Learning to Cook

It was many years before I finally learned to cook. Which is not to say that I couldn't make food and to follow a recipe, but I was always at the mercy of the recipes that were available to me. Sure, variations in the flavor of the recipe were pretty easy to do, but  serious changes to the recipe were unheard of. Sometimes these might be items of preference, but sometimes they were necessary because the recipe was just incorrect.

I like to tell this story of shortly before I started really trying to understand what this food and cooking thing was really all about. I watch The Big Chili episode of Good Eats, where he talks about how to make chili in a pressure cooker. I wanted to make this chili, but had no pressure cooker, so I checked the episode for these directions:

You put the chili in the bowl. You put the spoon in the chili. You put the chili in your mouth. That's it.

R: But Paw!
GG: Don't call me that, boy! It makes me feel ... old.

Now for you folks at home that ain't got one of them ...

GG: What'd you call that thing?
R: Pressure cooker. [continues to point out service options in the background]

... pressure cooker, don't despair. Just get yourself a nice, big, heavy Dutch oven. Preferably one that's cast iron. And do your meat browning in there, and add all your ingredients, bring it to a boil, clamp on that lid, and toss it in a 350 degree oven for anywhere from 6 to, I don't know, 24 hours, depending on what you like.

From the Good Eats Fan Page archives. Emphasis mine.

Six hours as a minimum seemed an awfully long time to be cooking something. So I re-watched that part of the episode three or four times on the Tivo, but it always said the same thing. So I checked the Food Network recipe, but it just had the pressure cooker instructions. So… I cooked it for about six hours in a 350° oven. And all but two chunks of chili were turned into charcoal. It should be said that the remaining two chunks of chili were the best I'd had before or since, but that's a lot of trouble to go through for two chunks of chili.

What is truly sad is what never occurred to me: chili is just a beef stew. There are millions of beef stew recipes available. Heck, there are millions of chili recipes available. I could have found another, maybe a few, compared cooking times, and just gone with that. And it's not as though, generally, I am stupid. It's just that I didn't think about cooking the right way. I didn't think, "Hey, there are only a few ways to cook food, and most recipes are just variations on those themes." Every recipe was always it's own, completely different thing, and trying to alter it could cause trouble.

Of course, now I know differently. But that's one of the most important things to learn about cooking: the technique. Learn how the meat or vegetable cooks, and the flavor variations are simple and relatively risk-free. There are maybe 10 major methods for cooking meats and vegetables. Learn those, and you never need char a pot of chili just because someone made a joke on television.

Incidentally, Alton Brown has finally managed to fix the recipe in his book, Good Eats 2: The Middle Years. The chefs don't have direct control over the Food Network recipes, so he couldn't fix it there, but when the book with the episode came out, the proper directions were put in. Go on, get the book. It's well worth it, even if you know how to make chili.