Why Chefs Can Share Their Trade Secrets

So my housemates and I were talking one day over dinner about cooking. One of my housemates used to be a total cooking novice and now can cook pretty well. So Non-Novice Housemate goes, ‘I don’t really know why people complain about cooking. You follow the recipe, and it turns out good! What’s so hard about that?’

I almost agreed, but then I thought about it a little. See, there is so much more to cooking than just following a recipe. You can follow a recipe to a tee and the result can still be disastrous. I remember people asking Mom for a recipe, and she tells them what to do in the most possible detail, and they still can’t reproduce Mom’s results.

Let’s take one of my recipes and break it down, that might explain it better. Take the Thai Shrimp Salad, for example:

I’m going to have the recipe instructions here, but then add to it what I LITERALLY do in the kitchen.

  1. Warm up your preferred fat for cooking in a pan at medium high heat. Add shrimp and all the other ingredients for the shrimp and cook until shrimp is warmed up. There should be a bit of gravy. I grab the frozen shrimp from the freezer, take out a colander, dump the shrimp into the colander, and put it under running lukewarm water in the sink, tossing the shrimp with my hands to get water on all of them. Then I leave it under the running water for a minute or two. I get a my favourite heavy skillet out of the cabinet, turn the stove top on at 7, set the skillet on the stove, and eyeball enough oil until there’s enough to make a thin layer on the whole surface, constantly rolling the skillet around to help spread the oil. I let the pan rest for 2-3 minutes while I go get out the rest of the ingredients. I come back, roll the pan around again, if the oil is moving around faster, then I know it’s warmed up enough. Because I’m measuring all the ingredients so I can blog about it, I break out the measuring spoons. All liquids are measured level, but spices are heaping, so a little more than the measurement. I add the crushed chilli paper in an even sprinkling all over the shrimp. 
  2. Toss the steam green beans, pickled jalapeños, cherry tomatoes, diced cucumbers, and chopped cilantro together in a bowl. I grab a small bowl, add the frozen green beans, and add hot water from the tap until half the beans are covered. Then I nuke it for 3 or 4 minutes. While the beans are being nuked, I cut the cherry tomatoes in half. Then I cut the ends off my cucumbers (2 small ones) cut them in half length wise, put them back together and then cut then in half again on the other side to get four long pieces. Then I put them all together again and slice them in thin slices to get small wedges. Oh look, the beans are almost done, open the microwave, check if they are all soft and steaming, put them in for the remaining 30 seconds. I grab the cilantro bunch, maybe a fifth of a handful, I don’t take the stems off, I bend the cilantro in half, and I chop it all up. Then I bunch it all together again, and chop it again. I repeat this until I can smell the cilantro, then it’s done. Toss it into the bowl with the rest of the stuff. Grab the pickled jalapeños, fish out 8-9 with a fork and add that to the bowl as well. 
  3. Add the soy sauce and lemon juice to the bowl and mix. I don’t really measure the lemon juice, instead I squirt the lemon juice bottle 3 times quickly, estimating that to be about 1 tsp. I measure the soy sauce, only because I hate when there’s too much soy sauce, but then it looks like there’s not enough, so I add another small dash of it.
  4. Add the shrimp and gravy into the bowl and mix well. Dump it all together.
  5. Serve! Yell “Dinner’s ready!” BAM!

So there’s a little bit more going on than the recipe reveals. But the thing is, those things aren’t what you put in a recipe, those are just regular things you do when you’re cooking. But it takes time and in my case, watching my mom cook, to develop that subtle knowledge and intuition. As you chop more stuff, you develop better technique and get faster. As you fry more stuff, you learn how to judge when the oil is the right heat. As you measure more things, you learn how to eyeball common measurements.

What ends up happening is you develop an intuitive feel for the things you do most. You learn what spices go together, what other veggies you can toss into a recipe without dramatically altering the taste you want. How long chicken takes to cook, so you don’t have to cut into it to check as often.

There’s so much more to a recipe that I’ve written more than 800 words about it already. Funny how so many things our just..intuitive to us. But when you think about it, there’s a lot more steps to it.