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Thomas & Jim: 10 Steps to Becoming an Intuitive Cook

November 30, 2010 Leave a comment

OK, I couldn’t resist the play on “Julie & Julia” – mea culpa.  The Thomas in my post title is Thomas Keller.

This morning, I came across an excellent essay by Daniel Duane at the Food & Wine site; it seems to fit right in with my little mission to remove people’s fear and trepidation when it comes to dealing with cooking from scratch.  The best cooks are intuitive cooks.  I’ve always said that if you can read, you can cook.   Sure enough, there is a line in the movie Ratatouille stating that “Anyone can cook”, to which my daughter replies, “yeah, but not just anyone SHOULD cook”.  She’s talking about people who don’t yet have the skill to intuit what to do in unfamiliar situations.  The good news is, you can adapt some mental models to improve your ability to intuit.  Keller shares some of his suggestions on becoming an intuitive cook  in the article, and I’ll add my own after his.

Thomas Keller’s Cooking Lessons: 5 Steps to Becoming an Intuitive Cook

1. Start with your all-time favorite recipe from your favorite cookbook. Cook it by the numbers, following every instruction.

2. No more than three days later (so you don’t forget too much), take out a piece of paper, write out the simplest version of the recipe that you believe you can work from and cook from that.

3. A few days later, write an even less detailed version—a few sentences at most—and cook the dish again.

4. Over the next few weeks, cook the dish entirely from memory at least several times, but make a small change each time (swap out a spice, change a vegetable), so that the recipe becomes a rough template, not a fixed set of rules.

5. As you repeat the process with other recipes, experiment with skipping Step 1 and then, later still, Step 2.

It’s kind of ironic that I view the list above as rather prescriptive, sort of a recipe in and of itself.   Here are my own “Top 5” thoughts on becoming a more intuitive cook.

1.  Embrace the unusual.  And unusual can mean even if it’s just unusual for you.  If you come across an ingredient you haven’t used before, buy one and use it, even if you have to look up a recipe for it.

2.  Waste nothing, or next to nothing.  Save green stems and use them instead of celery.  Save sweet potato skins and cook them for your dog.  Save citrus rinds and use them to deodorize the garbage disposal.  Try your hardest to come up with a use for everything.

3.  Substitute on purpose.  Have a recipe that calls for sweet potatoes?  Use a butternut squash instead.  Water chestnut?  Try jerusalem artichokes in that dish.  Nutmeg?  Allspice.  Sage?  Marjoram.  If you actively seek to replace key ingredients with things that you think might work, your intution will get a workout, and you’ll be better prepared to substitute on the fly.

4.  Use all your senses and make guesses before verifying.  This works especially well with cooking meats – if you’regoing to use a thermometer, or cut into something to check doneness, stop for a second.  Touch it.  What does it feel like?  How warm is it?  How firm?  Is there moisture on the surface?  Grab a leg on a chicken or turkey – is the joint loose?  What is the aroma?  Then go ahead and make your check.  Before long, you won’t need that thermometer nearly as often as you used to.

5.  Taste things!!  It never ceases to amaze me that people fail to pick up a hunk of an ingredient and taste it all alone.  I’m not advocating the consumption of raw chicken, exactly, but for God’s sake, chew on a few different basil leaves in your life.  How can you put things together if you don’t know what they taste like in their own?  Life is too short to not taste the roux.

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