First, a little background. The closest thing I had ever really gotten to cooking was a Foods course I took in High School, about 13 years ago. Never in my life did I expect to actually look back on those days as points of reference. In fact, until recently, the only thing I remembered about that class was having a free-cook day (where we got to make whatever we wanted), and me and my dumb friends decided to make “special” brownies and the whole school stunk of it. But, that was years ago, and my “special” foods have a much different special ingredient now than back then.
Moving right along. Since then, the only cooking I had done was with eggs (I am a god with eggs), and microwaving canned foods. Until recently, that is. In January, I moved in with a man who eats and made all kinds of promises that I would make sure to keep him fed, even if it was disgusting. There have been hits and misses, but more hits than misses.
Cutting up a chicken this morning, I thought to write this up. The things I’ve learned while learning how to cook.
I have no idea what I’m doing.
I figured this was as good a place as any to start. Now, don’t get me wrong, most of what I make has come out to be amazing, even though every time I cook I am positive it is going to be one big waste of food. But really, there are times when I will look up how to make something that I feel should be really easy, only to run into terms that I haven’t heard in over a decade, and then thank the 21st century that google exists so that I can find out what I just read and how to do it, or if it requires super powers or some sort of magical device that is outside of my grasp.
This hasn’t stopped me from improvising when the Ark of CrockPot is out of my reach, however. Which leads me to my next point.
There is more than one way to do anything.
A quick note about how I do my recipes. I spend about half an hour (what used to be hours longer than this, but I’m starting to catch on) looking up recipes to get the base idea for a general list of ingredients, tools, cook times, and techniques. I then pick the parts that I like, or the parts that I am able to do (if I don’t have an ingredient or a specific tool, I try to find the best way to improvise), and go from there. Despite what a google search of “how to cook chicken breasts” might want you to think, there are endless ways to pull it off. On top of that, it’s not hard to figure out something that’s -close- to the thing that you need, and just use it wrong to make it right. I know, that sounds confusing. But maybe this will clear it up some.
Cooking is not a Science; it’s an Art.
This one, really, blew me away more than anything. Anyone who has taken a chemistry course or anything of the like knows how important it is to follow a formula perfectly, lest it literally blow up in your face. When you look up any recipe, it is a very detailed list of exactly what you need, how much, the temperatures, and time-frames. These details make it look like a science, when it’s really not.
Every recipe I read has something in it I don’t want, or too much of one thing, or it’s missing something I like to have in everything if I can. Everything you make should be made to taste – cooked the way you want it, using the recipe not as an instruction booklet, but as a guideline. Very rarely do I ever even measure my ingredients before adding them. Now, I don’t necessarily recommend this for everyone. I’ll get to that in a bit. But what I’m trying to say with this is that every dish you make doesn’t have to be the same. You can put literally any combination of things together, and it could be amazing or awful depending on your tastes, quantities of each, and how or how long it’s cooked. Recipes are a guideline – they are the things we look at in the real world while trying to paint the picture on paper. Looking at a tree, I can see a balance of browns and greens and yellows, reds and oranges during certain seasons, and so forth. But how I put it all on paper, whether I add white and black for shadow and highlight, and even what season it is when I paint the tree in, that is all up to me.
Taking a step back a moment to something I said earlier.
Some people have it, and some people don’t.
Well what the heck is that supposed to mean?
It means a lot of things, really. And don’t think I’m tooting my horn, here. I have said this a billion times before, only that was when I thought that I was one of the people who “didn’t have it”. But what is “it”? “It” is the innate ability to make magic out of nothing. To look into a cabinet and taste every flavor as you glance over it, and decide which ones will go well together and with the things you’re making. “It” is that blessing and curse where, when you take a bite of food, you can separate each of the flavors and know what all went into making it. For me, flavors don’t mix. They are all separated in my mouth. Like a painting, I see the colors before I see the whole picture.
“It” is the ability to dump seemingly-random quantities of ingredients into your recipe without ever measuring, knowing just by looking at it that it’s going to need more of something else. “It” is the internal clock that goes off the moment before your timer, telling you that the food is done, and at the same time you just somehow know it needs another five minutes before it hits perfection. “It” is having little to no experience with most anything cooking, yet managing to make food that makes restaurants seem like they are seriously overpaid.
Not having “it” isn’t really a bad thing. For me, it was my excuse not to cook. However, just because you don’t have “it”, doesn’t mean you can’t cook a good meal.
You are going to make a mess, or you’re doing it wrong.
Back to this morning. Cutting up that chicken. Let me first say, I hate doing this. Cutting meat off of bones is so infinitely frustrating, especially since I hate wasting food. I have read the “right” ways to do it, and it never seems to work well for me. My hands are a little messed up, so holding a knife in one hand and a large fork in another, gripping tightly, and making repetitive motions gets painful really fast. Even if that weren’t a factor, though, it seems impossible to cut all of the meat off of the chicken.
In fact, it is. Without using your hands, getting in and digging at the thing, there is no way to get it all. Granted, you’re probably still going to throw some of it away for one reason or another, but some of the best meat needs to be manually ripped off of the bones in order to get it free without taking big chunks of bones or cartilage with it. By the time I was done with the chicken, my hands were covered in fat and juice and little tiny strings of meat, and I had more than twice as much food in my container than I did before I started tearing away with my fingers like some sort of Neanderthal.
Lots of foods, aside from this, will require you to get your hands dirty. Baking especially, but the most precise tools you have in the kitchen are your bare hands. Mixing together the beef and other ingredients and forming a meatloaf is simply not doable without using your hands. Covering meat in breading and seasoning is twice as much work if you try to use tongs or something to keep your hands clean.
To keep my sink clean, I usually end up having to run at least a small stream of water constantly while I’m cooking so that I don’t get grease or whathaveyou all over the knob. It would be a little counterproductive to wash my hands, only to twist the knob to turn off the water and end up getting them greasy all over again.
You don’t need as many dishes as you think you do. Unless you do.
Oh, the bane of my existence for the longest time. My least favorite part about making a big meal is the cleanup afterwards. The counters and plates and utensils, I can handle. It’s all of the pots and pans and cookware that gets filthy in the process that really fills up the sink quickly.
For most things, though, I realized I could use the same spoon or spatula for the whole time I was cooking. If you don’t want a little of this and a little of that to get mixed up, it’s as easy as rinsing the utensil before stirring or flipping or whatever you need to do on the next thing, rinse, repeat.
On the other hand, there are times when you might try to save on dishes by using the -wrong- utensil to get the job done. Enter the many times I made the mistake of using a plastic spatula on hot beef or bacon just to save on some time. Long story short, the ends of those spatulas have now been mutilated by the grease and heat, and food sticks in them. To be honest, they are barely usable anymore.
The point is, sometimes it is the best idea you’ve ever had to save on dishes. Other times, you might find yourself at the store purchasing new cookware because you’ve got pieces of plastic falling into your food. I know I said earlier to improvise with utensils and cookware, and I stand by this. It’s also wise, though, to use some common sense (gee, I wish I had some) and make sure you’re not going to make -more- work for yourself in the process.
Timing is everything. Unless it’s not.
Oho, I did it again. Yes, I know I’m the only one who finds me funny, thank you.
Anyway. The amount of time you cook something obviously matters. Even with something as simple as a hamburger helper, you don’t want to end up with crunchy noodles or bleeding beef. Unless you do, but I really doubt that.
More than this, though, when cooking a meal, when you start each part of the meal can make a huge difference. If it takes me 20 minutes to get potatoes soft enough to mash, and another 5 minutes to finish preparing them, then I know I need to start those chicken breasts right before I start peeling and cutting the potatoes so that they can finish at or around the same time. If I’m making peas, as well, I need to keep in mind how long I need to cook those, and when I should start on that in order to make it all finish at the same time.
Now, keep in mind, there are ways around this. Both the chicken and the potatoes can be left on, on low heat, for a time as the rest of the food finishes. The peas, however, can’t be. They can dry out or get soggy (depending on how you’re cooking them), and some things are just intolerable if they’re not done right. I feel like that should be another one of my pointers, but it really does go without saying.
Sides make the meal.
I put a lot of work into my meats and main courses. But sometimes, I put just as much work into my sides. I wish I had it in me to put that much effort into the sides every time, but I just don’t. Let’s go with the same meal example as above. I season the chicken with honey, lemon, rosemary, and some oil. Salt and pepper if I want to. Sometimes let it soak overnight, other times put it all together on the spot. The potatoes, usually, I just heat up, throw some butter and milk in them, salt to taste, and plop them on the plate. Peas are peas, and they’re just fine how they are.
Wrong. So wrong. And I learned this on the first night I decided to put a lot of effort into the potatoes and the peas. Admittedly, it was because I didn’t think the main course was going to turn out well, and at least wanted something that could make us both do the happy-food-dance. That night, it was pork chops, but I’m going to stick with the chicken example for simplicity.
I salted and seasoned the peas lightly, added a little butter to the pan, and cooked them slowly. With the potatoes, once they were mash-able, I added loads of cheddar cheese, some seasoning, and sour cream. Mixed it all up so that they were still a little chunky but soft, and served these alongside the main course.
The difference this made in the meal! We were no longer eating the sides because they were good but mostly filling; they became just as important as the main course. This was the best meal ever, when every piece that went into it had gotten just as much attention as the last.
Salt is your best friend.
I am not a salt person. I don’t like salty foods, except for those rare occasions when I’m craving them. In fact, my personal preference for food is generally pretty bland. Until recently, the only seasoning I liked was a tub of ketchup dumped over whatever I was eating. Yes, I know, I’m terrible. Ironic, too, considering how salty ketchup is. Maybe that’s why I never needed extra salt.
Back on track. I have learned, while cooking, that there is a -huge- difference between using salt as an ingredient while cooking and adding it afterwards. In fact, I now feel bad for ever making foods bland out of personal preference and making people add salt afterwards. Salt, when used in cooking, enhances the flavors that are already there. It doesn’t make food salty (unless you use way too much, or add it too late), it just gives a boost of flavor that really brings out the tastes that were already there. Cooking noodles in salt-water (not just water with some salt, but truly salty-water) is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to noodles. When salt soaks into anything while it cooks, it is as though it is making it taste the way it was always meant to.
Nothing is beyond repair.
The truth is, you can add way too much of anything to anything and make it terrible. But I was raised, and have always stood by the mentality, that food should not be thrown away. Anything you make can be fixed, whether it’s by adding more of the main ingredient to make up for the over-use of seasoning, or cutting off the parts you failed at, or sometimes even scrapping the meal and using it somewhere else.
Again with the chicken? Really? Honestly, we eat a lot of meats, but chicken is the one that I have had a hard time with at times. So, yes, again with the chicken.
The first chicken I made was gross. Not because it tasted bad, but because it looked bad. It was a young bird, so the bones were more brittle, and we’d had it frozen for a while. So, when it cooked, a lot of the marrow came out around the joints and, well, pretty much everywhere. So despite the fact that the bird was fully-cooked (if not over-cooked, since the coloration threw me off), there were red stains over a lot of the meat. This barely effected the taste, and actually was quite good, but neither of us were able to get over just how gross it looked.
By the next day, we both knew that neither of us were going to eat it. Appearances really do mean a lot, especially when it comes to putting something in your mouth. I have gotten what I thought was food poisoning before simply because something looked like it would make me sick, because mind over matter really is a thing.
So, I made a casserole. It had way more chicken in it than it was supposed to, but we needed to use all of the meat. As far as I was concerned, that whole chicken was scrap meat at that point, so I put it all into the baking pan with everything else it needed. I put more effort into this casserole than I did into the chicken (aside from cutting it up after which, as covered before, was a mess). The funny thing? The chicken I tore up this morning is perfect, and the meat is wonderful, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But that casserole was so good, even with the gross weird meat in it, that I really am tempted to throw it all into that again.
That example is just one, but what if you burn something? If the option to just cut off the burnt parts isn’t there, there’s usually not much you can do. Certain things, though, I’ve found to be delicious when burnt if you soak them in oil for a little bit on a low heat. It makes the nasty bitter burnt parts taste more sweet than anything. Add some salt to that, before or after cooking, and it won’t ever be perfect, but it’ll definitely be edible.
It is better to make too much than not enough.
I struggle with this one daily. It is a universally known fact that it’s difficult to cook for just two people. Recipes and portions are usually made for five people or one, and there is no in-between. If you don’t mind leftovers, it’s easy enough. But, when you are planning meals every day, it’s hard to figure out where those leftovers fit in. I always default to making more of something before I opt to microwave it, because I feel like leftovers detract from the whole ‘freshly cooked meal’ thing.
In a way, that’s true. But, it’s better to plan for leftovers as a part of your meal than it is to be stuck with them because you didn’t make enough. It is a much better option to accept that you are having re-heated macaroni as a side that night than it is to finish your meal, still be hungry, and then have to go, begrudgingly, re-heat some macaroni.
The last thing I learned: there is so much to learn.
I could seriously keep on this list all day. I’ve honestly been really excited about this new part of my life, and would even go so far as to call it a hobby at this point. Or a lifestyle. Considering my lack of income, this is literally how I make a living right now, earn my keep, and keep him happy when he comes home from work. And I’m sure that some of the things I’ve learned, that I put on this list, will change as time goes on. I am almost thirty and am just now putting my hands into the pot that many people have been cooking with for decades, and each new thing I come across excites me. Every mental recipe I have gets altered just a little bit, partly out of curiosity and partly because I learned something, each time I make it. I never thought I would come this far from making omelettes and being proud of them.
That said, I would love and even encourage feedback on this post.
What are some things that you’ve learned from cooking? Do you disagree with some of my points and why? I am by no means an expert on anything (well, almost anything, but certainly not cooking), and any and all feedback would be more that appreciated.