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Learned from experience?

I'd be interested to hear some stories about how accumulated experience taught people to do particular little things or to take certain measures that only experience and knowledge taught you to do. How aware are you of the little choices you make on the spot, from experience?

Here's why I ask: In teaching my teenage son about cooking (i'm 50), it's brought me back to the memory that, for at least the first year or two, EVERY cooking experience for me was a lesson on what NOT to do next time.

Now today, I brought home frozen coconut-coated shrimps from Walgreens (internationally, read generic, low-rent drug store with all kinds of other things like snacks and batteries and photo shop; not a gourmet spot). The ingredients were all natural, and it was on sale, so I went for it.

Instructions indicated putting the shrimps in a non-stick pan at 450 Fahrenheit for 14 minutes. I thought: "I don't think nonstick pans should be at 450F for that time--that's too close to the danger zone for that material." So I semi-warmed and oiled a cast-iron pan on stovetop and then used that in the oven, with great success. I knew the combination of some heat and oil would approximate whatever those folks wanted from nonstick surfaces.

And in fact, my son asked for that to be his snack for the rest of the Summer. We'll see.

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  1. I think new cooks seem to start cooking things on the stove top on HIGH. This burns the outside and leaves the center under-cooked. Go low and slow.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Antilope

      This is probably the most notable thing experience taught me. I burn things on the stove much less than I use to. More generally: be patient.

      1. re: lamb_da_calculus

        Even though I know this I inevitably forget about 30% of the time or I am too low and then end up getting impatient and cranking up. I need to learn to do it the right way every time!

    2. Experience has taught that in cooking (and maybe even in life) there is no such thing as failure, only evidence of an intrepid and innovative spirit.

      8 Replies
      1. re: ipsedixit

        ipse, I LOVE that :) Julia C would be proud of you.

        1. re: ipsedixit

          Some things are caramelized, some over caramelized. . .

          As for the rest, have a good fire extinguisher and life is good

          1. re: ipsedixit

            I've read this expressed as "there are no failures, only results".

            1. re: nofunlatte

              Well, I did once make a birthday cake from scratch that I think has to count as a failure as well as a result. In retrospect, I think I erred in using warm, summer-countertop butter in the creaming stage. In any case, it was so inedible that even my then-wife and I were laughing at the spectacle of the worst cake we'd ever encountered.

              It's one of those things to that made me mindful of the difference between baking and most other forms of cookery. Baking is closer to a being chemistry project.

            2. re: ipsedixit

              I don't how intrepid my soul is.

              Ben Franklin is quoted as saying "Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other."

              This quote describes me better. In fact it seems I always learn more from my failures than my successes. If only I could learn more from others mistakes.

              1. re: Hank Hanover

                Someone near to me does not learn from his mistakes. It is a terrible thing.

                1. re: Hank Hanover

                  While I don't disagree with you Hank, I like to think that my successes (as few and far between as they may be) are the culmination of the lessons learned.

                  I really dislike the notion of characterizing cooking results as "failures" because when a person has not made exactly what was intended, the effort in and of itself did produce a result. And the mere ability to undertake that effort - regardless of result -is enough to warrant it exempt from "failure" status. For me, anyway.

                  1. re: ipsedixit

                    I have a friend who regularly ruins whatever she serves us by telling us all the mistakes she made and all the ingredient substitutions because of not not reading the recipe ahead. What she serves is usually just fine and we'd never know it was a "failure" if she didn't tell us.

              2. I've learned not to be afraid to experiment. A chef friend once told me, "Cook by ear, but bake by the book." For most every day cooking, truer words were never spoken.

                By, "Cook by ear." my friend meant not to be a slave to recipes. Most recipes are guidelines, not cut and dried rules. And as you gain experience you will learn which rules can be bent, which can be broken, and which ones can't. The recipe called for red pepper flakes and you (or your significant other) don't like them, leave them out. No chicken breasts available, but you have pork or shrimp, use that instead.

                My most successful example is what I call my "Sommer Pasta," so-called because you can use sommer this and sommer that. It starts with boiling up the pasta of your choice. Penne works really well for me, but spaghetti, fettuccine, even elbows work fine. While it is boiling, I sauté up some onions, garlic, and (usually) mushrooms and whatever else I happen to have on hand. Usually it contains a protein. Chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, scallops, other seafood, have all been used. While I normally only use a single protein I have occasionally "mixed and matched" to use up leftovers.

                The same goes for the veggie component. Broccoli, summer squash, zucchini, shredded carrots, etc. Corn and peas don't work especially well because they tend to sink to the bottom of the bowl but many other vegetables have worked out just fine. I usually add grape tomatoes sliced in half lengthwise, but I learned to prevent them from overcooking I just put them in the bottom of the colander before I drain the pasta into it.

                Toss them all together in a big bowl to mix.

                Sometimes I fancy it up with toasted pine nuts and grated cheese is a must. Sometimes the olive oil used to sauté the veggies is enough, sometimes I mix in pesto, sometimes (home made) Italian salad dressing.

                The possibilities are nearly endless.

                I look at cooking as a learning experience. Sometimes I learn, "I won't do that again." but I have had more pleasant surprises than failures from my experimentation.

                1. 1. Make sure you start out with a pot or a pan that's big enough to let the food have space to cook.

                  2. Start the water boiling early for pasta/noodles/vegetables because when you are using a big pot it takes ages to boil.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: Frizzle

                    I recall Lynne Rossetto Kasper of the Splendid Table Public Radio show herself extolling the practical advice of a cook she admired. To this effect: "First thing to do when entering the kitchen to make a meal is put a pot of water on to boil. Why? Not sure yet, but it's bound to come in handy for something."

                    1. re: Bada Bing

                      Well that's just odd. I don't have the need to boil water very often.

                      1. re: rasputina

                        Her comment was sort of with a wink. She just thought it was interestingly "practical." And maybe the cooking in question was Italian, where pasta, rice, or some broth or boil-able veggie are likely to come up.

                      2. re: Bada Bing

                        I've often thought this would be a good rule of thumb while competing on Chopped.

                    2. I learned how to just open the cabinets and create something.

                      I used to follow recipes when I first started cooking. That was good for helping me to know what I liked and didn't like, AND what things worked and what didn't.

                      Then I started adding/subtracting ingredients from recipes. I'd read a recipe that sounded good, but would add something else because I thought it might make it better. Often it did; sometimes it didn't. (Yeah, ok - adding a large wooden spoonful of red wine to a hamburger stroganoff made it slightly purplish in color. Looked gross, but it tasted much better! And since I'm only making it for myself, who cares what it looks like? LOL)

                      Now I'll most often use recipes as a guideline. But I can also just open the cabinets and pantry and create a pretty decent (or great!) dinner.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: LindaWhit

                        In the era of readily accessible knowledge, the importance of its retention is diminishing. It is the power of imagination that will be the way we separate the men from the boys.

                        That aside, I'm a huge proponent of improvisational cooking. The space in front of the stove top is the home chef's dark, smoke-filled, club stage. Practice when nobody's looking, know your scales, but when the spot comes up, listen to the melody, keep the time, take hold of your instrument, and wail.

                        1. re: LindaWhit

                          So true, learning to cook off the cuff has been the greatest lesson for me. I gave up recipes soon after I developed an interest in cooking. I enjoy the process much more when its a creative endeavor inspired perhaps by ideas from recipes.