Sunday, April 22, 2012

Becoming a better cook
By: Chef Cristian Feher

A bead of sweat trickled down the side of Susan’s face as she focused painfully on her task. The severity of the situation was well understood. The air around her became still, as if electrically charged. The sound of the environment receded to a point of mute silence. Slowly, her left hand reached across and grasped her shaking wrist. The container hovered slowly across what seemed to be an expansive abyss below.   “Ok, Susan, this is it..” She muttered to herself. “Do or die. Don’t mess this up.”

The onlookers held their breath as she completed the pouring process into the heating container. It wasn’t until the last drop went in that she remembered to breathe again. 236.59 milliliters was called for, and 236.59 went in - Susan made sure of this. She thought that any more would have caused a catastrophe, and any less would be utter failure. She let out a short sigh of relief and readied herself for the next phase in this intricate process.

The next line down on the page called for a dash of soy sauce. She frowned, wiped her brow, and read it again. She paused before the horror set in. “A dash? A dash? What’s a dash?!” she screamed, “How many teaspoons make up a dash?” She dropped the book on the floor and steadied herself on the side of the counter. She looked up and fixed her family with a crazed look. “How much is a dash?” She demanded. They quickly turned and ran from the kitchen.

Susan stood there, alone and trembling. She gave in to the fact that she would not be able to finish the chili and all was lost. There was no universal measurement that equaled a “dash”. Dinner would have to be cancelled. A team of specialists would have to be called in.

Do you, or anyone you know cook like this? Are you afraid to deviate from a recipe? As a personal chef I have taught hundreds of people how to cook. And no matter what your level of cooking prowess is, you can always increase your knowledge and gain more confidence as a cook.

Here are some tips that will help you go from a Heat Application Technician (that’s what I call literal recipe followers) to a cook that can enjoy making his or her own dishes with creativity and flair.

When to follow recipes.  It’s not a bad thing to follow a recipe. A well-written recipe can result in a delicious dish. You should, however, understand why the recipe works. And you should work up the courage to use the recipe only as a suggestion and give it your own flair by changing the quantities and adding your own ingredients. That’s how you start learning to “create” dishes, instead of “reproducing” them.

A recipe in regular cooking, is not terribly important. With some experience, you can learn to fix your mistakes and adjust the differences to work in your favor. The only time I ever follow a recipe closely is when I’m baking. Baking is the branch of cooking that requires a more standard application and exact measurement of ingredients.

Recipes are also good when you want to standardize a certain food. As in a recipe that you really enjoy, a famous family recipe, or when you have a restaurant and expect your cooks to follow what you do exactly. It’s a written record to show what you’ve made, and it allows someone else to re-create exactly what you have written.

You can paint by numbers (remember those?), or you can just paint. Use recipes as a learning aid until you’re not afraid to paint your own picture.

How much is a dash? Probably the hardest part of making a dish, is getting it to taste right. You may be afraid to ruin it by adding the wrong spice or the wrong quantity. My advice to you is to add small quantities of spice, mix the dish, and taste. Repeat these three steps throughout the cooking process until you achieve a flavor you like. If you’re not tasting your dish as you go, you’re not cooking - you’re just applying heat to it.

The right amount of spice does not depend on the recipe, it depends on how much of it YOU like. You may even want to split up your dish into two pots, and experiment by adding different spices or amounts to each pot.

Don’t be afraid of salt. There are many variables that can make a dish good or bad. But a basic variable between flavorful and bland is salt. I notice that many people are afraid to use salt in their everyday cooking - whether they’re afraid to over-salt, or their doctor told them a scary story about it. If you deconstructed your favorite restaurant meal, you’d be surprised how much salt is in the dish. I look at salt as the carrier wave of flavor signals (sorry, I was reading about how radio waves work before I wrote this). Salt makes things taste good.

How much oil do I use? This is a question that is often asked. And this question is easy to answer when you understand why you need the oil in the first place. Oil is used to keep foods from sticking to a cooking surface. For this you need just enough to keep the food from sticking. 

Oil gets hotter than water and air. So when foods are coated with oil, they get hotter and therefore cook faster. 

Certain oils (like olive oil, walnut oil, truffle oil) are used for flavoring. In this case, you use them as you would a spice - to add flavor to your dish. Add a little, mix the dish, and taste.

Although there are many more things to learn about cooking, I hope these tips will help you move away from heat application technician, and closer to cook. If you are interested in learning more, you should consider giving us a call for private cooking classes. I’m always happy to help people learn the art of cooking!

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