Want to be a better cook? Slow down and use all your senses

Embracing the ritual of cooking will do more good than following tons of tricky recipes

Russ Parsons in his kitchen in Waterford. Photograph: Harry Weir

Russ Parsons in his kitchen in Waterford. Photograph: Harry Weir

 

I don’t think I could have survived the last long year and a half without dinner. Not the eating of it, of course – though that certainly didn’t hurt – but the making of it. The prospect of a little time spent cooking has been the lure that pulled me through many a dreary day.

Some evenings it has been a few quiet moments, just me and my thoughts and the solid chunk-chunk of chopping and the sizzle of something in the pan.

Other times have been a bit more celebratory, a glass of wine beside me and something tasty on Spotify – depending on my mood, Dave Brubeck or George Shearing, Seamus Begley or Doc Watson, or if I’m feeling homesick, my old Texas friends Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely.

Whatever the setting, it’s been the ritual of cooking that has been my constant solace through this long, lonely lockdown.

That’s the only word for it, really. Ritual. But it’s not a habit. There’s a big difference. Habits are things we do automatically, without thinking. Rituals must be performed attentively, with purpose.

I’d go so far as to say that if you want to become a better cook, embracing the ritual of cooking will do you more good than following a book full of complicated recipes, or watching any number of television chefs.

That’s because the essence of ritual is paying attention. Granted, that’s an easy thing to lose sight of when you’re cooking. So much of what we do in the kitchen we can do almost automatically. It takes an effort sometimes to remember to focus.

But that’s how we get better. Concentrate on performing even the smallest actions, like chopping onions. Slow down and think about what you’re doing. Do you want them minced, so they melt into the dish? Or do you want larger chunks that will retain some integrity? Make each cut as perfect as you can.

Boring parts

My biggest stumbling block is the urge to rush through those boring parts. It’s easy to slip up and just whack your way through all the slicing and dicing. But if you take care with the smallest things, you’ll discover the big ones will follow.

Pay attention also to your senses – all of them. Become engaged with what you’re cooking. Be aware. What does the food look like? How does it smell? What does it sound like? Don’t be afraid to touch it, carefully.

If you’re sautéing a piece of salmon, notice how the colour changes as it cooks. It starts out dark pink and lightens as the heat moves up through the fillet. When it gets just past halfway, that’s when you want to flip it.

Watch when you’re making jam. At first you’ll get big lazy bubbles as the liquid cooks off, but as the mixture begins to gel you’ll see the bubbles becoming smaller and more frenetic.

When you’re dry-toasting nuts, pay attention to the smell. When it begins to get rich and brown, that’s when they’re perfect.

You can tell that your pie pastry is done by sight, when it turns dark golden. But have you noticed how the smell changes at the same time? You can tell it’s done from the next room.

Listen to your pan. You’ll know the oil is the right temperature for frying when you hear a whoosh of bubbles when you slip in the food.

The sound changes

A Spanish chef taught me that my paella would talk to me and tell me when the rice was done cooking and that crusty socarrat was forming. I thought he was nuts. But he was right: put your ear right down next to it and you can hear the sound change from bubbling to sizzling as the liquid evaporates and the rice begins to fry.

Don’t be afraid to touch your food. The easiest way to tell when a steak or a chop is done is poking it with your finger. The firmer the meat, the more done it is. When braising, you’ll know it’s right when a paring knife or skewer slips in easily.

Everyone should try whipping egg whites by hand at least once. Not for the exercise but because that way you can feel the foam getting thicker and heavier (and by the way, did you notice how the sound of the whisk against the bowl changed, becoming softer and almost muffled as the foam thickened?).

Just recently, I learned the perfect way to judge when to pull my granddaughter’s favourite sugar cookies from the oven. I run my fingertip very gently across the top; when I can feel a delicate crust forming, I know they’ll be crisp on the outside but soft and chewy in the centre.

No doubt as life eventually returns to normal, many of the habits we’ve formed during the pandemic will fall away. And on those hectic weeknights when just getting the family fed feels like a major achievement, the last thing you may want to do is slow down.

But try it, just for a half-hour: turn off your phone, set the kids to their schoolwork, and focus on the quiet ritual of dinner.

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