How to become a better cook

Chef Knife

I vividly recall the first dish I ever tried to cook when I was twelve. It was my version of fried rice whose recipe I had tried to guess by watching the cook in the “Chinese” food van near my house.

It was an undeniable disaster.

Fortunately, I now know that teaspoons of turmeric powder are not quite the same as soy sauce, which is what gave the rice its brown colour. So if you think you’re a terrible cook because you have trouble making even instant noodles, trust me that everyone starts offs as a blank slate.

“I suck at cooking. Can I ever be a good cook?” is something I hear a lot. The theme of this issue of Indulge is “deconstruction” so it’s a good time for me to take you through the stages of evolution from knowing nothing at all to becoming a great cook. I’ll pretend to be Buddha-like and call it an “eight-fold path to cooking enlightenment”. Let’s start with…

Right recipes: where everyone starts, unless you’re attending a professional chef course. Because you know little, you look for recipes from books, TV shows, friends, relatives, and try to recreate dishes based on other people’s experiences. This can work if you get good recipes with critical details included. Avoid books with titles like “1001 Italian recipes” because they probably won’t spend more than 4-5 lines on each recipe. Look for books that teach you about principles of cooking. They’re better investments. Recipes have their limitations, however. They can’t possibly account for variations in ingredients, storage, climate, utensils, quantities, and techniques. We need to learn more.

Right ingredients: now that you’re on your cooking journey and have made a few things well, take some time to understand the ingredients you’re working with. For instance, cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli belong to the same family. What makes them different? How do their flavours, textures, and cooking times vary? Can you substitute one for the other? How is cooking chicken leg meat different from chicken breast meat? How is the flavour of shitake mushroom different from regular button mushrooms? Did you know that roasted whole garlic has a very different flavour and texture from minced raw garlic? This stage will take months to years, and while I make it sound like it’s an intermediate step, it actually continues throughout our lives. The only way to learn is through experimentation. Academic knowledge is useless without tasting real food.

Right techniques: knowledge of ingredients needs to be backed up by solid cooking technique. Once you master basic techniques like steaming, frying, braising, stewing, sautéing, boiling, etc., you can apply this knowledge to all recipes and improve them. Learn the right temperatures for each technique, then the right utensils, liquid levels, correct quantities of food, and what ingredients work well with what techniques. Lamb will take longer to stew than vegetables (unless you like mushy veggies, and you shouldn’t) so you can’t use the same amount of cooking liquid for both. An egg will cook in a minute in a frying pan but a chicken breast will take 5-6 minutes. How much fish can be deep-fried without the temperature dropping drastically and the oil seeping into your food? And what’s the ideal temperature anyway?

Right flavours: you’re now in your journeyman stage, so now’s the time to get a better understanding of flavours. Of course, you should learn about basic flavours like sour, salty, bitter, and sweet (and “spicy” if you’re Indian), but food would be incredibly boring if it were just a combination of four things. Flavours have facets to them: sugar, honey, and jaggery are all “sweet” but in different ways. Vinegar, kokum, and lime are all “sour” but you can tell them apart. If you talk to chefs, you will get adjectives like “smoky”, “gamey”, “fruity”, “tart”, and “meaty”, etc., to add to your flavour vocabulary. Understanding natural flavours of food will help you understand the character of a dish, which is essential to making good food.

Right balance: Getting to this stage will complete your transition to “good cook”. (“Great” will have to wait.) Once you are aware of flavours, the challenge in making good food is combining and balancing them. You can use the same set of ingredients and make very different dishes by changing the balance of flavours. And it’s easy to spoil a dish by overwhelming it with one particular flavour. Your mother’s perfect fish curry recipe can be ruined by making it too sour or drowning it in chilli. A touch of sugar in a spicy dish can bring incredible balance and rounded flavour without allowing it to taste sweet. Practise will help you get better at this, and it’s necessary to move on to…

Right composition: so you know how to make individual dishes taste good, but you also need to know how to combine foods into a meal for harmony. You’ll need to understand principles of contrasting tastes and textures – pairing crunchy with soft, spicy with mild, hearty dishes with light salads, and not combining foods with similar flavour profiles. You won’t make classic mistakes like making everything spicy, or having only an array of heavy dishes (a typical buffet meal with “dal makhani”, “butter chicken”, “shahi paneer” – all rich dishes, for instance.)

Right ideas: To get to this stage, you must already be a master of the previous ones. This is where “great” begins, and “chefs” are born. You combine your knowledge of ingredients, techniques, flavours, balance, and composition to create interesting new dishes, or to modify existing recipes and putting your own spin on them. You will no longer just read recipes from books; you will paint flavours in your head while reading, and be able to virtually taste variations on them before actually cooking.

Right learning: A true master knows that learning never stops (sounds like a Gandhian cliché, perhaps?) and now is the time to focus on the trifles that make perfection. Fine-tune techniques, buy books like Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking” that explain the science of cooking in detail, explore other cuisines, and learn about unfamiliar ingredients. Then combine this knowledge to create even more greatness.

And that’s all there is to cooking.

This column was meant to be a starting point, not a comprehensive guide; that is not possible in one page.  Does all this need some studying and research? Of course. Nobody said it would be easy. It’s just not that hard.

But somewhere along the way, you will discover the joy of cooking. And the smiles on the faces of people you feed will give you the fuel to keep pursuing knowledge.

(This article first appeared as my column in Mint on 26 October 2011.)

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