What do you think are the important factors in making great food?
- banjoman2375 Jun 22, 2011 07:38 PM
I read the thread-turned-article about the signs of a bad cook, and although it was fun scoffing at our imaginary idiots... what are the signs of a GREAT cook?!
here are mine:
1. Absolutely infallible, unfaltering patience
2. Comfortable multitasking (especially under pressure and time constraints)
3. A working knowledge of cooking basics acquired by effectively using recipes (for a while, at least)
4. A healthy curiosity towards restaurant menus and cookbooks (for inspiration)
5. A respect and excitement towards good quality ingredients
6. Understanding that something is ALWAYS lost when corners are cut
7. A heavy hand with salt and pepper :)
gotta disagree with #1 - i don't think patience is always a necessity...though it does help with certain dishes and tasks.
agree wholeheartedly with #2-6.
re: #7, IMO, many cooks are too heavy handed with one or both of those at the wrong times, and i personally think some use salt & pepper as a crutch or substitute instead of developing more interesting & complex flavors with other ingredients. in fact, i think a truly great cook knows that it's important to exercise *restraint* with S&P in many cases.
other signs of a great cook:
- the ability to cobble together a delicious dish using the contents of a pantry/fridge that others would deem "bare" or "empty"
- tender scrambled eggs
- confidence (but not over-confidence)
I kind of disagree with #3. Not all recipes are that great at explaining cooking basics and techniques. If one is trying to improve their skills, it's better to look for instruction and resources that demonstrate how something is done and why certain steps are necessary.
Once you understand how a technique or process works you have a better chance of looking at a recipe and being able to understand what it is trying to accomplish and adapting it. It's very hard to follow a published recipe exactly, there are always going to be differences in available ingredients, cooking vessels, ovens, etc.
Not everyone is a fan, but Cooks Illustrated/America's Test Kitchen does a great job of demonstrating techniques and explaining why one thing works while another doesn't.
I don't really follow the recipes either, but when I read an article or watch a show, I learn a bit about technique and then remember that when I am cooking later.
Having said that, I think one who aspires to be a good cook should always seek out opportunities to learn more. Reading and watching TV shows are good, but there is no substitute for hands on learning. No matter how long you have been cooking you can always learn by working with other cooks.
I disagree with #7, because it simply doesn't carry across all cuisines. I rarely salt short grain rices that accompany Japanese, Korean, or Chinese food, for instance. Soy sauce, miso, seaweed etc. in the accompanying dishes make salt in the rice unwelcome.
#1 is astounding to me, #2 less so, but again with the pressure and time constraints? What are we, cooking gods and goddesses?!? I'm mere mortal in the kitchen, and still manage to turn out good meals despite an occasional fluster bug.
These threads on ideals are really starting to get my goat...I think the whole culture of competition is getting just a little deep in our psyches here. Can we all just relax and enjoy good food, and stop judging ourselves and one another on whether we meet some criteria?
Sorry, honestly a lot of the reason why I started this thread is because I thought "why do we have to make fun of bad cooks, and why don't we just think of how we can all become better at what we love?"
And all I meant by number two is that sometimes pulling off a big meal (like a christmas dinner or something) Means that you have to have a number of things going at once, which can be difficult I think... at least I've always felt it's difficult...)
My feeling is that cooking is 90% technique and 10% everything else. If you know how to properly sear, braise, stew, you're probably a good cook. If you don't let your stock boil over, then you know what you're doing. A list of ingredients will only get you so far: without the technical skills to execute even a written-down recipe, you're not going to turn out good food. An eye on the clock and a knowledge of the product you're working with doesn't hurt, either.
good timing! It's all very well making fantastic scrambled eggs if the rest of your breakfast is not yet ready. Figure out when you want to serve the meal and use time properly, what takes the longest to which will be done quickest.
A reasonably sensitive and developed palate. Technique is important to be sure, but if your seasoning is off, it detracts quite a bit from a perfect sear, saute, braise, etc.
I've had food that looked beautifully executed but fell very, very short of the appearance due to poor seasoning, which can result from too much or too little of a thing, or an lack of balance between one flavor and another.
I think the single most important thing is the DESIRE to make great food. Some people just don't care, and those people will never consistently do well in the kitchen. They may get lucky every now and then ("Even a blind pig finds an acorn sometimes"), but if they lack the motivation to do well, they simply won't.
I know a number of people with the DESIRE to make great food, but they don't have the ability to make it happen because they are unable to plan ahead--from reading the recipe to make sure they have the ingredients, preheating an oven/grill when necessary, having the right size container for what they are cooking, and just generally recognizing that a complicated meal doesn't happen in an hour.
I would say that the ability to identify and select the freshest, best-quality ingredients is the single most important factor in determining a great cook. They need not be the most expensive. Simply-prepared high-quality meats, veggies, etc., often tastes better than fancy dishes with lower-quality ingredients.
While I agree that learning techniques is of very high importance, I would have to say the most important things are curiosity to try new things and to experiment. Trial and error is a GOOD thing and not a failure.
To me, a heavy hand with salt is the sign of a bad, lazy cook. Salt lightly as you cook, constantly tasting. When you reach the sweet spot, stop!
For starters, love food. Love to eat food. Learn what's good and cultivate a taste for it. Realize that unless you were born rich you'll mostly have to make it yourself, or go back to eating crap. It helps if you grew up with a good cook or two …
Notice I'm saying "good" and not "great". GREAT is kind of like "prestige" - it's not so much a real category as an evaluation by others. If everyone around the table says it's great but it's not what I was aiming for, then to me it's not good. If it hits the target then it's good. And if everything I put on the table IS good then … get the picture?
Making up a set of rules, I think, misses the point, simply because each of us has his or her modus operandi. I do NOT multi-task, I don't think anyone really does (and research seems to agree with me on that). To me preparing my meal is ONE task that includes everything from obtaining the ingredients to having it hit the table in approximately one big thump. Sometimes I miss. I have gotten a six-item dinner on the table over a five-minute window, and the next morning plated the eggs, then noticed that the bread was still waiting to be pulled down into the toaster. We are all mere mortals after all …
I'm happy to have been able to feed as many as I have, and to have had them express delight with what they ate. There are several skills I have that I enjoy using, but I have to say that this is my all-around favorite. It would be nice, I suppose, if someone eventually remembered me as a "great" cook, but I'd be awfully happy if I knew for sure that I was a good one. I think I'm getting there.