A Pinch Of Salt

In my experience, the most common way to express praise for someone’s cooking (after furious consumption) is to ask for the recipe, by which they often mean a list of ingredients. This is odd. It could be construed as mildly insulting (as if the recipe was the only good thing about the dish), and at the least it displays an almost wilful ignorance as to the mechanics of cooking. This is especially noticeable in restaurants. Yes, they have better equipment, more cooks, and often much better ingredients than you would normally use at home – but the main difference is that the people who work there are better at cooking than you. People sometimes seem to think they’re being tricked when this is pointed out to them. They ask how you make your scrambled eggs, as if there was one secret ingredient only available to the trade, and are disappointed when they hear the answer – “eggs and butter”. And “extremely well”. This is a charade that a lot of cookery writers are involved in. Not wanting to admit that cooking requires skill and effort, and a lot of practice and cock-ups of various kinds, we are told that all you need to do is buy the best, the free-rangest, the rarest – helpful in constructing a tomato salad, less so in making, say, a soufflé, though I guess nobody makes soufflés any more. A loaf of sourdough, say. Yes, good flour is better, and of course you need your well-fed, bubbling SCOBY, but your bread will still be awful if you don’t know how to knead it properly – worse, in fact, than a loaf made with dried yeast, because wet, recalcitrant natural leaven is quite difficult, or at least frustrating, to work with.

In fairness, baking books suffer the least from this affectation, but only because baking (especially bread-baking) is seen as inherently “different” from cooking (by which is meant roasting, braising, sautéing, grilling, and so on), being more scientific, precise, a boys’ game (only bread-baking), a craft requiring patience and graft, totally unlike the free-form expression of personal genius one finds, say, in the construction of an omelette. (You might have guessed from my tone that I find this position a little immature.) It might be true that a sourdough boule requires greater precision of execution than a “rustic” (horrible word) stew, but that doesn’t mean that the latter requires none – only that the consequences of imprecision are more obvious, and less fixable, in the former. Baking is a high-stakes game. Mess up at any one stage – kneading, proving, even (especially) in the proper feeding of your yeast source, before the recipe begins – and you have probably messed it up for good. No amount of prodding and tweaking will rescue it. This is important, and it’s what people mean when they say that baking is more of a “science” – but it doesn’t follow that stewing (braising, sautéing) is a free-for-all. The many opportunities for personal intervention only really offer more opportunities to mess the whole thing up. If you know what you’re doing, you won’t – but the same is true of baking. It’s just easier to master the basics of stewing, which – depending as it does on controlled interactions between heat, protein, acids and salt – is just as much of a science as baking.

Anyway. The consequences of this, for the average cookbook user, are that while some (not all) baking books, (to which I might add brewing and barbecuing – notice a trend?) as purveyors of a specialised craft, are happy to give technical instruction to an almost exhaustive degree, most (nearly all) cookery books, on the other hand, are content to give almost none – or to give the pretence of it in a way that is almost useless. Sweat, sauté, sear; it is assumed that we (I mean you) know the difference between all of these, their particular applications and circumstances. But – and this is the paradox of food writing – if you did, you wouldn’t need the cookbook at all. What you would require is a list of ingredients and the instruction “make a stew (fricassee, daube, whatever)”. A smattering of technical language lets you feel you’re in the club, and ignore the fact you’re reading a recipe that takes two pages to reiterate a basic technique, and add cardamom. I’m being unfair, perhaps, but only a little. This does, however, ignore the real reason we (I) read recipe books, which is for the recipe introductions, sparsely evocative, lushly hedonistic or winningly self-deprecating, which I’m told are a particular forte of British food writers. (In America, where practicality and competence are not considered personal defects, recipes do tend more toward the technical.)

This trend for inclusivity is a relatively new one. Look at old books of “receipts”, as they are still called by the kind of person who says “sparrowgrass” and owns waistcoats, and you will find a shorthand written by and for professional, or experienced domestic, cooks. These are, in the main, just lists of ingredients, which assume you know how to perform a plethora of kitchen tasks (cake-baking, pastry-making, braises and sauces and so on), and need no instructions; often, quantities and timings aren’t given, at least not precisely – the assumption is that you can judge for yourself how much pastry you need for your joint of lamb, or whatever. Partly, I’m sure, this reflects the now-broken oral tradition of “real” “peasant” cooking, handed down from master to apprentice, mother to daughter; equally, though, it’s just that cooking has got more complicated. A pastry designed half as glue and half as insulation, and not at all as edible, can be a little rough around the edges – add enough water to make the flour stick together, and you’re done. A pastry designed to hold a rich, golden custard through baking without cracking, and then to melt into butter in the mouth, needs a little more precision. Or take thickeners. A handful of breadcrumbs or ground nuts, added to a sauce, has an effect that is both intuitive and quickly obvious; the amount of slightly cooked egg yolk, stabilised yoghurt, roux, cornflour, or agar agar that might have a similar but more refined effect is less easy to judge by eye – and, as with baking, a mistake does more lasting damage. There is a tendency to a sort of Golden Age view of cooking which ignores the steady technical progress in the field.

All of this, really, avoids the original question, because the answer is quite unpalatable. Yes, I am better at scrambling eggs than you; I know the texture, the look, when to take off the heat and when to return, when to quickly shuffle out of the pan – and when to chuck the lot away and start again. Yes, my eggs are better, larger, fresher, their yolks more golden, their hens happier – but I also use a lot more butter and particularly salt than you would care to think about. It’s a sad fact, but people who will scour the outer reaches of Waitrose for the most obscure of Ottolenghi’s demands are often scared of simple brute seasoning – a shame, when the way to improve on almost any recipe is to take it with a big, three-fingered pinch of coarse sea salt.

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