Friday, February 15, 2013

On the Importance of Ingredient Quality in Cooking

As a synthetic chemist, one learns that the quality of one's starting materials is directly related to both the success of a chemical reaction and to the quality of the products of that reaction. As is often said: "garbage in, garbage out." I once had a student who was struggling with a reaction involving copper. I asked him if he had dried the copper cyanide (CuCN) he used in the reaction. He asked me, "why, is it wet?" I responded that I didn't know whether or not the CuCN was wet, but that it certainly would NOT be wet if he dried it. Since the reaction he was attempting was exquisitely sensitive to water, good practice would be to ensure all reagents were scrupulously pure and dry. Not surprisingly, after he dried the CuCN, the reaction worked beautifully.

Yesterday, I cooked a big batch of salsa Bolognese (ragú alla Bolognese). This is a very simple meat-based pasta sauce, which gets all its flavor without using spices or herbs. It tastes of the ingredients from which it is made. It takes all day to prepare, but the majority of that time is waiting for liquids to evaporate from the simmering sauce. I started by dicing about 1/2 cup each of onion, celery, and carrot purchased from The Greener Grocer in the North Market. These were sauteed in 1/4 cup of homemade butter and some sea-salt until they were soft. To this, I added 1 lb. each of ground beef, pork, and veal that I had purchased from Blues Creek Meats, also in the North Market. These people raise all their own meat on their family-owned farm and butcher it themselves. You cannot find higher quality or more ethically raised meat in Columbus. I sauteed the meats together with some salt until they were no longer pink, breaking it up with a potato masher as much as possible, then added 4 cups of whole milk from Snowville Creamery. This mixture was simmered over medium low heat for about one hour until all the milk had evaporated and the white color was gone. At this point, I added a bottle of Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc (I know I should have used an Italian white wine, but I went with what I had in the cellar). The mixture was simmered until all the wine had evaporated, which took another hour. A big 100 oz. can of chopped, imported San Marzano tomatoes with their juice was added, the heat was reduced to low, and this mixture was simmered for about three hours, with occasional stirring. Part of the way through, I used an immersible blender to more finely divide the meat and tomatoes. This is ragú alla Bolognese. It was outstanding over homemade fettuccine made with our own eggs, served with grated Parmesan cheese and a Ridge Zinfandel.

As a scientist, I am going to ask you to draw a conclusion without having performed the proper control experiment, which in this case is likely unnecessary and would actually be counterproductive in many regards. The control experiment would be to go to Kroger, buy the meat, milk, wine, salt and tomatoes and make the same sauce. Factory farmed meats fed who-knows-what and raised inhumanely, factory farmed milk from cows treated with antibiotics and rBGH, a cheap Pinot Grigio, and Hunt's tomatoes, which just plain suck, as does Morton's iodized salt. Just as in the case of the copper cyanide, do you think it matters whether one uses high quality, pure ingredients in ragú alla Bolognese?

I have a chemist friend who once said "research is expensive and good research is very expensive." The same can be said about food and the ingredients in that food.

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