women
So you’ve picked out a recipe to start with and you’re raring to go. Now what? Beyond the grocery shopping list, there are a few things you can do before putting the knife to the cutting board to avoid mishaps while cooking.

1. Calibrating Your Instruments

A scientist can only run experiments and make observations up to the level of accuracy that his equipment allows. This isn’t to say that you need to approach the kitchen with the same rigor that a scientist shows at the lab bench, but if you’re trying to bake cookies or roast a chicken and your oven is off by 50°F / 28°C, your results will be less than desirable. The largest variance in most kitchen equipment is usually the oven, and it can be hard to tell if your oven is running cold or hot just by feel. (Dull knives are also a common misdemeanor; more on that later.) Check and calibrate your oven using an oven thermometer. On the road visiting someone and don’t trust their oven? See The Two Things You Should Do to Your Oven RIGHT NOW, below, for instructions on calibrating an oven using sugar.

The Two Things You Should Do to Your Oven RIGHT NOW

One piece of equipment that you’re probably stuck with is your oven. What makes an oven “good” is its ability to accurately measure and regulate heat. Since so many reactions in cooking are about controlling the rate of chemical reactions, an oven that keeps a steady temperature and isn’t too cold or too hot can make a huge difference in your cooking and baking.

Improve your oven’s recovery time and even out the heat: keep a pizza stone in the oven. Say you’re baking cookies: oven set to 350°F / 180°C, cookies on pan, ready to go. In an empty oven, the only thing hot is the air and the oven walls, and opening the door to pop the cookies in leaves you with just hot oven walls. I find I get much better results by keeping a pizza stone on the very bottom rack in my oven, with a rack directly above it. (Don’t place the cookie sheet directly on the pizza stone!)

The pizza stone does two things. First, it acts as a thermal mass, meaning faster recovery times for the hot air lost when you open the door to put your cookies in. Second, if you have an electric oven, the pizza stone serves as a diffuser between the heating element and the bottom of your baking tray. The heating element emits a hefty kick of thermal radiation, which normally hits the bottom side of whatever pan or bakeware you put in the oven. By interposing between the heating element and the tray, the pizza stone blocks the direct thermal radiation and evens out the temperature, leading to a more uniform heat. For this reason, you should go for a thick, heavy pizza stone; they’re less likely to crack, too. I’ve turned crappy ovens that burned everything into perfectly serviceable ones capable of turning out even “picky” dishes like soufflés just by adding a pizza stone. Just remember that like any thermal mass, a pizza stone will add lag to heating up the oven, so make sure to allow extra time to preheat your oven.

Calibrate your oven using sugar. I know this sounds crazy, and yes, you should get an oven thermometer. But how do you know that the oven thermometer is right? My three thermometers—an IR thermometer, a probe thermometer, and the oven’s digital thermometer—have registered temperatures of 325°F / 163°C, 350°F / 177°C, and 380°F / 193°C, all at the same time. (They’re all designed for accurate readings in different temperature ranges.)

It’s common practice to calibrate thermometers with ice water and boiling water because the temperatures are based on physical properties. Sugar has a similar property and can be used for checking the accuracy of your oven thermometer. Sucrose (table sugar) melts at 367°F / 186°C. It turns from a powdered, granulated substance to something resembling glass. (Caramelization is different from melting; caramelization is due to the sugar molecules decomposing—literally losing their composition—and happens over a range of temperatures coincidentally near the melting point.)

Pour a spoonful of sugar into an oven-safe glass bowl or onto some foil on a cookie sheet and place in your oven, set to 350°F / 177°C. Even after an hour, it should still be powdered. It might turn slightly brown due to decomposition, but it shouldn’t melt. If it does, your oven is too hot. Next, turn your oven up to 375°F / 190°C. The sugar should completely melt within 15 minutes or so. If it doesn’t, your oven is calibrated too cold. Check to see if your oven has either an adjustment knob or a calibration offset setting; otherwise, just keep in mind the offset when setting the temperature. Note that your oven will cycle a bit above and below the target temperature: the oven will overshoot its target temperature, then turn off, cool down, turn back on, etc. It’s possible that your oven could be “correctly” calibrated but still melt the sugar when set to 350°F / 177°C due to this overshooting, but it would have to overshoot by about 15°F / 8°C.

Sugar at 350°F / 177°C.

Sugar at 375°F / 190°C.


2. Prepping Ingredients

When making a meal, start by prepping your ingredients before you begin the cooking process. Read through the entire recipe, and get out everything you need so you don’t have to go hunting in the cupboards or the fridge halfway through. Making stir-fry? Slice the vegetables into a bowl and set it aside before you start cooking. In some cases, you can do the prep work well in advance of when you start cooking the meal. Restaurants wash, cut, and store ingredients hours or even days ahead of when they’re needed. The stages of prepping and cooking are like the stages of compiling and executing in software programming. If compiling is looking through all the steps and assembling the instructions into a single stream of optimized commands that are ready to be executed, the prep stage of cooking is similarly “precomputing” as much of the work as possible so that, when it’s time to fire off the recipe, you can execute it as quickly and easily as possible.

The mise en place technique (French for “put in place”) involves laying out all the ingredients and utensils needed to cook a dish before starting. Think of it like cache priming in computer programming: mise en place is equivalent to prefetching the various bits you’ll need while executing to avoid cache misses. If you are going to prepare the same dish multiple times (say, omelets for a large brunch), having a bunch of containers ready with the various fillings in them will allow you to work quickly. Mise en place isn’t an absolute necessity, although it does generally make the cooking process smoother. Measure out the ingredients at this stage whenever possible; this way you’ll have a chance to discover if you’re short of a critical ingredient (or if it’s gone bad!) before committing to the cooking process. It also helps avoid those panicked moments of trying to locate a strainer that’s wandered off while a sauce that needs immediate straining cools down. (Happens to me all the time...) Sure, a “just-in-time” approach is fine for simple meals. However, if you’re cooking for a large number of people or attempting a particularly complicated menu, keep the mise en place approach in mind.

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