It is something quite hard to explain – a fascination, a bit of fear, a desire, something to marvel at, and even something to try and control. It is at the core of what every cook does, the most essential ingredient, the key to releasing unlimited varieties of flavor, the one ingredient that determines a person’s ability to cook, the mysterious component that separates a kitchen from the rest of the world – heat.
There is a point in time when a person finds him or herself staring at that dancing flame of blue, yellow, and white and decides to step into the exciting world of heat and try to learn how it might be controlled. To be a cook, after all, is to spend a lifetime learning how to control the somewhat uncontrollable. Of course, we have tools to help us tame the beast, to place limits on what the flame and its heat attempt to do, but the cook always knows that at any given moment that flame will break free and do what it wants. It’s like riding a wild horse, the rider or the cook can never disconnect, never fail to pay attention, and never assume that he or she has everything under control. Cooks spend their careers trying to tame the flame.
One of the goals of a professional cook is to gain control and never let go. Cooks learn quickly to respect heat for its potential and its wonders. The flame and the heat that it creates is a symbol of the danger that lurks in a kitchen, yet it is a danger that must be faced if cooking is to take place. From that first moment that a cook holds a knife in his or her hand and approaches the range a world of opportunity comes into view. So much can happen when the ingredient of heat becomes a partner with the cook.
Cooks and chefs know that flavor not only comes from an individual ingredient, the seasoning used, or the combination of ingredients that work together; flavor comes from the process of applying heat in a certain way for a specific amount of time. It is this partnership with heat that allows a novice to become a master.
Low and slow allows the muscle to breakdown, the fat in meat to render and flavor a dish, and additional ingredients to gradually impart their flavor contribution. At first the meat resists, tightening and eventually giving way to the comfort that low and slow offers. Eventually, the muscle gives in and becomes one with the heat.
On the grill a different cut of meat is attacked by the intense blue and golden yellow flames that feast on the dripping fat and surround it through caramelization, the Maillard Reaction that converts protein into sugar – imparting a unique flavor that can only exist when the flame becomes one with the ingredient. It produces umami, or the taste of savory that is mouthwatering, rich, and immensely satisfying.
The sauté cook may have the most difficult challenge of controlling heat. Pans must be very hot, sizzling hot, scorching hot if any ingredient added to the pan is to properly sear, caramelize and dance without sticking. Heat provides the ultimate non-stick surface if managed correctly. The cook spent hours seasoning the pan by super heating it, rubbing the interior with kosher salt, heating it again, and polishing the surface making sure that it is ready. There is an understanding that the pan is a vehicle for heat transfer and the vehicle must be maintained properly. The cook knows when the pan is right – it sounds a certain way when those ingredients hit its polished surface. If it doesn’t sound right, then proper cooking will be compromised. He or she knows that once the ingredients are removed it will be crucial to bring the fond, or remaining essence in the pan, to just a few seconds before it burns and then deglaze with wine, citrus, liquor, or stock to create the basis for a pan sauce. If it goes too far the sauce will taste burnt, if not far enough then the flavor derived from a sear or sauté will not develop. When that splash of wine or liquor hits the fond, the cook lifts one edge of the pan 20 or 30 degrees to accept the flame and burn off excess alcohol. The cook is always inviting the flame and its heat to try and take control but then tames it sufficiently to keep it in check. It is an art that takes time to master.
Pushing the pan forward slightly and then pulling it back just as quickly will tease ingredients to take flight and then catch the pan on their way back down. Ingredients seem to dance in the pan at the hand of a cook in charge of the heat. Oh, but don’t for one second think that the cook is the master of heat or the flame. If he takes his eyes off the pan or fails to respect the flame, then the flame will gain control again. It is a constant battle for control.
The fry cook is focus on a vat of 375-degree fat that sits comfortably waiting to receive an ingredient that will immerse and fight to retain its identity, only to quickly give way to the attack that will ensue. The cook knows what the hot fat will like and what it will resist. Water and fat do not mix, so any trace of water on ingredients will result in 375-degree heated oil sling shot towards the cooks’ hands, arms, or face. It’s as if the heated oil is shouting – no you don’t! the ingredient quickly gives in to the comfort of caramelization as the vegetable, breaded or battered protein, or skin takes in the flavor and accepts a new texture as a result.
On the line there is a relentless battle with flames and heat as cooks sear, char, boil, broil, roast, braise, fry, poach and melt before a completed dish comes into being and finds a home in the pass. There is a cacophony of sound, a complex blending of aroma, and a blending of both that find their roots in flame and heat. In the meantime, cooks are battling the ill effects of heat on their own bodies. Sweat pours down their back and forms on their brow. Hot pan handles are always tempting bare hands to “grab on”, but the cook is seasoned enough to resist. Flames burning off the alcohol in sauté pans are always hoping to burn off the hair on arms to eyelashes that dare to get too close. Finishing a shift without damage is an accomplishment for a line cook.
In the back of the kitchen – the baker is working a different kind of magic, a different level of control over “heat”. For those artisan sourdough breads, the oven hearth must be a perfect temperature with the right amount of steam injected at the right time to develop the wonderful crust and caramel color desired. Pastries and cakes address the oven just in time to get the right amount of spring from their leavening agents, and simple syrups and crème anglaise heat gradually on stove tops till the viscosity is perfect or the egg yolks bind with cream for a rich sauce or base for house made ice cream. The baker is a master of heat control, but still subservient to the fluctuations that occur when the oven door is opened, the steam injected, or the open flame develops a mind of its own.
If the baker is daring enough to bake in a woodfired oven, then all bets are off. The coals from a perfectly heated oven will transition the dome to pure white when it reaches around 1,000 degrees – way too hot for bread. The baker must rake the coals from the oven, clean the hearth, wait until the oven cools to 500 degrees or a bit less, add steam, and peel the breads directly on to the stone hearth. Managing the heat to stay at or below the 500-degree threshold is only possible with ample experience tending fires.
It is fire and heat that attracts young cooks, it is the fire that humbles us all while we learn the ropes, and it is the on-going quest to control the fire and not have the fire control us, that keeps a chef growing and on his or her toes.
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