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How to Come Out of the Pandemic a Better Cook

Food writer and critic Scott Mowbray shares three simple lessons learned from living through 2020.

Early in the Great Reopening, with all involved having been vaccinated, I cooked a dinner for four friends and my wife, and we sailed through an entire night without talking about the goddamned virus. The mood was giddy. I had decided to make a mix of South Indian and Bengali dishes and planned to finish with a Thai dessert. The curries involved the tempering and grinding of spices and then the further tempering and grinding of more spices for a multiplex of flavors. The strange resin stink of asafoetida (essential to many Indian dishes) and the jungly aroma of curry leaves mingled with the bite of mustard seeds and the mustiness of cumin and coriander that danced and popped in my hot cast-iron skillet. Little fermented rice-and-lentil-flour idli cakes accompanied a thin rasam broth made tart with tamarind and hot with chiles. I fried fish to a crusty exterior, immersing it in a Bengali “gravy” redolent with cardamom, ginger, and cilantro.

I had been going full steam in the kitchen for more than six hours when it was time to coax the first-course idlis from the concavities of the steamer trays. It had been a meditative afternoon, with no moment of the dreaded Dissociative Kitchen Panic (DKP). DKP is when I lose my shit and suddenly cannot locate the line through the present chaos to dinner, cannot tell where my mind ends and the next task begins. DKP is a condition of great peril: Focus is lost, mistakes loom, the food risks becoming, for lack of a better word, blurry. Instead, calm prevailed. I was in the flow.

I suppose that many of us have been deciding what lessons we’ve learned from the pandemic and hope to hold on to. Mine concern a few principles about cooking. I’ve known these for years, even written about them before, but the rhythms of the solitary kitchen labors of quarantine, like that day a few months ago, brought new clarity. A few of those principles for becoming a better cook—which is a lifelong pursuit—follow here.

The first is to respect the immutable role of time. Cooking is about the transformation of ingredients over time by chemical and biological processes under the application of energy, usually heat but also mechanical actions, such as whisking. The role of thermodynamics and what physicists call “time’s arrow” in cooking requires, no surprise, time to appreciate. (If you’re wondering how I got on this theme, I spent a lot of time in 2020 listening to physics podcasts, especially about entropy and the coming heat death of the universe, and how that might affect my ovens.) Abruptly, with the stay-at-home orders, some of us were fortunate to have buckets of the stuff—time, I mean—which I think partly explains the mania for sourdough starter. Slow life woke us to the distracting possibility of slow foods in our midst.

Often, disappointment in the kitchen follows a simple failure to give the chemistry and the energy the temporal room to do their work—six hours, for example, for a pork shoulder to collapse into fatty, sticky succulence during a low-temperature roast. There are recipe hacks, of course, such as adding baking soda to onions to speed their caramelization, but these often yield inferior results. The 45 minutes or more it actually takes to caramelize onions is often suppressed in recipes, as if the truth might be too much for modern cooks to bear. “Why do recipe writers lie and lie” about this, journalist Tom Scocca lamented on Slate back in 2012.

Which brings us to the second principle of cooking better: Recipes are key to expanding one’s skills, yet, paradoxically, they are often not to be trusted. I bought or was given a bunch of cookbooks during the pandemic, adding to the 250 or so already on my shelves. Even some of the books on top 10 and hot lists were rife with recipes that didn’t, as written, work, if we define “work” as “deliver the dish in the picture and as we know it should be in the time described.”

Many of the problems I encountered were ones I knew how to solve on the fly, but still. There are a lot of reasons for this situation, including cheap publishers who won’t pay for proper testing protocols and the rise of influencers more in love with Instagram than actual technique. But often, I suspect, it’s simply that many authors aren’t schooled in the complexities of notation. Every act of cooking is an uncontrolled experiment with a thousand variables, yet many recipes provide too few warnings (“watch for hot spots in your oven”) or visual cues (“leave the chop in the pan untouched until it’s really formed a dark brown crust”). This is why authors like Julia Child and Jacques Pépin and, more recently, Mark Bittman, have been so successful: pedagogic commitment to the struggles of the everyday cook.

The problem of recipe unreliability is particularly acute now, as we seem to be falling in love with most of the cuisines of the world. There is no way to internalize all the traditions behind the great dishes of Japan, France, Brazil, or Mexico, even as all the ingredients become available to us. We can get out over our skis quickly. It’s easy for a first-timer to follow a second-rate recipe off a cliff.

The can-do American solution to the complexity of global food traditions has been to explore the underlying science of cooking with insane detail. This is what I call the School of Nerdish Hedonism. The watershed event took place nearly 40 years ago, when Harold McGee’s book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, was published. Science, it was clear, could concern itself not with dreary home economics but the maximization of pleasure through the comprehension of underlying principles that translate across kitchen cultures. (If you want to see how deep the nerdy rabbit holes now go, check out douglasbaldwin.com for a blog by a fellow who calls himself an “expert in sous vide cooking and nonlinear waves.”)

Today, the person who stands highest on McGee’s shoulders is J. Kenji López-Alt, an MIT grad whose work at seriouseats.com and whose superb book, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, involve maniacal amounts of testing, with attention to the chemical and mechanical interactions that produce, say, the best smashburger. López-Alt is a combination of garage-tinkering obsessive and connoisseur. He wants every dish to taste fully self-actualized. His labors thus provide immense help as we pursue the third principle of better cooking: taking the time to understand, and even experiment with, the factors that make a dish realize its potential.

So: Slow down, approach recipes on a trust-but-verify basis, and embrace your inner kitchen nerd. After that, there isn’t much else to it, except practicing with an adventurous spirit and acquiring the proper tools and ingredients. In the end, the reward isn’t just better eating; it’s finding one’s place for an hour or two in the calming flow, waiting for the mustard seeds to pop in your cast-iron pan as the noise of the Great Reopening continues to rage all about.

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