Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Is cooking just about following a recipe?

"If you can read, you can cook."

I smiled when I heard this comment on talkback radio last week. At its most basic, this is a true statement. If you can read, you can follow a recipe. "Heat oil in a heavy-based saucepan, then add onion and garlic..." might be the start of a soup recipe and surely any literate person would understand those instructions?

But there is so much more to cooking than just following a recipe. There is jargon in cooking, or at least terms that are taken to be commonly understood and not require explanation (particularly in old-fashioned cookbooks, where recipes are rarely more than two or three sentences long). Terms such as "saute", "sweat", "al dente" and "cream" have a specific meaning that novices may not understand. I find that most cake recipes now ask the cook to beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, whereas all my old recipes simply state to "cream butter and sugar " before moving onto the next step.

In terms of cookware, sandwich tins, lamington tins and slice tins have special, standard measurements that also don't need explanation.. I was reminded of this when I posted a recipe for a slice that stated that the mixture should be cooked in a slice tin and a friend asked me what exactly was a slice tin. Sandwich tins are commonly referred to in old-fashioned recipes; do most modern cooks know that they are used, not to make or carry sandwiches, but to bake sponges?

But more than specialist terms and jargon, cooking is about passion and the soul. Yes, anyone who can read should be able to cook but will they enjoy it? Will they be inspired to seek out new ingredients? Will they enjoy spending hours to concoct a dish that may be polished off in minutes? If you don't enjoy cooking, or see it as a boring chore to be completed as quickly as possible, then you can make meals as fuel but you are not a true cook.

Dishes cooked with love, whether it's for family, friends, neighbours or a new lover, no matter how plain or simple, taste better because they have that secret ingredient of love mixed in. I think that's why sometimes old family recipes don't taste the same, regardless of how faithfully the recipe is followed, because they are missing that ingredient. Mum's roast chook or hedgehog slice doesn't taste the same if mum doesn't cook it.


jessica said...

i really enjoyed this post. i have held cookign, and learning to, at a distance for sometime because so many of these facets intimidate me. not to mention the "knowledge" one needs to have when tasting. my mom always said, just keep tasting until you get it where you want, and that seemed like the most absolutely nonsensical advice in the world. how would i know what i wanted it to taste like?? i want it to taste like it is supposed to taste like...and i don't even know what that is!!
see what i mean?
i've cut myself some slack and used smaller easier recipes to get going, but the jargon is yet another barrier.
thanks for this post!

Melinda said...

Hi Jessica - glad you enjoyed this post! Cooking and its jargon can be intimidating but practice really does make perfect. The more you make, the more you learn about different tastes and textures, what you like and don't like, and that helps you next time you make something. For example, the first time you make bread, you won't know whether it's worked out like it's supposed to but, as you make it more, you can compare it to the previous times and that way you start to get a feel for how it should be and whether it's worked or not. You're definitely doing the right thing by using small and easy recipes to get going. Knowledge in cooking is accumulated over time. It sounds nonsensical but your mum is right - eventually you do get to a point where you do just "know" how it should be. This could take years so don't give up!