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Apr 15, 2010 12:03 PM

How do you learn?

I was going to post this as a reply in the "What recipes do you make at least once a month?" thread, and then decided that it was off-topic enough to merit its own post...

I'm utterly fascinated by the fact that Chowhounders whose opinions I've come to respect (bushwickgirl, todao, phurstluv) don't cook the same thing "twice in a year." For me, repetition is more educational than chowhound, any cookbook or cooking show, or anything else I do in the kitchen. I make something once (either from a recipe or off-the-cuff), then obsess over what worked, what didn't work, and why. And then I tinker endlessly, exploring how different proportions, processes, and ingredients impact the resulting dish. All along, I'm noting results and thoughts for future changes in my cooking journal (some dishes are even versioned----I'm on Chili 4.5, for example). At some point, a dish becomes as perfect as I my meager skills and knowledge can make it, and it either goes into the rotation as is or falls by the wayside. Any principles I've learned (how to butterfly a pork tenderloin, and how long a 1-pound tenderloin needs at 400 degrees after it's been butterflied, stuffed, tied, and seared on the stove) are applied to future dishes. Is this not how other people learn and grow as home cooks? How do you learn? 'Cuz I'm open to the possibility of changing course.

And people really don't make steaks, omelets, scrambled eggs, pancakes, a go-to quiche, roasted chicken thighs with herbs, basic roasted fish, grilled cheese, salad nicoise, burgers, ribs, a favorite soup, a beloved pasta, or a standard curry twice in a year? I have a hard time even getting my head around that.

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  1. If I don't make a dish at least twice a year it is not a matter of principle, it is a matter of mathematics. There are only so many days in a year, and I have SO MANY recipes in my index. And it's an index I cycle through with religious fervor and scientific precision.

    That said, whenever I make a recipe that is a keeper I certainly make notes for future adjustments if I think they will be beneficial. In this way I learn. But you don't have to make a given dish at a high rate in order to learn via trial and error.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Perilagu Khan

      It might be a terminology issue. I'd tell you I rarely cook the same thing twice, but what I mean is that I rarely repeat recipes, but I repeat techniques a lot with slightly different ingredients. I don't think I've ever made exactly the same muffin twice, but I have used the same base recipe and just added different fruit or some other minor variation. For basic stuff like pan-fried steak and roast chicken, I do repeat it.

      1. re: Perilagu Khan

        What the Khan said, and I'll second the mathematically-based "life is short and there's much cooking to do" stance.

        Repetition in cooking is very educational, it serves to strenghen and solidify skills, techniques and the understanding of ingredients. Repetion goes on every night in restaurants, hopefully, and kitchens across the world. The end result and strength of repetition is that it offers one the vision and ability to manipulate that particular ingredient, recipe, cut of meat, loaf of bread, if you choose to look beyond the straight and narrow. It's not the recipe or formula that's important for me, it's the technique and the manipulation of the choice of ingredients, the idea of it all. Get the technique down, know your ingredients, and you can go anywhere.

        As I posted at the "What recipes do you make..." thread, I love and eat pasta often, and rarely make pasta dishes the same way twice. What that means to me is I use different ingredients, based on what's available in the market, what I can afford, what feels good, looks good, within a certain parameter according to the pasta shape I've chosen, what I feel like eating that day, etc. But my technique for cooking pasta is one of three different techniques, frequently repeated through the month. So I'm on pasta version 675.2 or something, but on technique 3.0. As I posted, I'm working on my (current) favorite chocolate cake formula. In six months, most likely I'll start looking for another recipe. Not to sound trite, but it's more about the journey for me. It's not the ne plus ultra I'm looking for, more what I think is the most enjoyable and satisfying for me at that moment. As an aside, I'm not eating all that cake but my neighbors are getting fat.

        From your post, it sounds like you have a grip on the "how to you learn" factor. You're already using you skills to tweak your cooking to another level or a different level, you're doing a lot of thinking about it, and that's the point.

        Everybody has a favorite meal or two. For me it's a great lasagna, or saltimbocca or peanut butter cookie, for example. Far be it from me that I make those things the same way twice, though. Do you know how many peanut butter cookie recipes exist? There's just so damn many things to cook. Of course I want to use the best technique for roasting a chicken, but am willing to forgo that in order to try another style. It's the actual process of cooking that is of great interest to me, often more than the outcome.

        "And then I tinker endlessly, exploring how different proportions, processes, and ingredients impact the resulting dish." This is what chefs, individuals who really feel food and revel in it, do everyday in kitchens around the world, whether they are pro or cooking for the family. These poeple are not just pumping out meals. This is creativity. This process is what you're experiencing, even with your admitted meager skills. I say carry on.

        Maybe we're talking about two different things; recipe file repetition, like how my mom cooked, (which was fine, we had a nice dinner every night) or using technique and ingredient understanding as a basis for creativity and exploration. I suppose if you asked me if I make scrambled eggs during the month, I would have to say the answer is yes and my technique is pretty much the same every time. It's the other stuff I add to the eggs to makes the dish different from day to day.

        When one loses the notion that the end result of whatever is cooking has to be perfect, the pressure of making something perfect out of a less than perfect substance, which food products often are, is gone and you can experience pure enjoyment.

        As in life, there is no perfection in food, just satisfaction and contentment.

        Just my two cents. More like five cents.

      2. This is an interesting question. At one point I was freaked out by a colleague who kept repeating the same exact recipe weekend after weekend hoping to perfect it. It seemed rather boring and scientific. While I'm sure there are advantages to that, I'm more likely to repeat similar recipes (similar techniques, varied ingredients) to see what works best. For me repetition of technique trumps repetition of ingredients for learning. That kind of learning helps me throw things together on the fly. The more ingredients I try, the more flavor profiles I start to understand. That said, if the result is fantastic, it is likely I will preserve a recipe and repeat it again. It is said the average person rotates nine different dishes repeatedly. The posters you mention above are exceptional in this regard. There are also people who (shudder) have a weekly rotation. I think if you are somewhere in between 9 dishes and 100s, you're probably doing pretty well. Everyone learns differently.

        3 Replies
        1. re: maxie

          I shudder at the term "rotation" - it seems so regimented. I consider cooking an enjoyable creative outlet - if I had to make pork chops on Tuesday and manicotti on Wednesday it would become an onerous chore. I am single, so when I cook something like a meatloaf or a roast, I am likely to freeze some of it in portions, and eat the rest for several days until it's gone. If it has turned out well, I am happy to repeat a meal. If not - well, it's torture for me to waste food so I'll eat it anyway. I rarely use recipes for more than inspiration (save for baking) but I do make notes if something is particularly good or bad. I shop and plan meals according to what's in season and what's on sale; having a fixed rotation would make that kind of economizing impossible. I learn as much by reading and watching PBS cooking shows as I do by actually cooking. I'd estimate that I cook at least 60 different dinner entrees a year. For health reasons, I try to eat beans daily, which translates into making a big pot of soup on a weekly basis. I have a handful of classics like split pea soup but half the time the contents reflect what is on hand or on special. My problem is never that there's nothing to cook for dinner - just the opposite: there are too many possibilities to choose from, so I have to prioritize according to what ingredients are most in need of using up.

          1. re: greygarious

            Rotation is not boring if your rota includes well over 200 recipes and you're constantly weeding and adding to that rotation. And using a rotation accomplishes two important things for me. First, it eliminates having to decide what to make for dinner. The rotation makes the decision for me. And because I discard the duds, I'm virtually assured of an excellent meal. And second, it guarantees variety. I am certain that if I cooked without recourse to an index I would wind up making far fewer dishes and consequently would repeat them quite often. I don't care who you are, it is difficult to come up with 250 different dishes off the cuff and to prepare them in an order that does not rapidly repeat some of them while neglecting others.

            1. re: Perilagu Khan

              I agree with Perilagu. I have a [long] list of "standard" dishes that I resort to when my time and/or energy is short and dinner HAS to be on the table. These are recipes that I've already tried, and tweaked, if necessary, and that my family loves.
              Then, there are the recipes I want to try (the current one being Ciopinno), which I've never tried and am not sure if the husband and kid will like, but sound good. The dishes I make and don't meet with approval I either do some serious adjustments to, or I scrap, for there are SO many new dishes to try, between all the cooking magazines and new cookbooks, that even if I made a brand new dish every day, I would never run out of new things to try.
              This goes for baking, too. No matter how many new cookies I try, it's always nice to have toll house, peanut butter, or shortbread cookies again.

        2. I use maybe 30 different recipes. If you don't use a recipe once a month, you don't like it enough. I have recipes I use about once a week ... ok maybe every 10 days.

          Heck I cook sausage, cheese and scrambled egg croissants at least twice a week. I cook breaded pork chops with mashed potatoes and gravy at least every 3 weeks which is how often my grand daughter visits. That is her favorite dish. I would pay hell not cooking it.

          I stir fry lo mein and fried rice every 7- 10 days. It's quick. I barbecue (sorta in the oven) Pork tenderloin and smoked sausage every 7- 10 days.

          I do a meatloaf at least every two weeks, about the same for pot roast.

          I'm sorry but I suspect someone that cooks most days and says they don't duplicate the dish at least once every month or two are either fibbing or playing semantics like the slightly changing the spices or the vegetables in a dish and so, consequently, didn't cook the same thing (rolls eyes).

          1 Reply
          1. re: tonka11_99

            Or has a heck of a lot of time on their hands.