Tag Archives: cooking techniques

The Tyranny of the Recipe

25 Mar
She's hiding something, she is.

She's hiding something, she is.

How many times have you heard yourself say, “I need to find a recipe for (fill in the blank).” There should be a question mark in there somewhere, but I don’t know where to put it.  Alas.  Remember waaay back when we talked about the Road to Automaticity?  I think that, when we say “I need to find a recipe for…” we have pretty much just started out on our journey.  A recipe is safe.  It provides us with structure:  lists of interesting ingredients, cooking times, temperature settings, Rules for Success and a description of the End Product.  That’s all well and good, but recipes maintain a Suspicious Silence when it comes to teaching us how to cook.

What a recipe really is is a marriage of an ingredient list to a set of techniques and procedures.  Except, recipes don’t tell us that.  No, they just smile a mysterious, small smile.  They don’t allow us to generalize, or rather they hope we’ll generalize on our own, even though we are sometimes Nervous in the kitchen.  And nervous folks don’t generalize very well.

Go look at your favorite cookbook right now.  Look at the section on cakes.  The ingredient lists change at least a little for every cake, sometimes more and sometimes less.  There might be some cocoa powder in one or maybe some spices and diced fruit in one.  Maybe the fat is butter; maybe it’s shortening or even oil.  Maybe one is made with 3 eggs, one with 4 eggs and one with nothing but whites.  Maybe the liquid is water or whole milk or sour cream.  If you look past all the minor differences, though, almost all will contain the Basic Four:  flour, fat, sugar and eggs.

Now, look at the procedure section of the recipes.  Repetitious, repetitious, repetitious.  I bet that most of them start in one of two ways:  1)”Cream together fat and sugar until light and fluffy.” or 2)”Combine dry ingredients, including sugar, softened butter, eggs and 1/4 of the milk and beat for two minutes.”  You might have a couple in there that start with “Whip egg whites and sugar to medium-stiff peaks.” Rather than taking the time to teach you the mixing methods at the beginning of the book, the cookbook author has chosen to repeat the same instructions with every single cake.  Granted, this is partly a product of our busy lifestyle.  It is kind of nice to have the rules printed up right underneath the ingredient list, and I know many people who wouldn’t buy a cookbook that wasn’t set up like that.

But friends, the time for change has come.  How great would it be to learn the mixing methods and then just apply them to ingredient lists?  This applies to “hot side” cooking as well.  Do we really need cookbooks dedicated to pizza?  Aren’t we creative enough to come up with cool combinations of toppings?  If we know how to make a basic dough (or can buy some from the local pizza joint), and we know how to make a sauce, and we know how to grate cheese and Place Toppings Attractively, isn’t that really all we need to know?

Here’s another thing that makes me just a little crazy.  The folks who have gotten past the “I need to find a recipe for (fill in the blank)” generally move to this step:  “I have x,y and z in the fridge.  What can I make with them?”  That’s wonderful, but then where do they end up?  At a recipe search site, looking for recipes that contain said ingredients x,z and z.  Once they have the recipe in hand, they’re catapulted back to being dependent upon the recipe.  And it just smiles its little smile, because it just knew that they’d be back.

I contend that, if you pay close attention to the procedure sections of recipes, you’ll start to see patterns of preparation.  For example, if the first four ingredients on your ingredient list are carrots, onions, celery and oil, it’s a safe bet that in Step 1 of the procedure section, you’ll be dicing up the veggies, 2 parts onion to 1 part each of carrot and celery and sauteing them up in the oil.

I think it’s possible to move beyond “I need to find a recipe,” and “Can I find a recipe that uses these items?” and on to “Oooh, I have x, y and z in the fridge.  I know the technique(s) necessary to make them into dinner!”  It’s not necessarily an easy leap, especially with FN and others droning on about where you can find the recipe for this, that or the other.  But it is a leap that you can make; it’s one that I made, partly because I was forced to by my job.  Let me tell you that after a brief period of discomfiture, just breaking down and learning the techniques was ultimately liberating.

Next time you come across a really great sounding recipe, you’ll know why it’s smiling a Mona Lisa Smile–it’s hiding something from you.  Don’t throw it away in disgust, though.  Study it and make it give up its secrets.  It might take you an extra few minutes, but you will come away understanding the techniques and procedures used in creating that dish and can now generalize it to other lists of ingredients.

So, a challenge to you all:  go out into the Hinternet and find a fancy-schmancy recipe, one that seems confounding but tasty.  Send me the link, and I’ll break it down for you, live on the air tomorrow.  If I don’t get any takers, I’ll go out and find my own Mona Lisa and interrogate her.

Nature Versus Nurture, or The Automatic Cook

13 Feb
The Food Network Kitchen, where you will be in school for the rest of your life.

The Food Network Kitchen, where you will be in school for the rest of your life.

I am very lucky.  I started this wee blog to blather on about cooking and baking and to try and convince folks that the kitchen is not a scary place.  Along the way, I have picked up a merry band of followers, and I merrily follow others.  It’s like the Sherwood Forest of the Hinternet where everyone gets to be Robin Hood, except without tights.  And hats with feathers.  Ahem.  The point is, all these folks are very smart, funny and talented.  They’re excellent writers and are all blogging, mostly about food, for different reasons.

Well yesterday, one of these talented, funny people commented thusly:

Daily Spud alerted me to this post in a comment on my most recent entry “Crouching Tiger, Cooking Dolphin” where I asked if nature or nurture determined cooking skills. I’d love to get your take on it!

I’d like to consider myself creative, at least when it comes to writing and crafting. However, I tend to box myself into a recipe, following it to the letter rather than allowing any creativity to jump in and yell, “Hey, how about trying this!”. On occasion, it does get my attention but too often I tamp it down. It may be tied into a fear of failure. But then again, failure is a learning opportunity, isn’t it?–Tangled Noodle

So, I put it in my brain that I would write about this very topic today.  And then, guess what?  Another brilliant and talented reader/readee responded to the first comment.  Thusly:

Tangled Noodle, I think you have it exactly when you say it’s a fear of failure. Creativity is not so much the ability to come up with new ideas, as the confidence to actually *try* them.

Confidence comes from knowledge and understanding of the subject matter. Fearlessness — not the same thing — comes from a realization of the low impact of failure. (Ooh, your soufflé fell, the world won’t end.)

Just plain fearlessness can lead to spectacular originality. Or spectacular failure. (Oh, it was an *anchovy* soufflé. Okay then.) Confidence leads to boldness, and to constantly expanding horizons of knowledge.

Instead of trying to be creative with a brand new recipe, start with one you already know well. Maybe brown sugar instead of white in your chocolate chip cookies. How does that change them? Or thyme instead of oregano in your spaghetti sauce, what will that taste like?

Most creative success builds on a foundation of knowledge. The most creative people generally have the deepest, widest foundation on which to build.–Drew from How to Cook Like Your Grandmother

See how smart everyone is around here?  This is just about exactly what I would have said, and I could just leave it at that, but I’m not going to.  I’ll add my own 3.5 cents worth.  Thusly:

What people don’t seem to understand, and what The Food Network and most cookbooks fail to tell us, is that you cannot be truly free and comfortable in the kitchen until you really understand and have internalized the principles of ingredient function, cooking/baking methods and techniques.  Drawing on my psychology background (are you really surprised), it’s all about automaticity.  My spellchecker says it’s not a word, but it really is.  Ah-ta-mah-TIH-si-tee.  What this little theory states is that, when we are first learning a new skill, we are hypervigilant and very mindful of the learning process.  We’re actively engaged and intent on performing each step correctly (and in the right order).  Through repetition, we become more and more comfortable with the steps until eventually we can perform them without even thinking about them.  Voila:  automaticity.

Think back to when you learned to drive a car.  Wow, but there are a lot of things to keep in mind.  Gears, brakes, turn signals, gas caps, rear view mirrors, ten and two, three-point turns, parallel parking and on and on and on.  Remember your driving test?  I knew some guys who were very cavalier about the whole thing–they seemed at ease and not a bit nervous about performing these complex tasks under the watchful eye of The Examiner.  I was in awe of those guys.  What I only later came to realize was that they had been driving, illegally, for a really long time and had internalized all the rules.  On the other end of the spectrum, there was me.  I was Petrified.  I knew next to nothing about driving when I started in Driver Education classes.  Seriously.  I somehow thought that, once I had the car up to 35 mph, it would stay there, uphill and down, without my having to do anything else.  Turns out, you have to apply the brakes or the gas or coast to keep yourself at a constant speed.  Who knew?  The guys that had been driving for years knew. That didn’t make them better than me, although at the time, I thought they were better.  It just made them better drivers.  And they were better because they had had more practice.  They had achieved automaticity–they could perform all the individual tasks required to drive without having to think about them.  Meanwhile, here I was, all talking myself through each step and sweating.  Amateur.  Guess what?  You will be pleased to know that I have become an automatic driver.

Now, apply the principle of automaticity to cooking.  There are a ton of rules.  A ton!  Heaps of skills to be learned.  Methods to get down pat.  Techniques to become proficient in. When we first start cooking, we have to consciously think about each step and refer to cook books to tell us what to do next.  We have to think about the correct way to hold a knife, dice an onion, make a stock.  It’s a slow, time consuming and often stressful proposition.  And that’s where many home cooks are right now.  They’re in the hypervigilant learning phase.  I’ve been there, too.  I can remember checking off ingredients on recipes, slaving away for hours over what would now take me just a few minutes, and following instructions without knowing why.

Which brings me, inevitably, to The Food Network (FN–fitting, I think.  Say it again:  EFFenn).  Have you guys heard this Chinese proverb before?  “Give a man a fish, and he eats today.  Teach a man to fish and he eats for the rest of his life.”  Let me tell you folks, The Food Network is keeping us down and just giving us fish.  Giada might tell you to cut up onions and celery and cook them in some oil and butter in a pan, but what she fails to tell you is that’s the way that most Italian cooking starts! It’s the first step because it builds your first level of flavor.  And, what do they do in France?  They do the same thing, but they add carrots.  It’s called mire poix.  And how do I know this?  Not from the Food Network.  It really kind of pisses me off:  they don’t tell us these things because then we would know.  And if we know, we won’t need them anymore.  Soylent Green is People!  (Sorry.  Not sure where that came from). They aren’t teaching us to cook.  If they were, they’d say, “dice onion, garlic and celery and sweat them in olive oil.  This is a soffritto.  This is the basis of many, many dishes.  Next time, when I say ‘make a soffritto,’ you’ll know what I’m talking about.”  Sneaky, selfish Food Network people.  If they were really teaching us, eventually, we wouldn’t need them anymore.  What they’re doing is just stringing us along, one recipe at a time.

I seem to have gotten off on quite the tangent.  Imagine that.  Back to my original point (I think):  you can’t achieve automaticity by watching The Food Network.  You can only achieve it through learning and internalizing the fundamentals.  Like the Very Smart Drew says, “Most creative success builds on a foundation of knowledge. The most creative people generally have the deepest, widest foundation on which to build.”  To that, I add that these folks’ knowledge has been internalized to the point that they don’t even think about it.  They just unconsciously draw from their broad knowledge base and cook.  Here’s another thing:  that knowledge base isn’t an exhaustive database of recipes. It’s an understanding of ingredient function, cooking methods and techniques.  Sure, everyone has a few recipes that they know by heart, but most of the really great cooks can look at a refrigerator full of seemingly disparate ingredients and, drawing on their encyclopedia of know-how, whip up something fantastic.  If all they had in their heads was a recipe data base, they’d probably start by going to the store to purchase a few specific items that were lacking so they could make Recipe 143.26.c9.  Beep.

So, nature versus nurture?  I think you can guess on which side I come down.  To all of you cooks and bakers out there who are just starting out and feeling overwhelmed, please read your recipes and cookbooks with a discerning eye.  Sure, glance at the ingredient list, but focus on the preparation.  If 90% of the recipes in your Indian cookbook start with “grind spices.  Toast in ghee,” remember that.  Understand that it’s a way to build base flavors for that particular cuisine.  If your soup recipes all begin by telling you to cut up carrots, onions and celery, sweat them down in oil, deglaze with something and then add a bunch of broth or stock, know that you can generalize that to any soup.  If your Great Muffins cookbook tells you, time after time in recipe after recipe to combine the dry ingredients and fold in the wet ingredients, understand that they are repeating the rules for The Muffin Method over and over again.  Learn the method, and you are free (within the bounds of chemistry and good taste) to use that method to make any muffin you want.

I need to stop now.  Thank you for asking questions. Thank you for your thoughtful responses.  We can all teach and learn from each other.  And everyone can learn to cook.   Unfortunately, just like they haven’t started selling pantyhose that don’t run to ensure repeat buyers, cooking shows aren’t going to teach you how to cook.  They’re only going to show you what to cook.  They aren’t dumb–they don’t want you to graduate from Food U.  They want to keep you in school forever. You’re going to have to read between the lines of both the shows and cookbooks, learn the underlying skills and eventually achieve automaticity.  And it will take time. Don’t worry, though–you aren’t in this alone. We’re all traveling the Road to Automaticity.

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