Thursday, December 21, 2006

Don't Buy Pre-Cut, Pre-Marinated Meat

If you want to make a stew, or kebabs, or a stir fry, don't buy pre-cut meat. Yes, it's convenient, but you'll be sacrificing both quality (meat surfaces deteriorate when exposed to oxygen) and control ("stew meat" is meaningless - you want to pick the specific cut that is best for what you're trying to make). You'll be paying much more for about 1 minute of cutting and a little bit of cleaning. So don't buy pre-cut meat. Just don't.

If you want to marinate your meat before cooking, don't buy pre-marinated meat from the supermarket. Yes, it's convenient, but you'll again be sacrificing both quality and control in your final dish. Moreover, you'll basically be buying water at several dollars per pound. Why's that, you ask? Well, some retailers use a "vaccum tumbler" to infuse the meat with whatever spices and liquids they include in the marinade. Then they charge you several dollars more per pound for the convenience of meat soaked in flavored water. So, for the same meat quantity, you pay extra per pound of meat for the "convenience" and then you have to buy the marinade back at the same price as the meat. Instead, make your marinade from scratch in five minutes, then put meat+marinade in a plastic bag in the fridge and let it soak up the flavor for as long as needed.

See this video, from the Ontario Pork Producers Marketing Board series on "value-added cutting", for all the inside details on the retailer's strategy. Direct quote: "I can tell you that by vacuum tumbling, you can expect a [weight] pick-up of anywhere from 10 to 20%. That means great money for your bottom line. In fact, you can expect in excess of 50% profit when you produce your [pork] in the fashion that I've shown you here today."

I prefer not to hand over my hard-earned money directly into the retailer's pocket. Thus I shop where my profit (e.g. my "consumer surplus", the difference between the value I get and what I pay) is maximized and the retailer's profit is minimized.

UPDATE: Consumerist links here, and posts the pork videos on YouTube:

Friday, December 08, 2006

Friday Food Politics: The Economist vs. Ethical Food Edition

The Economist has a major article this week on why "Ethical Food" may not deliver all that is promised. Definitely read the whole thing, but I'll summarize the key arguments:

1. Organic farming uses less fertilizers and pesticides, but uses more land because it is less efficient. This could lead to increased deforestation if adopted on a global scale. Organic farming also is more labor intensive, thus may not save very much energy overall. I'm not sure the question of which type of farming is least harmful can be answered scientifically, but it's interesting to think about the side-effects of seemingly well-intentioned food choices.

2. "Fairtrade" products offer a price-premium to certified producers, but the Economist argues that this merely perpetuates the problem of commodity overproduction through the Fairtrade subsidy. I've never sought out Fairtrade products, and am much closer to believing that "Free Trade is Fair Trade". But I do like the advocacy work of the Rainforest Alliance, which provides advice, credit, and marketing help to producers and workers, not permanent subsidy.

3. Local food isn't as great as it seems, particularly when it comes to "food miles", much as I wrote about earlier. The Economist tries to highlight a few cases where local food isn't as fresh and delicious as long-distance food, but the evidence is scant. I choose to eat local food because of its quality, but perhaps this is just a privilege of living in California.

I really like one of the conclusions of the article: "Local sourcing coupled with supermarkets' efficient logistics may yet prove to be the greenest way to move food around." Whole Foods is trying to do this more and more. I've even heard that Sysco, the foodservice giant, might be able to use its inventory and distribution software to integrate very small producers into their supply chains. This is perhaps a food industry example of the Long Tail, and is certainly an instance where technology can be leveraged to good ends.

Friday Food Politics: Food Miles Is A Crock Edition

A very interesting discussion on eGullet titled "Food Miles is a Crock".

Key quote: "Assume that the typical surburban family drives a 25 Miles Per Gallon vehicle, lives 2.5 miles from their nearest supermarket and buys 20 pounds of groceries in the average shopping trip...You could move that 20 pounds of groceries exactly halfway around the world by ship for the same amount of fuel as it takes for you to go to the store and back."

The conclusion: "Now, does this on the face of it means that eating locally is crap? Of course not, all of the previous reasons to do with freshness, seasonality and supporting local farmers are still valid."

I made a similar argument, that advocacy to "eat local" is primarily aesthetic rather than environmental, in this post.

(Hat-tip to Megnut.)

Friday Food Politics: New York City vs. Trans Fats, Final Edition

So New York City has finally banned trans fats. A reader asks for my opinion on this legislation. Two thoughts:

1. Why not ban all trans fats served in restaurants? Under the new law, a restaurant can still serve a bag of pre-packaged chips with trans fats but can't fry their own chips in oil containing trans fats. I understand the importance of pragmatism in politics, but this seems simply hypocritical to me. A trans fat eaten in a restaurant is the same no matter what the source, pre-packaged or not. If the concern is that a consumer might not know that the fried or baked goods served in a restaurant contain trans fats, then require labeling, just like is required on packaged products. Anything else is hypocritical.

2. I'm opposed to all food bans that are meant to protect individuals from themselves. This is the foundation of my beliefs on these food politics issues, and is based on my own moral and political values regarding individual freedom. Where does it stop? If we can't have one gram of trans fat b/c it is so bad for us, what's next? I'm not a health scientist, but my intuition is that a few grams of trans fat can't be nearly as bad as tens of grams of saturated fat, so will they ban rib-eye steaks next? What about chicken-fried bacon?

The Center for Consumer Freedom, which is funded by Big Food, put up an ad suggesting that pizza, hot dogs, corned beef, and coffee are next. Yes, it's hyperbole, but the principle is correct. A ban on any unhealthy food can be justified using exactly the same reasoning that the New York Board of Health has used in this case. And despite my reservations about advocacy funded by agribusiness, I'll support the Center for Consumer Freedom much more readily than the the "scientific" busybodies at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

For a hilarious take on all these issues, but with a real nuanced political message, I highly recommend Thank You For Smoking.

Addendum: The bad qualities of trans fats are well-known (raises bad cholesterol, lowers good cholesterol), but the positive culinary qualities are less well known. Partially-hydrogenated oils (which is where most of the trans fats we consume come from) are inexpensive, have a long-shelf life, are solid at room temperature (= good for shelf stability), don't break down in a hot fryer, and make for exceptionally flaky pie crusts and biscuits. Do note that most of these qualities are also true of animal fats, such as lard, but that restaurants and industry switched to hydrogenated oils b/c of the health risks of saturated fats. Shucks.

Friday Food Politics: McDonald's vs. Chinese Culture Edition

My favorite food podcast is Good Food by KCRW. This week's was great, with commentary by food science guru Harold McGee on "meat glue", but I found the interview with Harvard anthropology professor James L. Watson especially interesting.

Watson is the author of Golden Arches East: McDonald's in East Asia, which has just come out in a second edition almost ten years after it's initial publication. I had never heard of Watson or the book before, but his thesis is counter to the conventional wisdom on the influence of corporate globalization on local food cultures.

Watson suggests that the "culture imperialism hypothesis" is mostly incorrect, and that corporations do not simply replace local food and local culture with sanitized global cuisine. The Chinese visiting McDonald's are not "puppets" of corporate power, but have their own agendas for eating there. Watson argues that McDonald's is more the "caboose" than the "locomotive" in the globalization happening in China. The transformation from a traditional society to one with a large, consumer-driven middle-class is not due to the growth of McDonald's in East Asia. On the contrary, McDonald's growth in East Asia is made possible by the transformation that precedes its entry. He offers the perspective of those on the ground experiencing rapid change first-hand, rather than the perspective of distant observers with pre-conceived notions about how traditional cultures should evolve.

Listen to the whole thing here, or pick up Watson's book.

Friday, December 01, 2006

How to access expired website content from America's Test Kitchen

UPDATE: America's Test Kitchen and Cook's Illustrated have updated their websites, so this trick no longer works. I very much encourage everyone out there to get a subscription to Cook's Illustrated or - it's well worth it...

Just discovered a way to access all the expired content on the America's Test Kitchen website.

Click here for this old review of chef's knives.

Didn't work huh? You should have ended up at, with message saying "Expired Content".

Now try this link. (If you're not already registered on the website, you can type in and hit submit to get through the registration.)

It worked, right?

Here's the trick:

  • 1. Right click on any expired link on the site. Copy it.

  • 2. Paste the link into your browser address bar.

  • 3a. If the link includes this sequence at the end, "&iSeason=", change the number after the equals sign to a 6 so that it reads, "&iSeason=6".

  • 3b. Or simply add "&iSeason=6" to the end of the url if nothing is there.

  • 4. Type in your e-mail (or to get through the registration, and there you have it, all the America's Test Kitchen content you could ever want.
Just another quick tip from the Frugal Foodie...

UPDATE: I posted this tip at Chowhound and eGullet earlier today, but both posts were removed by administrators. This may be more controversial than I initially thought.

To clarify: I don't advocate doing anything illegal to access restricted content on the internet. I don't believe this work-around is illegal, so please follow your own conscience in using it. I'm a big fan of America's Test Kitchen and Cook's Illustrated, and certainly don't want to harm their business. I may just go ahead and alert them to this gap in their security myself. Thoughts from any visitors on the ethics of this would be appreciated...

Friday Food Politics: Cities vs. Trans Fats Edition

New York trans fat ban expected to pass.

Louisville Official Seeks Trans Fat Ban

Those who've been following my Friday Food Politics series can guess my opinion...

Friday Food Politics: Virginia Postrel vs. The Conventional Wisdom Edition

Chains do more than bargain down prices from suppliers or divide fixed costs across a lot of units. They rapidly spread economic discovery—the scarce and costly knowledge of what retail concepts and operational innovations actually work. That knowledge can be gained only through the expensive and time-consuming process of trial and error. Expecting each town to independently invent every new business is a prescription for real monotony, at least for the locals. Chains make a large range of choices available in more places. They increase local variety, even as they reduce the differences from place to place. People who mostly stay put get to have experiences once available only to frequent travelers, and this loss of exclusivity is one reason why frequent travelers are the ones who complain.
That's Virginia Postrel, in an Atlantic Monthly essay titled, "In Praise of Chain Stores: They aren’t destroying local flavor—they’re providing variety and comfort". Read the whole thing before it goes behind the subscription wall.

My chain restaurant philosophy is similar to my general restaurant philosophy. Few restaurants are good at everything, but many restaurants are good at something. Seek out those good things, and enjoy.

A list of chain restaurants.

A few chains I like: In-N-Out Burger, Chipotle, Ruth's Chris, Krispy Kreme, White Castle

A few chains that are passable: Panera, Cheesecake Factory, Wendy's (the frosty!), McDonald's (the fries!), Starbucks, Benihana (great birthday memories as a kid)

A few chains that suck: Olive Garden, Denny's (just ate at one for the first time a few weeks back, even the average New Jersey diner is 10x better), Ruby Tuesday's (worst burger of my life), Red Lobster

Friday Food Politics: NYC vs. Cured Meats Edition

If I really am dedicated to cooking by the seasons and supporting local agriculture, I thought, now would be the obvious time to buy a whole pig. Ideally, I would break it down into primal cuts, put the hams in salt for the next month, and then hang them at room temperature for two years, allowing them to slowly dry into prosciutto. And why not grind up the dark, fatty shoulders with salt, pepper and juniper, stuff the mixture into casings, and then leave the sausages in a cool room for six weeks to naturally ferment, developing delicious, tangy porcine flavors?

I can’t, because the United States Department of Agriculture and the local health departments do not allow commercial processing of meat without refrigeration.
What we need is to invert the logic now applied to meat safety. Rather than apply refrigeration standards to an ancient and safe method of preservation, we need an alternative set of standards that take into account what salting and drying can do to discourage the growth of bacteria. Federal and local health officials should recognize artisanal methods as an alternative to refrigeration.
That's Chef Peter Hoffman of Savoy in NYC, writing in the New York Times.

Authorities treat food safety like it is a positive problem, with an answer determinable through science. But food safety is a normative problem, with an answer determinable only through value judgments. What does it mean for a food to be safe enough to eat? Safe enough for an infant? For the elderly? One way out of this conundrum is to leave food safety decisions to individuals themselves.

I quote Bourdain: "Food that’s too safe, too pasteurised, too healthy – it’s bad! There should be some risk, like unpasteurised cheese." So say we all.

For those interested in one approach towards rulemaking in a free society, read Virginia Postrel's book, The Future and Its Enemies. From an excerpt in Reason Magazine:

There are many dynamic systems in the world, many areas of life that evolve and improve through trial-and-error learning, from "digital organisms" that evolve better computer programs to global financial markets, from adaptable architecture to international science. Looking across these various processes, we can find patterns in their fundamental rules, though we can fully apply those patterns to a specific case only when we understand that particular system. Here we can only begin the exploration by laying out some general principles. As an overview, dynamist rules:

  • allow individuals (including groups of individuals) to act on their own knowledge;

  • apply to simple, generic units and allow them to combine in many different ways;

  • permit credible, understandable, enduring, and enforceable commitments;

  • protect criticism, competition, and feedback;

  • establish a framework within which people can create nested, competing frameworks of more-specific rules.
Hat tip to Michael Ruhlman.

Friday Food Politics: Fisherman vs. Crabs Edition

In the past, fishing families have gone on strike, basically stopping the commercial fishery, to try to prevent the large northern boats from dominating the central California catch. The industrial boats snap up nearly all the crab at the beginning of the season, selling them at rock bottom prices to processors who freeze them.

The cooked crab and picked crabmeat available in retail markets often comes from these crabs that are processed at the beginning of the season. Small crabbing families cannot compete in this scenario.

Consumers also suffer. Such a crab season offers a bumper crop of cheap crab at the beginning, and small and poor-quality crab the rest of the season. A solution, such as limiting the number of pots lowered per boat, has yet to be hashed out by wholesalers, fishing families and regulatory agencies.
That's from an article in last week's SF Chronicle. Read the whole thing for helpful advice on how to shop from local fishermen.

Would IFQ's (Individual Fishing Quotas) help solve the problem? In general, I think regulators should focus on the environmental harms and let technologies, such as boat size, be worked out freely between suppliers and consumers. I like small fishing families and fishing towns, and I'll spend my money to support them. But protectionism just ain't right.