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Digital Dishes

Someone’s in the kitchen with YouTube...


Published October 13, 2010 at 10:31 a.m.

I baked brownies. I folded laundry. I drank a glass of water. And then there was nothing left for me to do but walk into my kitchen and face the raw chicken sitting on the counter. Or, rather, roast it.

My cooking instructor didn’t notice my uneasiness. I’m normally at home in the kitchen, but I usually limit my culinary adventures to my preferred food groups: breakfast and dessert. Banana bread, apple cake, popovers ... piece of cake.

Now, as an infrequent meat eater and a squeamish person in general, I couldn’t help but cringe as my teacher explained we’d be shoving an herbed compound butter under the chicken’s skin. I was sure I’d rather be spreading that on a baguette.

Nevertheless, I followed along as the instructor whipped up the compound butter. Simple zesting, mincing and stirring soon yielded me a fresh, chive-flecked concoction with a strong garlic-lemon kick. Then my guide began explaining how to twist and tuck the bird’s wings underneath its body to prevent dryness.

I looked at my own chicken, resting in the roasting pan, and flipped it over. And over again. Why didn’t this thing come with a “This side up” label?

I sighed, washed my hands and walked over to my laptop. I was in over my head ... but at least there’s a pause button when you’re learning to cook from YouTube.

My digital cooking classes started a few months ago when I was hands deep in flour, rolling out pie dough. The cold butter clumps were flattening into little pockets that I hoped would make a light and flaky crust for my cherry pie. Having sliced the dough into straight, even strips, I paused. Must I literally weave the delicate pieces for the picture-perfect lattice crust I had in mind? There had to be an easier way.

Without a second thought, I hopped on the computer — causing a minor explosion of flour dust that settled on my keyboard — and clicked on the first video that appeared when I searched “how to make a lattice pie crust” on YouTube.

A Pillsbury representative unrolled pie dough from a can and explained how to crisscross the lines of dough starting from the middle of the pie. Ohh. Well, that made sense. About an hour later, a lovely golden pie with a proper lattice weave was cooling on the counter, and a toasted-butter scent wafted through the apartment.

I was intrigued: What other techniques could I learn through my laptop? The ’Tube was like the culinary classes I couldn’t afford; it succeeded where TV cooking shows failed — on the strength of those crucial pause and replay buttons.

While the site offers lessons from plenty of amateur cooks — “The Next Food Network Star” winner Aarti Sequeira got her start posting videos on YouTube — it gives home cooks access to notable chefs, too. Jamie Oliver spouts tips about grilling the perfect steak. Thomas Keller is dying to let me in on how to clean mushrooms. It’s a digital world, even in the kitchen. All I had to do was press play.

But finding the right teacher to guide me in the ways of roast chicken was trickier than I’d anticipated. Antony Worrall Thompson, a British celebrity chef I’d never heard of, seemed confident and knowledgeable, and his accent was charming. But I was insulted when he began by suggesting I remove the chicken from the plastic container: “That tends to melt if it goes in the oven,” he explained. No, really? With the world (or at least the World Wide Web) at my fingertips, surely I didn’t have to put up with a chef who talked down to me.

Chef and restaurateur Marc Murphy seemed rushed and mildly annoyed at me from the get-go, but perhaps that was just the zippy editing. His hands blocked the action as he pushed butter and thyme beneath the chicken’s skin. There was zero explanation to go with an image of the trussed bird, cinched in a knot I was sure only Boy Scouts could replicate. Murphy’s whirlwind, two-minute-and-54-second video ended with a dumbfounding fun fact: “A chicken once had its head cut off and survived over 18 months, headless.” Bon appétit? I thought not.

Next, I happened on a soft-spoken, older-sounding gentleman going by the handle “foodwishes.” I felt an immediate connection with him when he declared a silicone spatula one of his “favorite all-time kitchen tools” — mine, too! Like me, he seemed to have genuine fun zesting a lemon. Plus, his “ultimate roast chicken” looked perfectly brown and tender. I was in.

It was strange cooking with “foodwishes” — “one of the web’s top video recipe producers and online culinary instructors,” boasts his YouTube profile — because he didn’t have a face. Or, at least, it never appeared in the video. The most I saw of him were his hands, which seemed quite capable as they slid the compound butter under the skin — “smoosh it and smash it and pat it,” he narrated. I cackled when he joked that perhaps he “was enjoying that a little too much.” I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gotten a chuckle out of a recipe.

I still felt fairly icked out as I shoved two lemon halves and some chives down the cavity — did my chicken feel violated? I whispered an apology as I hoisted it up by a leg to sprinkle it liberally with salt and pepper. Before I knew it, the legs were tied with some string I hoped wouldn’t catch fire in the oven, and my bird was ready to roast.

An hour later, it was back on the counter, browned and reclining in a bath of lemony juices. My boyfriend and I were dying to eat ... but first I had to conquer carving. I could think of no one better to turn to than the French Culinary Institute’s master chef Marc Bauer, who assured me in his thick accent that, with a sharp knife and some pressure, my bird wouldn’t fly away as I sliced.

I imitated his movements with my biggest knife as we chiseled out each drumstick; I couldn’t find the oyster but was too hungry to care. I took a wild guess on where to slice down the middle of the bird to remove each chicken breast, and, miraculously, found the bone and used the knife to pull the meat cleanly off. After that, I deemed myself a master of carving and hacked away at will — my hands were too occupied to man the keyboard, anyway.

Once the chicken was plated and the white wine poured, I couldn’t help but agree with “foodwishes,” who called the outside of the chicken “perfectly crispy.” Better still, the inside meat was soft and tender, and the bites were packed with chives and the lingering trace of lemons ... I couldn’t be sure, but I suspected this was the taste of success.

Satisfied with my first experiment, I proceeded to the next item on the list of things I’d always wanted to cook but was afraid to tackle alone: caramel sauce.

Researching video recipes didn’t calm my fears: Every clip warned me about the dangers of crystallization — basically, ending up with rock candy. Though it was tempting to learn from two twentysomething girls who didn’t hesitate to throw vanilla and booze into the batch, I decided to go with chef Michael Montgomery of the Culinary School of the Rockies. I liked his laid-back approach, which didn’t even call for stirring until the end. Plus, he was ruggedly handsome — an unexpected perk, I now saw, of taking lessons from a person rather than a cookbook page.

We began by adding a dash of water to granulated sugar. To avert the dreaded crystallization, I wet my fingers under the faucet and ran them along the sides of the pan, making sure no sugar grains remained. “If anything crystallizes on the side of the pan ... the whole thing will crystallize,” chef Montgomery wisely noted.

From there, it was a simple matter of swirling the pan around on high heat until the mixture boiled into dark, syrupy amber. The next step was the most frightening: Pouring in heavy cream caused an explosion of steam and sizzling. But, apart from some vigorous stirring ... that was it. After the sauce had cooled, I drizzled it over a fudgy brownie and flecked it with sea salt, expecting utter decadence.

To my dismay, the caramel dripped right off, pooling on my plate like maple syrup on waffles. It hadn’t thickened properly, and while it tasted head and shoulders above supermarket caramel, it didn’t wow me. This was more like the caramel syrup you’d find in a Starbucks macchiato — sort of thin and wimpy.

Luckily, Alton Brown came to my rescue. Sort of. First, he confused the hell out of me by insisting I add corn syrup and cream of tartar to fend off crystallization — which I stubbornly ignored, because I’d already got that part down. I also skipped using a candy thermometer, which every other video pronounced unnecessary. But Alton did advise me to boil the sugar until it began smoking, which would let it develop a more complex flavor. And the trick to getting it thick? Simply continue to boil for three to five minutes after adding the cream.

Batch two was a vast improvement. It was darker and fuller bodied, with a nutty, buttery quality that made me want to down it by the spoonful. When I took a slice of apple for a test dip, it emerged with a smooth, thick coating of caramel. Such a sweet ending surely justified a sticky keyboard.


Want more YouTube cooking fun? Alice Levitt tries her hand at broadcasting a cooking lesson over the Web in this week's Bite Club TV.