Cooking Tips · Techniques

Don't fear cooking seafood!

Cooking seafood often instills fear in people. I can understand why. Good seafood is not inexpensive and over-cooking it is all too common. I do enjoy a good seafood dish but I am unhappy when it is dry and overdone. In this Cooking Tip, I want to help you turn out that perfect plate of seafood. This Tip will not cover all seafood, just some of the most popular. Nor am I going to discuss the topics of sustainability, environmental concerns or mercury content. I will leave that for you to research and make your own decisions. I am merely going to talk about cooking seafood.

The fattiness or leanness of the fish species helps to determine proper cooking methods. Cooking methods are broken into moist cooking and dry cooking. Moist cooking methods include poaching, steaming, cooking en papillote and simmering. Dry cooking methods include baking, broiling, grilling and sautéing – either with or without cooking fat.

Fatty fish are especially well suited to cooking with dry heat. For example, baking or broiling are a good choice and these methods actually help to cut down on the oiliness of the fish. You can also use the dry heat method with the addition of fat. Just do not use so much that you cause the fish to be greasy. However, fatty fish can also be cooked with moist heat.

Lean fish are best cooked with moist heat as it helps to preserve the moistness of the fish. If you wish to use a dry cooking method, consider basting the fish in butter or oil. Or, the lean fish can be sautéed or fried with the use of oil.

If you are not sure about the fat content of the fish, ask at the fish counter. Briefly, fatty fish include salmon, mackerel and herring. Trout is considered to have a medium level of fat. Lean fish include orange roughy, bass, cod, flounder, haddock, Mahi-Mahi, grouper, snapper, tilapia and tuna.

The main problem I see with cooking fish is overcooking it. Most fish do not take very long to cook. An average recommended cooking time is 8-10 minutes per inch of thickness. Remember that there is going to be some carry-over cooking and, therefore, you can remove it from the heat when it is just slightly underdone. You can gauge this by visual changes. It is easy to see the color change with salmon. It is more difficult with white fish. You may need to use a paring knife and look inside. If the flesh is still translucent, it is still underdone. Perfectly cooked fish should be opaque but still flaky and moist. Overcooked fish is dry and falls apart easily.

The FDA states that fish with fins should be cooked to 145° or until the flesh is opaque and separates easily with a fork. Shrimp, lobster, crab, and scallops should be cooked until the flesh is pearly or white, and opaque.

Thermoworks recommends the following:

  • Salmon – 125°
  • Halibut – 130°
  • Lobster – 140°
  • Scallops – 130°
  • Shrimp — 120°

Cook’s Illustrated recommends:

  • 120° for wild salmon
  • 125° for farmed salmon
  • 135° for whitefish

Let me discuss a few particular types of fish.

Salmon – I covered salmon in detail in a prior Cooking Tip. Refer to that article for more information.

Scallops – Scallops are wonderful, sweet and delicate but can easily be turned rubbery and unappetizing by improper cooking.

The experts will tell you to always choose “dry” scallops (vs. “wet” scallops) at the store. Wet scallops (aka treated scallops) have been soaked in a liquid solution containing phosphates that is supposed to prolong their freshness. However, the scallops also absorb the water, which you end up paying for since you buy them by the pound. This water evaporates as they cook, which can lead to the following problems. First, the water that is released causes them to steam and it makes it more difficult to get that nice caramelized crust. As the water evaporates, you end up with smaller and tougher scallops. The phosphate may impart a slightly soapy flavor to the scallops. It is generally easy to discern treated scallops as they will usually appear very white in color.

“Dry” is the seafood industry term for natural or untreated scallops. They look more tan in color. They are preferred because they are easier to sear and get the desired caramelization, they taste sweet & natural and you are not paying for added water. That said, I think it is very hard to find dry scallops in your supermarket. To obtain these, you probably need to visit a quality seafood market or order online.

Whatever scallops you purchase, they should be cooked quickly over high heat. Pat the scallops dry. To prevent more moisture from exuding from the scallop, hold off on salting until just before they go in the pan. Leave space between them so they do not steam and cook very quickly over high heat. A typical large scallop only needs about 90 seconds per side. Allow them to rest for a few minutes before serving.

Shrimp is another very popular type of seafood. If not done before you buy them, you need to peel and devein the shrimp before cooking. They can be broiled in as little as 2-3 minutes. Boiling is another common method of cooking shrimp. For a 1 pound of shrimp, bring 4 cups water along with 1 teaspoon salt to a boil. Add shrimp and simmer, uncovered, 1 to 3 minutes or until shrimp turn opaque, stirring occasionally. Drain and rinse shrimp in a colander under cold running water.

You may also cook them on the stovetop by heating a skillet over medium-high. Add oil to hot skillet and then add the shrimp. Cook 3 to 6 minutes until shrimp are pink and opaque.

Seafood is something all of us should increase in our diet. It is also such a quick and easy ingredient to cook, making it perfect for a quick weeknight meal. Just watch it and don’t overcook it. If you do that, I am sure you will enjoy a seafood meal!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Making a Great Burger!

In last week’s Cooking Tip, I discussed how to understand ground beef labeling and what would be best for the dish you will be making. Since burgers are one of the main reasons that people buy ground beef, in this Cooking Tip, I would like to give you some advice on cooking that perfect burger.

As we learned in the prior Cooking Tip, you will want to use either ground chuck or a mixture of ground chuck and ground sirloin for your burgers. If you cannot find that in the store, opt for a ground beef with at least 20% fat (labeled as 80/20). The next step is seasoning that meat so it tastes even better. For a classic burger, all you will need is salt and pepper. But, when do you salt the meat? Does it make a difference?

Cooks Illustrated is a proponent of salting the meat before shaping it into patties. They recommend putting the meat in a bowl, gently breaking it up, adding 1 teaspoon table salt for 1½# of meat and then gently mixing it in as you shape them into patties.

A contrary view is voiced by SeriousEats.com. One of their staff did a testing of this. They salted burgers in three ways: seasoned only on the exterior just before cooking, seasoned by tossing the ground meat with salt (like Cooks Illustrated recommends), and seasoning the meat by salting cubes of beef and then grinding it yourself. They used 1 teaspoon kosher salt (equivalent to ½ teaspoon table salt) per 5-oz patty. Other than the salt difference, the burgers were all treated the same.

What they discovered was salting the burgers right before cooking led to the best burger with a loose, tender, open structure. They found this result meant the burger breaks down into small pieces in your mouth while still allowing the burger to hold onto juices. Salting ahead of time caused the burgers to be more sausage-like with a tighter and bouncy texture. If you want to read the entire study, here is the link.

Here are some things that everyone (almost) agrees with:

  • Don’t overwork the meat as you will end up with dense and rubbery burgers.
  • Shape your patty a bit wider than the bun. Then, make a shallow indentation in the center of the patty before cooking. This helps to prevent your burger expanding into a large ball. One caveat, this step is less necessary if you are pan-frying them rather than grilling or broiling.
  • Don’t overcook. This may be a bit controversial for food safety reasons. According to the USDA, ground beef should be cooked to 160°.   If you are sure about the safety of your ground beef, others recommend the following internal temperatures, checked with a food thermometer. (This is my favorite and one of the best on the market.)
    • Rare – 120°
    • Medium-rare – 125-130°
    • Medium – 135-140°
    • Medium-well – 145-160°
    • Well-done – 160 and up°
  • Keep your ground meat cold until right before forming the patties. You do not want the fat to start melting before cooking.

Once they are on the grill or in the pan, another debate occurs. Many say that you should only flip them once and never press down on them as it squeezes out flavorful juices. Or, as my husband likes to quip, “What has that burger ever done to you to treat it like that?”

Once again, SeriousEats.com begs to disagree. Their testing showed that gently flipping the burgers as often as every 15 seconds resulted in a quicker and more even internal cooking. They found this decreased the cooking time about 1/3.

Once your burger is cooked, you can make it your own by your choice of bun, sauce and toppings. What is your favorite burger? Let me know and have a wonderful Labor Day Weekend!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Is all ground beef the same?

Are you planning a Labor Day cookout? If you are, I’m sure burgers are on the menu. When you go to the supermarket to get your ground beef, which kind do you buy? Which kind should you buy? In this Cooking Tip, I wish to discuss the different types of ground beef and their best uses.

According to butchers, ground beef is made out of “trimmings”. These are pieces of beef trimmed off a larger cut of beef. The particular type of ground beef will be made from trimmings from that specific primal cut. For example, ground chuck comes from the chuck area (aka shoulder). See this illustration for the primal cuts. It is interesting to note that these trimmings may come from multiple animals.

When you are shopping for ground beef, note the following terms..

Ground beef – this is a general term for ground beef that can be from any cut or combination of cuts. According the USDA, it can have up to a maximum of 30% fat. Because of the high fat content, it can have nice flavor but also tends towards being greasy and mushy. It is usually the most affordable.

Ground chuck – this is cut from the chuck (or shoulder) and ranges from 15-25% fat. It is the best choice for burgers because of its rich flavor, its tenderness and moistness. The most typical fat/meat ratio on the label is 80/20 – meaning 80% meat and 20% fat.

Ground sirloin – this is cut from the short loin, the midsection near the hip. The fat content is only 7-10%. Despite its low fat content, sirloin is a very flavorful cut. It is also very tender but can be a bit dry. It is also more expensive than other cuts. Many, but not all, ground sirloin is labeled 90/10. If it is used for burgers; it is often mixed with ground chuck to give it more flavor and moisture. A mixture is also great for chili and similar uses.

Ground round – this comes from the rear upper leg and rump. With a fat content of 10-15%, it tends to be less juicy, can be gristly and often lacks a robust beef flavor. Ground rounds are often sold as 85/15. Burgers made with ground round tend to be a little dry from the lack of fat content. It is best used in soups, stews or spaghetti. Adding ground round to dishes with other liquids helps to compensate for the lack of moisture in the fat.

Hamburger – this is another generic term and is a mix of whatever is left over from other cuts. It is usually not labeled with the fat content or which cuts were used. The USDA allows beef fat to be added to “hamburger” whereas no fat is added to “ground beef”.

I took a look at the ground beef available in my local supermarket. If I went to the meat counter, they had what was labeled “ground chuck” and “ground sirloin”. However, in the refrigerated meat section with the prepackaged packaged products. Every single package there was labeled “ground beef”. It did have the fat content listed but not the cut. I spoke to the meat department manager and he confirmed that all his products labeled “ground beef” could be a mixture of many different cuts but there was no way for the customer to know which cuts. Is it the same in your market? Let me know.

Besides checking the name of the cut as well as the fat content, you want your ground beef to be as freshly ground as possible. Look for something that was ground the day you are buying it. It should be bright red-pink in color with visible flecks of meat and fat in it. If you have a butcher, you could ask them to grind it or you could also learn to grind your own beef. However, the USDA cautions against this saying “In a USDA-inspected plant, trimmed beef destined for grinding is tested for the presence of E. coli. However, primal cuts, such as steaks and roasts, are usually not tested. When stores or consumers grind these primal cuts, it’s possible that pathogens may be present on the raw beef, and neither you nor meat market employees can see, smell, or taste dangerous bacteria. In addition, USDA-inspected plants have Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures that cover policies such as the cleaning of grinding machines and the handling and chilling of ground beef. Consumers and stores might not follow such stringent sanitary procedures.”   

Whether you are having burgers for your Labor Day meal or not, I hope the information in this Cooking Tip will help you choose the best ground beef for your dish. In a subsequent tip, I will help you turn that ground beef into the best burger possible. Stay tuned!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Salmon — wild or farmed

I was making salmon for dinner and started thinking that I could hardly wait for the time that fresh, wild Pacific salmon is in the stores again. Why is that? Because, in my opinion, it is the best tasting salmon ever. I thought some of you might enjoy a Cooking Tip about this very subject. Now, I am not going to address environmental concerns over farmed versus wild or similar topics. Nor am I going to focus on the health benefits/concerns although wild-caught salmon is felt to be an extremely healthy and nutritious food. I am approaching this Tip purely from a culinary perspective.

Salmon are fish that live naturally in the northern Atlantic & Pacific oceans. The two main groups of salmon around North America are Atlantic and Pacific salmon. There is only one type of Atlantic salmon but there are quite a few from the Pacific ocean.

Chinook salmon (aka King) is the largest and found mainly in Alaska but also down the west coast. It is known for its smooth, melting texture and a rich, buttery flavor.

Chum salmon (aka dog or silverbrite salmon) is found in Alaska down to the northwest tip of the US. As you can assume from the name, this is not a highly desired salmon. There are those, though, that say as long as it is handled properly, it is a perfectly acceptable salmon with a lighter flavor. It is often used for grilling and smoking.

Coho salmon (aka silver salmon) is greatly prized and is found in Alaska and down the west coast.

Pink salmon is the most abundant but also the smallest. It is the type used for canned salmon.

Sockeye salmon (aka red salmon) is named for its colorful red flesh.

All Atlantic salmon is farm-raised, mostly from the states of Washington and Maine. There are also international farms in Canada, Norway and Chili. It is harvested year-round. At times, you will see terms other than Atlantic vs Pacific. For instance, it might say Chilean, Norwegian, Scottish, etc. These salmon are undoubtably Atlantic, and therefore farmed. If in doubt, ask the fishmonger.

If you want wild salmon, you must buy Pacific. The harvest season is from May through September.

Why do I eagerly await the fresh, wild salmon season? The succinct answer is TASTE. In my opinion, the taste of wild salmon is far superior to that of farmed salmon. You will have those that disagree, though, as they prefer the milder flavor of the Atlantic. Another item to consider is that if you look at the signs advertising the Atlantic salmon, you will usually see “color added”. Because of its diet, wild Pacific salmon is naturally orange, pink or reddish. On the other hand, Atlantic salmon is very pale and unappetizing looking. To counter this, the fish are fed an ingredient called “astaxanthin”. Although this ingredient can be produced naturally thorough algae or pulverized crustaceans, it is often synthesized in a lab from petroleum products. Its purpose is to add color to the flesh.

Another term you will notice that I have used is “fresh”. That term distinguishes it from frozen salmon. Pacific (preferably Alaskan) salmon that has never been frozen and has been wild-caught is my preference any day of the week – not only for the superior flavor but also because I like the texture better. Many fishmongers will tell you if the fish has been handled properly after catching and then flash frozen, it is just as good, if not better, than fish that has been transported in a fresh state to the store. One researcher postulated that this may be true for more fatty salmon – either King salmon or Atlantic salmon. Other Pacific salmon is leaner and may not stand up as well to freezing.

Wild, fresh, Pacific salmon will be more expensive. I think it is totally worth it. If you are going to spend the money for this great fish, you want to make sure to cook it properly. There are many different ways to cook salmon – pan-frying, grilling, baking, broiling or poaching. They will all give you different results. The most important thing is to not overcook it. I still remember when we lived in Guam and we went to a very nice restaurant. I ordered salmon and when the server asked me how I wanted it cooked, I said well-done. He looked at me and asked me to try it medium as the Chef recommended. If I didn’t like it, he would ask the chef to cook it more. I agreed. When it came out, I was so surprised at how tasty, moist and succulent it was. It was cooked all the way through but it was not overcooked. I never returned to the land of “well-cooked salmon”!

The best way to ensure you do not overcook your salmon is to use an instant read thermometer. Salmon is a very quick cooking fish. The actual cooking time will vary depending on the thickness of the fish portion and the cooking technique. It can be as little as 6 or 7 minutes or up to 15 minutes. Some experts recommend four to six minutes per half-inch of thickness.

There are some visual signs of doneness. The flesh will turn lighter and more opaque. The middle of the salmon, though, should still be slightly translucent. If it is opaque all the way through, it is over-cooked. The salmon should give way a bit but not necessarily flake. If it flakes, once again it is probably over-cooked. Since these visual cues can be somewhat subjective, taking the internal temperature is the best way to gauge doneness. Many sources will tell you to cook your salmon to 145°. I find that much too high. Cooks Illustrated agrees. They recommend cooking farmed salmon to 125° and wild salmon to 120°. The difference is due to the lower fat content in most wild salmon.

You may balk at those temperature recommendations. However, if you give it a try, I suspect that just as I was in that restaurant in Guam, you will be amazed at the results. Let me know!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Your best roast turkey ever!

Thanksgiving is just around the corner. Do you always want a roast turkey on your table? Does the time involved in roasting a turkey frustrate you? I want to introduce you to a different way to roast your turkey (or a chicken) that will not only take less time but will also produce less dry and more tender results. That method is Spatchcocking or Butterflying your bird.

Part of the problem of roasting a turkey is that the white meat is often overcooked and dry by the time the dark meat is done. There have been many suggestions made to resolve this problem; some work better than others and some are much more work than others. One method that is relatively easy and works wonderfully is butterflying (or spatchcocking) your turkey so it lies flatter in the oven.

This involves cutting out the back bone with good poultry shears, turning the bird over, flattening the breasts and roasting on a rack set over a rimmed baking sheet. If it is difficult to visualize this, take a look at this video.

Thanksgiving is such a wonderful time of the year but getting Thanksgiving dinner on the table can also be one of the most stressful times. There are strategies for combating this stress and they involve advanced planning, having a schedule that takes you from planning the menu to your shopping trips to the actual cooking to the finished dinner. Along with this, having an easier and better way to cook your turkey will lead to smiles all around the table.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your families!