Harold McGee Crowds the Pan!

published Oct 11, 2010
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There is perhaps no more trustworthy source on culinary endeavors than Harold McGee. His famous book On Food and Cooking is an unparalleled source for anyone who seeks to understand the hows and whys of cooking. He’s The Ultimate Authority, The Final Word. He’s The Man. Turns out, he’s also The Iconoclast of Vegetable Sautés.

The other day, in a completely blissful food geek moment, I stumbled on a series of new videos featuring Harold McGee. In one, he demonstrates why using a scale is the best way to measure ingredients. Another is devoted to thermometers. But it’s the third video that really got my attention, the one where he completely destroys a widely used method for sautéing vegetables.

In the video, Harold McGee begins by saying that if we want to sauté porous vegetables like eggplant and mushrooms, we should start with a cold, oil-free frying pan. I’m frankly shocked. When he goes on to say that we should crowd the pan as much as possible, and then cover it, I feel like I’m in a foreign country.

Conventional cooking wisdom has us do the exact opposite. When sautéing vegetables that are high in water and very absorbent, one should start with a well-oiled, very hot pan and, most importantly, one should not crowd the pan. And never never never cover it. This will lead to limp, soggy, vapid vegetables. We’ve heard this hundreds of times, right?

Mr. McGee’s radical method is as follows: start with a cold, un-oiled pan. Add your veg – heap the pan high, crowd ’em in! Cover, put over medium heat and cook. The vegetables will release their liquid and begin to stew. But … quell horror! Isn’t that the last thing we want? Isn’t this where limpness and vapidness are created? Nope. Allowing the vegetables to stew in their own juices will add flavor, assures The Man.

Next, remove the lid, turn up the heat and keep cooking until the juices begin to evaporate. Then add a touch of oil, and finish the dish by sautéing the vegetables for a few minutes. This way, claims Mr. McGee, you will use a lot less oil with the same delicious results as the classic method.

You can find Mr. McGee’s videos on the Amazon page for his new book Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best Foods and Recipes, due out at the end of this month.

I wonder what other culinary paradigm shifts Mr. McGee has up his sleeve?