Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The problem of internet cooking “experts”

We bought a smoker last week, a cheap one for sure, but something we’re going to have a lot of fun with. Being the hands on sorts we are, it’s no problem to have to watch what’s going on, stoke the fire, regulate temperatures, etc. We enjoy doing that. For instance, tomorrow my son Karel and I are going to smoke some bacon we’ve made and sit with it, chatting for a few hours while we make sure everything is done just right. We get some great food at the end – and some important quality time together.

As of last fall, I knew very little about home curing of meat, and certainly nothing about smoking. While looking for a guanciale recipe, I stumbled across two terrific resources: Wrightfood and Charcuterie, a fantastic book about home curing, smoking and preserving food (both with links in our right-hand column). They’ve been indispensable in helping us get a handle on this very interesting – and delicious – part of our culinary heritage. I encourage you to check out both resources if you’re interested in learning more. Helpful too, have been our two friends at The Sausage King at the SLM. Ben and Reete are both experienced curers and smokers, and are most willing to share their knowledge (and talk baseball).

But all of these resources are not enough to answer every question I have. I like to know as much as I can about things that are new to me. In the case of food, alternate recipes, cooking methods or just general information can really be useful. One of my pet peeves is recipes that tell you to do something a certain way and then never tell you why. Sometimes the why is the most important thing!

I’ve spent a lot of time online during the past week, trying to find out as much as I can about smoking. For instance, we enjoy ribs on occasion during the summer, and the best ribs I’ve had have always been smoked. How do you get the best results out of a smoker when making ribs? How hot? How much smoke? How long?

When you Google “smoked BBQ ribs”, it returns a dizzying number of sites all offering help. At the top of the stack are the usual recipe sites, but I’ve learned long ago that the offerings there are generally by amateur cooks, many of them fine, no doubt, but also from a number of people who really don’t know very much, but are just enthusiastically sharing their recipe. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who really knows what they’re talking about. Same thing when you search on YouTube, although here, watching the people do their thing, it’s easier to suss out the real experts.

Blogs are no better. It’s easy to set oneself up as an expert, but do you really have the credentials to back that up? I’m not talking about diplomas or job experience (although that most certainly helps), I’m talking about knowledge of your topic, use of that knowledge and the ability to help people cook better.

So what does one do to separate the wheat from the chaff? It can be difficult. Some of us have enough skill to be able to see where there might be problems with a recipe or technique, although I’ve certainly been fooled a few times. If one is using expensive ingredients, errors can become really costly – not to mention embarrassing if you’ve invited guests to share in your special dish.

One hard and fast rule we have is to never make anything for the first time and serve it to guests. Too many things can go wrong, or you may find you simply hate the dish. With some of the sketchier recipes, you are really taking a risk – especially if your skill level or experience is not that advanced. I’ve made some horrendous gaffs over the years (grist for a future “tell-all” blog posting), and if I can help anyone to avoid embarrassment, I will consider it a job well done.

Wrapping up this post’s topic: stick with the pros as much as you can. Most professional chefs will not put something on the internet which is not of a high standard. If nothing else, they risk ridicule within their profession, and believe me, that can be a virulent thing. Home cooks are just that. It’s buyer beware when you listen to them or try their recipes. Anyone can put anything on the internet. Always look at things with healthy scepticism.

And if you find me making any mistakes, please call me on it. I don’t mind. One of my life mottos is “I’d rather be good than right.” If you have any questions about any of the recipes I post, for heaven’s sake ask! I’m only too happy to help or clarify.

Happy cooking.

And I promise to let you all know how the bacon smoking turns out.

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