I haven’t published a recipe in six months.
That fact, and the reasons for it, occupied my thoughts during a road trip earlier this month. It’s not a question of writer’s block. Or chef’s block, for that matter. I’ve been cooking up a storm, experimenting with new techniques and favor combinations.
After extensive soul searching – a dangerous past-time for a slightly narcissistic obsessive-compulsive – I believe that I’ve landed on the reason for my long absence from recipe writing.
The World Does Not Need More Recipes
Recipes can be really useful tools. I use recipes when I want to learn a new technique.
Heavily salt meat hours before you cook to enhance its flavor and texture.
I also rely on recipes to teach me fundamental ratios.
Mayonnaise is one cup of oil added to one egg yoke.
Recipes can also be incredibly useful when exploring unfamiliar cuisines or flavor profiles.
A breading mixture of both all purpose and tempura flour makes for extra crispy fried chicken.
What I don’t use recipes for is cooking, because cooking isn’t about following a checklist and producing a product. Eating is a sensory experience, and so too is cooking. We eat with our eyes, our nose, our mouth. In the same way, we should cook by taste, smell and appearance. With these tools – and some of the fundamentals of cooking – you can create a nearly infinite variety of dishes with whatever ingredients you have on hand. And that’s real cooking.
Cooking by Taste
There are really two ways to cook by taste, and both are essential to master if you intend to to be a good cook.
The first, and more obvious, method is literally tasting as you cook. The age of an ingredient can affect the intensity of its flavor. Likewise, the source of an ingredient can also impact its flavor. For instance, regular “salt” from two different manufacturers can have radically different levels of sodium – making one taste much saltier than the other. It’s important to regularly taste your dish as you’re cooking it to ensure a proper balance of flavors. In the beginning, it might help to close your eyes and breathe through your nose when tasting to allow you to focus on the flavors.
Tasting as you cook can also mean testing for doneness. The pasta box may say cook for 9 – 11 minutes, but that two minute window can be the difference between al dente and mush. And remember: food continues to cook after you remove it from the heat source. When tasting for doneness, learn to taste for what the ingredient will be, not what it is.
Cooking is a mental game.
And that takes us to the second method of cooking by taste. As an adult, you’ve experienced hundreds of flavors and thousands of flavor combinations. You can use them like building blocks to assemble a dish in your mind. For example, garlic and butter are two flavor blocks that go together for me. Acid – in the form of lemon juice or white wine – can be snapped together with garlic and butter to form a sauce. Add some shrimp and you have scampi. Use mussels instead and you have moules marinières. Not a fan of fish? Riff on the concept a bit and use chicken breast instead. Or cannellini beans. The point is this: you can connect together a pretty basic set of flavor blocks and create something delicious simply by thinking of the flavors that you enjoy.
Cooking begins long before you stand in front of the stove.
If you are looking for recipes for tonight’s dinner, I encourage you to explore the millions of recipes online and in cookbooks. (In fact, hop over to the Kitchen Store where you’ll find hand-selected cookbooks for purchase.)
If, on the other hand, you’re interested in using your experiences to become an individualistic cook, stick with us. You have something unique to share with your diners, be they family members, guests or customers.
Common, let’s do dinner.
— Chef Scott