Lidia Bastianich, of course, is the well known TV chef on Lidia’s Italy which is in heavy rotation on my PBS station. She is also a restaurateur, teaming up with her son Joseph (you saw him this past Fall as one of the judges on Master Chef, along with Gordon Ramsey and Graham Elliot), Mario Batali and other less familiar names to form a web of well regarded restaurants. Her TV show, on-line web site, restaurants, books, and commercial ventures make Lidia a juggernaut in the food world.
And, she drives me nuts!
I have nothing against her cooking. I would be happy to eat most anything she cooks. It’s honest Italian cuisine well outside of the spaghetti and meatballs realm. She often has her mother, who she calls Nonna, on the show at the end to taste that program’s dishes. Nonna is a hoot and along with Ming Tsai’s mother, Iris, she is one of my favorite TV chef “side-kicks”. Each, Nonna and Iris, is one of the best things about their respective offspring’s TV shows.
But Lidia caramelizes everything. She never browns or sears food; she caramelizes it. I was taught that caramelization is what happens to sugar, and that the browning of meat or potatoes is not caramelization. In fact, Harold McGee in his book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen notes that everything browned is not caramelized. He explains that caramelization is what happens to sugar – simple sucrose molecules – when exposed to high heat. The browning that takes place in savory foods like onions, baked bread, roasted coffee beans, potatoes, pork chops or poultry skin is a Maillard reaction – the reaction of a carbohydrate (which may or may not be a sugar) with an amino acid in a hot, dry environment. He says, “Maillard reactions contribute even more to the pleasures of eating than caramelization does. But of course it doesn’t sound as good on a menu.” Or on TV apparently.
I know, the chemistry of cooking can get pretty obtuse and I’m not advocating that we start casually including references to Maillard reactions in our daily culinary conversations. But I could stand to hear a lot less about caramelization.
That having been said, I note that Michael Ruhlman in his book, The Elements of Cooking: Translating the Chef’s Craft for Every Kitchen (with an Introduction by world-class curmudgeon, Anthony Bourdain) weighs in on the casual use of the term caramelization. He says, “Technically, caramelization is the name we give to what happens to sugar molecules when they get hot, decompose, and begin to form new compounds. When we caramelize plain sugar, the sugar takes on many different hues and complex flavors. We often refer to the browning and sweetening of onions and other vegetables (and almost anything that browns as it cooks, for that matter) as “caramelization.” But in most instances the browning is … the result of Maillard browning (the reaction of protein and carbohydrates to heat) and not actual caramelization. The word caramelization remains a meaningful and less awkward term to describe the browning of fruits and vegetables during cooking than the more cumbersome term Maillard browning.”
So, OK, I get the point. Caramelization is a useful, shorthand for everyday use. But Lidia still drives me nuts when she uses and overuses it. And don’t get me started about what her mouth does when she tastes things!