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The other day I was in a neighborhood pizza shop ordering an antipasto. Sometimes I think the only reason I eat out is to get material for my column. I watched the guy behind the counter compose it. He filled the circular aluminum foil container to the brim with lettuce, meats, cheese, peppers, tomatoes, olives, and my specially requested anchovies. Then, after all the main ingredients were tightly packed together he poured the oil and vinegar, separately, over the salad and then a little salt and pepper on the top. Does anybody else see a problem with this because I don’t know where to begin?
Eating the antipasto the way pizza guy made it would cause the surface food to taste seasoned, but not the morsels beneath the salt and pepper. Similarly, some bites would be too oily, some too vinegary, some just right, and some might have little or no dressing at all. And don’t give me the “oh you can just mix it up at home spiel.” No, it’s too late for that. You may be able to distribute the salt and pepper, and the oil and vinegar, but you can’t unite the oil and vinegar. In other words, once it’s on the food it’s too late to form a vinaigrette, i.e., an emulsification of the oil and vinegar. A vinaigrette not only synergistically enhances the overall flavor of the constituents but allows for a uniform dispersal of that flavor. The dissemination of flavor is further facilitated by properly mixing the dressing with the ingredients beforehand, as opposed to just pouring it on top. Therefore, the greens should be tossed with some seasoning and dressing first. Then after covering them with meats, cheese, etc, you would sprinkle the toppings with a little more seasoning and dressing.
Those of you with less demanding palates may consider this nit-picking but as a chef I’m always on the lookout for ways to improve flavor and quality. Improperly mixed food causes inconsistencies in taste. Who wants to alternate each bite with pieces that are too salty, unsalted, and just right? Unmixed food is a ubiquitous problem, at least amongst the day-to-day eateries. This is due to one of two reasons: ignorance or indifference. From the looks of my pizza guy, I’d bet he knows his way around crystal meth and loading a 9mm more than an emulsion. Or, like many others, he may be just too lazy to invest the extra time required to thoroughly mix the food.
Let’s peruse some common foods that should be conscientiously mixed for optimal and homogeneous flavor. As stated, dressings should be emulsified, or if they don’t contain a fat, at least well mixed first; then salad greens should be tossed with the dressing and seasonings in a bowl before being plated. This procedure is followed for virtually all salads, not just those based on greens. Moreover, the base ingredients for a salad or other concoctions should also be mixed first before whatever dressing is forthcoming. Thus, combine the primary ingredients for pasta salad, tuna salad, potato salad, tabbouleh, crab cakes, etc., before adding the vinaigrette, dressing, mayonnaise, sauce, etc.
Pasta is another notoriously under-mixed dish. If you’ve ever been served a plate of pasta with a glop of sauce in the center surrounded by an outer radius of bare pasta you know what I mean. Ideally, pasta should be cooked until it is a moment or two from being done and then finished in the sauce. This causes the sauce to adhere to the pasta better and again, thoroughly diffuses it.
It is vitally important to adequately mix the ingredients of baked goods, especially the dry ingredients. Flour, cornmeal, salt, baking powder, baking soda, etc. should be evenly dispersed when making pancakes, muffins, biscuits, cakes, etc. Some recipes require that the dry ingredients be sifted for ultra-fine dissemination. Failure to do so can cause uneven rising of the item or a random pattern of discrepantly sized holes within the finished product. Painstaking mixing is particularly crucial for cakes, specifically the creaming of the butter and the incorporation of the sugar. This will affect the cake’s final volume and texture.
Some baked items require butter or shortening to be cut into the flour or dry ingredients. Procure a good dough cutter and don’t skimp on the elbow grease. The recipe may call for the fat to be left in larger pieces. That’s fine, just ensure that they’re all nearly the same size and equally distributed.
In some preparations the goal of meticulous mixing is to incorporate air into the product. This is why a little extra whipping creates fluffier mashed potatoes or scrambled eggs. In some cases the integration of air is indispensable as in whipped cream or whipped egg whites. Interestingly though, cream and egg whites also offer examples of the dangers of over-mixing. Both can be whipped to a grainy texture that is irreparable. Vinaigrettes too can be over-mixed. Too much agitation and the emulsion backfires and breaks.
Mixing is important for dissolving substances into liquid. Salt and sugar are prime examples. When making sauces, brines, simple syrup, etc., conscientious whisking will produce uniform sweetness and/or salinity. Adequate mixing is also necessary for making a slurry, (an assimilation of water and a thickening agent like cornstarch or arrowroot). Unless the starch is completely dissolved in the water prior to adding it to its target product, you’ll end up with lumps.
And how about bartenders who are too lazy to shake mixed drinks? OK, you can get away with just simply stirring your highball with the cocktail stirrer. (A highball is a blend of a singular liquor with just one mixer be it soda, fruit juice, water, etc.) But how about more complex drinks with multiple ingredients? Here’s a fun experiment. Simply dump the ingredients for a margarita in a glass and spin it a few times with a straw and drink it. Next, make one by whizzing the ingredients in a blender or shaking them in a cocktail shaker. Now try the margarita. Yum. It not only tastes better but takes on a wonderful frothy quality. Try each a few times to be sure.
And James Bond was right. Shake that martini! Even if you skip the vermouth. Shaking the liquor with ice will chill it better than merely pouring it over ice and giving it a few stirs.
So savor your shaken martini, followed by a properly mixed salad and pasta, and a correctly mixed cake for dessert. But be careful who you do it with. You know what they say about mixed company. Some things just don’t mix.