👨🍳 Introduction To Cooking - Essential Concepts
We chefs have an understanding of food and cooking that comes from years of honing our craft. The professional chef lives, sleeps and breathes food. Yet one thing we often cannot agree on is the question of art over craft. What makes a good cook? Is it technique or inspiration? Rules or creativity? Some of us came to cooking through inspiration and soon realised that it takes a solid foundation of technique to cook well. Others began with the rules and from this knowledge learned how to break them.
Whether you are completely new to cooking or have been cooking for years, it is a firm understanding of technique coupled with the courage of creativity that will make you a better cook.
I am here to give you both.
In this Introduction to Cooking I will explain some of the key concepts behind cookery and briefly explore a few of the ideas that will help you to become a better cook. Think of it as a starting point for a more detailed exploration.
Where shall we start? At the very beginning of course…
The Building Blocks of Food
Or, quite simply, what food is made of.
Food is many things, but at its core it is the fuel that feeds our bodies. As cooks we need to understand the basic composition of our ingredients for two reasons. One is awareness from a nutritional point of view. But the other is more directly involved with cooking itself.
By understanding how these molecules make up our ingredients and how they behave, we can understand the how’s and why’s of cooking.
Proteins are large molecules made up of chains of amino acids. Amino acids are used in our body to make our own proteins that form our biological structures such as skin, muscle and hair.
Most foods have at least a very small amount of protein present but the greatest amounts are found in meat, fish and eggs. It is this protein content that dictates how they behave when cooked. Essentially cooking causes the molecules to break down and change shape, and this alters their texture.
Protein is responsible for that perfectly poached egg and the satisfying denseness of meat. But it also forms the soft crumb of your bread, the gentle whip of cream, or the gel in your jelly.
Carbohydrates range from the simple sugar you put in your morning coffee to the fibrous structure of fruits and vegetables.
Sugars, starches and fibre are all composed of carbohydrates. These are the nutrients that provide us with easily accessible energy. They are locked into the grains that are ground to make flour and turned into bread, and they swell up in water to create soft fluffy rice.
Carbohydrates generally form simple soft and comforting foods, but they are also responsible for browning and the complex flavours produced. Think of crisp golden toast but also the flavourful crust of a perfectly grilled steak. The bitter crack of caramel or the soft bite of spaghetti.
Never underestimate the power of fats in food. Fats enrich flavour and create texture. They make food feel rich in the mouth and help us to feel more satisfied after a meal.
Fats are composed of chains of molecules known as fatty acids. These can be saturated, poly-unsaturated, and mono-unsaturated. Saturation dictates how freely they can bend. Most fats and oils contain all three types of fatty acid and this will determine how liquid or solid they are. Lard is a solid saturated fat. Unsaturated fats are more liquid and are found as oils.
Fats are found within ingredients like the marbling of a steak, or as the fats and oils we cook with.
The 5 Major Food Groups
When we talk about the major food groups, we are talking about foods that have been grouped together according to the main nutrients they provide. The building blocks from which an ingredient is made.
Most foods, be it a potato, a sirloin steak, or a biscuit, are made of a number of different things. Each contains varying amounts of protein, fats and carbohydrates, as well as water, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. They have been grouped purely for nutritional purposes so that we know the effect they will have on the body.
As cooks we are interested in this nutritional information, but it also gives valuable clues from a cooking and eating perspective too.
Fruit and Vegetables
Fruit and vegetables mainly provide carbohydrates, fibre, vitamins and minerals, as well as valuable nutrients found only in plants. We should be eating as many of them as possible, with a focus on vegetables, and understanding how to use them is an essential skill.
Fruit and vegetables bring life to the plate, with colour and texture, and particularly when eaten seasonally are a cheap source of food. They also provide an endless source of variety, all the year round.
Starchy foods are the main source of carbohydrate in our diet, and some provide fibre too. Our main source of energy, and the least expensive food source, starchy foods include rice, pasta, and potatoes. Eating the skins on potatoes, or choosing wholegrain versions, provides fibre too. Grains are starchy foods, things like oats, maize, bulghur wheat, and barley.
On the plate, starchy foods can provide a foil for the more vibrant aspects of the meal. A blank canvas on which to inject flavour and personality. Starchy foods are also calming and comforting, food that soothes us.
Protein foods are essential for growth and repair. They are broken down in the body more slowly and help keep us feeling fuller for longer. Plant sources of protein such as beans and lentils are inexpensive foods, whilst animal sources of meat, fish and eggs are relatively more expensive.
Understanding how to shop, prepare and cook protein foods is a key element of good cookery. And need not be expensive or difficult.
A quick supper of beautifully cooked eggs, or a perfect plate of breakfast kippers, is just as good as a rare fillet of beef or rack of lamb. Knowing what to cook and when will help stretch your budget and provide endless variety.
Dairy foods are traditional sources of vitamins and vital minerals such as calcium, but many people are switching to non-dairy. From my perspective as a classic chef I feel it is important to understand the part that dairy plays in cookery, and to understand the possibilities yet also limitations of switching to substitutes.
Non-dairy alternatives not only provide different nutrients but they behave differently too. Dairy foods such as milk, cream, yoghurt and of course cheese, bring a range of elements into play.
They can bring salty, creamy, acid, sweet, and savoury aspects to a dish. Not to mention gooey, stringy and melty. Dairy brings the silky texture and body that only fats can bring to the party.
Fats and Sugars
Again, more foods that receive a bad press. Fats and sugars tend to be grouped together as ‘foods that the body does not need’ and ‘occasional treats’. Which is fine. To a point. The body does not need refined sugar, but it still plays a huge part in cookery and the whole ‘creating food for pleasure’ thing. So let’s at least learn how to use it. And to use it well.
You would be surprised how many uses sugar has and it plays a vital role in the five tastes that we touched on earlier. So it brings balance to the plate for one thing.
Fats, the body does need to function properly. And they play an integral role in the kitchen.
Fats are naturally present in meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and even some fruit and vegetables. They not only define how we use ingredients, but we use them to cook with and add them to foods too. You won’t get far in the kitchen without understanding fats and how to use them.
The Importance of Ingredients
All of this leads us to possibly the most important element of cookery. Ingredients. If we think of the subject of cooking as simply ‘the art of providing something pleasurable to eat’ then it takes on a new dimension. Food, and cooking, become about the very thing that makes it exciting. Eating.
Ingredients are the single most important part of cooking. And eating. From choosing the perfectly ripe peach to eat in the park on a summers day, to cooking a five course wedding banquet, the concept is the same.
Knowing your ingredients, how to choose them and what to do with them, is one of the most important themes in understanding food.
Understanding Food - Core Concepts
We have touched briefly on the importance of ingredients, but before we look at some of the ways in which to cook them, there are a few core concepts that I would like to talk about. Our understanding of food and cookery has come a long way over the past decade or so, and we now have ways to define what we once would have thought of as innate talent.
Yes, there are people who seem to resonate naturally with food. Those that seem to have an intuition of what goes where and when. Yet this is also knowledge that can be taught.
It just takes a little reading between the lines…
Core Concept - How We Experience Flavour
The experience of eating, what we tend to think of as flavour, is actually a multi-dimensional experience created by a number of different things. Understanding these, and learning to shape them in order to shape the experience of eating, is a fundamental concept in cookery. Each component works together to create the pleasure of eating that is our main aim as a cook.
Taste is a physical sensation. It is what happens when food encounters the taste buds in our mouth. We have five different kinds of receptors in our mouth and they detect salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami.
Each of these aspects of foods that we think of as flavours, are actually sensations on our tongue and in our mouth.
Flavour is actually aroma. It is what we are smelling when we experience food.
The nuances that create the vast differences, and indeed similarities, of food are created by aromatic molecules in all ingredients.
It is our sense of smell that picks them up and creates another level of the experience of eating.
Texture is often overlooked, and makes a huge contribution to the eating experience. Not only does it provide interest and contrast but directly impacts our perception of ‘flavour’.
The best example of this has to be pasta. The same dough can create an entirely different experience depending on its shape and how the sauce interacts with it.
The temperature of food is important. Not only do we control it to cook, or to freeze, but the taste, flavour, and even texture will all be influenced by its temperature.
There are very few foods that taste good directly from the fridge as cold can dull certain tastes and send aroma molecules to sleep. Just as hot food is more enjoyable once it has cooled a little.
There are exceptions of course, but learning to understand and control temperature is fundamental to understanding food.
Core Concept - Food and Mood
A meal, be it a bowl of cornflakes or a five course feast, is way more than the sum of its parts. What we like to eat is shaped by our memories, our mood, who we are, and even who we wish to become.
We think about what we would like for dinner. And are instinctively driven by how we feel. It’s cold outside, and wet. Some of us will dream of beef stew and mashed potatoes. For others it might be a bowl of creamy carbonara. It could be a steaming bowl of pho. All very different foods, but still fairly similar.
The way we visualise food is often in terms of taste or texture. Crunchy, soft, salty, or sweet. It is influenced by memory, by childhood and beyond.
Sometimes it can be more about what we feel like like cooking, than eating. The calming rhythm of baking, or simply the scent of an apple crumble that fills the home. The sizzle of a steak as it hits the frying pan, the pleasure in knowing you have cooked it exactly right.
Sometimes you are just hungry.
Core Concept - Building on Basics
The great thing about cookery is the infinite possibility. Yes, there is a lot to learn. And more to it than you possibly ever imagined. But master just a small corner of it and you already have the tools for endless variety. You only have to dig as deep as you want to.
Chefs recipes are built. A handful of techniques and processes brought together on a plate. Broken down, step-by-step. Home cooking is a little different, but is still a bunch of techniques brought together.
Take what you know and build on it. Gradually. Build up a repertoire of basic recipes. A roast chicken. A tomato sauce. Rub some spices into your roast chicken. Add olives to your tomato sauce.
If you can boil an egg you can make a Salade Nicoise, a kedgeree, an egg sandwich. If you can make a meatball you can make a meatloaf, a kofte, a turkey burger or a Scotch Egg.
Keep it simple. Learn the skills. Join the dots.
Core Concept - The Cooking Cycle
Cooking on a regular basis is a constant ongoing process. No sooner have you eaten one meal it is time to plan the next. Barely before you put down your dinner fork does the subject arise. What’s for dinner tomorrow? Its the weekend, what shall we make for breakfast?
Before you eat, you cook. But before you cook, you must shop. And before you shop, especially if you are new to this, you must plan. At the very least gain some inspiration.
How much you plan will depend on where, and how, you live your life.
If you live in the city, and walk past several food shops on your way home from work every day, then chances are you will shop on a daily basis. If the only shop is the out of town supermarket and you have a car, then it is more likely you will do a weekly shop.
Budgeting is easier when you have a plan. You can consider costs before hand, and will probably waste less. Some of us plan a weeks worth of meals and shop accordingly. Others prefer a little more flexibility.
Point is, that before you go shopping, some kind of thought is necessary. Usually centered around ‘what do I want to eat?’. Which leads to the need for inspiration. You might look at a few cookery books or browse the net for recipes and ideas.
Shopping for food and ingredients is all about making the most of your budget. That means eating as well as you can and wasting as little as possible. Some foods are worth spending more money on than others, but poor quality is never a good idea.
This is where knowing your ingredients and understanding how to cook them really comes into play. Decent steak too expensive? Buy brisket. Not enough time? Then choose a decent burger. Fancy some asparagus but it is expensive and out of season? Go for long stemmed broccoli instead.
You need to know what an ingredient looks like when it is at it’s best. How to store it? How long will it keep? Is there something I could use instead?
Keep it simple. Don’t buy what you won’t make use of. Black sesame seeds I’m talking to you.
Cooking. Evil necessity or source of joy? I’m sad to say it but however dedicated you are to the craft, it is generally a bit of both. And there are times when it will just go wrong. Sometimes majorly, beyond redemption, hiding in shame wrong. Sometimes you might just undercook the green beans a little. It happens.
Know your limits. Pick your battles. Sometimes cooking will soothe you. Like baking on a rainy Sunday. Sometimes you won’t want to cook at all but making an omelette is quicker than phoning for a takeaway and you will be glad you did it. Other times you will just be really really up for it. You will find the zone and good things will happen.
It’s just food. Life affirming yet equally unimportant. Don’t stress it.
And the whole point? Eating. Everybody loves to eat. It is the greatest leveller of all. The stuff memories are made of.
From the exquisite tasting menu that you had to book a year in advance, to the cold leftover noodles eaten standing up at your desk, and everything in between.
We eat alone, we eat with other people, we eat every day. More than once.
Food helps us grow, it heals us, it soothes us, it excites us.
Eating. Because food rocks.
The Different Ways To Cook Food
If one side of being a good cook is learning to understand ingredients, then the other is learning what to do with them. Strictly speaking, anything that doesn’t involve using heat we can call preparation. Cooking is what happens when we apply heat to ingredients to transform them into something delicious.
So, mastering the various ways we can control heat lies at the heart of cooking.
There are several ways of applying heat to food but they break down into easily manageable categories and generally have an easy set of rules to follow. There is fast and high, and there is low and slow. And there is wet cooking and there is dry cooking. Usually, but not always, fast and high is dry and low and slow is wet. But there are exceptions.
You can cook food on the hob, or in the oven. You can cook over a BBQ, or you can use any number of small appliances. Yet the basic principles remain the same.
Let’s take a look…
Steaming food is a gentle way of cooking that results in clean uncomplicated flavours. Placed in a basket over a pan of boiling water, food will gently cook through in the rising steam. Vegetables will remain tender crisp, and full of natural flavour. Fish will turn quietly opaque and flake softly on the fork.
Food can also be steamed in the oven, wrapped in foil or paper. The trick here is to make use of the steam that rises from heated liquid.
When you want an ingredient to taste of its natural self, and result in a light meal that is easy on the digestion, look to steaming. Choose delicate ingredients with little fat for the best results. Asian cooks, btw, are the masters of steaming food.
Boiling refers to food cooked in liquid, such as pasta or rice, and foods that are themselves liquid, such as soups and stews. Cooking is high heat and the liquid will be bubbling vigorously.
Blanching is a related term where ingredients, usually vegetables, are dropped briefly into boiling water and then cooled down quickly by dropping into cold water. We blanch vegetables to retain colour and texture. Sometimes we may want to blanch meat before cooking it further in other ways.
Simmering is the same concept, but the heat will be low and movement of the liquid at a minimum. We would simmer a sauce to gently reduce it, for instance.
Poaching involves cooking food immersed in liquid at a lower temperature than simmering. We poach eggs, fish, fruit and other ingredients to result in tender flavourful food.
Stewing and Braising
Stewing and braising are both low and slow/wet methods of cooking, suited to tougher, less costly cuts of meat such as lamb shanks, beef brisket, or oxtail. Vegetables also cook beautifully using these methods, yielding soft sweet flesh full of flavour.
Stewing and braising can both be done on the stovetop or in the oven, but stews are often cooked on the stove, and braises in the oven.
Stewing involves smaller pieces of meat, completely submerged in liquid, at a gentle simmer.
Braising involves larger, or whole pieces of meat, only partially immersed in liquid, at a gentle simmer.
Frying involves cooking ingredients in varying amounts of hot oil, usually over a medium-high heat. Although oil is wet, it is not water, so considered a dry method of cooking. Yeah, I know.
Shallow-frying involves a frying pan and about 1/2 cm oil. Foods are placed in the oil, cooked on one side, then turned and cooked on the other. Fishcakes might be shallow fried.
Pan-frying is the same as shallow frying but less oil is used. To pan fry a steak for instance, the steak would be brushed with oil and placed in the searingly hot oil. Cooked and then turned, it would be finished with butter. Prime cuts of meat such as chops and steaks, chicken breasts, or fish fillets can be cooked in this way.
Stir-frying happens over a very high heat, in a wok. Small pieces of food are kept moving for a fairly short period of time.
Sauteeing is similar to stir frying but the heat is lower and more oil is used. Somewhere between pan frying and stir frying. The food is smaller and moves about more. Sauteed potatoes for example.
Grilling involves cooking food directly over hot coals or on a cast iron griddle where the ingredients come into direct contact with the searingly hot surface. It is high heat, fast and dry cooking.
This is all about crisp smoky savoury caramelisation on the outside, and a soft juicy interior. Whether that be an aubergine or a rib eye steak.
Roasting and Baking
Roasting and baking are almost interchangeable in that they happen inside the oven in a dry heat.
Roasting generally happens at a high heat, with some kind of fat, with the aim of browning. Although you can slow roast, which just happens at much lower temperatures for longer. You would roast a joint of sirloin at a high heat. But you might slow roast a less tender shoulder of lamb.
Baking is pretty much everything else that happens in the oven, and temperatures vary. Cakes, breads and pastry are all baked. As is a jacket potato, a vegetable gratin, or a shepherds pie.