04/13 2011

Stir it Up (or Not)

I hope you enjoy Starting from Scratch, my second book, published each week online, one chapter at a time. Before the book’s final publication, I hope to sprinkle readers’ thoughts, opinions and advice throughout. After all, you each have helpful systems and solutions in the kitchen worth sharing. By making a contribution, your comments will be printed, crediting you and/or your blog, and you’ll get free copies of the book. In addition, for each section, I’m consulting an expert blogger – for this excerpt, it’s Shaina Olmanson, home cook and author of Food For My Family.

cooking caramel sauce

Just as I have tried to teach my child to avoid unnecessary dumps, I have also trained him to stir things gently in the kitchen. I have done so for one reason alone – so the concoction I’m creating and the ingredients I’m adding don’t all end up on the floor. He can put a lot of muscle behind a spoon or fork, so I frequently repeat, “Easy does it!” as he artfully stirs.

For the older chefs in the kitchen, however, not all stirs are created equal. And certainly, not all food needs the same amount of stirring.  This might sound completely basic to some people, but for others, it may be a day of reckoning.

Less stirring is better

Though I remember growing up to the tune, “never stir rice before it’s ready or it’ll be ruined,” this line of reasoning might be a bit extreme. Certainly, it’s best not to disturb rice while it’s cooking, but if you happen to do so, you don’t have to toss it down the drain.

Another no-stir secret is one I learned from my California friend Peg, the guacamole extraordinaire. Her ancient family secret is never to stir guacamole with a spoon while preparing. Instead, she claims, the avocados and other ingredients, which will hence remain secret, should be chopped and sliced with a knife.

The gradual stir

Oatmeal, polenta and grits like the “gradual stir” treatment. If you don’t stir these grains at all while cooking, they might develop large blobs of whole grain sticky stuff. Though it won’t kill you to eat the blobs, you might not particularly like the texture (and it doesn’t look as pretty, either). Play it safe and stir occasionally while cooking.

Pancakes are another great example. As you add flour and other dry ingredients to the eggs, milk and butter, you don’t have to mix it to death! Pancake batter doesn’t require much stirring – same with muffins and cornbread. After the dry ingredients are thoroughly mixed with the wet ones, stop! No need to continue until the batter is no longer lumpy. In the case of pancake batter, lumps are a good thing!

Shaina also touts the art of the gradual stir when making cakes and bread: “In a cake, you want to add the flour slowly to avoid clumping. You want the flour to be evenly incorporated, so adding it slowly does this. The same holds true in bread making.  Stirring as you add will prevent lumps in your final product.

Stir it up….and fast

My Seattle running club friends and I once discovered something ironic about our spouses and selves – through the preparation of risotto. Risotto takes a while to cook and requires constant stirring, and none of us has the patience to prepare this delicious medium-grained rice. Our  spouses, on the other hand, don’t mind the laborious task. I suppose this says something about our Type-A, impatient personalities and our more relaxed, Type B spouses that have to put up with us.

Either way, just as risotto requires a lot of stirring to prepare, so do many sauces and icings. For example, when you cook caramel sauce and start out by melting and heating sugar, if you don’t stir the mixture constantly, it quickly becomes an overheated, burnt sculpture that wants to live in your pan forever.

In stir-ummary

Obviously, this is a high level overview of the fine art of stirring. Over time, you’ll gain an appreciation for how foods are supposed to look and feel throughout preparation, and what becomes and unanticipated and unwanted work of art if you don’t stir constantly.

About Shaina Olmanson

Shaina Olmanson is a freelance writer and photographer and also the home cook behind Food for My Family and the food channel editor at Lifetime Moms.  She fell in love with the art of cooking while spending countless hours hanging on her grandmother’s apron strings, and as a native Minnesotan, growing up surrounded by farms served as a daily reminder of the importance of local and seasonal food.  Raising her four young children with her husband, she strives to teach them the importance of growing, preparing and eating and enjoying real food.

Photo courtesy of: Shih’s Cooking

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