becoming a better cook
Ask someone today to name a famous cook, and most young people will name one of the celebrity chefs who show up on cooking shows and own numerous restaurants.
Once upon a time, Julia Child’s name would have been first on people’s lips. She certainly was a media sensation—and I don’t believe she ever owned a single restaurant?
Her focus was on bringing French culinary techniques and recipes to the home cook—and don’t stint on the butter and cream!
(In culinary school, we joked that if something didn’t taste right, add some butter. Still not quite right? Add some cream. Still lacking? Reduce some cream and add that….)
As famous as she was, there’s a great scene in Julie & Julia that really stood out to me: Julia at the beginning of her culinary journey, chopping mountains of onions at all hours to prove she was as good (better!) than the boys.
And that’s where we all start learning to cook—or at least to cook well from scratch: with the simplest tools and techniques.
how to be a better cook
Last week, I mentioned that in principle, I appreciated this year’s annual NY Times article on basic recipes. I also said that I’d rather see recipes that can be cooked once and used twice (or more times) during the week.
This week, I saw that the NYT has formed a collaboration with chef Sohla El-Waylly to produce a series of videos to help you “improve your kitchen game.” To which I say, HUZZAH!
Each episode of the 7-part series will focus on a single ingredient and talk about how to purchase, store, and cook it.
I’m going to try to watch the first episode (eggs) this week—there’s always something new to learn!
And I wanted to give the introductory article a shout-out for going one step further: El-Waylly introduces her show, then goes on to a section subtitled, “Start with the Right Stuff,” in which she introduces a cook’s basic tools: knife, skillet, sheet pan, etc.
Definitely worth a read, especially if you think that you just need to find the right gadget/appliance to become a good cook. Spoiler alert: you don’t.
I’m going to go a step further than El-Wahlly’s piece and give you a few more insights on upping your game in the kitchen.
repeats, not recipes
The first rule of being a good cook is: read the recipe.
The second: read it again.
First of all, you need to decide whether you really want to/are able to make it. Because let’s be honest, we often look at a recipe and just know that this isn’t for us: ingredients we don’t like or can’t find easily, overly long time commitment, complicated techniques, too many pots and pans required….
Secondly, if you decide to forge ahead, you need to gather your ingredients and assemble your utensils before you dive in.
Third, there’s nothing worse than getting to a critical point in the recipe and realizing you needed to have something else ready at that time … and you haven’t even started it.
Most importantly, there’s another reason to read recipes carefully. And this is where we can really start to separate the good cooks from the good-enough.
Start to read recipes with an eye toward how they are similar and different.
For example, there are many many many recipes in the western (especially French) culinary tradition that involve these steps:
- Melt some butter.
- Add some flour.
- Add a liquid.
There may be some slight variations:
- Cook some vegetables in the fat before adding flour.
- Add some seasonings to the flour.
- Vary how long you cook the flour in the fat.
- Vary the type of liquid. Or fat. Or flour.
If you get really good at spotting these patterns, you will have understood what I call a “repeat”—really a technique. Once you understand the technique, you’ve solved a piece of the puzzle.
Why is this important?
Because once you understand the technique, you’ll see it applied everywhere, and each recipe where it appears will be that much simpler to understand.
ratios, not recipes
A really good cook understands that cooking is full of ratios, also known as formulas.
Here are 3 simple examples:
- Roux (what we made above by cooking flour in fat to thicken a liquid) is normally a 1:1 ratio of fat to flour. So if you use 1 T fat, you’ll use 1 T flour. Cooking for a crowd? 1 c fat to 1 c flour. And from there, you’ll see that a medium thick sauce uses 1/4 c roux to 2 c liquid; vary the ratio to get thinner or thicker sauce.
- Vinaigrette: 1 part vinegar or other acid to 3 parts oil. So 1 T vinegar to 3 T oil. Fun fact: marinade is the reverse of that. So 3 T acid to 1 T oil.
- Custard: 3 eggs will “set up” 2 c of liquid. So now you can make a savory quiche (3 eggs + 2 c milk + cheese + veggies) or a sweet custard (3 eggs + 2 c milk + spices). You can add fruit purée for part of the milk: voilà—pumpkin custard!
But how would you ever learn these? Read the recipes. Repeatedly and closely!
Look for the patterns—they’re in there!
make the connection
Join me in watching the NYT series on Youtube—and if you want more more more, join me for my own cooking demos, which take place once a month on Zoom! We’ll talk about our ingredients, equipment, techniques, and formulas as well as nutrition and food energetics. And you’ll come away a much better cook! You can find the Fl!p Your K!tchen® sessions on my upcoming events page.