Senses-X3

Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

 

Last week I had lunch with Kate Lee, a senior editor at medium.com, an elegant publishing platform created by the Twitter co-founders (she had a salad, which put me on guard until she agreed to taste some of my terrible-looking but most delicious chicken livers on toast).

Medium was in search of writers/content, and my book agent, the lovely Cait Hoyt, said she wanted all her writers to contribute to medium. I’m always interested in new platforms, ideas, ways to share and spread information, and promote my own projects. Medium is about three years old and still trying to find its legs, it seems, though no one denies it’s a great place to read interesting stuff, even if it’s often somehow about itself. Which may scarily be what we’re coming to. One of the subtexts of my conversation with Kate was that blogging is evolving, or had come to the end of its evolving, or that medium represented the next stage of our digital information boom, to go beyond blogging. Or maybe I was just reading into this. Or maybe not, as now they want to create custom domains.

So I’m republishing here, what I published on medium earlier in the week. An essay originally published in Finesse magazine, published by the TKRG. It’s about learning to cook with your senses, teaching yourself, teaching yourself kitchen sense. But I’m curious about publishing in various contexts and what it means to readers. Are blogs dying? Curious what people think.

And now, an essay about teaching yourself to cook with your senses:

 

The Senses of Good Cooking

Here’s a silly sounding but really valuable cooking tip: When you’re roasting nuts in the oven, keep one nut out on your cutting board, and you’ll never burn them; while you’re doing all your other work, you will continually want to wipe that nut off your board, only to remember why it’s there. That’s one way your valuable sense of sight helps you out; if you smell your roasting nuts, it’s probably because they’ve gone too far.

We cook with our senses, and we have six of them, all of them critical, the sixth most of all.

For the cook, one might think that taste is the most important sense. It is indeed a common mantra among chefs: “Always be tasting.” But it’s not just tasting to taste, but rather to evaluate what you’re tasting. Is there enough salt so that it tastes not salty but rather seasoned? Is there enough acidity? Enough richness, enough depth? If not, then think: How should I adjust this?

But often overlooked as a fundamental cooking sense is hearing. When I cook bacon, for instance, I start it in water. The gentle heat of water begins to render the fat and the bacon will never go above browning temperature; it’s cooking, but it can’t burn. But once I hear that pan crackling, I know that the water is almost gone; rendered fat can get very hot, and so I must attend to the pan.

But more important is imagined sight. What you expect to see should be a part of the cooking process.

Smell, likewise, is important, not just as an indicator of deliciousness (or the reverse) but of where you are in the cooking. If I am finishing up the components to go along with the prime rib I’m roasting in the oven, and I don’t smell that delicious roasting meat, I’d better check the oven because it’s probably not cooking properly, and not nearly done. If I smell it too early, perhaps the oven is too hot.

Touch is essential, a sense to call attention to because Americans, terrified of germs and bacteria, seem increasingly afraid of touching food. We touch a bread dough to evaluate if it has risen sufficiently. We press down on steak to intuit how done it is on the inside. We touch the top of a crème brûlée to ensure that it is smooth and brittle, not soft and sticky. Touch your food.

Sight is important, obviously — you can see that you’ve overcooked your pine nuts, or how delicious that roasted chicken is because you’ve put an aggressive coating of salt on it and roasted it in a very hot oven. You can see the oil ripple and swirl when it hits the sauté pan telling you the pan is good and hot.

But more important is imagined sight. What you expect to see should be a part of the cooking process.

When you are reducing a sauce, for instance, you should have in your mind the image of how thick that sauce should be when it is properly reduced. You should see it in your mind. Then, as the sauce reduces and you keep looking at it, stirring it, it should be continuously approaching the image in your mind. You should imagine how brown your fried chicken will be before it reaches your ideal, how much broth relative to garnish in a soup, how much fat you will render from the bacon.

But sight, both actual and imagined, can be a detriment if you are not careful, because what we see can also get in the way of our cooking. When I was in cooking school and working the grill station at the school’s busy restaurant, a student named Chen worked sauté beside me, and found himself deep in the weeds one midday service, behind in his orders, his station a mix of scraps of food, burned pieces of paper towel used to relight burners that were going out, sauce and salt and pepper spilled everywhere.

Dan Turgeon, the rugged chef instructor, seeing that Chen was a mess, stopped to chat, knowing Chen didn’t have the time, but Chen needed a lesson.

“When I was in the weeds, when I was really in the weeds, I’d stop,” Turgeon said. “I’d say, ‘Gimme a second.’” Turgeon put up his hand like a batter asking an ump to for time to step out of box. Then he reached down and pulled the bucket of sanitation fluid we all kept at our stations and, with slow, exaggerated motions, wiped down Chen’s station. “And I’d wipe down my station.” When Chen’s station and cutting board were completely clean, spotless, a clear field, Turgeon stood up straight and said, “Because when you’re in the weeds, this clutter starts to build up. And if they cut you open, that’s what your brain would look like.”

I laughed because it was so true. What your eyes are actually seeing impacts the imagined food you are working toward; it trips you up in your mind. If your cutting board and work counter have things you don’t need on them, whether it’s food you’ve finished with, bread crumbs and salt, or car keys and reading glasses, remove them from your sight before you begin your cooking.

All of these five senses — taste, touch, hearing, sight, and smell — lead to the most important sense of all.

Common sense.

This cannot be written into a recipe. You can’t Google the common sense of bolognese sauce. But it’s critical in good cooking and often lacking in the home kitchen. As a prominent chef once said to me, “If you’re heating cream and it boils over on you, it doesn’t mean you have a mess on your stovetop, it means you don’t have the right amount of cream in your pan anymore.”

Common sense is ultimately what all the other senses are about. It’s common sense to clean your counter before beginning to cook, common sense to add more salt or lemon juice if you taste the soup and it needs a little enhancement of flavor.

But common sense is also a what we continue to develop throughout our cooking lives. When you first cook a steak, it is not necessarily common sense to know from touch whether it is rare or medium well inside; it is common sense to pay attention to the feel and what it looks like when you cut into it, and to remember it so that it becomes common sense.

The late chef of Zuni Café, Judy Rodgers, served me the best roasted leg of lamb I’ve ever had. She was able to do so not because she was a great chef, but rather because she’d roasted a thousand of them and had paid attention to each one, noticed all the countless variations, added them to the cooking-experience rolodex in her brain. It was that, not the lamb I ate, that made her a great chef.

So all of our six senses ultimately combine to form perhaps our most valuable attribute: awareness. Awareness may be the most important quality of being alive, and it is very much suited to cooking. Pay attention. Enjoy your senses. Take pleasure in feeling the texture of homemade pasta, the sight of a roasted chicken, the aroma filling the kitchen, the taste of a raw tomato, salted and still warm from the sun in the garden, the sounds of fat crackling in a pan.

And never forget what good sense cooking makes. Our world is better when we cook for the people we love. Our bodies are healthier, our families are healthier, our communities are healthier, our environment is healthier. That’s the sense I love most about cooking. Its goodness.

 

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© 2015 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2015 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.

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17 Wonderful responses to “Medium-Well
(Cooking with Your Senses)”

  • Doug

    Cook bacon in water? How do i do that? It makes sense, but I’d like to know some details so I don’t end up with boiled bacon!

  • Chef Daniel Pliska CEC AAC

    Michael,
    Interesting question- are blogs dying. Just started blogging after I published my first pastry book “Pastry and Dessert Techniques” published by American Technical Publishers. Although I enjoy the process, it seems to be a lot of work with not much feed back when compared to doing free lance work. Maybe it’s because it is too easy to publish blogs with everyone from the hobby cook still in high school or traveling to the seasoned published author. Perhaps we are all just getting lost in a sea of information from around the globe. Anyways enjoy your writing and your books. Keep up the good work!

  • Darcie

    I think we’ve reached blog saturation and I predict that a lot of winnowing will occur in the next few years (for professional-level blogs). Amateurs will still likely create new blogs, but it’s going to become harder to break through than it was a decade ago. I also think blogs will tend to become less all-purpose and more specialized. But I don’t think they’ll go away any time soon; they are still well appreciated.

  • Jonathan

    It seems to me that you are in a unique position. Your blog is one of two or three free, really solid, informational cooking resources on the web.

    Do you need more traffic? Is this a profit center for you? Are you trying to build readership or retain loyalty?

    Blogs are a tremendous amount of effort and it is confusing to me how to monetize them. On the flip side, if you have a loyal readership and aren’t servicing investors, it seems like a great business card and way to sell your books.

    Do you want to write for a lifestyle magazine? Isn’t that what Buzzfeed and Vice really are? Isn’t a desire to do your own thing why you started your blog in the first place?

  • Vickie McCorkendale

    I am so glad you mentioned the idea that blogs may be dying. It used to be fun to ‘find’ things on the internet. And when you couldn’t find something out there, it was wonderful to be a part of bringing new information to the digital world. I am referring to food information, recipes, restaurant recs, etc. But now I find that everything is up there and it has all been posted, reposted, plagiarized and reposted again. I find blogs mostly as self serving. Writers want to write. And that’s okay, as long as we don’t expect others to read it all. There’s just too much out there. However, that being said, I love your stuff. 🙂

  • Michelle

    That’s an interesting question. Much like every other form of communication, blogs are evolving, and I think they are here to stay. The good ones have found their niche. And the bad ones, well they are just really bad. Part of my job at a local half-assed gourmet food store was supporting and promoting local blogs. I cringed every time I read the term “waxing poetically” in reference to someone’s dish or ingredient. There should be a blog about all the bad food blogs. Mine included!
    Really enjoyed your essay. Hearing is an overlooked fundamental. I found this out the hard way when I tried cooking Thanksgiving dinner once with headphones on, trying to drown out my husband’s football on TV. Doesn’t work. And at the time I remember thinking it was a revelation. Who knew I was so dependent on hearing when cooking?

  • Rachele

    Some blogs should die. The ones that become slaves to sponsored posts, stale content and narcissism can’t die fast enough.

    But I think it might kill me if this one died. I learn so much from you, your guests and your readers that comment.

  • Michael Trippe

    Medium reminds me of the other sites like Digg or Reddit or ‘aggregate’ blogs as I see them. Basically, instead of people hunting out individual blogs such as yours, they can get a whole menu of articles (the right description?).

    My opinion? I like the personal nature of your blog – and blogs like it. For example, I read something you write. That will usually get me to to stroll through your online store or browse through other posts or ?? The combined knowledge you contain within your blog continues to grow as you continue to post. And it’s a source I come back to – and one I send others to for cooking (that corned beef recipe was amazing) as well as for your other books (Walk On Water = amazing).

    Publishing on Medium might get more ‘views’ – heck – I get no views on my website so maybe I would be drawn towards something like that for the exposure – but for an established writer like you, though, or anyone who has a ‘following’ the switch to something like that would be a step back. Perhaps Medium is a jumping off point – a starting line to draw attention then get them redirected to the site.

    I’ve been online a long time – owned a domain name and website for almost 20 years+. Seems to get more complicated the more people try and simplify it… or maybe I’m starting to get old 😉

    Either way, keep writing… As always, thanks very much for sharing.

    MT

  • Harry

    “Common sense” is very important, but it’s also important to know that common sense comes from experience. We’re not born with it – we develop it as we get a sense of what should be happening.

    So if you’re just starting out, don’t get fussed if you miss things that common sense says you should have caught. You’ll get it as you get more practice.

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