On the bottle

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 August, 2009, 12:00am

The revelation in the New York Times that chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten uses sriracha (chilli sauce) - specifically, the Huy Fong brand of squeeze-bottle sriracha made in Rosemead, California - to add heat to some of the dishes at his restaurants in New York should come as no surprise. Chefs have been adding commercially made ingredients to perk up their food ever since monosodium glutamate and bouillon (broth) cubes were invented. Of course, we all make use of some commercial flavourings - only the most obsessive foodie would bother to brew their own soy sauce, oyster sauce, miso and vinegar. It isn't that the techniques are particularly difficult but commercial versions of these ingredients are as good, or even better, than anything we could make.

And even when they're not better, the convenience of some off-the-shelf ingredients is enough to make most people use them without thought. While a make-everything-from-scratch foodie might call this cheating, it's not, unless your cooking relies too heavily on the contents of cans or jars (think of those fast-food cooks who mix ketchup, canned pineapple juice and white vinegar to make sweet and sour sauce).

If you use commercial ingredients judiciously, your family and dinner guests need never know. The trick is to choose wisely - the ingredients should improve whatever you cook, not make it worse. Use them austerely: they are almost always better as a minor component. Be especially careful with ingredients such as canned broth and bouillon cubes: they taste awful on their own so shouldn't be used straight from the can to make a consomm?. Diluted heavily and mixed with other ingredients, they can be acceptable.

A few friends expressed surprise when I gave a recipe that called for Coca-Cola in a slow-braised dish. If I had made this dish and hadn't told anyone the soft drink was in there, they would never have guessed; it adds sweetness and depth but the distinctive flavour is muted by the other ingredients. I also add Coke to the water I use to soften spring roll wrappers; the sugar in the drink caramelises while the spring rolls are being fried, giving them a deeper brown colour. (Do not cook with diet soft drinks that contain artificial sweeteners.)

As for the popular Huy Fong sriracha, I use it sneakily - in sauces - and blatantly (straight out of the bottle) on sandwiches and with panko-coated fried prawns.