Thursday, 17 December 2020

Home Economics: Why we are not learning how to cook even when we cook.

The weekend newspaper fans across the kitchen table and the glossy supplement catches your eye. As you are perusing, you come across a recipe and suddenly get the idea stuck in your head that you simply must make this tonight.

But, how do you go about it? Are you the type of person who worries about needing the specific type of mid-sized game bird, and go from shop to shop in search of the holy quail? Or perhaps you are a chancer, a substituter, a leaver-out-altogetherer – you live for culinary Jenga.

Most people learn to cook like this but I suggest this is not really learning. Or at least how we think about learning in many other areas of life.

When you first learn economics, you generally learn a collection of models (I could use other analogies, but this is a vaguely economics-related blog and I’m trying to protect the brand here). To really understand models, you need to play around with them. What happens if I increase this parameter, what if the situation was reversed? This is why exam questions are usually slight adjustments of the main model, to check you actually know what you are doing.

You may have heard of some chefs being “classically” trained. All this means is that they have learned to cook by making classic French dishes (think duck’a l'orange or coq au vin). It is often said that a chef needs to master the classics before you go on to create anything yourself. I don’t think this is strictly the case, but what it does do, is give the chef a collection of techniques and an understanding of why the recipe works. For example, orange works with duck as duck meat is strong and fatty, the orange provides sweetness and acidity to cut through the fat and provide freshness. This is why you often see duck paired with other fruit in restaurants: they are essentially variations on a classic recipe. It is the same with economics as you often take a basic model and tailor it to a specific situation.*

When you read most recipes, however, they don’t really give you an understanding of what each component does. One exception to this is Felicity Cloake’s “how to cook the perfect…” in the Guardian. The idea is quite simple: she reads lots of recipes and synthesises them to make what she deems to be the perfect version of a recipe. But the best thing about it is that she explains what each part of the recipe is actually doing, by noting the differences amongst recipes. It doesn't matter if it is the perfect recipe or not. By playing around with different variations and noting what happens when she tries means you actually learn something from her.

The reason why all this is so important is often (and you may have noticed this) things don’t always go according to plan in the kitchen. When you mess up it is incredibly frustrating. The pile of washing up grows as you have turned the bottom of the pan to carbon. You are stressed. You are hungry. The most frustrating thing of all, however, is if you don’t understand why the thing you have made went wrong. It just didn't work. Usually, this means never trying the recipe again.

I am here to tell you that it is not your fault, you just have a bad teacher: a recipe hardly ever tells you what happens when things go wrong. For example, google any meringue recipe and most will tell you the bare minimum. It doesn’t really tell you what the hell stiff peaks are (a David Lynch adult movie?), or why you need to add the sugar slowly, or what the sugar even does? It also doesn’t tell you that you can overwhip a meringue, what that looks like, or how to remedy it if it happens.

The thing is, when stuff goes wrong and you understand why it went wrong, you have actually learned something. It’s a radical new pedagogical concept called “learning from mistakes”. This is a good thing. However, you can only really learn from your mistakes if you understand what each component does. It is equivalent of changing loads of stuff in your model at the same time and wondering what made it crash. You need to change one bit at a time to see what happens. 


So how do you go about learning how to cook? Well, the way I earned was by setting out to learn different techniques and researching them before I attempted it. Recently, I have been trying to improve my pastry skills so I am making a lot of pies and tarts. I now know why you need to “rest” the pastry in the fridge, what it actually does to the dough, and why you can’t really skip it.

Although the learning curve is a bit steeper, it does end up saving you a lot of time if you enjoy cooking. You don’t have to rigidly stick to the same few recipes and it's much less stressful. Things go wrong less often, and you can also understand what stuff you can actually leave out of a recipe or substitute. If I do use recipes, it is usually for inspiration or to learn a new technique.


Cooking, it is my hobby, so I am going to spend a lot more time on it than the average person. But if you want to make cooking more enjoyable and less stressful, you got to do your research. Also, am happy to help if anyone wants advice :)

 

*I don’t want to enter this debate but you don’t have to be classically trained to be an amazing chef, and you don’t have to be neoclassically trained to be an amazing economist.

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