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The Fifth Sense Edition
What we can learn from listening to food
Ab Ovo is a twice-weekly newsletter produced by Clay Dillow (CD) and Tim McKirdy (TM). If you enjoy our work, we’d love to have you as a subscriber (it’s free!). If you already subscribe, we appreciate the support — and don’t forget to forward this to a friend. Thanks for reading.
Despite everything that documentaries such as Chef’s Table like to convey, professional kitchens are noisy, generally chaotic places. Rather than a finely tuned philharmonic orchestra, the environment more often resembles teenagers playing punk rock songs on badly tuned electric instruments. Best case scenario, we’re talking wildly experimental jazz.
While the tempo fluctuates throughout the day, the audio levels remain pretty consistently high. There’s always some kind of machine running — it could be the kitchen porter running plates through the dishwasher; the pastry chef whipping up egg whites for an intricate, airy dessert; or the chef in charge of appetizers blitzing the soup of the day in a 1,400-watt, 2.2-horsepower professional blender.
Unless you wish to incur the wrath of the executive chef, you have to learn to block all this out and tune your ears to listen for specific sounds. You have to listen to the food.
I generally believe that hearing is the most underutilized sense in the kitchen. By becoming more aware of what different processes sound like, we can train ourselves to become better chefs (or home cooks). And at the very least, taking in the sound of cooking renders the whole experience more enjoyable.
It’s easy to see when something has been left roasting in the oven for too long; easy to smell when the veg you’re supposed to be caramelizing in a stockpot has caught on the bottom because you neglected to stir it for too long. But more often than not your ears will alert you to the impending error first.
The very DNA of French cooking, along with so many other cuisines, dictates that most dishes begin with diced onions and garlic added to a pan over medium heat with oil or butter. As soon as the veg drops in, the sizzle instantly indicates how hot the cooking fat is. If it roars aggressively, you’ve gone in too hot. Should those ingredients fail to register a sound, the pan is cold my friend.
Those sounds tell you whether your ingredients have begun their journey at the right or wrong temperature. They’re the signposts that indicate whether you’re sweating your ingredients (cooking them until they’re translucent and, more importantly, soft), or sauteing them (caramelizing their exterior and drawing out their natural sweetness). These aren’t marginal distinctions when it comes to the flavor of your finished dish.
The point is, rather than standing over the pan and watching ingredients slowly cooking away — something you absolutely can not do in a professional kitchen — you can listen to the melody to inform yourself of what’s going on. Harness this skill, and you may never burn anything again.
If you’re going to tune into one dish to test drive this theory, I suggest risotto. Its preparation covers a spectrum of sounds and requires close attention during the early stages. We begin by quietly sweating onions and garlic in fat (surprise, surprise). For the first few minutes, we should scarcely hear any sound at all. This indicates that the ingredients are slowly losing their bite and not gaining color.
Next comes the all-important Arborio rice. We move from sweating to a quick but delicate toasting, maintaining the grains’ exterior texture as they soak up flavor. The gentle emanating sound should slowly increase to a toasty crackle. The name of the game here is waiting for the exact moment to pull the trigger and deglaze the pan with a satisfying glug of white wine. All signs point to go when it reaches a point of rasping white noise, like a steam radiator inside an apartment building that sounds as though it’s going to blow. Vino then meets pan with a whooshing, exalting release, and at this point, we know the base for our risotto is pitch-perfect. All that remains are 15 to 20 minutes of elbow aching stirring, during which you will inevitably come to realize you have once again underestimated how much hot stock the dish requires.
Ultimately, cooking by ear is not just a tool for improving kitchen credentials but one that makes the experience altogether more enjoyable. Few things compare to bacon sizzling in the pan or the gentle click-clack of mussels being primed for Moules marinière. It’s easy to forget these soft, fleeting sensations — not least because they’re so often followed by the sensory overload of smell and taste. But next time you are cooking up a storm, take a moment to appreciate that overlooked fifth sense in the kitchen. After all, no harm can come from becoming a better listener. — TM
The 100-Word Endorsement
Jefferson’s Straight Rye Whiskey Finished in Cognac Casks ($70) Jefferson’s founder and master blender Trey Zoeller has made a career of exploring the edge of the whiskey maturation envelope. This rye rested in Cognac barrels — only the second rye Jefferson’s has ever produced — proves an experimental success. The Cognac cask finish sands down the edges of that typical rye spice, leaving behind a whiskey you could certainly pour into a cocktail (as you might most ryes), but that you really don’t have to. It’s a delight to sip all on its own. — CD
[Due to an unfortunate autocorrect, our endorsement of Blue Spot Irish Whiskey in Wednesday’s edition contained an error. The whiskey is matured in a mix of Madeira, ex-bourbon, and sherry — not sorry — casks. We are very sherry for the typo.]