I never went to culinary school.
My first job was as a Waffle House waitress. Shut up, I’m trying to be serious. Anyway, when I was sixteen, I worked the afternoon shift and there were always a few hours where lonely, unhappy people would filter in and mark the passage of time in coffee refills and cigarette butts. Learning to chop onions was positively riveting compared to some of that conversation, besides the cook was cute and I was naive.
Later, I tended bar -it wasn’t much later and that’s a whole ‘nother story- at a neighborhood place that didn’t serve food except for Tuesdays, aka Bachelor night. The owner doesn’t make my shortlist of people I adore -I’m not sure he makes the long list of people I tolerate-, but he could cook. I learned a lot about soul and comfort food, that people will come out of the woodwork for a plate of collards, cornbread, and red rice.
I truly started cooking when I worked at a small Spanish restaurant. The owners couldn’t keep a chef and introduced me to the kitchen in a trial by fire. For this, I am grateful. I learned about paella, chorizo, tapas, all foods that seemed exotic, but really were Andalusian comfort food.
Time passed and I worked in more kitchens. I’d start in prep and work my way up by watching the person next to me. I never learned the theory, but I learned what worked. I learned hundreds of recipes and through these I developed unarticulated theories on cooking. I knew things should be done a certain way, but never had the backstory that would allow me to explain to someone else WHY these were the rules.
A few weeks ago I was contacted and asked to review Notes on Cooking: A Short Guide to an Essential Craft by Lauran Braun Costello and Russell Reich. I have to tell you, I’m in love. Here are the things I wish I’d been told. It’s the rules with a succinct explanation of the WHYs. Example:
86. Never jump food more than one temperature state at a time.
There are four functional temperature states: 1) frozen, 2) cold, 3) room temperature, 4) warm or hot.
When you move food from one state to another (in either direction), don’t skip over a temperature state by, for instance, taking a roast directly from the oven to the refrigerator. Only one state change at a time.
Jumping a state disrupts or destroys the vital process of moisture concentration and reintegration within the ingredient as its temperature changes. Place a sealed, warm, lasagna in a cold fridge, and where does all that heat and moisture go? It collects on the top of your lovely lasagna, now no longer so lovely.
There are 216 rules like the one above. Some are hard and fast and others are meant to be remembered but broken from time to time. I curled up on the couch and read it cover to cover randomly exclaiming, “I knew it!” and wishing I had a foodie friend over for coffee to discuss my find. There were so many rules I knew on a gut level from my years in kitchen, but had been unable to articulate.
If you have any love of cooking or kitchen geekery, this is an informative and interesting read. Tear through it in one go or leave it on the counter to peruse while making dinner, there will be plenty to mull over. If you’re a lousy cook, learning the rules and putting them into practice will elevate your experience in the kitchen. Y’all have no idea how hard it was to not type “will raise your XP.”
I never went to culinary school, but now I have a better grasp of the rules.
I’m giving away two copies of Notes On Cooking. The publicist will send a book directly to one winner and I’m also passing along my review copy. Please note that I am kicking myself for suggesting this as a second prize before reading the book. Readers of Home-Ec101.com have three ways to enter the random drawing on Friday October 30, 2009 at 9pm Eastern.
- Leave a comment with your favorite personal rule of cooking, it can be something you’ve learned through trial and error or a piece of wisdom handed down from one of your mentors.
- Tweet about the giveaway. Leave a second comment with the url of your tweet.
- Write about the giveaway on your own blog, Facebook, your favorite social media site, or a message board and leave a comment with the URL of the mention.
Or if you’re impatient head straight to Amazon and buy the Notes On Cooking in hardback or for the Kindle.
Good luck! I look forward to reading your rules and hope the winners enjoy this book as much as I have.