This post is part of a series in which I’m dedicating two months to learning six new skills this year. The full schedule can be found here. This is month nine/ten. (tl;dr at the bottom of this post)
In terms of developing skills I might use over a lifetime, these might have been my two most successful months. Unfortunately, they reinforced the truth that there really are a limited number of hours in the day, and any time I spend on one skill means no time for another. I still haven’t finished the socks for Aimee I want to knit. I had no time to meditate. I spent no time on Hebrew.
I did, however, cook. I had a crazy amount of travel in in September and October, and it kept me from the kitchen. It was also tennis season for the kids, and shuttling them around kept us from many family meals. Nevertheless, I got a lot done.
I bought four books. Let’s get the lesser two out of the way first. I bought and read Modernist Cuisine at Home, which is the smaller $110 version of the $500 monstrosity Nathan Myhrvold released some years ago. It’s gorgeous. It also reads as the most scientific and precise of any cookbook you could imagine. Recipes are times to the microsecond. Temperatures are exact. Weights are to the nanoparticle. But the methodology also requires a NASA-like kitchen. You need scales, torches, and a great sous-vide machine. That’s not going to happen at this point in my life. Someday, when Aimee and I have nothing else to do, I might consider going this route. For now, though, I need to cook in the real world.
I also read On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. It was good, but it didn’t inspire me. Nice science background. Not grounded enough in the real world.
The book that made these two months work, and the one you must buy is Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat. My goal in this month was to learn the theory of cooking, not to follow recipes. I can do that already. I wanted to know how you made the recipe. How do you know what should be in a dish? How do you adjust it to make it better? The key is adjusting – you guessed it – the salt, fat, acid, and heat.
There are big chapters on each. Nosrat starts with salt. No surprise to me, salt is the key to everything. I’ve got a chapter on it in my book, too. Salt is the key to preparing meat ahead of time. It’s the key to boiling/steaming/anything with water. It’s the key to every sauce. When something is missing, it’s almost always salt.
I learned to add what felt like a crazy amount of salt to most of what I was making. And lest you all start lecturing me, since I was cooking and not eating processed food, I bet my sodium consumption was lower than usual. Salt makes all the difference. Nosrat uses Caesar salad dressing as a fantastic example for salt since it contains a ridiculous number of salt-adding ingredients that must be balanced.
Key #2 is fat. Oil, especially olive oil, is your friend. It’s in everything. The key exercise in this chapter was making mayonnaise, which is just egg yolks and oil. Maybe some lemon juice. It’s much harder than you think.
The third factor is acid. You need to balance all salt and fat with acid. This can come from citrus, from vinegar, etc. The example here is an “avocado matrix”, where you can make a crazy amount of salads from just a few ingredients, as long as you learn to balance the salt, fat, and acid.
Heat gets into cooking techniques. For vegetables, I blanched, I boiled, I slow-cooked, I sauteed, I steamed, I lost track. But I learned what techniques go with different vegetables and why. That will serve me well in the long run. I learned to roast, to grill, to saute, to pan fry, to braise.
I made mayonnaise from scratch to turn into Caesar salad dressing and creme fraiche into blue cheese dressing. I blanched and sauteed bok choi. I slow cooked broccoli rabe. I sauteed green beans, and snap peas, and more.
I braised a pork shoulder all day one Sunday. I make Kufte more than once, and whipped up three sauces each time (Harissa – which required making pepper paste first, Charmoula, and an herbed yogurt). I slow roasted salmon three different ways. I marinated chicken to make “Buttermilk chicken”, a Persian chicken, and five-spice chicken. I spent hours on a ragu. I made a kick-ass cacio de peppe. I made a variety of salads, which I learned to mix with my hands. I took a whole weekend to make beef stock from bones and then turn it into pho. But it was amazing.
By the end of the months, I wasn’t measuring things out so much as eyeballing them. I was trying more to do things on instinct. I tasted, and I tasted, and I tasted – adjusting the ingredients accordingly. I think I got much better. Towards the end of the month, I was opening other cookbooks to look at recipes, and I could see what people were doing. I made a Thai steak salad out of Christopher Kimball’s new cookbook (I’m a regular contributor to his program and he sent me a copy). Today, I’m making kebobs and hummus from Michael Solomonov’s Zahav cookbook (that restaurant is a family favorite).
But here’s the hard part – cooking takes a lot of time. You can find cookbooks that swear you can do things faster, but I swear to you, it makes a difference when you do things right. Making harissa from scratch took almost two hours. Every meat must, and I mean must, be at least salted for at least 24 hours. Marinades are even better.
Grinding spices (and toasting them no less) makes a big difference, but it sure is time-consuming. Having fresh herbs on hand and dicing them ain’t fast. Soaking beans ahead of time requires planning, but they’re so much better in terms of texture and taste.
Even cooking veggies right isn’t “efficient”, especially when you’re trying to balance the creation of a salad and a main course simultaneously. I tweeted out a few weeks ago that I’m starting to understand why good restaurants need to charge a lot for good food. Sourcing ain’t cheap. Nor is the time it takes to do this right. Let me give you an example: I’m planning to make Michael Solomonov’s hummus later today. I’m going to need chickpeas, so I had to remember to start soaking them last night. Then, I need to make his tahini sauce, which requires picking up some ingredients that I don’t have in the house. While I’m making the tahini sauce, I’ll simmer the chickpeas – which will take at least an hour. This is just for hummus. I’m also planning a salad, kebobs, and perhaps a vegetable. I also made two sauces for the kebobs last night while kids were trick or treating. This served a dual purpose since needed the harissa – one of the sauces – for marinating the chicken tonight for the meal I’m planning tomorrow.
This takes time. Everything takes time.
Having said that, it’s totally worth it. I’m getting better at this. I like it. The food tastes better. We look forward to eating together. Sometimes the kids help. I rely less and less on the cookbooks as I progress.
Before I forget, let me mention the fourth book. The Flavor Bible is more of a reference than anything else, but it’s really useful. You can look up any one ingredient, and it tells you what other ingredients go with it. So if you had a bunch of herbs in the house and wanted to know what goes with “dill” this would tell you. Or, if you wanted to know what works well with lamb – boom, you can see. It’s not for everyone, but I like having it around. Nosrat has a much simpler version of this in illustrated form in her book, but I like the detail.
tl;dr: Cooking well takes time, but it’s worth it. The best book by far is Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. You may find The Flavor Bible helpful as a reference. And buy my book!