Sunday, August 30, 2009

Wooden Spoons

A friend recently asked for some guidance on processing a plethora of tomatoes from the garden into a sauce that could be canned. By email, I rattled off a quick and simple recipe. The main objective was to explain the process so that the cook could improvise a bit within an easy to manage framework. Critical to a good sauce, as many know, is the development of a fondt on the bottom of your pot. That layer of caramelized goodness which walks a fine line between Mailliard magic and a burned disaster. While explaining this, I specified using a wooden spoon to continually scrape it up and incorporate it into the sauce. "Why a wooden spoon?" I was asked. "I don't even own one..."

The wooden spoon has always been my favorite kitchen tool and it's about time I transcribe some thoughts on why that is. First and foremost it's versatile. Wooden spoons are not just for stirring. As examined above, they are essential for scraping the fondt off the bottom of a pan (more on this in a moment), as metal tools would result in some awful metal on metal action. Bad for the tools, bad for the pan, etc. I also use the handle of a wooden spoons to extract marrow from beef bones, and quite possibly my favorite use; hanging various concoctions in cheese cloth over a cambro to slowly drain extraneous liquid. Pictures would be helpful, but I'm still building my portfolio. Maybe later. There are many more uses, I'm sure and would I would love to hear your favorites in response to this post.

Looking beyond the practical uses of a wooden spoon for a moment, I got to thinking about what it represents. In this age of new technology and techniques, it's easy to forget about what got us here. Wooden spoons have been used probably as long as cooking has been a passion for those who practice it, if not longer. Still a staple tool in most kitchens, that shows some admirable staying power in a genre that is constantly adapting to sleeker, more ergonomic and more stylish formats. In a way, the wooden spoon is a link to the past. While I may have the benefits of a powerful gas stove top, stainless steel cookware, and a wealth of scientific knowledge built specifically around cooking; two things I have in common with the folks who did this job before all that is a wooden spoon and a will to create the best possible final product. I have made a point recently of referencing the entire history of cooking when approaching a project, as opposed to only the most recent advancement. The results are astounding. On a personal level I feel that my end results have improved greatly, being rooted in many points over a long tradition rather than focusing on one newly acquired technique.

One final thought on the wooden spoon. Scraping up that fondt when making a sauce or stock, braising, caramelizing, or whatever the task at hand may be is the essence of cooking. I never went to culinary school, but I sure hope they are teaching this point, starting on the first day and continuing through the whole program (based on the grads I interact with, I somehow doubt that they are...sigh). Scraping up the fondt encompasses, but is not limited to the following concepts, all of which are central to cooking: liquid reduction, flavor encapsulation, caramelization and complex Mailliard reactions, temperature control, and concentration by the one doing the cooking. When someone tastes that sauce or braise and inquires dreamily why it tastes so good? The true answer will not be some super secret ingredient(nutmeg? cinnamon?), but rather that you respected the process and had the patience to do it right from start to finish, building flavors through smart cooking. All of that accomplished by an old workhorse who's burns and cracks tell a story of all it has done. A stalwart that for this job has no peer among kitchen gadgets: the wooden spoon. If you don't have one, get one...

1 comment:

  1. I stumbled in via the Foodiewidget site, and I find this so very interesting---my own choice is quite similar---a flat wooden paddle. Several litter my "stuff" drawer---slanted flat ones and plain ones and the spoons themselves; there's even a "fudge" one with a nickel-sized hole near the bottom for good flow of the boiling mixture as I hum and listen to Books on CD and stir.

    But wooden spoons---always---for pate a choux and cookie dough.

    When I was very young and learning to cook in the DEEP South, the mother of one of my friends made really good homemade ice cream---a Sunday afternoon treat, "turned" for a long time out under the shade. I asked for the recipe, and even at twelve, I had a "Huh?" moment when she recited, "And you stir it every MINNNNIT with Grandma Oliver's SILVA tablespoon. That's the Secret."

    Well, even EYE knew that scritching a tablespoon over the bottom of a pot would clear only a hairline on each pass, leaving the greater part of the custard to lump and scorch, PLUS silver in an egg custard---not done.

    I DO like the way you think. And write. I'll be back.