How to De-Intimidate Your Cooking
“I followed the recipe exactly, and it still didn’t come out right?” Sound familiar? It sounds familiar to me too! (The most embarrassing thing — and it happens — is when I’m referring to one of my own recipes, smh.) You spend money on ingredients, and time and energy putting them together. At the same time, you’re relying on everything to work out so you can satisfy hungry bellies — it is intimidating to dive into all these things with the fear looming over you that things won’t come out right! How do you get past that fear, and get into the kitchen? Or, if you’re okay in the kitchen but you’re in a rut, how do you grow past your basic game?
Think of a professional cello player. Hand her a book of piano pieces. She’ll look at the music, understand it, and likely she’ll even be able to hear it in her head as she reads it. Now, ask her to sit at a piano and play — what do you think will happen? Will she be a brilliant pianist, taking the language she knows so well and speaking it beautifully through a whole new instrument? Probably not! The same is true for food. You can read a thousand cookbooks and eat a thousand meals and know a thousand ingredients, but unless you develop the skill, you won’t be able to cook comfortably, and you won’t be able to express yourself in food.
Step one, then, in de-intimidating your kitchen mind, is to understand that cooking is a skill. You need to practice in order to get better; you will burn things and cut yourself and ruin perfectly good butter (spoiler alert: these things happen to pros, too; I did all three, last week) — and those mishaps will give you the opportunity to learn and grow. You can very quickly learn how to get more from your cooking and your food, and start to develop kitchen-confidence, if you focus on using cooking as a learning experience, rather than a “doing” experience.
The exciting thing is: you already have skills! You might not be confident in them yet, you might not know how to apply them precisely the way you want, but you have them. They are born of looking and listening, trusting your instincts, using your hands and your senses, and paying attention to what these things are telling you. A recipe might not tell you to wash a carrot before you cut it up — your most basic skill, in that case, is having the sense to scrub off the clumps of dirt clinging to it before you drop it into a salad. “Well, gee, Jules, that’s not really hard, everyone knows that,” you might say. True, but… how does everyone know that? We only know that because we’ve been told, or we’ve bitten down on dirt and disliked it. So we look for that, and find it, and deal with it before proceeding. As you build your skill, you’ll start to notice that the cut of meat you’re using needs slow cooking, or the butter you’re about to add in a particular instance should be cold, or your greens will come alive with a squeeze of lemon — these things will become as obvious to you as washing dirt off a carrot.
Step two will shake things up, right from the start: don’t expect a recipe to teach you a skill. That’s like expecting a playbook to teach a receiver to catch the ball — that’s not where he learned that.* A good recipe (which is rarer than you might think) can explain things in a way that is crystal clear, but only your hands and your mind can use skill to execute the recipe. A recipe can tell you how to juxtapose things and what order in which to do things… in essence, it can tell you how to use your skills. An excellent recipe (rarer still) can even explain a skill. But only you can sharpen them. Again, I’d point to music — Bach only wrote his Suites for Solo Cello one time… so why do we need 5,000 recordings of them? Each cellist plays according to their own skill, and their own style, and their own taste. The recipe is always the same; it’s the cook that is different.
You’ll often find — especially as your skills get stronger — that something a recipe says is simply wrong. Recipes, even reputable ones, sometimes have errors, however what’s far more common is that a recipe is written with an ingredient / tool / level of humidity / some other maybe esoteric factor in mind, that is absent from or different in your kitchen. Using your instincts and powers of observation — thinking through things — will help enormously. It might seem a little pedantic, but reading through a whole recipe before you even buy ingredients is insanely useful. Remember the old days (some of you will not) when you used a map to get where you were going? You didn’t drive one leg at a time and stop to refer to the map again to see what’s next at every turn, like GPS does for us now — you plotted out your route before you hit the road. Do the same thing when you cook!
I’m a nerd; you’ve probably realized this if you didn’t already know. This is probably the reason that for me, what I’m going to call step three is my absolute favorite: ask why. There are several times when it’s important to ask why.
- When you’re cooking, following a recipe, and it tells you to cut a certain vegetable a certain way — why? Does the increased surface area of a diagonally-cut vegetable hold more lively vinaigrette? Does the very even dice ensure that all the pieces will cook in generally the same amount of time? Do the paper-thin slices of radish simply look more attractive? Ask yourself why when you’re cooking!
- When things go wrong — why? Is it something obvious, like, this chicken breast is dry as a bone? Or, I tried to make mayonnaise and all I got was expensive, salty grease-water? Well, why? Why did the chicken breast overcook? Was the heat too high, or was it in too long? Or both? Did you really drizzle that oil into your egg yolks slowly, or was it more of a slosh? Just asking yourself why can bring you far closer to an answer than you’d expect. And it’s SO HARD! The last thing you want to do when you’re frustrated, when you were hoping for a nice cheese soufflé and ended up with a pancake that seems to defy the basic laws of physics (how can that many eggs even FIT into a shape that small!?), is to get analytical and work on bettering your skills. But it is the best time to ask these questions — you won’t remember tomorrow exactly what you did / what you didn’t do / what you tried to use instead of eggs to make a soufflé. Don’t be hard on yourself — and don’t make it harder on yourself by wasting the best opportunity to learn and remember!
- When you’re done, and things went great — again, why!? This is an especially fun and exciting time to ask this question — because you will be basking in the glow of your evident skill. Equally important now, if you can remember to do it, is to ask why. You’re fresh from the game, you still remember very clearly each little flick of the wrist and turn of the whisk — if you take the time now to observe and ask yourself why, you’ll remember what you did, it will stick out to you, and your skill will build.
I think a good fourth step, and final one, in this first set, is to let simplicity speak. Let’s not get fancy. Get good ingredients — whether that’s a box of mac-n-cheese and some frozen peas, or some jamón ibérico, or fresh greens from the market — and let them be the best they can be by doing less. (Or, in the case of the aforementioned jamón, NOTHING!) Let’s say you’ve got a bunch of nice greens. Take some olive oil, pour more of it than you think you need to into a large bowl and swirl it around. Add some salad greens, salt them just a bit, and squeeze a lemon over it — maybe grind some black pepper over it as well — and toss it for a while, and perhaps shave some hard cheese on top when you’re done. It’s hard to beat that inarguably simple salad, and you don’t need to do more than that to make a good salad. Everyone — everyone — loves simple food made well. I got very offended by a hamburger at the only place that serves them near my apartment — so I decided: a hamburger is a simple food, and I’m going to learn to make it well, at home. And I did. And we no longer go out for burgers when we’re in the mood, we just make them here. They’re simpler, and they’re better. Think about the foods you love best — are they simple? I’ll bet they are.
Use recipes, too, that are inline with a simple mindset. If a recipe calls for ingredients you don’t know, or don’t have, or can’t get easily, you’re completely free to move on. If it sounds more complicated than you can manage, trade up for something simpler. If it specifies techniques you don’t understand, or if it seems confusing or vague — let it go. Your food will thank you. Your diners will thank you. And you’ll learn.
In his magnificent book, Cooking by Hand, chef Paul Bertolli says, “Following a recipe does not absolve the cook from cooking.” Words to live by. Learn to cook!
Recipe #2: A Hopefully Skill-Building Recipe for Sweet Jalapeño Skillet Cornbread
Preheat oven to 375°F. Set a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet on the stovetop, and gradually — slowly — bring to a bright heat as you prepare the recipe.
- Butter: 8 T (4 oz, 1 stick), plus 4 T more for the pan
- Cornmeal: 1 c
- All-purpose flour: 1 c
- Brown sugar: ½ c
- Baking powder: 1 T
- Salt: 1 t
- Buttermilk (or milk): ⅔ c
- Eggs: 2
- Pickled jalapeños: 4–6, or to taste
- Gently melt the first 8 T butter (not in the skillet!).
- Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, brown sugar, baking powder, and salt with your hand, breaking up any large clumps of brown sugar.
- In a second mixing bowl, whisk together the buttermilk (or milk) and eggs.
- Drain the jalapeños, and slice into whatever size or shape you like.
- Gently whisk the melted butter into the other wet ingredients — wait a moment if it got very hot.
- Add the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients (or, if for some reason you’re not even aware of you’d prefer to add the dry ingredients to the wet, that’s also fine), and add the jalapeños.
- Stir just until combined using a rubber spatula.
- Melt the remaining butter in the skillet, swirling so it melts and doesn’t burn, and scrape the batter into the pan. I like to add my batter at the center of the skillet, and gently smooth it out, bit by bit; it will push the butter outward with it. It will look a bit choppy and ugly; be patient as you spread it and correct it, and it will work out just fine. You have time.
- Set the skillet in the oven. You should probably turn off the burner, at some point, too.
- Bake for about 20 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. OR — skill-build alert — touch the center gently with your fingertip when you first suspect it might be almost done, and see what it feels like. A baked cornbread should spring back lightly and feel to your fingertip like… cornbread. (Learn to judge doneness this way. Why? A way-overbaked cornbread will also give you a very clean toothpick.)
- Allow to cool briefly in the pan, and use a small metal spatula or knife around the edge to ensure it’s not stuck if you’re nervous about it. Invert a cooling rack on top and carefully but swiftly turn it over.
- These baking instructions are for a 12-inch skillet; this makes a somewhat thin cornbread (perfect for the bottom of a bowl of chili, if you ask me). You could easily do 1½ times this recipe, or use a smaller skillet (9- or 10-inch), but be aware that a thicker batter will increase your baking time. Be observant!
- I should think Hatch chiles or any other variety of chile you enjoy would be just as lovely, whether pickled or not.
- Wouldn’t some shredded cheddar cheese, added on top in the last 6 or so minutes of baking, be just delightful?
- Serve with butter, or better yet, honey butter. Recipe for honey butter: Soft butter; Some honey; Mix.
*special thanks to my friend Krystin, a heck of a cook who helps me say sports things that make sense.