Ten Things No-one Told You About Cooking

I have a terrible memory.

“James, hah! Hey! James! Remember that time you…”

“Actually, no.”

“But you remember being at …”

“Yeah, still no.”

It’s like I wasn’t even there for the things that happened to me. My memory is much better for scientific facts, because they fit into an interrelated framework. And faces — I suppose most people are good with faces. I’m just not much chop with names. Or locations, or events.

Occasionally, though, I have flashbulb memories.

These are periods of intensely vivid recollection, where something truly surprising or consequential happened. It’s surprisingly the details you can remember. The memories have a feeling.

My best one, the most consequential one I have, is about cake.

I wish it was some kind of deep spiritual insight, or a moment of great consequence, but I’m not Bertrand Russell — I’m just hungry.

So it’s about cake.

I was about 8, maybe 9. I wanted cake. And we didn’t have any.

My mum looked me right in the eye and said:

“If you learn to cook, you can have cake any time you want.”

A magnesium flare went off in my head. I can remember where we were standing in the kitchen when she said it, and what I was wearing.

Cake, until that point was either a) purchased from a store, and arrived already assembled — like a car, or a bicycle, or a television, or b) was made by adults through a complicated process which involved eggs, white things in bags, and… well, magic.

But of course, a basic cake is just flour, sugar, eggs and butter. I had just never realised I could be entirely responsible for putting one together.

At my insistence, I was packed off soon after to cooking classes at a local community center. The class turned out to be nine confused and slightly suspicious little girls, and me. We were taught briefly about the rules of oven and stove safety — which are largely “keep your skin away from hot surfaces, you idiots”, it was the 80's — and then we just started making things. Cakes, pikelets, toad-in-the-hole, pigs in blankets. I remember being struck with how easy it was. You just follow the instructions.

I have cooked ever since. I am 33 years old. Here are some things I noticed.

1. 95% of your gadgets are stupid. Throw them away.

Most kitchens are full of superfluous plastic garbage. I shake my head to think of the mountain of crap bought as presents, or in a fit of self-improvement, or just for curiosity’s sake.

A parsley chopper?

An egg steamer?

A garlic crusher?

It all makes my lip curl.

These appliances are robustly awful for a number of reasons.

Firstly, they take away the need to develop and practice skills. You can very easily crush a clove of garlic and mince it with a knife. After the first dozen or so, this becomes a very quick process. With a garlic crusher, this is never necessary.

Secondly, they cost money. Sometimes quite a lot of money. I mean, a Thermomix? “It replaces a blender, a scale, an oven, a pan, a whisk, and a spoon!” I can only imagine this is the justification for it costing more than all of them put together, including the damn oven.

Thirdly, clutter. Some kitchen items are beautiful — I have a soft spot for copper pans and carbon steel knives — but most really aren’t. In fact, most superfluous kitchen items are fat, swollen, circa-1985 plastic monstrosities, and they all need to be stored somewhere.

Fourthly, they reinforce the wrong message. Think of it this way: you’re buying nouns that do the verb. The garlic crusher crushes garlic. The parsley chopper chops parsley. The banana slicer slices bananas. This is all backwards. YOU are the noun, with no need for any superfluous silliness.

The travel agent Thomas Cook had a list of hilarious complaints from deluded holidaymakers a few years ago, things like “No-one said there would be sand at the beach” and “The ocean was full of fish, and they frightened the children.” My favourite, though, was the best example of gadget-derived culinary uselessness I’ve ever seen:

“There was no egg slicer in the kitchen.”

Words fail me.

2. Many chefs use $5 plastic handled knives that are bought in 3-packs. Your fancy knife is a luxury.

Now, of course chefs have their own knives, especially fancypants chefs. However, in a commercial kitchen, the vast majority of the actual work isn’t done by Gordon Ramsey. It’s done by other assorted chefs, who recognise a) good knives get stolen, b) good knives aren’t always necessary because they don’t make things faster, c) any knife can get horribly battered and d) some tasks call for hard work you wouldn’t want to put your fancy knife through.

A lot of the prep done by everyone from your local short-order chef through to fanciest haute cuisine imaginable was done with a big goofy plastic-handled knife with IKEA stamped on the side.

The implication is obvious — you simply don’t need a $600 knife set. Most chefs will tell you need three good knives, maximum. Why a ten-knife blocks exist in the first place is simply marketing. These are extravagances, and they can’t make you cook better. It’s like owning a Porsche when you still crunch the gears.

3. Knives should be sharpened ALL THE TIME.

If you gave me $40 to produce the best possible performing knife, I would buy a $38 dollar Japanese ceramic sharpening stone and a $2 plastic-handled chef’s knife (see 2. above!) from the local second-hand shop.

If you gave me just $2, I would buy the same knife and sharpen it on the bottom of a ceramic plate or saucer. And it would be better than 90% of the dull prison-shanks people wield in the kitchen.

To put it another way, the most expensive knife in the world gone dull is a dangerous nuisance. But the worst knife in the world — a real Goodwill Special made of cheap steel, covered in rust spots, and with a few good nicks taken out of the edge — can be honed to razor sharpness.

Don’t believe me?

I rest my case.

This assumes, of course, you can sharpen a knife. Which is a skill in itself.

And people avoid skills.

Speaking of which…

4. Knife skills are everything.

Ever wondered why the “10 Minute Oh-So-Quick Recipe” takes you 25?

It’s probably because you never learned to use a knife.

Imagine that: some people hold a knife three times a day to prepare food, and have spent exactly zero seconds of their whole life being curious about how it could be done more easily.

Knife skills are the rock on which you will build your food (sorry, Saint Peter).

Good knife skills mean things will cook better, cook evenly, cook faster, behave how they’re supposed to, look better. Actually, they will look a lot better. You will finish faster. You can attempt harder dishes. And you will consider everything to be easier.

Most importantly, knife skills are the base of the confidence with which we approach fresh food. Someone who holds a chef’s knife like a ball-peen hammer is never going to cut up a celeriac, dice an onion, peel a cucumber or quarter a potato easily, quickly or safely.

5. You cannot live without a good frypan. Everything else is optional.

A heavy cast iron fry-pan, 10 to 12", with scalloped sides (i.e. not a saute pan with straight sides, but a skillet) is the most useful thing in your whole kitchen.

When we left for Boston from Sydney, we had 96kgs of stuff in the whole world , and several of those kilos was my frypan. I love my frypan. While much ‘nicer’ things were left behind, to be parted from my big pan would have been like taking one of my fingers.

What can you do in it?

Well, fry, obviously. Cook perfect steak. Stir-fry, in a pinch (but more on that in a second). Sweat onions. Braise. Boil. Most frypans will happily accommodate a bamboo steaming basket, so steam. Slow cook (if your stove goes down low enough). And if the pan has a lid (and the handle is oven-proof), bake. A big enough pan is even deep enough to make soup in, if you’re careful.

Honestly, the list goes on and on. The only thing you really can’t do is make stock — and how often do you make stock anyway?

6. Most recipes are terrible.

Not just on the internet, but in books. This isn’t just a matter of taste. Here are just a few of the peculiarities:

American recipes are far too sweet, not just from a taste perspective, but from a ‘making sure the dish isn’t structurally compromised and doesn’t leak corn syrup’ perspective as well. They also frequently involve horrifying time-savers like French onion soup powder, different tinned broths, and other sources of packaged misery.

Indian recipes leave out steps. Many of the recipes are solid, but you are just supposed to know the basic things, like how long to heat mustard seeds for, and what order to add spices, and so on. (I should add that if you do get into these details, you will end up with a whole new world of complication.) Written recipes are more like guidelines than actual instructions. I love them dearly, but they drive me nuts.

Chinese recipes (I should say Chinese recipes written in English) are seriously Westernised. Actual, real Chinese food is several inter-connected worlds of absolute brilliance — about which the average person knows next to nothing. I sadly have to include myself in this. The ‘Chinese’ we all recognise is generally a kind of parody of Cantonese food, with less garlic, less chilli, less fermented black beans, no weird stuff, etc.

Modern Australian recipes and mod-anything in general have a tendency to be shockingly effete — affected, over-refined, precious. What people eat and what recipe books tell people they should eat have wildly diverged. The kind of food that would make a jockey ask where the rest of his meal was. Nowhere else has the middle-class-ification of food been so warmly received, and nowhere else has it done so much to sod up people’s expectations on what food can or should be. I don’t know about you, but I tend not to cook wilted radicchio with braised horse pancreas and shaved beige truffles all that often.

(The nice part is that all of the above really doesn’t matter. The more experience you have, the more you treat a recipe as a template, rather than a set of instructions. You end up pinching just the flavour pairing or just the seasoning or just the combinations from a dish and making your own version from scratch.)

7. Most ‘fitness’ or ‘healthy’ recipes are worse than terrible.

Protein fluff. No-bake cheesecake with strawberry protein powder. Cauliflower pizza bases. Egg bakes. ‘Keto salads’.

These and a thousand other Nutrasweet monstrosities are what you get when you put nutrition and simplicity firmly ahead of taste.

I could write a whole article about how resoundingly awful these things are. (Actually, at some point I will almost certainly do this. Probably more than once.) But here I will confine myself here to pictures.

Peanut butter, tuna, and mayonnaise. A healthy snack, and the call of Cthulu.

A hundred things in a bowl. I think the dish is called The Descent of Man, But Even Further This Time.

“I like this keto diet thing.”
“Yeah?”
“Yeah, but I’m just not comfortable unless my food resembles livestock feedcake.” “I got ya covered.”

What’s worst of all is when people think this is what ‘eating healthy’ means — lawn-clipping smoothies and steamed tilapia and overcooked eggs. It’s sad and infuriating and unnecessary, and it drives me to wrath and tears, and I hate it.

8. TV chefs are often actors playing chef.

This doesn’t always make their recipes bad… remember they have writers, producers and an entire production crew working with them.

What this means they don’t do is ever talk about how you should make food in general. Just that they’re making one particular dish (and isn’t it nice?)

But: what’s the technique to use? What can you substitute instead? What are the pairings involved? And what’s the right way to do the prep? It means they only talk about recipes (and how good they are) instead of the principles behind what’s happening.

In other words, you don’t get information about cooking from cooking shows. They’re food shows, not cooking shows.

Just recipes (and isn’t this a lovely recipe?)

It’s like watching Hellboy try to tapdance. What a hack.

9. A cookbook’s popularity is usually equivalent to the quality of its photography.

Food photography is a serious skill. It is ‘just photos of food’ in the same way Jensen Button ‘just drives a car really fast’.

One of the reasons for this (besides the fact that photographers are very talented and food is a naturally appealing subject) is that recipe books live and die by the quality of their image presentation — a terrible photo of a brilliant recipe looks awful, a great photo of a horrible recipe looks great.

Of course, many of the most popular, enduring and useful cookbooks are truly short on glossy photos. This is doubly true of cookbooks from non-Western cultures. There are some absolutely brilliant, dominant cookbooks printed on what looks like toilet paper, with not so much as a line drawing of an onion. You have to see past the inscribed grimness into the soul of how the food works.

(Occasionally, you get a book which does both food and the presentation of food really well. David Thompson’s “Thai Food” is a good example.)

10. Almost nothing is “properly” hard.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of hard recipes — it’s just that you’ll never, ever have to make them. Neither will I.

(And we should be damned grateful.)

Salt-crusted fish, risotto, paella, beef wellington, eggs benedict (which involves, horror of horrors, both poaching eggs AND hollondaise sauce!) etc. are usually given as answers to the ‘what is hard’ question.

There’s a few tricks involved in all of these, sure, but they are all perfectly achievable to someone of average skill working in a home kitchen. You, the person reading this, could pull any of these off flawlessly with a few tries. I believe in you, 100%.

(Often when people say hard, what they generally mean is a lack of sufficient information and experience. What do I do if it goes wrong? What are the major flaws to watch out for? How long until I add XYZ? See 6.)

Anyway, here’s an incomplete list of what is ACTUALLY hard:

Puff pastry is hard. Making it, that is, not cooking with it. You have to work with raw ingredients that are very close to freezing. Unless you’re very experienced, you’re going to work too slowly and you’re going to hurt your fingers.

Sugar and chocolate are hard. These are finicky, time-dependent, and totally unforgiving. If you miss a temperature point where something is supposed to be altered, you instantly wreck all your raw ingredients. They require serious finesse. And, of course, the results are expected to be beautiful.

Hand-pulled noodles of any variety are hard. These take forever to master.

How long, though, until a robot can do them?

Fugu (puffer fish) is hard, because if you get it wrong, the diner dies of tetrodotoxin poisoning.

Knife-skill dependent recipes, such as sushi and classical Chinese recipes are hard. Some of these require extraordinary control.

Wensi tofu. This is HARD.

Above all, professional cooking is hard, because you take everything and turn it up to 11. You’re not making one omelette (a skill which is somewhat challenging to perfect), you’re making 80.

At irregular intervals, under time pressure.

For hours at a time.

While you cover part of Kevin’s station, because Kevin is an idiot that some agency sent for two weeks while your normal fry cook is sick.

Under the direct supervision of someone who has the work/life balance of a child miner from the 19th century and an alcohol problem.

Conclusion

I felt faintly ridiculous recently when I realised that I was 33 and that means I’ve been merrily plodding through recipes for 25 years. That’s an acceptable fraction of a century. I’m not old enough to normally use sentences like that.

I’m also normally quite reticent to make lists, talk in the first person, or give people advice, so take all of this — like your food — with a grain of salt.

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