May 24, 2020

Beware of Steam

Learn why you should beware of steam when cooking.

Steam is public enemy number 1 in two cooking techniques: (1) browning (2) frying.

🚨And before anyone accuses me of libel against poor ole steam, let me tell you why.

Browning vs. Steam

We brown and char food because it makes it taste fantastic.  There’s sweetness and depth. And if you’re on the charry side of things: smokiness. It’s called the Maillard reaction. And it’s science 🤓

As someone who is notoriously all about "efficiency”, I’m always looking to get more out of less. I used to pile as much cauliflower onto one sheet pan as humanly possible. One less dish to clean, right? Or I needed to speed up dinner, so I’d cram as many meatballs as possible into my skillet . But my meatballs would fall apart. And my cauliflower turned soggy.


It was steam, folks. And it was trapped.

If you have too much steam in your pan, then you won’t achieve that beautiful browning you need.

📝Don’t overcrowd your pan with too much food. Beautifully browned food is worth the time to do it in batches—or the extra dishes. If you want to get that flavor boost from the Maillard reaction, give food space. Use two sheet pans when roasting vegetables in the oven. Brown your pork chop in batches. It’s worth it.

Frying vs. Steam

The crispy nature of fried food is to die for. Contrasting textural elements make food interesting and unique. And what’s more full of contrast than a perfectly golden, crunchy piece of fried chicken?

Because frying can be a bit of a hassle, I only do it on special occasions. I remember one time meticulously pan frying eggplant parmesan for some friends coming over for dinner. As I put each breaded piece of eggplant in to the oil, I watched it like a helicopter parent watches their kid at a water park. Then when that eggplant was golden and perfect (!), I piled up those pieces so I could move on to the next batch. When dinner was ready, I felt proud of channeling my inner Italian. Then I went to serve each piece only to have the breading fall off and turn into a mushy mess. 😢

Since then I’ve learned to watch my steam.

📝 Don’t pile up fried food while it rests. Instead lay it out on a wire rack or large cutting board. Give that food some space! You want to maintain that beautiful texture you’ve worked so hard to create.

Did you ever get a burger delivered from your favorite neighborhood joint during quarantine life? $10 says your bun was soggy. They carefully constructed your hot burger and then put in a box. And then steam won.

So what should you do with steam?

Be like Elsa (❄️) and let it go 😉

Where I learned this: The heat chapter of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.