of The Food Lab. Do send in your questions to Kenji, to specialsauce at seriouseats.com.
Nicholas Morgenstern: I brought some stuff, but I didn’t bring spoons.
EL: Oh, don’t worry. We’ve got spoons.
EL: Nicholas Morgenstern, the founder of what my friend Brian Koppelman calls the Willy Wonka of ice cream shops. Morgenstern’s finest ice cream in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
EL: What flavors did you bring me, Nick?
NM: I knew I brought you banana calamansi. I brought you Vietnamese coffee.
NM: This is the banana calamansi.
EL: Wow. You brought me a lot of stuff, man.
NM: Yeah, why not.
NM: Once we had the bag out a strawberry, pistachio, pesto.
EL: Strawberry, pistachio, pesto, Vietnamese coffee. What’s this one?
NM: We brought you the salted chocolate.
EL: And two … It’s raining ice cream in the studio. Two ice cream sandwiches.
EL: A mint ice cream sandwich and an It’s-It …
EL: Which is an imitation of the, It’s-It ice cream bar, I assume, or inspired by the It’s-It ice cream bar in San Francisco because you’re from Northern California.
EL: Nicholas Morgenstern is such a sweetheart. He brought me a sundae.
EL: Intact from his shop in Greenwich Village, a few miles away and it looks perfect.
EL: All right. I’ve got to start with the Sunday.
NM: You should. The thing is, is that I’m inspired and influenced by one of the greatest culinary destinations in America, Dairy Queen. I mean it all the time. I go to Dairy Queen anytime I’m on the road and I can get there.
NM: There’s one in New York on 14th street. Have you been there?
EL: Yes, once.
NM: It’s total madness in that place. It’s like drugs, bad drugs in that in that place.
EL: This is kind of awesome, man.
NM: Yeah, I’m glad. Well …
EL: I think we have to have Nicholas every week.
NM: Now you should eat that. I’m going to keep these on dry ice for a minute.
EL: All right.
NM: Just for … Yeah.
EL: This is a sundae and we’re going to get to this, that Nicholas has a sundae bar in his ice cream shop.
EL: That’s open on Fridays and Saturdays.
EL: Complete with old fashioned stools. It’s really cool. This is named The Rosenthal after our friend Phil Rosenthal, the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond and his food show, which is called Somebody Please Feed Phil. He challenged you because I remember I was …
NM: You were there.
EL: … there.
NM: That’s why I brought it.
EL: What is this? What am I eating? I know I’m eating chocolate. I know I’m eating peanut butter.
NM: It’s the best chocolate peanut butter thing ever anywhere, according to Phil. He made that statement before we had made the sundae, so then we had to live up to it. Peanut butter ice cream, chocolate ice cream.
EL: I taste some malt.
NM: That’s the peanut butter in the sauce.
EL: Got it.
NM: There’s peanut butter sauce, there’s chocolate sauce, there’s peanut butter crunch, there’s chocolate crunch, there’s peanut butter cookies, there’s pieces of chocolate in there. All the things.
EL: Yeah, I agree. By the time this interview is over, I know I’m going to inspire you to do a Serious Eats sundae.
NM: Sundae. Or maybe a Serious Eat something. Sundaes or one medium. There’s a lot of mediums.
EL: Tell us about life at the Morgenstern family table growing up.
NM: Oh, that’s interesting. My parents don’t know anything about food. They don’t have taste buds, really, either of them that responds to anything. My earliest connections with food and most importantly ice cream really came through my grandfather, my dad’s dad, Grandpa Morgenstern, who had a pretty pedestrian palate as far as food was concerned. This is in Southern Ohio, and mostly like meat and potatoes kind of cooking, and always cooking at home. But postwar industrial, a lot of things coming out of a can. But he had been in a war and he had worked in a dairy to put himself through college on the GI Bill. In that dairy, they made ice cream.
NM: When he was young, he would have been having that experience. I think he really established a clear connection with coming home and whatever prosperity he had through eating ice cream. By the time I came along, when he was in his 50s, and we, my brother and I, spent time with him in our summers going to Southern Ohio for about a month or six weeks every summer. There was always ice cream at every single meal, and not as like a gluttonous indulgence, it was just a part of …
EL: Yeah, just part of the ritual.
NM: It was part of eating supper. Butter pecan was Grandpa Morgenstern’s favorite flavor. There would always be that in the freezer.
EL: What brand?
NM: It would’ve been Breyers or just like a supermarket. This would have been in the early ’80s, so nothing extraordinary or special. I gathered a connection to Ben and Jerry’s a little bit later in the mid or late ’80s with Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia, and New York [inaudible 00:09:23] Crunch really, when that product was fantastic.
NM: I think I forged my own path with connecting with food in high school. Earlier I ate a lot of It’s-Its when I was in high school.
EL: It’s-Its are awesome. We should explain what an It’s-It bar is.
NM: Right, so It’s-It is an ice cream sandwich that was created in San Francisco. I think they were created in either 1919 or 1920, a family run business, still family run. They have a factory in South San Francisco and Burlingame. They used to have the factory out by Ocean Beach, in the Sunset District, way back in the day. They make five ice cream sandwiches, vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, coffee, mint, and then seasonally they make pumpkin, which is really funny, I think.
EL: It’s on oatmeal cookies.
NM: I’m getting there. I didn’t finish my …
EL: Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to step on you.
NM: Well, you have to understand that It’s-It ice cream sandwich for me is the platonic ideal of an ice cream sandwich. I love novelties. I love ice cream novelties, but I think I have a really strong connection to that. I think I objectively love the It’s-It ice cream sandwich because it is on these oatmeal cookies that you can’t really tell that they’re oatmeal cookies, they’re meant to be benign or generic. But upon further review, I think you realize that the oatmeal cookie is the right texture and vehicle. There’s no raisins in this cookie, and the oats have been processed and chopped. Then the whole thing is dipped in chocolate. They have it really perfected and it’s very reasonably priced.
NM: I haven’t purchased one in the Bay area. They’re mostly in California. You know, they’re all around California, but they’re less than $3 still.
EL: You know that I was hired by Northwest Airlines to find local foods to serve on flights out of certain American cities. I sourced, It’s-It ice cream bars to serve in coach on Northwest Airlines for a couple of years.
NM: Amazing. Amazing. They should still be serving those.
EL: I know you know. Well the history of airline catering is not a pretty one.
NM: It’s gotten mildly better, maybe.
EL: Sort of, it kind of ebbs and flows.
NM: Yeah. True, true.
NM: Someone famous just was hired to go to do something recently.
EL: That periodically happens. I put together a consulting chefs team with a lot of great cooks, Tom Douglas, Nancy Oakes, Nancy Silverton. You can only get so far, but that’s a whole other podcast, Nicholas.
EL: So your family growing up was not the easiest family to grow up in. I’m familiar with this. I had my own set of setbacks with my family growing up. But how did that affect you, and your mom was joined a cult, right?
NM: Yeah, when I was pretty young, when I was 14. I had grown up living with her. Then she left and took my brother with her when I was 14, he was 12. Then I was living with my father who I hadn’t lived with prior to that. That was like a roommate type of a scenario.
EL: And he had his own issues.
NM: We all do. I think it was a situation where I just got through that time in my life, and then had to get out and figure out what I was going to do with myself.
EL: You could either put one foot in front of the other, or you can crawl up in a ball and go into the closet.
NM: Right. Sometimes there’s probably a little bit of both of those things happening.
EL: For sure. But you obviously decided you were going to move forward with an intense focus.
NM: Yeah. Not necessarily a specific goal. I think that that’s a misconception, but yeah, like progressing with energy, and work, and the process of living, and creating things is been something that I think has propelled me for a lot of my life. At least for me, I never felt like I knew exactly where that was going to land me.
NM: I started cooking in the mid ’90s. I graduated from high school in ’96, and I went to culinary school the following year.
EL: You had to work for it, right?
NM: I paid for it. Yeah. Well I got a loan for some of my culinary education and then I paid for the other part of it that I couldn’t get a loan for with … I was working, yeah. I mean, I always was working.
EL: You were a mechanic.
NM: Right, I worked as an auto mechanic. Yeah. I liked to work on cars. Just being from California, that’s a different part of the culture. I’ve been in New York for so long and at least in New York City, that’s not a part of the cultures.
EL: But you like to work. Every time I’ve ever been at your shop, you’re working on the store.
NM: Yeah, I care about that, that way.
EL: You’re very handy to come to my house because I’m so unhandy.
NM: Yeah, I could help you fix some thing.
EL: You can me you fix some things.
NM: I don’t fix that much stuff at my house though. My apartment, I should say. Once in a while there’s a spurt of having to rectify some things to have it be functional. But yes, in the store, I’m always working on things, but the store is … How do I explain that? It’s this thing that’s always in motion and moving. It’s like a vehicle, and so you have to be monitoring and maintaining the vehicle, and cleaning it and fixing it so that it can continue to move forward. That’s why I do that.
EL: You’re essentially an ice cream store mechanic.
NM: Yeah, I am. We’re having to fix things in the store all the time. I’m dealing with fixing things right now, as you know, dealing with that today, actually, just making sure that the equipment is functioning properly.
NM: Ice cream store is going to have a lot of somewhat sensitive equipment because of all the freezers and all that kind of stuff. Yeah, I spend some time doing that stuff.
EL: You go to culinary school, you decide you’re going to go into pastry, and you end up at a few serious restaurants in San Francisco.
NM: I’d say one really serious restaurant in San Francisco.
EL: Which was Michael Mina.
NM: Michael Mina’s Aqua. He wasn’t as big then as he is now, as far as operating a lot of things. He had a couple restaurants when I was working for him, Charles Nob Hill, which was being run by Ron Siegel, who very famously was the first American chef to win the Japanese Iron Chef.
EL: And a really good cook that not very people remember or know about.
NM: Yeah. He was the real thing. Then he had Aqua. While I was there, they were opening a restaurant called Pisces, which no longer exists, which was in San Mateo. It was built into a little train station. It was a cool little restaurant.
EL: Did you immediately hear the siren call of ice cream?
NM: Well, the environments that I worked in, all of those places were at a high enough level, even back then, that they all had an ice cream machine. You’re always making your own ice cream. I worked at very few restaurants were buying the ice cream right from outside. You were always making the ice cream.
NM: Yeah, so I was making ice cream there. Then working for him, Aqua was a pretty serious experience. I had worked in Europe before that. I went to Germany right out of culinary school, and I worked there for a year.
EL: In a hotel, I think.
NM: No, I worked for the U.S. Military.
EL: That’s right, you worked in the military. That’s right, you worked in the military.
NM: But I had some experiences there visiting and staging in German ice cafes, which are these little cafes that sell some pastry, coffee, but then they really are focused on the ice cream.
NM: In this country, we could be so lucky to have those types of businesses sprinkled around where there’s one person who’s really maniacally focused on making just beautiful small batch ice cream in the way that they did there. A fairly German approach to the way that they maintain their organization in their shop, and then the way that they handle their product, which is a little bit sterile, but very well executed and very good product made with great ingredients.
EL: What is ice cream’s fundamental appeal to you?
NM: The product itself is a terrific vehicle for expression for me. I think it’s a medium that still offers me a lot of opportunity to explore expressing that. It’s become more and more interesting to me to think about it as a cultural reference point, especially in America, and what it means to Americans, and why it’s so important.
NM: I’m 41, I have been running Morgenstern’s for five years as its own entity on Rivington Street. Just about a year ago, we opened a big store where you’ve been on Houston and LaGuardia.
EL: Yes, I’ve been in both.
NM: Right, but you and I met there.
NM: You know, I’ve sacrificed most stuff in my life to do this consciously and unconsciously, and it continues to open my eyes to all different kinds of challenges and opportunities. Making and selling ice cream represents 20% or 25% of what it takes to do what we’re doing with Morgenstern’s. There’s a couple of distinctions to make. I own Morgenstern’s by myself, and I also am responsible for everything that we do. I deal with all the operations, and the human resources, just everything that we do, all the finances, all the economics.
NM: As far as what goes on within the organization, I run the store with a pastry chef and a pastry sous chef. We have an office manager, and then we have obviously a lot of employees who all have their own job descriptions. But we don’t have a Director of Operations and things like those kinds of parts of the business, at least not at this stage.
EL: It sounds to me like you’re a hands-on control freak.
NM: Well, yeah. I want things to go a certain way.
EL: I think that’s a nice way of saying control freak.
NM: Like I said, I’ve sacrificed a lot to have this thing that is really … I mean, I work a lot. I spend a lot of hours there in the place and doing things that some of my contemporaries, whether they’re in food or not in food, think that I shouldn’t be doing, or is not smart for me to be doing all of those things. At this point, it’s all moves the brand in the direction that I want to move it in. Whether that’s fixing the equipment and dealing with all … It’s really involved in all the things that we do. I work with people that I really like to work with, so that’s what it is.
NM: It’s getting a little bit cultish in there, sometimes. I think people have made that observation where you were all kind of on this mission, but it’s very challenging. Morgenstern’s is a really busy place. There’s a lot of people, and that we just finished our first summer in the big store, but we averaged 3,000 people a day.
EL: That’s like a lot of ice cream.
NM: Yeah, and we make it all ourselves. We make every single thing. We buy the Junior Mints and we buy the Oreos, but we make everything.
EL: How many flavors in all?
NM: Right, so the big store has 88 flavors.
EL: That’s all?
NM: Right. We could do more.
EL: But it’s 88 flavors and we should explain, because I know a little bit about ice cream making, which is a dangerous thing, knowing the little. Each one has its own base, right?
NM: Each one has its own recipe and its own base. Yeah.
EL: In many ice cream shops, they use one base and then just flavor the base.
EL: You don’t do that because that would be easy.
NM: Yeah. It’s also not as good.
EL: No, it’s definitely not as good. Ice cream is like your [inaudible 00:22:13]. But you stretch your own canvases, and you develop your own palate, and it’s much more than just a summer treat.
NM: You’re right. We are interested in making everything that we make. Yes, every single flavor we write the recipe for every flavor.
NM: Like I said, there’s a lot of challenges. For us now, adding a lot more volume to what we do, and how we handle the product, that forces us to evolve the way that we make it and the way that we rotate our product. Just like all these different things that we focus on. It’s endlessly challenging is what it feels like now. There are times and days where it feels more difficult.
EL: A little overwhelming, I assume.
NM: Yeah, it’s a little overwhelming. I’ve created this whole mess.
EL: It’s all your fault.
NM: Yeah, that’s right.
EL: You have nobody to blame, dude.
NM: That is correct, yeah. People say, they’re like, “You did this. I decided to put 88 flavors on the menu. I thought that that was a good idea. That’s what I do, and that is its own challenge.
NM: Then maybe now I’m just getting to the point in my life where I can have some perspective on how and why I make the decisions that I make, and what those things mean, and the impact that it has on my life, the relationships that are in my life. But it’s a difficult reality sometimes to exist in where you’re dividing the attention between perspective and a observation about what you’re doing, and then just having to do the things that you got to do every day.
NM: I work a lot of hours. Believe me, I’m tired, it’s tiring. I’m aware of it being tiring. I’m aware of being exhausted or tired affects your ability to have perspective, it affects the ability to make decisions. I have to monitor that carefully for myself to continue to achieve the things that I want to achieve.
NM: I’m driven by the idea that we will continue to get to the point that Morgenstern’s will be the best that it can be, and that then I can’t be the best that I can be if I’m a mess.
EL: I get the feeling that if I were to ask you who you were most profoundly influenced by, it probably wouldn’t be an ice cream maker.
NM: Recently I was reconnected with the pastry chef that I worked for at Daniel, at Daniel’s flagship restaurant here in New York. His name is Eric Bertoia. When I went to work for Daniel in 2000, I started there in 2001 as a stage, but I really started working there, I think it was 2002.
NM: He came back to see me recently. I’ve seen him at events, but he came back, and we spent time, and we talked for a couple of hours about a month ago. It really reminded me how much he has influenced the way that I think about flavor and things like that, and also how familiar it was to be around him, and just communicate with him and talk to him. He has this consistently upbeat energy that’s also succinct. He punches through positivity. It’s hard to explain, but he has this way of communicating that’s punctuated positivity, and he has no dog in the race in the fight with me. He just came to talk to me, and spend time with me, and we talked for a while.
EL: What makes Morgenstern’s flavor a Morgenstern flavor? What makes your ice cream, your ice cream?
NM: We don’t use eggs in our ice cream. It’s low sugar content, relatively low sugar content, relatively low butterfat, and there’s no preservatives.
EL: Flavor wise?
NM: On the spectrum of the menu?
NM: All of the flavors are written with the concept of it being a part of a matrix. They all fit together.
EL: That is a complicated matrix, dude.
NM: It is. It really gets into the psyche of the American consciousness around ice cream.
EL: Eighty-eight flavors.
NM: They all are there like a puzzle. It’s true.
EL: It’s amazing.
NM: Part of the reason Morgenstern’s is successful is because no one else is willing to do what I’m doing.
EL: Because you’re insane, dude.
NM: It’s true.
EL: In the best possible way.
NM: Recently, I just said … I don’t have any insecurity about what I’m doing. People say things that are just like, “What?” I’m like, “I cut my hair every day, and I go in and I do this thing. I don’t know. This is what I’m doing. This is my choice. I’ve decided to do this. I ride my bicycle to and from my shop six days a week, and I could be doing a lot of other things. I really don’t care. I’m doing this and this is what I’m doing.”
EL: All right. Listen, first of all, I have to finish this Rosenthal.
NM: Take your time.
EL: Because it’s awesome, but there’s so many other things that we have to get into. But we have to leave this episode here. Thank you so much for sharing your special sauce with us, Nicholas Morgenstern. You and I will have a lot more to say to each other in the next episode.
NM: I’m looking forward to it.
EL: But now it’s time to answer the question, is it ever appropriate to put tomatoes in the fridge? Our own Managing Culinary Director, Dan Gritzer, just tackled this one in a video on Serious Eats. Because this is audio, we can’t show the staff throwing tomatoes at him for saying sometimes yes, but here’s Daniel with cold hard facts.
Daniel Gritzer: Look, I was once like one of the many people out there who believed firmly that you should never put a tomato in the refrigerator. But I’ve changed my mind, and I want to tell you why.
DG: I’m going to be clear up front, I do not think the refrigerator is the best place to store a tomato. There’s plenty of anecdotal experience and scientific studies that have established that fact. The problem is that by establishing that the refrigerator is not the best place to store tomato, a rule has emerged that people follow blindly and dogmatically without ever thinking about whether there might be situations in which a refrigerator is the better place to store tomato. Sometimes it’s your best option.
DG: There are even studies that back this up. I saw one study that found that you can put a tomato in the fridge for up to three days with no noticeable loss in flavor. Only when you get to seven days and more does the flavor really start to fall off.
DG: Tomato is like an avocado, a banana, a peach, a melon. It is a fruit that continues to ripen even after it’s been picked. What this means is a tomato has this really nice, slow, gradual ramp up towards ripeness. It hits its peak, its moment of perfection, and then it drops off precipitously after that. The flavor starts to taste duller, it loses some of its clear acidity that balances out its natural sweetness. The texture goes from silky to mushy, but then eventually tomato starts to rot. It starts to develop really soft, squishy spots, mold grows on it, it caves in on itself, it’s disgusting. It can happen really quickly, especially at warmer temperatures.
DG: My advice is leave your tomatoes out at room temperature until they reach their moment of ripeness or they’re getting really close to it. Then if you’re not going to eat them right away, like within 12 or 24 hours, refrigerate them. I promise you, in most cases, that tomato will be better than the one that you let sit out past its peak at room temperature longer than you should have. When you are ready to eat them, try to let them come back to room temperature before you do so.
DG: A couple of days ago I went to the farmers’ market here in New York City and I bought a variety of different tomatoes. I got a few different kinds of heirlooms, some grape and cherry tomatoes, I got some beefsteaks. Over the course of the past few days, I have looked at the tomatoes and decided which ones felt like they were reaching their peak, and moved them to the fridge. If the no refrigeration rule is true, then what testing should show is that in almost every instance a refrigerated tomato should clearly be ranked worse in a blind tasting than its room temperature stored counterpart. But it’s just not what we found. The results were very messy. It was not clear cut one way or the other, but that’s the point, messy results undermine the never refrigerated rule.
DG: Here we have three of these Sungold cherry tomatoes. I’ll Cut into them first and just take a look. I think we all know, of all the tomatoes, cherry tomatoes tend to fare the best in the refrigerator.
DG: Room temp, hasn’t seen a fridge, it’s very good. One that’s been in the fridge for just a day, very sweet. Two days of refrigeration, and it’s really nice, and sweet and delicious. None of them had been ruined. The cherries, the grapes, the beefsteaks, and now these, none of them would I say so far had been ruined texturally, either from being out too long or from being in the fridge.
DG: This one was left out at room temperature, and this one has got mold festering on the bottom of it. Now the whole tomato is not bad. You can still eat it. You can cut out the bad spot. By no means is this tomato ruined, but these tomatoes were all really pushing the edge of ripeness. Leaving this one out has not done it any favors. This is when you want to put a tomato in the fridge, to avoid this kind of thing.
DG: This refrigerated one, in my opinion, is better than this never refrigerated one. That’s the thing the fridge can help you with, it’s when your tomato is cresting its peak, and on its way down, it can slow down that descent, it can hold you that peak longer, and even when you’ve gone over the top, it can help you retain some of the qualities that make the fruit nice to eat.
DG: That’s the point in all this tasting. It’s not the refrigerator’s good, it’s not that the refrigerator is the best place to put your tomatoes, it’s definitely not, it’s just that it’s more complicated than saying, “Never put a tomato in your fridge.” That’s the point. Look at your tomatoes, exercise some judgment, and maybe sometimes consider that the fridge might be your best option.
EL: Tomato truths from Serious Eats’ Managing Culinary Director, Daniel Gritzer.
EL: That Special Sauce for this week. Next time, Kenji tells one Serious Eater the best way to make naan in a tandoor ovenless home.
EL: Do send in those questions to specialsauce at seriouseats.com. Nick Morgenstern returns topping today’s conversation about his amazing ice cream, plus Rick Bayless teaches me to make a fresh ginger sparkling margarita. So long Serious Eaters. See you next time.
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2. For the Dough: Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). In a large bowl, whisk brown sugar, baking soda, salt, baking powder, and cinnamon until very well combined and free of any major lumps, about 1 minute. Add olive […]
[Photographs: Vicky Wasik] I may have tackled vegan chocolate chip cookies in the past, but I’m not one to settle on a single approach to anything. Different ingredients and techniques suit different occasions and needs, so I recently set out to explore my options for […]
The first thing most people learn about the bulbous root vegetable* sometimes known as “Jerusalem artichoke” is the misleading nature of the name. The second thing people learn, if there is a second thing, is that it makes you fart. Let’s be rebels and set aside those topics for just a moment, so we can focus on the vegetable itself.
* For the avoidance of doubt/harassment by horticulture buffs, it’s a root vegetable, which is the term we apply to a broad category of edible underground plant parts, but it is not a root. If you find this upsetting, you should try figuring out what a “berry” is sometime.
A sunchoke is a woody-looking tuberous formation found on the rhizome (horizontally growing underground stem) of a type of sunflower. Its rough pale-brown skin makes it somewhat akin to fresh ginger in appearance, but you’re more likely to see it broken up into individual pieces at the market, rather than in a single intact piece with branching fingers, like ginger. The interior of the sunchoke is creamy white instead of yellow.
Also unlike ginger, its flavor is mild, similar to that of a potato or jicama, but nuttier and sweeter. It reminds me of the slightly bark-y taste of raw, unskinned hazelnuts, which I’ve adored since I was a kid. Just me? It’s like wood shavings, but good.
Samuel de Champlain, the French explorer of North America, compared the flavor to that of an artichoke—hence part two of the erroneous name, although it does share a botanical family with artichokes. Where the “Jerusalem” part came from is less clear, but most people think it’s a corruption of girasole (pronounced “jeer-uh-SOLE-ay”), the Italian word for “sunflower.” A New World plant, cultivated on the North American continent for thousands of years before Europeans arrived, it certainly has nothing to do with Jerusalem.
Sunchokes’ peak season is during the fall and spring. When shopping, seek out firm ‘chokes with a light-brown color, free of soft spots that indicate damage. They’re more fragile than their rugged look would have you believe, so store them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, wrapped in paper towels to absorb moisture, and try to use them within seven to 10 days.
Scrub them well under running water before using, since all those little eyes and ridges can harbor lots of dirt. You can peel them after washing if you like, but their nubby, irregular surface makes it a thankless job, and the peel is edible.
Sunchokes work nicely in many of the same applications we typically assign to potatoes or carrots. Try cutting them into finger-sized pieces, blanching them for a few minutes in a pot of boiling salted water, then roasting them in a 450°F (230°C) oven until they’re soft and creamy inside and crisp outside. Or slice them thinly on a mandoline and fry them in 300°F (150°C) canola oil to make sweet, crunchy sunchips. Daniel uses both roasted and thinly sliced raw sunchokes alongside a rainbow of potatoes and brassicas in this bounteous fall salad.
Thanks to their starchy texture, mashed or puréed sunchokes make a more flavorful alternative to traditional mashed potatoes. If you’re into the velvety texture of a sunchoke purée, try taking it a step further by browning them in butter and blending them up with leek and sage for Kenji’s Brown Butter–Sunchoke Soup. And in the attached recipe, Sho uses a cast iron skillet to squash his ‘chokes until they’re all over cracks and crevices, à la Kenji’s smashed potatoes, then browns them in oil and thyme butter in a hot pan. They’re also surprisingly great for pickling, either peeled or unpeeled.
Oh, right: the farting. There’s a reason sunchokes have attracted the charming sobriquet of “fartichoke,” and it’s called inulin—a carbohydrate that our bodies can’t digest, leaving bacteria to pick up the slack and resulting in some pretty antisocial gut activity, including abdominal cramping, gas, and diarrhea. But inulin content varies from specimen to specimen, it’s found in lots of other foods as well, and some people don’t notice any symptoms at all. Your best bet, especially if you’re new to sunchokes, is to take it slowly, and perhaps reserve them for a solo meal—all the better, really, since you’ll have them all to yourself that way.
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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik] Sunchokes, which also go by the name Jerusalem artichokes, are edible tubers that are in season during the fall and the spring. You can prepare sunchokes in a number of different ways, including raw, but we’re partial to the simplicity of this […]
Boston has come a long way in the hundred-odd years since the most beloved local toast was, “And here’s to good old Boston/the home of the bean and the cod/Where the Lowells speak only to Cabots/And the Cabots speak only to God.” Even over the […]
We here at Serious Eats have sung the praises of the wok many times over the years, and that’s because the wok is one of the most versatile cooking vessels in the kitchen.
Of the pans I own, the only one that comes close to being used as often as my wok is my cast iron skillet, which is superior only in that it can be used for baking and for searing large pieces of meat. For most other tasks—for stir-frying, sure, but also for sautéing vegetables quickly, or browning cubed meat—I’ll reach for my wok.
Yet even those who’ve owned a wok and used it frequently for years rarely use it to its full potential. To that end, we thought it would be helpful to lay out its manifold uses in one place, with illustrative examples of each. One of these uses—dry-frying—is specific to Sichuan cuisine, but the others—stir-frying, “braising,” steaming, smoking, and deep-frying—are applicable to every cuisine in the world. You may find that a wok serves you better than some of the other cooking vessels you’d typically use for everyday tasks.
Beyond that, the convenience of using a wok for things like steaming and deep-frying could convince you to make some recipes more regularly. For example, after you’ve fried a few things in your wok and discovered how much better it contains spatter, you might be tempted to consider Southern fried chicken an easy choice for a weeknight dinner (because it is!).
What Kind of Wok Are We Talking About?
Before we get into what you can do with a wok, we should note that we’re talking about a good wok. That is, a solidly constructed one made from carbon steel of a sufficient thickness, and with a flat bottom for use on a typical stovetop burner.
Our guide to buying and caring for a wok recommends this Joyce Chen flat-bottomed carbon steel wok. If you take care of it properly and season it well, it should last you a very, very long time, and it’s more than capable of handling any of the techniques outlined below.
When most people think of what a wok can do, their first thought is stir-frying. That’s understandable, given that the wok excels at it. Its sloped sides make it ideal for tossing and flipping food quickly and efficiently, and because it’s made from carbon steel (which retains heat very well), the food that you toss and flip repeatedly will be exposed to an enormous amount of heat when it comes in contact with the pan, imbuing it with charred flavor without overcooking it.
On top of that, the vaporized oil generated by that high heat will combust as you toss it over an open flame, creating dramatic pyrotechnics and, more importantly, wok hei, the singular flavor that defines stir-fry. The result: tender bits of great-tasting meat, and tender-crisp, somewhat smoky vegetables.
Because stir-frying is a quick, high-heat cooking method, there are several things to keep in mind when preparing any stir-fry. The first is that the pieces of food you’re going to cook should be cut to a uniform size, and you’ll typically want to cut whatever you’re stir-frying—be it cabbage or carrots or onions—into small pieces. (There are some exceptions, such as long beans and string beans.)
Finally, to ensure that all the elements of a stir-fried dish cook properly over a home stovetop burner’s lower heat (compared with a wok burner), you may want to try stir-frying in small batches, whether you’re making kung pao chicken or the fantastic Chinese-Peruvian dish lomo saltado (pictured above).
You can read our guide to how to stir-fry in a wok for more instructions, and get the recipe for Lomo Saltado (Peruvian Stir-Fried Beef With Onion, Tomatoes, and French Fries) here.
I reach for my wok almost as frequently to steam as I do to stir-fry, and, while I now own a bamboo steamer specifically for use in my wok, there’s no need to purchase a unitasker for the purpose.
You can use a metal steamer insert, or you can use the steamer insert that came with another appliance, like an Instant Pot; you can even invert one of those flimsy aluminum takeout containers and use it to hold the food above the water, if you like, although you’ll want to perforate it a number of times with a skewer or the tip of a paring knife. So long as you can (safely) elevate a plate or whatever you want steamed above a pool of simmering water in the wok, you can steam.
But I’d like to make a case for the bamboo steamer, since it has a couple of advantages. The first is that the steamer trays are stackable, multiplying the number of things you can steam at one time. The second is that it comes with its own lid, which is (marginally) easier to clean than the large, unwieldy lid that comes with our recommended wok.
Regardless of what you use for your steamer setup, the applications are too numerous to mention. For my part, I steam many pounds of vegetables a week, mostly for my kid; I use the steamer for dumplings, as pictured above; I use it for small whole steamed fish or fish fillets; I even use it for custards, like chawan mushi.
When you’re talking about wok cooking techniques, “braising” is something of a misnomer. Rather than the low-heat, moist cooking method that’s meant to convert collagen in tough meats to gelatin—what we typically refer to as “braising” in Western cuisines—”wok braising” essentially creates a simmered dish. While a stir-fried dish might have just enough sauce to coat each morsel of food contained within it, a wok-braised dish will have a decidedly saucy consistency. Think mapo tofu, or the braised eggplant pictured above.
If the idea of using a wok for these kinds of recipes reminds you of the old “when all you have is a hammer…” adage, you should know that the wok provides a benefit that a straight-sided pot, like a Dutch oven (or even a less-sloped vessel, like a saucier), does not—namely, that you can stir the contents of the wok quite easily without resorting to a utensil.
A wok allows you to jiggle and swirl the contents, while the high, sloping sides contain the sloshing. Just try to pull that off with a Dutch oven! The other benefit of a wok is that it’s very easy to pour a saucy dish out of the wok directly into a serving vessel.
I actually think deep-frying is the kitchen task the wok excels at above all others, but I’ve placed it this far down on the list because, as great as deep-frying in a wok is, I still deep-fry at home a lot less frequently than I stir-fry, steam, or braise. The main reason for that has nothing to do with the wok and everything to do with using and disposing of lots of oil, which I’m sure most home cooks share with me.
If one were to compare deep-frying in a wok with deep-frying in a cast iron pot or a Dutch oven, one would find the wok to be a far better vessel. It’s true that the wok’s sloped sides mean you’ll need more oil to achieve a comparable depth, but that’s the only way in which a wok is inferior.
Otherwise, those sloped sides make it easier to hold tools, like chopsticks and strainers, at a variety of angles to manipulate frying food; they make it more convenient to pour out the oil in order to strain or dispose of it, without spills; and they make it less likely that the oil will boil over while you’re frying.
But the best part of using a wok for deep-frying is that there’s less mess: The flared-out sides of the wok catch a fair amount of splattering oil that the straighter sides of a Dutch oven or a cast iron pan would miss. The relative ease of deep-frying in a wok makes dishes like fried chicken—whether it’s kimchi-brined and Southern-fried, as pictured above, or a gonzo Popeye’s clone—much more appealing to cook.
This is admittedly kind of a niche use for a wok for the home cook, but it shouldn’t be! You are limited only by your imagination and the amount of aluminum foil you have on hand (it does require a fair amount of foil). It’s easy to do and perfect for any application that requires a light smoke, whether it’s the chicken wings pictured here, delicate proteins like fish fillets, or the tofu skin in our vegan cheesesteak recipe.
All you need to do is line your wok with the foil, so that the stuff you’re burning to create smoke doesn’t mess up the pan’s seasoning; top the wok with a wire rack; then top the rack with the food you want to smoke. After you’ve turned on the flame and the stuff in the bottom of the wok has begun to smoke, seal up the whole thing using another sheet of foil, and let it sit for about 30 minutes, which should be just enough time to impart a light smoky flavor to your food.
Specific to Sichuan cuisine, dry-frying is a technique in which a protein (in the example above, beef) or vegetables (such as long beans) are cooked in moderately hot oil in order to drive off almost all the moisture, concentrating the food’s flavor and drying out its exterior. After being drained, the food is then stir-fried with very flavorful ingredients—in the case of the beef pictured above, garlic, dried hot chili peppers, and Sichuan peppercorns. The result is highly seasoned morsels of food that are both chewy and pliant.
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