I love the excitement of reading through a new cookbook. Flipping through the glossy pages, admiring the photographs of each finished dish and wondering what new discoveries will be made. At the beginning of many cookbooks is a section that is often ignored. Usually titled “How to Use This Book”. This introduction is an opportunity for the author to explain how they have organized their recipes. It’s also a fun insiders look at how they approach cooking. Every cook is different but all great cooks have a confidence about themselves in their kitchen. In my own kitchen, I can whip up handmade breads and complicated curries from memory but put me in another person’s kitchen and I freeze. I experience this quite a bit when Hubby and I visit the family in India. Our month-long visits are an opportunity to study first-hand Mummy-ji’s great cooking, but when I’m asked to make a pot of chai for everyone or make some aloo parathas or chapatis for breakfast, I freeze up. Suddenly, the dough sticks as I roll it or the parathas burn; the milk to water ratio in my chai is way off.
Where does this stage-fright of the kitchen come from? A loss of confidence, I was in an unfamiliar kitchen.
This week, I have spent the majority of my time in the kitchen testing my own recipes and trying out new recipes from a few of the new cookbooks I’ve picked up at the library, so I’ve been working with unfamiliar recipes all week-long. I’ve had my share of surprising success and have asked myself the questions “what went wrong?” more than a few times. After three days of recipes not turning out according to plan, I decided I needed to boost my confidence and turn to a few tried and true recipes.
I noticed on the days where I cooked with confidence, I needed no recipe or simply took a quick glance as a reminder. The recipe was memorized and this freed me up to be creative and to have fun. I could play music in the background and sing along as I didn’t have to focus on deciphering steps. This got me thinking about what I’ve learned over the past few years of being in the kitchen more. So here are a few of the things which have made being in the kitchen a joy, rather than a chore.
Picture this: you’re glancing through a cookbook and an enticing picture catches your eye. You briefly browse through the ingredients and see that you have everything you need in your fridge and well stocked pantry. You hop into the kitchen and start on step one. Things are going great, until you realize step four requires six hours of marinating until you can move on to step 5. Dinner is in an hour, so you throw it out and make scrambled eggs.
…Yes, I speak from a place of experience.
Do yourself a favor and read a recipe all the way through. Check that you have all the ingredients. Read through the directions and make sure you understand them. Do you have all the ingredients you will need for each step? Is the pan you’ve chosen large enough? Will you need more than one pan? How much time will it take?
I like to curl up on my couch in the evening and plan what dishes I’ll cook the next day. Taking the time to figure all these things out so once I’m in the kitchen my cooking session doesn’t become a six-hour marathon.
Gather the ingredients. Chop, peel and prep everything you need prepped before you start cooking. This is what the French call mis en place, which means “everything in its place”. If you heat the oil, add the cumin seeds but then need to peel and chop the onion, the cumin seeds will be burnt and bitter by the time you’ve finished chopping.
Having all the ingredients in place before you begin cooking also has the added bonus of helping you realize if you have enough of each ingredient. Perhaps you looked in your cabinet and saw a full bottle of vanilla extract only to find out there’s a 1/4 teaspoon rather than the 1/4 cup the recipe calls for. This little extra effort will go a long way.
If there was only one piece of advice I could give that will make your cooking experience immediately more enjoyable, it would be to clean as you go. The professionals do it, so why shouldn’t we? I have the pleasure of watching my cousin cook whenever I visit his restaurant and his cooking station is spotless. Fill your kitchen sink with hot soapy water. As soon as you finish with an item toss it into the soapy water. Keep a damp sponge nearby for wiping up scraps of food or accidental spills.
One of the strategies that works best for me is to clean up during the few minutes it takes for the onions to brown or the water to boil. Rather than spending these few minutes staring at the stove, use that time to chip away at the kitchen clean-up.
As I am about to serve the finished dish, I like to make sure all the pans and utensils I used are washed, dried and put away. I’ll fix myself and Hubby our dinner and pour the rest of the dish into containers for lunch the next day and quickly wash the pot. I’m usually quite tired after finishing a recipe and the last thing I want to do after a relaxing dinner is head back into the kitchen to clean-up. So I make sure everything is done before sitting down to eat. Then after dinner, the only thing we need to do is put our plates in the dish washer and press start.
Earlier this week, I tried out a new recipe. I’m slow with new recipes so the dish took me two hours. Usually I’m okay with spending two hours in the kitchen if the reward is a tasty dinner, but this dish was a dud. It was bland and not too great to look at either. I was tempted to think that my two hours in the kitchen was a waste of time. Upon reflection, I realized it was absolutely necessary. If I never try a new recipe, I’ll never discover anything new. Mistakes are opportunities to become a better cook. If my cream curdles, the chocolate clumps or the garlic burns, I know what to avoid for next time and it makes me a much wiser cook.
Before starting a recipe, I have no idea what to expect. I’m excited by the prospect of trying something new. Though I sometimes lose the gamble, I am always willing to try an unknown recipe. Just this morning I flipped through my binder of tried and true recipes, many of which have become favorites for dinner parties. At some point, these recipes were new and unknown to me. What if I had never tried them? A new recipe could either be a diamond or a dud and you just never know.
It goes without saying that before I serve a dish to anyone I always taste the dish. However, once a dish is near the finishing stages there’s not a lot you can do except add salt and pepper. The best tasting dishes have subtle layers of flavors. So as a dish is in it’s various stages, taste it and learn what a raw sauce tastes like versus a completed sauce. These correctly cooked foundational layers will make the end product taste much better. This habit is especially handy for recipes where you can’t taste the finished product without ruining the presentation, such as cakes or casseroles.
As I mentioned above, when it comes to trying out new recipes, I’m very slow. It often takes me double the allotted time a recipe claims to take. I constantly have to refer back to the directions. This is where having all the ingredients lined up helps. Until a recipe is memorized, at which point I can be a bit more relaxed, I always need more time. The worst feeling is being late for a party because your sauce isn’t reducing fast enough or the baking is taking longer than expected. This is when tempers rise and what was once fun can turn ferocious. Avoid it all together by starting early. You can always reheat it before serving.
The whole idea of trying a new recipe is to learn something new that you can add to your kitchen repertoire. So as you cook, note down troubles, solutions and questions you have about the recipe. Store the notes with the recipe, rather than in a separate notebook. This way the next time you attempt to make it, you can refer back to the issues you had and the solutions you came up with.
I keep a binder for recipes I want to try and then a separate binder for recipes I’ve mastered. Recipes slowly make their way into the mastery binder (titled “Colleen’s Kitchen”) only if I’ve successfully made the dish twice. This is the binder I use when planning a menu for a dinner party. If I’ve only made a recipe once, it remains in the “recipes to try” binder but I move it to a tab I’ve labeled “one attempt”. Recipes are always accompanied by the notes I took as I cooked, so I can easily refer back to them.
In my case, the blog has also become a good tool for dinner party planning as most of these recipes have gone through four or more test rounds.
This is a helpful aid for quick clean ups. I have a pull-out trash can under the main counter I use for prep work. So I keep the trash can out and sweep my scraps into the trash as I go. If you don’t have a nearby trash can, you can use a large bowl to collect your scraps. The famous Rachel Ray does this on her cooking show and even sells a “trash bowl” as part of her cookware set, which is really just the same as using a large mixing bowl.
As you learn from your mistakes and gain more experience in a kitchen, you’ll begin to get a sense for when things are done properly. The smells will become familiar. You’ll begin to recognize the way a dish looks at each stage. This is wonderfully empowering and you should begin to trust your own “kitchen-sense”. If the cake looks and smells done but the recipe says it has 5 more minutes, trust your instincts rather than blindly following a recipe. Perhaps your oven runs hotter than the author’s or your pan doesn’t conduct heat as well. The best part about this “kitchen confidence” is that as you read a new recipe, you’ll begin to judge if it’s a good recipe or not. You’ll start sounding like a pro, with claims like “oh, that’s way too much baking powder to use” or “why did they leave out the coriander?”
” A recipe is just a template. The important part is the interpretation, the improvisation.”
~ line from the movie Today’s Special
The most important thing is to go into the kitchen with a sense of fun and creativity. Learn from your mistakes, as mistakes are unavoidable. Enjoy cooking for yourself and for the people you care about. There is no better way to show your love and affection for those you care about than to make them a home cooked meal.
Did I leave out any of your own favorite tips?
What are some of your own bits of wisdom you can share with all of us?