Never Cook Naked: Perfect Hard-Boiled Eggs, Too Flat Cookies, Blonde Coffee

Never Cook Naked

If you’re wondering, “Why such an unusual name for a cooking advice column?” look no further. Actually, look away. For a very brief moment in time, I did cook naked. To whit, I have a terrible habit of getting about as much food on me as I do in the skillet when I’m in the kitchen. But I’d long ago sworn off aprons because they tug too much on the back of my neck, making me look more Quasimodo and less Rico Suave. So one night before guests arrived, I had an idea: I’d strip down, do the last-minute searing, sautéing, and such, and then pop into the bedroom to get gussied up. The result, I thought, would be impeccably grease-free threads. No one would be the wiser.

Lesson one: Oil burns when it splatters. A lot. Especially on tender, counter-high nether regions.

Lesson two: Food left on the stovetop burns when you ignore it as you run cursing around the kitchen rubbing ice cubes all over your, well, never mind.

Lesson three: Lesson learned.

The lessons don’t end there. We’ve more kitchen wit and wisdom to impart, believe it or not, and here to do it are our Never Cook Naked guys, Mark Scarbrough and Bruce Weinstein. Ask them anything. Anything at all, whether matters of ingredients, technique, or etiquette. (And we do mean anything, given that we hear they, too, have had their share of boxer-clad culinary mishaps.)—David Leite

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“Blonde” Coffee

Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: I thought my love of strong black coffee made me something of an elite coffee drinker. But now that some coffee shops are professing the purity of lighter, or “blonde,” roasts, I’m starting to question everything. Was my sense of coffee superiority an illusion? Are my consumption habits about to become passé?—Nervous (But Not From the Caffeine)

Dear Nervous: Allow us a few guesses. You’re over 30. That tattoo you got in college is starting to fade. You find yourself buying sensible shoes. You’re afraid you’re no longer relevant.

Take heart: You’re not. Welcome to Adultlandia. Your resident visa will be ready in a few weeks.

In the meantime, sit back and sip your strong black coffee. Don’t be swayed by the marketing. All that advertising blather about ultra-light roasts was designed for the hipsters filling the ranks you’ve left behind. (We’ve seen what passes for coffee in some of those shops that tout their light roasts. A pumpkin mocha macchiatto with extra whip is not coffee. It’s Dairy Queen for the newly tattooed.)

Just relax. You’ve entered the blissful years of enjoyment without ego transactions. You’ll be nice and rested when you revisit this whole problem in your early 60s with the purchase of your first Corvette.

 

Perfect Hard-Boiled Eggs

Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: In my experience, in order to make perfect hard-boiled eggs, the eggs need to be at least a week old. I’m not sure why, but they always come out perfectly. What gives?—Nothing’s Rotten in Denmark

Dear Rotten: We live in the country. We buy eggs from a woman down the road from us. Yet we still don’t know exactly how old those eggs are. So unless you’re raising your own hens and are present for the blessed event, chances are you don’t know exactly how old your eggs are, either. Neither do we.

We do know this: brand-new eggs out of the henhouse become hard-boiled eggs that are, as you said, more difficult to peel. The membrane that holds the whites to the shell in these eggs is more tenacious, mostly because the egg itself is more acidic when fresh. Over the course of a few days or weeks, as the pH of the egg rises, the membrane becomes less adhesive. Voilà. More easy-to-peel hard-boiled eggs.

There’s a trade-off. Once the membrane begins to lose its adhesive properties, the yolks move around more freely in the white and thus are often not perfectly centered in hard-boiled eggs. It’s not a big deal, but you were making claims for perfection, so we felt the need to point that out.

So yes, it’s true, perfectly fresh eggs don’t make the best hard-boiled eggs. But they do make the best scrambled eggs. And fried eggs.  And poached eggs. And puddings. And soufflés.  And meringues.  We could go on, but those eggs are starting to get old.

 

Dinner Party Diplomacy

Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: I’ve got a question about how to diplomatically decline foods you can’t stomach. The top of my ick list is dill. It ruins everything for me. So what do I do if I’m at a dinner party and am served an offending dish?—Dillphobic

Dear Dillphobic: First, you’ve got to decide how important the dinner is. If you’re being offered the position of executive producer on a Hollywood movie and you’re invited to seal the deal at George Clooney’s dill farm, smile and swallow. If you’re out to dinner with your future in-laws and they’re wondering if you’ll be a good guardian of Junior’s trust funds, smile and swallow. If you’re over for dinner at a friend’s house and the salmon comes with a dill sauce, you’re within the range of acceptable manners to ask that the sauce be left on the side.

Just be sure to ask, not screech. It’s the outrage, the horror, the eye-rolling, the if-I-eat-that-I’ll-convulse attitude that tends to set off hosts–especially hosts who’ve invested quite a lot of time, money, and love in that meal, and then graciously invited you to partake of it. So be decorous. Explain your dilemma. Tactfully. Better yet, explain your dilemma when you accept the invitation so your host has plenty of time to plan.

Bear in mind, there’s a hierarchy of intolerances at the table. We’ve been talking about preferences, not actual physical intolerances or allergies. You owe your host the respect of telling them about your specific needs. They’d rather know than have you push the plate away. And you need to respect yourself, too. There’s no reason to set yourself up for 24 (or more) hours of gastric distress just to be polite. Although, that, of course, is up to you.

 

A Fix For Flat Cookies

Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: Why do my chocolate chip cookies always spread too much? I heard somewhere that using more shortening and less butter would fix this problem.—Flattened But Still Baking

Dear Flattened: Blame Laura Petrie. Actually, blame everyone in the ’60s. Back then, home cooks wanted convenience, so they quit lifting their biceps-building stand mixers in and out of the pantry and instead bought nifty little hand mixers they could keep in a drawer. But those puny, weakling gadgets can’t handle butter that’s anything but semi-liquid. Thus, cookie recipes began to be written for “room temperature butter.”

Problem is, room temperature butter can’t trap air. And the entire point of beating butter is to ensure that its fat molecules encapsulate as much air as possible, which lends structure to the dough and in turn makes, arguably, a perfectly shaped cookie. In order to do that, the butter needs to be cool enough to retain its own shape. If the fat gets warm, it loses any semblance of structure and spreads all over the place.

So rather than tampering with the ratio of fats in your recipe, perhaps you simply need to buy a back-breaking stand mixer and see to it that your butter is properly chilled. All that said, there are a few other reasons that cookies sometimes tend to spread and become flat:

The baking sheet was still warm from the previous batch. Always cool baking sheets to room temperature before plopping more cookie dough on them.

You used a silicon baking mat. There’s simply no resistance to stop things from going every which way on silicon, just like ice rinks. Try baking a batch of cookies with parchment paper instead.

Your baking sheet is insulated. This diffuses heat and leads to cookies spreading in all directions.

Your oven’s calibration is off. Yes, ovens can go out of whack, just like pianos. Buy an oven thermometer and hang it from an oven rack to make certain your appliance’s reading is more accurate than the thinking was back in the ‘60s.

 

Shrimp Shells

Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: What to do with shrimp heads and shells after you’ve extracted every possible morsel of shrimp and drop of juice? Compost them? Put them down the garbage disposal? Use them for stock?—Shell-Shocked

Dear Shell-Shocked: Here’s a rule-of-thumb we use in our house: Once a piece of food has been in someone’s mouth, it’s garbage. Feel free to adopt it in yours.

While we’re at it, here’s our off-the-cuff corollary: You can’t make stock out of table scraps. Those shells have been doused with herbs, spices, oils, sauce, maybe even spittle. Not even Martha can make stock for shrimp and grits out of them.

To answer your question, yes, you can compost shrimp shells. Many home gardeners swear by shellfish compost. (Caveat: Some public piles won’t accept shells owing to a desire for pristine vegan mulch.) Just make sure your personal pile is far from your house, as shrimp shells do indeed put up something of a stench in the hot sun– although that’s actually the least of your worries, because the more tasty things you toss on the pile, the more furry well-wishers you’ll attract. In our neck of the woods, we worry about bears. You may have to contend with raccoons or chipmunks. Consider yourself warned.

As for putting shrimp shells down the drain, they can–and will–clog the garbage disposal. They also make for an odiferous trash can. Our best advice is to stuff the shells in a zip-closed bag, stash them in the freezer, and save them for trash day, when you haul them to the curb—along with any of that stock you’ve made.

 

Spice Shelf Life

Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: I’m thinking of making the lemon soufflé  on your site. The recipe calls for 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar, although I can’t remember when I bought the dusty bottle that’s sitting in my spice rack. Can I omit the cream of tartar? Or substitute something else? Or should I just use my ancient powder?—Ye Olde Spice Rack

Dear Ye Olde: Short answer: Maybe, no, and yes. In that order.

Long answer:

Maybe. Whether you omit the ingredients depends on how much you value appearances. Cream of tartar strengthens the structure of whipped egg whites, ensuring they’re able to put under lock and key all the air that furious, high-speed beating imparts. Leave out the cream of tartar and you won’t taste the difference, although you may not have the loftiest soufflé on the block. Such scandalously shoddy attention to aesthetics might miff the foodies around you, but it won’t get you kicked off the PTA (unless you live within spitting distance of The French Laundry or appearance-obsessed L.A.).

No. Nothing will take the place of it, so don’t even try to substitute anything else for this ingredient. Unlike other items in your spice rack, cream of tartar is pure chemistry. It’s an acid salt known as potassium bitartrate, or, if you were paying attention in high school chemistry, KC4H5O6. Because it’s not thyme or oregano, you can’t swap something else based on perceived similarities or bottle proximity. You wouldn’t substitute Windex for Blue Curaçao, would you? (Well, unless your spouse really annoyed you.)

Yes. Use the old stuff. It has an almost indefinite shelf life provided—pay attention–the bottle has been sealed against moisture, in which case, see “Maybe.”

 

Measuring Accuracy

Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: Every once in a while I read a recipe that calls for a “heaping” cup of this or a “scant” tablespoon of that. What are they talking about?—Ill-Measured

Dear Ill: You’d never read a German or Italian or French recipe that calls for a scant cup of flour. It would ask for 220 grams of flour. Or 230 grams. In other words, it would call for precisely the amount you need. Precisely.

We here in the good, ole U. S. of A. still bake and cook in cups and spoons. (Just be glad we’ve moved away from rods and hogsheads.)  People elsewhere weigh. We dip. That’s what they did when they measured ingredients back in the day of Grandma. And Great Grandma. And Methuselah. And it’s not going to change anytime soon.

Practically speaking, these terms mean there was nothing between the 2/3 cup and 3/4 cup in someone’s measuring set back in the Fanny Farmer days. “Heaping” means that there’s a heaping mound of flour (or whatever ingredient) on top of the measuring cup. It’s a little more than “rounded.” “Scant” means that there’s a little declivity in the measuring cup.

So where does that leave us? With studied vagueness. But take heart. All this hoopla doesn’t mean much of anything when you’re frying, sautéing, roasting, and braising. A little extra oil or flour may not ruin the dish. But baking is about fussiness, aka chemistry. Cakes and cookies that call for such inexact measures can come out less than perfect.

Our advice? When you see “heaping” and “scant,” put down the recipe and instead find one that’s more precise. (May we suggest you seek a recipe from our favorite site?) And invest in a kitchen scale. It’s a lot cheaper than immigrating to Europe.


About Bruce Weinstein | Mark Scarbrough

Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough are exhausted. Twenty cookbooks in 12 years. Several other books for persnickety celebs. (Shhh. Confidentiality agreements.) More than 10,000 original recipes tested, tweaked, and perfected. A million or so hours on cross-training equipment, not to mention many, many pairs of elastic-waistband pants. Their work can be found in the James Beard Award-nominated Ham: An Obsession with the Hindquarter and Goat: Meat, Milk, Cheese. They’ve also written for many of the food bigwigs, including The New York Times, Cooking Light, Fine Cooking, the late Gourmet, and, in a fit of modern irony, weightwatchers.com. About three years ago, they left Manhattan for New England—or what Cole Porter called “this rural America thing”--to share several acres with some resident moose and bear, as well as an irascible collie named Dreydl.

Comments
Comments
  1. Gary Allen says:

    Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough are hilarious — and smart. Their book on ham should be read by everyone. Even people who don’t cook and hate ham.

  2. Christine Venzon says:

    Great stuff, guys. Might we expect to see Never Cook Naked on a regular basis?

    • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

      Allow me to sneak in and respond with a resounding YES, Christine. Absolutely. Might we prevail upon you to let us know of any cooking conundrums you’d like explained, whether they pertain to ingredients, techniques, or etiquette?

  3. Judy says:

    Loved this! Thanks for the giggles. I am glad to see they will be a return feature.

  4. Denise says:

    Love your style, you two, and your expertise!

    • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

      Mark and Bruce are traveling, decompressing from all the un-conundruming they’ve been doing. But I wanted to chime in and say thanks, Denise. Lovely to hear. I love their style, too.

  5. Anna says:

    Please help me with the flat cookie answer…are you guys saying its best to cream sugar with chilled butter for cookie dough? Ice cold? Diced?

    I make a pretty mean chocolate chip cookie, and I know not to use butter that has been sitting out forever (more like an hour.) But are you saying that my cookies could be even better if my butter was chilled?

    But doesn’t it get all warm when you cream it anyway?

    I’m very curious…thank you!

    Great read,
    Anna

  6. Beth Kujawski says:

    Funny and charming all the way through, but you sealed the deal on my fandom with the Windex crack! Well done, guys!

    P.S. David? I am now very wary of any future dinner invitations from you. :o )

    • Beth – you’d be surprised what we’ve seen people use as substitutes in recipes…Windex may be a bit far…but sometime we’ll tell you about the student who used corn starch instead of flour when making a pie crust…”Well, they’re both white!”

  7. Susan says:

    Hilarious! Okay..here’s one that has gotten to me since I first started cooking and I have had it explained but I still feel unsatisfied by the answer. “Creamed Cottage Cheese” as an ingredient. What does it mean?
    Some say cottage cheese made of cream. There is nothing, NOTHING, on a container of cottage cheese that I’ve seen that says it’s made of cream. It’s not even called “creamed cottage cheese” on the container! …And, the way it’s used in many recipes, the curds seem like it would not incorporate nicely..so I theorized that maybe “creamed” meant it was to be creamed..as in beaten until it was smooth and would hold air. I’ve had unsatisfactory results using 4% milkfat cottage cheese, which is the fattiest available, so I just avoid recipes that call for creamed cottage cheese. BTW..most of these recipes are from older cookbooks, ones published before 1950, and the recipes are occasionally ethnic (like a dough for nut rolls (potica) which makes me think maybe the term means cream cheese) I am so confused! Any ideas?

    • Creamed cottage cheese??? First off, it sounds horrible. But perhaps it has a baking purpose. In any event, my dear, you’ve stumped the panel. Research ahead–and an answer soon. Hmmmm. . . .

  8. Christine Venzon says:

    Since you mentioned it, Renee, my mother was baffled by a culinary mystery for years. Every Christmas she made anise cookies. The process was thus: beat eggs with sugar for about 15 minutes (she started using a stand mixer when she turned 75 — the arms and the old hand-held were both wearing out); stir in anise extract and flour; then drop onto the baking sheets and let sit about 8 hours before baking. The tops would dry so the cookie arose vertically without spreading, creating smooth-surfaced, cream-colored disks.

    For years she made the recipe with no problems. Then one year, a few of the many batches she made went off. The cookies refused to set and instead spread into amorphous globs. Very unattractive, though still tasty. Things got worse every year, with more failures than success, until Mom was ready to throw in the kitchen towel. She took it personally; her reputation was at stake. She could not figure out why she could make two batches on consecutive days, using eggs from the same carton, flour from the same bag, baking powder from the same can, etc., measuring ingredients as precisely as before. One batch worked, the other flopped. She started to suspect she was under some Biblical curse.

    Then last year, the curse was lifted. Almost every batch was a success.

    Is it possible the answer lies somewhere in the chain of our great industrial food supply? Could flour makers or egg producers have sourced from different farmers, or farmers fed their chickens different formulas?

    What do our kitchen gurus suggest?

    Thanks,

    Christine

  9. Christine:
    It may be beyond our ability to say exactly what went wrong, since you claim all the variables stayed the same. But maybe they didn’t. Flours do go in and out of fad–and sometimes use various wheats with various gluten levels at different times of the year. We’ve noticed our chocolate chip cookies need a tad less fat (shock!) in the South, thanks to the prevalence of soft white flour back home. Such tinkering around is the very soul of a foodie’s life–and it’s pretty persnickety stuff. Honestly, it’s not enough to make bad cookies, just different. But perhaps there’s a chemical fandango more specific to your mother’s batches. But in any event, things seemed to have calmed down and are back to normal. What more could anyone ask?

  10. Maureen Fant says:

    I enjoyed the bit about the tablespoons. I live in the nebulous land that lies between 50 grams of Parmigiano-Reggiano and (I have established) 5 rounded tablespoons of same (rounded being halfway between level and heaping). Don’t let them fool you. The Europeans (I can only speak for, or against, the Italians, but they all think water boils at 100°) act precise with their centimeters and milliliters and hectograms, but it’s all an act. They think measuring is for dorks, and if you can’t eyeball a quantity of oil, cheese, or parsley, you should get out of the kitchen. And it gets worse: yesterday I needed to establish what my Italian coauthor had meant by “bicchierino” and wound up getting out every kind of liqueur glass I had in the house till I found one the same size as the ones she has in the country, which is how she measured the grappa for the recipe (4 tablespoons, BTW). A tablespoon is a tablespoon around the world (15 ml for the fastidious), but Italians don’t mean level tablespoons, they mean heaping, only they usually don’t say so. You’re just supposed to know. The vocabulary exists — cucchiaio raso, level, or colmo, heaping — but you don’t often see it. And do we want to talk about a cucchiaiata? Still, I have come around to the preference for weighing for when you really do have to measure.

  11. Jorge Bizarro says:

    Dear Never Cook Naked Guys, this is more than a comment, I want to really go for it and ask a question, and here it is. Thisarose while reading the “spread-cookies-issue” pertaining to butter. I have been baking mostly cookies. I come from a country where most grandmas bake with olive oil rather than butter (Portugal). I do love butter cookies, but guess that olive oil is healthier for cholesterol-laden arteries and combines very well with spicy and citrus flavors. I’m puzzled about the methods for adding butter to a recipe. For instance, take a classic butter cookie like shortbread. It can be made either by creaming the butter with sugar before adding flour, or more “Scottishly” by rubbing in very cold butter to the mixture of sugar and flour. What is the difference on the outcome product? I personally have tried both ways and noticed nothing. I started preferring using the rubbing method for two main reasons: 1. I don’t need to take the butter out from the fridge and guess “how cold it should be,” and 2. I have found that freezing (olive) oil, cutting it into small squares, and then just rubbing these to the dry flour mixture as if it was cold butter produce a flakey, more tender cookie (even pie crusts done just with water, frozen oil, and flour plus a little acid (vinegar, buttermilk, or citrus juice) can be as flakey as a buttery one). If the recipe call for eggs or milk, than I just emulsify the oil (mayo-like) into the liquid mixture. I like to leave the dough resting overnight and notice that “rested” oil+flour+sugar doughs have a tendency to “sweat out” the oil, but after using the frozen oil rubbing method, this was solved and also allows us to add a little liquid flavors for making the dough come together. Back to butter: Given your experience, do you have any idea on the possible outcome of these 3 possible ways of making a classic butter + egg cookie like chocolate chip ones? (Note: I don’t have any kind of mixer, either standing or manual, so I use a wooden spoon or spatula.)

    1. Traditional method: first cream butter with sugar, then add eggs, vanilla, lastly the flours, etc.

    2. Option 1: rub the cold butter to the sugars/flour mixture, then beat eggs with vanilla and add to the previous crumbly mixture.

    3. Option 2: rub the butter just with flour mixture, beat the eggs with sugars (this incorporates air) and vanilla. A variant would be to divide the sugar, i.e. mix caster sugar with flour and beat the brown sugar with eggs.

    Any idea of the possible outcomes?

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      Jorge, I just received a response from Mark and Bruce, our Never Cook Naked guys, and here’s what they have to say…

      Wow, you’re way ahead of this game. You’ve actually run your own experiments and you know what’s best for your cookie-making. That’s impressive. But as to the butter dilemma with the dough, we’re pretty sure a mixer of some kind is necessary–because the point is to trap air molecules into the fat. While rubbing butter (or even frozen oil–genius!) into flour will make a tender and flaky pie crust, it will still make a crust–that is, a flat, crisp, baked dough. You don’t want air in crusts simply because you want them as cracker-like as possible. WIth cookies, you want some air in the mix. In fact, lots of air. While you’re not trying to make light, spongy cake layers, you are trying to make thousands of little planes of crunch–and those planes are separated by air. Thus, the beating. If you’re insistent you don’t want to beat the butter into the sugar and eggs, then we’d recommend letting the butter some to room temperature and whisking it into the sugar, getting as much air into the mix as possible before adding the eggs–and then the flour (which you’ll want to stir in with a wooden spoon). Even that (relatively) slight amount of agitation will put some air into the fat and allow for more tender cookies.

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