Sunday, July 25, 2010

How to be a better cook

OK all, here is a piece I wrote for a writer's website.  It is for all you home cooks out there so enjoy and give me your feedback.

Happy cooking

How to be a better cook.

I find a bit of humor when a guest who I cooked for asks me in disbelief, “how did you do that, it was amazing?” Like I won the Fields medal or broke some encrypted message and hacked into the Department of Defense's computer system. Cooking is not rocket science. If it was, I wouldn't be doing it.

Learning to cook is like learning mathematics or a musical instrument. You must have a strong foundation of the basics in order to proceed to more advanced calculations or techniques. Those basic skills are the foundation to build upon.

The best way to retain any technical skill(s) is by repetition and reinforcement. When you practice something, don't try it once and practice it again a month later for you won't retain the skill(s). Practice the same thing as many times a week depending on your budget and time restraints.
Focus on the areas that need improvement using as many resources as you can to improve your skills and knowledge. There are countless cookbooks and plenty of culinary websites. Some sites even have forums which are great for seeking advice from others. Also, don't be afraid to ask the chef of one of your favorite restaurants for any tips provided he or she is not busy. I have found most chefs are happy to give advice when asked.

Before proceeding on your culinary journey you must determine your goals. Do you want to learn a few dishes? Do you want to host formal dinner parties? Do you want to bake bread?
From those goals you need to create a plan.
Tailor your plan to suit your needs. If you don't like rice, then skip it. If you plan on cooking mostly Asian food then focus on that. Whatever your goals may be, make sure you are cooking what you enjoy to eat. It will feel more rewarding.

Here are two examples of plans. They both focus on the principle of repetition by spending a week on each lesson.

1. General knowledge
Week 1-green vegetable cookery and poaching
Week 2-Sautéing meat, poultry and fish and cooking varieties of rice
Week 3-Roasting of meats and vegetables
Week 4-Egg cookery
Etc. etc.

2. Asian cooking
Week 1-Stir fries
Week 2-Curries
Week 3-Desserts
Week 4-Appetizers
Etc., etc.

Now that you have your plan you need to get everything together. Get only high quality ingredients. You cannot create a good dish out of bad ingredients. You can cover up certain shortcomings to a certain extent but in the end it will show. Treat the food with respect. Don't buy the best quality tomatoes you can find to make a tomato salad only to cover them up with ranch dressing.
Do you have all of your basic cooking equipment and utensils? Use the right tool for the job. If you want to learn to make stir fry properly then everything I am telling you about execution and mastering the basics will be pointless if you don't have a wok or decent sauté pan. Cookbooks often have a section dedicated to what you should keep in your kitchen for the recipes contained within.

Be careful with seasoning. Remember add a little at a time. You can always add more but you can't take it out. While seasoning, taste the dish in stages if possible. You have to develop your palate through constant tasting. Most of us are born with the ability to hear but your average person does not hear like a professional musician does because our ears are not trained to. The same is true with your palate. Be aware of your personal biases. If you like salt then use a little less when cooking for others. While practicing your cookery techniques it is always good to have someone else taste as well.

I always recommend purchasing a culinary textbook that is used in culinary schools. It will cover all the basics and give you the skills needed to build upon for more advanced cooking. Don't dive right in to complicated and advanced recipes. Start with simple recipes. You must walk before you can run. Nobody will care how creative your dish is if the chicken is undercooked. When I was learning to play guitar I attempted songs that were above my skill level and I would get frustrated easily and sometimes wanted to quit. I then changed my approach and practiced songs better suited to my skill level, had greater success and enjoyed it more. I learned that for any technical skill that takes time, effort and patience to develop, it is important that you are seeing the fruits of your labor along the way or you will get frustrated as I did with the guitar in my formative years. In other words, focus on your successes.

Regarding recipes, use common sense and judgment as they are sometimes wrong. Don't follow any recipe in blind faith. If a recipe tells you to cook something at 350F for two hours and you see it is getting too dark after an hour than turn the oven down. The oven and equipment you are using in your kitchen is most likely different than what was used in the kitchen where they tested the recipes you are attempting. With that said, know your equipment. Do you know where the hot spots are in your oven?

When it comes to creating your own dishes I suggest this approach. First get comfortable with a recipe(s) and then start to come up with your own variations. Remember you can make beef stew and add more carrots or other vegetables if you like and it will still be a beef stew. You cannot do that when it comes to baking and pastry because the ingredients work together creating chemical reactions to produce the end result. Just because you want a loaf of bread to be lighter doesn't mean you can just throw in some extra yeast.

In closing, I will sum up what cooking is to me in one sentence. “Do the simple things but do them well.” I will reiterate it all goes back to basics and proper execution of technique. If you can learn and abide by that, it will serve you well.

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