Latitude is What You Can Get Away With

Wed 22 January 2014 by psu

Long time readers of previous web site will not be surprised that I have on occasion enjoyed ranting at length on the subject of food and its preparation. Perhaps because of this, I sometimes find myself giving advice on cooking in various forms. Having gone through the long process of becoming perhaps a competent cook, I think the most important insight that I have into the process is this: "learn what you can get away with."

People who know me will not be surprised by this. Along with "stand around and wait for luck to find you" the phrase "learn that you can get away with" is probably my second most important piece of life philosophy. It applies to most activities in life (academics is generally a huge exercise in measuring what you can get away with), and certainly to most of the dork hobbies that I've been involved in. I could have just as easily taken on this idea through darkroom, or digital photography, or telescopes. But here we are in cooking instead.

In my experience most cooking is pretty forgiving. There are of course areas of food preparation that depend on exact and precise technique. And if your business is to make 200 meals a night that look and taste exactly the same as the last time those 200 people came into your place, then your latitude for error is a lot lower than mine. But that's really the point. The home cook has a lot of latitude and it pays (especially in terms of stress relief) to understand where that latitude lies and how to take advantage of it.

Here is my latitude story: I have a beef stew recipe. It's pretty standard. You sauté some onions and then brown the meat after coating it with flour and seasoning (exactly how much? well, however much you like). Then you add 1 or 2 (I forget) cups of red wine plus a couple more of stock and simmer it for a long time. Then you put the rest of the stew things in and simmer some more.

So I reach for the red wine bottle. Bully Hill Red Wine. I pour in a cup or two. The color seems wrong. That's weird. OK, into the oven to simmer for a few hours.

Taking the stew out of the oven to finish it off I realize that I take a second look at my bottles. There are two bottles of Bully Hill Red ... and one has soy sauce in it. I then look at the stew, which by now is a nice dark brown caramel color. I have cooked the stew in 2 cups of soy sauce.

Amazingly, it turned out OK. I diluted the soy in phase 2, and while the flavor was definitely weird and a bit too salty, it was still decent beef stew.

Moral: If I can fuck it up that badly and have things come out right, you can too.

Here are some things to not worry about too much when reading recipes:

  1. Exactly how much onion you get when they tell you to "dice one onion".

  2. Exactly how much salt/pepper is in 1 pinch.

  3. Exactly how long the thing is supposed to simmer in the oven. You simmer it until its done.

  4. Don't worry about the lumps in the batter. They'll go away.

  5. When making soup, add enough liquid so it looks like soup. You want a nice balance between liquid and solids. Don't let the recipe bully you into some fixed amount, especially since your onion might have been a different size than the writer's.

  6. You can't get away with a lot in baking. This is why I don't bake.

And the list goes on and on.

Of course, knowing what you can get away with comes from the hard experience of failing to get away with too much. Adam Gopnick wrote my favorite paragraph about cooking and recipes in his book The Table Comes First. It goes like this:

Handed-down wisdom and worked-up information remain the double piers of a cook’s life. The recipe book always contains two things: news of how something is made, and assurance that there’s a way to make it, with the implicit belief that if I know how it is done I can show you how to do it. The premise of the recipe book is that these two things are naturally balanced; the secret of the recipe book is that they’re not. The space between learning the facts about how something is done and learning how to do it always turns out to be large, at times immense. What kids make depends on what moms know: skills, implicit knowledge, inherited craft, buried assumptions, finger know-how that no recipe can sum up. The recipe is a blueprint but also a red herring, a way to do something and a false summing up of a living process that can be handed on only by experience, a knack posing as a knowledge. We say “What’s the recipe?” when we mean “How do you do it?” And though we want the answer to be “Like this!” the honest answer is “Be me!” “What’s the recipe?” you ask the weary pro chef, and he gives you a weary-pro-chef look, since the recipe is the totality of the activity, the real work. The recipe is to spend your life cooking.

So what I'm really telling you here is: to learn to cook, practice a lot. Then you'll know what to do. I think this fact is something that our modern instant-gratification society is uncomfortable with. We want to know how its done. We want someone to give us all the details, and having followed their instructions make a thing that looks just like the picture in the magazine.

Sadly, this is not how this works. The way to learn to make something is to actually make it a lot until you know how to make it. Happily though, I think Gopnick's paragraph overstates the difficulty of figuring out the basics. The truth is that you can muddle through. And while you are learning to make the perfect beef stew, occasionally you will substitute soy sauce for red wine. Luckily, when this happens:

  1. Because of the latitude built into the system, you might get away with it. But if you don't it's not a big deal. Just order pizza.

  2. You'll also have learned an important lesson, and probably won't make the same mistake again.

So I say relax. Remember that recipes tend to overstate the importance of small details. Remember that you'll probably get something edible even if you really mess up. And most of all remember that with enough practice you won't have to think about it anymore, and it will just work.

Category: Food