Cooking 101; or Why You Suck at Cooking

There is more information on the topic of food and cooking than at any time before in the history of the world; this is not hyperbole, it is fact — a perfect storm of cool first world problems colliding with the warm front of our increasingly unhealthy food supply and our rediscovery of traditional methods and foodways.  In other words, a tornado of interest in all things food and the people who cook it, from food fetishes to serious concerns about provenance and policy.  Overall, this is a good thing (save for the people who insist on documenting everything they’ve ever eaten or cooked — this is tedious); food is the most powerful medicine you can put in your body.  It is the greatest determinant of illness and obesity, and the most important factor in general well being.  The long and short of it: what you eat and how much of it is about the most important healthcare plan there is.

Sadly, home cooking, the most important cooking, has on some level been lost in the shuffle by our deification of professional chefs.  To some degree, this has to do with the fact that cooking is no longer, for the most part, passed down maternally or paternally.  The average home cook is as likely to learn about handmade pasta from Mario Batali or fried chicken from Tyler Florence as they are from nona or maw-maw.  While there’s nothing wrong with this, there is a certain disconnect that occurs.  Cooking is not only scientific, but sensual, and while I can tell you that perfect egg pasta feels like a “cat’s tongue” when properly worked, it’s much easier to show you and to let you touch it.  That sensory muscle memory is invaluable and what once occurred in the home is now the province of professional cooking schools, as if cooking is some recondite art entrusted to a culinary Illuminati to dispense, communion like.

The other side of this is the insistence of the average American cook to be guided by recipes — directions — as if they’re building a single span suspension bridge.  Outside of pastry and sugar work, recipes and amounts are more discretionary than absolute.  Yes, there are certain instances where this isn’t the case, but the vast majority of cooking does not depend on precise amounts but precise technique.  Technique is the single most important determinant of good cooking.  Without good technique, you have the how without the why, and the how without the why makes you fundamentally unable to correct or create.  Ever watch a great home cook — say grandma — measure in the palm of  her hand and cook almost purely intuitively? What is mistaken as intuition is really the result of years of experience and an understanding of why.  However, Americans are by and large rigid, and fear the culinary wilderness outside the margins of their Martha Stewart cookbook, not realizing that this is the only way to true freedom and creativity.  Do you think Miles Davis never played a major scale before recording Bitches Brew?  Of course not, and while recipes are excellent guides and essential for food costing and management, they don’t teach you how to cook any more than reading a driver’s manual teaches you how to drive.  Recipes are the end result of good technique, not the other way around.

Of course, the best way to learn technique is hands on, and this is where the the lack of familial tutelage is felt most acutely: how do I know I’m doing it right?  And the answer is, at first, you won’t.  But like most things that employ a method, cooking can be broken down logically, and that is where recipes are an excellent starting point.

One of the first things you’re taught in culinary school is how to properly read and organize a recipe.  When done properly, a recipe can be decocted into different techniques for handling ingredients in a certain order.  If step one is cook equal parts butter and flour, you are making a roux.  If you are combining oil and egg yolks cold, you are making the base of an emulsified sauce.  While this sounds daunting, breaking down a recipe into smaller tasks that you can practice is one of the best ways outside of direct instruction to learn good technique.  Building blocks.  You practice the techniques until they become part of your conscious state but require no thought.  Otherwise, you can’t perform multiple activities at once.  Because in the end, the point of technique is precision and time management.  Doing ten different things that become one thing in the end while giving each the attention they deserve: hard to do when you are reading instructions, right?  This also speaks to organization.  Get your shit together in the kitchen.  This is the whole point of having a recipe — to gather what you need in the order that you need it.  Get it?  Also, work clean.  Don’t wait until the end to start cleaning, otherwise you’ll be overwhelmed and hate cooking.  Cleaning is as much a part of the process as cooking.  If you’ve ever read Kitchen Confidential you already know this.

The end result of all this technique and organization drum beating is to help you develop “kitchen common sense.”  Nothing will ever replace common sense in the kitchen.  Nothing.  If the recipe says cook it for ten minutes and it starts to burn at seven, is the recipe to blame?  No, you are, because you’re following and not thinking.  The recipe doesn’t know how hot your stovetop is, or whether or not your 350 degree oven is really 325 or 375.  It is a guideline, and it was not carried down the mountain by Moses.  Ask any chef how long you cook something for and you’ll get this answer: until it’s done.  And while you may have some astounding successes cooking by number, chances are you’ll also have many dismal failures.  Common sense helps you avoid these failures.  Too hot? Turn it down.  Not hot enough? Turn it up.  Tough cut? Cook it long and slow.  Tender? Hot and fast.  It’s all about understanding your ingredients and handling them properly.  Once you understand that, you can cook almost anything with your skills and imagination.

And while I’m at it, don’t expect to be Emeril with your dull knife and cheap pots and pans: it ain’t happening.  While you don’t need to break the bank, cooking is markedly easier and more rewarding with a few good pieces of equipment that you should care for like a newborn.  Sharp knife: 8″ German-style chef should to most people.  7″ Santoku is also a good choice.  Also, a sharp paring knife.  And learn how to sharpen and care for it.  And wash it by hand — don’t be a slob.  A good skillet or two.  One cast iron and one stainless steel will do most. Lodge cookware is an incredibly good value and made in the USA! USA!  Once you learn to sear and sauté properly that skillet you used to let everything stick to because it wasn’t hot enough will become your best friend.  You might even learn to cook eggs in it properly — but you should still probably buy a non-stick.  A sauce pan and a stock pot: pretty self-explanatory, but get heavy-bottomed and non-reactive interior, meaning stainless steel, not aluminum.  Roasting pan:  you know, for roasting things, like turkeys, whole tenderloins, etc.  Of course, you can go overboard and buy complete sets, etc., but a few useful, dependable pieces will serve you better than the full-set you registered for at Williams-Sonoma.  Believe me.

Also, buy good ingredients, the best you can afford.  I’m not a food snob, and I will never turn down something cooked with love and care because I didn’t get to meet the chicken personally or shake the farmer’s hand.  That being said, there is a huge quality difference between small purveyors and farmer’s markets and Sam’s Club.  I understand economic realities, being what they are, often force uncomfortable compromises and choices; but the quality of ingredients, even more than technique, influence the outcome of a dish more than any other factor.  Or as my old French friend, Chef Pascal, told me:  What you put into your pot is what you get out of it.  Garbage in garbage out.  Pretty simple really.

Of course, good ingredients really shine when they are properly seasoned, and proper seasoning is the bane of both the professional and amateur alike.  Especially salt.  I could probably write a PhD dissertation on salt.  And most of you use it wrong.  Once technique is mastered and ingredients are sourced, seasoning is what separates good from great.  Good seasoning elevates the mediocre, while poor seasoning can ablate even the most sublime ingredient.  Bottom line: taste, and taste constantly.  Food should never have too much of, but just enough.  Balance.  I can’t stress this enough.  The point of seasoning is to enhance, and not overwhelm.  Conversely, under-seasoned food is bland and boring.  The salt that you add to your own food is probably not going to give you high blood pressure, so use it, for the love of whomever you pray to.

Now go sharpen your knives and get your pans hot and cook something.  I’ve had enough for one day…

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3 thoughts on “Cooking 101; or Why You Suck at Cooking

  1. “Ever watch a great home cook — say grandma — measure in the palm of her hand and cook almost purely intuitively?”

    Yeah, that would be me. I cook like grandma. Or, well, my mom. All but one grandparent passed on before I was born. The remaining one didn’t cook but was kinda obsessed about being a Jehovah’s Witness…

    Point: thanks for mentioning us intuitive types.

  2. I am constantly buying my friends better knives…not great knives (because I’m not made of money) but my Daddy taught me a cook lives & dies by their knives. Then again my great-grandfather was a butcher.

  3. Pingback: Cooking a meal = complex project « Blathering 504

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