Processed and convenience foods and shortcut cooking methods have become so entrenched in our culinary culture, it’s easy to forget just how much we have forgotten about real cooking.
But cooking instructor Darina Allen knows all too well. More and more of her students arrive having never cooked so much as an egg, or needing lessons in remedial onion chopping. She remembers one student who thought she’d ruined a bowl of heavy cream because she’d whipped it too much. She thought the clumps and clots in the bowl meant it was bad.
“I said, ‘Stop! Don’t throw it out!’ ” says Allen, author of “Forgotten Skills of Cooking.” “I said, ‘You’ve made butter!’ She was completely fascinated.”
As cooking has been rendered optional — the victim of rising restaurant culture, myriad takeout options and supermarket sections packed with pre-cut vegetables, shredded cheese and prepared foods — Allen and others say cooks are increasingly losing touch with skills considered basic, or even essential, just a generation or two ago.
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And that is changing the way people like Allen teach, as well as how recipes are developed and written.
“Nowadays, we have to be more specific — ‘fold it in with a rubber spatula’ — because people don’t know what folding is versus stirring,” says Julia Collin Davison, executive food editor for books at America’s Test Kitchen. “Now we list in our recipes more often what utensils to use: Stir with a spoon. Use a chef’s knife for this. Use a paring knife for this. Over the years we’ve altered our recipe style dramatically based on reader feedback.”
America’s Test Kitchen, known for its almost obsessive precision in recipe development, isn’t the only one. During the last decade or so, most cookbook and magazine recipes have begun to reflect the change in reader knowledge. While recipe writers could once use a shorthand style that assumed a basic knowledge, they now need to be far more explicit.
“There was a time when you said ‘sear’ or ‘cream butter and sugar,’ and everyone knew what that means,” says Sarah Copeland, food director at Real Simple magazine. “Now you say, ‘Heat your skillet over medium-high heat, add oil, cook until golden brown.’ … You took what was a two-word process and made it a 30-word process.”
But if you’re ready to get back in the kitchen and reverse the culinary brain drain, we’ve assembled a list of essentials — skills experts say every home cook should have.
Knife skills are step No. 1 in any and all cooking. Cutting your own vegetables, rather than buying them pre-cut, makes a dramatic difference in the texture, flavor and price of a dish, Collin Davison says. Plus, mastering basic cutting technique shrinks prep time and makes cooking easier and more enjoyable.
“If it takes you 15 minutes to cut up a single bell pepper, dinner’s going to take you 3 hours,” she says. “And when you’re good at knife skills, cooking is just way more fun.” Many cooking schools offer classes in basic knife skills, but excellent online videos also are available.
Searing is the act of quickly browning meat over high heat using a pan, broiler or grill. “It’s one of those instant ah-ha’s when people make the most beautiful seared chicken breast and it looks just like the magazine,” says Real Simple’s Copeland. Certain small steps — heating the pan properly, patting the meat dry before putting it in the pan — help ensure success. Real Simple and other sites offer step-by-step videos. “Those are a perfect entry point,” she says.
Sautéing is searing’s more delicate cousin. Used to soften and brown vegetables and meats to be eaten on their own or as a base for soups, stews or other dishes, sautéing involves quickly cooking ingredients in a small amount of fat. The process requires high heat and a pan large enough to avoid crowding the ingredients. Learn to sauté properly in a class or with an online video. And expect to make mistakes.
“If it always comes out a little bland and wan looking, you need to turn up the heat,” Collin Davison says. “If the pan catches fire, you need to turn down the heat. People are afraid of the mess and the smoke.”
Emulsifying is the process of combining liquids that generally resist being mixed together, such as oil and vinegar. It is used to make basic items such as salad dressing, pesto and hummus. “You don’t want to serve something where the oil is separated out,” Copeland says. “And it’s as simple as knowing to drizzle while whisking.”
Chefs test the doneness of meat by comparing its firmness to different parts of their palms. You can skip that exercise, Collin Davison says, and invest in a reliable shortcut: the digital thermometer. “We temp everything from fish to burgers to steaks and roasts,” she says. “Once you learn your temps, you’re an expert.” Collin Davison recommends getting a high-quality thermometer and downloading a temperature chart from the Internet.
Need more help with this one? Check out James Peterson’s new book, “Done,” a guide to knowing how to cook everything — from pot roast to poultry to pasta — just right.
Blanch and shock
You may recall Julia Child plunging her quickly boiled green beans into ice water. That’s blanching (the boiling) and shocking (the ice), and it keeps vegetables crisp and green. It also precooks vegetables that can be quickly sauced, browned or broiled just before serving.
“It’s a trick that restaurants use a lot to prepare things in advance,” Copeland says. “If you blanch and shock your vegetables in the morning, and then toss them for dinner, you just cut your cooking time in half. It’s kind of a technique that’s a shortcut and food improver more than anything else.”