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Learn to trust your senses when cooking

By on March 28, 2017 in Columnist with 0 Comments

Bonnie OrrBefore 1890, many cookbook recipes did not included actual measured ingredients — rather they had narrative recipes that called for a handful of flour, a lump of butter the size of an egg, etc.

In addition, in those days, cooks spent a large part of their day in the kitchen and absorbed cooking lore from others’ experience.

Recipes stating actual cooking times and specific heat did not appear until the 1930s when kitchens were outfitted with a gas or electric oven and stove top rather than a wood-fed cooking stove.

And I believe that this latter innovation has discouraged cooks.

Is 5 to 7 minutes a suggestion to find the mean number 6? When you read a recipe and it tells you to bake for 20 – 25 minutes — how are you supposed to know what that means? Why is there a variable?

For me, the most difficult part of writing recipes for this column is figuring out what time to suggest. For you see, I have never used a timer.

The timer leads great, well-meaning cooks astray.

One of my dearest friends was cooking fish fillets. He asked me to set the timer on the oven. I had to use the oven’s manual to figure out how to do it. And the fish did not turn out well. One piece was fatter than the other, and the directions in the recipe said 5 – 7 minutes on each side and repeat.

You can well believe that the fish was overcooked and ruined.

In the same way, cooks who use boxed ingredients, say for brownies, often end up with a dry, hard chocolaty brick even though they cooked it for exactly 35 minutes as stated on the back of the box.

It is disappointing when your dish does not resemble the photo in the cookbook. Actually, I have only achieved the identical look twice in all my years of cooking. I was so pleased I took a picture — but I did not send it to anyone!

One of my cooking friends selects elaborate recipes based on photos and follows the instructions precisely — and has yet to serve a really tasty meal.

It is following the timing directions precisely that causes the dish to waver. She does not use her nose nor her fingertips nor her ears nor her taste buds to gage how the ingredients are cooking.

No matter how reliable the cookbook or magazine is, each stove top, each pan, each oven has its own range of temperatures.

And anyway, what exactly is a “large sauté pan”? Is it 10, 12, 15 inches in diameter? How do you know exactly how much oil to heat in a pan if it is not clear how large the bottom of the pan is?

The truth seems to be that a recipe’s directions are suggestions for success.

But cooking is a deliberate activity.

My nose and my ears and my fingers are always engaged in what is happening on the stove top and in the oven.

Bread has a certain smell when it is fully baked — so do cookies.

Sautéing vegetables have a certain sizzle as the water evaporates from the tissues that indicate the sautéing is complete.

I can feel when the pie crust ingredients have come together just perfectly for a flaky crust. If they feel wrong, I start another batch of dough.

And I confess, the reason that I never specify the amount of salt or pepper in one of my recipes is that I do not taste while I cook. My nose, fingers and ears give me enough information, and I don’t have to taste and sample those extra calories.

I have read that most ovens are at least 25 degrees off what the setting says. This inaccuracy affects how long a dish should be baked.

My oven is 50 degrees cooler than the setting when the pre-warm buzzer rings.

My Whirlpool oven and I have had to learn to negotiate what I want the temperature to be and what it thinks it wants the temperature to be. It is not a love/hate relationship — it is just one with no respect.

I bought a thermometer that fits on the baking rack. In addition I have been using guidelines for internal temperatures of baked goods.

Nearly all cooks use a meat thermometer to ensure safe internal temperature of meat. Internal temperatures of baked goods will vary based on ingredients, but I have found reliable rules of thumb. I use an instant read thermometer.

For example, bread is cooked at 200 degrees, a fruit pie at 175, a cheesecake at 155. I will share further results when I have sussed them out.

I believe cooking failures are not the cook’s fault alone. Using the senses makes sense.

Bonnie Orr — the dirt diva — cooks and gardens in East Wenatchee.

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