What's the most important tool in every kitchen?
Did you guess it???
Your own sense of taste!
It's right up there with a sharp knife.
I've been reading a book called Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat. She grew up eating her grandmother's and mother's traditional Moroccan home cooking, and was trained as a chef at Chez Panisse. On the back cover, it says "learn to cook delicious meals with any ingredient, anywhere, at any time - even without a recipe". This is my favorite thing about this book: there are recipes, but they are written as suggestions or examples after the PRINCIPLES of good cooking are explained in the first two thirds of the book.
As some of you know who have read my attempts at sharing recipes in the past, I'm really not a recipe person. I don't use them, I don't follow them, and I'm not sure that I create them well either. I love to look at recipes, for ideas, inspiration, and guidance; and then I do what makes sense to me at the time. There are very few instances where a recipe is something that I value - cakes, creme brûlée, and big batches of sausage come to mind.
I like this concept of principles over recipes because it empowers you to understand the science and art of good cooking, with tons of freedom for improvisation with what ingredients you have at hand.
The truth is that modern recipes fit in with a purely consumerist culture, where you go to the store and buy precise quantities of what is listed. But traditional, older recipes, were by nature much more flexible. They described quantities in pinches and pounds, with ample room for substitution of seasonal produce or available meats. In the past, people generally obtained food through hunting, gathering, farming, fishing, or bartering with someone who did. Today, when dealing with non-factory farmed foods in their whole form, such as kale from the farmer's market or a pork roast in your meat CSA share, the quantities can be nearly impossible to standardize at home.
For example: What exactly is 2 cups of kale? Does that mean raw, or cooked, chopped or whole, pressed down or fluffed up? How about how many stalks, or bunches? When I read this type of thing in a recipe, I translate it to - however much I have, and however much looks good to me when I mix it in. And if your pork roast is 2.7 pounds instead of 2 pounds, does that mean you have to 1.35 times scale up every quantity in the recipe exactly??
Michael Pollan writes in the foreword to Salt, Fat, Acid Heat: "Truth be told, recipes are infantilizing: Just do exactly what I say, they say, but don't ask questions or worry your little head about why. They insist on fidelity and faith, but do nothing to earn or explain it."
Good cooks have always been resourceful in using what they have on hand. They know innately how to substitute various ingredients. And even with baked goods, for which many people consider recipes a requirement, a good cook knows when the batter or dough is right by the FEEL of it, the LOOK of it, and the deeper understanding of it.
I've experienced this myself as a DIY experimental gluten-free baker. I come from a heritage of DIY experimental bakers (hi Mom!), and I grew up in a house where the pancakes were literally different every time. My mom never measured, she just dumped things together, unorthodox things like ground oats and flax seeds and apple sauce. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes... well... The unfortunate thing was that when it DID work, my dad would say, "these are good! Make these again!" And she'd say, "sorry. Can't. I don't know what I did". I've tried to take the best qualities and leave behind the pitfalls of this approach. I do appreciate a good recipe, at least for a basic framework. I also always write down what I did for substitutions or inventions when I am experimenting so that I can recreate it if it comes out good! (Tangent - In all fairness, my mom always did make a really good pie crust using a recipe. And on the topic of salt and pie crust, here's a creative cooking family secret for you guys: we have for the past few years been using an excellent gluten free pie crust recipe. It may sound weird I know, but my mom and I both use this recipe for gluten free "cheese-its" as a pie crust. Even though it is a savory dough, we use it for fruit pies of all kinds - the cheese gives the crust a beautiful texture and mild salty complementary flavor. Truth be told, we do actually merely follow the basics of this recipe, often substituting different flours or cheeses. Again, it's about understanding the science of how it works. I think that is the concept behind using ratios in cooking.)
Samin says, "Cooking isn't so different from jazz. The best jazz musicians seem to improvise effortlessly, whether by embellishing standards or by stripping them down...But in order to be able to improvise flawlessly, they had to learn the basic language of music - the notes - and develop an intimate relationship with the standards. The same is true for cooking; while a great chef can make improvisation look easy, the ability to do so depends on a strong foundation of the basics. Salt, Fat, Acid, and Heat are the building blocks of that foundation. Use them to develop a repertoire of basic dishes that you can cook anytime, anywhere." She repeats over and over in the book, that the most important tool you have in the kitchen is your own palate, or sense of taste. She urges us to use it constantly to make decisions.
In the next few weeks, I will share a series of summary points of what I've learned about using Salt, Fat, Acid, and Heat to cook well, primarily as it pertains to meats.