Learning How to Cook Starts With Conscious Cooking: Think about the process.

My wife and I were having a philosophical discussion about how it is that people come to know how to cook. She made the point that when it came to me making dinner for us just about every night, that I’d “made these things hundreds of times, so of course you know how to do it”. I found it curious that this was her perspective, because for me, it’s less about “knowing how” than about understanding and being able to experiment in that space. My response was something along the lines of:

“The things I make for us, I haven’t made hundreds of times — most of them, I’ve never made at all.”, which is true: I generally don’t like making something I’ve made before. “I’ve just cooked enough things that I’ve learned how foods behave, how flavors interact, and how different cooking methods work. This allows me to make whatever I want.”

And thus, was the impetus for this post.

How do you get to be a good cook?

To be clear, I never went to culinary school. Hell, I’ve never even taken a formal cooking class! Instead, I got my first cooking job at a place that cooked new dishes every day, and I went to work every day, trying to learn from my coworkers that had been tasked with showing me how to make… whatever we were making that day. But if that had been all I’d learned, I would only know how to make what I’d made before. Instead, as I was taught, I tried to learn what was happening during the cooking process, what role each step played in that process, and the processes of the effects the techniques had on the things they were cooking. In other words, while I was being taught how to make roasted salmon with a citrus beur blanc, I was learning how to cook.

Now I know not everyone is going to take that exact path – but you can replicate it every day in your own house.

For the most part, we all start out cooking relying on recipes. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. At one point, I leaned heavily on recipes — and still sometimes use them — and the best chefs in the world, at one time used (and likewise still do use) recipes. I’m not here to say your goal should be to rid yourself of step-by-step instructions forever. There are things that you want to be able to replicate precisely, time and time again – and for that, recipes are your best bet. For many amateur cooks though, a recipe is thought of as directions meant to get them to their destination. But as with relying purely on directions, one wrong turn and they’ll never reach the destination (on the other hand, having a map would allow you to look at the map and understand the different ways of getting there). I think this approach holds people back from really learning how to actually cook. Instead, let’s try to think of recipes as the training wheels one uses when learning how to ride a bike.

You don’t learn to ride a bicycle on two wheels by comfortably relying on the training wheels to keep you propped up. You do it by trying to ride on two wheels the whole time, figuring out how you’re meant to do so, and relying on the training wheels to keep you upright until you get it right. I felt like I knew how to cook when I could comfortably make almost anything off the cuff, and feel confident it would turn out delicious — or at least passable (but usually delicious!). This isn’t something that just happened, nor is it an ability that was pre-ordained or “God-given”, it’s also not the result of repetition — at least, not exactly.

The biggest disservice you can do yourself when trying to learn to cook, is to follow a recipe, trying to do exactly what each step tells you to do, with the goal of making that one dish, exactly as it’s written. In this situation, you’re following the directions to get you to the one destination, rather understanding how to read and navigate the map. The way to knock the training wheels off of learning to cook is to be conscious of what a recipe is having you do, think about the process, and the role each step serves therein.

Any time I try to teach someone how to make something, I will reliably wind up imparting this phrase, and it’s become something of a personal axiom: Think about the process. To elaborate, following a recipe, or cooking something, is merely the process one goes through, in order to produce a finished dish. Every step meant to be carried out while cooking represents a particular action that contributes to the goal of that end result of a finished dish. While yes, doing each step has a level of importance to that particular dish, what’s vital to ridding yourself of the training wheels, is thinking about and understanding why each step is important, and what function it serves. Once you can do that, you can then manipulate each step to your liking, depending on what you want the end result to be.

Let’s look at an example: making vegetable stock. Stock is an unseasoned liquid (which just means there’s no element of salt or added acidity) that has been infused with certain central flavors, that is then used as the backbone of many soups, sauces and marinades. Making stock is a foundational tool in cooking, that most home cooks tend to shy away from because it seems daunting. But if you understand basic principles and think about the process, nothing could be further from the truth.

Understanding this process is as simple as asking two questions, and digesting it all goes something like this:

  1. What is it we are trying to do? We’re seeking an end result by using a particular selection of vegetables, herbs and spices to flavor an amount of water a particular way.
  2. How are we meant to do this? We are going to infuse the flavors from such things into the water by applying heat.

Simple enough, right? But actually making the stock — beyond the recipe — highlights just how many options you have at your fingertips.

First, hot water will taste like the things you steep in it (we’ve all made ourselves a cup of tea before, right? Same process). But when it comes to the things that go into stock — carrots, onions, celery, thyme, bay leaves, peppercorns and some optional things — you can take the exact same ingredients and have completely different outcomes: first, you can either put them in raw for flavor X, you can sweat them for flavor Y, or you can caramelize them for flavor Z. That’s just one way you can manipulate the process to determine what your end result will be.

Then, let’s say you learn that the longer a stock cooks, the more will be extracted from the aromatics flavoring it. But you also learn that smaller pieces of vegetables, when cooked for an extended period of time, will deteriorate, leading to a cloudy stock. What can you do to combat this? Consider how long you’ll be wanting to simmer your stock. Do you have an hour? Cut the veg’ into small pieces. Do you have four hours? Larger pieces.

Maybe you think to yourself, “well if heat extracts flavor, screw simmering, I’m going to crank up this heat to a rolling boil!” But then you learn that excess agitation in the water leads to excess erosion of the vegetables, leaving you with a cloudier stock and a muddled flavor. You might learn that you can somewhat mitigate this by passing your strained liquid through a coffee filter or cheese cloth, but that will take extra time, and won’t entirely undo the negative effects. Later, you could learn that you can also create an egg raft and segway it into a consome, but now we’re totally off the rails, and taking up way more time than we needed to!

By understanding and thinking about the process, you now have complete ownership of the entire process, and by extension, the final product. By understanding how the size you cut your vegetables, if or how you cook them before adding water, what temperature you cook the stock, and for how long, all impact the final result, you now don’t actually need a recipe for anything more than a guideline. What’s more is that now, whether you realize it or not, you know how to make soups and with an understanding of thickening agents/techniques, you’re on your way toward some types of sauces.

This is what knowing how to cook is: understanding the different processes that go into creating a given dish — and if you turn around, you’ll see we’ve just arrived here without a single recipe! Granted, there are hundreds of “processes” in the world of cooking, which is why you do have to spend some time following recipes. But rather than mindlessly following steps on a page, and instead, doing so in a conscious way, you’ll start to understand processes better. Then one day, you’ll find yourself reading the text that says “add 1tsp. of oil to the pan on medium heat, and add your onions. Stir occasionally until soft and opaque” and you’ll think, “oh! They’re just telling me to sweat onions!”, and that’ll be one less step in a recipe on which you’ll be dependent.

Being conscious of the steps you’re told to take for a given recipe isn’t necessarily vital to the successful completion of that recipe. Just like thinking about how to keep your bicycle upright isn’t necessary when you have training wheels on. But if you start thinking about the process(es) in each recipe you follow, you’ll start to understand them. Soon enough, you’ll be riding on two wheels all by yourself.

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