I have an enormous collection of cookbooks. They go as far back as the one my great-grandmother jotted recipes down in her light scrawl, with additions and notes made by my late father. To say I go way back as a foodie is an understatement. But I’ve recently discovered is that collecting all those recipes is nice from a purely archival or historical perspective, but completely useless when it came to learning to cook.
There was something missing.
I could certainly cook, and cook well … as long as I followed a recipe. And if you have access to lots of recipes, then you can really appear to know your way around a kitchen. It works - until you try and ‘wing’ it, or improvise. Shortcuts that went oh, soooo wrong. Throw it all in a big pot and see what happens?
It can go to hell in a soup pot.
Maybe there was something I was missing. Something vitally important.
Last year I decided to put more effort toward finding and filling the gaps in my knowledge of cooking - and I found that those gaps were not in the number of recipes, or the familiarity I had with various types of cuisine. Those things were encyclopedic. The gaps were in basic, fundamental technique.
Why and when braise? How to braise? Why certain cuts of meat will never become falling apart tender and succulent in the wrong recipe. How to cook eggs in every way possible - without fail. Every single time. One of my biggest challenges was to pare down recipes and the number of ingredients in them until I had the essence of the thing. Less really is more in this case. You don’t need the entire produce aisle in a great salad with a deftly made, fresh, classic vinaigrette.
Quantity of ingredients only goes so far in masking a lack of technique.
I set forth to learn these things. You would be amazed at the dozens of eggs I went through - to learn to properly scramble, poach and fry. I developed hellish cramps in my arm from hand whipping egg whites by hand for the perfect soufflé or omelet.
Vegetables were another challenge. How to get those perfectly al dente, tasty veggies just like the better restaurants. Keep the color and freshness, yet cooked through. The secret was fairly simple once I figured it out. But oh, I went through a lot of them in the process - and so did my family.
The blog notes the successes, not so much the fails. And the frustrated tears. And swearing. One day, three pots of ‘from scratch’ vanilla bean pudding went down the drain - they curdled. Now I get it.
And, I watched Ti-Vo’d cooking shows. By the freaking hour - from my perch on the treadmill.
I didn’t care so much what they were cooking. I honed in on how they moved, how they held their knives, why cut it one way rather than another. Why this step before that one? Then I’d go into the kitchen and try it myself. Taking some hands on cooking classes helped, too. Particularly when it came to watching other people really muck it up - by not understanding the fundamentals.
Suddenly it began to click. Now I’ll simply glance at a recipe - sometimes just to see which techniques are involved, in what sequence, and a basic grasp of the ingredients. Understand the ‘approach’, and then let mastery of the fundamentals take over.
I finally understand that the sequence of events in the kitchen is very, very important. Let things come to room temperature. Softened butter isn’t created at the last minute in the microwave. Creaming butter and sugar together, and then adding the dry. Let the dough chill. There’s a point to all of this.
Learning the techniques has helped the bottom line.
Now I can more freely use those ingredients that are seasonal and fresh or on special - rather than slavishly pursuing the ingredient list from a recipe. Now I can comfortably adapt dishes on the fly, which is even more important in this economy.
And at the end, there isn’t a recipe in all of my many cookbooks that frightens me. Since I know they all boil down to basic, well-tested fundamental steps that I’m already in command of. And this is very liberating.
I’m not done learning. I don’t think I will ever be. But I’m a much more confident cook now, and enjoy it much more.
Technique is like knowing the alphabet. It makes reading - or cooking - less of a challenge and opens up a whole new world.