Warm Southern Breeze

"… there is no such thing as nothing."

America’s Test Kitchen & Chinese Junk

Posted by Warm Southern Breeze on Saturday, September 11, 2021

Occasionally, I read the numerous emails sent out by “America’s Test Kitchen.”

And when I write “numerous,” I mean NUMEROUS. They’re practically bordering on SPAM.

And, they almost always want you to buy some cheap, Fabriqué en Chien Chine (tr. “Made in China,” but, it might as well be “Made in Dog”) junk. Hmm… Chinese junk. Seems there is an historical watercraft called — interestingly enough — a “Chinese junk.”

China, Miscellaneous Scenes: Junks near Ningpo
Creator: Fong, Ali
Subject: Hartung’s Photo Shop
Local number: SIA RU007263 [SIA2008-2923]
RU 7263 – Arthur de Carle Sowerby Papers, 1904-1954 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Place: Ningbo Zhuanqu (China)
Repository: Smithsonian Institution Archives


And ATK’s latest flop is… testing silicon spatulas.

Yes, you read that correctly – silicon spatulas. It must’ve been a VERY slow day week in the test kitchen.

While I once found them informative, they’ve been slipping. And one thing that gripes me about ATK is that many of their “recommendations” aren’t worth a hot hoot in Hades. As an example, consider a venerable, almost ubiquitous, household kitchen appliance… the blender.

Not too long ago, ATK, as they usually do, produced a video comparing various brands of the kitchen appliance. That one, of course, happened to be about blenders. Their hands-down, long-time winner was the Vitamix 5200, priced at $449… BUT! Made in Cleveland, Ohio, and FULLY guaranteed — everything about it (i.e., “a motor blender base and any containers purchased together”) will be repaired, or replaced AT NO EXTRA COST — for 7 years if ANY part fails “due to a defect in material or workmanship or as a result of normal wear and tear from ordinary household use.” FINALLY! FINEST QUALITY MADE IN AMERICA!

ATK’s “next best” choice model was the Breville brand Hemisphere Control model, priced around $200 – Made in China, and with only a limited, one year guarantee.

While the site and accompanying video(s) show excerpts from their “tests,” and the host gives an adequate description of the “tests” and their staff’s findings – the advantages and shortcomings of each of them – one thing they fall grievously short on is… 1.) CLEANING, and; 2.) LONG TERM DURABILITY TESTING.

Granted, ATK conjures up some “torture” tests that most cooks won’t come close to performing, such as plunging a searing hot skillet into an ice water bath, or banging the thing on a concrete block… just to see what would happen. In industry parlance, that’s called “destructive testing,” meaning that the piece, or thing, being tested is likely to be damaged, or destroyed in the process.

I happen to own a couple Breville brand products, one of them being the no-longer-manufactured Hemisphere model blender, and the other one being the still-manufactured Breville brand Barista Express model espresso machine with integrated grinder.

The TOTAL purchase price for BOTH items – shipping + tax included – was around $1000+/-.

Now, to give kudos to the Australian company, their design team certainly seems to be on-the-ball, with some genuinely thoughtful features – such as a magnetic “stop operations” feature in the base of the blender, which, when removed, causes the blender to cease operating – and the design of the espresso machine with a removable clear plastic water reservoir, and grinding mechanism that’s easily removable for cleaning, both products seemed apparently well-thought-out, and uncomplicated to use… for a period of time.

That “period of time” may vary, user-to-user, and the first failure which I experienced was with the Breville Hemisphere blender jar. I don’t recall the specifics, but I had put some ingredient(s) in the blender – perhaps it was meat, beef, or chicken, maybe even celery, I don’t recall exactly what – and may have been, again, as best I recall, making “potted meat.”

“Potted meat” is a common name given to a category of culinary dishes called “force meat,” for the way in which they were first, and formerly made – by forcing cooked meat through a strainer-like device, thus literally breaking down the fibers of the meat into a spreadable, pâté-like consistency. Today, it’s easy enough – and, likely even much easier now, than ever before, because tools increase speed and efficiency of any work project – to use pressure and/or slow cookers, food processors and blenders to accomplish the objective, and in a relatively short period of time.

The bugbear was the cleanup.

Twisted about the blades of the blender, I found stringy, difficult-to-remove debris, the residue of work. What made it even more frustrating, was that the blades were semi-permanently affixed to the jar. That is to say, they were NOT intended to be removed by the user, which made their cleaning even more difficult. The old-school Sunbeam brand blender which I’d had for many years had a 3-part design for their product: 1.) A screw-on ring which attached to the jar; 2.) Rubber gasket, and; 3.) Blade assembly. It was easy-on, easy-off, to clean, and reassemble.

Clean-up with the Sunbean model was a breeze! Quick, easy, and there was NO QUESTION if any debris remained, because it could be readily inspected each and every time it was cleaned.

Not so with the Breville.

Even with repeated washings, scrubbings, and pickings… debris and residue still remained upon the nooks and crannies of the Breville’s blade assembly.

Strike one.

Sure… the Breville made FANTASTIC crushed ice! I mean, it was practically PERFECT — almost like snow! But, who would want crushed ice made from an unsanitary device — one that could not be thoroughly cleaned?

And then, the infrequently-checked silicone gaskets which fit around the lid, and the insert cup in the lid, because they could be removed, they could also accumulate debris underneath them… and did.

Not so with the Sunbeam.

Then, the jar began to leak. Turned out, an integrated gasket in the semi-permanent jar base failed.

How’d I know?

I disassembled it, wondering if I could find another replacement gasket, on-the-cheap. You know… $2, or $3, rather than buy an entire jar assembly for about $40, or $50 — which is exactly what Breville wanted me, and others similarly situated, to do.

Spending another roughly 25% +/- of the purchase price for a product that I didn’t need, and didn’t want, just doesn’t set well with me, especially for such a minor, albeit important, part. And, it’s just more landfill debris. Not smart. Not “green,” either.

Well, as fate would have it, the Breville gasket was such a peculiar part – not an ‘O’ ring, not a flat gasket, not a square-shaped gasket – that no after-market gasket manufacturer of any stripe had any such thing. The gasket was specifically designed in such a way as to be: 1.) Indispensable; 2.) Integral to the design, and; 3.) Incapable of being replaced by the user.

The only thing Breville didn’t do after you bought their product, was kiss you; because they’d already screwed you.

Search, and search, and search as I might, I could not find any even remotely suitable gasket. And, I even tried making my own.

I was met with spectacular failure, time, after time, after time, after time.

Thanks for nothing, Breville.

Your product was truly designed by engineers… men and women who have NO CLUE about the genuine long-term functionality of a product, or what consumers want or need, or how the product could, or would improve their life, or kitchen workflow.

And then, there’s the Breville Barista Express model espresso machine.

Again, at first blush, the product seems to be reasonably well-designed, and operates according to instructions. And then, just like with their blender, little things begin to break down.

First – ironically telling – was the failure of the silicon gasket for the group head, against which fits the filter basket holder, the part that holds the ground espresso coffee.

That was an easy-enough fix – if you’re handy with a screwdriver, and can follow pictograph instructions – and a relatively inexpensive one, at <$10.

And then came the doozy.

An as-yet-unspecified internal mechanism or assembly decided it wanted to fail, which in turn caused a wholesale failure of the pressuring system –— the essential “heart” of any espresso machine. In other words, the Breville Barista Express had suffered not only a stroke, but a heart attack, as well.

It was down for the count.

Life support was out of the question.

But, could we perform a transplant?

Again, search, after search, after search, after search, phone call, after email, after phone call, after email all turned up the same thing: No one worked on the Breville brand, which in turn meant that it had to be sent “back to the factory” to be repaired.

So, after numerous futile phone calls, and even more futile emails which failed to garner even an automated response, I actually got to speak with a human being about the espresso machine’s problems. Seems Breville could “fix it” for something over $250. Once again, the necessary “repair” would increase the purchase price by at least 30%. And that’s excluding 2-way shipping expenses.

So, the damn thing just sets on the countertop, taking up space, and gathering dust.

When shopping for an espresso machine, I should’ve just decided to “drop a dime” and get a TRULY GENUINE and AUTHENTIC, HIGH QUALITY espresso machine, rather than a piece of Chinese junk.

Needless to say, I’ll NEVER buy another Breville product EVER AGAIN, and I CANNOT and WILL NOT recommend their brand to ANYONE for ANYTHING under ANY CIRCUMSTANCE.

But, more to the point — as if the point hasn’t already been made.

I’d read recently from an ATK email that the good folks there think it’s a good idea to place baking powder in the flour mix when frying chicken.

First of all, allow me to be EXPLICITLY CLEAR about that matter:

HELL NO!

If you want some crispy, crunchy, pret-near failure-free fried chicken, use…

Wait for it…

Wait for it…

Wait for it…

Wait for it…

Corn starch.

And for goodness sake… DO NOT USE a SLUDGE DREDGE to coat the chicken. You’ll only muck it up worse.

Why not?

ATK states that salt on the bird’s parts “helps draw moisture to the surface, where it can evaporate.”

That’s ONLY TRUE IF you “dry brine” the bird & parts BEFORE cooking.

What’s a “dry brine”?

Simply put, it goes like this:
1.) THOROUGHLY dry the bird/ bird parts.
2.) THOROUGHLY SALT the bird/bird parts.
3.) Allow the THOROUGHLY SALTED bird/bird parts to “rest” on an OPEN TRAY/container (with a kitchen towel underneath the bid/bird parts) in the refrigerator, several hours – best practice is overnight.

Why?

Because, yes, salt DOES “draw” moisture/water OUT (it actually “drives” it out because it’s absorbed into the fibers of the muscle).

Here’s what Sasha Marx, Senior Culinary Editor at Serious Eats writes about dry brining:

“Dehydration happens because muscle fibers contract when heated, which squeezes out moisture like wringing out a towel. Brining helps mitigate this problem: Through the processes of osmosis and diffusion, salt and water from the brine are absorbed by the meat. Thanks to salt’s ability to reshape and dissolve muscle proteins, the salt-loosened muscle fibers contract less while the salt-dissolved proteins form a gel that traps and holds onto water from the brine.

Season a steak with kosher salt, and within a few minutes, you will witness osmosis at work: Liquid from the steak will bead up on the surface of the meat, drawn out by the salt. Wait another ten minutes, and that liquid from the beef will have started to dissolve the salt, forming a concentrated brine. That concentrated liquid brine, formed from the meat’s natural juices, is what makes this process “brining” and not just a ridiculous rebranding of mere salting.

“That dissolved salt is then absorbed by the meat through diffusion, moving from an area of high concentration (the surface of the steak) to a lower concentration one (the steak’s interior). As with a traditional brine, the salt re-shapes and dissolves muscle proteins, allowing the meat to absorb and retain moisture.”

So then, ATK’s error is in mistakenly asserting that by using baking powder, it “helps create a craggy coating that, when fried, yields lots of crunchy morsels to bite into.”

Phony baloney.

Deep frying works this way:
1.) It cooks the exterior FIRST, thereby
2.) “Sealing” the meat, which in turn
3.) Causes the interior meat to increase in temperature, being cooked (more accurately, BOILED) in its own juices.

Frying, deep frying in particular, is very similar, in that sense, to pressure cooking. Pressure cooking increases pressure, which reduces cooking times. So for parts like the leg, which have a continuous bone through the meat, the bone acts as a conductor of heat, and thereby transmitting cooking power to the interior meat.

That is not so with breasts, thighs, or wings – which are miserable excuses of meat. They’ve long been considered “dog food” except that some crazy Yankee in a Buffalo, NY bar thought ‘Hey! I know! I’ll put some tasty coating on these worthless things, and charge out the wazoo for ’em.’ and that was how the wongs wings craze was born. No kidding.

In 1980, writer Calvin Trillin did some investigating on the matter and found that in 1964, Teressa Bellissimo, co-owner of the Anchor Bar, at 1047 Main Street, Buffalo, NY had actually concocted the now-famous dish.

Frank and Teressa Bellissimo originally opened Anchor Bar in 1935, with Teressa tending the kitchen, while their son Dom (Dominic) tended bar; they have been a community staple since.

“Late on a Friday night in 1964, a time when Roman Catholics still confined themselves to fish and vegetables on Fridays, Dominic was tending the bar. Some regulars had been spending a lot of money, and Dom asked his mother to make something special to pass around gratis at the stroke of midnight. Teressa Bellissimo picked up some chicken wings — then, parts of a chicken that most people did not consider even good enough to give away to barflies — and the Buffalo chicken wing was born.”

“Teressa Bellissimo chopped each wing in half and served two straight sections that the regulars at the bar could eat with their fingers. (The two straight pieces, one of which looks like a miniature drumstick and is known locally as a ‘drumette,’ became one of the major characteristics of the dish; in Buffalo, a plate of wings does not look like a plate of wings but like an order of fried chicken that has, for some reason, been reduced drastically in scale.) She “deep-fried” them, applied some hot sauce, and served them on a plate that included some celery from the Anchor Bar’s regular antipasto and some of the blue-cheese dressing normally used as the house dressing for salads.”

But for fried chicken, the parts mustn’t be wet, which is what dredging them through a sludge does – makes them wet – and then, they’re rolled around in a dry coating to… to… make it dry. Yeah. Don’t do that.

To coat chicken, simply put it in a plastic bag with the desired DRY coating in it, and shake up the bag to thoroughly coat the parts and pieces. That DRY coating should ideally be flour, or it may include flour with corn starch, and salt. The piece/part will absorb as much coating as it can take. And you get to keep your fingers clean.

THEN fry them. The chicken pieces/parts… NOT your fingers.

Again, corn starch, because it attracts moisture, will make any DRY coating adhere better, and the end result will be significantly improved.

Baking powder – which is a mixture of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and cream of tartar (aka potassium bitartrate, potassium hydrogen tartrate, or tartaric acid, thus the commercial name “cream of tartar”) is an acidic by-product of wine-making – and will not contribute to crispy skin.

I’ve pan fried shrimp heads after shaking them in a flour+cornstarch, and cornstarch alone mix. The cornstarch alone was much better, and crisped right away. And if you think shrimp heads don’t have “juice” in them… think again.

So just in case you’re wondering, here’s what the good food folks at ATK wrote about using baking powder on chicken, which is to be fried.


For fried chicken recipes such as Extra-Crunchy Fried Chicken, Fried Chicken Sandwiches, and The Ultimate Crispy Fried Chicken, we add it to the flour mixture the chicken is coated in before it goes into the fryer.

For chicken with lots of crunch, we here in the test kitchen like to add a secret ingredient to our recipes: baking powder.

For fried chicken recipes such as Extra-Crunchy Fried Chicken, Fried Chicken Sandwiches, and The Ultimate Crispy Fried Chicken, we add it to the flour mixture the chicken is coated in before it goes into the fryer.

We then typically combine this flour mixture with a wet ingredient. This could be egg, buttermilk, or water, depending on the recipe. The moisture helps create a craggy coating that, when fried, yields lots of crunchy morsels to bite into.

But the baking powder is key, because it acts like a salt. It helps draw moisture to the surface, where it can evaporate. Since they have similar reactions, we typically combine baking powder and table salt to amplify this effect, resulting in extra-crispiness.

But baking powder doesn’t only make fried chicken crunchier—it also magically gives nonfried chicken extra-crispy skin.

An example of this is our Oven-Fried Chicken Wings, which aren’t fried at all. But when you bite into one, you would think it was. In order to get crispy wings without frying, you need to dry out the skin. That’s where a coating of baking powder and salt comes in. The baking powder and salt help break down the proteins in the skin, draw moisture to the surface, and also aid in browning. We take a very similar approach in our recipe for Crisp Roast Chicken.

So next time you are making fried chicken, or even cooking it in the oven, make sure that you have some baking powder on hand to add extra crunch.

https://www.americastestkitchen.com/articles/3717-baking-powder-the-secret-weapon-for-crispy-chicken-skin

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