Science can save Thanksgiving dinner: "Massage your kale," for starters

Salon talks to America's Test Kitchen's Dan Souza about BuzzFeed videos, salmon tips and taming bitter kale

By Ashlie D. Stevens
Published November 20, 2016 11:30PM (EST)
 (Getty/Rawpixel Ltd)
(Getty/Rawpixel Ltd)

As any home cook knows, planning a flawless Thanksgiving meal is simple; it’s the execution that often proves difficult. But Dan Souza, an America’s Test Kitchen veteran and co-executive editor of the new cookbook “Cook’s Science,” says that knowing the science behind some common ingredients can unlock a new level of freedom in the kitchen all year long.

Souza shares his background as a chef, his thoughts on BuzzFeed-style cooking videos, and one of his favorite cooking tips.

It seems like every time I go online, there's a new 90-second video showing me how to make a pizza wreath, or something — you know, those quick tips videos.  They're very accessible, but they kind of stand in direct contrast to the in-depth, scientific book your team just put out.

What are some of the benefits of looking at food through the lens you have presented, and do you think it’s accessible to home cooks?

That’s a great question. I think it is really accessible, and I think the main reason why is because in “Cook’s Science” we really tried to distill some relatively complex science into really solid takeaways for the home cook. The way we like to think about it is that you can learn from experience, you can learn from the short little videos you talked about, and — we think — you can learn a lot from understanding the science behind the ingredients you are picking and how they work or function in the kitchen.

So we chose 50 ingredients we use all the time. There’s nothing too crazy — I think lobster is probably the most wild one we have — and we just do a deep-dive into it.

Just understanding the science behind it makes you more intuitive in the kitchen. We love recipes, and we want you to use our recipes, but when you get to the point where you are more intuitive in the kitchen, it makes cooking more fun.

So by helping people understand the science, you’re helping facilitate freedom in the kitchen, which I think is something most home cooks would like.

Definitely, definitely. We all didn’t grow up at our mom or our grandmother’s side learning how to cook these days, but we want to cook a wide variety of dishes and cuisines. And without that hands-on experience, you’re at a disadvantage. We think educating in this ways is one of the best ways to do it.

Could you talk a little bit about your personal experience in the kitchen and how you got to the point where you wanted to infuse science into cooking?

I always loved cooking and food growing up. I think anyone in this industry has that kind of background. I really fell for cooking professionally when I was teaching English in Hungary. I was a really bad English teacher, but one of my adult students was a chef at the local restaurant and I started with him. I fell in love with cooking for big groups of people and having that be what you get to do all the time.

I spent time in restaurants in Boston and New York, went to culinary school, and during the process I really liked problem-solving in the kitchen. That kind of led me to America’s Test Kitchen years ago, and during that process I really grew an appreciation for food science on a much deeper level. Learning ingredient functionality helps you develop recipes much faster and have much stronger recipes. You can create tips that really change the way people cook.

What is one of the simplest tips from this book that home cooks could start using right away?

Well, if you make kale salads, there are some really simple things to know about kale that makes them a little less bitter, and then you don’t have to dress them in as much vinaigrette. We found that when you’re dealing with kale, it doesn’t have much flavor in and of itself. It’s when you chew it or cut it or break down those cell walls that you get flavor development.

So if you massage your kale a little bit and chop it up before you rinse it — instead of rinsing it first — you can wash away some of that bitterness. You end up with a product that is a lot milder. You don’t have to drown it in Caesar dressing to make it palatable. So it’s stuff like that, just understanding that, can make you a better cook for yourself and for other people.

In writing this book, was there one tidbit in the science realm or the food realm that you didn’t know before, or has stuck with you as a key takeaway?

There are so many little things like that! It’s really fun being able to play in the kitchen and test in a really organized manner to get some answers. One of the things that I think is great for a home cook to understand is that there is a huge difference in wild salmon and farm-raised salmon. Not just in terms of the species, but the big difference comes down to their diet and lifestyle.

Much like farm-raised animals, farm-raised salmon are raised in a smaller area and they move a lot less, and as a result they have a softer muscle structure and a lot more fat. Sometimes as much as four times more than the leanest Pacific types of salmon. The Pacific salmon, like free-range animals on land, develop a lot more collagen in their muscle tissue, so what you get is a leaner fish with more muscle.

If you cook that to the same temperature as farm salmon, you’re going to end up with a dry and overcooked fish. And it’s an expensive fish and you don’t want that. So we’ve found with the farm-raised salmon, we’ve always really liked it at 125 degrees, which is medium rare. With the wild salmon, we did a bunch of tests found that when it’s cooked to 120 degrees was much nicer. It stays really nice and really juicy.

Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's deputy food editor.

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