Learning to Cook

I grew up with a stereotypical male idea of cooking: it’s for girls. My twin brother made a few attempts to cook while we were in high school, which I found amusing at the time, even though he was successful. I was blissfully unaware of the fact that like the majority of professions, men dominate the professional cooking world. My frame of reference for who was supposed to cook was based on female family members (i.e. mom, grandmothers, etc.). The fact that both of my mother’s brothers are great cooks didn’t seem to faze me (which in retrospect was rather naïve). The reason I started to cook was due to my interest in science, and the appeal of two baser aspects that appeal to many males: fire and knives.

During my undergraduate work in biology, I became fascinated with the science that is inherent to cooking. The biology and chemistry of an ingredient plays a direct role in how it reacts in the kitchen, while cooking itself is simply physics and chemistry at work. My newfound passion was quickly stoked by one of the best shows ever aired on Food Network: Alton Brown’s Good Eats. If you don’t know this show, you need to look it up (Youtube has a great selection of clips and episodes). Alton took a very scientific approach to cooking, not only explaining how different techniques work and why foods cook in a certain way, but also by experimenting and finding the best way to cook something. Some of the first recipes I cooked were straight from Alton. I also learned a lot, and continue to learn from the great Harold McGee and his book On Food and Cooking. If you want to learn more than you’ll ever be able to remember about the science of the kitchen, then this book is for you. He also has an abbreviated edition, Keys to Good Cooking. These sources of kitchen knowledge fed my curiosity and instilled a love for cooking, before I ever picked up a sauté pan.

My first experiences in the kitchen were hit-or-miss, but almost always without trepidation. I followed recipes exactly, and quickly learned that you should read the entire recipe carefully, before you start cooking! Some recipes were a complete failure due to my ignorance (i.e. how to cook fish), resulting in rather terrible dinners (e.g. extremely overcooked red snapper). Other recipes were wonderful successes, and encouraged me to keep cooking. I also quickly improved my knife skills and learned from experience not to grab the handle of pots and pans that were in the oven (they look exactly like cold handles…but they’re not!). We also discovered that the apartment oven was broken, after it took 3.5 hours to cook a cheesecake!

As I cook more, find recipes and dishes that I like, and continue reading, my cooking style and preferences have changed. I’ve found that I particularly like French flavors and cooking techniques, but I don’t limit myself to that. I enjoy pasta and other Italian staples, as well as Mexican, Asia, and Middle Easter flavors and techniques. I enjoy cooking new dishes, and using ingredients that I don’t normally turn to. I’ve also decided that in order to reduce the limits of my cooking repertoire, I need to eliminate my food prejudices. I began with mushrooms, which I hated as a child. I started by incorporating mushrooms into dishes that I already enjoyed, and I  learned how to prepare and cook mushrooms properly (like overcooked fish, undercooked mushrooms are not very appetizing). I’ve also started to enjoy the squishy texture of fat and collagen, which is very unusual in the modern American diet. I’m thinking about trying to enjoy olives, but that might take a while.

I also approach cooking meals in a different way than when I started cooking. I’ve only been cooking for 4 years, but in that small amount of time I progressed beyond sticking to a single recipe for most of my cooking. Experience in the kitchen, and the knowledge obtained by reading and watching other cooks, makes it much easier to conceptualize a dish entirely in my head, and even imagine the individual flavor components. Sometimes I will look at a few recipes to determine how long something should cook, or what the basic ingredients are in a dish. However the majority of the meal, cooking techniques, and timing are determined by me. This isn’t always the case, of course. If I’m cooking a completely new dish, one that I have no experience with, I will refer directly to a recipe. If the technique is particularly important (i.e. pretty much all baking recipes), I will follow the recipe exactly. It all depends on what I am cooking, and what I want the results to be. If I want to match a recipe exactly, then I’ll follow it. Most of the time though, I want to make a dish that I know I will enjoy, so I use the recipe as a reference for key information. This is how I would encourage you to use the recipes on Logan’s Kitchen: as a starting point to reference to when you cook, but to make any modifications according to your own taste.

One last thing I’ve noticed over this past year is how my palate has changed. A few years ago, I ate canned soup for lunch on nearly a daily basis. The last time I tried canned soup (about two months ago) it tasted disgusting. I was salty yet bland, chemically thicken yet still watery, and generally not something I would be proud of making. This was actually a big shock to me: I used to enjoy the exact same soup that I now found gross. I’ve noticed this change occurring with other foods as well, mostly processed foods. Unknowingly, my tastes have changed, as well as my sensitivity to salt and flavor in general. While I knew that salt and sugar sensitivity changes with exposure and concentration, I hadn’t realized that my ability to taste other flavors would also improve, simply by cooking my own food and avoiding too many processed or prepared foods. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to sound like an elitist or self-righteous foodie; I still enjoy fast food, for better or worse. I simply find it remarkable that cooking has had such a dramatic effect on how food tastes to me.

As I continue to learn and cook, my tastes and preferences will continue to evolve. The wonderful thing about cooking is that you start fresh every time, with no limitations except your own knowledge and imagination.

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