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Alton Brown Answers, At Last 521

Posted by Roblimo
from the watch-out-for-trcihinosis-in-wild-bear-and-puma dept.
We knew this was going to take a while -- it turned out to be just about one month since the question post -- due to some show-taping problems Alton had. He was kind enough to warn us about the delay, a warning regular Slashdot Interview readers picked up. Anyway, here we go. (Warning: Reading this interview may cause hunger.)

1) My question
by mofolotopo

Something I've found as a newbie chef is that a good 75.32% of good cooking is good shopping. What tips do you have for finding good, fresh ingredients? Where the heck do you get fresh herbs etc. in a smallish town?

Alton: First off, you need to decentralize your shopping. Don't try to get everything in one place. Even if you don't have a farmers market in the area, I'm willing to bet there's a co-op or health food store that will open up your options. Ditto a butcher. As for fresh herbs, if they're really a problem to find in your area, try growing your own when and where climate allows. The rest of the time, buy dry herbs and spices over the internet from someone like Penzeys or The Spice House. Above all, do not drive yourself crazy. Learn to work with what you have. Oh, and don't forget ethnic markets; they often have the best produce as well as meat.

2) Why are some people better Cooks?
by kallistiblue

I've noticed that some people seem to be naturally better cooks than others. I've know several people that follow a recipe very exactly. The food they create just doesn't turn out very good. Personally, I'll use a recipe as a guideline and use rough estimates. Most of the time, my meals turn out pretty well. It's as if an intuitive sense is needed.

How does someone learn/teach this skill?

Alton: First, you need to become a good recipe follower. Most people who think they can't cook aren't really taking time to properly read the recipes they're working from or they don't really understand what they're being asked to do. For instance, there are plenty of recipes out there that call for "searing" a piece of meat. If you don't know what "searing" really is, you're doomed. Unfortunately most recipes are written for people that already know how to cook. So start by really paying attention to a recipe and make sure you understand it. Then cook it a few times keeping detailed notes about the process and your feelings about the final dish. Keep notebooks?write down as much as you can and slowly you'll begin to learn what you're doing. As long as you're willing to think and taste as you go, you can become a cook?I promise.

3) Vegetarians

As a vegetarian, I'm compelled to ask this: Have you seen a trend in recent years of more vegetarians, or more dishes made without meat? Time magazine had a recent cover story about this, and my feeling is it's becoming a more important part of everyone's lives, yet whenever I catch a cooking show on TV it lacks making many vegetarian dishes.

Alton: Americans don't eat near enough vegetables. I'm not a vegetarian, though I do respect anyone who makes a hard and fast decision about what he or she is going to live on. All you have to do is look at the health statistics from countries whose cuisines are lighter on meat and heavy on veggies and fish?They live, longer. It's as simple as that. What I would hate to see is a radical swing away from meat. I think we evolved as omnivores for a reason. And that's all I have to say about that.

4) Lower Fat and Cholesterol?
by cporter

Mr. Brown, I love your recipes. In the last few weeks, I've prepared Chocolate Mousse, Party Mayonnaise, Chimney Tuna, and Baba Ganoush from "Good Eats" and Chicken Piccata from "I'm Just Here for the Food." Not all at one meal, of course.

I applaud episodes like "Good Milk Gone Bad" and "The Other Red Meat" that focus on lower fat and cholesterol foods. But many of your recipes call for butter, oil, cream, and other less than healthful foods (even bacon grease!). What do you think about some of the substitutes out there, or using ingredients like applesauce to replace butter?

Alton: There are no bad foods, only bad food habits. I eat cream, butter, and bacon; I just don't eat pounds of it at a time. I use these things when they are needed in recipes and leave them out when they're not needed. As for substitutes, I only agree with them if they really don't change a person's response to a dish. Take mashed potatoes for instance. I recently saw a recipe that suggested that the fat we all know that mashers need could be replaced with vegetable broth. Hogwash. All that does is lead to dissatisfaction and I think that dissatisfaction results in overeating. We like fats because fats satisfy. They break down in the digestive track very slowly so they keep us fuller longer. Now if I find a way to replace a fatty ingredient without missing it (I do this a lot with yogurt) then you bet I'm going to do it. But I repeat: there are no bad foods

5) Art vs. Science
by Susskins

A lot of your show is dedicated to the Science of cooking, and to the underlying physics of food. Your Grandmother (in a really cool episode about biscuits) demonstrated a wicked amount of Artistic Skill, the "look and feel" of food preparation. Do you have any thoughts about the balance of Art and Science in cooking?

Alton: No matter how much creativity goes into it, cooking is an art?or perhaps I should say a craft. It abides by absolute rules, physics, chemistry, etc. and that means that unless you understand the science you cannot reach the art. We're not talking about painting here?cooking's more like engineering. I happen to think that there is great beauty in great engineering (the wing of a Boeing 777, a suspension bridge) but they are not works of art, they are works of science. To my mind art is a matter of personal expression and the exchange of ideas; food is in the end, fuel?a means to an end. Sorry for rambling.

6) Iron Chef
by FortKnox

Seeing that all geeks love Iron Chef, I have to ask, would you be willing to go against an Iron Chef? If so, which would you pick??

Alton: I don't care about the chefs I want a shot at the goofball in the Palomino Jacket. He needs to be taken down. And the judges, oh please let me at them!

7) Elements of cooking
by SWroclawski

Mr. Brown,

I think that the most interesting part of your show to this audience is your emphasis on the science of cooking, from discussion of protein (such as in your angel food cake episode and your recent soufflé episode).

But the other difference in Good Eats is the great emphasis you place on the parts of cooking, that is the elements at a more abstract level, such as use of heat, individual ingredients (which is the topic of many of the shows) and methods of cooking (such as the right way to mix and fold). This all makes Good Eats interesting for us geeks out there who want to understand the science, but also helps us non-cooking geeks become literate in the supermarket and kitchen.

What gave you the idea to present cooking in this way and do you have any suggestions for other resources that present food and food preparation in the same way?

Alton: I approach cooking from a science angle because I need to understand how things work. If I understand the egg, I can scramble it better?it's a simple as that. There are some great food science texts out there?well, a few. Check out the bibliography in my book. (If you don't want to buy it you can just copy stuff out at the bookstore.)

8) Technical questions
by TheJerkstoreCalled

Hello! I actually watched your very first show about steak here on PBS; it was the first thing in my life that made me interested in cooking. Every time I watch an episode of Good Eats, I always end it wanting to go cook something.

I had a technical question; we always see these shots coming out of refrigerators and ovens. Do you actually have little windows in the back of your appliances or are those props built up for the shows? I always assumed they were props but you never know. Also, is that really your house you shoot in? I love the Magritte hat with chicken painting.

Alton: No windows... We actually have cameras now that are small enough to rig inside appliances. It's not easy mind you, but it's doable. That is not my house, but it is a real house. The Magritte rip was commissioned especially for Good Eats.

9) Cooking In Lava
by MrIcee

Mr. Brown. First, thank you for a wonderful television show and an excellent book. I enjoy both continually and look forward to all your new work.

Now... on to, perhaps, one of the more unusual questions you might receive. This question deals directly with how heat affects food.

Specifically... I live on the slopes of an active volcano. One of the things we like to do for fun is cook game hen and pork loins in the hot lava itself. First, let me describe our process, and then our question.

To cook a game hen we first season and then wrap the hen in about 10 Ti (or banana) leaves. These protect the hen from actually burning.

Next we find an active surface breakout of lava. We use a shovel (we also are wearing kevlar gloves that can withstand 2000 degrees of heat) and get a good shovel full of red lava. We place this on the ground a distance from the flow. We then position the Ti-wrapped hen in the middle of the blob of lava and cover it with another shovel full of lava. We try to leave a small opening to the Ti leaves, for steam to escape (or we can potentially have a steam explosion).

Now, the question. The lava is initially at 2000 degrees when we start cooking. After about 15 minutes it has cooled to around 850 degrees (outside of the rock - we read this using an infrared pyrometer). After about 45 minutes the outside is about 450 degrees. At that point we hit the rock with the shovel to open it. Only a few of the Ti leaves will remain uncharred. We remove those and the hen is then very moist and delicious.

How is it possible, using a heat source at 2000 degrees (that granted, gets cooler over time) that it still takes 45 minutes to cook the game hen? We would have thought that the cooking would have been near instantaneous - but repeated experiments at various lengths of time reveal that it takes exactly as long in the lava, as in an oven.

Alton: It's not possible. I can cook a game hen under a broiler in 15 minutes. Tell me, are there any small brown mushrooms growing around your property, and if so have you been using them in salads or pasta dishes?

10) Safe Cooking Temps
by dmaxwell

The wife and I are huge fans of your show but there is one thing we notice from time to time that we've always wondered about. For instance, your country ham recipe specifies that the ham is done when the interior temp hits 140 degrees.

However, states that "cook-before-eating hams must reach 160 F to be safely cooked before serving." I know those bad boys have been salt cured but I would still be worried about trichinosis. Your "done" temperatures for meat are often lower than what the food safety people would have them be. This is a long winded way of asking "What is your approach to food safety?" You look pretty healthy to me so I'll assume you know something those government fussbudgets don't but I'd feel better about trying out some of your recipes if I knew what that was.

Alton: I do not always agree with the government and in this case I think they're way off base. For one thing, Trichinella spiralis die at 137 degrees. Of course in this case they would have had to survive the curing process which is highly doubtful. The water activity level of a country ham is simply too low to support that kind of life. Also, T spriralis have been nearly eradicated from the American hog population through the use of better feeds. As far as I know, the only instances of trichinosis in recent years involved wild game such as bear and puma.

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Alton Brown Answers, At Last

Comments Filter:
  • Question? (Score:1, Funny)

    by jhunsake (81920) on Thursday September 12, 2002 @12:00PM (#4245088) Journal
    Really, that's all? very? interesting?.

  • *gasp* (Score:5, Funny)

    by FortKnox (169099) on Thursday September 12, 2002 @12:01PM (#4245094) Homepage Journal
    Alton Brown vs. Chairman Kaga?

    It'll be the battle of the century! STUFF THAT YELLOW PEPPER DOWN HIS THROAT!

    LOL! Thanks for the reply Alton!
  • by bgarland (10594) on Thursday September 12, 2002 @12:01PM (#4245096) Homepage
    When reading this, I couldn't help but hear the voice of AB in my head, reciting the answers in the same way he delivers the little tidbits of info on "Good Eats"... weird.

  • by metacosm (45796) on Thursday September 12, 2002 @12:05PM (#4245130)
    I used to think I could cook my bear and puma dishes to a mere 136 degrees -- but now I know that there have been outbreaks of trichinosis in the bear and puma populations, so I will put in the little extra effort to get the temp all the way to up 140... Alton Brown might have saved my life!
  • Uh oh (Score:5, Funny)

    by jayhawk88 (160512) <> on Thursday September 12, 2002 @12:06PM (#4245137)
    I don't care about the chefs I want a shot at the goofball in the Palomino Jacket. He needs to be taken down. And the judges, oh please let me at them!

    Right, no way Morimoto tolerates that grave dishonor, let alone Kenichi. By my fallen ancestors, there will be Fois Gras spilled tonight!

    The judges you can have, especially that fortune teller turned food critic bitch.
  • by a_timid_mouse (607237) on Thursday September 12, 2002 @12:06PM (#4245140)

    I'm glad to hear that he doesn't use windows. Heh :-)

    Alton: No windows...

  • Mmmm...lard (Score:5, Funny)

    by Bazzargh (39195) on Thursday September 12, 2002 @12:07PM (#4245151)
    Alton: There are no bad foods, only bad food habits. I eat cream, butter, and bacon; I just don't eat pounds of it at a time...We like fats because fats satisfy.

    Hmmm... reminds me of someone...

    Next morning, the family tries to pry the bucket off Homer's noggin.

    Bart: [tries to pull the bucket off, but fails] Sorry Dad, it just won't budge.
    Marge: I tried greasing the bucket with bacon fat, but your father kept eating it.
    Homer: Couldn't you try a non-delicious fat? [breaks down] Oh, there's no such thing!

    Simpsons: Faith Off []
  • by jeffersonebell (248978) on Thursday September 12, 2002 @12:12PM (#4245183)
    Mmmm.... Puma
  • by wiredog (43288) on Thursday September 12, 2002 @12:27PM (#4245304) Journal
    Sure, a sip a cream or a pat of butter or a piece of bacon once a month wouldn't do anybody any harm.

    Amounts that small will do no harm if taken daily. (Assuming you get a decent amount of exercise.) Alcohol is an industrial solvent and attacks almost every system in the body if overindulged in. Does that mean it should be completely avoided? (Well, yes if you're alcoholic.)

    I bet you cook with dihydrogen monoxide, which has been found to be used by everyone who has ever developed cancer.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 12, 2002 @12:29PM (#4245316)
    Not to get into a religious war, but some of us meatatarians don't actually eat meat in every dish. For example, I frequently eat vegetarian salad, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese (it's cheese powder) and celery sticks. Sometimes, I put a huge piece of raw ground beef on a celery stick and eat it like a lollipop, but that's only once in a while.
  • by xScruffx (546751) on Thursday September 12, 2002 @12:36PM (#4245379) Journal
    . . . how much Mr. Brown looks like Thomas Dolby?

    I REALLY wanted to ask if he really WAS Thomas Dolby and, if so, who the hell it was that blinded him with science back in the '80s, but alas . . . too stupid to post before the topic was locked.

    Darn my lethargic self.
  • by StoryMan (130421) on Thursday September 12, 2002 @12:38PM (#4245392)
    I suspect that if you kill the chickens first, it'll take much less 45 minutes.
  • by Amazing Quantum Man (458715) on Thursday September 12, 2002 @12:38PM (#4245395) Homepage
    \i{I bet you cook with dihydrogen monoxide, which has been found to be used by everyone who has ever developed cancer.}

    I used either oxygen dihydride or hydrogen hydroxide. I think those are much safer.
  • by Buck2 (50253) on Thursday September 12, 2002 @12:52PM (#4245498) Homepage
    Sometimes, I put a huge piece of raw ground beef on a celery stick and eat it like a lollipop, but that's only once in a while.

    You do that too? Our family always called those Meat Trees. Like, "Yay! Meat Trees for dinner! Yay!"
  • by TobyWong (168498) on Thursday September 12, 2002 @01:03PM (#4245595)
    Thanks for making me spill coffee on myself... jerk!


  • by david duncan scott (206421) on Thursday September 12, 2002 @01:05PM (#4245609)
    Although Africans die young from a lot of things, getting shot is among the most notable, and I don't think diet is much protection against that (unless you eat a lot of Kevlar.)
  • Re:Obesity (Score:4, Funny)

    by MKalus (72765) <mkalus&gmail,com> on Thursday September 12, 2002 @01:09PM (#4245636) Homepage
    >>Or Germany. (Or perhaps a nice ham hock, with sauerkraut and mashed peas and a beer that takes two hands to lift.)

    If you need to hands to lift your mug you're not old enough to drink.

    Simple as that.
  • by Garridan (597129) on Thursday September 12, 2002 @01:11PM (#4245652)
    Yup, yup. 2000 degree lava makes 100 degree water (and 100 degree lava-oven surface) until all the water is gone. All that hot, high-pressure water is getting injected into the chicken at an incredible rate, but all the tender juiciness is trapped in the banana leaves! Yum! Psychadelic mushrooms are fun and all, but not necessary for the process. (in fact, they'd make timing the process rather difficult...)
  • by jabber01 (225154) on Thursday September 12, 2002 @01:13PM (#4245662)
    Do you seriously believe that steam does not exceed this temperature? If so, I've a nuclear plant with steam at over 1000 degrees to show you.

    I suspect that the secret here is convection. Heat, like water and electricity, will follow the path of least resistance as it dissipates.

    There will be relatively little heat flowing into the item you're cooking, unless you completely seal it in the lava.
  • by SerialHistorian (565638) on Thursday September 12, 2002 @01:16PM (#4245687)

    "Have you ever seen a fat tiger?"

    No, but I've never seen Joe Sixpack chase a zebra and kill it with his teeth, either.

  • by rot26 (240034) on Thursday September 12, 2002 @01:17PM (#4245697) Homepage Journal
    Thank you Mr. Roboto

    I think a closer translation is "I am very very gay and I have succesfully ruined what used to be a pretty good rock band".
  • by Artifex (18308) on Thursday September 12, 2002 @01:28PM (#4245781) Journal
    I used to think I could cook my bear and puma dishes to a mere 136 degrees

    I tried puma once, but it just tasted like old shoe leather [], to me.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 12, 2002 @01:34PM (#4245811)
    What he could have done was ask some counter- questions to get a better idea of what was going on before answering.

    Yes, I'm sure Alton has just bags of time to get into a discussion with someone on the physics of lava cooking - seeing as how such a large segment of his audience will be involved in such.
  • by crawling_chaos (23007) on Thursday September 12, 2002 @01:41PM (#4245867) Homepage
    Yes, bacon grease is bad for you, if you chug a whole 20 oz bottle of it every day.

    Great. I hope nobody from Frito-Lay's reading Slashdot. Otherwise, we may have a new snackfood phenomenon on our hands. If they'll market Pop-Rocks, they'll try anything.

  • by Dave Burbank (203271) on Thursday September 12, 2002 @01:47PM (#4245908)
    From the questions I take it he has a cooking show on television? Isn't watching television damaging both personally and socially? Should slashdot be a forum that encourages socialization via television?

  • by slagdogg (549983) on Thursday September 12, 2002 @01:54PM (#4245949)
    AB: You might say that we Americans have forgotten how to enjoy the
    simple things in life. With our hectic schedules, the constant pressures of
    society, and the plethora of fast food options, people tend to forget about
    one of the most simple and pleasurable of ingredients -- psychedelic

    Now I know what you're thinking. Psychedelic mushrooms? Wait a second ...
    aren't those ... well, you know ... [Cut to Paul in the background in a Tye-Dye T-Shirt, being arrested and
    carried away by the police.] ... kind of disgusting?

    Well, my fine friend, you have never truly applied
    science to the equation. Now, this isn't as difficult as it might seem. If
    you want difficult, try preparing some crank on a bed of lava ... but ...
    well, that's another show. Now I'm not a nutritional anthropologist, but
    fortunately you don't need to be in order to well ... get messed up ... and
    enjoy some fine flavors on the way.

    So join us as we journey through the world of psychedelic mushroom
    preparation, not to mention a journey to some other worlds, as we turn
    psychedelic mushrooms into ... Good Eats.
  • Re:Obesity (Score:3, Funny)

    by MKalus (72765) <mkalus&gmail,com> on Thursday September 12, 2002 @04:41PM (#4247155) Homepage
    I am German ;) Believe me, you can do it one handed.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 12, 2002 @05:43PM (#4247554)
    Don't make such hasty comments. Some of us struggle with the searing agony of food addiction daily.

    I remember when I was diagnosed as a celeriholic four years ago. I had a very deep habit formed, spending up to $25 and more a week on my poison of choice. The green-grocers may look friendly, wearing their little green aprons and all, but they're really smiling because of the power they hold over you as "the dealer."

    Celery was my life. I ate it, smoked it, and injected its luscious nectar. Do you know how many stalks it takes to render one pint of that sweet ambrosia??? I started to run with a gang (4-H), holding up vegetable stands on the outskirts of every farmer's market in town. Soon I became known as "Crunchy Cletus" because of my emaciated frame, sunken green eye sockets and intolerable munching.

    Finally, I ended up getting caught. A pale, scrawny man walking out of a supermarket with a huge wet bulge in the front of his pants means only one thing: produce shoplifting. My burning desire for yet another fix made me get sloppy, made me get soft.

    Fortunately, my judge saw through my vegetable crime orgy to the desperate, needy person inside. I was placed in a program with other people who had similar problems to mine, all working on overcoming our produce addictions. To break my psychological addiction, they forced me to eat fattening, flavorful, soft foods like jambalaya, gyros, pizza and burritos. To ease my chemical addiction, my "methadone" became injections of collard greens.

    Today, I cannot claim that I am a cured man, since addiction sticks with you always. But, I *HAVE* been clean for 483 days now, and I thank my Higher Farmer daily for the strength to persevere.

    Foods can be addicting if used improperly. Yes, some foods, when administered by trained professionals, can help cure terrible diseases like hunger and malnutrition, but the temptation to "self-medicate" must be fought at all costs.

    Don't mock me because I was once a user. Help me to be a stronger person. I hope to eventually overcome my cravings for healthy vegetables, and with your help, I will stay on the meat and carby path!

You have a tendency to feel you are superior to most computers.