The Senses of Good Cooking
You may think you have five, but the sixth is most important
Here’s a silly sounding but really valuable cooking tip: When you’re roasting nuts in the oven, keep one nut out on your cutting board, and you’ll never burn them; while you’re doing all your other work, you will continually want to wipe that nut off your board, only to remember why it’s there. That’s one way your valuable sense of sight helps you out; if you smell your roasting nuts, it’s probably because they’ve gone too far.
We cook with our senses, and we have six of them, all of them critical, the sixth most of all.
For the cook, one might think that taste is the most important sense. It is indeed a common mantra among chefs: “Always be tasting.” But it’s not just tasting to taste, but rather to evaluate what you’re tasting. Is there enough salt so that it tastes not salty but rather seasoned? Is there enough acidity? Enough richness, enough depth? If not, then think: How should I adjust this?
But often overlooked as a fundamental cooking sense is hearing. When I cook bacon, for instance, I start it in water. The gentle heat of water begins to render the fat and the bacon will never go above browning temperature; it’s cooking, but it can’t burn. But once I hear that pan crackling, I know that the water is almost gone; rendered fat can get very hot, and so I must attend to the pan.
But more important is imagined sight.
What you expect to see should be a part of the cooking process.
Smell, likewise, is important, not just as an indicator of deliciousness (or the reverse) but of where you are in the cooking. If I am finishing up the components to go along with the prime rib I’m roasting in the oven, and I don’t smell that delicious roasting meat, I’d better check the oven because it’s probably not cooking properly, and not nearly done. If I smell it too early, perhaps the oven is too hot.
Touch is essential, a sense to call attention to because Americans, terrified of germs and bacteria, seem increasingly afraid of touching food. We touch a bread dough to evaluate if it has risen sufficiently. We press down on steak to intuit how done it is on the inside. We touch the top of a crème brûlée to ensure that it is smooth and brittle, not soft and sticky. Touch your food.
Sight is important, obviously — you can see that you’ve overcooked your pine nuts, or how delicious that roasted chicken is because you’ve put an aggressive coating of salt on it and roasted it in a very hot oven. You can see the oil ripple and swirl when it hits the sauté pan telling you the pan is good and hot.
But more important is imagined sight. What you expect to see should be a part of the cooking process.
When you are reducing a sauce, for instance, you should have in your mind the image of how thick that sauce should be when it is properly reduced. You should see it in your mind. Then, as the sauce reduces and you keep looking at it, stirring it, it should be continuously approaching the image in your mind. You should imagine how brown your fried chicken will be before it reaches your ideal, how much broth relative to garnish in a soup, how much fat you will render from the bacon.
But sight, both actual and imagined, can be a detriment if you are not careful, because what we see can also get in the way of our cooking. When I was in cooking school and working the grill station at the school’s busy restaurant, a student named Chen worked sauté beside me, and found himself deep in the weeds one midday service, behind in his orders, his station a mix of scraps of food, burned pieces of paper towel used to relight burners that were going out, sauce and salt and pepper spilled everywhere.
Dan Turgeon, the rugged chef instructor, seeing that Chen was a mess, stopped to chat, knowing Chen didn’t have the time, but Chen needed a lesson.
“When I was in the weeds, when I was really in the weeds, I’d stop,” Turgeon said. “I’d say, ‘Gimme a second.’” Turgeon put up his hand like a batter asking an ump to for time to step out of box. Then he reached down and pulled the bucket of sanitation fluid we all kept at our stations and, with slow, exaggerated motions, wiped down Chen’s station. “And I’d wipe down my station.” When Chen’s station and cutting board were completely clean, spotless, a clear field, Turgeon stood up straight and said, “Because when you’re in the weeds, this clutter starts to build up. And if they cut you open, that’s what your brain would look like.”
I laughed because it was so true. What your eyes are actually seeing impacts the imagined food you are working toward; it trips you up in your mind. If your cutting board and work counter have things you don’t need on them, whether it’s food you’ve finished with, bread crumbs and salt, or car keys and reading glasses, remove them from your sight before you begin your cooking.
All of these five senses — taste, touch, hearing, sight, and smell — lead to the most important sense of all.
This cannot be written into a recipe. You can’t Google the common sense of bolognese sauce. But it’s critical in good cooking and often lacking in the home kitchen. As a prominent chef once said to me, “If you’re heating cream and it boils over on you, it doesn’t mean you have a mess on your stovetop, it means you don’t have the right amount of cream in your pan anymore.”
Common sense is ultimately what all the other senses are about. It’s common sense to clean your counter before beginning to cook, common sense to add more salt or lemon juice if you taste the soup and it needs a little enhancement of flavor.
But common sense is also a what we continue to develop throughout our cooking lives. When you first cook a steak, it is not necessarily common sense to know from touch whether it is rare or medium well inside; it is common sense to pay attention to the feel and what it looks like when you cut into it, and to remember it so that it becomes common sense.
The late chef of Zuni Café, Judy Rodgers, served me the best roasted leg of lamb I’ve ever had. She was able to do so not because she was a great chef, but rather because she’d roasted a thousand of them and had paid attention to each one, noticed all the countless variations, added them to the cooking-experience rolodex in her brain. It was that, not the lamb I ate, that made her a great chef.
So all of our six senses ultimately combine to form perhaps our most valuable attribute: awareness. Awareness may be the most important quality of being alive, and it is very much suited to cooking. Pay attention. Enjoy your senses. Take pleasure in feeling the texture of homemade pasta, the sight of a roasted chicken, the aroma filling the kitchen, the taste of a raw tomato, salted and still warm from the sun in the garden, the sounds of fat crackling in a pan.
And never forget what good sense cooking makes. Our world is better when we cook for the people we love. Our bodies are healthier, our families are healthier, our communities are healthier, our environment is healthier. That’s the sense I love most about cooking. Its goodness.