On learning to cook

When I wrote about Lift I mentioned that one of my new habits I’m trying to establish is to cook dinner regularly. I’m never going to manage to do it every day, but it’s something I’m working at getting better at. It’s the type of skill the kind of guy I’d like to be is good at.

For a few months I’ve been slowly teaching myself to cook using Tim Ferriss’s “The 4-Hour Chef“. Ferriss is a divisive guy. Some people think he and his series of “4-Hour”-brand books are essentially a scam. The titles certainly have the air of the worst of the self-help section1, and maybe some of the criticisms are valid.

On balance though I’d say that there’s a high enough density of useful advice and plain old inspiration to make his writing worthwhile. If nothing else, I’ve cooked a few of his recipes and got some good meals out of them. That’s more of a practical outcome than you’ll get from the bad self-help authors Ferriss is sometimes lumped in with. I also find him entertaining, which is important for any book that’s pushing up against 700 pages. Your tastes may vary.

The big advantage of “The 4-Hour Chef” for me is that it’s not just a recipe book. It’s a teaching book. Every recipe introduces the equipment and techniques that it requires, without assuming any prior knowledge. They start out simple and build up to more difficult dishes as you gain the skills you need to prepare each one. Every dish introduces one or two new techniques for you to add to your repertoire, with an explicit focus on making it as difficult as possible to mess up.

This progressive approach isn’t without its drawbacks. It makes it problematic to skip any recipes, which is an issue if a dish calls for ingredients you can’t get or equipment you don’t have. I’ve had a couple of long delays to my progress while I waited for kitchenware to arrive from Amazon, not wanting to move on until I’ve successfully prepared each dish. Still, you have to walk before you can run, and you have to scramble an egg before you can make a soufflé.

The most important lesson I’ve learned though is a meta-lesson: learning doesn’t come for free. It’s not a matter of making a series of successful meals until you get to the end and suddenly you’re a great cook. Sometimes you’ll mess up; sometimes your ingredients will differ from what’s called for in some small but important way; and sometimes the food gods are just in a bad mood.

In these cases you just fall back on a phone and a take-out menu, and try to figure out what you can do differently next time. New skills are acquired through experience, and experience, typically, is what you get when you don’t get what you want.

Yesterday I messed up almost every part of a sous-vide chicken with dinosaur kale. And I don’t care. Because a couple of weeks ago I was eating take-out while a botched rib-eye sat in the bin beside me, and a few days later I cooked the best damn steak I’ve ever eaten.

  1. “Teach yourself Japanese in 6 easy lessons”

3 Replies to “On learning to cook”

  1. Any tips on the steak?
    For me it seems largely to consist of cooking it on the hottest thing you can find, and accepting that you will set off every smoke alarm in the building. That and having the balls to take it off the heat after a couple of minutes.

  2. Cooking is always a bit of trial and error. Gas hobs heat quicker than electric hobs. Some ovens are hotter on one side than the other. Some thrown together stuff comes out amazing, some meticulously worked at stuff fails.

    I think part of the key though is cooking without fear. The more you are nervous the more mistakes you make. And once you get to grips with your recipes then you can start cooking seasonally which is always a good thing.

  3. The main things with the steak are about drying it appropriately before cooking and making sure you cook it low and slow. Cover it in salt and stick it in the fridge for a few hours. That will draw out the moisture, the moisture will mix with the salt, and it will all get re-absorbed into the meat. Then wash off the remaining salt, dry it thoroughly and whack it in the freezer for a half hour (not long enough for it to freeze). The freezer is really dry so the surface moisture will evaporate off. Brown the sides on a hot pan for a minute each and then put it in the oven until the middle reaches 57°C.

    Siobhán, the gas hob versus electric hob disparity is exactly what went wrong. The specific step was to turn the heat all the way down and then come back 30 minutes later to ensure the temperature was still reasonable. It wasn’t at all reasonable. I don’t have a gas burner that goes low enough for me to be able to just leave it alone for 30 minutes so next time I try the same dish I just need to keep a closer eye on it.

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