Why a recipe won’t teach you how to cook

A picture of Chicken Fried Steak

You’re not as good as you think you are

If you spent 10 years soldering components to printed circuit boards how much closer to being able to design electronics would you be? The answer is ‘not very’. Following instructions does little to teach one how to design things. Nor does it teach you what the instructions do in the context of creating a thing you don’t really understand.

Most people who cook have almost no idea how very little they really know about cooking. For these people cooking becomes a matter of rote; following formulas to achieve results. Variations to this are achieved by happy accidents and blind experimentation.

If you want to teach someone to cook it is necessary to teach them to cook by ear, much in the same way a person might learn music by understanding scales, keys, etc. People read instructions off the Internet or out of a book the same way a musician might read sheet music. Reading notes on a page and playing the song accordingly is much like following a recipe. With a musical instrument, you have some luxury to experiment and find combinations of notes that go well together. With food, this is much more difficult due to the time and cost involved.

Improvising

In music, the ability to improvise is a key element to being a musician, as opposed to just being able to play an instrument. What makes improvisation possible is an understanding of musical theory; scales, notes, rhythm, arrangement, etc. In cooking the same sorts of theories apply. One must understand the interaction of fats, starches, sugar, protein, heat, cold, etc. Being able to play a set of songs note perfect does not make you a musician in exactly the way being able to follow a set of recipes does not make you a chef.

Learning how to cook

For musicians, sheet music is a tool, not a crutch. For a musician, sheet music gives him a means of playing and following along with others without knowing the song beforehand. Many musicians never even learn to read sheet music. Would you ask someone “How do even play guitar without sheet music?”? “I know how a guitar is played” is the answer. While this might seem painfully obvious many people ask “How do make a pie without a recipe?”. The answer is virtually the same; “I know how pies are made.”.

The steps

  • Step one:
    Accept that you don’t know how to cook. You don’t. Just accept that or you will never become good.
  • Step two:
    Stop cooking by rote. This is vitally important. It is essential to not only do the right things to achieve a result but to understand how and why those results are achieved.
  • Step three:
    Grasp the basics and work up. Understand the techniques employed in every aspect of the cooking process and how they are applied. i.e. If you do not understand what makes a good pie crust you will not be able to make a good pie despite knowing what makes a good pie filling.
  • Step four:
    Learn to think critically about preparing food. Everything you do must be looked at while asking the question what impact will what I am doing right now have on the taste, smell, appearance, texture and possibly sound of the finished product and is there a way to make what I am doing better.
  • Step five:
    Focus with artistic precision on the final product. Don’t dress up the simple in the clothes of the sophisticated. Simple is beautiful. Sophisticated and complex is beautiful. Bear this always in mind. Your ability to gild a lily will not make you a chef. Don’t do it.

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