Posted by: Rachel | December 6, 2013

The Makings of a Great Cook

Some weeks back Jenny from Bailey and Me 2 posted a question asking what makes a great cook/baker.

One question she posed was whether food can ‘be made with love.’ I think she was phrasing the question as love for those who will eat the food, but I think that a great cook prepares meals for the love of FOOD.

Hidden Ingredients

A great cook enjoys good food, and when she tastes something good, she will savor it slowly, trying to discern what is making it better than other similar foods. As an example of a great cook I present my mother. She always liked boxed ginger snaps, one day she read the list of ingredients and discovered that red pepper was in the cookies. From that day forward she started putting red pepper in her molasses cookies, which are of course delicious. There are many little ingredients that can make flavors much more vivid. Other examples my mom has taught me are to add lemon extract to blueberry jam and almond extract to cherry dishes.

Another example of a ‘hidden ingredient’ that I discovered recently was mint extract in whoopie pie frosting. Actually my husband was the one that noticed it. We had bought some whoopie pies at Green Dragon and my husband mentioned that the frosting tasted minty. After I got over the shock of him noticing that, I suddenly understood why they were so good. Often the frosting in whoopie pies tends to be a bit cloyingly sweet. The mint was slight enough to not overpower and yet it made the frosting seem more refreshing.

I was looking at a chicken brine recipe recently and the author of the recipe mentioned that you really should not skip the cumin. It isn’t an ingredient usually associated with chicken but apparently it helps draw out other flavors. A good cook will learn what flavors and spices  complement each other. Spices are something that I’m not that great with. I use the basics but haven’t discovered how to really utilize all the spices to my advantage.

Great Attention to Detail

Another way that great cooks set themselves apart from mediocre ones is their attention to detail. Your cookie recipe may tell you to bake the cookies for 8-10 minutes, but how do you know which to use? Two minutes can make or break a cookie. This is where a great cook will be in tune with her oven and her recipe. Now I’m not a fantastic cook but I do make a terrific chocolate chip cookie and the first time a sheet goes in the oven I bake them about a minute longer than I do the second time the sheet goes in. The first time the sheet is cold and the second time it isn’t.

Using the chocolate chip cookies as an example again, I have learned over the years exactly how the batter should look when it has enough of flour. It is a very thick batter and sometimes I would let out the last 1/2 cup of flour. Then I noticed that if I did that the cookies would have soft spots where they were too flat. Now I check to make sure my batter doesn’t have any ‘runny’ areas before I scoop it unto the cookie sheets. Learn which ingredients need to be exact and which can be splishy-splashy-not-exactly.

Know what your ingredients do and how they work. What is the difference between baking powder and baking soda? One of them, the baking soda, begins to rise once it is mixed with other ingredients. If you wait too long to bake the item it will fall flat again, therefore I don’t refrigerate my chocolate chip cookie dough. Baking powder is available as single acting or double acting. The single acting acts much like the baking soda and the rising begins after mixing. Double acting will rise after mixing and then again rises once it is heated.

Trial and error is often the best way to learn kitchen skills. When your meal is not how you want it to be take the time to analyze why not. I once made chocolate cupcakes with the same recipe that I’ve always used. This time instead of having moist delicious cupcakes they were dry and almost bitter. I questioned my mom about the coffee listed in the ingredients. She informed me that it needs to be hot, cold coffee will not give good results. Oops, never again will I save some time by using cold coffee rather than brewing a new pot.

Little details can go a long way. When you make a raisin recipe the results are much better if you first simmer your raisins with a small amount of water. It softens them and makes them juicier. If the recipe also asks for water, substitute the raisin water.

Vegetables are sometimes my downfall. I have a hard time getting them cooked correctly without having soggy mushes. My sister in law did help me with corn, though. Whenever I ate corn at someone else’s house it was delish. At my house it was yuck and tough and well, yuck. She told me that you don’t want to over-cook corn. It’s also best to let it thaw first. That requires that I actually think about meals ahead of time, so yeah, we don’t have delicious corn very often.

Know what affects the taste of your food. Will frozen chicken breasts taste the same as fresh? When does it matter? If I’m making the chicken to add to a casserole or soup I will use frozen, but I’ve found that fresh chicken breasts taste much better when making them by themselves or for Chicken Salad.

It’s important to remember that we all occasionally make a less than perfect meal. There are days when the most pressing matter is not spending hours in the kitchen making a gourmet feast. Don’t stress out over making a five star grilled cheese (although I do know a great recipe for one of those).

Presentation

I won’t write much about this, but when you are making a special meal do take some time to think about how it will look. Is your meal colorful? Do you have pretty green vegetables or a salad? A sprinkle of parsley can brighten up a  dull bowl of potatoes. What we see will affect how we taste something. That may sound unlikely, but have you ever tasted a food while thinking it was something else? Even if that food was something good, it wasn’t what you were expecting and therefore the taste didn’t feel right.

In your opinion what sets a good cook above the rest?

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Responses

  1. I love this post!! I have learned a lot about creative, tasty cooking over the years as well. I guess if we ladies spend our time in the kitchen making food it would be a good idea to learn to do our best! My mom didn’t enjoy preparing foods much, but I have learned so many things from my sister-in-law. I have also learned a few tips from your article as well!
    Thanks for sharing!!
    ~Carolyn

  2. Happened upon your site… love it. 🙂 This post is good for me. I need to put more attention and detail into my cooking. I’m more of a “follow the recipe and just eat it” kind of cook then a savoring one. Maybe one day I’ll be rich enough to hire a savoring Chef. 🙂

    • Yes on the chef part! I think what I really need though is a Meal Planner. If someone did that for me then I wouldn’t have near as much stress in my life anymore 🙂

  3. I enjoyed this post. Cooking is something I do out of necessity more then for enjoyment but I do always love to learn little tricks like these. My Grandmother says any cookie recipe that calls for cream of tarter is going to be a good one. And my husbands Aunt taught me that the more milk you add to mashed potatoes, the stuffier they will be. I usually only use butter & sour cream in mine. Also, the more water you add to a chicken, the drier it will be. I put a chicken in a crockpot with nothing but spices & onions, no liquid, and turn it on for 4-5 hours & it’s SO moist. 🙂

  4. Hi, Rachel.
    Thanks for the link to your blog from AmishAmerica. I’ll be reading 🙂
    Annette


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