This week's Special Sauce episode kicks off with Serious Eater Marc Lampert asking Kenji about the process of cooking with ingredients packed with umami. "Does umami cook out like an acid would?" Marc asked. Here's part of Kenji's response: "A general rule of thumb for cooking is if you can smell it that means that its concentration in the pot is going down...So if you are cooking a stew and it smells like there's this wonderful red wine aroma that means that the more you smell red wine in your house, the less is left in the stew. There's a finite bucket of it, and if it's in your house then it's not in your pot."
With Marc's question squared away, the episode moves on to my far-reaching conversation about fast food with former Atlantic staff writer Adam Chandler, the author of Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America's Fast-Food Kingdom. He described to me the high school fast food ritual that started his journey: "On weekend nights, we would all pile into our cars and go to Whataburger. It was the last thing we did before we rushed across Houston to go home for our curfews. And that was our sacred ritual. I have the fondest memories of sitting down, and having breakfast with my friends right before we all went to bed...They have something called a breakfast taquito, which is eggs, a tortilla, hash browns, and American cheese...It's my deep-fried madeleine right there. It's just perfect."
I asked Adam why that taquito was perfect, and he said, "It was a comfort food for me. I think that was all I really considered it to be as something that even the adult menus at fast food restaurants kind of feel like a kid's menu. There's something about eating something with your hands, and taking it out of paper wrapping that feels kind of like a celebratory innocent thing...There was no formality required."
Adam and his wife even celebrate Valentine's Day with fast food. "We have a ritual for the last four years. We've gone to White Castle on Valentine's Day, so I have to do a special shout out for that because I don't know if you know this, at White Castle, they do table service every Valentine's Day. They have a red tablecloth."
Finally, the episode moves on to Daniel Gritzer, who talked about his favorite ways to cook a steak, which includes a technique that many cooks have been told is verboten. He said he does use a smoking hot pan, but then he busted a myth about flipping your steak just once while cooking.
To hear the rest of Kenji's explanation of how to use flavor agents, lots more fast food wisdom from Adam Chandler, and Daniel's steak-cooking tips, you'll just have to listen to the whole episode.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/10/special-sauce-kenji-on-cooking-with-fish-sauce-and-adam-chandler-on-fast-food.html