Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Why we're fat: Part II - Cooking

From generation to generation, Americans pass along the tradition of being completely and utterly incapable of producing a proper meal. For a nation that has hundreds of cooking magazines, thousands of cookbooks, and even entire television stations devoted to the practice of cooking, it is staggering how few people can actually do it.

This makes us fat. When you aren't cooking for yourself, you are eating something that someone has prepared for you. That someone, be it Stouffers or PF Changs, is driven by consumer demand. Consumers demand affordability and efficiency, but also something that tastes better than their own godawful cooking.

Thanks to the government, corn syrup and sugar (more on those later) are remarkably cheap and efficient. Because it is a byproduct, fat is pretty much cheap on its own. Because most people are raised on a diet of basically donuts, and because we can't cook, we assume that Stouffers and PF Changs are the standard bearers.

If you eat Stouffers and PF Changs on a regular basis, you are fat, or should be. So why can't we cook? Some reasons:

Stove settings

The vast majority of stove top cooking exercises go something like this. Cook starts with the stove on high. Stuff starts to sizzle and boil and look unstable generally. Cook turns stove down to whatever setting remedies this problem. Cook leaves kitchen. Food sits in pan for 55 minutes.

This is the proper way to prepare no dish I am aware of. The end result is often burnt, usually dry and always flavorless.

Why do people cook like this? They equate high heat with efficiency. Stuff cooks faster when the stove is hotter. It can also catch fire, and everyone knows that's bad, so they over-correct. People also overcook because they are terrified of...

Undercooking

Most people know two things about cooking. Fire is bad, and under-cooking makes you sick. Both are true, as far as it goes. But the result is that people err on the side of food safety... Big time.

People also apply this scrupulous attitude to food safety, out of habit, to items that can be consumed raw, like vegetables, or items that only need searing, like steaks. Habit becomes custom, and people begin to expect soggy vegetables, rubbery eggs and gray meat. Show the average person a properly prepared grass fed steak, and they will assume the thing is crawling with worms.

Seafood is the most frequent victim of our overcooked neuroses, which is too bad, because it is as healthy as it is ruined by overcooking.

Undersalting

Americans are weird about salt. We will blissfully consume it by the truckload via packaged foods, yet get all dainty when adding it to our cooking.

The reason for this, I think, is the physics of the salt shaker, which we generally use to season food once it has been prepared. The addition of a trace amount of salt on top of a prepared item radically changes the flavor profile.

Not so prior to heating. It takes two tablespoons (yes, tablespoons) added to boiling water to properly cook a pot of pasta. That's an awful lot of shaking, and feels indulgent and dangerous.

Salt is the most important seasoning on Earth. A good rule of thumb is to sprinkle in some salt with the addition of EVERY ingredient in a meal. Our unwillingness to add proper amounts of it to our food goes a long way toward explaining why we don't like our own cooking, and why we savor even the most mediocre of chain restaurant food.

More on salt

Part of the reason we don't add it is because we think of salt as unhealthy. We put it in the same category as sugar. The reason for this is that high salt diets tend also to be high fat and sugar diets. Correlation is not causation. Unless you suffer from hypertension, in which case the remote possibility that salt is a contributing factor, is reason enough to cut down, don't worry about salt.

Mistreatment of vegetables

I hope whoever invented the idea of steaming a bunch of vegetables and calling it a side dish is rotting in hell right now, because they have contributed to the early demise of millions of people. Steamed vegetables taste like pencils. Boiled vegetables taste like pencils, but also smell like goat farts.

Thanks to the anti-fat craze, and our penchant for letting the perfect get in the way of the possible, people are hesitant to "ruin" their vegetables by adding cooking oil and sauteeing them (or adding salt, for that matter). Never mind that, for example, asparagus sauteed in oil has about 200 calories, while a burger and fries have 1,500.

And don't get me started on non-fat salad dressing.

Monster grocery runs

In order to save time, we tend to buy our groceries all at once. That means that whatever we buy has to last as much as two weeks on the shelf. Chicken pot pies (the least healthy thing you can possibly eat) and tortilla chips (a close second) last forever. Avocados, not so much. You can't cook if you don't have ingredients.

Crappy recipes

Recipes are everywhere. On the internet, on TV, in magazines, in pregnancy books. Most recipes fall into one of three categories: Disgusting, impossible to execute outside of an industrial kitchen, or simply inaccurate.

I don't know why people feel compelled to share recipes that don't work. After awhile, you learn to figure out who's full of crap (hint: they are fond of throwing salad dressings into their food, and do not recommend seasonings other than garlic powder). Then there's the people who use the term teaspoon and tablespoon interchangeably. The latter being three times the size of the former, that's kind of a big deal.

And, let's face it, the average person doesn't have time to track down kaffir lime leaves. amchur powder, and pork hocks. And if it requires braising or broiling, forget about it.

Here's what happens, people scour their favorite resources for recipes, until they find one that looks nice and simple. They invest the time to make a recipe, and 80% of the time it tastes like crap. Next time, Arbys.

If everyone were issued a copy of Joy of Cooking, I'm convinced we would weigh, on average, at least one pound less.

Idiotic cooking devices

The George Foreman Grill... Making chicken and turkey burgers taste like cigarettes since 1994.

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