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'Test Kitchen' Chefs Talk The Science Of Savory

Jack Bishop is the editorial director at America's Test Kitchen, where every day a near army of professional chefs test, test, then retest recipes to arrive at the best possible result.
Larry Crowe
Jack Bishop is the editorial director at America's Test Kitchen, where every day a near army of professional chefs test, test, then retest recipes to arrive at the best possible result.

You might think that Bridget Lancaster and Jack Bishop — two of the culinary talents behind the public television shows America's Test Kitchen and Cook's Country — would have their cooking techniques pretty much figured out. Think again.

For the new Cook's illustrated book The Science of Good Cooking, Bishop and Lancaster tested principles they assumed were true — and as Bishop tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "Things that we thought were actually accurate turned out to be, perhaps, more complex."

Bishop and Lancaster also realized they had simplified certain techniques over the years, and that there was more to them than they initially thought.

One example: searing a steak. One of the common myths in many cooking books and taught in cooking school is that searing seals in juices.

"It is absolutely 100 percent false," Bishops tells Gross. He says the steak tastes better because the steak is browning and becoming more flavorful — but after running a number of tests, Bishop concluded that "whether you sear that steak at the beginning of the process or gently warm it in the oven and then quickly throw in a hot pan, the steak will weigh the same amount."

According to Lancaster, one of the most overlooked steps with respect to meat is letting it rest before carving into it.

"The difference between cutting into meat that's rested for 10, 20, 30 minutes and meat that has not rested at all, it's amazing," she says. The explanation? When cooked meat is just out of the oven, its fibers are very tight.

"If you cut into it right away, all of the moisture inside that meat will just flood out." Lancaster's suggestion: Let the roast sit — she suggests a minimum of 20 minutes — which will allow the meat fibers to relax so the juices pushed to the outside of the meat can be reabsorbed, and the meat will be juicier.

Jack Bishop is a cast member of America's Test Kitchen and Cook's Country and is the editorial director of America's Test Kitchen. Bridget Lancaster is the on-screen test cook for both shows.

Interview Highlights

On why you might want to add anchovies to your beef stew

Lancaster: "Glutamates ... [are] savory compounds; your taste receptors will pick that up and say, wow, that's nice and savory. But anchovies, in particular, they contain something else. It's another compound called a nucleotide — and a nucleotide plus a glutamate basically is a savory explosion. It really amps up the flavor of the glutamates 20, 30, even perhaps 40 times. So if you're tasting beef on its own, or soy sauce, or any of those glutamate-rich ingredients, your tongue will say, wow, that's very beefy. You add something with nucleotides in it, say anchovies, and you'll say this is the best beef stew ever. It tastes so much more meaty than meat."

On glutamate, MSG and 'Chinese restaurant syndrome'

Lancaster: "Glutamate is actually a naturally occurring compound. And MSG is derived from those naturally occurring compounds; it's just a manufactured product."

Bishop: "MSG did get something of a bad rap. They used to call it 'Chinese restaurant syndrome' where people were complaining of headaches after eating Chinese food, and they blamed — for a while, anecdotally in the press, the MSG.

"It turns out that it was probably bacteria growing in the rice, which had been cooked earlier in the day and [was] being kept warm in those restaurants ... and it really had nothing to do with the MSG. I do think MSG is a bit of a sledgehammer in terms of building flavor, and that taking a more natural approach using ingredients naturally rich in glutamates is a bit more subtle. And it's also certainly much more appealing."

On why you shouldn't be afraid of MSG

Bishop: "There's really no difference between what's in MSG and the glutamates that you find in mushrooms, in beef and all these other ingredients. It's not some scary, manufactured compound that doesn't really exist in nature; it's just a distilled version of something that exists in many foods that we normally eat."

On the myth of marinades

Bishop: "Your classic marinade ... is to use a bottle of Italian salad dressing. And ... the common thinking is that the acid — the vinegar in the salad dressing, or lemon juice, or red wine — is somehow tenderizing the meat. And you will read this in a lot of classic cooking manuals, that an acidic marinade will make meat more tender.

"It will, in fact, make the outer layer of the meat a bit mushy, but what it's really doing is pulling moisture out of the meat and making it drier. And there isn't really a great way to tenderize a cut that's going to be cooking very quickly, for instance on the grill, but you can make it juicier, and juiciness, when it gets to eating the steak, often is equated with tenderness once it's in our mouth.

"So we use a salt-based marinade; you can use salt itself, you can use a salty ingredient like soy sauce, and then mix that with the garlic, with all the seasonings you want to use. And what you're basically doing is, the salt penetrates very quickly into the meat and changes the structure of the muscle proteins, so that when the muscle proteins are cooked, they will hold on to more of their juices."

Recipe: Best Beef Stew

Serves 6 to 8

Use a good-quality medium-bodied wine, such as a Cotes du Rhone or pinot noir, for this stew. Try to find beef that is well marbled with white veins of fat. Meat that is too lean will come out slightly dry. Look for salt pork that is roughly 75 percent lean.

2 garlic cloves, minced

4 anchovy fillets, rinsed and minced

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 (4-pound) boneless beef chuck-eye roast, pulled apart at seams, trimmed, and cut into 1 1/2‑inch pieces

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 large onion, halved and sliced 1/8 inch thick

4 carrots, peeled and cut into 1‑inch pieces

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

2 cups red wine

2 cups low-sodium chicken broth

4 ounces salt pork, rinsed

2 bay leaves

4 sprigs fresh thyme

1 pound Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into 1‑inch pieces

1 1/2 cups frozen pearl onions, thawed

2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin

1/2 cup water

1 cup frozen peas, thawed

Salt and pepper

1. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 300 degrees. Combine garlic and anchovies in small bowl; press with back of fork to form paste. Stir in tomato paste and set aside.

2. Pat meat dry with paper towels. (Do not season.) Heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil in Dutch oven over high heat until just starting to smoke. Add half of beef and cook until well browned on all sides, about 8 minutes. Transfer beef to large plate. Repeat with remaining beef and remaining 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, leaving second batch of meat in pot after browning.

3. Reduce heat to medium and return first batch of beef to pot. Add onion and carrots to Dutch oven and stir to combine with beef. Cook, scraping bottom of pot to loosen any browned bits, until onion is softened, 1 to 2 minutes. Add garlic mixture and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add flour and cook, stirring constantly, until no dry flour remains, about 30 seconds.

4. Slowly add wine, scraping bottom of pot to loosen any browned bits. Increase heat to high and allow wine to simmer until thickened and slightly reduced, about 2 minutes. Stir in broth, salt pork, bay leaves, and thyme. Bring to simmer, cover, transfer to oven, and cook for 1 1/2 hours.

5. Remove pot from oven; remove and discard bay leaves and salt pork. Stir in potatoes, cover, return to oven, and cook until potatoes are almost tender, about 45 minutes.

6. Using large spoon, skim any excess fat from surface of stew. Stir in pearl onions; cook over medium heat until potatoes and onions are cooked through and meat offers little resistance when poked with fork (meat should not be falling apart), about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, sprinkle gelatin over water in small bowl and let sit until gelatin softens, about 5 minutes.

7. Increase heat to high, stir in softened gelatin mixture and peas; simmer until gelatin is fully dissolved and stew is thickened, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste; serve.

Why This Recipe Works
This recipe uses evenly cut chunks of chuck-eye roast — one of the cheapest, beefiest cuts in the supermarket — which we brown and gently simmer in a rich broth. We flavor this broth with glutamate-rich ingredients like salt pork and tomato paste, and thicken it with gelatin. Beef and anchovies are also a good source of nucleotides that work synergistically with glutamates.

Cut Your Own Meat
Using packaged "stew meat" from the supermarket is a nonstarter here; the jumble of scraggly bits and large chunks from all over the cow (some of which are too lean to be stewed) is impossible to cook evenly. We prefer chuck-eye roast, which can turn meltingly tender when properly cooked. To ensure consistent texture and flavor, trim and cut the meat yourself. First, pull apart the roast at its major seams (marked by lines of fat and silverskin). Then, with a sharp chef's knife or boning knife, trim off the thick layers of fat and silverskin. Slice the meat into even, stew-ready chunks.

Build Flavor
We build flavor a number of ways in this stew — from browning to using glutamate- and ­nucleotide-rich ingredients in the sauce. We also sauté the aromatics. Caramelizing the onion and carrots (rather than just adding them raw to the broth, as many other recipes suggest) helps to start the stew off with as much flavor as possible. We like to leave the meat in the pot while the vegetables sauté, as the residual heat helps the vegetables to cook faster and more evenly.

Fish for Meatier Flavor
To boost meaty ­flavor in food, we often add ingredients high in glutamate. This common amino acid is the building block for MSG and occurs naturally in foods from mushrooms to cheese, tomatoes, and fish. Thus it wasn't exactly a surprise that the addition of two such glutamate-rich ingredients — tomato paste and salt pork — to our beef stew intensified its savory taste. But when we added a third ingredient, anchovies, the beefy flavor seemed to increase exponentially. This is because anchovies also contain compounds called nucleotides, which scientists have found to have a synergistic effect on glutamate, heightening its meaty taste 20- to 30-fold.

Stagger the Vegetables
We stagger the addition of vegetables to the stew in order to prevent overcooking. Medium-starch Yukon Gold potatoes, which aren't as starchy as russets and therefore won't break down too easily and turn the stew grainy, are added 1 1/2 hours into the stewing time. Pearl onions are added 45 minutes later, and a handful of frozen peas are added at the very end.

From The Science of Good Cooking (Cook's Illustrated Cookbooks) by Cook's Illustrated Magazine. Copyright 2012 by the Editors at America's Test Kitchen. Excerpted by permission of Cook's Illustrated.

Recipe: Hot Cocoa

Serves 4 in small mugs

Why This Recipe Works
Our ideal hot cocoa recipe would give us serious chocolate flavor and a rich, satisfying consistency. We found that 1 1/2 tablespoons of cocoa powder sweetened with 1 tablespoon of sugar added enough chocolate flavor to our hot cocoa recipe without being overpowering. Many recipes recommend mixing cocoa powder and sugar with a little water before adding the milk, and we found this to be worthwhile. Water has the effect of releasing the cocoa powder's fruit, chocolate, and coffee flavor nuances. We also discovered that heating the mixture of cocoa powder, sugar, and water for two minutes before adding milk further deepens the flavor.

If you want to increase or decrease this recipe for hot cocoa, the key ratio to remember is one and one-half tablespoons of cocoa and one heaping tablespoon of sugar per cup of liquid. If you have whole milk on hand rather than low-fat, go ahead and use it, omitting the half-and-half.


6 tablespoons Dutch-processed cocoa powder, measured by dip-and-sweep

4 tablespoons granulated sugar

Pinch table salt

1cup water

3 cups low-fat milk (1 or 2 percent)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 cup half-and-half


1. In heavy 2-quart saucepan, whisk together cocoa, sugar, salt, and water over low heat until smooth. Simmer, whisking continuously, for 2 minutes, making sure whisk gets into the edges of pan.

2. Add milk, increase heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring occasionally with whisk, until steam rises from surface and tiny bubbles form around edge, 12 to 15 minutes. Do not boil.

3. Add vanilla and half-and-half. For foamy cocoa, beat hot cocoa with hand mixer or transfer to blender and blend until foamy. Divide between four mugs, top with whipped cream or marshmallows if desired, and serve immediately.

Excerpted by permission of Cook's Illustrated.

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