The culinary crew of Cook’s Country at America’s Test Kitchen is always hard at work pulling together information to empower the home cook. Lynne Rossetto Kasper talks with Tucker Shaw, executive editor, about newer tips and tricks they have discovered in the test kitchen, some still worthy of debate.

FROTHING WITH NON-DAIRY MILKS

Tucker Shaw: One thing that we’ve been experimenting with is using non-dairy milks. One of the banes of using a non-dairy milk for a coffee drink is that it doesn’t froth the way that cow’s milk will do.

The reason for that is, in cow’s milk, the proteins form little walls around the air bubbles and hold everything in place. Our favorite method at home when using cow’s milk is to take a French press, fill it about one-third with cold milk, and then froth it vigorously, really go for it about 20 times. The milk will expand. You stick it in the microwave for about 30 seconds on high, and the foam will continue to rise. Once it fills up your French press, you’re ready to spoon it onto your drink. If you froth it too warm or too hot, the milk won’t accept and hold on to quite as much air. The walls around those bubbles won’t be quite as strong.

The problem with non-dairy milks is they don’t have the same protein content, and they don’t froth as well with this, or any, technique. We tried in vain with almond milk, soy milk, rice milk, coconut milk, all the milks you can think of. What we found was this: if you look for an ingredient on the label that’s called gellan, it’s an additive -- a natural product that has been around for 30 or 40 years. It’s a polysaccharide made from bacteria that occurs in a lily plant, and it creates a very similar matrix to the proteins that you will get in cow’s milk. If you find a product with gellan and give it a froth, it should hold on to your froth a bit more tightly.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Is it possible to get our hands on some of this stuff to add to the milks that don’t have it as an ingredient?

TS: I think you’d probably have to jump through a whole lot of hoops to do that and find a specialty retailer online. But more products on the market do have this ingredient in them, so it’s pretty easy to find it at the grocery store.

Tucker Shaw
Tucker Shaw
Photo: America's Test Kitchen

QUICK THAWING THIN CUTS OF MEAT

TS: Since we’re speaking of banes, the bane of the last-minute supper is when you get home from the office and decide, suddenly, to have chicken cutlets or a nice pork chop for supper that night. You find that all your meat is in the freezer and not ready for cooking. If you are working with a relatively thin piece of meat – less than 1 inch – our normal method has always been to place this thin cut of meat onto a steel sheet pan or a cast-iron skillet that’s at room temperature. The metal has a rapid heat transfer, or temperature transfer, so that would safely thaw the piece of meat in about an hour. But an hour can be a lot of time to wait if you are feeling hungry. Our new method, and this has been tested by the USDA and is considered safe: you take your chicken breast – or relatively thin pork chop or steak – and you stick it into a zipper-locked bag, and submerge into hot tap water. I’m talking about 140 degrees [Fahrenheit], which is about the upper level of hot tap water. It will be thawed in about 8 minutes and you’ll be ready to go.

LRK: That is such a cool thing. And I’m glad to hear the USDA tested it because I’ve been testing it for a long time.

TS: You’ll be happy to know that the rate of bacterial growth at that temperature for that short of time still falls into the safe category as far as they’re concerned. However, if you are doing this with a chicken breast, you might notice a little bit of an opaque exterior. Don’t sweat it because, once you cook that piece of chicken, it won’t affect the final dish at all. It’s basically indistinguishable from one that’s been thawed to room temperature.

LRK: That’s great. I have to say I’m so glad to hear this, but must point out: don’t leave it just sitting there. You really have to get it out of there and get it cooking, right?

TS: Yes, get it cooking. If you do want to leave it out longer – don’t do it! Put it in the fridge and let it thaw in there.

TO BASTE OR NOT TO BASTE?

LRK: What is your take on basting a roasted chicken? I have a theory and I’d love to know what you think.

TS: Basting is one of those eternal cooking questions that we answer generationally. People have been talking about it for decades, or for hundreds of years. The apparent “inconclusivity” of it makes for fun conversation, but we decided we wanted to put this to rest. The promise of basting is you’ll have meat that is moister and skin that’s more brown. The question is whether it’s worth the work to open up the oven every few minutes while roasting. We tested this.

Our first test was with three turkey breasts. We did this on breasts rather than full birds so that we could minimize whatever variables might exist with birds. With the first breast, we roasted it at 350 degrees, and we basted every 20 minutes with the liquids that came out of the breast. With the second breast we roasted it, and rather than basting, we simply opened and closed the door every 20 minutes. That would replicate the heat loss that you would get from opening the oven. The third breast, we stuck it in the oven and let it rip. Once they all reached 160 degrees, which is our target [Ed. Note: 160°F internal temperature], we weighed them. Weighing them at this point helps us determine how much moisture loss they suffered in the oven. It was a wash. They were all between 22.5-24%. So there was no scientific benefit or measurable benefit, in terms of moistness, to basting.

LRK: That’s logical because the moisture doesn’t get through the skin and everything else.

TS: Exactly. What basting did do, but only in a minor way, was slightly improve the browning on the exterior of the turkey. That basting liquid has proteins, fat, amino acids, and the things that you need to create a Maillard reaction in your oven. You get a small benefit from basting, but it’s not significant and it takes longer. We found that the turkey breasts took about 10 minutes longer when you’re opening and closing the oven to do the basting. It’s not worth it. We’re on the “no-baste team.”

LRK: I disagree. [Tucker laughs.] I think if you’re basting with something like wine, you’re building up flavor in the skin of the bird, which is something I like. What other tips and tricks are up your sleeve right now?

REDUCING HEAT QUICKLY ON NON-GAS STOVES

TS: The final tip I want to talk about right now is surprising to me that it took us so long to figure out. Most of our recipes in America’s Test Kitchen are developed on a gas stove, but we also cross-test everything on electric stoves to make sure that our recipes will work in as many kitchens as possible. Often you will find when doing a recipe on the stove top, it’ll ask you to start on a high heat, then reduce the heat quickly to finish cooking. This is to create a sear, or some other sort of exterior kind of benefit, to whatever it is that you are cooking. It’s a vexing problem when you are on an electric stove because when you turn down the heat, the heat doesn’t immediately back off. You have residual heat stuck in the coil. I’m not sure if this is an “ah-ha” moment or a “duh” moment, but we determined the best way to reduce heat quickly on an electric stove is:  once you’re finished with the high heat, move it to another burner that you’ve already turned on to low. You end up using two burners for the same dish, but if you have one burner on high, get your sear, then quickly move it to a burner that’s been pre-heated to low, you will immediately change the amount of heat being transferred to the pan, so it replicates turning down a flame.

LRK: I’d call that an “ah-ha” moment.

Tucker Shaw: Good.

Whether you cook on a gas or electric stove top, try this recipe for Butterflied Chicken with Garlic Smashed Potatoes that Cook's Science shared with us.

America's Test Kitchen

The Splendid Table frequently visits with the test cooks at America’s Test Kitchen to discuss a wide range of topics including recipes, ingredients, techniques and kitchen equipment.