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Condiments: Are they a sign of a cook?

I recently paid a visit to a very dear friend that lives on the other side of town. She loves to cook, or so she says, but there is never any food in her house when I'm there. She has an extremely limited spice rack, and her pantry and refrigerator have nothing beyond the basic condiments. So, I began to wonder exactly what she does cook. I have so many condiments...several types of oils, sauces, vinegars, honey, mustards, spices,etc. so much that I often have to clear out the old to bring in the new.

So, it got me to wonder - what is the sign of a cook?

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  1. I think that's a very interesting topic. We have done a few house exchanges in the last year, going into strangers' homes and I do think I make some judgments about them based on what's in the pantry and fridge. The one who had about ten different hot sauces has since become a good friend :) It could be based on worse, couldn't it?

    1 Reply
    1. re: c oliver

      Me, I have such a limited space, I keep what I eat. I go to the store every few days and buy just what I am making and keep some cans, some condiments and some frozen chicken breasts or meat. No room for anything else.

      And some people are great cooks, but usually cook on weekends when they have time and they buy ingredients. My fridge right now is empty.

      Condiments are good, I use a variety, and my fridge has a lot, and other than the veggie drawer which does has fresh veggies from the market today, not much else. With a crazy work schedule , I try to buy things I use for the next few days. I would love to buy food a week in advance, and I used to ... now a days, I just don't have room.

      She may be the weekend baker, or the sunday cook. That can be very common.

    2. As someone with bulging cabinets, fridge and freezer, I tend to agree with you. But to be fair, you can love to cook without being an adventurous cook -- maybe she just likes to cook simple foods. Or maybe she mostly bakes.

      I think more telling than the lack of condiments is fact that there's "never any food in her house" -- most people who love to cook do it frequently, and thus usually have more food in the house than they can eat.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Ruth Lafler

        Ruth - you are so right! My neighbors and friends love me since I'm always pushing the excess off on them. And me freezer could tide me over until . . . well you know. Every so often, I have to stop cooking and just clean out the frig and freezer by eating - alas. It's good I have a very, very small kitchen or I'd start jamming and canning!

        As for condiments, I have too many (4 olive oils, 8 other oils, 8 vinegars, 4 mustards, preserves, only 3 hot sauces, spices etc) but I really, really use them.

        Cookbooks are another giveaway although not always a guarantee. An aunt of a friend's has and entire room (many 1,000's) dedicated to cookbooks that she reads nightly - but she never cooks.

        So yes, I'd judge a 'cook' by my own 'set of glasses' and wonder if she was a cook or only dreamed to be one.

      2. We have a lot of condiments, but don't use them very much, so they stay with us indefinitely (including at least a dozen varieties of store-bought and home made hot sauces and preserves).

        I had friends who were great cooks with a refrigerator full of condiments, but rarely food (purchased on an as needed basis). I also had friends with a similar repetoire of condiments but who really couldn't cook very well but loved food (they married people who could cook, fortunately!).

        My husband claimed that he always had nothing BUT condiments, never actual food. Loved condiments, buying them, hoarding them...but never used them (until we started dating and I'd make something with the leftovers--another new thing to him--and some of his hoard).

        The friends with no food (or condiments) whatsoever usually had take out or cereal for dinner. Many times, they didn't have much in terms of cooking/dining/drink/silverware either.

        I wouldn't go so far as to say that condiment varietals are the sign of a good cook; for freshness purposes, some people use the bulk section to buy on an as-needed basis.

        I daily use olive oil, fresh garlic, peppers (fresh and black), balsamic and now cider vinagre. With a jar of Maille, I'd probably be set for awhile.

        1. I try not to buy a lot of those things because they're expensive & I can't use them up before they start losing freshness. I have at most three vinegars on hand; just one kind of olive oil (and very little of other oils). If I want a different kind of mustard, I usually just make it - honey, herbs, fish sauce, hot pepper, vinegar, Dijonaise, whatever. Likewise sauces and marinades - I don't tend to buy prefab mixes, since I make my own. I have no spice *rack* at all... most of my spices are in baggies or recycled glass jars since I buy organic wholesale.

          All the same, you saw her place and I didn't - I bet you're onto something. At least we can be sure that if she cooks, it's not the same way you do, which is great - you complement each other!

          1. My grandmother was an amazingly good (Hungarian) cook, and I always marvel at how she did it without the sophisticated battery of pots, skillets, knives, and ingredients I have at my disposal. For daily cooking she had some Pyrex cooking pots, one or two serrated knives, a Revereware skillet - and one Le Creuset casserole that I inherited :).

            So, no, I don't agree. I think technique and knowing your ingredients is more important. Oma's daily cooking used mainly onions, salt, pepper (not even freshly ground, as I recall), garlic, and paprika that she got directly from a private source in Hungary, and she did wonders with it. I think technique like knowing how to caramelize onions to perfection, or sweating vegetables to get max flavor out of them when starting a broth, or stirring kasha in an egg to dry out the grains so they will stay separate when cooked, or knowing how to sear meat to seal in flavor while cooking - these are signs of a cook, more than an international array of condiments on your shelves.

            Another sign of a cook - curiosity. Someone with the soul of a cook will always find a kindred soul at any gathering, no matter how very different that person may be in every other way, and they will happily talk about the process, ingredients, utensils, tools, technique, seasonings, etc., while all other noise will fade into the background. My 92-year old aunt, bless her heart, will still enthusiastically discuss with me every single salad served at a luncheon, how the veggies or fruits were cubed or sliced, how the dressing was blended, etc., while my mother looks at us as if we're nuts. Some folks cook because they have to, some folks do it because they love it - and the ones that love it will always remain curious and willing to talk about it.

            2 Replies
            1. re: falconress

              You literally wrote almost exactly what I was thinking. As I was reading the replies above yours, I began to think about my Oma (Hungarian and German), and the wonderful meals she put on from her spare kitchen. There would literally be five different vegetable dishes, a meat course, dumplings, etc. etc., yet she did so with old banged up pots and a kitchen stocked largely with just basics like flour, sugar, onions, butter, eggs, salt, pepper, paprika. I remember her calling us kids into the kitchen when it came time to roll the dumplings. And she loved to show us how to beat a batter, let it rest, rebeat it, etc., until the texture was just right.

              As a side note, I'll add that my Oma's aunt was a well-known cook in the northern New Jersey area in the early 20th century. She had come to the US when she was twelve, and was soon after hired by the wealthy families of NJ to cook at special dinners b/c she could cook Hungarian food so well.

              Thanks for reminding me of those wonderful times in Oma's kitchen and the great meals that followed.

              1. re: Cachetes

                Falconress & Cachetes, love the grandmother talk! Thanks! My DH's grandmother also used to work as an occasional cook/caterer for wealthy families when she was young.

                I love talking food with people, especially as a way to connect with people from different backgrounds.

            2. I have a lot of condiments because a number of friends who come out here for summer give me the contents of their pantries, freezers, and refrigerators when they go back to the city. A lot of wonderful stuff -- steaks, chops, burgers, sausages, bacon, seafood, fruit pies, pound cakes, ice cream, sorbets, beverages, and all kinds of condiments. All put to good use feeding myself and friends. That's just the way my life is. If someone has no condiments, I don't necessarily think that person is a non-cook. Just sourcing is different, buying only enough for one meal at a time or so. I like simple cooking too.

              1. I would say that, as a rule, few condiments, not a cook. Presence of condiments does not necessarily indicate a cook but absence is a strong indicator of lack of cooking. I'm ambivalent about a spare spice rack. In theory, I would like to clear many of mine out and rely more on fresh. In practicality, I can't seem to quit buying them in the hope that I would try them.

                I know I can find a recipe to use that star anise I bought. Now where is it?

                2 Replies
                1. re: EdwardAdams

                  For star anise, add it to soups (ie instant faux pho when added to beef stock) or make a marinade for spare ribs/pork/duck with ginger, soy sauce, molasses, chiles, and garlic.

                  1. re: EdwardAdams

                    I think condiments are more a sign of a shopper than of a cook. And when it comes to bread dippers and bruschetta toppers, forget about it! Personally I have ketchup (kids), mustards, a few asian staples, and not much more that I can recall. I prefer to take full credit for what I cook.

                  2. Different people have different definitions (or ideas) of what "cooking" is.

                    Perhaps, your dear friend considers boiling eggs, making toast, adding milk to cereal to be "cooking".

                    Who's to say she's wrong, I often find it quite challenging to pour just the right amount of milk to pair with my cereal. It can be quite challenging, first thing in the morning ...

                    1 Reply
                    1. It's hard to say... Just took a look in the fridge and man is there a lot of ©®ap in there. Besides commercial catchup, mayo and mustard, there's oyster sauce and at least half a dozen sauces I've made.

                      Does that mean I'm a good cook, no.

                      I believe what condiments a person has on hand speaks more to their likes, than how much or what they like to cook.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Demented

                        While I agree with your point, I'd point out that someone who "loves to cook" is not necessarily a "good" cook. As I said, I find that fact that this person is described as never having any food (not just condiments) in her house a bigger indication of whether she loves to cook or not -- most people who love to cook have food they've cooked in their house, especially if they're expecting guests.

                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                          Hey Ruth,

                          It's true that a lack of food is quite telling. I chose to limit my reply to the topic header “Condiments: Are they a sign of a cook?”

                      2. If you looked in my fridge right now, and saw the lack of condiments you would probably think I wasn't much of a cook. I threw out so much after the hurricane and have been slowly re-stocking. BUT if you looked at the obscene amount of spices, and herbs I have you would know I am! Since the DH is so picky I may not be able to get a piece of asparagus in front of him, but by god I can get some good flavors in our food! And the more the merrier.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: danhole

                          danhole, with a cupboard full of spices you always have the makings of a condiment! More work, yes...but condiments are just convenience sauces, no? (Who has the time to ferment fish ? :-) A mustard is just a dry ground powder (hadn ground is needs must) mixed with vinegar and a little oil, maybe some herbs or spices. With all your spices and herbs, you are definitely a cook.

                          So are the people with just salt and pepper, really. It's taste, it's experience, it's culture. And yes, a lot of times it is convenience.

                          I think Demented made a fine point as to the *likes* of the cook with regard to condiment stocking.

                          We're all cooks. All of us just venture out along different avenues with ingredients, spices and condiments.


                        2. Me, I tend to go through phases of certain foods. So I'll always have black pepper, salt and oliveoil. And then with my recent mexican phase, I tend to have quite a few spices etc. My herb garden has died during winter apart from the sage and rosemary, but they don't get very big.

                          I tend not to have much actual food, just basic stuff in the cupboard

                          1. I end up with a collection of all sorts of spices, condiments, sauces, oils, etc etc and almost never cook. Don't ask me why I do that.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: jgg13

                              I think everyone does that. Although I cook, I've got 2 things I have used once: toasted sesame oil which is far too strong, and some kind of shallot and chapagne oil which tasted great in the shop, and like nail polish remover from my house.

                            2. Most of my friends who never cook, takeout people, have a lot more condiments than I do. I think I am a good cook. I have condiments, but not a lot of them.

                              1. I wonder about this sometimes.
                                When I was at the store today I saw "pumpkin seed oil" and thought "What earthly difference would that make?"
                                If I wanted pumpkin seed flavor, couldn't I sauté some cracked pumpkin seeds in oil and then allow them to steep for a a half hour or so?
                                Wouldn't that give me the same effect and I wouldn't have a $13 bottle of oil getting rancid in the pantry?
                                How big is the difference between "black truffle oil" and "white truffle oil"? How many of you or your guests will REALLY know the difference? At $20 each?

                                After decades of cooking, I cherish the small store where I can buy tiny quantities of what I need, when I need them.
                                Three star anise. A tablespoon or two of an herb or spice.
                                All weighed out on a tiny scale that a drug dealer would love.
                                Why have 12 old dried out debilitated mustards, instead of three or four fresh strong good ones?
                                If I want a "honey dijon," I have both simple dijon and good quality honey. I can mix it.

                                So NO, I don't think that having a cupboard full of stuff that is getting old or that you don't use up is the sign of a good cook.
                                It's the sign of a shopper, maybe a hoarder.
                                If it's older than a year or so, why is it there?

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: MakingSense

                                  I can tell that you, like me, know exactly what you have in your cupboard.

                                  1. re: Soop

                                    When I mentioned above how many condiments I had to throw away after the hurricane (and it made me sick just how many were 75% full) I also said that I had a cabinet full of herbs and spices. Cay came back and said that then you have the makings of condiments, and that is so true! Now when I shop I pick it up, look it over, check the ingredients and wonder if I really need this or is it a whim? 9 out of 10 times I put it down and walk away. I have the basics, and from there I can get away with most anything! But I do have food in the house, unlike FoodChic's friend.

                                2. I actually think spices are more a sign of a cook than condiments. So many condiments can be used *after* food is cooked. I mean, if a guy has 10 kinds of mustard in his house how do you know he doesn't just slather them on hamburgers or hot dogs every day?

                                  Also I agree with the others that spices or condiments alone won't indicate a thing--as with the Hungarian grandmother examples. If I usually cook only family-style Cantonese I have a small arsenal but I use them regularly. I think the massive amount of spices and condiments come in with someone who cooks and bakes many varied cuisines.

                                  6 Replies
                                  1. re: PegS

                                    If you're cooking "many varied cuisines," are you using the herbs and spices regularly enough that they don't get old and lose their flavor?
                                    There are of course basics that bridge culinary traditions which you replenish frequently, but if there are cuisine-centric items that have been lingering in your pantry for years, are you doing justice to whatever "varied cuisine" you're using them in?

                                    1. re: PegS

                                      ...or they may come from a spice-happy part of the world, like India or Indonesia, and having 10 different spices in any one dish is pretty normal.

                                      1. re: PegS

                                        I was about to disagree. It's disarmingly easy to come up with a big matched set of spices from Penzey's, Surfas, etc., whereas the presence of a Tupperware bowlful of homemade salsa, a half-exhausted jar of chestnut honey, caved-in containers of sambal olek, or the right brands of smuggled kaya or huacatay or balsamico do tend to speak rather eloquently. In fact, the presence of too many tins of spices from Dean and DeLuca, although the product is of excellent quality, is usually a poor sign - like a gleaming 6-burner Viking range, it signifies the presence of money rather than any particular passion for food. (And I'm assuming that we're asking this question when we're traipsing through someone's kitchen on an open house or at a PTA cocktail party.)

                                        But then I remembered my own spice cabinet, spilling with a dozen kinds of salt and almost as many kinds of black pepper, a sack of smuggled Sichuan peppercorns, seasoning salts from Jocko's in Nipomo and Dario Checchini in Panzano, ten different kinds of vanilla, sacks of mole paste, fennel pollen, full-branch Greek oregano, both Vietnamese fish sauce and Roman garum, saffron both Kashmiri and Spanish, smoked, sweet and hot paprika and home-dried tangerine peel. So - you can tell. The cupboard with 17 flavors of sweetened mustard or 130 bottles of hot sauce carefully arranged by color speak to a few things, but I suspect culinary prowess isn't one of them.

                                        1. re: condiment

                                          When do these things become talisman, souvenirs, trophies? They get stale and lose their potency and usefulness for cooking.
                                          Would you seriously want to use them if you were making a meal you really cared about? Or offer them to family or guests as condiments to add to something you had spent time preparing?
                                          Over-the-hill should be out-the-door at some point unless they're simply decorative accessories.

                                          1. re: MakingSense

                                            If you're addressing the contents of my cupboard, they get tossed when they no longer function, which in my case ends up including hundreds of dollars worth of olive oil a year and a more or less complete overhaul of spices. (I tend to pick up the smallest possible Penzey's jars, which does seem rather wasteful, but there's only so much powdered cardamom or rogan josh seasoning one cook can usel.) Then again, some things do last forever - I'm still dipping into the bottle of extravecchio balsamic I bought on my first trip to Italy many years ago, and it has gotten, if anything, better.

                                          2. re: condiment

                                            can i go "shopping" in your cupboard? haha j/k

                                        2. I am fortunate enough to live right next door to a fairly upscale market. I go to the store every day to shop for the evening meal. I guess the definition of condiment comes in to play here. I have a vast array of vinegars, oils, spices - basically non-parishables. My fridge and freezer rarely hold much other than what needs to be kept chilled until dinner, maybe some partially used stock or leftovers.

                                          1. We don't have a lot of condiments in our kitchen... I've never seen the point in taking up the space with stuff you'll only use once or twice. Not to mention that the fancier the bottle, the higher the price... but I've got plenty of herbs and spices to add flavour to my food. DH doesn't cook so when we got married all he had was salt, pepper, generic mustard, mayo and ketchup.
                                            One sign of a cook - do they have any HOMEMADE condiments in their kitchen? (I do - I made some tomato chutney yesterday - and DH likes it! Hooray! It will be the first of many.)

                                            1. If we're talking A1 sauce, then no, I don't do condiments.

                                              But although I do have a variety of spices and a few different oils, vinegars and basics like soy sauce, I like things simple.

                                              I don't need different kinds of honey or some random German mustard that I'll use once.

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: Halie

                                                This may be where some clarification needs to be brought in. I do not mean A1 or steak sauces, etc as condiments. I mean oils, honey, vinegars, soy sauces, fish sauce, mustards, etc. The items used to build recipes. I can make my own steak sauce and I've stopped buying salad dressings as I make my own everyday. The items I make with these building blocks are far better than anything in the store.

                                              2. I cook almost everyday and I have a limited spice rack. In fact, I have no spice rack...some people just prefer cleaner tastes.

                                                I'm sure her condiments are much more varied then mines. I have salt, pepper, soy sauce, siracha...and that's it. Some sort of fresh herbs in the fridge but rarely any spices. And vanilla extract for baking.

                                                Maybe when I invest in a spice grinder I'll have some spices u.u.