When a friend of mine heard that I run a cooking Q&A site, he asked jokingly how to get his KD to come out al dente. At least I hope he was joking. The question, though, got me thinking about the fact that cooking is a multi-sensory task and that recipes frequently fail to capture the real knowledge that makes them work.
Back in my computer training days, in one of my classes the lecturer told how a big canned soup company had tried to automate its production line, but could never duplicate the result that their master chef got.
Why? Because geeks can't cook? No. Because the chef was already cooking on the way to work. He was noticing the temperature, the humidity and any number of other factors. By the time he walked in the door, he knew that the soups would need to cook longer, or they wouldn't concentrate properly. By sight, taste or texture he knew that a certain spice was stronger or weaker than usual and would automatically compensate, probably without even thinking about the details of what he was doing. And so on.
The same thing applies when cooking at home. If you boil your macaroni for seven minutes, like the box says, chances are really good that it is going to be over-cooked. You need to take some out and try it to see how done it is.
With practice, you can tell whether a steak or chop is cooked the way you want by pressing down on it. And you can tell if the pan is hot enough by listening to the sizzle.
Another friend, Joan, grew up in a family that made cheese. She tells me that they could tell the quality of the cheese by the feel as they rubbed a bit across their palm. The fat and water content, the firmness and the smoothness would likely all affect the feel. Nowadays, she shops for cheeses like Brie and Camembert by pressing gently in the middle and feeling the give.
If you are caramelizing sugar, there is a moment just before it starts to turn golden, when that wet, musty smell changes to a bright, slightly acidic note. Now you know that you need to pay attention. Candy makers take this a step further! With practice they learn to judge how far along the sugar is by the size of the bubbles on the surface and by the number of big versus small bubbles.
You are making a frittata and the recipe says to cook it until the bottom is brown. Other than lifting an edge every few seconds to peek, how can you tell? By smell. Next time, as you are peeking underneath to see how things are going, pay attention to the smell, too. The browning caused by the Maillard reaction creates all sorts of complex odor molecules. You can literally smell the browning start to happen.
You have likely seen bread recipes that say to cook the bread until it reaches an internal temperature of 200°F (93°C). I don't know about you, but there is something about poking a hole in a loaf of bread that just ain't right. I prefer three other clues.
- Color - the bread reaches a nice golden to nutty brown, depending on the type of bread, when it is done;
- Sound - once the starches in the bread have set completely the bread will have a clear, hollow sound if you rap on the bottom with your knuckles. Before that, the sound is muffled; and
- Crackle - I like my bread to have a crunchy crust. As it starts to cool down once I take it out of the oven, I listen for a gentle crackling sound. If I don't hear it, then I return the bread to the oven for a few more minutes.
As I said, the problem with recipes is that they don't capture the subconscious learning that makes a good cook into a master, or a chef into an artist.
What are the subtle clues that you rely on when cooking? Send me a note.