The Why of Cooking
What’s the most efficient path to kitchen wisdom?
It’s a shame that the standard way of learning how to cook is by following recipes. To be sure, they are a wonderfully effective way to approximate a dish as it appeared in a test kitchen, at a star chef’s restaurant, or on TV. And they can be an excellent inspiration for even the least ambitious home cooks to liven up a weeknight dinner. But recipes, for all their precision and completeness, are poor teachers. They tell you what to do, but they rarely tell you why to do it.
This means that for most novice cooks, kitchen wisdom—a unified understanding of how cooking works, as distinct from the notes grandma lovingly scrawled on index-card recipes passed down through the generations—comes piecemeal. Take, for instance, the basic skill of thickening a sauce. Maybe one recipe for marinara advises reserving some of the starchy pasta water, for adding later in case the sauce is looking a little thin. Another might recommend rescuing a too-watery sauce with some flour, and still another might suggest a handful of parmesan. Any one of these recipes offers a fix under specific conditions, but after cooking through enough of them, those isolated recommendations can congeal into a realization: There are many clever ways to thicken a sauce, and picking an appropriate one depends on whether there’s some leeway for the flavor to change and how much time there is until dinner needs to be on the table.
The downside of learning to cook primarily through recipes, then, is that these small eurekas—which, once hit upon, are instantly applicable to nearly any other dish one prepares—are most often arrived at via triangulation. It’s like trying to learn a language only by copying down others’ sentences, instead of learning the grammar and vocabulary needed to put to paper lines of one’s own.
Short of enrolling in a cooking school, is there not a more direct, less haphazard way to arrive at a fuller idea of the theory behind good cooking? One gets the sense that chefs and cookbook authors are in possession of some magnificent guidebook full of culinary insights, consulting it to construct their dishes and revealing its secrets to everyday cooks only in fragments. No book could live up to that hyperbolic image, but I was still surprised, after roughly a year of searching, to find that there are very few books that concisely articulate the concepts that underlie good cooking, in a way that neither patronizes nor overwhelms. One might call what I was looking for “a metacookbook”—a book not about a certain cuisine or style of cooking, but about cooking itself—and I found good ones to be surprisingly rare.
One of the reasons for this is that the standard recommendations for a concept-based book about cooking are not completely helpful. Many of them, I found, were not metacookbooks at all, but rather in-depth guides to mastering the fundamentals of a classically respected cuisine (most often French or Italian) or matter-of-fact catalogues of cooking techniques, such as how to poach an egg or make a soufflé that doesn’t cave in. And of the recommendations that did fit the category, few struck a readable balance between in-the-weeds scientific digressions and everyday pragmatism. After reading through about a dozen metacookbooks, I did eventually arrive at the sort of knowledge I’d hoped for, but I also saw how some were much better than others at getting me there. Of all of them, my favorite—and the one I’m most likely to recommend to a beginning cook with even a faint desire to improve—is Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, which is out this week.
But before getting to Nosrat, I started where nearly everyone appears to start: with Mark Bittman. Bittman’s How to Cook Everything was the first book several people (and websites) recommended to me when I first described the sort of knowledge I was after. Indeed, it was the first cookbook I ever received, from a gift-giver who correctly guessed that it would satiate my culinary curiosity (or, less charitably, that it would finally stop me from hovering over the stove, asking questions about every step of a preparation).
People start with How to Cook Everything for good reason: It is near-encyclopedic and approachably written. Moreover, it is highly reliable; when following one of its recipes, disappointments are rare, especially compared to what comes of cooking from the recipes that can appear at the top of Google results. All this, plus the fact that it includes many variations on each recipe, makes How to Cook Everything a fantastic book to have on hand, especially for beginners.
Yet, despite being so often recommended, it is not the ideal metacookbook. Over the course of a thousand pages, one may reach an understanding of what it takes for a meal to truly come together, but How to Cook Everything seems like one of those books that few other than the copy editors have read cover to cover. It is best used as a reference book, absorbed in two-to-three page bursts that describe the basics of, say, bouillabaisse or baked potatoes. Reading it in its entirety would be like reading through the dictionary.
Looking for a book that would more clearly illuminate what makes a good meal—which flavors or textures complement each other and fundamentally go together—the next phase of my search focused on science-heavy books. Perhaps I overcorrected by looking next to another common recommendation, Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. McGee is a legend in the food world, and the book, first published in 1984, is a favorite of many professional chefs. More than 30 years after its publication, the book still stands as an astounding informational achievement; in the foreword to a more recent edition, McGee recalls having had basic questions about food, failing to find satisfactory answers to them in book form, and hitting the stacks of a college library to read academic papers from journals like Poultry Science and Cereal Chemistry. The book he ended up writing based on that research unsealed knowledge that had previously been considered of narrow interest to academic and industry researchers, and the cooking-obsessed culture that has blossomed since its publication proved his instincts sharp.
The idea of a book that explains everything about cooking, down to the molecule, is fascinating, and On Food and Cooking is a fun title to have around. But learning about, say, the etymology of a leafy green sheds little light on how best to prepare it. McGee’s book is so exhaustive that it might be less readable (in a cover-to-cover sense) than even Bittman’s book. I tried to read it straight through, and stopped dejectedly in the middle of a history of dairy—I think around where McGee describes the first time humans turned water-buffalo milk into mozzarella. McGee’s book is better skipped around in occasionally than turned to for a focused lesson on cooking concepts.
On Food and Cooking inspired a number of cooks and cookbook authors to integrate scientific approaches into their practices, and some of them have produced cookbooks that read as more populist versions of McGee’s book. But however informative they are, the handful that I encountered more than anything prove the difficulty of writing about kitchen science in a way that both grabs the reader and feels relevant to actually developing better cooking instincts. The editors of the exacting and widely beloved magazine Cook’s Illustrated put out The Science of Good Cooking, which breaks its teachings down into 50 lessons—an improvement on McGee from a readability standpoint. Still, the book is hardly more digestible than a textbook, with chapter titles ranging from the weakly playful (“All Potatoes Are Not Created Equal”) to the downright dry (“Potato Starches Can Be Controlled”).
Another option I checked out, Jeff Potter’s Cooking for Geeks, similarly displayed the limits of grounding cooking lessons too much in science; what it made up for in its looser writing style, it more than lost in its distracting tendency to try flattering the “geeks” who might read it by pandering to the most basic clichés about them. The first line of the preface, for instance, is: “Hackers, makers, programmers, nerds, techies—what we’ll call ‘geeks’ for the rest of the book (deal with it)—we’re a creative lot who don’t like to be told what to do.” I know more than a few programmers who would be fascinated by the information in Potter’s book but put off by his tone.
If the books put out by Potter and Cook’s Illustrated make clear some of the challenges of framing a scientific approach, The Food Lab—a physical distillation of the spirit and content of J. Kenji López-Alt’s passionately experimental blog of the same name on the website Serious Eats—demonstrates its potential. López-Alt’s method is simple: He tries a bunch of different ways of preparing a dish, and then picks the best recipe and explains why it’s the best, in uncomplicated but unpatronizing language. After a recipe for penne alla vodka, for instance, he includes an explanation of why it’s good not to omit the vodka—it lends the dish a slight piquancy that can cut through the sweetness of the tomatoes and cream—and describes what the sauce tastes like without it. While López-Alt’s book is full of recipes, it in my mind still qualifies as meta because he is intent on taking them apart to see how they work; in this way, López-Alt usefully cuts out some of the inefficient extrapolation that’s usually required to squeeze lessons out of recipes, and simply explains why any given one works.
The downside of The Food Lab (for my purposes) is that it is compiled like How to Cook Everything, which makes reading it all the way through—and coming away with a simple, overarching understanding of the concepts behind good cooking—out of the question. Two prosier science-oriented metacookbooks I came across, Russ Parsons’s How to Read a French Fry and Michael Pollan’s Cooked, were at least meant to be consumed from beginning to end. But Parsons’s, though highly insightful, could have used some further conceptual zooming-out beyond detailing the chemical specifics of certain dishes (like the browning of the titular french fry) and ingredients (like how a berry’s cells change once it’s picked or refrigerated). And the few big thoughts gleaned from Cooked, which takes several detours into memoir and food history, seemed too elementary.
To be sure, the scientific route is likely one that will resonate with ambitious home cooks who gravitate toward precision. But I left each of these guides with a nagging sense that there is a simpler way—one more grounded in common sense and intuition—that might inspire people who do not already fancy themselves dedicated cooks and/or scientists. A more welcoming, more widely appealing, and thus more effective method might be one that teaches cooks to start with their thoughts and senses rather than a temperature setting on a sous-vide device. If a lesson or two about science is gained incidentally in the process, fine, but let’s leave the history of water-buffalo domestication out of it for now.
The metacookbooks that take this tack are up against a challenge: It’s hard to teach intuition, which in truth can only fully arise through experience. But it is possible to come close. Sally Schneider’s The Improvisational Cook does a passable job of this, but reads a little too densely for a book about being spontaneous. More impressive was Michael Ruhlman’s Twenty, whose organizing principle is to walk through 20 fundamental building blocks of good cooking—things like “grill,” “vinaigrette,” and my favorite, “think”—and includes recipes and little kitchen experiments that best illustrate each concept.
Cook’s Illustrated gives readers 50 essential lessons and Ruhlman gives them 20, but my favorite metacookbook has only four. They make up its title: Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. In it, Samin Nosrat, a former chef at the foundational farm-to-table Bay Area restaurant Chez Panisse (and, among other things, Michael Pollan’s cooking teacher), offers a beautifully simple checklist for ensuring a dish ends up in a good place: Has it been sufficiently salted? How was fat used to inflect its flavor and texture? Is there acid in there to balance out the overall flavor? And should it have been exposed to a different type or amount of heat? This is the book of cooking grammar that so many novices would benefit from.
Much shorter than reference-style books like How to Cook Everything and On Food and Cooking, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is written smoothly and casually, and kept breezy via charming watercolors by the perceptive Bay Area artist Wendy MacNaughton. Nosrat’s wisdom is apparent in the way she instructs, which lets her cover food science without ever getting lost in the finer points of chemistry. Because she puts theory first, her approach to cooking is not just much easier to grasp and emulate than, say, López-Alt’s, but it also applies to just as many dishes. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat’s framework is a valuable user’s manual for recipes, letting even the greenest cooks disassemble them to see how their parts fit together.
Her book is full of perspective-altering moments that are akin to being told about the arrow hidden in FedEx’s logo and never being able to unsee it. Her guidance in salting water boiled for pasta (which is to do so very generously—it should taste “like the summer sea”) led me to see how much of an exponential leap in quality can come from simply not being afraid of over-salting. There are plenty of books that contain the same information as Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat—indeed, its bibliography cites books by McGee, Ruhlman, and Pollan—but, at least for readers new to cooking, it demonstrates how some parts of its predecessors could stand to be boiled off. A book like López-Alt’s is highly valuable to have around once one has confidence in the kitchen, but Nosrat’s seems much more vital for the purposes of getting to that point.
Apart from these more subjective assessments of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, there is also an egalitarian argument for Nosrat’s book that recommends it over its peers. While cooking is for many a hobby, it is also a thing that nearly everyone has to do, usually when time is short. As the writer Elizabeth G. Dunn wrote for this site two years ago, so many recipes and cookbooks today “carry promises of speed and ease,” irritatingly claiming that “freezing my own chicken stock is a ‘no-brainer’ [and] homemade Calabrian chili oil is an ‘easy’ way to add big flavor.” These assertions can weigh on hobbyist chefs who, despite trying their darnedest, still find from-scratch recipes onerous and time-consuming. But more importantly, they likely scare off the people who don’t consider themselves cooks in the first place—arguably the people who would benefit most from a few basic pointers. Not everything described in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is easy or quick, but it is nonetheless an achievement that Nosrat’s book would be of value both to people who don’t consider themselves cooks and to people actively striving to become better ones. It is additionally impressive that she accomplished this without going into as much depth as other writers have felt the need to.
On top of Dunn’s point, so many of today’s more popular cookbooks are essentially postcards from some idyllic region or some big-shot chef’s critically acclaimed restaurant. They have recipes, sure, but they devote just as much space to the stuff of aspirational lifestyle publications—short essays reminiscing on some effortless backyard summer dinner party, photography whose beauty is perfectly calibrated to spark envy and lust. These cookbooks can be enchanting, but the message they carry is that your truest, most carefree self is unlockable only by assembling the perfect grain bowl in an immaculate kitchen other than the one you own. Nosrat’s is different. It is about using simple concepts to make the most of the scratched-up cutting board, the stove in need of a thorough cleaning, and the slow-to-heat oven that are already right in front of you.