Saturday, November 30, 2013

Lessons Learned the Hard Way: Cooking

A traditional Simpson birthday cake with 7-minute frosting.
My recipe
By the time I got married (at the ripe old age of 21), I thought I had learned everything I needed to learn about cooking.

I know.

Many a ruined meal later, I think it's time I shared some lessons I learned the hard way. Remember: this was in the days before the Internet, not to mention before Pinterest (where I have a whole board dedicated to "Food, Nom nom nom nom").

1. Master the basics first.
Home-made scalloped potatoes (the best kind!) are made with a basic white sauce.

In my youth I thought I was such a great cook that I could improvise freely with recipes. I do still enjoy adding a personal spin to my dishes, but I now know that you first have to get a good grip on the basics before you should start hotdogging:
  • Learn to make a sturdy (i.e., doesn't curdle) white sauce. Practice making it in both thin and thick consistency. White sauce is the backbone of many, many sauces, especially in casseroles. If you need to substitute, practice with different fats and flours until you get a reliable sauce.
  • Practice making fudge. The principles of making fudge properly apply to many, many desserts or sugar-based dishes (like caramelized onions, see below).
  • Pastry is a learnable art. Again, if you don't practice, you won't learn.
The common element in almost all of these is something which I sorely lack:

2. Have patience.
Home-fried potatoes need to be fried slowly and patiently.
My recipe.

From crisply fried potatoes to caramelized onions the biggest chef's secret is time. Rushing your dishes will only lead to burnt pots, curdled sauces, and wonky textures (like crunchy baked potatoes or rubbery beef).

I recently learned why my caramelized onions never worked: I expected them to take five minutes; they take 45.

I also learned recently that rushing a stew might result in meat that was safe to eat, but would inevitably produce a tasty sauce with chunks of shoe leather. Reducing the heat to a very slow boil changed the way the meat fibres break down, resulting in a tender stew.

Which brings me to the next thing I learned:

3. Cooking is all about science.
The structure of this gooey frosting is based on whipping egg whites and brown sugar while cooking them.
The calories in a raw potato are the same as in a baked potato, but the cooked one tastes far sweeter. Why? Here's the answer, from The Food Lab:
"Here's the deal: starch is made from sugar. More precisely, starch is a polysaccharide, which means that it's a large molecule consisting of many smaller sugar molecules (in this case, glucose). The thing about sugar is, unless it's broken down to relatively simple forms, it doesn't taste sweet to us. Our tongue simply doesn't recognize it."
Chemistry: If you melt chocolate and sugar together with a little fat, you end up with syrup. My first attempts at fudge resulted in chocolate syrup because I didn't have the patience to slowly bring the concoction to a rolling boil and keep it there long enough. As the sugar boils it reaches different "stages" as the structure of the carbohydrate changes.

Physics: Ingredients like protein (like egg white or wheat gluten) provide physical structure as they cook and how you treat them can make the difference between an omelette and a souffle. If you make a substitution, you need to think about what alternative ingredients can get you a close result. A good cook book or website can help you find the answers.

My very first cookbook - written for children - had a recipe for hot chocolate, made with sugar, cocoa and hot milk. I learned several things very quickly:
  • If you overheat the milk it goes yucky, even before it burns.
  • You can't "unburn" milk.
  • Cocoa will not dissolve in milk unless you first combine it with the sugar and a small amount of milk.
If you're interested in learning more about the science of cooking, you might enjoy visiting The Food Lab on Serious Eats. But I'll warn you: just knowing the science won't make your dish turn out right; I still need to practice their prime rib recipe (so far all it's done is make me very critical of restaurant prime rib).

And because of the science of things, you need to . . .

4. Respect the list of ingredients.
Your cooking will benefit if you occasionally try new or unusual fresh ingredients.
Make any substitutions with caution. For example, the recipe for pesto calls for fresh basil; do not try to substitute dried basil in the same quantity or you will end up with a dry, rather ghastly sludge. In a spaghetti sauce, however, dried is fine. (If you use fresh basil, you will need to use at least twice as much as the flavour is more concentrated in the dried version.)

If you have to make substitutions for dietary reasons, bear in mind that the chemistry might change as well and might result in a flop. So don't try your new approach out on guests the first time.

And very often the difference between standard cuisine and gourmet is using fresh ingredients rather than dried, canned, or frozen. 

Along with that . . .

5. Respect the recipe.
Really good cookbooks (the expensive ones) put as much detail in the how as in the what.
This is a snapshot of a page in The Joy of Cooking.

Recipes from friends and family are often little more than a list of ingredients, which is fine for one-pot or layered dishes. But if you're making something that involves chemistry and physics, you really need to pay attention to the instructions. This includes timing (what comes first, how long to wait for a reaction to occur) and actions (folding vs. whipping).

In the souffle example, if the eggs are not well whipped before being placed in the oven, the structure will collapse before the heat changes the egg white from bubbly liquid that collapses to bubbly solid that holds its airy structure.

6. Work with good tools.
Isn't that just the happiest little pot you ever saw?

When you can afford to, investing in good equipment and then taking good care of it is wise. Dull knives are not only frustrating; they are dangerous. Wobbly-bottomed pots and improvised double-boilers will lead to uneven results. In both cases, the more you use them, the more frustrating they will become.

A newlywed friend of mine received a bespoke kitchen knife as a gift from her new husband. I had no idea such things exist, but she was delighted beyond measure for two reasons:
  1. It is the singularly most awesome knife she has ever used.
  2. It demonstrated how well her husband knows her.
One of my favourite Christmas presents is the le Creuset casserole pot that Steve gave me. It's a large, heavy, enameled cast-iron skillet with a lid and it can cook stove-top or in the oven. It gives steady, predictable results and is a pleasure to cook with.

UPDATE: It just occurred to me that the pot would also make a good murder weapon, as would the bespoke kitchen knife. Yay for good tools!

7. The kitchen timer is your friend.
Just don't stray out of ear-shot!

Every cook since the dawn of fire has had to juggle distractions, whether they were crying babies or fussy pastries. Nowadays, we've also got captivating blogs (why, thank you!), video games, and TV shows to lure us away from the kitchen. I now set the timer every single time I leave the kitchen if I have something cooking, even if it's just for two minutes. (I've also developed a very acute sense of smell for something burning.)

If a recipe calls for something to boil for two minutes, set the timer because the result at four minutes will not be the same.

Those are the tips that come to mind off the top of my head, though I know I'll think of more as soon as I hit "Publish." What about you? What are your favourite tips? Please do share!

And, in case you were wondering, yes, Bronwyn, you inspired this post.


  1. Is this blog going into your family cookbook? It should. TIP: I'm brand loyal in my cooking. Once I know what brand works well in a recipe I write that beside the flour, cocoa, beans, etc. TIP: don't make all your food taste the same by using the same brand/type in every recipe...spaghetti sauce should not be used in lasagna (use pasta sauce) or on homemade pizza (use pizza sauce) or in chili (use canned tomatoes), etc. I don't add the same spices, veggies, etc to every recipe just because I like them. I try to have basic onions for all but not zucchini, carrots, mushrooms, etc for every sauce. I keep my recipes from blending into the same flavour.

    1. Good suggestion and tips! (But I do love using my made-from-scratch spaghetti sauce in my lasagne. I may re-think that.)

  2. Great tips Wynn Anne, and Martha.
    Another thing I've learned the hard way, is to be organized before beginning. Have items washed, chopped, prepped prior to beginning to cook. Seems like an obvious, but some of us are organizationally challenged. I could never get a stir-fry to work out because I was over-cooking some items while I scrambled to get other items ready. Learned from our student Jingyi to have everything ready before even heating the pan.

    1. I agree! It astounds me to watch the kids cooking amidst dirty dishes and crowded counters. And I *hate* finding out half way through a recipe that I'm missing a crucial ingredient.

  3. P.S. I am still bamboozled by products here in Switzerland: They have the most incredible array of creams, for example, but I cannot find an easily 'whipable' cream. I have asked around, and tried a few, but they turn rapidly from liquid to butter,, almost no point in between. I have settled for now having my whipped cream rather limp. Better than spooning butter on top of dessert. I also can't figure out the "cold cuts": Some things are uncooked, some cooked and ready to eat, but I sure can't tell by looking. And the butter!! I love the taste of salted butter on warm bread. Cannot find salted anywhere. Probably not a bad thing. But it affects my baking because I was using salted butter in all my recipes back home. Now I do the taste-test to figure out the salt needed. I should pay attention to the amount that comes out right, and write it into my Canadian recipe.

    1. What? No salted butter? Those Europeans sure are odd.

  4. Tip with the pesto: it can be delicious with other (fresh) herbs; you don't need to use only basil.
    If you don't have the patience to stir onions over gentle heat for 45 minutes, slice 'em and dump them into your crock pot. Wait 3-6 hours and you'll have servicable caramelized onions. They aren't as good as the real kind, but work really well to flavour a beef stew or in other dishes.
    Similarly,t he crock pot will be your friend for slow simmered stews; you can leave it on the stove (or in the oven... the benefits of the fabulous le creuset pots) for 90 mintues+, or you just dump the dish in the crock pot, set it on to low, and go off to work/out for the day/to bed/whatever and you have a delicious hot meal 6-8 hours later.
    Yup, I always prep my ingredients in advance, unless I know the dish well and know there's a lengthy enough gap. (And before I start, I clean the counter). My mother was a fantastic cook and baker, and that's how she taught me.
    Most baking recipes actually are based on unsalted butter... that way, you control the amount of salt for the right chemistry. (different brands use different amounts)
    And yup, I use timers regularly, even if i"m in the kitchen. For a stew, it doesn't matter as much, but for anything baking-- even marinated chicken breasts-- it's key. And if I'm going to another room (e.g. to watch tv) i bring the portable timer, so I'm sure to hear it!
    Knives... sigh... i *finally* got good ones. And a husband who has no idea how to cut properly so they're perennially blunted and messed up.

    1. A really high quality knife would be wasted on me, but I like good pots and pans.

  5. And I definitely need to use my crockpot more!


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