Are Your Kitchen Skills Living Up To Their Potential?
We live in very interesting times, I remember a slower world before the internet came along and made us a global community. The process of learning to cook for me began at the age of 13 when I started to work at a restaurant as a dishwasher. It was a slow arduous process that began with learning how to peel potatoes.
When I got that right they moved me up and let me peel 5 pound boxes of shrimp. They had a unique method of doing that, you learned to take a meat-hook and insert it under the tip of the shell and move it under until you came to the last joint in the shell and then surfaced the hook. It took all the shell off the shrimp in one stroke as well as de-veining it. Of course you had to do it under running water to rinse off the vein.
Later on I graduated to boning trout and a few years later they let me work on the prime rib slicing end of the line. The tasks included slicing prime rib, frying chicken, trout and chicken livers on toast. The steak side had T-bone, New York Strip and Filet as well as Shrimp and Lobster. We had a standard soup du jour of French onion and a soup of the day which the chef decided on a daily basis. Really when it comes to technical cooking skills; it is sauces, soups and sauté that make the difference.
Anyone can boil water, or turn on the oven or these days push the timer on the microwave. The place where you distinguish yourself in cooking is your ability to take what you have in the cupboard or refrigerator and turn it into a meal that you and your family/friends will enjoy eating. To do that you need to simply learn some fundamental techniques of preparation and flavoring. These days that knowledge is readily available on the internet.
Online Cooking Classes are Plentiful
There are plenty of places on the internet where you can find recipes for a myriad of different dishes. Usually, these will be accompanied with a list of ingredients that you need to procure. (By the way did you know the number one selling category of books is the cookbook?) The baffling part of cooking with a recipe is that once you have assembled the list and followed the steps, you still don’t know why you had to do what you did to get there. Couple that with the fact that often the recipes leave out a step or an ingredient and then you have a poor tasting mess on your hands and you really don’t know why. Along the way, this has happened to me on more than a few occasions.
I am not a school trained chef. Most of the chefs who trained me were not officially trained in schools they simply came up the ranks the same way. Find someone who knows a great deal about a certain aspect and get close to them and learn all that they will teach you. Some chef’s are willing to share everything they know and others guard their little tidbits and refuse to share. The great thing about the internet is that now it is possible to find a few who are willing to share with everybody. Think about it, until a mere few years ago you had only a few options if you wanted to learn how to cook.
You could go to culinary school; the Culinary Institute of America was $60,000 a year last I checked. You could go to work in a restaurant or several; spend 10 years and if you managed to find the right people you would eventually learn how to cook. Or, you could find classes in your area that taught a certain aspect of the trade and go and take those classes for however long they might run.
Today, you can sit down at your computer and do a Google search. In less than ten minutes you will find at least a dozen websites that will send you some form of lessons to teach you how to cook.
We live in very interesting times.
For most people the baffling part of cooking is figuring out how to make all of the parts come together at the same time. You have a few friends over and you want to make them some bacon and eggs with hash browns, toast and cantaloupe on the side. You will need to be thinking about the timing of the different parts of the menu. It even applies to things cooked in the same pan or pot; if you make a soup adding the potato first and the carrot later you will have mushy potatoes and tough carrots. On the other hand if you are adding onion to your raw potato hash browns the onion will burn before your potato is golden brown.
It is all simple stuff right?
The menu of what you are fixing can be fairly simple but the timing of it all can make it much more complex. When should you start one thing in time to make it come out at the same time as all the other parts of the menu. You would not want to start that meal with the eggs. So timing is a major part of the cooking process. The next part is equally important; learning systems and techniques.
What do you mean by those fancy words?
The other day I read a recipe online and the lady was trying to describe how to separate an egg to get whites and yokes into two different bowls. I had to laugh, the description was too funny, get three bowls, crack the egg on the counter, hold onto the two sides of shell, let the white run into the first bowl while pouring the yoke back and forth between the two shell halves. When the white had separated from the yoke then put the yoke into the second bowl and the shells into the third.
Well not exactly. (Caveat…clean, gloved hands) Get two bowls (and a trash can) crack the egg on the side of one bowl dump the egg directly into your hand (put the shells in the trash) and let the white run through your fingersinto the first bowl and then place the remaining yoke into the other bowl. I can have 6 eggs cracked, separated and ready for my hollandaise in about the time it would take to pour one yoke back and forth. So cooking is about learning systems and techniques.
The same is true for learning to cut things up for certain recipes and general knife skills. In most cases you want all the ingredients to be the same size so that they will only need to cook the same amount of time to be done. Back to our potato; if you have a quarter inch cube in the same pot as a one inch cube, which one will be ready to eat first? So knife skills matter and they can be acquired with a little practice. The other major technique is to do all of one operation before you do the next.
Then there is taste. This is the fun and the frustration of cooking. Learning how to go into the wild and crazy beyond salt and pepper. When do you use stocks, or soup bases how do you make them? What methods can you use to enhance the flavor? Sous vide? Molecular Gastronomy?
And Oh the Herbs!
Where do you add the thyme and the basil; what herbs can you mix to get an authentic Greek, Indian or Thai flavor into your foods? Here is where time, experience and education take over. This is accomplished one meal at a time as you look at recipes, read books and get suggestions. Here is where, you need the voice of a trusted professional to save you from being too heavy handed with an herb, in a lot of cases less is more.
Finally there is presentation. We are all amazing creatures with acute senses. We are attracted to foods that are presented in a pleasing manner, some of this is cultural some is not. We know instantly when something is not right, a bug in a salad or a hair is almost instantly detected. If you get something in your mouth that is not supposed to be there you know instantly that the tin foil got stuck in the middle of the baked potato. The slightest defect in presentation will cause us to avoid that piece in a buffet line (if the food is too light, too dark, off color or burnt looking.)
How do you learn to cook online?
Actually you don’t. You get instant access to a series of video demonstrations that teach you the fundamentals of the process and then in the comfort of your own kitchen you begin to build your own experiences and through trial and error you learn the timing, the systems and techniques, the taste and the presentation. With some dedication you can learn a tremendous amount in a year. The beauty is that you will never have a chef in your face pointing out how you just seriously screwed up a batch of this or that. The side benefit is that you can save years of peeling potatoes before they let you learn how to shell and de-vein shrimp.
In the weekly newsletter you will find many tips for enhancing your cooking skills, why not give it a try?