How I Cook

January 23rd, 2017
cooking, howto
I was recently talking to someone who was saying they didn't know how to cook, and I got into explaining the way I approach it. Afterwards, I thought I might write it up as a blog post in case anyone else is interested.

When making food I see two main categories:

  • Baking: you do things in just the right way in order to get some sort of chemical reaction. Typically you do some steps, then put it in the oven while the reaction happens and it changes dramatically. Cakes, bread, brownies, etc.
  • Cooking: you do things where there's no critical finicky reaction. Maybe there are small reactions, like sauce thickening or onions browning, but they're simple things and they happen right in front of you. This is pretty much everything else you might make for eating.

One of the main things you're doing when you're learning how to cook is developing a sense for what you should do to the food in front of you in order to make it taste more the way you want. In baking it's important to get everything just right from the start, because if you get it wrong you won't know until after you've put the food in the oven and it's too late to make adjustments. In the rest of cooking, however, you can generally try a little of something and check to see if it moves things in the direction you were hoping. So I wouldn't recommend starting with baking, not because it's too hard—as long as you precisely follow a good recipe it will be fine—but because it's not as good a place to be learning.

So, how do you cook food you will enjoy eating? As you go, keep tasting things. You're trying to let yourself build up a sense of how different steps are working out. This doesn't work for figuring out when, say, meat has finished cooking, but with most things you're cooking it's safe to taste basically everything at any point.

Then, how do you go from a sense that you would like to eat/make something, or actually making it? Generally, it's good to start with a recipe, especially when you're starting out. I'll generally look online until I see one that seems to come close to my sense of how the food should be.

Most recipes are something like:

  1. For each ingredient, change it from the form you buy it in (less labor, general purpose, longer lasting) into a form that's tastier and more fit for what you're doing.
  2. Combine the ingredients.
  3. Add spices, herbs, salt, to adjust the flavor.

For example, if your recipe calls for onions it probably tells you to peel, chop, and fry them. As you follow various recipes, try to notice what are common ways of preparing ingredients, so that if you later decide "this needs some X" you know how to prepare X in a way you like.

For most dishes, I think the best time for learning is after you have combined the bulk ingredients and you're flavoring the dish to taste. I'd generally recommend, when following a recipe, to start with whatever herbs and spices they recommend. But instead of just adding them all at once, add them one at a time, mixing well between them, and tasting before and after each one. You're trying to learn how each affects the overall flavor of the food, so that later your sense that the dish is lacking along some dimension will present itself as the much more actionable sense that you should add some X.

I think the following might be a fun way to develop this sense, though I haven't tried it. Get a group of people together who want to get better at cooking, and develop their sense of how to make changes. Someone pick a simple versatile recipe they like. For example, I might pick a tomato sauce:

  • One 28oz can diced tomatoes
  • One 15.5oz can chickpeas, pureed
  • One onion and three cloves of garlic, peeled, chopped, and fried to where it starts to brown a little.

Combine all these, and then as a group flavor the sauce. Things I would try adding:

  • Oil
  • Salt
  • Garlic powder
  • Other things people want to try
Go through them, adding a little of each and trying to not to overshoot, until the consensus of the group is no longer "this is getting better". Each time, everyone taste before and after, and talk about how that ingredient affected the taste.
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