The philosophies of cooking that everyone should know: Part I

Michael Drummond/Staff

As you start to experiment with cooking more frequently, you’ll develop your own techniques and methodologies that give your dishes their own unique flair. The more you cook, the more you learn about your personal preferences in the kitchen and at the dinner table. Here are some of my personal philosophies on cooking and food that I’ve learned over the years. Hopefully, you’ll find them as valuable as I do.

Recipes almost never go exactly as planned.

Medium-high heat isn’t always the same temperature in each kitchen. You may have to make a judgement call and use two small cloves of garlic instead of one big one. Small drops of hot oil will jump out of the pan and splatter on your arm. Think of each step in a recipe as a recommendation instead of a hard-and-fast rule. You have to cook with the end goal of making something that tastes good to you.

Let the food cook itself.

When cooking meat, move it as little as possible. When chopping, let the knife do the work instead of forcing it down. When baking, refrain from opening the oven door. Let time be the driving force that cooks your food, not your fussing with it. 

Experiment small.

Modifying foods that you cook often is a great way to gain a little exposure to cooking frequently over time. One of my first cooking experiences was figuring out the best way to add chocolate chips to pancakes when I’d make a box of Bisquick on the weekends. Try adding some sliced bananas to your regular bowl of cereal, or explore different types of cheeses when making your standard grilled cheese. The number of ways to make dishes your own is infinite if you look hard enough.

Taste food as you go.

“Seasoning to taste” means you should actually taste what you’re making and adjust as necessary. Mentally labeling flavors you taste in your mind gives you a sense of how to balance them when you cook. Cutting through fattiness with acidity or countering bitterness with sweetness are some foundational techniques common among almost all recipes.

Most recipes are much more forgiving than you think.

A recipe doesn’t have to be followed exactly — if it calls for thyme but all you have is rosemary, that’ll do just fine. If you can only find light brown sugar in the grocery store when the recipe lists dark, it’ll probably work out. You have to learn to cut yourself some slack and understand that cooking is experimental, not an exact science.

Use oil with a high smoke point.

This one is a little more specific, but it’s important to know that oil that’s gone past its smoking point can be harmful to your health over time. Once oil heats up too much, it oxidizes and causes oxidative stress on your body. This leads to inflammation, the key side effect of almost anything harmful that your body ever encounters. Given how frequently we cook with oil, opt for something like grapeseed or canola oil for high-heat cooking and reserve olive oil for garnishing or cooking over a moderate level of heat for a short period of time.

Don’t beat yourself up if it tastes bad.

It’s not a big deal — it happens to the best of us every once in a while. If all else fails, you can always order a pizza and call it a night. 

Learn on the fly.

This one is probably the most important. There are certain things that can only be learned through experience. Cooking is the domain where this holds the most truth. All kitchens are different from each other. Your personal preferences may not be reflected in each recipe you encounter. One of the things I love most about cooking is that it keeps you on your feet. There’s always something to be done or some part of the process that requires your attention. As you cook more often, you’ll gain the confidence needed to venture out into the more complex aspects of cooking. 

That’s all I can think of for now, but I as I cook more (as will you), this list will be accompanied by a Part II. Bon appétit!

Contact Abhi Varma at [email protected].