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Cooking is so DUMB.

April 17, 2012

This post is a sequel to my post “Art is so DUMB,” fueled by frustration and rage. Because in my latest escapade, I’ve realized that nearly the same problems I had with art, I also have with cooking.

What are those problems? As with art, my main problem is that I don’t know what good looks, smells, or tastes like. I don’t know what done is.

I’ll tell a story. Years ago, I was so embarrassed by my utter incompetence at cooking that I started watching some episodes of Good Eats with Alton Brown. I really like his style, and thought I was learning Real Skillz. So, I decided to try something easy: scrambled eggs.

Alton Brown informed me that you should take the eggs off the heat before they look done so that you don’t overcook them. He warned of those scrambled eggs turning “rubbery” if they were cooked for too long. So, I was wary of ending up with rubbery, overcooked eggs! Unfortunately, even though I’ve had scrambled eggs plenty of times before, I didn’t know what “rubbery” looked like…or what “good” looked like. I didn’t know what “done” looked like, so I didn’t know what “before done” looked like. So I just made sure to take them off the heat as soon as I suspected anything was amiss.

And these were the results. I like to call them the Salmonelleggs.

Salmonelleggs: Critically Undercooked Scrambled Eggs

Most pictures in this post can be made obnoxiously large (at your risk!) by clicking on them.

The worst thing about it…I was really proud of these. I posted a picture of these to a Facebook album entitled, “Improvement Project.” I captioned it, “Mmm good!”

And then came the comments from my friendcritics:

…that is disgusting…

…What exactly were you improving upon?

…Wait a minute…why is there a second plate…did you try to poison my siblings? (That’s right…your cooking is so bad you’re temporarily demoted from sibling status.) So that’s why Ben was feeling sick that day…

At the time, I rolled with it. After all, since I knew I was horrible at it, all I had to do was turn my misplaced pride into a, “Well, I messed up again. Just like usual.”

But I never cooked anything again for several years.

Returning to the Kitchen

When I moved out of the dorms in college to an apartment, my brother and I had a kitchen for the first time since we had left home. So, I thought I’d try things again. I created a new album: “Improvement Project 2,” for my later exploits.

My brother and I (for I wasn’t confident enough to do it alone) started with frybread and Indian tacos.

Fry Bread and Indian Tacos

The new era of cooking came with a new era of DSLR photography. Oh yeah, photography. That's another thing at which I'm utterly incompetent.

By myself, I ventured out into trying to make alfredo sauce for fettuccine pasta. Although I STILL have NO idea what al dente should feel like, I would say that the pasta came out fine…the problem I had (which I have still not confronted) was that the alfredo sauce broke. I know that there are ways to avoid alfredo sauce breaking (e.g., by adding flour and making a roux), but in my mind, that was cheating. (I think there is a great irony here. For someone who has absolutely no sense of taste, no sense of what looks right, no skill with cooking, I have nevertheless sponged up some foodie elitism. I think it’s good to have aspirations.)

And then, I realized I had a sweet tooth that demanded tribute. I baked cookies to appease.

My first attempt had some major faux pas. The cookies were more like pancakes…most likely as I had used cake flour and not all-purpose or bread flour. I was going for chewy (chewy = glutenous [not to be confused with gluttonous…or should it?] = bread flour), but when I was at the store, I couldn’t remember if I was supposed to be looking for bread flour or cake flour, and I guessed wrong.

Pancake cookies

However, I was satisfied with the texture. Other than the cakiness I wasn’t going for, the softness that I was going for was definitely there. And when I offered the cookies to others, they all had nothing but compliments for the flavor — especially the butterscotch chips that I used in lieu of chocolate chips. It turns out that there are cake-like desserts that feature butterscotch, so what was originally intended to be cookies reminded many people of these other desserts.

Wiser, more discerning baker friends found technical flaws with the flatness of the cookie. But I was sure that as soon as I got the flour mixup solved, that I would have cookies that looked just like cookies.

So, when I made my next batch of butterscotch cookies and they weren’t cakey, I was happy with them.

Yet, the foremost of my wise baker friends wrote this in response to the cookies:

you know, when i was your age, i had the same problem. my college roommates and i still joke about our attempts to make chcoclate chip cookies, and how they were always flat. and now, i make absolutely perfect CC cookies. no joke. i think it just comes with age. if you make them perfect anytime soon… i’ll struggle with that, as you will negate my theory. so please don’t.

So my bubble was burst. But this time, instead of giving up, I only became more determined to do better. (Maybe it’s because even if the cookies looked bad, they still tasted great?)

Now, I believe I have come a long way. These are what my cookies look like:

Butterscotch chocolate chip cookies

Not only is the shape a lot better, but the color is so much better. But even though the people who try my cookies are still impressed (usually), I can’t help but feel if these people aren’t just being nice. We had an office baking competition within my group, and although people complimented me on my cookies, I only got 4th place (out of something like 9 offerings).

I actually feel like I have grown a lot in some respects. These are the eggs I make now:

scrambled eggs with chives

I didn't even KNOW what chives were until this January. Holy smokes. Where have these BEEN all my life?

…but still, I feel there is a long way to go. When I go through the aisles for spices, I see a lot more spices. I’ve seen websites that say exactly what kinds of foods which spices go with. I have no awareness of food chemistry. No feel for balancing or contrasting flavors. I go by new pieces of advice I get from recipes, one recipe by another.

And then there are times when I am trying something new where I just don’t know what I’m doing. For my latest batch, I read some recipes that said to brown some of the butter. Other than the fact that I had never heard of browning butter before, once again, I didn’t know what done looked like…even though there are sites with pictures both of what it looks like, and what it doesn’t.) It didn’t help that the pan I was cooking the butter in was completely black (something all the recipes warn against…since you can’t really see color well that way)…but then as the butter fizzed and the water evaporated, I realized that neither I nor my two roommates had ANY idea what the iconic “nutty aroma” of brown butter smelled like.

As I poured the butter from the pan into a clear bowl the first time, I gathered that it wasn’t brown enough. I poured back from the bowl into the pan and tried again. Not brown enough. I kept doing that until I started getting brown flecks at the bottom of pan and bowl (each time I transferred the butter between vessels, some of those flecks remained pooled at the bottom of the old vessel. But the end, I didn’t have a lot of butter at all.

When I tried browning butter again on another occasion, I guessed that those brown flecks were what I was looking for, so this time I cooked the butter in one shot until I saw the flecks collecting. I just assumed it was brown butter. It had a rather different aroma, but I couldn’t tell you if it were ‘nutty’ or not.

The Dough Disaster

My latest escapade has been this garlic and spinach pizza. Since I couldn’t find a ball of pizza dough, I thought I’d make it with some instant pizza dough (just add water!). The bag was even kind enough to have directions. Add water. Mix with a fork. Roll into a ball.

Hold on. This dough is too sticky to roll. D:

After consulting The Internet, they said to flour it. I floured the dough. It seemed to roll into a ball sufficient for my needs…but then again, what does it mean to roll pizza dough into a ball? What am I looking for? A ball seems like a basic kindergarten shape, but I read things that hinted that I was trying to go for something with the ball shape. For what I still do not know.

I was frustrated with my efforts. I didn’t know if the dough needed to be kneaded (haha pun not intended), so I decided to mix what little I had read about no-knead dough and letting the dough rise for extended periods of time. I put the dough in the fridge and didn’t look at it for a day.

I came back to it, and was ready for it to be magically transformed into something with which to pizza…the dough had indeed risen (although I have no idea how much rising is appropriate), so I went to split and roll it into balls.

Too sticky.

Not sticky enough that the entire form stuck to my hands in an amorphous hand-like putty blob…but amorphous enough that the dough sure liked my fingers more than it liked its ball shape.

…and on top of that, trying to flatten out the dough, I noticed that the dough quickly returned to its original circle-ish blob state.

I put the dough back in the bowl, placed the plastic wrap back over it, and put it back in the fridge.

And here we are with this post. I feel better now. I still have no had any pizza though.

  1. Seth R. permalink

    There’s really no way to know when scrambled eggs are done other than to do them a lot. Generally my wife cooks in our house, but when we do the full breakfast, I’m the one who does it. Bacon, scrambled eggs, toast. Since they all cook fast, it’s actually a real trick to get it all served hot at the same time without burning or overcooking.

    One thing though is you want a notch over medium heat (at least at my elevation in Colorado). You don’t want fast cooking. But knowing when to shut off the heat really is just something you have to intuitively know.

    In the case of my kids, chucking a handful of white sugar and a few shakes of cinammon into the scrambled egg mix goes a long way.

  2. If the accounting thing doesn’t work out, it looks to me like you could have a grand future in food staging.

    With that said, cooking is work. It’s not something that is intuitive for most people. It’s not something everyone can be good at.

    Why are there so many skills (like cooking and baking) that everyone assumes are easy? In reality, they are quite difficult to do well. (Other difficult skills: gardening, maintaining a lawn, writing a resume, teaching, changing the oil in one’s car, re-building a server, taking care of multiple young children, etc.) All of these can be done (and learned) for the most part, but it takes time. It’s not necessarily second nature.

    Cooking does take a lot of experimentation. And people’s tastes vary. I once heard an argument about the ingredients for mashed potatoes (I’m not joking). Some people don’t like spices other than salt and pepper. Others carry around a bottle of hot sauce. It just depends.

  3. Seth,

    I missed your comment this entire time. I think I’ve improved on every dish I’ve tried by just trying it a lot…I guess practice makes perfect.


    haha, photography is another thing I’m trying to do (but also apparently not all that great at.)

    I guess one thing to consider is that a lot of people who are really good at things (even if they themselves had to spend a lot of time to get to where they are) make it look so easy to do that thing…and of course, when someone puts as much time into it as they have, then they become efficient enough at it that they can make it look pretty easy.

    I think the reason people assume cooking and baking and things like that are really easy is that these are supposed to be staples of home life. (And the same is true of a lot of the things you mentioned: maintaining a lawn, gardening, changing car oil, etc.,) I guess it’s easy to assume that we are all pre-equipped with the skills it takes to be a Functioning Adult…when ultimately, we have to learn these things growing up or take a crash course as they happen.

  4. ninelegyak permalink

    I didn’t used to require hot sauce all the time, but my partner converted me. Actually, it’s not so much hot sauce as chili paste (I don’t like the taste of Tabasco).

    My hint for good scrambled eggs is to add milk to the froth: this makes them fluffier.

    My hint for spices is to only buy them from bulk containers where you spoon out what you want into little ziplock bags. The tiny spice containers at American grocery stores are exceedingly overpriced. If you buy from bulk containers, you can get the same amount of spice for like 1/5 the price or less.

    This helps because if you fail in making something, you won’t begin to think spices are too expensive to experiment with. Also, if you wanted to fry up, say, chicken and onions with curry and turmeric, you’re gonna need copious amounts of spice and those little containers are a joke.

    In terms of which spices to use, you might start with spice mixtures that are pretty much foolproof (because they’re already a good flavor that you just add more as needed): like lemon pepper, or tandoori masala.

  5. Good call on the bulk spice buying…

    I have heard of tabasco as a “secret ingredient” (along with brown butter), but I haven’t tried it — or chili paste — out…I’ll have to.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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