H2O, a.k.a. dihydrogen monoxide, a.k.a. water, is one of the fundamental building blocks of our world. Water is obviously essential to the development and maintenance of life. In fact, it is posited that life began on this planet in the oceans. Seventy percent of our planet’s surface is covered by water. Sixty percent of the human body is composed of water. What would we do without it……even in the kitchen?
Water performs innumerable chores in cooking. For the purposes of the present discussion, I wish to focus on just one dimension of water’s culinary uses, namely soaking. When you begin to think about it, it’s amazing how many tasks are performed by the simple act of submerging food in a vessel of water. Below is a culinary tour of those tasks. Keep in mind they are not mutually exclusive; a food may be soaked for multiple reasons.
REHYDRATING All sorts of foods are available in dried form. Often they must be rehydrated prior to use such as dried porcini mushrooms. They’re a little expensive but the flavor is magnificent. Simply add them to a small pot, cover them with water by an inch or two, bring to a boil, turn off the heat, cover, and let sit 20-30 minutes. Remove the mushrooms and wash them carefully before incorporating them into a dish. You can even utilize the leftover mushroom water but filter it thoroughly through cheesecloth.
WASHING Most salad greens, and delicate herbs such as cilantro or parsley, can benefit from a 15 minute soak in water. In addition to the aforementioned rehydrating, soaking is an efficacious method of removing grit. Place them in a large bowl and fill it to the top with water. Give the greens a shake and then soak. Most of the dirt will sink to the bottom. Remove the greens, empty the bowl and repeat the procedure two more times with the exception of the soaking which is only done the first time. This three-stage procedure will ensure the greens are virtually grit-free.
SOFTENING Dried beans must be soaked before use to soften them. There are two approaches. The traditional method is to soak them in water overnight, (actually 6 hours give or take depending on the bean). Employ four times the water to the volume of the beans. The quicker method is to bring the dried beans to a boil, simmer for a couple minutes and then cover and soak for one hour off the heat. Purists argue the traditional method creates a better texture.
BRINING Brining is a method to make proteins juicer and tastier. A brine is basically a salt-water solution. Via the process of osmosis meat soaked in a brine will absorb some of the fluid and therefore be juicier. Moreover, the salt thwarts some of the coagulation of the protein strands during cooking, thus rendering them tenderer. The meat will also absorb some salt, (not as much as you’d think), but nevertheless you can compensate by not salting the exterior as much prior to cooking. The meat will also absorb other flavor elements in the brine. Therefore, brines may contain sugar, fruit juices, aromatic vegetables, herbs, spices, etc. But at the very least, employ one cup kosher salt for every gallon of water. Dissolve the salt in the water and submerge the meat. The larger the piece, the longer the soak. Brining is best for turkey, chicken, pork, and shrimp.
DEFROSTING Pedantic germaphobes will tell you to defrost your frozen food in the refrigerator. This way the food will never rise above refrigerator temperature. This is fine if you know two days ahead of time what you’ll need for dinner that evening. Nuking frozen food is impractical because the outside cooks before the inside thaws. Leaving it at room temperature works, (can you see the food neurotics starting to convulse?), but takes too long for me. The most efficient and quickest method for thawing frozen food is immersing it in hot water. Water is far denser than air and transfers heat with greater alacrity. There is virtually no danger here because 1) the food thaws quickly and thus doesn’t spend enough time in the thermal danger zone to get a real food scientist in a twist, and 2) you will then cook your food to the proper temperature which will kill any lingering bacteria. If for some reason you don’t want the food to have actual contact with the water, place in a large plastic storage bag first.
MAINTAINING COLOR When slicing a large batch of potatoes, the first ones can start to turn brown by the time you’ve reached the last ones. The solution of course is placing them in a bowl of water as you finish each one. They can sit in the water for hours so this also allows you to prep potatoes ahead of time.
COOKING Don’t even have to turn on the gas. Extremely frail foods like very fine rice noodles can cook by soaking. If the noodles are very delicate you don’t even need boiling water. Just soak them in hot water for a few minutes but watch them closely so they don’t turn mushy.
COOLING Many vegetables are blanched first in boiling water to brighten their color or soften them. They are then “shocked” by immersing them in ice water. This stops the carry-over cooking which if left unchecked could render the vegetables mushy. But remove them from the ice water as soon as they’re cool or else they can become water logged.
STORING When you get that bunch of celery home from the supermarket, cut off the ends, wash it, and submerge the sticks in water in a plastic container with a lid. They’ll stay crisper longer than languishing in the supermarket bag.
ACTIVATING YEAST Dried yeast must be soaked in hot water for 5 minutes to activate it. The water must be between 100 and 110 degrees. Whisking in a pinch of sugar is helpful too as the yeast feed on it.
BLOOMING GELATIN Gelatin, both powdered and sheets, must be soaked in water prior to use. This dissolves and softens the gelatin, allowing it to be assimilated into the target dish. Powdered gelatin requires a few minutes while the sheets are usually soaked for ten.
REMOVING IMPURITIES If you like brains, I mean eating brains, they are usually presoaked in water to extract impurities and any other icky, extraneous matter. Yuk.
DECORATING Let’s end on a lighter note. To make a decorative radish rose, trim the ends of a radish. Stand it on end and make 4-5 vertical cuts between the edge and the center, slicing down about three-quarters of the length toward the bottom. If desired, you can make another series of smaller cuts closer to the center. Place the radish in ice water and watch it “bloom.”