Posts Tagged ‘fire


Elements of Cooking: Fire

The chemistry behind cooking and baking happens while following a recipe. Most of the chemical reactions that take place between ingredients happens during the initial mixing and blending together of those ingredients. The biggest difference I found between a pastry kitchen, and a restaurant kitchen is how fire is incorporated and utilised in the process of producing the finished result.

Fire in a pastry kitchen is utilised in two ways. The first, and likely the most obvious, is through baking.

Ingredients are mixed together, allowed to react to each other, shaped, and nearly finished before they are put in the oven to bake. The use of fire in this instance may or may not be direct, depending on the type of heat source being used. People traditionally think of baking as happening in an oven, however there are some instances where dough or batter is baked over direct heat. Many flat-breads are baked on a metal dome over an open fire, and pancakes, crepes, and waffles are poured into a pan or griddle over a heat source.

One of my favorite bread related memories happened on a three week canoe trip on the Buffalo River in Arkansas. We made bannock, a traditional Native American bread. We stuck the raw dough on the end of sticks, and baked it over the open flames of the bonfire. The finished result, when spread with homemade strawberry jam, was phenomenal. A raccoon even tried to get in on the action and scared the daylights out of my friend Jere.

The other type of heat generally employed in the pastry kitchen is direct heat in the form of boiling. Whether this takes the form of boiling sugar for confectionery work, boiling fruit for a puree, or boiling water for a bain marie, doesn’t really matter, since it’s the same general idea. Often boiling and baking can occur together in the same recipe, as in the case of a pie, where the filling is prepared by boiling ingredients together, and the crust is baked. 

Fire in the restaurant kitchen, on the other hand, is the nearly alchemical process by which a cook takes a single ingredient and transforms it into something different.

Roasting, braising, sauteing, poaching, grilling, broiling, sous vide, frying, steaming, all have their own unique purpose in the cook’s repertoire. Where a pastry chef follows an exact recipe to bring about a desired reaction, chefs use an exact cooking technique.

Through the application of fire, a cook is able to extract and reabsorb juices. They are able to reduce a liquid and caramelize an ingredient. Using these techniques allows them to concentrate flavours and reintegrate them back into the food.

How well you are able to heat, concentrate, and reintegrate through the use of fire will determing how good you are at cooking.


Swedish Chef, Jamaican style

Professional kitchens are full of interesting characters. I think it’s a basic prerequisite of the job to have a few screws loose. Perhaps it is due to working long hours, in close quarters, with fire, knives, and copious amounts of ego.

My favorite chef steryotype has got to be Jim Henson’s Swedish Chef. I’ve never worked with a Chef from Sweden personally, but I have worked with enough hyperactive culinarians from other parts of the world to know that Mr. Henson may have been on to something.

John Bull is a very good real life example of what I mean by “unique character”. His laid back approach to his cooking and his sense of fun are exactly what I love to see in a kitchen. Oddly enough, he is based out of Stockholm, Sweden. You can watch all of his videos here:

 Of course, the master biographer of unique kitchen personalities, Anthony Bourdain, is himself just such a character. I love how he is able to cut through the Bulls***, straight to the heart of the matter. Even with the punk-rock attitude, you can still see that laid back approach and sense of fun I mentioned earlier.

His book Kitchen Confidential has almost become a sacred work among professional cooks. It rings true to working conditions and day-to-day life in restaurant kitchens. No one can work in the industry for very long without stockpiling their own list of horror stories. Perhaps I’ll share some of my own in the future.