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How to become a good cook: Cooking by instinct

BY Tamar Adler

1st Mar 2023 Food Heroes

How to become a good cook: Cooking by instinct

The secret to becoming a good cook is learning to cook instinctively with every one of your senses, says Tamar Adler in her new book

If we were taught to cook as we are taught to walk, encouraged first to feel for pebbles with our toes, then to wobble forward and fall, then had our hands firmly tugged on so we would try again, we would learn that being good at it relies on something deeply rooted, akin to walking, to get good at which we need only guidance, senses and a little faith.

We aren’t often taught to cook like that, so when we watch people cook naturally, in what looks like an agreement between cook and cooked, we think that they were born with an ability to simply know that an egg is done, that the fish needs flipping and that the soup needs salt.

How your senses enhance your cooking

Woman lifting lid on cooking and using sense of smellUse your smell, taste and hearing to sense how your food is cooking

Instinct, whether on the ground or in the kitchen, is not a destination but a path. The word instinct comes from a combination of in meaning “toward,” and stinguere meaning “to prick.” It doesn’t mean knowing, but pricking your way toward the answer.

If you are to start down this path, you must feel charged with using your senses, imagining them as hands that nudge you forward and hold you up when you get unsteady, and even when you fall.

You must taste and taste. Taste everything, and often. Taste even if you’re scared. Only by tasting can you learn to connect the decisions you make with their outcomes.

Listen as though you could cook something just by hearing it. A piece of fish is ready to be flipped when it sounds like it is, and no number of adjectives about that sizzle will be as useful as listening to the fish in your pan tell you when it is.

"Only by tasting can you learn to connect the decisions you make with their outcomes"

Smelling we can’t help. Our noses keep us hungry, and they stay sharp even when our minds get dull. For your nose to be as useful as it can be, associate what you smell with what you taste and see and hear.

An onion that’s still too crunchy smells different from one that’s tender. When you can distinguish one smell from another, you’ll know how far along your onions are, whether you can see into their pot or not.

When you touch the food you cook, you develop intelligence in your fingertips. I cook mostly with my hands: they’re calibrated, by now, to turn things at the right moments, to choose correct amounts of salt. They seem to know before I do when to stop squeezing a lemon, or how much parsley to grab.

Essential kitchen equipment for an intuitive cook

Pots and pans on electric hobWorry less about using the correct pot and more about cooking with intuition

No matter how well a cookbook is written, the cooking times it gives will be wrong. Ingredients don’t take three or five or ten minutes to be done; it depends on the day and the stove. So you must simply pay attention, trust yourself and decide.

As for what else you need in order to cook, there are too many equipment lists in the world already. A meal is cooked by the mind, heart and hands of a cook, not by her or his pots and pans. So it is on the former that I recommend focusing your investments.

My pots and pans are big and old, and I have only a few. I prioritise size and sturdiness. I have a big pot for boiling. It fits a chicken and vegetables, or two pounds of pasta nicely.

"A meal is cooked by the mind, heart and hands of a cook, not by her or his pots and pans"

A chef I know cooks at home in an old tin camping pot because it’s a good size and water boils quickly in it.

Anything capacious enough for water and ingredients, no matter what it looks like, will do you fine. I have a big, heavy cast-iron pan; a deep and warped high-sided frying pan for sautéing greens; a scarlet oven-safe casserole, its inside very stained; a nonstick omelette pan, badly scratched, leaving it decidedly “stick.”

Other pans and dishes of various sizes meander in and out of my life, pleasant, passing things I seem to need when they’re there, and not once they’re gone. You can also cook well, not in different pots and pans, but in the ones you already have.

Attitude makes you a better cook

As long as you taste curiously, and watch and feel and listen, and prick your way toward food you like, you will find that you become someone about whom people will say that cooking seems to come naturally, like walking. They will say it and it will be true.   

Consider not minding whether you know the answer while cooking, but becoming, rather, the kind of cook who doesn’t need them.

Excerpt from An Everlasting Meal—Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler (published by Swift Press) hbk £14.99

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