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Friday, January 11, 2019

How To Be A Good Cook

Why should anyone learn to cook?

There are many reasons.  Cooking saves money.  Cooking is potentially more nutritious.  Cooking is fun.  Cooking is an expression of love.  There are far more reasons to cook than there are not to cook.

Even though most Americans know the benefits of cooking a meal, too many of us eschew the kitchen with the belief that it's too hard.  I know some of you out there reading this are nodding in agreement.  I know how you are feeling.  You attempted a meal or two and it didn't meet your expectations, so you threw up our hands in despair and said, "I can't cook.  I'm hopeless."  Then you ordered takeout, all the while envying the people in your lives who are regularly turning out meals, (and you keep wishing for an invite to their homes for dinner).

I'm here to save you.  I'm here to tell you it's not impossible.  You too can be a good cook and enjoy all the benefits of making your own meals.  Do you want to know the secret?

Cook.

That's right.  Get in the kitchen and start cooking.

Cooking isn't a magical ability that you are either born with or not.  It's a skill like any other skill that takes time and practice.

I'm not talking about chef-level skills here.  Sure there are people who are born with an innate sense of smell and taste that helps them create finely-tuned flavors in their dishes that your average home cook might not be able to achieve.  There are also people who are blessed with the kind of dexterity and fine motor skills that make it easier for them to do work with knives and pastry. I'm not talking about these people.  You don't need these kinds of skills to be a good home cook.  All you need is practice.

Do you have a grandmother who made the best dishes of your ancestral cuisine you ever tasted?  Maybe she made delicious tomato sauce, or pierogi, or strudel, or samosas, or matzoh ball soup.  You looked at her ability to cook those wonderful dishes as magic.  You believed her talent was not passed on down to you.  You don't have that magic.

Let me tell you a secret about your grandmother.  Her gifts were not magic.  She cooked that well because she did it for decades.  She grew up making those dishes.  She made them for years.  During that time she figured out ways to tweak the recipes to be the way she liked them and the way your parents liked them and the way you liked them.  There is no magic and there are no secrets.  Your grandmother cooked that well because did it all her life.  If you cooked as much as she did, you would be a good cook too.

The hardest part of becoming a good cook is getting started.  You need to take those first steps.  I'm here to help you on the journey.  Take a deep breath and consider everything I am about to tell you.

The first thing to consider is what you like to eat.  What are your favorite foods?  The most important part of learning to cook is making foods you will enjoy eating.  It is possible that your favorite foods may be some of the most difficult ones to prepare, but I am going to guess there are a few that are fairly easy.

The next thing to do is find recipes that sound tasty to you.  There are recipe sources everywhere.  Go to a used bookstore and find some basic cookbooks.  Look at recipes online.  Look at YouTube videos. ( I wouldn't suggest watching the Food Network.  Too many of their shows focus on the personalities of the presenters and don't cover the steps well enough.)  You can also reach out to people you know.  If one of your friends or relatives cooks a beloved dish, why don't you request to shadow her in the kitchen and learn how to prepare this dishes by watching how they are made.  Make sure these folks let you participate at some level.

When you first begin cooking with recipes, follow them to the letter.  Don't skip any steps.  Learn the process.  Start learning the techniques.  Understand the basics.  Develop a feel for how long it takes to brown meat, blanch a vegetable, or deglaze a pan.  You may have to make one recipe several times before you feel comfortable making it and enjoy eating the results.  Don't give up.

Once you are comfortable cooking a few basic recipes, you can liberate yourself bit.  Maybe you thought a certain dish would take better with more salt or less salt  Maybe you feel daring enough to see if you can substitute lime juice for lemon juice in another dish.  Would the sauce benefit from a splash of white wine or some sweet fruit juice?    Once you know how to cook a chicken breast one way, you can use your taste to guide you to make it the best chicken breast* ever (in your opinion).

When you cook, pay attention and taste often.  Think about each step of the recipe.  Did something cook too quickly or too slowly?  Consider the heat in the pan.  Listen for the sounds of sizzling.  Poke foods to feel their softness or firmness.  Taste your sauces.  Taste again after you adjusted the seasoning.  How easily do your vegetables yield to a knife or fork?  Do you like them done more or less?  Keep tasting.  Take notes as you go. Don't be afraid to play.  If something didn't taste right the first time, make a note of what you did when you made the recipe and make adjustments the next time you make the dish.

One resource I recommend is Samin Nosrat's book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.  It breaks down the elements of what makes food taste good.  Salt, fat, and acid  enhance, carry, and balance flavors.  Heat is the main element of texture.  Does this sound confusing?  It is really simple.  You probably are using these elements with your food without even realizing it.

The next time you make (or order) a sandwich, think about the stuff you put on it.  You might start with your meat, which is probably salty deli meat.  You might decide to add cheese, mayonnaise, or avocado (fat).  Do you like to add pickles, mustard, or other condiments?  Then you just added acid and salt.  If you decide to toast the bread to make it crispy and enhance the aroma of the bread, you understand the power of heat.

The same goes for a salad.  You start with your greens.  Then you dress them with a dressing made from acid (vinegar, buttermilk, tomatoes) and fat (oil, mayonnaise) and then crumble cheese (salt, fat), bacon (salt, fat), avocado (fat), or olives (fat, salt) over it.  Maybe you add acidic vegetables like tomatoes or marinated artichoke hearts.  Do you get it now?

I'll make it even simpler.  How much more do you enjoy your crispy, fat-fried potatoes (fat, heat) with ketchup (salt, acid)?

Did you ever consider that maybe the reason most of us like cranberry sauce with Thanksgiving is because there are so few other acidic elements in a Thanksgiving dinner and the sauce injects some much-needed balance?

In other words, you already know instinctively what makes food taste good.  You just never paid attention. 

Now that you realize this, think of your favorite foods and how most of them use ingredients containing all of these elements.  Pizza has a crisp baked crust topped with acidic salty tomatoes and creamy cheese, possibly topped with salty meats or olives.  Chicken parmigiana has a crispy fried coating with the same creamy and acidic toppings.  Macaroni and cheese mixes gooey melted fatty cheese and tops it with crispy baked breadcrumbs.  Spaghetti with tomato sauce is best enhanced with an acidic, fatty, salty topping of parmigiano-reggiano.

There are so many ingredients out there that can help you alter how your food tastes and create the perfect dish.  You can get acid from fruits, pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, condiments, sour cream, yogurt, vinegars, and alcohol.  Salt can come from bacon, soy sauce, miso, anchovies, fish sauce, sauerkraut, kimchi,Worcestershire, cured meats, condiments, or cheese.  Fat is found in oils, bacon, cured meats, cheese, cream, butter, sour cream, yogurt, and mayonnaise.  Note how many of the foods on this list do double, or even triple, duty (is there nothing cheese can't do?).  You don't need a plethora of ingredients to flavor and balance a dish.  One or two of these elements can turn a basic food into a delicious one.  You can transform the plainest foods - a chicken breast, a bowl of rice, a plate of steamed vegetables - with just a handful of the right ingredients. (One mistake beginner cooks make is to pile on too many ingredients into a recipe believing the more ingredients, the fancier the dish.  Please stop taking cooking advice from Rachael Ray.)

You have the knowledge.  You just need to take that knowledge and start practicing.  It does mean some effort.  You will have to go to the store and shop for ingredients.  You will have to make sure you have the pots and pans and knives needed for preparation (and plates to serve them on).  Don't give up.  The first few meals might not taste the way you had hoped and they may take more time than you feel it is worth.  Keep at it.  Eventually you will develop your skills.  The more you like your own cooking, the more others will like it as well.  Soon your friends will want to come to your house for dinner.

Do you want to know yet another  secret?  It takes only a little effort for others to consider you a good cook. In this modern age, where Seamless rules supreme, the willingness to cook from scratch automatically makes you a superstar.  Americans will appreciate almost any home cooking. I am my favorite example.  I am not the greatest baker out there.  I have friends who who create the most beautiful and commercially viable baked goods.  I don't do anything close to that.  Regardless, many of my friends and family think I'm a great baker.  I'm not exceptionally talented in that area.  I simply am willing to bake.  I go out there and buy eggs and flour and real butter and go to my kitchen and make those cakes and pies and cookies.  It's not just the food they appreciate.  They appreciate the effort.  Most homemade foods are going to taste better than most commercially prepared foods.  The most basic efforts are good cooking in today's world of instant meals.

So go out there, find some recipes, go shopping and buy the best ingredients you can afford, and hit the kitchen.  You can think big, but start small.  Make that sandwich and make that salad and work your way up from there. Practice doesn't make perfect, but it can make some edible meals.  One day your grandchildren will want to cook like you.


*Vegetarians, please don't be offended by my example.  I just used chicken breast because it's a common ingredient beginners use.  I'm not suggesting it's what everyone cooks. Just substitute the word chicken with tofu slab or spaghetti or portobello mushroom or whatever one might consider the most basic element in vegetarian cooking.

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