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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Illustration © 2012 Eric Hanson. All rights reserved.