Advice from a Chef: Stop Stirring!

The title says it all!

Unless you’re blasting high heat on a pan of fucking… large-diced peppers, you do not need to constantly have the wooden spoon in-hand, “because you’re afraid it’s going to burn.”

Not only is it not going to burn if you don’t touch it – it will taste better!

This is something that is very common among, not only home cooks, but even those who have coked professionally for even a short period of time. Let me tell you why you need to stop stirring.

First of all, stirring has its place. When you are cooking a bunch of small things on two-dimensional heat (on top of the stove – let’s call it a ‘pan’), the point of contact between the food and the pan is where the magic (potentially) happens.  When moisture/liquid is present in this contact-based cooking (even the smallest amount), the temperature of the surface of the pan can never get above the point at which water turns into vapor.

But if/when the aforementioned liquid isn’t present at all, then the food in the ‘pan’ is in direct contact with the surface (without any liquid acting as a buffer), then the sugars in the food begin to receive that direct-contact heat in a way that makes the surface area of that food caramelize.  Most raw (non protein-forward) ingredients have a certain amount of natural sugars in them, and when they come in direct contact with a sufficient heat source, the sugar concentrates, and we call it caramelization.

When a certain substance is exposed to direct heat, its first reaction is to leak liquid.  In the case of direct contact heat and the liquid is to evaporate as soon as possible, thus the dynamics change quite significantly (as was alluded to above).  The fact of the matter is that when you stir something over heat, you’re re-introducing air to the surface area of the pan.  So by stirring, you’re essentially cooling your pan and the food in it to a point where it’s taking longer to burn off the water, and in the meantime, functionally steaming — not caramelizing — the contents of your pan.  The result is your food is deprived of that direct contact with the pan (due to the leaked, unevaporated liquid), so is left to basically simmer in its own liquids.

By stirring, you’re essentially cooling your pan and the food in it to a point where the water doesn’t evaporate instantly.

I was cooking dinner with my roommate one night – an enthusiastic, but intermediate home chef – and suggested the idea of doing caramelized onions with our meal.  He shot down the idea because he said he didn’t want anything with any added sugar in it.  I paused, processed what he was saying, and said, “you know that caramelized onions don’t have any added sugar in them, right?” He cocked his head and furrowed his brow in confusion.  And so, I proceeded to show him how caramelizing onions worked.

Caramelized onions don’t have added sugar

First, julienne a shit-load of onions.  They will shrink in volume far more than you think (about a fifth of the initial volume is what you’ll be left with).  Use a pan where the onions cover the entire surface by multiple layers – let’s say at least a couple inches – and higher sides on the pan will benefit you, but aren’t essential.  Cook these onions in such a pan on high heat, using either vegetable oil or clarified butter (aka: ghee).

It’s okay to mix them all around at first to get everything coated in a little fat/oil, but once you do that at first, don’t touch them.  For how long will depend on the BTU’s that your particular stove top kicks out, but you’re probably safe forgetting about it for at least five (but probably 8-10) minutes.  When you think they might be ready, take a pair of tongs or wooden spoon and lift up a clump of onions from the bottom of the middle of the pan and look at what you grabbed from the bottom.  If it’s still the color of onions, put it back where you found it and try again (with a different spot) in a few minutes.  If it looks seared and golden brown on the bottom section, take your wooden spoon and stir, scraping the bottom of the pan.

The sound emitting from your pan should go from a low gurgle to “small, heavy rain on a tin roof”.  But once you’ve stirred thoroughly, allow the onions to settle.  Repeat the process of letting it sit, and checking the middle bottom with tongs, stirring when golden brown.  The more times you repeat this process, the shorter the intervals of stirring will get, but in the initial period, you do have to be patient.  This patience will give you a visual understanding of what prolonged, unmolested contact with heat can do to your food, when that brambled mass of white onion slices slowly turns into a pan of beautiful, messy, caramel-colored strands of sweetness.

Patience will give you a visual understanding of what prolonged, unmolested contact with heat can do to your food.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t value in constant stirring – you just need to understand the process of what you’re aiming to accomplish.  A previous chef of mine was trained by one of the pioneers of classic French-American [haute] cuisine, and many of the stocks that I made for him (as his sous chef/saucier) involved diligently stirring all produce involved until it was starting to stick regardless of how much I stirred.  This is a process called “sweating,” so-called because it draws out all of the moisture from the produce that you can, without it caramelizing.

He had me execute this process so diligently so I made sure to get rid of all of the water but didn’t allow anything to caramelize, or become golden/brown. It’s purely a matter of preference, but in other sauces we’d make (with the same chef), he’d want things caramelized, to the point where I was scraping the bottom with a metal spoon, and still not quite getting all of the fonde off.  This is (for the most part) the primary difference between blonde stock and brown stock: are you caramelizing or sweating?  You can take the same ingredients and get two completely different results, just based on how often you’re stirring.

The moral of the story is: stop being afraid of burning your food if you don’t stir it.

And likewise, don’t get (wait for it) stir-crazy (makes me wonder if that’s where the term comes from).  If, while cooking, you find yourself with nothing to do, don’t panic.  Do what the pro’s do when we find ourselves with nothing to do:  go through everything you’re responsible for in your head.

Unlike stirring, this is something you can never do too much.  We all understand: stagnancy is uncomfortable when cooking, but it shouldn’t drive you to mindless stirring.  Every action you take should have a purpose, and you should know what it is before you do it.  You should always be mindful of what you have on heat and of what you’re in the process of cooking.  When it comes to your impulse to stir because you’re afraid you might burn something – or because you simply feel like you need to be doing something — please do me, you, your guests and your food a favor.

Take a deep breath, have a sip of wine, then in your mind skim over what you’re trying to accomplish with each thing that you’re doing in your kitchen, and discern what you should be doing from what you find yourself feeling the need to do.

Cooking isn’t supposed to be a relaxing activity (at least not until you’re past the point of compulsive stirring!).

You’ll have a couple minutes of anxiety.  But once you wrap your head around everything that’s going on, you’ll know that fleeting, but gratifying sensation of being a professional chef.

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