Friday, March 19, 2010

Learning to cook

One of the reasons that I started a blog was to have a place to talk about the basic techniques that one has to have in order to be a good cook. As a cooking teacher, I find that I cannot assume someone in my class knows how to cut an onion, or that they know what it means in practice to sweat, blanch or simmer. Since humans began to cook their food, the skills involved have been passed on to the next generation via someone standing at a mother's or grandmother's elbow. This wasn't watching food TV is an amusing pastime. It was vital. If you couldn't feed yourself, you would not survive.

For a generation or two now, knowing how to cook has not been necessary for survival. Prepared food can be purchased. Cooking as a skill has been relegated to hobby status. Not many people grow up learning how to cook as a matter of course. And while I don't have space here (or a platform large enough) to make the case that there is something terribly wrong with this, I will say that people who don't cook for themselves are not feeding themselves very well. Michael Pollan has discussed all of this (among other things) at length in his book In Defense of Food . But if you read his book and come to the conclusion that he is right and you want to start cooking in order to feed yourself well, how do you acquire the skills to start?

Well, you could watch Food TV. You might pick up something there. But if you are truly a novice, a lot of it will be beyond your skill level. Besides, I think watching Food TV lulls people into a sense that they know more than they really do. One of the most astonishing things that ever happened to me in a cooking class was in a fundamentals class. I was showing the class how to dice and slice an onion. I halved the onion and diced one half and sliced the other. I asked them if they would like to see it again. No one did. They had all seen this on Food TV and the aura that hung about the room was one of boredom—"I've seen this—show me something I don't know." I then said, "OK, there are cutting boards, knives and onions set up around the room. Go and dice and slice those onions." Few were able to do it very well—and they were so surprised by this. They had all seen it so many times, but most had not picked up a knife and done it themselves with any regularity, if at all.

And frankly, it would be difficult to pick up basic skills on Food TV because a lot of cooking shows have become about entertainment and not so much about teaching basic skills. Seek out shows that emphasize skills.

Seek out books that emphasize the basic skills. Look for books that have drawings or photographs of the processes of cooking—not just the finished dishes (that have probably been food-styled). A whole generation of American cooks picked up sound cooking skills from the descriptions and drawings in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Today one of the things I love about many of the better food blogs is that bloggers are posting photographs of their recipes in progress. You can read the direction to "sweat an onion" and then look at the picture to see what this looks like in the pan. Someday I'll have pictures on my blog. But regardless of when I make that happen, I will sometimes devote entire posts to describing some of the basic techniques—in excruciating detail.

I will of course post recipes—after all, much of the teaching that I do is accomplished via recipes. But giving someone a recipe will not help them produce good food if they don't have the skills and understanding to execute the recipe. There is no magic in recipes—a recipe is just a description of how to manipulate ingredients using a toolbox of standard techniques. As you learn the techniques you will learn to recognize when a particular one is called for—even if the recipe doesn't do a good job of letting you know which one to use.

Finally, practice using your skills! Frequently people want to know how long it took me to acquire my knife skills. I really don't know the answer to that. When you first pick up a chef's knife it feels awkward in your hand and you wonder how you will ever move it quickly and smoothly and with precision. And then one day it feels like it is a part of your hand—because it has been there so often. Cook every day. Practice every day. How could this be a burden when you get to eat when you are done?!

1 comment:

TeaLady said...

I found your blog thru' one of your students - Katrina - and I am glad she posted you.

I will enjoy the blog as it develops. i know I can always use help with what I THINK I know.

I have just retired and have really gotten interested in becoming a BETTER cook/baker.