Everything I Know About Cooking, I Learnt From Making Stew*

These are some general thoughts about cooking; things I wish someone had told me when I first started. If you’re wondering about my credentials to be handing out that kind of advice… well, I don’t have any. I’m just a keen home cook. So take it with a pinch of salt.

Cooking is easy.

This is how to make a stew:

Peel, chop and brown some onions. Brown some chunks of meat. Put the onions and meat into a casserole. Put a glug of wine (or water, or whatever seems appropriate)  into the hot pan the meat was fried in and while it boils away a bit, scrape up the sticky brown goodness from the pan; pour that into the casserole as well. And some stock, a few vegetables, some herbs (perhaps a few bay leaves, sprigs of thyme and parsley stalks) and some salt and pepper. Leave it in a low oven or over a low heat for a few hours.

None of that is difficult.

I don’t want to be glib about this; I know that when you first start cooking, even quite simple things like peeling, chopping and browning an onion can be intimidating. Everything is new to you so you’re never quite sure you’re doing anything right; you’re not particularly comfortable handling knives; the onions make you cry†; you’re not quite sure what level of brown you’re aiming for.†

You’re never going to remove that learning curve completely. But we’re talking about a pretty manageable level of difficulty here.

Admittedly, not all dishes are easy; some things are technical, or require very precise timing, or have a chance of going dramatically wrong. But not as many as you might think. It’s entirely possible to avoid all that difficult stuff and still have a whole repertoire of delicious recipes that you can use to impress your friends/colleagues/in-laws/potential bedmates.

… but ‘easy’ isn’t the same as ‘quick’.

There’s a whole industry around the idea of simple cooking: books and TV series, all designed to reassure the beginner that cooking is accessible. Nothing wrong with that. But there is a tendency to conflate ‘easy’ with ‘quick'; it’s all about meals that can be cooked in minutes. I understand that people are busy, and there are plenty of great recipes that are quick to prepare. But some of the most rewarding foods you can make need long slow cooking. Starting from scratch, a chicken stew is probably going to take you two hours, and a beef stew more like four.

And sometimes that’s a virtue; if you’ve got people coming to dinner, you can put the stew in the oven well in advance, do the washing up, then go off, run a bath, have a gin and tonic, relax, and leave the cooking to take care of itself.

Double the quantities means double the work.

Well, not quite. But it feels like it.

It’s very obvious that making twelve individual pies is a lot more work than making six. With something like stew there’s a tendency to look at a recipe and think oh, I’ll just scale it up, it’ll be easy. Don’t get me wrong, stew for twelve is probably a better plan than individual pies for twelve; but it’ll be a lot more effort than stew for six.

Cooking for a lot of people is a lot of work. There’s no getting away from it. Which is fine, just as long as you go into it with a clear idea of what to expect.

It’s not rocket science.

Rockets are not conceptually difficult; you set fire to some fuel, it squirts out the back and pushes the rocket forwards. The difficulty is that the margin of error is so small. Let’s say you’re in northern France, trying to fire rockets full of high explosive at the east end of London. A slight manufacturing fault, and the rocket blows up on the launchpad, a slight calibration error and it splashes harmlessly into the North Sea. And nobody wants that.

Food is much more forgiving.

Recipe books have a completely misleading air of precision, and when I started cooking I tried to follow recipes exactly; if it said ‘two medium onions’ I would worry about whether my onions were on the small side, and maybe I should use three instead. But honestly, it doesn’t matter. It also doesn’t particularly matter whether you coarsely chop the onions, or chuck them in a food processor for a few seconds, or cut them into beautifully even perfect half-rings. It doesn’t even matter that much whether you just lightly turn them golden or you brown them quite hard. You can use strong or mild onions, red onions, shallots. Any of these changes will make some difference to the final stew, but not a catastrophic one. It will still be a stew, and it will still taste good.

Similarly, stew is all about long, slow cooking. So ideally I put in stews at a very low temperature, maybe 120ºC, and leave them as long as possible. But the same stew cooked at 180ºC would still turn out OK; maybe not quite as good, but still tasty, and ready a bit sooner.

And recipes are not set in stone. If you only have one recipe for something, it seems like a very rigid thing: exact quantities of exact ingredients, exact timings and temperatures. But if you have several recipes from different books, you realise that they are all slightly different. And beyond that, you start to notice that even though two dishes have different names, they can still be understood as variations on a theme. Every meat stew in Europe — carbonnade, daube, cassoulet, coq au vin, stifado, Lancashire hot pot, Irish stew, goulash, cholent — can be seen as a variation on the basic stew recipe I gave above. So when you understand the basic principle, you can easily improvise a stew based on the ingredients you have available.

Which doesn’t mean I’m one of those irritating people who boasts that they never use recipes. I love cookbooks. I have no interest in reinventing the wheel; a good cookbook represents the accumulated wisdom and experience of generations of cooks, and it would be stupid to ignore that. But it’s not holy writ.

It’s not worth cutting corners.

When you’re in the middle of spending two hours making homemade stock which is just going to be one ingredient in a beef stew which is itself going to take another four hours to cook; or when you’re browning the meat for a big stew, and you’re on the fourth panful of meat, and the kitchen is smoky and the extractor fan is really loud and you’re hot and sweaty: you may find yourself wondering whether it’s worth it.

Well, I can’t answer that. You have to choose your priorities for yourself. But I will say this: it really does make a difference. Stock cubes are not as good as fresh stock.‡ Dried herbs are not the same as fresh ones. Your casserole will not taste as good if you don’t brown the onions or the meat properly.

Of course sometimes you find you don’t have the right ingredients, or you’re in a hurry, and you have to compromise. And what I said about food being forgiving still applies: it might not be as good, but you’ll still end up with something tasty and nourishing. But if you really want to be a good cook, you need to make a conscious decision to do it properly, to make the effort to dot the is and cross the ts.

And for me it’s worth it, in the end; because it is the pleasure of having produced something really good that makes cooking rewarding.

NOTE: this turned into a sprawling monster of a post, so I split it into two; part two is here.

» The photo is ‘Daube stewing‘, © Jules Morgan and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

* This is not actually true. I make a pretty good pizza, for example, and the overlap between that and stew is quite limited. Perhaps one day I’ll do another post, ‘Everything I Know About Cooking I Learnt From Making Pizza’.

† The best advice if chopping onions makes your eyes water: wear contact lenses, and make sure you have a really sharp knife. Other than that, you just have to get used to it.

‡ You can buy pots of fresh stock from a shop, you don’t have to make it yourself. Though if you have some meat bones — the carcass of a roast chicken or something — it seems a pity not to.

2 Trackbacks

  1. [...] The first part was very broad-brush stuff: here I get (slightly) more specific. [...]

  2. [...] first two parts of Everything I Know About Cooking, I Learnt From Making Stew are here and here.] cooking, food and drink, stew | 28 February 2010 at 8:58 pm | RSS « No more [...]

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