Mastering the culinary arts
Irene Hau, an avid explorer of culture and mental health, discusses how the culinary arts can be mastered for endless fun during the pandemic.
Even before quarantine, cooking was a hobby that I yearned to master but never got around to pursuing. Learning to cook has many advantages and can even be a source of stress relief or additional income; however, expanding culinary skills can seem daunting, especially in the realm of baking. That being said, don’t let the fear of messing up drive you away. Cooking is an extensive skill that begins with practice. For home cooks and chefs who are just starting, I’ve compiled a few tips that will help elevate your recipes and troubleshoot to make your journey smoother.
“Every artist was first an amateur.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Letters and Social Aims
First, I want to preface with the idea that cooking is as much of an art as it is a science. Even with recipes and traditions, a dish acts as your canvas for the story you want to tell. Furthermore, as an artist, you have free reign to adjust when necessary and you can go through multiple reiterations before you are content with your final product. The same sentiment applies if a part of the process goes awry. It's okay to not be perfect every time and you can start over any time or transform what you're working on into a different end product; therefore, it's important to enter the kitchen with an open mind and flexibility.
Here are some basics for building flavor. With few exceptions, every course you make will include salt, sugar, and a source of acidity. Although recipes will call for varying quantities of each, like more sugar for desserts, the balance of these three elements will be crucial as they are seasoning the base from which you can layer spices and textures. Seasoning will depend on your preferences and generally have a narrower range, unlike spices which you can integrate to almost unlimited amounts. Typically if anything leans too much into one of the three seasoning categories, you can increase the amount of the other two to negate the issue. For example, if my stir fry is too salty, I can usually include a little sugar and a splash of vinegar to brighten and balance it. However, it should be mentioned that there is a certain threshold to which you can “fix” before the output becomes inedible.
Furthermore, don’t be afraid of using fat! Oils and fats are what hold flavor, thus, for something to taste good, there has to be a significant amount of fat. More specifically, the type of fat involved can impact the profile. The milk solids in butter lend themselves to a warm, nutty aroma, while olive oil is more floral and can have a spicy, earthy fragrance. Not to mention, smoke points and cuisine type can also dictate what oil you use.
As a beginner, it’s challenging to adapt to the kitchen environment and workflow, even if you're only cooking alone. Before even stepping into the kitchen, have a plan and do your research. If you’re following a recipe, read it beforehand. If you’re trying a new technique, practice it. Although you can be creative, you should maintain efficiency and order in what you do. On that note, proper equipment and techniques aren’t mandatory, but they help out immensely and ensure safety and consistency, which is critical to learning to cook; consistency indicates the roots of mastery and serves as a starting point for more complex methods.
To troubleshoot more, what I see most frequently is the incorrect use of measuring tools: measuring spoons and cups are for solids, while measuring cups that look like a pitcher are ideal for liquids. Additionally, certain ingredients require you to level the surface evenly (such as flour) when gathering quantities, so be mindful. Lastly, cleaning as you go is a good housekeeping habit that’ll save you time and injury in the long run.
This is by no means an extensive list, but I hope these tips will guide you in your culinary endeavors and give insight into the endless culinary possibilities that await you.