Labelled with Lies

99% meaning free

By the way, if anyone here is in advertising or marketing…kill yourselves.

I don’t take quite such a hard line as Bill Hicks on marketing and advertising – like it or not, any product demands some degree of marketing, even if it’s as basic and innocent as telling a few friends about the existence of your blog – but I do have a certain sympathy with some aspects of his rant, if not with the ruthlessness of his solution.

So perhaps it’s a kindness of sorts that Hicks died so tragically young; because in the twenty years since his passing, marketers and advertisers have assumed an ever-growing and increasingly intrusive role in our lives.

TV commercial breaks have got longer, just as the bits of programming in between the ads have been opened up to legitimised product placement. Facebook and Google, among many others, tailor their advertising based on the information we’ve consciously or unwittingly provided about ourselves.

And on a less obviously sinister note, the continuing trend towards packaged food has created millions of additional canvases, all ready to receive the varyingly sophisticated daubings of the latest generation of marketers.

These range from the endearingly gormless – I recently saw a pack of fresh mint that extolled the product’s virtues as “an essential ingredient in mint sauce” – to more blatantly cynical spin around the relative healthiness of foodstuffs.

We’d all like to imagine we’re too smart to fall for the old “99% fat-free” trick, but if we were, no company would bother doing it. In practice, we tend to gloss over the second digit of the percentage figure, meaning that we don’t perceive much difference between products that are labelled as 99% and 95% fat free, even though one contains five times as much fat as the other. (And as this piece on the BS Health website points out – albeit rather shoutily – we’re even less likely to realise that if a food contains 5% fat by weight, that doesn’t equate to 5% of its calorific value: the true calories-from-fat percentage is more than twice that.)

Moreover, products that have been largely stripped of fat will often contain higher levels of salt and/or sugar, by way of taste compensation. This is why you’ll often read claims about processed foods being low in fat or sugar or salt; but rarely more than one of those, and almost never all three. (Professor Sandra Jones, of the University of Wollongong, usefully demystifies this and other food labelling tricks here.)

Similar examples of selective labelling are there to see on every supermarket shelf; but we only really notice the more amateurish and desperate efforts. A packet of crisps carries the boast of “no artificial colours”; but on brief reflection, we could have guessed at that – because they’re crisps, and they aren’t blue. There’s no equivalent claim around artificial flavours, and with extremely good reason.

Perhaps most insidious are the vices presented as virtues. The large majority of steaks now sold in supermarkets are vacuum packed soon after slaughter, thus minimising weight and water loss before sale and maximising profits for the retailer. They’ll still shed that excess water eventually, but not until you cook them; so ultimately you get less meat for your money.

Sitting in a bath of their own moisture, the steaks will still tenderise somewhat over time, but will be less tender and tasty than properly hung meat, because the tenderising effect of the meat’s natural enzymes is arrested by the vac-packing, and there’s no moisture loss to concentrate the flavours.

Nonetheless, because we’ve (correctly) come to perceive aged beef as good beef, the packaging will still carry the boast that the meat is “21 day matured”. The only problem is that most of those 21 days have been spent not hanging in a well-aired cooler, but sitting in an airless plastic wrap on the shelf of a fridge. It’s only marginally more appealing than the idea of 21 day matured milk.

Should we wish to buy properly aged beef – “dry-aged”, to use the new vernacular – we’ll pay heftily for the privilege. It’s almost certainly worth it; but it’s still galling to see a centuries-old method of meat preparation being presented to us as a luxury.

When you finally come to fry the steaks, there’s one last opportunity for misinformation: the cooking instructions on the packet. These take me back into my favourite “no recipe” territory; because if you allow a standardised prescription to take precedence over your own senses and judgement, you’re almost certainly destined for a disappointing meal.

Here are the cooking instructions for a Tesco fillet steak (source here):

Remove all packaging. Allow the meat to sit at room temperature for 10 minutes. Lightly brush each side of the steak with oil and season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Fry in a very hot dry heavy based pan over a high heat for 2 minutes on each side to seal in the juices. Reduce to a medium heat and continue to cook for a further 9-11 minutes (rare), 11-13 minutes (medium) or 15-17 minutes (well done), turning once. Remove the steak from the pan and allow to rest in a warm place for 3-5 minutes. Add a knob of butter to the pan and allow to melt. Pour the cooking juices and butter over the steak and serve immediately.

Like any bad recipe, this is a prime example of too little information being worse than no information at all. One steak might be significantly thicker than the next, meaning that it’ll take longer to cook through to the middle; but there’s no place for such nuances in these standardised directions. And without any definition of what “high” or “medium” heat represents, the cook is left to guess what is meant, and the timings become essentially meaningless. (That said, even a thick fillet steak, cooked for a total of 15 minutes, will be a long way from rare; but then, your litigation-fearing retailer would much rather you ate a “safe” steak than a pleasant one.)

Furthermore, doing the initial frying over a high heat doesn’t actually “seal in the juices”; instead, it produces a charred exterior that greatly enhances the flavour. So there’s absolutely no point in setting your kitchen timer and giving the steak precisely two minutes on each side at the high heat; instead, your aim should be to get the meat well browned on all surfaces, as quickly as you safely can.

Not everything about the instructions is wrong-headed. As I’ve said, the initial high-temperature cooking is a good thing – just not for the reason specified – as is giving the steaks time to come towards room temperature before cooking (though ten minutes won’t make a lot of difference). But anyone who’s tempted to use them as a definitive guide would be far better doing an internet search for “how to cook steaks”, spending ten minutes reading over the results, and never again having to bother with the directions on the packet.

(As a further option, you could buy one of those purpose-built contraptions that claim to “take the guesswork out of cooking steaks”. Better still, you could use a simpler, cheaper and more traditional cooking tool: your hand.)

In fairness to Tesco, it’s not as if they’re any worse than their competitors when it comes to ludicrous cooking instructions. And unlike the “21 day matured” label, this is an example of the inadequacies of recipes generally, not of cynical marketing.

But just occasionally, the worlds of shabby marketing and false prescriptions come together in perfect disharmony. The outstanding example I’ve seen – “the crowning turd in the water pipe”, to borrow from General Melchett – can be found on packs of Waitrose minced beef.

At least this particular instruction is nice and straightforward:

Simply pan-fry for just 24-26 minutes.

Many a tweeter would envy the sheer quantity of nonsense Waitrose have managed to pack into 37 characters there – or, should I say, into “just 36-38 characters”. So let’s subject it to a little analysis.

Maintaining the Blackadder theme, it’s rather like the Prince Regent‘s definition of the word “a”: “It doesn’t really mean anything, does it?”

It doesn’t tell us the form in which we should “simply pan-fry” the mince: in burgers (in which case, how thick?); as meatballs (how big?); in some other moulded shape; or as it comes. It doesn’t tell us how much heat to apply. It doesn’t tell us whether, or how, to season or otherwise flavour the meat. If we took the advice at face value, we’d be left with a plate of bland, chewy mince. So, while I’m all in favour of simplicity, I’m not sure this guidance will quite do the trick on its own.

Best of all is the direction to cook the meat for “24-26 minutes”. Presumably, Waitrose began by plucking an arbitrary cooking time – 25 minutes – out of thin air; then, in a token acceptance of the falseness of that premise, expanded it by a minute either way. If that’s supposed to encourage us to exercise discretion, it’s not inviting us to use very much of it.

In practice, depending on what you’re making with the mince, you might end up cooking it for anything from 5 minutes – for a thin burger, say – to 5 hours, after which a Bolognese sauce, simmered very gently, will have come to no harm at all. If you cooked these dishes for 24 minutes each – or 26 for that matter – the burger would be cremated, and you’d be chewing the Bolognese as a dog would a slipper.

So all the instructions really succeed in doing is offering essentially bad cooking advice, on false pretexts of simplicity and speed. They are, in the specifically Scottish sense of the word, pure mince.

But fear not; because just underneath, we find a second option.

Try Heston’s chilli con carne with spiced butter for a smooth finish.

That’s quite a logical leap, isn’t it? If the instruction to “pan-fry for 24-26 minutes” inexplicably fails to produce delicious results, you might as well give up trying to think for yourself and slavishly copy Heston Blumenthal’s recipe instead – which, I’d note in passing, stipulates rather less than 24 minutes’ “pan-frying” and upwards of an hour’s simmering – and which will improve your cooking as assuredly as using a Michelangelo-endorsed paintbrush will pep up your frescos.

Somewhere in between the two presented options, we might insert an alternative, far more meaningful set of cooking instructions:

Fry the meat until you’re happy with the colour. Add vegetables, aromatics, some appropriate liquid and whatever else you fancy, until you’re happy with the flavour. Simmer until you’re happy with the texture. Bask in the pleasure of having thought for yourself and invented your own dish. Eat and enjoy.

If there’s a moral to this story, it’s the same as the moral to most of my other stories: that the person best placed to decide what to buy, what to cook and how to cook it, is you. Not Heston; not some advertising executive; and certainly not a beleaguered supermarket staff writer charged with filling the space beneath the words “cooking instructions”.

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Why I won’t be entering the Nigel Slater food photo competition

What are you going to cook tonight?

Working out the answer to this question is one of the things I look forward to each day, whether I’m planning to shop for the ingredients (I don’t yet know what, of course), improvise a meal from what’s already in my fridge and cupboards, or some combination of the two.

What I’m assuredly not going to do is go shopping for a prescribed combination of ingredients, assemble them to somebody else’s specification, then take a photograph of the results and send it to a national paper on the off-chance of winning a cookbook.

But plenty of people are, courtesy of this competition from the Guardian. Cook your favourite Nigel Slater dish, send in your photo, and you might just win a signed copy of his new book.

Looking purely at the ratio of required effort to potential rewards, you’d be better off buying a lottery ticket (and I’m not going to do that either).

But this competition has next to nothing to do with what the entrants might win, and almost everything to do with the kudos of seeing their “creations” appearing in the pages of the Guardian, Observer Food Monthly or wherever.

It’s designed to appeal to the people who habitually photograph their meals and post the pictures on Facebook or Instagram, most probably accompanied by the caption “NOM NOM!”.

The fundamental pointlessness of this is generally well understood, at least by the silent majority who don’t do it. I suppose it’s just about forgivable – apart from the “nom nom” bit, obviously – if you’re posting a snap of a meal you’ve created yourself, perhaps accompanied by some insight into how you made it.

But when the height of your ambition is dutiful emulation, the act of photographing your dinner reaches a new level of ridiculousness. Undertake a household task, take a photo of the results and send it off into the ether. You might as well post a picture of your completed washing up.

In fact, I think I will.

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(My washing up. Today.)

Or, if replication is now perceived as an art form in itself, why not have a competition to find the reader who can produce the most accurate reproduction of the Mona Lisa? It would be utterly futile, of course. But is it really that much dafter than the contest they’re running at the moment?

None of this is intended as a dig at Nigel Slater himself. I like his writing, and I’ve no idea whether he had anything to do with devising this spectacularly silly competition. But what it represents – a perfect storm of obedience and vanity – sums up the flawed relationship we’ve developed with food and cooking.

Years of watching cookery programmes on telly – and, in particular, shows such as Masterchef or The Great British Bake-Off, where cooking meets reality TV – have fundamentally affected our perceptions and priorities.

It’s an inevitable consequence of a visual medium: we can’t taste the food that the chefs or contestants produce, so we become obsessed with its appearance. Even where actual sampling is involved, we can never be the ones to do it, so the analysis of the food becomes secondary to what we can see; except perhaps when things go hideously wrong, and Gregg Wallace and friends get the enjoyable opportunity to dust off some of their more colourful figures of speech. In other words, what food programming isn’t about, and arguably can never be about, is the most important thing of all: the taste.

And yet, rather than allow our own palates, judgements and preferences to guide us, we persist in trying to replicate other people’s creations, whether we’ve Sky-plussed them from the TV or, more likely, read them from a cookbook, newspaper or website. We’ve never tasted these people’s cooking, and we never will; yet we follow them nonetheless, in what amounts to an act of blind faith. And if the end result fails to inspire, we don’t question the merits of the recipe; instead, we presume we must have done something wrong, and vow to do a better copying job the next time. As behaviours go, it’s bizarre to the point of masochistic.

Add to this the many other factors that militate against a recipe-driven approach to cooking – the drudgery, the inherent deference, the potential for wastefulness – and the arguments for an alternative methodology become compelling.

Elsewhere in the Guardian’s pages, you can read the work of a different kind of food writer: the newly ubiquitous Jack Monroe, whose rapid journey from impoverished single mother to successful blogger and Labour Party campaigner has earned her the coveted accolade of being smeared by Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail. (I can’t bring myself to link to the odious Littlejohn’s original piece, but Monroe’s eloquently indignant riposte is well worth a read.)

Her articles include recipes, naturally – newspaper food editors aren’t ready to let go of that particular comfort blanket just yet – but they also explore more interesting and relevant issues around resourcefulness, inventiveness and cost. In short, she writes about a subject that’s long since gone out of fashion, but remains as relevant as it has ever been: home economics.

While the term itself isn’t exactly alluring, taking your lead from home economics doesn’t mean that cooking becomes boring: quite the reverse. Even if you’re relatively well off, there’s immense satisfaction to be gained from finding value, making use of what you have, avoiding waste and turning the proverbial sow’s ear into an equally proverbial silk purse. And as with any creative process, the act of invention can bring enormous pleasure in itself.

The end results may or may not be worth photographing. That doesn’t matter – and anyway, you don’t want your dinner to go cold while you’re getting that perfect shot. What matters is that the food is nourishing, satisfying and tasty.

Mind you, if the Guardian were to run an alternative competition, inviting readers to photograph and describe the best meals they’ve ever made for a quid a head, that would be a hell of a lot more interesting, and infinitely more meaningful.

In fact, I might even enter it myself.

Wispa it quietly – it’s all about the texture

I was going to write a piece on texture for the blog, then I remembered I’d already written one and published it to my personal blog a few weeks back.

In the likely event you missed it, I’ve reproduced it here. Hope you enjoy.

 

Originally published on 1 October 2013

AUTHOR’S NOTE: On the Guardian website today is a piece by Amy Fleming on the changing shape of the Dairy Milk bar. I admit that this particular furore had passed me by; but as it happened, I’d just finished a piece on a connected subject, but with the emphasis on what the shape and texture of our chocolate can teach us about cooking creatively. Here it is.

A couple of connected questions for you.

Firstly, how many dishes do you know how to cook? Five? Ten? Twenty? More? Enough to keep you and yours from staring sadly at your plates while thinking “oh, not spag bol again”?

Secondly, what’s your favourite chocolate bar?

The link between the two questions may not be immediately obvious, but bear with me. If you’re able to answer the first question with an exact figure, you might do well to spend some time thinking about the second.

Same old, same old

Recently, a report by Morrisons indicated that the average Briton remains stuck in a “repeat meal rut”, maintaining a rotation of as few as five different meals. And apparently, more than half of us are still eating exactly the same meals we were ten years ago.

These results aren’t exactly surprising. What is even less surprising is the fact that the supermarket is using the findings to promote its range of pre-prepared meals. The message is unambiguous: if you don’t want to eat the same thing over and over again, look no further than the ever-expanding ready meals section.

Well, here’s an alternative idea. If you’re about to cook the same meal for the 521st week running, don’t just admit defeat and reach for the convenience food. Instead, borrow a little trick from the chocolate-makers: take those familiar old ingredients, and look for a new way to put them together.

And if you doubt whether that will make any significant difference to your meal, may I refer you back to the chocolate question.

Wispa campaign

Do you remember the outcry when Cadbury withdrew the Wispa from sale in 2003? Attempts to rebrand it as a variant on Dairy Milk were unsuccessful, and the bar was finally restored permanently to our shelves in 2008, following a coordinated protest on social media – a Wispa campaign, if you will.

I can certainly recall being one of the outraged many when the Wispa disappeared; but why? Why didn’t I just shrug my shoulders and buy a Flake, a Twirl, a Spira – itself discontinued in 2005, prompting a Facebook campaign of its own – or any of the other milk chocolate bars made from exactly the same ingredients?

The answer, of course, is in the texture. The ingredients might be the same, but the eating experience is quite different in each case, solely as a result of the relative distribution of chocolate and air.

Whether we realise it or not, we have a pretty sophisticated understanding of the power of texture, at least as far as confectionery is concerned. As a nation of eaters, we know our Twirls from our Wispas. But when we cook, it tends to be the forgotten factor. We’re forever looking for new and exciting flavour combinations; but we’re oblivious to the textural possibilities of the ingredients we buy every week.

Where flavour meets texture

Writing in the Scotsman, Tom Kitchin discusses the years he spent as a trainee chef, learning different ways to chop and prepare ingredients to produce a range of effects. And he makes the crucial point that “cooking isn’t just about recipes. It’s about taking ingredients and making them taste as good as you possibly can.”

This is a sentiment I’d wholeheartedly endorse – to the extent that I’ve just written an entire book about the benefits of cooking without recipes – but I have a slight problem with the terminology. To return briefly to matters chocolatey, is there actually any difference in taste between a Dairy Milk and a Flake? I’d argue not; but their contrasting textures lead us to perceive them differently.

So why wouldn’t the same apply to savoury ingredients? Our eating experience is determined by the combination of flavour and texture. The two factors might not quite be equally weighted – in that no amount of textural magnificence can rescue a meal that tastes repulsive – but they are as fundamental as they are inseparable. A gelatinous, mouth-coating, lip-smacking sauce is a world away from a watery broth, even if they “taste” about the same. And the coleslaw in your sandwich would be an altogether cruder – and, let’s face it, weirder – experience, if the vegetables were roughly chopped rather than finely grated.

Safe experimentation

When I’m encouraging people to get creative with their home cooking, I invite them to think of their kitchens as their own personal research and development departments. The potential problem with this, of course, is that few of us can afford the time or expense of a failed experiment when we’ve got a family to feed.

But this is exactly where textural innovation comes into its own. Experimenting with flavour can be a fraught business. Attempt to pair lamb with banana, and you might just create something wonderful, but there’s every chance that it’ll be disgusting to the point of inedible. Focus on the texture, however, and you run none of the same risks. The ingredients are all familiar, you already know you like them, and you know they work well together. So you can get as creative as you like, secure in the knowledge that there’s not an awful lot that can go wrong.

So when you’re next faced with the ingredients for that over-familiar spag bol, why not try putting them together in a different way? Roll the minced beef into balls – you won’t need any additional binding agent, as the tackiness of the meat will be enough on its own – rather than using loose mince. Try putting the garlic in the meatball mix rather than the sauce, so that each morsel carries a distinct garlicky hit. If you’re in the habit of leaving the vegetables as chunky dice, try chopping them as finely as you can, then frying them gently so that they melt away into the sauce. Experiment with solid cuts of meat instead of mince, and with how finely you chop them.

Alternatively, why not play around with how the constituent parts (pasta and sauce) are divided? Leave the bacon out of the Bolognese and the Parmesan off the table, and instead, toss the spaghetti with Parmesan and fried pancetta before serving alongside the sauce. And feel free to take your pick from the dozens of shapes of pasta on the supermarket shelves, knowing that each will produce a slightly different effect.

It’s true that several of these examples would fail to meet any accepted definition of spaghetti Bolognese. But to put it bluntly: so what? If it turns out that I prefer it, then give me “bucatini al Tom” any day.

The fallacy of authenticity

Here’s one final question. If it’s so straightforward, why aren’t we all in the habit of experimenting with texture every time we cook?

In my view, there are two reasons. I’ve mentioned the first already: we tend to underestimate the significance of texture in our meals. The solution to this is straightforward: think back to the chocolate bar question, and remind yourself that the same principles apply to everything you cook and eat.

It’s not just that we underestimate the significance of texture when we cook (though most of us undoubtedly do). It’s also that we’re all too bloody obedient for our own good. We follow recipes dutifully, rarely bothering to ask why. And we have an unhealthy obsession with authenticity, as if there were some omniscient spaghetti God watching our every move, ready to strike us down at the first sign of non-compliance.

Well, I’ll risk an eternity of pasta damnation by saying to you now: there isn’t.

Food, like language, evolves constantly. Moreover, there are only two characteristics shared by all of the world’s most celebrated dishes, from paella to haggis. The first is they were invented not by design, but by happy quirks of necessity and circumstance. And the second is that no two cooks can agree on the “right” ways to make them. So our quest for authenticity is doomed to failure, because the holy grail we seek simply doesn’t exist.

So, with all that in mind, might I nudge you gently in the direction of a little textural experimentation? Take the meals you know only too well and reassemble them in a way you don’t. You never know: you might just stumble upon your own savoury equivalent of the Wispa bar.

And best of all, the next time anyone asks how many dishes you know how to cook, you’ll be able to answer honestly and with pride: “I have absolutely no idea.”