Never Cook Naked: Hot Chocolate, Lemons, and Oven Racks

Never Cook Naked and Other Culinary Wit and Wisdom

Our very clever, very clothed Never Cook Naked columnists, Mark Scarbrough and Bruce Weinstein, are at your disposal, able to troubleshoot everything from questionable table etiquette to tricky cooking techniques (as well as, natch, proper cooking attire). Curious to read more solutions to culinary conundrums? You may wish to peruse previously asked questions, starting with the last column’s answers pertaining to pie crust perfection, telltale signs your turkey is done, properly thickened sauces, and adverse reactions to peeling sweet potatoes.


Hot Chocolate

Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: When I’m warming milk for hot chocolate, I always end up with that nasty skin on the surface. Is there a way to prevent this from happening? —Skinphobe

Dear Phobe: You’re asking how to stop the inevitable. Do you also chow down on rib eye steaks but believe there’s some way that there can be no cholesterol involved? Do you like popcorn but think you can miss out on the hulls stuck between your teeth?

Milk forms a skin when it’s being warmed because of a naturally occurring protein, casein, that coagulates when exposed to air and heat. (By the way, casein is the same stuff that lets milk coagulate into cheese—but that’s because of a more intense chemical reaction brought on by certain enzymes, not just heat.)

You can minimize the odds of the dreaded milk skin in your hot chocolate by whisking the milk constantly while it’s warming. Sure, it’s a pain. But certain sacrifices must be made for the sake of hot chocolate.

Even so, that dreaded skin can still form in your mug. So you can also drink your hot chocolate quickly. As in a gulp or two. You’ll have to work fast: The casein can begin to dry out and form your phobia in less than a minute. But even then you won’t have solved all your problems, because you’ll most likely burn your tongue.

So you might keep a spoon in the cup, and keep stirring your hot chocolate. All this stirring is exhausting! Who knew one beverage counted as a trip to the gym? And then if you forget to remove the spoon from the cup when you imbibe, you can poke your eye out.

Maybe the best thing to do is inhibit the skin’s formation in the cup a bit by plopping a jumbo marshmallow in your hot chocolate. Enough said.


Shriveled Lemons

Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: Is there a way to keep a lemon from shriveling after I’ve zested it and tossed it in the fridge? —Puckered

Dear Puckered: Did you ever see the movie Brazil? Katherine Helmond’s face was kept from shriveling as she aged by being sealed in plastic wrap. Same thing goes for citrus—minus Robert De Niro as costar.

A lemon’s rind is a natural barrier that holds in moisture. After you break the rind—the fruit’s seal, if you will—the inside starts to desiccate. Rather quickly. Hence you need another moisture barrier. Pronto.

Enter plastic wrap. Think of it as the polyester of the food world. Add to that the chill of the fridge, which slows down just about everything, and you’re on your way to saving the life of another lemon. It’ll last in the fridge for four or five days. Unfortunately, this is not a long-term solution—either for a lemon or your face.


Oven Racks

Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: Does the position of the rack in the oven really make a difference? —Still Standing Facing the Stove

Dear Standing: Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: Depends.

In general, follow the recipe. If it says, for example, that the rack should be in the bottom third of the oven, the writer intends the cookies or quick bread to get a little toastier on the bottom than if they’d been in the center. So yes, it matters.

But now to complicate things, always remember the rule of the oven: It’s all about airflow. Never put the rack so low that it sits on the element—you might as well be braising on top of the stove. And don’t put the rack so high that the lofty elevation yields an inconsistent temperature, so far away from said element.

There are also times when the rack’s position doesn’t make that much difference. Baking is about precision. But when it comes to roasting and braising, there’s a range of acceptable: not at the very top and not at the very bottom but somewhere within the general confines of what’s considered the middle of your oven.

What’s more, all bets are off if you’re working with convection. A well-regulated convection fan will keep the hot air flowing evenly throughout the oven, no matter what rack you’re baking on—although, again, watch out for overbrowning on too-low racks.

Finally, if you’re using your oven for storage, be heedless. Your sweaters care not where the rack is positioned.

Got more questions? Good. We do, too. That is, more questions AND answers. In case you missed the mention above, for more cooking etiquette and enigmas explained, you can take a peek at previous columns from our Never Cook Naked Guys. Anything pertaining to food or drink goes. Well, anything within reason. But first, those previously tended-to questions we promised….

“Blonde” Coffee, Old Eggs, Diplomatic Diners, Flat Cookies

Host(ess) Gifts, New Mexican Chiles, Wax (?) Paper

Nonstick Grilling, “Reusable” Bamboo, Meat Safety

Pesky Pin Bones, Rude Roomies, Soapy Challah

How to Make a Better Brownie

Thanksgiving Dinner Perfected



  1. Actually for the lemon, my grandmother taught me a trick which is the only thing I have found so far to make it last longer. She would place a zested or halved lemon, cut side down, on a ceramic plate, then cover it with a glass cup. For a halved lemon it usually lasts 4 to 5 days. For a zested lemon, I can make it last 3 to 4. Not sure why that is, but would love to find out.

    1. Sofia, I love the simplicity and Old World charm of your grandmother’s tactic. No plastic wrap required. I assume that the glass created an almost airtight situation, similar to plastic wrap but perhaps not quite as airtight…?

      1. Certainly not quite as airtight I am sure, even though she always (and I do, too) used a concave plate so that the cup would fit snug. She would never place it in the fridge, either. And even though Old World indeed, she realized early on the “new” products, such as plastic, would not be good for the environment. She was an advocate on bringing her own bags to the supermarket and so on.

Have something to say?

Then tell us. Have a picture you'd like to add to your comment? Attach it below. And as always, please take a gander at our comment policy before posting.

Upload a picture of your dish