What intimidates you when you cook? For me—and plenty of others if the rest of my classmates were any indication—the fear of burning a dish is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to cooking intuitively. That was essentially the fear we confronted last week.
Officially the topic was understanding the parallels in dry cooking methods—mainly sautéing and roasting—to get that good, tasty brown crust on the outside with an evenly cooked interior. We learned the science of why it’s harder to get evenly cooked meat straight out of the fridge (let meat rest at least an hour at room temp before cooking) or straight off the pan (meat continues cooking off the heat). We learned how water slows down browning; that’s why it’s so important to pat meat and vegetables dry.
Essentially browning caramelizes the sugars in meat or vegetables. Our co-chef instructor Mario made a great comparison—if you think about making caramel with a pan of dry sugar, it’s a thin line between deeply flavored, dark brown caramel and bitter, burnt sugar; on the other hand, sugar that’s not-quite-dark enough tastes flat. To get that rich, slightly bitter, slightly sweet, unmistakable caramel flavor, you have to be willing to risk going over the line to burnt—and it takes practice!
As we talked and cooked and tasted, I realized that my fear of burning food (and also, honestly my impatience to eat now) was stopping me from getting the most flavor. The revelation? Brussels sprouts and cauliflower—both roasted to a much darker color than I would normally, but the depth of flavor, the balance of sweet and bitter was so much more pronounced. They were amazing. Those extra few minutes to really caramelize the sugars made all the difference.
But I noticed how often I still found myself asking “How long?” and “At what temperature?” when Shelley and Mario talked about preparing ingredients. While they gave us some general guidelines, they pointed out that it’s really a matter of a practice and experimentation, or “When it’s brown, turn it down.” We laughed when we came up with this in class—it does sound a little simplistic and, well, awfully rhyme-y—but using sight (and touch and smell and taste) rather than relying on precise time or temperature to cook is really what the series is trying to teach us.
I think this class got at what intimidates so many people (including me) about cooking without a recipe. No one ever wants to make a bad meal, but it takes some knowledge and practice (and a few inevitable mistakes!) to get comfortable. But man, when you do successfully improvise a dish or an ingredient you’ve never made before (I’m looking at you, my perfect little pork loin)—talk about a confidence boost.
Read my thoughts on part 1 of the class.
*The Chopping Block allowed me to attend this new series for free in exchange for nothing more than feedback, but I thought it would be fun to share what I’ve learned with you, and with Chicago Food Bloggers since they shared the opportunity. My thoughts on the class are all 100% my own, un-paid-for, opinion.