A bead of sweat trickled down the side of Susan’s face as she focused painfully on her task. The severity of the situation was well understood. The cookbook called for a dash of soy sauce. She frowned, wiped her brow, and read it again.
“A dash? A dash? What’s a dash?!” Susan screamed. “How many teaspoons make up a dash?” She dropped the book on the floor and steadied herself on the side of the counter. She looked up and fixed her family with a crazed look. “How much is a dash?” she demanded. They quickly turned and ran from the kitchen.
Do you know anyone who cooks like this? Are you afraid to deviate from a recipe? As a personal chef, I have taught hundreds of people how to cook. No matter your level of kitchen prowess, you can always increase your knowledge and gain more confidence.Here are some tips that will help you go from Heat Application Technician (that’s what I call recipe slaves) to a cook who can enjoy making his or her own dishes with creativity and flair.
When to follow recipes. It’s not a bad thing to follow a recipe, and a well-written recipe can result in a delicious dish. You should, however, understand why the recipe works. And you should work up the courage to use the recipe only as a suggestion and give it your own flair by changing the quantities and adding your own ingredients. That’s how you start learning to create dishes, instead of reproducing them.
The only time I ever follow a recipe closely is when I’m baking. Baking is the branch of cooking that requires a more standard application and exact measurement of ingredients.
You can paint by numbers (remember those?), or you can just paint. Use recipes as a learning aid until you’re not afraid to paint your own picture.
How much is a dash? Probably the hardest part of making a dish is getting it to taste right. You may be afraid to ruin it by adding the wrong spice or the wrong quantity. My advice to you is to add small quantities of spice, mix the dish, and taste. Repeat these three steps throughout the cooking process until you achieve a flavor you like. If you’re not tasting your dish as you go, you’re not cooking — you’re just applying heat to it.
The right amount of spice does not depend on the recipe, it depends on how much of it YOU like. You may even want to split up your dish into two pots, and experiment by adding different spices or amounts to each pot.
Don’t be afraid of salt. There are many variables that can make a dish good or bad. But a basic variable between flavorful and bland is salt. I notice that many people are afraid to use salt in their everyday cooking — whether they’re afraid to over-salt, or their doctor told them a scary story about it. If you deconstructed your favorite restaurant meal, you’d be surprised how much salt is in the dish. I look at salt as the carrier wave of flavor signals (sorry, I was reading about how radio waves work before I wrote this). Salt makes things taste good.
How much oil do I use? This is a question that is often asked, and it’s easy to answer when you understand why you need the oil in the first place. Oil is used to keep foods from sticking to a cooking surface. For this you need just enough to keep the food from sticking.
Oil gets hotter than water and air. So when foods are coated with oil, they get hotter and therefore cook faster.
Certain oils (like olive oil, walnut oil, truffle oil) are used for flavoring. In this case, you use them as you would a spice — to add flavor to your dish. Add a little, mix the dish, and taste.
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