The One Part About Cooking – The Ingredient

Cooking is about two things; it’s an equation, very simple, regardless of what level you’re cooking at… It’s all about product and execution. If I can get a better product than the chef right next to me, then I’ll be a better chef. If I can get a better staff and a better product, I’m going to be an extraordinary chef.”

– Chef Thomas Keller

On the awesome “Dude, you going to eat that?” blog, Dr. Ricky recently wrote about matching ingredients to their appropriate application. This was in response to a comment I wrote recently that “it’s hard to deny the quality of taste of a well farmed bird.” Dr. Ricky makes a good case of evaluating the ingredients to a targeted preparation. That I fully agree with. However, he also argues that “there are preparations where a factory farmed bird is more appropriate than free range bird. And vice versa.” This is the point I find hard to swallow.

In his article, he takes the example of a Vietnamese beef stew with changes in ingredients from the traditional one. In the example, the restaurant used carrot nubs instead of ‘older, cheaper carrots’ as well as trimmed meat as opposed to fattier portions. In those examples, the cook chose to use (supposedly) pricier ingredients as opposed to rustic ones. Any cook worth his or her weight would tell you that this substitution of ingredients doesn’t quite make sense.

First off, when it comes to flavor, carrot nubs are pointless (pun intended). Flavor wise, I do not find them a superior product to ‘old carrots’ in any way, shape or form. In a personal taste test, I found them to be inferior both when eaten raw and in a stew when compared to regular whole store bought carrots. The process of shaping carrot to nubs involves rinsing them in bleach, resulting in flavors and nutrients being rinsed away. They’re also tiny and unsuitable for the cooking time of a stew. So the only case I can think of a carrot nub being superior product is when you want a carrot to taste less ‘carrot-ty’, a situation I cannot fathom.

And then there’s the beef. The whole point of beef stew is to break down tougher and gelatinous parts of cut of meat. This is low and slow method of breaking down connective tissue and fat is what makes stewed beef so tender, succulent and delicious. Using a lean cut for a stew misses the point completely.

Picking the Right Part Matters

So I do agree that the ingredient must meld with the target preparation. The misunderstanding here is the association of the more expensive ingredient as the ‘better’ ingredient. The price of a product correlates with demand and supply, not if it is a ‘better’ ingredient for a particular application. But to me, that is only one part of the picture to finding the ideal ingredient for an application. What I felt was missed out in making the point was the issue of quality of the product.

In a beef stew, that’s the source of the meat, how the animal is raised and what its diet consist of, not which pricier cut it was taken from. Assuming the same breed of cow, would a grass fed or grain fed cow encourage better flavor? What about a small holder’s cow vs. a factory farmed cow? Does the season of the animal slaughter make a difference? These factors come together to influence quality. With that, it is my opinion that animals raised with care and understanding of their behavior that lead to a better quality ingredient.

A factory farmed bird is more appropriate when we are looking at cost. But outside of that, I am really hard pressed to think of preparations where a factory farmed bird has better flavor or even texture. Stewing? Use a stewing hen. Roasting? There are breeds out there that are both flavorful and tender.

Dr Ricky ends his article by saying that “perhaps the real skill of a cook is no better demonstrated than a less than optimal ingredient is converted into a delectable dish.” I agree that this shows a lot about a technique of a cook. But perhaps the real skill of a cook also involves the ability to discern the quality of a product. You hear about chefs going to great depths to source for their ideal product, so much so that they end up growing some of their own produce. I think it is this spirit relentless pursuit for perfection that drives a good chef to become great.

Are there preparations where a factory farmed bird is more appropriate than a free-ranged one? What do you think?


3 Replies to “The One Part About Cooking – The Ingredient”

  1. Thanks for such a collegial and complimentary response to my writing. I hope much fruitful discussion emerges from it. I won’t address the question of the skill of the cook (note that I took great care to say “cook”, and not “chef” – there’s an important distinction there) here, but it’s great fodder for future discourse.

    But I’ll simply reiterate that the issue of quality is a matter of relative perception. And scaling something as superior or inferior is somewhat in the eye (or nose or palate) of the beholder. One cannot really discount cost when preparing food, as it is a key component of dishes. Only in the realm of fantasy is cost no object. But more importantly, while a factory farmed bird is a constant element, the “free range” bird is a shifting element. I did read of a farmer who once tried the simple task of taking the exact same breed as a bird from a factory farm and raising it free range – turns out, that breed is so adapted to confined cages, it refused to move much, and ate incessantly.

    But if you took a specific “free range” bird – say, a silky hen, then we can discuss a direct comparison. I chose the silky because it’s a breed that is a heritage varietal, an excellent barn yard animal, and is prized for both laying and meat (in fact, you can buy frozen dressed silky chickens in some markets around Houston). But you can’t use it for fried chicken – it simply lacks the intramuscular fat and expanded breast meat that the standard broiler has. In that preparation, the factory farmed broiler is more appropriate.

    For coq au vin, neither work well. 🙂 But the silky will probably come out slightly better.

    You see, the point I am making is that the issue of superiority in quality is one of personal judgment and taste, rooted in both culture and history. Where a French person may see a beautiful blue cheese, a Chinese person sees rotten milk; conversely, fermented fish paste is prized in Malaysia, and abhorred in the America. Think only of the dual nature of Ustilago maydis – corn smut/huitlacoche – and one cook’s meat is indeed another man’s garbage. Without the barometer of application, as a reflection of the cultural mores and context, one cannot impose a measure of superiority. And just because I cannot imagine a strength in my cultural context, doesn’t mean it isn’t strong in another.

  2. Thanks for your response, and a very well thought out one as always.

    I still can’t buy the fact that the factory farmed broiler has a more ideal preparation when compared to something that is raised outside of that system, to my palate at least.

    In my mind, treating a final product as a mere commodity puts the focus on producing quantity, not quality. (I’ll define quality as the expectation of the targeted consumer’s point of view.) Is treating something as a commodity necessarily bad? No but you tend to win the game that you choose to play. I’m led to believe that the more attention you pay to the quality of your product, the better it can be. From a business standpoint, the primary concern in an intensive farming system is profit margin – producing a product at the lowest possible cost at the lowest acceptable quality.

    (Of course, that is not to say “artisanal” or “craft” items are “best”; there are a lot of them that are crap to my taste but it’s the spirit of constant refinement and improvement that I’m after.)

    Also, seeing that many factory farm systems have a high mortality rate (15%), perhaps a fairer test would be to factor that in when raising the broiler chickens (Cornish-Rock) in a free-range system. Furthermore, these chickens were bred for a high feed conversion and I bet that has something to do with them not moving very much – something that is not ideal to the traditional farm system anyway. Perhaps in that system, a Cornish hen would make a more delectable fried chicken. Then again, I’m sure there are many fried chicken recipes that have been tweaked to make the Cornish-Rock shine.

    OK, I wrote a lot for what seems like a minor detail. Other than that, I agree with the rest of the points you are making. Yes, there are cultural and personal preferences involved. Yes, there is cost involved (I have thoughts on this but it’s a whole other can of worms.) I guess a lot of it comes down to the philosophy of the cook and his/her targeted audience.

    Farmed chickens aside, seems like we have a lot a common. We have to talk food over food some day.

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