Cooking 101: The science of perfect food

Science taught me to roast a turkey upside down.

It also taught me how to make a blueberry cobbler that doesn’t taste “stodgy.” And a roast chicken with crackling, crisp crust.

I didn’t need test tubes or experiments. I didn’t need to bake umpteen odd biscuits to get the one that would be just perfect atop a cobbler. I didn’t have to taste test a henhouse of chickens to find one without rubbery skin.

No. America’s Test Kitchen, the testing/tasting arm of Cook’s Illustrated, did that for me.

I learned about this giant, 2,500-square-foot food lab the first time I stumbled on a copy of Cook’s Illustrated, a magazine that promises to give its readers the “absolute best recipes for all your favorite foods.”

The kitchen and its three-dozen chefs back up that boast by testing a recipe not once or twice or a bakers’ dozen, but 30, 40, even 50 times before it gets it just right.

A little OCD?

Well, yes. But it not only delivers on its boast, it also explains why – usually in the greatest of detail. Think Tom Clancy.

This tome of a magazine may not be for everyone. I had my doubts. But trust me, the food is good. Really good.

To be honest, science and all its formula-ridden tentacles – biology, physics, chemistry and the rest – is not my thing. I confess I got through high school with stellar grades because my best friend memorized those formulas and slipped them to me during tests. In exchange, I solved the problems and slipped back the answers.

I had put enough distance between myself and chemistry by the time I cracked my first issue of Cook’s that I wasn’t afraid to take a peek. A second glance followed. Then a subscription. I was hooked.

Food had been pretty basic at my house when I was growing up. And I never “cooked” much more than running a piece of cheese on toast under a broiler.

No, I learned to cook out of necessity: I was broke and starving, working an internship with no pay, trying to pay rent ($50 a month), buy food, put a few gallons of gas in the car. Eating out wasn’t an option. Packaged food or ready to eat meals were too expensive.

I discovered turkey legs were 19 cents a pound, root vegetables were dirt cheap and a bag of dry split peas went a long way. I walked out of the grocery store for less than $10 a week and cooked those staples about every way you can imagine, including over a camp fire when it got warm enough to live in a tent and shower at the Y.

Some creative spark must have been ignited. I found I actually enjoyed cooking. Even when I started earning a paycheck, I ate in.

Cooks Illustrated landed on my plate during that phase. It was technical but not pretentious. The recipes were long – rooting out all the devil in the details of recipes takes a lot of type – but not complicated. The writing was good, sprinkled with a dollop of humor.

“Why bad things happen to good food” was one headline.

The advice was sound and practical – everything from the best cake pan to buy, for $8 instead of $40, to how to test the propane levels in my gas grill tank so I didn’t bring it in for a refill too soon or too late. (For the record: Pour a cup of boiling water on the side and if the tank is warm, it’s empty. Where it feels cool marks the level of propane left in the tank.)

So, science crept back into my life and I let it stay. You may, too, after trying these recipes crafted by Cook’s – and summarized for those who prefer to skip the lengthy whys and where-to-for’s.

QUICK AND CRISP ROAST CHICKEN AND POTATOES

4-pound chicken

Water to cover

Place water in a bowl deep enough to hold the chicken. Add 1 cup of kosher salt and 1?2 cup granulated sugar to the water to make a “brine.” Mix well. Add the chicken, cover and refrigerate one hour.

While the chicken is brining, make an herb butter by creaming 2 tablespoons softened butter with a diced garlic clove, 1 tablespoon of mustard and 1 teaspoon of thyme. Set aside.

Line the bottom of a broiler pan with foil and coat generously with cooking oil. Peel, wash, dry and thinly slice 21?2 pounds starchy potatoes like Russet or Yukon Gold. Pat dry again and layer on top foil in pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Butterfly the chicken by cutting down the backbone with sharp kitchen shears. Flatten with your hands. Loosen the skin and rub the herb butter under the skin. Place the chicken on the top part of the broiler pan, sprinkle with pepper and place in a hot 500 degree oven.

Bake for 45 minutes. Remove from oven. Admire the crispy skin. Lift the foil out of the pan and invert on a plate. Carefully peel back the foil. Ogle the potatoes! Say “Perfect!”

NOT SO STODGY BLUEBERRY COBBLER

6 cups fresh blueberries

(If you must use frozen, Cook’s recommends our own Wyman’s brand, well drained)

1 tablespoon corn starch

1?2 cup granulated sugar

Pinch each salt and cinnamon

1?2 teaspoon lemon zest

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Whisk together corn starch, sugar and spices. Add berries and toss. Add zest and lemon juiced and toss again. Put mixture in deep dish pie plate. Bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes.

BISCUITS

1 cup flour

2 tablespoons corn meal

1?4 cup sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1?4 teaspoon each salt and baking soda

1/3 cup buttermilk

4 tablespoons melted butter

1?2 teaspoon vanilla

Whisk together dry ingredients. In separate bowl, mix together milk, butter and vanilla. When ready to bake – when the berries come out of the oven – fold the liquid mix into the dough and blend with hands. Shape into eight coarse biscuits. Place atop the hot berry mixture. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar (1/8 teaspoon of cinnamon mixed with 2 teaspoons sugar).

Turn oven up to 425 degrees and bake for 15-18 minutes.

Breathe in the aroma of the scented berries, admire the “lift” of the biscuits and say: “Perfect!”

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