On the Cook’s Illustrated team, we’ve got a lot of opinions on what is the most important tool to have in your kitchen.
Want to Be a Better Cook? Listen to Your Food
Some of my colleagues swear by their instant-read thermometers. Others couldn’t go a day without their chef’s knives, their carbon-steel skillets, or their bench scrapers.
One of my must-have tools? My ears.
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That’s right: While you might not always be able to hear it over your jazzy cooking playlist, food makes a lot of noise. And listening to those sounds can actually make you a better cook. Once you’re attuned to the auditory cues of cooking, you’ll be able to identify sweating onions from sautéing onions, Champagne from prosecco, and even cold water from hot.
Sound intriguing? Lend me your ears: Here are five things listening can teach you while you’re cooking.
When you need to sharpen your knife
Sharp knives don’t just make cleaner cuts: They make cleaner sounds. Dull knives have a harder time cutting and require more force to make their way through food. They crush rigid cell walls instead of slicing through them. Listen to a dull knife and a sharp knife side by side, and you’ll be able to hear that extra crushing sound.
When it’s time to add more stock to your risotto
When you first add a couple big ladles of broth to your pot of risotto, you hear lots of fine bubbles bursting at the surface. That’s because the liquid surrounding the rice is thin, so it’s easy for bubbles to rise to and break the surface.
When the risotto needs more stock, the bubbles are much less frequent and they sound more like . . . blubs. Blubs are your trigger to reach for the ladle.
This applies to thick soups and purees as well: When tiny, rapid bubbles give way to slow pops, turn that heat down.
When your steak isn’t searing properly
When the moist exterior of a steak hits a hot pan, the sharp sizzle we hear is water boiling, turning to steam, and escaping from the oil-slicked surface.
As water is driven out of the steak, the meat will continue to sizzle sharply—this is your sign that your pan’s temperature is hot enough to keep forming a crust.
If your heat is too low, the sizzle will be quieter, and your steak will be steaming rather than truly searing.
When your sweating onions are starting to sauté
Just like in steak, water provides the difference in sound between sweating vegetables and sautéing them.
When sweating, we want to soften the veggies without any browning. Maillard browning reactions happen quickly at temperatures of 250 F or higher. As long as there is water present in a pan, it won’t go above 212 F.
So, when we are sweating, there is ample moisture in the pan and the sound is muffled and gentle. If your sweating veggies all of sudden start to sound louder, you’ve evaporated enough moisture that you’ve moved into the world of sautéing. The small amount of water left in the skillet is boiling, turning to steam, and escaping the fat. You hear that classic sizzle.
What do you do? Spin around and turn that heat down. Or, spin around and add a splash of water to the skillet. Either move drops the pan temperature and prevents browning.
Whether you’re drinking Champagne or prosecco
Here’s a fun trick: Next time you’re being served something sparkling at a dinner party, go ahead and put your ear right up to the glass as your host pours.
Champagne (which contains about twice the amount of carbonation as prosecco) will sound very airy and fizzy, while prosecco will sound much more liquidy and less fizz-forward.
Want to learn more about how listening can make you a better cook? Watch the latest episode of What’s Eating Dan? below.