You expect a kitchen to be noisy. The tap-tap-tap of a knife mincing mounds of fresh herbs. The rhythmic beat of a wooden spoon mixing a batter. Fries sputtering in oil.
Beyond such obvious noises, there are many subtle sounds of cooking that can help you become a better, more intuitive cook.
Listen to how a perfectly baked loaf of bread sounds hollow when its top is tapped. Or how a simmering chowder or custard sounds different than the glurp-glurp-glurp of one boiling too vigorously en route to a scorch.
Being aware of such subtle sounds is what chef Brendan Walsh calls the “nuances of cooking.” It involves all the senses, of course. But sound is often ignored until acrid smells or smoke plumes alert you to a bigger problem.
“Anyone can follow a recipe, and it will come out differently for each person that does it,” says Walsh, dean of culinary arts at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. “But the nuances that each individual person adds brings beauty to dishes.
“This is where great chefs separate themselves from mediocre chefs.”
And where home cooks can become great home cooks.
It begins with good technique, putting all senses on high alert and paying attention to what you’re cooking – distracted cooking is rarely successful. To understand some sounds, Walsh suggests starting with a few fundamental cooking techniques. Here are his tips:
Sweating vs. sauteeing: Almost no noise vs. sizzle
“Generally when you sweat, you sweat without a lid. When you smother, you put a lid on top. ... Start with a cool pan. ... Cook at a temperature that is low enough where it draws out moisture, which creates a steaming environment. ... You don’t want any (browning), so you don’t want to hear any noise. Once you start hearing noise, you’re going to the next level, which is more of a saute.”
Listen for it: With onions or other vegetables.
“For a saute, start off with a hot pan. ... It’s just that little bit of oil in the pan, then adding whatever the item might be – it might be sauteeing green beans, sauteeing a veal scaloppine or sauteeing a thin chicken cutlet – where when it goes into that pan, you want to hear this wonderful sizzle and the bouncing of the oil as it meets the moisture of the food. ... If you have it too hot, you’ll have to use (another) sense and watch the smoke.”
Listen for it: With meats, vegetables.
Deep frying: Sputtering, bubbling vs. no sizzle
“You want to hear two things. ... (It’s) going to start with this kind of bubbling sound from the moisture being released from the (food) item into an environment that is 350 degrees. You should also be hearing the sounds of frying, which is this kind of sizzle and spattering of hot oil. You’re taking something that is below 350 degrees (as well as) adding moisture into an oil. Those two things don’t mix, so there’s definitely this spattering, sputtering noise that should happen. You should also hear the bubbles.”
Listen for it: When frying meats, vegetables, doughnuts.
Boiling vs. simmering: Bubbling vs. quiet
“Does anybody even understand what temperature boiling is? It’s 212 degrees. You’re watching this ebullition happen. You’re hearing the noise of a boil.” Which is fine for pasta. Walsh says “that’s not a good thing for cooking proteins. … You’re overcooking them, you’re drying them out … even though it’s in a moist environment. … That bubble and glurp sound (is a) sign you’ve got to be concerned that you’re about to burn the bottom of that beautiful vegetable soup or a clam chowder. If that thing’s glopping away … you’ll have a chance of burning it and giving it off odors.”
Listen for it: With cream soups, vegetable purees, chowders, custards and puddings.
“Simmering is 165 to 180 degrees. ... What you’re going to get should be fairly quiet. The sound should (be) beautiful quietness.” If you’re poaching a fish, and bubbles do more than break the surface and “you’re hearing bubbling noises, that’s now gone to boiling, and you know that you’re about to ruin a beautiful piece of fish.”
A few more
A loaf of yeast bread: When you tap the top of a loaf of bread, “you get that wonderful hollow knocking sound from a fresh-baked loaf. It is very common for a baker to do that.” If the bread’s not baked right, it’s more of a thud.
A pan for pancakes: “People make the mistake of not having that pan hot enough. To test it ... dip your fingers in a little water and flick them over the pan. You should hear a sizzle, and that water should evaporate. Otherwise you get a blond pancake and don’t get that nice little caramelization of the sugars.”
Whipping cream: “It goes from this liquid sloshing state into this kind of pitter-patter of air and froth.” Pay attention or you’ll end up with butter.
Creaming butter with sugar: “Creaming methods start off with this kind of hard thunking at the bottom of a bowl, then turn into this kind (of) rapid wave of sloshing going on where the butter gets lightened with sugar and it’s all just flopping quickly and easily.”