What nobody tells you about cooking

When my mother taught me how to make pancakes at the age of 12, it was mostly because she hated making pancakes in summer when the evening sun was shining right into the kitchen. It would get incredibly hot in there with the sun and two heavy pancake pans constantly in use. And I wanted to learn. Especially how to do the bit with the two pans. Like how do you make sure that one doesn’t burn while you’re busy with the other? My mother is not very good at explaining but she is very good at showing how to do things. So I watched and paid attention and figured it out. (The trick was to keep the flame under the pan not too high, so you’d have more time before burning started to happen).

As I grew older I kept begging my mother to teach me how to cook other things, but she always replied “Read the package, dear.” But what about potatoes? Or green beans? They don’t have packages. “Everything that doesn’t have a package, boil for 20 minutes.” Oh. Right. Does that really work?

As it turns out, it doesn’t. My mum is a great cook but she hates cooking. I have never asked why. It’s probably to do with having three kids and a husband who was never home on time and not having a lot of money when we were growing up. So I had to figure things out on my own. And there was a lot of figuring out to do, because there’s a lot that nobody explains to you.

Salt

“Add salt and seasoning to taste.” How can I tell if it’s to taste when it’s not done yet? I can only taste it after it’s done and then it’ll be too late! And how much is “a pinch of salt”?

My solution: Screw that. I don’t add salt and seasoning until the food is on the plate and ready to be eaten.

White rice

I didn’t manage to properly cook rice until I was 28. It was always soggy or burnt. And I followed the instructions on the package!

The trick: add one fingertip of water on top of the rice. It doesn’t matter how much rice you have. Or how big the pot is. Or how big your fingers are. This does not make sense mathematically or physically. It just works. One fingertip up to the first joint, as long as it’s not a huge pot with only a scattering of rice at the bottom. In that case, find a smaller pot. Bring to a boil on a medium to high heat, then turn the heat low and put the lid on. If you lift the lid after 15 minutes of boiling, you shouldn’t see any water, at most bubbles coming up between the rice. Replace the lid and turn off the heat, then let it sit for at least 10 minutes. You can also let it sit longer (especially if you wrap it in a towel or blanket) and prepare the rest of the meal in the meantime. Perfectly dry white rice.

Risotto (short grain rice)

© Vít Luštinec – Wikipedia

This sounds like a lot of work. Glaze the rice, add a little bit of stock, stir until it’s soaked up, add a little bit more…

My solution: Risotto tastes exactly the same when you dump the entire amount of stock into the pot in one go. It’s simply rice that soaks up a lot of moisture so you add a lot of moisture to keep it moist and creamy. That’s it. How you add it is completely beside the point (although stirring does help). Follow the recipe with regards to glazing the rice in some olive oil, and adding the other ingredients, but ignore the whole “add and stir until soaked up” thing.

This is true for a lot of recipes, actually. Don’t be afraid to try out different ways of preparing things, as long as you’re not cooking for others. People get annoyed when they have to go hungry. For yourself, you can simply make a sandwich if it all goes wrong. And it will go wrong often. Very very often. That’s OK.

Fish and meat

How can you tell if it’s done? If you cut it open and it’s not done yet, you can’t put it back in the pan because then all the juices run out and the butter or oil starts sputtering.

The fish trick: you can simply fry on one side only. That saves the trouble of trying to turn it over without the fish falling apart, as well. Keep the heat low and wait until the topside doesn’t look raw anymore. Done!

The meat trick: this works best with beef and other red meats, but also with poultry and pork. Push slightly on the top of the meat and feel how springy it is. You can use either your finger or a fork.

Is it as springy as the meat of your thumb when you gently touch the tips of your thumb and index finger together? Then it’s still raw inside.
Is it as springy as the meat of your thumb when you gently touch the tips of your thumb and middle finger together? Still pink inside, but not bloody anymore.
Is it as springy as the meat of your thumb when you gently touch the tips of your thumb and ring finger together? Well done.

Veggies

I used to loathe – ABSOLUTELY LOATHE – nearly every cooked vegetable. Except fava beans and spinach, for some strange reason. But when I moved out I figured out something really shocking:

I don’t need to eat things I don’t like and still eat healthy meals.

In fact, there’s been some research done that shows that if you enjoy what you eat, you eat more slowly which helps digestion and enables your body to derive more nutrients from your food. Besides the obvious fact that enjoying stuff is pretty awesome in its own right.

I still detest boiled carrots

I still detest boiled carrots ( © Bill – Fotolia.com )

My solution: try out everything raw first. It turns out that a lot of vegetables don’t need to be cooked and have a FAR more pleasant texture when they’re raw. You need to be careful and only do this in small amounts, since some plants have toxins in their skins or leaves to keep away insects, like potatoes and beans. But you can usually find information on that online. Just make sure to check your sources. And remember: one bite won’t kill you. Plants that are that toxic are not for sale in supermarkets. So give it a try and see if you find something you like. Just because recipes say you need to prepare a vegetable a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s the only way.

Cook the scientific way

In closing, check out the site below, Cooking for Engineers. It takes cooking to an entire new level and doesn’t assume anything is true until tested. For example the Kitchen Notes section, where he looks at how food actually becomes brown through different methods of adding heat, and the Cooking Tests section where he sees if the Beer Can Chicken idea actually works and tries out different ways of cooking bacon. The recipes in the Recipe File all have clear pictures of each step and very handy charts at the bottom with ingredients and preparation steps.

© Michael Chu - Cookingforengineers.com

© Michael Chu – Cookingforengineers.com

Absolutely brilliant.

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