When you’re an expat and greatly outnumbered by the local populace, you learn pretty quickly that you’re very often going to be “wrong” about a lot of stuff. You begin to cultivate the requisite survival skills in taking abuse, biting your tongue, and rolling your eyes at the importance locals place on pointing out how their way is right and, you, the foreigner (especially if you’re an American) are ignorant, devoid of culture, and education, and just basic civilization.
I’m finally coming to grips with this state of existence; They say “Acceptance” is Step 5 and eventually leads to a happier life.
One thing I won’t concede, however, are the fundamentals of cooking. Science is science, facts are facts, and certain things just are right:
Cooking protein at high heat in a dry environment does not “seal” it.
A perfectly SEARED steak
When I first encountered this word, “seal”, I thought it was a simple mispronunciation, like how the English will say “bruvver” instead of “brother” or “bu-uh” instead of “butter” or “Ameriker” instead of “America”. (As an aside, and to quote Henry Higgins, “Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?”) Anyway, since my colleagues and I were discussing cooking techniques for steaks and other meats, I was able to discern their accent/mispronunciation to understand these cooks meant “sear”. And life moved on.
But after a while, as I kept encountering this word “seal”, I started thinking it wasn’t about mispronunciation at all, but instead a legitimate difference in vocabulary. Kind of like how I say “cilantro” and they say “cori-AN-duh”. A vocabulary difference is a little less adorable than an quirky accent and a bit more annoying as it leads to the inevitable “eggplant/aubergine” debate. But, still, it’s something I could translate in my head and move past.
However, just recently, I got curious and dug further into this “seal” word with a fellow chef, only to find out to my shock and horror (and a little bit of sick fascination) that in fact, yes, the whole professional population here in England seems to think this is the actual real thing going on when you cook meat!
Holy shit. It’s like it’s still 1970 here.
A lot of people who are way smarter than me have proved what happens when you cook meat in a dry environment at high heat. The short version is that the proteins caramelize creating a delicious crust on the surface; this is called the Maillard Reaction. (Here, here, here, and here)
Under no circumstances, at all, ever, is this process “sealing in the juices” which is what APPARENTLY the cooks here think it does. This sort of institutional ignorance boggles the mind. It’s as if the Internet doesn’t exist, no one does any professional research, and we’ll all still mere unthinking apprentices of Escoffier.
So I utter my battle cry once again: We don’t have to live like this anymore!!
A wise person once asked me about one of my opinions, metaphorically of course, “Is this the hill you’re willing to die for?” It got me to thinking that I really need to evaluate what issues I’ll concede in the interest of not wasting my own time and energy. To that end, outside the privacy of my own home, I’ve given up on “cilantro”, “eggplant”, “zucchini”, “plastic wrap”, “paper towels”, “garbage”… But scientifically proven cooking techniques, hell no, I’m not giving an inch on that. I will die on that hill.
Science is science and hard facts far outweigh your own personal or cultural beliefs. Is “seal” still a thing here because of the British adherence to tradition and fear of change? Is it perhaps because they don’t have the same books we Americans have access to? Is it because of the entrenched European (French) kitchen brigade system that doesn’t encourage intellectual curiosity?
Lest you think I exaggerate regarding the pervasiveness of this ignorance, even the Oxford Fucking English Dictionary gets it wrong.
Sharing techniques and spreading knowledge is a huge part of being a chef. What I have here is what’s called a “teachable moment”. Whenever possible/reasonable/appropriate I will share with my colleagues just exactly what it means to “sear” and lovingly teach them to stop thinking of it as “sealing in the juices”. I definitely anticipate great frustration and disappointment in my quest, but I’m looking forward to making my own small contribution to the modernization of cooking here in London.