Following a physicist’s cooking tips did not go well for Sophie Morris, but zapped bacon was a revelation
There are plenty of good reasons we pay to eat in restaurants with chefs rather than in laboratories with scientists, and the physicist George Vekinis is just one of these.
Vekinis has gone viral online this week for suggesting that the best chefs all over the world, along with most home cooks, are cooking steak in the wrong way. (The preferred method, though every beef lover has their specific tweaks, is in a pan or over fire, after salting, not for long). Vekinis’s advice? Nuke it in the microwave.
My butcher, Andy, looks first confused, then horrified, when I tell him what I plan to do with his delicious grass-fed rump steak. I explain how Vekinis is also against salting the meat, saying that it pulls the moisture out and ruins the taste.
“Salt has this osmotic ability to drag out as much water as possible from the meat,” Vekinis, the head of physics at Greece’s National
Centre for Scientific Research, told the BBC’s Instant Genius podcast on Monday. “You’re going to get it tough and you’re going to get it inedible salt must never be put on a steak before frying.”
This startling claim goes against what countless chefs, including Jamie and Gordon, and other scientists have previously claimed is the best way to cook a steak.
Sure, the salt draws water out of the meat - and some choose to season after cooking - but when it mingles briefly with this moisture and you slap it in a hot pan, you have the perfect conditions for a sizzling Maillard reaction - the process where amino acids meet carb molecules, causing that delicious caramelised sear on the meat and emitting that dreamy umami smell.
Is your mouth watering? That is literally the point. This reaction is a signal to humans that our meat is cooked and safe to eat.
To give Vekinis his due, he has investigated these things at length. His book, Physics in the Kitchen, is packed with fascinating intel such as why some foods taste better a few days on, why marinating matters, and which foods do well in the freezer.
I just cannot get over the idea that he really prefers his steak done in the microwave. He does, he says, allow for a minute or two in a pan afterwards to get it browned.
I decide to do a test by splitting a steak and cooking half Vekinis’s way, and half my way. A minute in the microwave leaves the meat looking cooked on the bottom, bloody and bloated on top, as if it is trying to escape itself like an infected creature in The Last of Us.
I give it 30 seconds on each side in the pan, which cooks the outside but there’s no sear and therefore no mouth-watering smell.
I salt the second half and put it in the dry hot pan for a minute on each side. It comes out pleasingly caramelised and bright pink - medium rare - on the inside. The salty crust gives way to tender pink meat. Perfect.
The microwaved steak is grey all the way through and dry. Another few seconds and I imagine it would have tasted like powdered liver.
But I’m not a microwave snob.
Who could be after that memorable moment when Nigella Lawson showed us how chic a “mee-crowah-vay”could be? Her recipes for microwave puddings are ideal for anyone who thinks they can’t bake or that making pudding has to be time-consuming.
Mug cakes are lots of fun and easy to do in the microwave. Children can feel that they have made their own cake, and the single portions are sweet and useful if you don’t have troops to call in to eat a whole sponge.
It’s also the best way to cook baked potatoes - I know you miss out on a thickened, chewy skin, but you save an hour and heaps of energy. It costs around 27p to cook a potato in an oven compared with 3p in a microwave, according to the energy advice website Uswitch.
Vegetables can be delicious when gently cooked in the microwave, too. My mum is a great cook and made brilliant use of the microwave when we were growing up. There was an aubergine and mozzarella penne I deployed at university to make friends, and a microwave ratatouille she still makes on summer visits. While I labour over separately seasoning and roasting different veg, she has it on the table in minutes.
I won’t ever cook steak using Vekinis’s method again, but he isn’t the only chef making big claims about what can be created with the microwave. We all continue to seek ways to save energy and time when cooking, so I’m intrigued to try some other methods being touted.
When I read online that I can make snap-tastic crispy bacon in a microwave, I am circumspect. The instructions say to lay the bacon between kitchen paper, two on each side, and cook for three minutes, leaving it to cool for maximum crispiness. The result?
Exactly as advertised. I’ll be doing this next time I want crispy bacon to serve with Americanstyle pancakes.
Scrambled eggs are less successful. The recipe says to blast for 30 seconds, then beat. Blast for another 30. Beat again. Blast for 15 seconds, etc until done to your liking. After the initial 30 seconds they come out looking tasty, in soft fleshy folds but only part done.
When they are still not done after 30-30-15-15, I try another 15 and blitz them past edible. The dog, at least, is happy.
Reportedly, microwaved fish is popular. Stephen King wrote on social media that he enjoyed a “nice salmon fillet” with olive oil and lemon, which he had wrapped in paper towel then “nuked” in the microwave. I plump for chef David Chang’s recommendation, from his book Cooking At Home: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Recipes (And Love My Microwave), which is to steam fish on a covered plate after marinating in wine, ginger and spring onions.
I cook a decent-sized fillet of cod for five minutes - Chang recommends four to six - and it comes out looking like the surface of the Moon. As with the steak, I feel I’ve disrespected this poor fish. I mash it up (inset left) to try to improve the texture, but it is so dry that I give up after a few bites.
The verdict? Microwaves are one of the many wonders of modern cooking, and not to be sniffed at for their speed and economy. Just leave that prime rib out of it.