“Practicing cooking” are two words that I did not think much of until recently.
I recently picked up Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home cookbook at the library because he’s one of the world’s most acclaimed chefs and is completely down to earth when it comes to discussing food. Amidst the suggestions of basics that each home cook should know, Keller pushes the importance of practicing cooking. He says “One way to make cooking more satisfying is to cook the same meal over and over, because practice makes you better and more efficient in your actions. Many home cooks try a new recipe once and then move on to the next, but the fact is, you really only begin to learn the second time you prepare a dish.”
A concept I struggle with often is my desire to know everything about food.Realistically that is quite impossible, right? A lifetime of cooking the same dish over and over proves that you have mastered how to cook one thing really well, or maybe a type of cuisine such as southern, Asian, German, etc.
If you cooked something new and different every day, you would never fully understand each ingredient. My interest in all cuisines, ingredients and techniques makes it difficult for me to narrow my focus and learn more about less.
This is what I am practicing at the moment:
- Eastern European cuisine – My family emigrated from Yugoslavia, and the hearty, simple recipes of cabbage rolls and ham and bean soups are full of history and flavor. These dishes are not seen in most mainstream food blogs but well-respected magazines pick up on them now and again. To know where we are going, we must know where we came from.
- Asian cuisine – The combination of sweet, salty, spicy, crunch and broth makes ramen, pho and every other Asian dish delicious and somewhat elusive, as mastering the ingredients that are not used in often in American cuisines (miso, seaweed, etc) makes for quite learning curve.
- Early American cuisine – I’m reading a book about someone who recreates a 12-course Victorian dinner in Boston (Fannie Farmers, to be exact) and I find it fascinating. To better understand how Americans eat today, we must know how our recipes and tastes have evolved due to all kinds of environmental, economic and social factors. It’s that art history degree in me coming to the surface.
Aside from overall types of cuisines, there are individual ingredients I am practicing with:
- Eggs – Yes, all kinds of eggs. Omelets, scrambled, fried, deviled (the only one I can truly handle at the moment), eggs are foreign to me. Learning has been difficult. You can read all about this here.
- Duck – While I now have a certificate of completion from Duck University and consider duck something I am well versed in, I find that people do not know how to cook it and do not know that duck is a healthy protein. Because of that, it is important for me to keep cooking duck and sharing my experience so you know what to do.
- Miso – There’s something about this umami ingredient that is incredible versatile and unique, I simply cannot stop reaching for it in the refrigerator.
Chefs who know their cuisine in and out, have spent hours on end in the kitchen prepping the same thing over and over, using their culinary school knowledge and years of experience to prepare the best food over and over again – those are masters. But each time they pick up their knife and create something new and different, they are practicing cooking.
As a home cook, you should begin every meal or culinary activity thinking of how you can improve on your skills. Failure is inevitable in order to learn. I didn’t put my fingers to piano keys at the age of 3 and instantly become Mozart. It has taken 15 years of dedicated practice to play with the confidence I have today.
Here are a few times when I failed in the kitchen (and trust me, there have been many more):
- Noodles – My uncle Joe gave me his recipe for noodles, a treat I enjoyed every Christmas Eve growing up. Instead of following the recipe word by word, I replaced half of the all purpose flour with whole wheat flour. The noodles came out so dry and disgusting that it was a long time before I attempted to make my own noodles again. Happily I have a bag of his dried noodles in the cupboard, and I’d rather cook his, anyway.
- Chicken liver pate – It likely started with poor quality chicken livers, but the end result of the experiment was gritty and nothing like the sweet and savory chicken liver pate I have tried from Indy chefs before. The technique was there – sous vide them for exact temperature control to prevent overcooking – but despite the garlic, sherry vinegar and herbs added, my pate just didn’t taste right.
- Chorizo – Grinding your own meat at home is a technique I highly encourage you to try because it is easy and incredibly versatile. I followed a chorizo recipe that required a ton of apple cider vinegar with dried peppers. It’s possible that it worked for the author of the recipe, but my results were incredibly tangy with virtually no pepper flavor at all. A little vinegar helps ground beef separate more (think little tiny crumbles) but that was something I learned after the fact. Next time I’ll be measuring vinegar in teaspoons, not in cups.
I will be practicing cooking my entire life. There is no recipe to big or too small to tackle (except when expensive ingredients are called for). Will I ever master anything? I don’t think master is the right word. Instead, I think confidence and comfort in ingredients is something we all should strive for.
I am very confident in cooking these foods:
- Macaroni and cheese – A bechamel sauce creates the creamy base for cheeses to be melted without turning gritty, but you need to know which cheeses melt best.
- Pizza – Having these two recipes in my back pocket allow me to turn just about anything into pizza: crust that requires no time to rise and tomato sauce.
- Stocks – I’m still figuring out beef, but chicken, ham, turkey and duck are all stocks that I can whip up easily and with confidence. Having homemade stock in the freezer is ideal for the upcoming soup season. Someday I will attempt David Chang’s ramen broth, complete with seaweed (which can be found at Whole Foods, by the way).
- Canning and preserving – While I am totally excited to take a Master Food Preserver class at Purdue this summer, I have found that a few years of canning my backyard harvest has taught me quite a lot. Now these recipes are the most viewed when the fall season hits and everyone finds themselves with far too many cucumbers and jalapenos. Isn’t it cool to think you can preserve something for a few months to a year without the use of chemicals or artificial stuff? I think so.
- Ice creams – Turning liquid into a frozen solid treat was quite possibly the first taste of culinary science that got me interested in food far beyond what it tastes like.
As I begin planning 2015 with posts that are based on science, history, technique and skills, I must remember that all of this is practice. I want you to join me in this practice, to vow to learn as much as you can with a positive outlook. Never let failure stop you from reaching your goal. Read recipes and make your own variations on them. Question everything – EVERYTHING – and try to find the original sources. And remember that practice makes perfect.
In Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home, he recommends learning the handful of tasks professional cooks do over and over and naturally get better at over time through simple repetition, such as:
- Learning to use salt properly – Salt should be used throughout the process of cooking, not just at the end.
- Learn how to use vinegar as a seasoning device – Acidity can elevate the flavors in a dish by adding a few drops of citrus or vinegar.
- Learn how to roast a chicken – It can lead you to an infinite number of other dishes.
- Learn how to saute – A duck breast requires low and slow heat to render fat, while fish or veal is sauteed over high heat to develop flavor before the interior is overcooked.
- Learn how to pan-roast – Combining sauteing and roasting, it is one of the most versatile in the restaurant kitchen and good at home.
- Learn how to braise – It can develop deep flavor and tenderness in tough cuts of meat.
- Learn how to roast – Whether it is high-heat or low-heat, both allow flavor and crust to be added to the exterior of meat while the inside cooks slow without overcooking.
- Learn how to poach – Never going above 200 degrees Fahrenheit, poaching allows you to flavor the cooking medium such as adding wine to water that salmon is poached in.
- Learn the big-pot blanching technique – Cook green vegetables with this technique to ensure crunch through quick cooking and flavor through the addition of salt. It’s “big pot” because chefs would add 1 cup of kosher salt to 1 gallon of boiling water, ensuring enough water so once vegetables are added the boil does not die down.
- Learn how to make one really good soup – Enough said there, right?
- Learn to cook eggs – I’m trying, I really am – see those deviled eggs above??
- Learn to make pie crust – Yes, it takes a bit of time, elbow grease and butter, but once you have a recipe down, the world opens up to so many possibilities.
What are you practicing? What do you feel confident in? What failures have occurred in your kitchen and how did you react?