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When I’m cooking, I always keep a lookout for flavor and texture opportunities, particularly for tough ingredients. One of my favorite ways to do this is by scoring them. (“Scoring” as in partially cutting them, not “scoring” like obtaining them. But that’s important too.) Not only does this simple technique build in more flavor and texture opportunities, but it can also improve tough, unpleasantly chewy, or fibrous foods.

How to score food

Lightly scoring is a trick that’s been around probably as long as sharp knives have been. Scoring is any time you purposefully slice shallow cuts into a food. The slices don’t go all the way through, only about halfway to three-quarters of the depth. If you’re scoring a fat cap on meat, consider the depth of the fat as your guide. For foods that aren’t quite as thick, fatty, or fibrous, you can keep the score to about a half-inch deep. Use a sharp knife to cut long, even slices across the surface. To create a crosshatch pattern, turn the item 90 degrees and cut even slices across the first set perpendicularly. 

Slicing a series of long lines into an ingredient creates more surface area, which can increase the opportunity for crispy edges, and allows food to cook faster. It also creates small pockets to catch extra seasonings and aromatics. Scoring also makes tough foods feel more tender because it creates literal breaks in the grain or fiber of the food.

Japanese chefs use this technique when preparing squid to keep it from contracting into a seafaring rubber band after cooking. The shallow slices, cut parallel or into a cross-hatch pattern, break up the muscle fibers. This prevents the squid from curling up when heated, and keeps it tender. Another popular protein you may have seen with score marks is duck. Duck skin holds most of the fat content and scoring helps with even cooking. The extra surface area makes rendering that valuable fat easier and faster, and is the secret to evenly crisped, flavorful skin. But you can score the surface of far more than just squid and duck.

Which foods are good to score before cooking?

Any tough, chewy, or fibrous food is a good candidate for scoring, especially if you’re roasting or grilling it. These two cooking styles tend to pull out moisture, so it’s easy to dry things out, which only makes the texture of a tough food worse—but scoring can help counteract that.

Try scoring fruits and veggies with edible skin or tough, fibrous flesh:

  • Eggplant 

  • Firm-skinned squashes

  • Brussels sprouts

  • Pineapple

Score meats and proteins with a fatty cap you’d like to crisp up, or with long fibers you’d like to shorten for tenderizing:

  • Pork shoulder, belly, or butt

  • Ham

  • Skirt, flank, or hangar steak

Don’t forget to add flavor

Those new little pockets in your food shouldn’t go unfilled. Season the score marks by adding oil, dry seasonings, or fresh aromatics. Use your hands to rub the ingredients into all the score marks thoroughly. You can tuck fresh aromatics down into those pockets too. Stick crushed garlic cloves or ginger nubs in the cuts, or sprigs of thyme and sage, and for goodness sake, don’t forget the salt. 

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