A Semi-Autobiographical Guide to Cooking Like a Pro, Part Three: Senses

cooking with senses

For those readers following along, so far I’ve urged those who want to cook more, cook better or cook at all 1) to relax and 2) to practice. So now I’m going to assume you’ve gotten all chill about spending time in the kitchen and you’re willing to dive in and do things over and over again so that you develop muscle memory and they become easy. Now you need to start using your senses. All six of them.

There are six senses when it comes to cooking, and to become a good cook you need to exercise most of them. To become a great cook you’re going to want to harness the power of the sextet.

1. Sight

“This one is good, too,” the art director said as he showed me yet another picture of stew that met his exacting aesthetic standards. “The chunks of carrot add some color.”

We were sitting in his office, the walls of which were festooned with the scores of magazine covers he had overseen. We were planning a January cover. It was to be stew. It was my job to provide them with the recipe. It was the art director’s job to provide them with a beautiful cover. A beautiful cover of a bowl of stew. This meeting was meant to help me know what a beautiful bowl of stew looked like. He had, quite helpfully, gathered scads of pictures of stew that met his approval in hopes that I, with my flavor-centric ways, could create something that wouldn’t make his job any harder than it already was.

An art director’s idea of a pretty stew, it ends up, isn’t that different from mine. The meat must be in largish pieces that are clearly meat in the photo, they must be well-browned so they don’t come across as grayish, there needs to be some other textural—and possibly tonal—contrast along with the meat, and a fresh garnish of herbs doesn’t hurt anything. Visual appeal and taste, mercifully, put us on the same page.

“Do you want something that looks like this one,” I asked, pointing at the chunky-carrot number, “but has maybe a garnish more like this one?” I picked up the photo of a darker stew topped with sour cream and cilantro.

“Can you do that?” he asked. His eyes lit up.

“Absolutely,” I said. A recipe of beef stewed in ale with carrot and potato topped with blue cheese and green onions was born.

I used to stubbornly maintain that food didn’t need to look good, that only taste mattered. But that stew—delicious on its own but more interesting, more exciting, more flavorful with the garnishes that made it cover-worthy—points to a truth that I’ve since embraced: Prettying food up, when done judiciously, more often than not improves the flavor, too. Sure, grilled asparagus is delicious, but the contrast of a few gratings of lemon zest and shavings of Parmesan not only make it look better and more springlike, but also improve the flavor.

Sight is the first sense we use to judge food, it’s also the first sense we, as cooks, need to use in order to determine quality of ingredients. Look first. If an ingredient doesn’t look right, there is no need to smell or taste it next. Just move along.

An important caveat: Our sense of sight tends to be so powerful and we take the information it posits in our brains so seriously that its weight can incorrectly overpower other senses. Perfect-looking Red Delicious apples, after all, are famously not delicious. And art directors hate this simple fact, but it’s true that many of the most delicious, crave-able foods like stews and brownies are brown. Dull, un-photogenic brown.

2. Smell

For a few months many moons ago, I had a dreadful roommate whom I will call Finch. There was something a bit fishy about Finch. A bit lechy. A bit not on the up-and-up. He was a 40-something Canadian who lived in Paris and rented out the second bedroom of his small, wretched apartment, which, despite being on the sixth floor, always smelled of a basement. Finch supported himself by leading walking tours of Paris and getting a stream of short-lived girlfriends to cook him dinner.

One night the week before Christmas, Finch had a dinner party for eight, to which I was invited because, quite simply, the apartment was a bit too cramped to not invite one of its two inhabitants. There were raw oysters. Dozens and dozens of fresh from the market, just in from Brittany, kept on a bed of ice and seaweed—oysters Finch’s girlfriend-of-the-moment, Hélène, had bought. We ate and drank and talked and slurped for hours.

Late that night I woke up sick as a dog. For those who have suffered the indignities of food poisoning, you know what I mean. You know that moment when you realize that what was once a delectable meal is going to be coming out of you at both ends at the same time. You have to decide: How are you going to position yourself? For those who haven’t, you are truly blessed. Sometime mid-morning, Finch came home from his girlfriend’s place, took one look at me, and, to his credit, headed out for broth and crackers. An errand, it ends up, he had already run for his girlfriend, who was just as green as I was. He returned and his offer to make me tea sent me running into the bathroom yet again. I emerged on hands and knees and literally crawled into bed. Sometime that afternoon the phone calls started coming in.

Everyone from the night before was in bed, unable to hold anything down, and miserable beyond belief. Everyone, that is, except Finch. Finch, who just the night before had been everyone’s hero because he had so graciously and generously shucked all the oysters. “There were some,” he said, “that didn’t smell so good when I opened them.” He avoided those, he explained, but failed to warn the rest of us.

I moved out the first chance I got. And I always, absolutely always, smell oysters before I eat them. Smell ingredients, sniff as you cook, wait for the garlic to turn fragrant before you add the vegetables, know that you can smell when flour in a roux is cooked. Your nose knows, follow it.

3. Touch

My parents were huddled around the cutting board, bent over and peering at the food on it.

“That one looks done,” my dad said.

“It still looks too red to me,” said my mom.

My dad had taken the beautiful rib-eye steaks off the grill, carried them into the galley kitchen at the cabin, and cut into one to see if they were done. Fair enough. It’s certainly how I had checked if meat was done. Until, that is, I learned that while poking was necessary, such deeper prodding was not.

The next weekend, when grilled steak was once again on the menu, I pounced.

“Dad,” I said, “let me show you something.” Luckily, my dad is a curious fellow. He is not a know-it-all; he does not always know best. He’s a man confident enough in his own abilities and talents to learn from his children.

And the poking began.

With clean hands and open minds, we poked at the steak. We started with the benchmark of raw. Raw meat is positively squishy. Super soft. Much like the space at the base of one’s thumb on an open, relaxed palm.

We sprinkled the steaks with sea salt and set them on a hot grill. We timed them for about five minutes on one side, at which point grill marks had formed and they released of their own accord from the grill (no, they didn’t flip themselves over, but when we went to pick them up with the tongs, they came willingly), flipped them over and waited another five minutes.

We poked them again. They had firmed up quite a bit, but still had some give. I showed him how to poke at the meat and compare it to that same spot on his hand as it firmed up as he held his thumb to his index finger (rare), middle finger (medium rare), ring finger (medium) and pinkie (you’ve overcooked it, in my humble estimation, but some people call that well done).

The poke-steak-compare-to-hand method isn’t foolproof, by any means, and the next time I went to the cabin I came with a thermometer in hand and showed him how to use that instead, but if you do it enough and get the hang of it, touching meat as it cooks gives you a fairly decent sense of where it is on the spectrum of rare-to-done. Especially if you poke it before cooking to remind yourself of just how soft raw meat feels.

Don’t be afraid to touch food. Use scrupulously clean hands, obviously, but freshly washed hands are, in my estimation, as hygienic and reasonable a thing to use to handle food as kitchen utensils sitting on a counter or clashing around in a drawers since the last time they were washed. Nothing handles the job of tossing delicate salads greens in a salad quite as well as human fingers.

4. Hearing

When I was 17 I lived with a family in Dijon, France, for a semester as an exchange student. The grandmother was often there, helping take care of the house and family since both parents worked and the father had to travel a lot. One evening we were playing yet another game of cards with the other kids while she poured me yet another cup of chamomile tea in an attempt to alleviate the symptoms of whatever the damp winter air of Dijon seemed to have permanently trapped in my young lungs.

“Ah,” she said, seemingly out of nowhere, “the chicken, it sings.”

She got up from the dining table, walked into the kitchen, opened the oven, and pulled out a perfectly browned roasted chicken.

I filed that phrase away as a particularly lovely one. How French, I thought, to speak of a chicken singing when it was done cooking. Could it be related to the English phrase “it’s not over until the fat lady sings”? Were chickens thought to be particularly operatic in France?

Here’s the thing: I didn’t figure this out for at least 15 years, but when a chicken is well and fully roasted, is makes a hissing noise. To practiced cooks—especially to those who love chicken—that hissing does, indeed, sound like singing.

Listening is, by far, the most underrated and underused sense in terms of cooking. Yet what better way to tell a pan is hot enough than to hear the sizzle the steak makes the minute it touches the surface? Boiling water makes a noise you can hear from the other room if you’ve left the kitchen to check your email. Popping can be good or bad, depending on what you’re cooking, but it usually requires some level of attention.

5. Taste

Do we need to get into this one? Do you need to hear about the time my dining table was full and I tucked into that first bite of the asparagus soup I made all the time and realized I had forgotten to salt it because I hadn’t tasted it before serving it?

Taste is the sense food most obviously pleases and the one we usually most straightforwardly seek to satisfy when we cook.

Yet we need to use the sense of taste as we cook, not just call it forth at the end. It’s why lots of chefs are fat and even more chefs pay a great deal of attention to their weight in order to keep from becoming fat. Gordon Ramsay supposedly used to bring his running gear to the restaurant and literally run home after closing to stay fit. Chefs struggle with weight so much not because they are eating dinner in their restaurants every night, but because they’re tasting everything all the time. A spoonful of sauce here, a dollop of polenta there … the calories add up.

Luckily, for home cooks, the “everything” we need to taste is much more limited. But good cooks taste everything. They taste ingredients, they taste each dish along the way, they taste garnishes. The habit of tasting, tasting, tasting as you cook, not just when you have a finished dish, will teach you more about cooking than anything else. It will also keep you from shamefacedly urging your guests to please, seriously, add some salt to that soup.

6. Common Sense

“Well,” I heard my co-worker say, “you’ll want to put them in the freezer.” A reader had called the fine magazine for which we worked and been patched through to the food department. She had a burning question: How do you freeze blueberries?

While I might answer with a teeny tiny bit more detail (freeze them in a single layer—a rimmed baking sheet works well—before transferring them to an airtight container), it’s true that to freeze almost anything you need to put it in the freezer, blueberries included.

Common sense will get you far in the kitchen. Some people may call it intuition, a gut sense of what to do, but when it comes to cooking that gut sense is almost always based on experience, from having seen pancakes before and knowing that the batter didn’t run off the griddle. Your life experience, having seen and smelt and felt and tasted lots and lots of food over the years, has a vital role to play. I don’t care what a recipe says; when things starts looking, smelling, tasting, feeling or sounding wrong, go by what you know, by empirical knowledge, to be true.

After all, common sense will tell you that if you want to freeze something, you’re going to want to go ahead and put it in the freezer.