Welcome to AndyTalk -- where Scottsdale-based chef and cooking instructor Andy Broder will share kitchen tips, recipes and musings on food and life. This week: "sugar plumps cellulose."
I say the words "sugar plumps cellulose" with the same rhythm as "rocks - scissors - paper." It's a catchy little phrase (at least for me) that brings to mind my favorite chef, one of my food mantras, and some basic kitchen science.
Knowing that sugar plumps cellulose - what that means as a practical matter - can make you a better cook. You don't need to understand the chemistry (I don't), you just have to know under what circumstances sugar may help or hinder the results you're after.
My sugar/cellulose awakening began with Chef Bing. He was my first chef/instructor in culinary school. His name wasn't really Bing. He asked us to call him Bing because that was the sound made by a kitchen timer. He said that if we needed help we should just call out "Bing" and he'd be there.
For the first few weeks our Basics class sounded like a percussion group - binging all over the kitchen. Our binging came to an end when the higher-ups told Chef Bing to revert to his given name, Jon-Paul Hutchins. Apparently our binging (and his being binged) wasn't professional or dignified. But he'll always be Chef Bing to me.
One day Chef Bing said in passing that "sugar plumps cellulose." What that means in real terms is that fruit and vegetables stay firm - and have an uncooked texture - if sugar is applied before cooking (or very early in the cooking process).
To illustrate I've doctored up the following pictures:
If you've ever made an apple pie and wondered why your apples never got soft - no matter how long you cooked them - it was because the sugar you added plumped the apples' cellulose. That's why my favorite way to make apple pie is to cook the filling first. Start with apples and butter; don't add any sugar until all the apples are nice and soft. Once the cellulose has been broken down (by the heat) you can add sugar. The sugar can't plump the cellulose once it's been broken down. I like brown sugar because it makes the apples really gooey and caramelized. Cool the filling and use it with your favorite crust recipe - or mine.
Back to Bing and sugar plumping cellulose. That really is a mantra to me because it encapsulates my first food science epiphany.
It happened on a Friday. I know the day of the week because we were making off-the-cuff recipes with whatever we could find in the refrigerators. It was a show-us-what-you-can-do exercise. These lessons were on Friday since the stuff in the fridge would spoil over the weekend.
I had tomatoes and some spinach. We had to peel and seed every tomato we used in culinary school - and for the day's exercise we had to cook them as well. The end-of-week tomatoes were pretty soft and it seemed a long shot that anything short of tomato sauce would look fresh or appetizing.
Then it hit me: sugar plumps cellulose.
I peeled my overly ripe tomatoes with the delicate touch of a neurosurgeon. I hollowed them out, sprinkled them inside and out with a little sugar, and turned them upside down to drain. Then I put them in the oven for 10 minutes. They came out as firm as they went in. I filled them with lightly dressed spinach and served them like little flowerpots filled with a salad. I still do this - with arugula and kale as well as spinach. Parmesan Dressed Arugula Bouquets in Tomato Vases is my most current version.
I brought them to Chef Bing for his assessment. He looked, tasted, and smiled. He liked my beautiful, perky tomatoes - warmed just long enough to taste cooked. Classmates accused me of getting fresh tomatoes from another kitchen, because their tomatoes were uniformly limp and mushy.
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Sugar not only plumps cellulose - it gets you an A.
Andy Broder is the chef/owner of AndyFood, A Culinary Studio.