Saturday, January 6, 2007

The Sixth Element... Temperature

We have all heard about the primary tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, and that everything we eat on Earth is just combinations of all of these. It has now been proposed that there is a fifth taste known by its Japanese name: umami. This taste is associated with protein-rich foods like meats and cheese.
It has also become pretty much accepted that our tongues are not sectioned off neatly into areas designated for specific tastes. While the idea is cute, it is simply an over-simplification.
Now, that we are all thinking about the mechanics of taste, I want to talk about something that I think is far too often ignored in the home kitchen… temperature. A dish's flavor profile changes incredibly when it is served at different temperatures. For example, have you ever made ice cream, and noticed how much more muted the vanilla tastes when it is frozen than when it was still a warm custard? What about eating refrigerated cheese versus the same cheese at room temperature? What about coffee? Iced Tea?
And my favorite example of temperature as a factor in flavor profile… French Onion Soup. Go make this recipe:

8 Large or 16 small onions (lyonnaised)
1½ sticks unsalted butter
¼ lb smoked bacon (diced)
½ tsp kosher salt
1/3 cup port wine
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1 qt chicken stock
1 qt beef stock
Bouquet Garni (3 stalks fresh parsley, 2 sprig fresh thyme, one dried bay leaf, 8 black peppercorns)

In the biggest heaviest cast iron pot you’ve got melt the butter over medium heat until it foams and starts to brown slightly. Add the onions and salt. Cook until the onions are deeply caramelized, stirring very often (25-30 minutes). In another pan, slowly render the fat out of the bacon and cook until crisp but not crispy. Drain and reserve the bacon fat for another recipe. Add the bacon lardoons to the onions, and add the port wine and balsamic vinegar. Stir until most of the liquid has evaporated (3-5 minutes). Add the chicken and beef stock along with the Bouquet Garni. Bring to a simmer, cover, reduce heat to low and let simmer for 45 minutes to an hour, being careful not to over reduce.
Then take a high quality French bread baguette (not from Wal*Mart’s bakery, come on!) Slice it into half inch slices. Top each piece of bread with grated gruyere cheese and put under a pre-heated broiler for just a few minutes until melted and bubbly. Float the croutons on top of each bowl of the soup. Serve piping hot!

Now, the reason I want you to make this soup, is so that you can see how much more bite and freshness a piping hot French onion soup has over a saggy cold one. When this soup is hot (almost too hot), the flavors jump across your tongue, and the soup seems bright and vibrant. As the soup cools, it goes from less interesting, to too strong and rusty, to plain limp and fruity. I am almost sure you could leave out most of the salt, cool this soup, and serve it as a desert course with whipped cream and a doughnut it gets so fruity as it gets cold.
So, the next time you are serving up some eggs for breakfast in bed for that special someone, keep serving temperature in mind when planing your attack. And remember to cook the eggs last. Because as soon as they leave the pan you have pulled the pin on a temperature hand grenade and your masterpiece is fading fast as you walk the tray up the stairs.

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