When it comes to convenience cooking, frozen food is king. Picture this: Before a busy day at work, you take out your meal for the night and leave it on the side to defrost. Given that the item is fully thawed when you return, you’re good to start cooking, right? Well, according to experts you’ve already taken a wrong turn.
Freezing food is hardly a new concept. In fact, the ancient Chinese were using ice cellars to store food through winter as far back as 3,000 B.C. Later, the Romans compressed snow to make insulated cellars for keeping edible supplies. So you’d think that we’d have mastered the cooking of frozen food by now.
That being said, the modern appetite for frozen food can be traced to just over 100 years ago. In 1917 taxidermist Clarence Birdseye was working in Labrador, Canada, where he witnessed locals preserving meat and fish in barrels of frozen seawater. These storage containers froze quickly in the Arctic conditions, meaning that when the food thawed it was almost as fresh as when it was first stored.
So Birdseye realized that it was the rapid freezing process that kept food fresh, allowing it to be enjoyed months later. As a result, when he returned home to the United States he began developing a quick freezing method that could preserve food at very cold temperatures without damaging it. And the idea soon caught on.
By 1927 Birdseye was using his quick freezing method to preserve foods such as fruit, vegetables, beef and poultry. Two years later, he sold his trademarks and patents to the Postum Company – now the General Foods Corporation – for a cool $22 million. Then in 1930 quick-frozen foods were made available to customers in Springfield, Massachusetts, for the first time. And memorably they were sold under the Birds Eye Frosted Foods brand.
Throughout the 20th century frozen food increased in popularity and was hailed for its convenience and nutritious value. As the decades passed, more products became frozen staples of family life, and domestic freezers became a mainstay in most people’s homes. And thanks to these advances people could enjoy seasonal food all year round.
In 2015 the frozen food sector in the U.S. was worth an impressive $51.97 billion. And according to a 2017 study by Grand View Research, the market was expected to reach $72.98 billion by 2024. But despite market growth consumers didn’t seem to be as enthusiastic about frozen food as they once were.
You see, in recent years frozen food has experienced somewhat of an image problem. Yes, some American consumers were moving away from the freezer aisle, believing that fresh alternatives were healthier and better quality. But frozen goods have remained popular among working people and those living alone.
And while some Americans are moving away from frozen foods in favor of fresh, that’s not to say they’ve stopped using their freezers altogether. Lots have turned to batch-cooking so that they can enjoy homemade meals at their own convenience, too. As the name suggests, this involves cooking a whole heap of food in one go, then freezing in portions to enjoy later.
It seems that batch cooking is popular with those who struggle to find time to cook each and every night. Such people might include busy moms or those in full-time employment. So allocating one weekend per month to cook all meals, shoving them in the freezer and defrosting them when needed, seems like a practical way to eat healthily while saving precious time.
But while frozen food – whether home cooked or store bought – provides us with quick and convenient meals, there are a number of mistakes that people make when freezing items. For example, there are some foods that should never be frozen. So we should take care when placing items in the freezer.
Plus another common faux pas is placing food in a freezer that is actually warm. Yes, the perfect temperature for this trusty appliance sits somewhere between -0.4°F and -4°F. At those chilly levels, frozen items are safe from most bacteria and toxins, and the chemical reactions that turn food bad are halted. But that doesn’t mean bacteria can’t build up in the defrosting process later on.
Luckily, most domestic freezers nowadays are equipped with a recommended thermostat setting. This accurately sets the appliance to the correct temperature without the need to mess with the controls. Plus the best freezers are able to maintain a constant temperature, regardless of outside conditions.
But there are some freezers that are affected by outside influences, such as fluctuating room temperatures. This can cause the climate within the appliance to go up and down, meaning food can partially defrost then refreeze. That leaves it vulnerable to bacteria, of course. So if the temperature in your freezer is prone to change, you may want to consider trading it in.
Another common mistake people make is cramming their freezers full of stuff. You see, packing the appliance with food prevents the flow of air inside it. And this puts extra pressure on the compressor which may lead to issues or a potential fault with the appliance.
That being said, it seems that efficiently filling our freezers can be somewhat of a balancing act. An almost empty freezer is actually less effective than a fuller one. So you want to be aiming for a happy medium when you come to stacking your drawers.
One more mistake you could be making is leaving your food too long before freezing. Popping it in the freezer at the height of its quality, of course, means the better it will be when you come to defrost. Defrosting correctly, when it comes to that, is key too. But freezing items after their use-by dates, or close to them, is a big no no. That’s because a blast in the freezer will not kill existing toxins and bacteria that have already developed.
You don’t want to freeze your food too quickly either, mind you. Recently cooked items should be allowed to cool at room temperature for up to two hours before popping them in the freezer. But placing warm containers in the appliance could cause the inside temperature to rise – causing other food to potentially thaw and forcing your freezer to work overtime.
Even when you’ve mastered freezing your food safely, there are ways you could use your freezer more effectively. For instance, are you removing the packaging before placing food in the appliance to save space? You see, store bought freezer goods often come in a box, and by ditching the cardboard you can make extra room.
Another way to make retrieving food from the freezer that much easier is to ensure you label it beforehand. Now, identifying frozen meals on unmarked tupperware or freezer bags can be difficult. So make sure you write what it is you’ve cooked on the side of your container ahead of storing. But hold on, we’re still to learn of the biggest mistake you can make when defrosting food.
While freezer bags are your friend when it comes to utilizing space in your appliances, there’s a right way to use these as well. Because if you fail to squeeze all the excess air out of your zip-lock bags, you run the risk of freezer burn. But if you don’t leave room for food to expand when freezing, you could have a clean-up situation on your hands.
Yet another way people mistreat their frozen foods is by forgetting to flash freeze. Now, that term might confuse you. But it essentially means pre-freezing some foods before transferring them to bags, so they don’t stick together. That can happen with hamburger patties if chucked straight into a bag from the start, for example. So freeze them flat on a tray first, and you’ll avoid the need for a sledgehammer later on.
Even when you’ve mastered the use of your freezer, you should bear in mind that not all foods are suitable for freezing. Fried food doesn’t fare well at icy temperatures, for instance. That’s because its high concentration of oil can seep out, altering its flavor and giving it a soggy texture.
And on that subject, food with high water contents don’t freeze well either. Yes, vegetables like radishes, cucumbers, bean sprouts and salad greens are likely to become a pulpy mess upon defrosting. Plus frozen herbs are fine when used in cooking, but will be a little too soggy to be used as garnish.
Eggs and egg-based sauces are also tricky items when it comes to freezing. Mayonnaise and the like tend to split and curdle in the freezer. And while eggs can be frozen, they must be cracked into a suitable container first. You see, freezing them in their shells will lead them to split and become inedible.
But even if you’ve grasped the dos and don’ts of freezing food, there’s still a chance you’re committing the number one sin when it comes to defrosting. It’s likely that many of us have done it. However, the seemingly innocuous process could be putting our health at risk.
So what is this potentially dangerous way of defrosting food, you might be wondering? Well, it’s leaving items out at room temperature to thaw. Whether you do it on your kitchen counter, on a draining wrack or propped on a plate, allowing your food to melt this way could have unwanted consequences.
According to experts, leaving food to defrost on a kitchen surface could lead to food poisoning. This is because the bacteria that affects our food mainly grows at temperatures over 46.4°F. As a result, the risk of germs forming increases as food thaws and gets warmer.
So what’s the solution? It’s simple: allow your food to thaw in the refrigerator. You see, this will bring items to a high enough temperature to defrost, but will prevent them becoming so warm that bacteria has the chance to grow. And what’s more, this method of thawing frozen food is recommended by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
But that being said, defrosting food in the fridge does take some extra thought. While small items might thaw out overnight, others can take a couple of days. And large items such as turkeys can take as many as four days to fully thaw out in the fridge.
So if time is of the essence, you can always utilize your microwave’s defrost setting. It can be tricky to get timings for this right though, particularly if you’re defrosting a great hunk of meat. But don’t be overcome by this seeming inconvenience. Just check the food regularly, returning it to the microwave if needs be.
Something else to look out for when using the microwave is uneven thawing. The kitchen gadget can raise temperatures to a point at which bacteria can flourish. So it’s best to cook items as soon as you can after defrosting this way to ensure food remains safe to eat.
Another way to safely thaw food is by placing it in a tub of cold water. This method is often quicker than allowing things to defrost in the fridge, and seemingly creates more even thawing than using the microwave. And at least one expert believes that this is the best way to prepare frozen meat or fish for cooking.
Researcher Susanne Ekstedt works at the SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden in the food and bioscience unit. And she believes that submerging food in cold water is the safest and quickest way to defrost it. She’s so passionate about the method, in fact, that she enthused over it to science news website ScienceNordic in 2016.
While lots of people know that food that’s been frozen fresh retains its flavor, a quick defrosting has the same quality-ensuring benefits. Ekstedt revealed, “This is something food scientists have known to be true for a long time now. But this knowledge is mostly confined to the food industry. Most people don’t seem to be aware of this.”
It seems that the cold water method is particularly useful when it comes to defrosting meat. Yes, it’s important to keep joints and cuts cold as they thaw to prevent bacteria from forming. And while this process can take a while in the fridge, it can defrost more quickly when placed in water.
Of course there are some extra steps you should undertake before simply submerging your meat in water. First, you should wrap it in plastic to avoid it becoming saturated. And once you’ve made the effort to make your food watertight, you should be able to get cooking sooner than if you were using the fridge to defrost.
You see, the reason that the cold water method defrosts food more quickly is simple. It’s because water is a better conductor of heat than air. And as an added benefit, the quicker items are thawed, the tastier they will be. Plus it prevents ice crystals from forming and potentially damaging our food.
Professor Bjørg Egelandsdal of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences is an expert in meat. And she believes the only way to defrost it is in cold water, too. In fact, she told ScienceNordic, “There has never been any good scientific evidence behind the advice that food should be thawed in the refrigerator.”
Egelandsdal added, “Maybe the idea behind this advice is that refrigerator thawing is most hygienic. It is true that meat and other foodstuffs should be stored in the refrigerator if they are thawed, but it is definitely better to thaw food quickly in water if you are going to use it right away.” So it would seem that there’s more to defrosting food than we previously thought.
Now that you’re all clued-up on preparing frozen food, then, there’s some more expert cooking advice that you should probably take note of. And it involves one staple kitchen appliance: the slow cooker. You’d think using one would be pretty simple, right? All you need to do is turn the thing on, toss some ingredients inside, and let them cook over time. There’s just one problem, though. Slow cookers aren’t suitable for every meal – and they can sometimes be downright dangerous. So, here’s a look at some foods you shouldn’t prepare with the gizmo.
It’s an age-old dispute – is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? The answer depends on your perspective. If you’re a scientist, you’d classify it as a fruit, but if you’re a chef you might think of it as a vegetable. Whatever the case may be, you can likely agree that it’s often an essential addition to many delicious meals.
There are, as you’re probably aware, countless ways to prepare tomatoes, but you should be wary of tossing them in a slow cooker. Why? Well, the juicy ingredient contains a lot of acid, and this can actually react negatively with the appliance. Some slow cookers – particularly older models – can contaminate food with lead, and the acid in tomatoes only makes matters worse.
Said to have first emerged in Persia, spinach is an extremely healthy foodstuff that can be enjoyed in anything from salads to smoothies. And according to experts, not only does it help to bring down blood pressure, but it can help with our eyes and ability to avoid cancer.
But if you prefer to cook the vegetable instead of having it raw, you’ve got to be sure not to overdo it. When cooked for too long, spinach will turn to mush. For this reason, slow-cooking the green is probably not the way to go. You don’t want to risk losing all those nutrients now, do you?
Having emerged from the northern regions of Africa, couscous is now enjoyed by people all over the world. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s easy and quick to prepare, and you can pair it with all sorts of dishes. But problems can arise when you try to slow-cook it.
In fact, leaving couscous submerged in liquid in a slow cooker is probably just going to end in disaster. The couscous will simply soak up too much of the broth and end up becoming all mushy. The best thing to do, then, would be to prepare it separately from the rest of the meal.
Nutrient-rich rice is one of the most sought-after grains on the planet, with 50 percent of us relying on the carb for sustenance. While it’s currently more of a staple in Asia, the versatile foodstuff is becoming increasingly vital to Latin American and African populations, too.
If prepared incorrectly, rice can become a bit of a health risk. You may think throwing it in the slow cooker in a pool of water would be the way to go, but taste-wise, this would be a mistake. If rice is left to cook over too lengthy a period, it’ll end up becoming gluey. Instead, parboil the rice, and then add it to the slow cooker for only a short duration.
Milk, as many of us will know, often curdles once it’s been exposed to high temperatures. Essentially, this just means that the proteins found inside dairy end up being clumped together. And the texture can end up being rather unpleasant, to say the least.
To avoid ruining a slow-cook recipe, therefore, only add the dairy products towards the end of the process. If your goal is to make homemade yogurt, however, curdling is an essential step. And using a slow cooker may just come in handy, after all.
Bacon is a surprisingly versatile foodstuff. Although we might associate it with breakfast – there’s little else better than bacon and eggs in the morning – there are plenty of other ways to consume it. You can eat it as part of a sandwich, for instance, or as a component of salads and soups.
The thing about bacon, though, is that many of us like it best when it’s nice and crispy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is a state that’s hard to achieve when preparing it in your slow cooker. Ultimately, a slow-cook will lead the meat to become soft and limp – the opposite of what a lot of people prefer.
14. Fresh herbs
It’s no overstatement to say that fresh herbs are the stuff of magic. By adding the perfect amount during the cooking process, these flavorsome leaves can ultimately turn a bland meal into a tasty treat. And on top of that, they actually contain plenty of nutrients that are beneficial for our health, too.
But to get the most out of fresh herbs, it’s best not to prepare them in a slow cooker. If they’re left to stew in the heat for longer than necessary, they’ll usually become rather flavorless. Plus, they may even fade from a lovely, vibrant green color into an unappealing shade of brown. It’s best to add them to the dish at the end, then.
13. Dried beans
Beans are great, of course, but you do need to be careful when preparing them for consumption. You see, multiple varieties of dried-out beans – kidney beans, in particular – are actually toxic. So, if you need them for a dish, what can you do to make them safe to eat?
First things first, you’ll need to blast the beans with lots of heat. This will impair their toxic elements and ensure they’re ready to be added to your dish. That’s exactly why preparing them in a slow cooker might not do the trick, as the heat given off by such appliances is just too gentle. So, before you add the pulses, boiling them for roughly ten minutes beforehand should do the trick.
12. Boneless chicken
Depending on what mood you’re in, boneless chicken breasts are always handy to have ready in the fridge. You can cook up so many great recipes using the versatile white meat, after all. But be warned, some ways of preparing chicken breasts are better than others.
Indeed, if you decide to slow-cook boneless chicken, you undoubtedly run the risk of ruining an otherwise delicious meal. Chicken breast, you see, has a rather sinewy texture as it doesn’t contain much fat. This means it won’t cook as well as different kinds of meat and may even dry out.
Eggs are an incredible foodstuff that can be prepared in a huge variety of different ways. They’re cheap, simple and absolutely packed to the brim with vital protein. All in all, then, they’re a perfect choice for any meal. But many of us, of course, prefer them for breakfast.
There is one cooking method that should be avoided at all costs, however. Eggs don’t take very long to be ready, so leaving them to heat up for hours at a time in a slow cooker is no doubt going to end badly.
Researchers have found that the way some slow cookers were manufactured – usually the older models dating back to the 1970s – means they can give off quite a lot of lead. The toxic metal can cause harm to organs in the human body, and overexposure to it can even bring about death. There’s one ingredient that will probably make that worse, too: vinegar.
According to the British health service known as the NHS, “Lead poisoning can affect almost all parts of the body, including the central nervous system, kidneys, and reproductive organs.” Acid apparently encourages the spread of lead, so leaving vinegar – a highly acidic ingredient – out of the slow cooker may just be a good idea.
Chilis are incredibly diverse vegetables, with no less than 200 types known about today. Many of these are red, but they can also be green, orange, yellow and even black. They come in different sizes, and their level of heat varies greatly. As a general rule of thumb, though, we might say that the smaller varieties tend to be the most fiery.
Although chili peppers can give a dish a delicious kick, caution should be exercised. And especially if you’re using a slow cooker to prepare your meal. Spicy ingredients tend to become even more flavorsome as they’re heated up. With that in mind, it might be best to add chili pepper to your dinner right at the end of the cooking process. Otherwise, the spice may just overpower everything else in the pot.
8. Fillet steak
When cooked correctly, a fillet steak can blow all other cuts out of the water. Yes, even though it can be less flavorsome when compared to other cuts, it does tend to be the most tender. However, that counts for nothing if the strip is prepared in an unsuitable way.
Bearing this in mind, then, you really shouldn’t throw fillet steak into your slow cooker. Usually, you see, a fillet cut is quite thin, meaning it could end up with a tough, leathery texture. The best meat cuts to prepare on a slow cooker tend to be much thicker.
7. Frozen meat
Many families store meat in the freezer, as it’s a great way to ensure the house is never short of meal ideas. It does mean you do have to be careful about how it’s prepared, however, as handling frozen meet inappropriately could prove disastrous – for either your taste buds or your health.
You see, if you put frozen meat directly into the slow cooker, then you run the risk of ruining your meal. That’s because slow cookers operate at a relatively low temperature. If you add unthawed matter into the mix, then you’ll end up cooling things down even more. And this will mean the whole meal will take longer to cook.
In a lot of households, no week is complete without a little seafood. And considering that fish is packed full of essential minerals and vitamins and that it’s not usually very calorific, why wouldn’t you want to indulge? But it’s vital that seafood be prepared correctly, of course.
Fish usually doesn’t take very long to finish cooking. So if you leave it on the heat for too great a time, it may end up with a rubber-like texture. Take scallops, for example, which can be easily ruined with too much cooking time. That’s exactly why seafood should generally be prepared away from the slow cooker.
The health benefits of broccoli have been drilled into many of us since the early stages of our childhood. And given that the tree-like vegetables are packed with essential minerals, fiber and vitamins, we’d do well to remember it in adulthood, too. But to get the best out of broccoli, we should make sure we prepare it correctly.
If broccoli is overcooked – as happens when it’s prepared in a slow cooker – then it turns to mush. That can make for a rather unpleasant meal, but it also means that the broccoli won’t possess the same amount of health benefits as it should. Yes, if the vegetable is heated up for too long, then many of its nutrients are destroyed.
If you’re struggling to get your child to eat greens, then peas are usually a good way to go. They’re delicious and healthy, and some research even suggests they can aid the human body in guarding itself against cancer and heart disease. But only cooking them the right way will ensure you get the best of the little round vegetables.
You see, while certain vegetables can cook beautifully in a slow cooker, others most certainly do not. Root veg, for instance, works really well, but more fragile and starchy greens like peas can just turn to mush. So, boiling them in a pan is probably a better method of preparation.
3. Lemon juice
The zesty bite of lemon juice is sometimes all it takes to turn a good meal into a great one. Whether it’s a sweet or savory dish, the citrusy notes can be a perfect addition. Having said that, you do have to be careful if you’re adding it to an old slow cooker. In fact, you might be safer to avoid it altogether.
If your slow cooker is old, it might give off high levels of lead. And the acid in lemon juice can actually make this worse. As Britain’s NHS has explained, “[Lead] commonly causes weakness and abdominal discomfort and less often causes abdominal pain, vomiting, constipation, foot and wrist drop and anaemia.” Better, then, to play it safe.
It’s such a simple foodstuff and is loved by so many people. Pasta is a staple of Italian cuisine, but it’s adored by food lovers all over the world. And part of this loves comes from how easy it is to prepare, often only taking minutes. Of course, it doesn’t take too much to ruin it, either.
If you throw pasta it into a slow cooker, you see, it may go soft and mushy. Yes, as writer and slow cooker aficionado Stephanie O’Dea explained to Reader’s Digest, “If you don’t follow a recipe for pasta that is written specifically for a slow cooker and take note of the timing, it loses shape and becomes wallpaper paste.”
Adding booze to a dish is a bit like adding salt; it can help to draw flavor out of the ingredients. Whether using liquor, beer or wine, alcohol can bring out the best of certain recipes. But it needs to be cooked correctly, of course. Otherwise, your meal could be ruined.
If you heat alcoholic beverages at high temperatures, the alcohol itself will burn away. If the heat is too low, however, then this won’t happen. The alcohol will remain in the dish, and you may be left with an unpleasant taste in your mouth. Bearing that in mind, you really shouldn’t use it in your slow cooker.
Apart from not putting it in the slow cooker, you’re probably thinking you can’t go wrong when cooking a bowl of pasta. Well, apparently not. According to TV chef Alton Brown, we’ve been doing it wrong our entire lives. And he’s revealed his preferred technique for us all to try.
Even the most culinarily challenged among us could probably cook up a batch of pasta. Most recipes advise simply dropping the staple into boiling water and waiting until it goes suitably soft. But while this may seem like the preferred method, according to TV foodie Alton Brown it’s all wrong. As a result, he’s put forward a controversial cooking technique which, he claims, makes the perfect pasta. And it may just change the way that you prepare the food forever.
But who is Brown? And why does he have the authority to tell us where we’ve been going wrong when it comes to cooking pasta? Well, it’s probably fair to say that Brown knows a thing or two about food. In fact, he’s been on top of the culinary game for over 20 years, first coming to the public’s attention in 1999 with the launch of his show Good Eats. That program was picked up by the Food Network, and it featured Brown taking a more scientific approach to cooking as well as investigating food history and techniques.
Prior to launching Good Eats, however, Brown was a relative newcomer to professional cooking. In fact, he’d previously studied film at the University of Georgia and had embarked on a career as a cinematographer, working on music videos. One of his best-known credits from this time was the video to R.E.M.’s 1987 hit “The One I Love.”
But Brown’s life changed course in the late 1990s when he became frustrated with the quality of American cooking shows. Explaining his problem with the series of the time, Brown later told the digital publication Bitter Southerner, “I remember I was watching food shows, and I was like, ‘God, these are boring.’”
Continuing his critique, Brown said, “I’m not really learning anything. I got a recipe, okay, but I don’t know anything. I didn’t even learn a technique. To learn means to really understand. You never got those out of those shows.” So, Brown seemingly endeavored to do better.
Clearly, Brown felt that he could greatly improve the format of cooking shows. So after trying to come up with one of his own, the foodie eventually landed on an idea that he described as equal parts “Julia Child/Mr. Wizard [and] Monty Python.” And the future TV personality later explained how these three seemingly very different references had come together in his head.
Brown told Bitter Southerner, “If I could come up with a show to combine those three things… not only the practical knowledge that Julia Child was so good at handing over, but she was also great at making you feel you could do it… Mr. Wizard, [from] the old science show, to explain how everything works and why it works. And then Monty Python because it’s freaking funny.”
Summing up his vision, Brown added, “I wanted to make a show that was funny and visually engaging. It’s got enough science to teach people what’s really going on and give them recipes. That was the mission. Then I knew I had to quit my job and go to culinary school.” In 1997, then, he graduated from the New England Culinary Institute.
Then, after Brown’s show Good Eats was picked up by the Food Network, it was nominated in 2000 for the James Beard Foundation’s Best TV Food Journalism Award. And in 2006 the series won a prestigious Peabody Award, which celebrates enlightening, powerful and invigorating stories that are told in the media.
Now, each episode of Good Eats followed a certain theme. The central motif was often a particular cooking technique, such as smoking, or an ingredient, like potatoes. The subject matter of the show was sometimes more general, however – looking at Thanksgiving from a culinary angle, for example.
Yet while each installment of Good Eats had its own distinct focus, a recurring theme throughout the series was the science behind food and cooking. Brown was also often critical of single-purpose kitchen gadgets such as margarita machines and garlic presses, calling them “unitaskers.” As a result, then, he often showed his audience how such utensils could be used for multiple purposes.
Good Eats would run for 14 seasons before airing its final episode in February 2012. By then, it had become the Food Network’s third longest-running series. The only shows that had been airing for a greater amount of time on the channel were Barefoot Contessa and 30 Minute Meals.
Alongside starring on Good Eats, Brown served as the commentator on Iron Chef America: Battle of the Masters from 2004. Over the years, he has also continued to appear on the show’s various spin-offs. And Brown has even fronted Feasting on Asphalt – a mini-series that ran from 2006 to 2007 and explored the history of food on the move.
Brown’s TV stints don’t end there, though, as a year after Good Eats aired its final episode, the screen chef started hosting Cutthroat Kitchen. The cooking competition encourages participants to sabotage the culinary efforts of other competitors in order to boost their own chances of winning. And, astonishingly, the show ran for 15 seasons, coming to an end in 2017.
Aside from his TV endeavors, Brown has also embarked on a series of live shows. That’s right: Alton Brown Live: The Edible Inevitable Tour kicked off in 2013 and ran until 2015. These performances featured a mix of chat, live music, stand-up comedy and food preparation. In his later Eat Your Science tour, however, Brown returned to his passion for combining scientific research with his passion for food.
With a string of television shows and books under his belt, then, it’s fair to say that Brown was a big star and a well-respected figure in the food world in 2015. But that’s not to say that some of his cooking techniques couldn’t raise an eyebrow or two. And some were particularly shocked when he took on everyone’s favorite store cupboard staple: pasta.
Pasta, you see, is a great go-to for cooks of all skill levels. It is traditionally made using durum wheat flour, which is combined with eggs or water to create a dough. This mixture can then be molded into all manner of shapes that are boiled in water. And the staple carb comes in two different varieties: fresh – which is usually cooked more or less straight after it’s been created – and dried, which can be stored and prepared for eating at a later time.
For most people, pasta is also synonymous with Italy. And it seems that the Italians are rather proud of their country’s tradition with the food, with some even claiming that it has formed part of their Mediterranean diet since before the Roman era. Historians beg to differ, however, suggesting that the nation’s love of pasta was instead born in the Middle Ages.
And from the 13th century, pasta – and its various incarnations – were increasingly referenced in sources from the time. But back in the Middle Ages, the dish was different from what we know today. Recipes often included a mix of spicy, savory and sweet flavors, and fresh pasta was typically cooked for longer, making it softer than modern-day tastes tend to dictate.
Yet while pasta was considered the food of the rich in Renaissance Italy, by the late 17th century the dish was a staple for the common man – in Naples at least. In comparison to other foods, pasta was cheap; it was also a good alternative to meat on days when religious practices banned the eating of animals.
Soon, pasta had become the food of choice among Naples’ beggars, who were otherwise known as “lazzaroni.” According to a National Geographic article from 2016, a traveler at the time observed, “When a lazzarone has gotten four or five coins together to eat some macaroni that day, he ceases to care about tomorrow and stops working.” As we mentioned previously, though, the love for the food wasn’t restricted to the lower classes.
In fact, King Ferdinand IV of Naples was said to have a ravenous appetite for pasta. And National Geographic claims that the aristocrat “picked [the shapes] up with his fingers, twisting and pulling them, and voraciously stuffed them in his mouth, spurning the use of a knife, fork or spoon.”
Then, in the following centuries, pasta dishes came to resemble those we know today, with sweet flavors dropped in place of savory ingredients such as vegetables. Interestingly, Italians resisted tomatoes for a long time, believing they were too exotic. But they had seemingly come around to the fruit by 1844 – when tomatoes were paired with pasta for what appears to be the first time.
Today, pasta with tomato sauce remains a classic combination that many of us will be familiar with. It’s also one of the variations of the dish that Italian immigrants brought to the United States following the waves of immigration between 1870 and 1920. But, in fact, pasta didn’t really take off in America until after the Second World War.
Yes, following the end of the conflict, American soldiers returned home from Europe with a real appetite for Italian food. So, to meet this new demand, many Italian-Americans opened up restaurants and delis selling traditional fare from their homeland. And soon pasta had become a much-loved meal throughout the States.
It appears that this is still the case, too. According to 2019 statistics from the International Pasta Organisation, the U.S. now consumes a whopping 5.95 billion pounds of pasta every year, while the average American apparently wolfs down approximately 20 pounds annually. To keep up with this demand, then, the States produces 4.4 billion pounds of the foodstuff per year, making it second only to Italy.
And being a trained chef, Brown is clearly no stranger to pasta. In fact, during the first season of Good Eats in 1999, he dedicated a whole episode to the food. In the intervening decades, though, it seems that his approach to cooking the kitchen staple has somewhat changed.
Yes, Brown confirmed that he’d tweaked his pasta cooking process in a blog published on his website in 2015. And while he’d previously told Good Eats viewers that he’d “never cook pasta in anything less than a gallon of boiling water,” it seemed that he had now lived to eat his own words.
There’d been nothing out of the ordinary about Brown’s previously preferred method of cooking pasta. In fact, it’s long been accepted that the staple should be dropped into a pan of boiling water and cooked until soft or “al dente.” But Brown was about to throw a time-old tradition out the window with his new take on making pasta.
Before Brown completely tore up the pasta-cooking rulebook, though, he acknowledged that many traditionalists wouldn’t agree with his updated method. Nonetheless, he wasn’t one to let tradition stand in the way of progress – especially when it came to food. So, he set out to convince his readers that his way was in fact better.
And while Brown had previously accepted the usual way of cooking pasta, he claimed that he had since opened his mind to new possibilities. On his blog, Brown said of his former self, “I had not yet developed the instinct to question the classically held notions that had been pounded into my head by people with tall hats and funny accents.”
Telling how his method of cooking pasta had since evolved, Brown explained, “I’ve learned that the big-pots-of-boiling-water paradigm is quite simply… a myth. Sure, large amounts of water may be necessary for long strands of dry pasta like spaghetti and bucatini, but when it comes to short shapes like farfalle, macaroni and rigatoni, less is definitely more.” Then, he dropped his bombshell.
Yes, crucially, Brown wasn’t only encouraging people to cook their pasta using less water, but also that boiling the pan first wasn’t necessary. The Good Eats star even confessed, “Although I may be blocked from ever entering Italy again for saying this, I have come to prefer the texture of dry pasta started in cold water.”
Expounding on his technique, Brown suggested using 64 ounces of cold water to one box of pasta. Then, rather than bringing the liquid to the boil first, he advised combining all of the ingredients together in a pan before boiling. After that, the chef said, the heat should be reduced to a simmer for four and a half minutes.
Brown was very particular in the way that cooked pasta should be retrieved from the water, too. Specifically, he advocated the use of a spider strainer to lift the food from the pan rather than draining the contents of the vessel with a colander. Explaining his point of view, Brown wrote, “That hot, starchy water is magical stuff.”
Brown added that this liquid was perfect for reheating pasta prior to serving; alternatively, it could be used to thicken up the sauce. And because Brown’s pasta-cooking technique uses less water than other methods, that magic ingredient was more potent than usual.
Writing on his blog, Brown explained what made his pasta water so special. He said, “The secret is the starch, which is greatly concentrated when you cook the pasta in small amounts of water. In fact, I often ladle a cup or so into another pan, reduce it by half and pour right into my tomato sauces. But that’s another show.”
However, after Brown’s novel way of cooking pasta went live on the internet, it seemed that some were not convinced. Writer Bryn Gelbart, from Insider, was one of the people who decided to put the technique to the test. And he later shared his finds with his readers online.
Gelbart reported that Brown’s process resulted in a “slightly more al dente” texture than the method he typically used. He added, “The noodles did have a better texture, as Brown said they would, and they were more comparable to fresh pasta than the first batch.” Even so, Gelbart concluded that he wouldn’t be changing his ways.
Elsewhere online, people praised Brown’s method as a game-changer when it came to making pasta. On Reddit, for instance, users insisted that the technique cooked noodles quicker, thus saving both time and energy. And with that in mind, Brown’s hack may be worth a go – as long as you don’t mind the potential wrath of Italian grandmothers everywhere.