Learning to cook

Some recent creations

I’m still learning to cook. I’ve been learning to cook for about ten years. In truth, I don’t think anyone ever stops learning to cook – only those who possibly never started to in the first place.

I can pretty much pinpoint the start of my learning process as looking at the instructions on a jar of Dolmio, then trying to reverse engineer my own pasta sauce. This, and trying to buy cheap ingredients with my student loan, sent me down a path and I’ve not looked back since.

This process slowed somewhat for two years when I was living in a small studio flat. It did, fortunately, have a full kitchen setup – just not a particularly large one. In that sense, I got quite good at working within the limitations imposed on me. Only two hobs. Only one workspace. A small fridge with an ice box. Etc.

Thank goodness I also had a proper oven.

M kindly referred to this studio flat existence as like living on a boat. I liked this metaphor. With her suggestions and assistance, I grew to quite enjoy cooking in my little kitchen. I even managed to create a fair number of nice, sit-down, multi-course meals.

Now though, we have a larger kitchen at our disposal. We also have much more storage space, access to M’s cookbooks, and – crucially – M’s knowledge of cookery, and her passion for trying new meals and techniques. It’s also much more enjoyable and efficient creating meals for two than just for one.

So I’m now happily using cookbooks to cook most meals. A handful of dishes have become staples. But I still like to have the recipe somewhere nearby, because I’m a forgetful soul, and I’m likely to mess up the order, or forget a crucial ingredient. I’m not yet cooking intuitively; I’m following a set of instructions to the letter. If the instructions are unclear, I’m not very good at improvising.

M and I joke that I’m a little autistic in this sense: I need absolutely every instruction, timing and ingredient written down in a clear, ordered list. Any deviation from the list will cause me some anxiety and possibly cause me to mess up the meal. A photograph of the end result is always useful. What the hell is this thing meant to look like?

Thankfully, an ingredients list, a clear method, and photograph(s) are the basic components of any good cookbook, so I am in my comfort zone here.

As I progress, I am beginning to learn shortcuts, and identifying opportunities for daisy-chaining two meals – tonight’s dinner and tomorrow’s lunch – which share preparation methods. And although I can chuck together a few familiar ingredients to make something from scratch, I’m actively enjoying the process of cooking according to a growing range of recipes.

My hope is that this will continue until – much like learning a new language – more and more components of each recipe will come to me naturally, and I will gain more and more independence.

With all this in mind, I was very interested to read Matthew Culnane’s latest post entitled Atomic cookery. It’s a great piece, and well worth your time. In it, he talks about dismantling cookery books and recipes, and how this process can inform the chef and actually free them from the rigidity of recipes.

It’s sort of a conceptual ‘teach them how to catch fish’ kind of deal, where knowing how and why to do something is so much more useful than just doing it because the book says so.

Mr Culnane also makes some interesting parallels with tech – and with web design in particular, which has a set of components and a certain order of things.

My own experience of learning web design – a frantic few months in 2002* of copying and pasting code from pages I liked, to see which bits did what – is quite similar to using elements of recipes to achieve another, quite separate, result.

It’s this modular approach that Matthew talks about which seems so relevant. But he warns against painting oneself into a corner by enforcing unnecessarily restrictive metaphors to different processes.

* Any web design learning I’ve done since then has simply tacked itself onto that initial blooming of understanding – CSS still seems like a relatively new and interesting innovation to me.