Disclaimer: The above title is not written proof that I have gone New Age, or that the constant, never ending sunshine of Southern California has finally baked the grey matter in my skull. That, my friends, happened long before I reached the West Coast.
The title refers to the concept that great cooking is achieved through the use of all five senses and not by following a recipe and looking at your watch to determine when something is done. Recipes are a great starting point, but as your develop your cooking chops you will find yourself using them less frequently. You will be able to scan the list of ingredients and wing it from there. This allows you to adapt and improvise, with confidence, when you discover that you are missing an ingredient that the recipe calls for.
Taste is the sense we habitually rely on for most of our cooking. After all, we eat with our mouths, not our ears. Yet many of us would be hard pressed to describe the taste of the food we eat on a daily basis. So one of the first steps to becoming a great cook is to begin by being mindful of the tastes we encounter. This goes far beyond sweet, salty, bitter, sour and savory. It requires us to notice flavors we were probably unaware of before, like the earthiness of mushrooms, the piney essence of fresh rosemary, the gaminess of venison. Upon tasting a Belgian Trappist Ale for the first time, many people reply that it is sweet, but that does not describe the flavor of the ale. Take a sip and focus on what food the beer tastes like. You might be surprised to find caramel, toffee, molasses, chocolate, and maybe even a bit of banana or bubblegum. Being aware of this allows you to start to make connections between foods, as well as beverages, that go together. The ale sounds like a dessert, so go ahead and try one with some chocolate cake or a square of dark chocolate. How do they affect the taste of each other?
Our sense of smell helps us to distinguish what we taste. The two work closely together. Smell is also one of the most important cooking tools we have. Pay attention to the way a steak’s aroma changes as it goes through each stage of doneness. At first, you smell the fire, but not the beef. Then the flesh starts to brown and the first hints of meat drift upwards. The proteins start to caramelize as the amino acids convert to sugars, turning the outside of the meat a burnt-orange brown, while releasing a deep savory-sweet aroma. Or think of fresh bread baking in the oven. As it bakes, the house fills with wafts of yeasty, toasted wheat. Leave it in the oven too long and it transforms into an acrid, burning odor. The more you are aware of these changes in aromas, as well asodors, the less you will have to depend on time to determine doneness.
Look at your food as it cooks. What changes take place? Place some raw broccoli into a pot of salted, boiling water. Watch it as it changes from a muted medium green to a vivid, bright green. Leave it in there too long and it becomes pale as the chlorophyll leaches out into the water. The point when it is vivid green is the point when it is almost cooked to perfection. Remove it from the boiling water and plunge it into an ice bath. This stops the cooking and sets the color. This technique, called blanching, is use by better restaurants to insure perfect vegetables without a great deal of last minute cooking. When you are ready for the vegetable, give it a quick sauté in olive oil or butter to reheat it, season with salt and pepper, and serve. You will be rewarded with bright, colorful vegetables with just a bit of snap to them.
Touch encompasses more than just our fingers. It includes ours mouths, our teeth, our tongues and cheeks. Think about the snap of a raw carrot as your bite down on it. The smooth silkiness of ice cream as it melts in your mouth. The crunch of potato chips, the burn of Jalapeno peppers, and the sticky, chewiness of taffy. Prod a raw steak with your finger and keep poking it as it cooks. Feel the way it firms up as the meat cooks. This is an important sensory tool to develop. With practice, you eventually will be able to tell the doneness of the steak just by giving it a poke. Touch is also a valuable tool for composing a dish; a crispy, buttery bread crumb topping on your Mac N Cheese is far more interesting to eat than just a plate of cheesy noodles, because it adds contrast to the textures. Remember, a little crunch goes a long way.
I stated above that we do not taste with our ears, but hearing is very important to eating and cooking. Think of the sizzle of bacon in the frying pan, or the crackle of pork loin roasting in the oven. The crispy, crunching of an eggroll as your bite into it. The drip, drip, drip of the percolator as you wait for your morning coffee. When you sauté or pan roast your food, does it sound like the pounding of a hard rock drummer, or is it the smooth sizzle of a jazz drummer? Chances are, if it is playing heavy metal, you heat is too high and you will burn your food. A gentle sizzle tells you the temperature is just right. On the otherhand, if you are deep frying, pound away at about 375F. Listen to the bubbling oil crackling away. See the food turning a golden brown. Smell the breadcrumb coating as it browns. When you finally bite into it, feel the crunch on the outside, taste the tender, succulent inside, and revel in a perfectly cooked meal.
By being aware of all of your senses while eating and cooking, you begin to taste the food in your head. Start small and slowly build up your sense memory. Your ability to put together ingredients without the aid of a recipe will continue to grow, and your cooking will improve drastically. And the gray matter in your skull will remain healthy, too.