One of my favorite episodes of This American Life begins with a conversation between host Ira Glass and culinary griot and author Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor. In the episode, Mr. Glass decides to test Mrs. Smart-Grosvenor’s claim that she can tell when chicken is done cooking simply by listening to the oil. He plays footage of hot fat: the initial hiss of breaded chicken nestling in the pan, the more vigorous bubbling as the oil is reheated, the final rumble as the chicken transforms.
I recognized these distinct sounds immediately and could imagine the color of the chicken deepening from mealy white to amber. As Ms. Smart-Grosvenor listened, she trusted her own senses – and what the ingredients revealed to her. I know that this refinement of the senses will make you a great cook.
If cooking is the tactile process of transforming ingredients, a good recipe is a path that should lead whoever follows it to the desired result. But the words on a page aren’t the only signposts. Cooking is truly an exercise in pattern recognition, problem solving and, perhaps most importantly, trusting our senses.
Yẹ́misí Aríbisálà, a home cook and author of the sensual culinary autobiography Longthroat Memoirs, uses the senses to inform her daily cooking. “A lot happens here for me,” she said, pointing to her nose. “I could smell an odor and I had a whole scene playing out in my mind where something was happening. When I put cumin in a pan, I can smell the gradients changing as it roasts. Nothing happens here in the kitchen unless I lift it.”
Doris Hồ-Kane, an archivist, historian, and baker at Bạn Bè, her Vietnamese bakery in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, did not write down any of the recipes for her menu items. “Having replicated it over and over again, there’s a recipe that lives in my head,” she said. “It’s so much about how something feels in my arms, like hugging a bowl of flour, or how I’m crushing a certain grain, how agar bounces, or how it feels under my fingertip.”
“It’s just a matter of sight, weight and feel. It’s like a voice in my head telling me, ‘It’s done.’”
The caramel cream I learned to perfect as a young pastry chef is a great example of Ms. Ho-Kane’s philosophy. It’s a simple recipe, a combination of eggs, milk, sugar and cream. But the techniques of crème caramel require special attention.
I make mine in a double boiler with an aluminum foil lid so the pudding sets from the outside in. When I pull the lid off for the first time and shake the pan, I observe how far the pudding has set inwards, how evenly it shakes: pattern recognition. Then I remove the cover completely, which exposes the pudding to the oven’s dry, direct heat and allows the center to set: problem solving.
Even before the pudding is in the oven, I indulge all my senses: I bend over the pot of roasted spices, allowing the gentle heat to release their oils and their flavors to fill the air. For a moment my eyes linger on the dissolving sugar turning into a golden amber syrup; the taste of burnt sugar is overwhelming, so i try not to take the caramel too far. And when it comes time to whisk the custard base, I know too much air will dull its silkiness, so I use as few turns as possible when folding the ingredients.
A single recipe is never the only true version of a dish, and paying attention to sensory cues as you cook can help you push the limits of a recipe. Only by following your senses can you personalize the experience by determining how far away from this structure you want to venture.
In those sensory cues, and the ease that the process eventually brings if you pay attention, lies the true satisfaction of cooking.
Recipe: Spiced crème caramel