The comforting genius of learning to cook by making familiar recipes

People treat learning to cook like some kind of special skill, and the current foodie culture and idolization of chefs doesn’t do a lot to help that. But cooking is just a toolkit of basic techniques, and you can teach yourself these techniques by making just about anything, including box mac’n’cheese.

I learned to bake bread by making the same recipe over and over. Bread baking is hard – you have to know what the dough should feel like at every stage, you have to know how to stretch it just right to develop the gluten or even when not to do that, and you can make the same recipe exactly the same way multiple times and it will come out different because of the weather or your arms were tired. So it makes sense that you can really learn how to bake bread by repeating the same recipe – you’re not just learning a recipe, you’re gaining experience as a baker. Side note: this idea of experience that you can’t learn from the recipe itself is a big part of what my dissertation is about, except there I call it “tacit knowledge” or “experiential knowledge”. The key is that there are some things that you can’t learn from a written description – you have to try the thing out, or have it shown to you in order to really know it. End side note. So, if I can learn this lofty skill of baking from repeating one recipe, why can’t you do the same thing for cooking?

I think people often feel that being a good cook is about having a good recipe, but it’s much more about having good technique, just like bread baking. When you read a recipe, it will often say something like “saute diced onions until translucent.” This instruction has three pieces of technical knowledge in it: saute, dice, and translucent. These terms all have specific definitions that professional chefs know and the cookbook author knows, but the cook might not. Saute implies a certain amount of fat in the pan and a certain heat, and, to some extent, a certain kind of pan in a certain size. Dice is a specific size cut and a specific shape when it comes to onions. And translucent doesn’t really mean “able to have light pass through it” – it just means no longer opaque, and maybe a bit shiny. Do you need to execute all these techniques exactly as a chef would for the recipe to turn out as intended? No, probably not. If you “know” how to cook – i.e. if you have a sense of how you want the final product to be and how to get it there – then you don’t have to do things the way the recipe says. But either way, you have to do things intentionally and know your own techniques.

A chef will probably tell you that to learn these techniques, you have to train in the proper environment – I don’t totally disagree with this, since I learned to cook by watching cooking shows and those people were just telling me information that they learned in cooking school or developed from that experience. But a lot of what I know about cooking – how to time multiple components of a meal so they’re done at the same time or how to make sure the onions are the texture I like – those I learned from making certain foods over and over. When you repeat a recipe, even something really basic, you eventually become comfortable enough with the steps that you can pay attention to how you do things, and that’s when you notice the effects of little things.

You don’t need to be making something from scratch to notice those things, though, and this is where box mac’n’cheese comes in. This is a foolproof recipe, not even really cooking, right? There’s still a few good cooking lessons in it, though. The basic process: you boil the noodles, drain, and stir in butter, milk, and cheese powder. At each step you can learn a basic cooking technique. 1) Boil the noodles – people who don’t know how to cook will often use pots and pans that are too small because they’re intimidated by making a bigger mess (this extends to reusing dishes too much in the cooking process). But if you cook pasta in too small a pot, the noodles can get gummy from the starch building up in the water and the pasta itself can lower the temperature too much when it goes in, lengthening the cooking time and causing the noodles to overcook. Not to mention, at the end of the recipe the pot needs to be big enough to stir everything in without loosing all the noodles over the side. Experience making this recipe tells you that you need to use at least a medium saucepan. 2) Drain the noodles when they are done – but how do you know when the noodles are cooked? You could trust the time estimate, but you might not always like the results. Experience making the recipe will tell you that fully cooked noodles are squishy and plump and they don’t collapse in the middle, and you can tell by biting into one at the earliest end of the time estimate. 3) Stir in the other ingredients. You want the final product to be smooth and even without any lumps. If you pour the milk in first the hot noodles will absorb it and then they will get gummy and there will be no liquid for the sauce. If you put the powder in first, and if you just dump it in, it will clump up all over the noodles. But if you put the butter in first, it will melt nicely all over the noodles and form a coating that keeps the milk separate. These are simple steps, but all the same, they are a kind of knowledge of cooking, and you don’t need to make anything fancy to learn them.

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