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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30 thoughts on “What nobody tells you about cooking

  1. Do you happen to have a rice cooker as well? And it’s great for measuring-for example I just put two cups of rice in my rice cooker, fill it up with water until it reaches the line that says “2 cups,” press a button to cook, and the rice cooker will miraculously cook everything! (Same for 3 cups of rice-just fill up with water until it reaches the line that indicates, “3 cups.”) The resulting rice is similar to that of rice you’d find on sushi.

    • Although… a cup of rice is a pretty large amount, isn’t it? (Don’t know, because we use metric measurements here). I cook only for myself, so I need very small amounts. With the fingertip method, I can take any amount of rice, and as long as I have a proper (small enough) pot, it works.

      • Yeah, as soon as I wrote that, I thought-wait, a cup of rice? I call it a “cup” as in a container, but I think I’ve just been taking it for granted, rice cookers usually come with their own cups made especially for scooping up rice. 😄

        • Just measured it too….the rice containers are about 2/3 a cup (in metric measurements).

          Anyway, cookers whose sole function is to cook rice might be a cultural thing as well (considering it’s usually rice, and not potatoes or bread, that are the staple of most Asian diets). Many Asians I know (myself included) inevitably have one in their home!

        • I prefer rice or pasta even though my cultural thing is potatoes. But I’m currently staying away from rice after my cleaning fiasco the other month, lol. I just can’t think of eating it without feeling nauseous. *blushes*

          I have to admit, I have a weird prejudice against electrical machines in the kitchen, even though I love my toaster and my kettle and my hand mixer. But it took me until adulthood to get used to the electrical kettle and I still have very particular preferences in how it should work and look. I don’t have a microwave. I don’t have a blender. I don’t have a coffee machine. There’s lots more but those are the ones I can think of straight away.

          On the other hand I love computers and power tools. I don’t know, lol. Rice cooker sounds pretty convenient to have and yet I still find myself resisting the idea. I guess I’m just weird. 😛

        • Also, for rice, I do a ratio of water to rice. (Of course, I don’t remember what it is, but it’s written down somewhere). It’s nice because it’s scale-able to any amount and I cook various amounts of rice depending on if I’m cooking at home with my parents/siblings/everyone or by myself.
          Of course, it took living with my Vietnamese roommate before I learned how to cook rice properly (but that’s ok because she is a wonderful teacher) (and also now I can cook rice) (except brown rice, actually because that is tricky).

  2. “Season to taste” is the one that always gets me. I’m over-sensitive to some flavors, especially salt, so I never use it for seasoning. Others I’m under-sensitive to, so I will happily load a dish up with garlic, ginger or chilli until I’m the only one who can eat it. I remember cooking a lasagne for dinner guests and on tasting it I thought I’d managed to be subtle with the garlic — I couldn’t detect it at all. A couple of them couldn’t eat it because it was that strong! So now if it’s “season to taste” I measure rather than adjust to my own taste.

    • I seem to be blessed with very accurate taste, but not oversensitive. I can taste a lot more than other people can, but I also am sensory seeking in taste, so it sort of balances out! Still, even then I usually let people season their own food after serving it out (although I have to admit, ketchup offends me). But things like pepper, salt, sambal (mashed chillies) or even garlic (garlic salt!) can be placed on the table to let everyone season to their own tastes. I’ve never had an adventure like yours but it’s certainly something to be mindful of!

      • That was a few years ago now, and with experience I’ve become better at judging a reasonable amount of seasoning. As you say, people can always add more at the table but you can’t take it out once it’s in there! 🙂

  3. Cooking is awesome! My dad follows those weird rules about cooking. Add some milk…. It’s frustrating because what he makes is really good (usually) and there’s no real way to remake it unless you just watch a bazillion times to figure out the general idea)

    • For me, watching is a pretty good start, but I always need to do it myself to really learn how to cook something. Try filming your dad! Maybe that way you can pause and make notes later on. 🙂

      • I learned by watching my mum, helping out and then trying it myself (under her supervision). I guess she was a pretty good teacher because even my wife, who used to cook professionally and has a very good palette, enjoys most of my dishes.

        • Yeah, for most things I look up recipes and follow those directions. For the special things my dad makes that need to be like that to be right, I just have watched him enough times and played with the dough or the sauce or whatnot enough times that I am able to tell when its the right consistency. It took a long time of cooking with him, though (not that cooking with him was a bad thing–it was quite enjoyable.)

  4. I can relate to many things in your post. I was able to make rice until someone told me there was a recipe to follow – I haven’t been able to make it since. It is a good thing I have a rice cooker.
    Much of my cooking was learned over the phone with my mother. Her most common answer was “until it looks right.” I am finding out that my “it looks right” looks different than hers.

    • Oh I love that description! “My ‘looks right’ looks different than hers.” SO TRUE. The times I spent on the phone with my mum trying to figure out what I did wrong, and never getting a solution. 😛

    • I’m 100% cooking for ‘tastes right’ since I figured that one out. Looks aren’t that important (although I try to avoid the vomit factor as much as possible). But I’m very very sensitive to how things taste so I will taste over and over until I’m satisfied.

  5. I [b]love[/b] that way of arranging a recipe! Why can’t more cookbooks do that?! It’s so obviously better because you can see at a glance when and in what order you’re supposed to do everything and when it doesn’t matter what order you do it in!

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