journal/

on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

unexpected life skills that cooking taught me

I’ve written a few posts about cooking before, but as I progress in my own cooking journey I discover new lessons, thoughts and feelings about it. I realised I thought about cooking as one skill but it is actually a combination of multiple skills sometimes dynamically balanced at the same time:

time-management

This is one I am still bad at. When I think of cooking something it always seems simple, and I would estimate the cooking time to be say 30 minutes. I would end up horribly wrong and it would take double or sometimes triple the estimated time. 

How good one gets at managing time with cooking also involves other skills as I mention below:

strategy / mise en place

When I first started cooking I would chop and cook as I go. Big mistake. Some ingredients would turn out overcooked as it awaited my other ingredients. My kitchen would be big mess as I keep pulling out new plates to house condiments, etc, and they would be left all over the place as I would panic frequently.

I learnt that there is a concept called “mise en place” which is French in origin, which means gathering our ingredients at one go before the cooking. I end up using a lot of containers for the ingredients, but it has made the cooking process so much more linear and smoother. Instead of prepping as I go, I now adopt the wash-as-I-go mentality. I take the opportunity to wash dishes in-between when I am waiting for something to simmer or come up to temperature.

I do think there are experienced chefs who can get away with prepping and cooking at the same time, because they already know what to expect from the process and they are operating halfway from an autopilot mode. Also they can probably chop things 10x faster than me.

Apart from gathering the ingredients in one place, it is also probably better to plan meals such that the cooking process is made easier simply by deciding what to cook based on how easy it is for the entire meal to come together at similar times without having to multi-task extensively. 

For example, it would be a little more difficult if we try to sear a steak and also stir-fry vegetables at the same time. It would be much easier to focus on searing the steak and letting the vegetables cook in some other automated gadget like the air fryer or instant pot. 

Obviously the easiest thing to do is to cook everything in one vessel like an oven sheet meal, so I recommend starting that way for beginners because the desire to continue cooking is fuelled by momentum, and that momentum is fuelled by wins – cooking successful meals that we actually enjoy: both the process and the taste. While all-in-one meals can be very tasty, it may feel limiting after a while.

Knowing the order of tasks in order to facilitate the later ease in the process of cooking is often an overlooked point. Knowing which order of ingredients to chop can mean having to clean our knife less. I have learnt that even knowing which order of dishes and cookware to wash can make a difference.

planning

Maybe this falls under being strategic too but one could be strategic during the cooking process but still be bad at planning for meals in advance. Like me. 

If we don’t shop for fresh groceries every day then it takes considerable planning to make sure there are enough groceries to last a few meals before getting the next batch, and actually having the right groceries stocked before trying out a new recipe. There must also be the awareness to defrost food in advance, or letting something sit at room temperature for a while before cooking. I miss out a lot on the depth of potential flavours because I almost never remember to marinate my food in advance (because I also don’t plan my meals in advance). And I miss out on cooking something more complex because I also don’t remember to research recipes and buy the necessary ingredients beforehand.

These days I order my groceries online. I have a small fridge so it tends to feel like feast or famine: either too full or there’s virtually nothing left before the next grocery run. I have not found a good cadence yet. Why don’t I buy fresh groceries offline then? I try to get organic ingredients these days and they are a lot more reasonably priced online.

multi-tasking

If one is really good at multi-tasking they can probably skip the mise en place process. I think there are people who are better at multi-tasking, because they don’t panic when multiple things are taking place at the same time, and they don’t panic when 3 timers go off together. 

But multi-tasking is also about being strategic. If we’re really good at being strategic in the first place then we shouldn’t have 3 timers go off together, but sometimes life happens or we’re trying to be inventive, so we should know how to respond when 3 timers go off: which one to respond to first, potentially how to rescue things if they overcook or over-cool, whether it actually matters if something reaches its time – for sousvide you could probably let it continue for another hour without affecting its food quality and in many scenarios it is probably better. 

Knowing how to multi-task also involves knowing what are the tasks that can be performed while something else is taking place. Like I probably wouldn’t do two stir-fries at the same time, though my ambitious younger self did try to. I realised this is something even experienced cooks avoid. Some things seem so intuitive but they are actually counter-intuitive.

We can argue one needs to strategise and plan well in order to multi-task well. Part of it is instinctive knowledge built up from years of experience, the other part is good planning and strategy leaves room for error, and also provides the conditions for synergistic multi-tasking.

patience and the capacity for boredom

I lump these two together because plenty of times in order to be patient we have to be okay with being bored, doing very mundane tasks for long periods of times. Washing dishes is one such task.

The other task is the patience to prep ingredients. Take chopping garlic for example. Previously I would never chop a garlic. I feel it is too hard (haha) to even peel a clove, much less chop it. So I used the store-bought pre-chopped type preserved in a container. After a while even that became tedious so I stopped using garlic altogether. My motto was the fewer ingredients, the better.

Then I started taking an interest in learning to cook better so I started watching cook shows and browsing online cooking communities. People would say things like grounding a pepper fresh is way better than using pre-ground pepper. I was skeptical but they were right. Everything is usually better in its original form and then processed right before cooking. So we need to be okay with spending that extra 30 minutes doing food prep if we want our food to taste better. There are people who use a pestle and mortar to grind spices like our grandmothers. Each time they cook.

30 minutes isn’t even that long as people are known to prep days ahead for marinades, ageing, etc. One could slow-cook something for eight hours while checking on it every 30 minutes or so. I have not reached that level yet, not even close. I’m barely able to marinate something the night before. 

improvisation

Things go haywire all the time in the kitchen especially if one likes trying new things like me. I cook instant pot soups for my partner quite often, and I don’t follow recipes. I dump a bunch of available ingredients and let their natural flavours come through. But sometimes their natural flavours may lack in a certain dimension, tasting flat. So it is useful to know what to add to it to enhance and round the flavours. Coconut milk, heavy creams, different types of acids, seasonings, etc (I don’t do MSG because glutamate has been linked to migraines) . Before I went low-carb, often adding a teaspoon of sugar to most things would wake up a lot of flavour. 

Some meals I don’t have the capacity to plan so I have to be able to cook something palatable with the ingredients available, so that requires improvisation as well.

curiosity and desire to learn

One of the most enjoyable parts about cooking is being able to experiment with new recipes and taste new dimensions. It is possible to like cooking with rotating the same few recipes, just like it is possible to enjoy washing the same dishes. 

But I think it is a much richer experience to learn how to cook something new every now and then. It is a positive feedback loop, new ways of cooking bring new dimensions to flavours, experiencing these new flavours makes one want to try more new recipes or cooking methods.

Now, maybe people will think curiosity and desire to learn are traits, not skills. But I have come to a point in my life where I think both curiosity and desire to learn are skills that can be cultivated. 

They are cultivated by being encouraged and perpetuating positive feedback loops, and we have to know how to shape our environment and ourselves such that they set us up for a positive feedback loop instead of a negative one. Notice I wrote “positive feedback loop” instead of “success” because in many circumstances we can fail and still feed a positive feedback loop by having an enriching experience through failures instead of simply feeling discouraged.

illustration of a positive feedback loop
illustration of a positive feedback loop

knowledge of oneself

Related to the point above, it is important to know how to know our selves, and then using that knowledge to pace ourselves and shape our environment while learning to cook. Or learning anything actually. For example, we can feel too ambitious and be not very self-aware that we are sensitive to failure. So we keep trying to cook something complex, and we keep failing, and the food turns out unpalatable which turns us off cooking for a long while. 

If we are easily overwhelmed with chores then it is better to start with easy recipes like three-ingredient-one-pan types. If we like a bit of a challenge then it is important to find something slightly more challenging to try next, because we may get bored without realising it. Some people like complex challenges and they think cooking is not fun because they try standard recipes and it feels too underwhelming (yes such people exist).

Maybe we’re heat intolerant then we could cook with an oven instead. I found oven-cooking to be a little too hands-off and that I enjoyed stir-frying instead, because it allows me to slowly add in layers easily. But I wouldn’t have known that. I have always thought of myself as the lazy cook.

willingness to eat failure

I mean eat literally and metaphorically. By metaphorically eating failure I mean being able to absorb failure and still be willing to try again. 

There will be times when things fail and the food will turn out unpalatable, but since I try not to have food waste I’ll eat it anyway. I only eat two meals a day strictly and I really like eating, so having one meal ruined can make me feel like I should give up trying to do anything too challenging.

I over-cooked a lot when trying to learn searing, and it is quite sad to eat an overcooked steak. I am still not very good at it, but am at a considerable distance from before. 

Similarly, I burnt a lot of food and oil onto the pan while learning to cook on stainless steel, and trying to clean off burnt food on stainless steel is a nightmare. The first time I took more than an hour combined time, multiple cleaning agents, and a ton of upper-body and arm strength just to get the pan back to a condition where I could use it again. It was never the same pan again. So it may be tempting to just permanently give up on stainless steel, and according to what I observe from cooking communities, many people do give up. 

But now I can cook reasonably okay on stainless steel, and it can be a joy using it. I’m not sure where the joy exactly comes from though: whether it is seeing something stick and knowing it will be released, deglazing the pan and using the deglazed fond as a sauce, or being able to successfully clean a pan that looks like food is horribly stuck on it. I think it is possible that may be something perverse about liking a stainless steel pan.

experimentation

If we become more comfortable with self-knowledge, improvisation, failure, plus we’re curious and have cultivated the desire to learn – we set the right conditions for the joy of experimentation.

I have never followed a recipe strictly – maybe I can call this a trait. That seems to be how I learn, even with other things. Sometimes it slows down the learning process because I am making more mistakes than I would have if I followed instructions. Other times it can give pleasant results.

What I do is to browse similar recipes to what I feel like cooking, somehow have some synthesis take place internally, then in the moment I wing it all. Sometimes it may be necessary to learn the basic skills of using a gadget properly first of course, like learning how to use an instant pot. But thereafter it is just mostly the same process, just different builds of the ingredients.

This makes it easier to be flexible with ingredients and seasoning. My partner cannot have histamine-rich foods so she can’t have soy sauce (😭) so I had to learn how to use coconut aminos. No tomatoes for her also (😭) so I had to experiment with substitutes if I want to cook her stew.

low-histamine no-tomatoes stew with egg-fried cauliflower rice

It also allows me to recreate something I miss, like this PO sandwich improvised with low-carb ingredients:

replica of a PO sandwich with low-carb ingredients
replica of a PO sandwich with low-carb ingredients

experience matters

The more experience one is at cooking, the easier it gets and the more complex our cooking can get. This seems obvious but many people seem to give up too early because it feels too much like a chore. A lot of things feel like chores because we’re not very good at it. The better we get at a skill, the more we get into the flow state, the more meditative and enjoyable it gets because our mind and body starts operating at a higher plane in co-ordination. Like playing a well-practiced piece on a piano. Once some things become second nature, we free up more energy to be creative and to learn new things.

physical strength

This was something I didn’t expect. Cooking looks so gentle and light-weight, that is until we try to lift a heavy 5-ply stainless steel pan with one arm to try to plate the food. I don’t even know how people use cast-iron or people who can toss food with a standard wok. 

I have gained muscle just from lifting my stainless steel pan with my left arm, and I am actually working on some easy weight lifting for my arms just so cooking can be easier.


how this relates to life

I think there are lessons learnt in cooking that are applicable to life in general. For one, a lot of traits we think of as part of someone’s character are actually skills that can be developed. Anyone who has a consistent meditation practice can attest to the fact that patience is a skill that can be cultivated.

Knowing ourselves so we can enter situations with the correct conditions as much as possible is also something we neglect to talk about. We just think of success and failure as binary, the willingness to fail or experiment as natural inclinations. We don’t realise or discuss how much of these can be altered by pace, scaffolding, design of positive feedback loops, environment, supportive people, etc.

I realised for myself I failed previously at maintaining a consistent cooking practice because I didn’t know myself well enough. I kept trying to do things that were not set for the level I am at and the psychology I was carrying. Knowing how to learn in itself is a skill. Some things really just need the right self, right time, and right place. Mostly the right self, I think.

I wonder how many things people dismiss to learn or try simply because they relied too much on “natural aptitude”, or we are conditioned to be intolerant of failure – experiencing failures equate to us being bad at something. But failures are just part of any learning process. Going through a horrible, messy, phase while trying to learn something is also typical. In fact we typically go through messy phases, emerging out of it successfully, only to go into another messy phase – as part of levelling up. We should associate messy phases as a sign that we’re learning. If everything is easy, are we increasing the levels of our skills?

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