Cooking for Dummies

As I stirred the sauteing onions, I grinned, and I realized that I’d never paid attention to the way onions brown in a good pan, and the fact that they actually do brown. I remember as a young, married woman, asking my mother how long it took onions to “brown,” to which she replied that they don’t actually brown, they soften. I wondered at this, at why someone would reference a color when there was no noticeable change, but shrugged it off. I had never seen onions really brown before they nearly turned to mush, so I took her word for it and waited for onions to soften instead of color. But now, stirring onions in a bit of oil in my new All-Clad skillet, I saw that onions did indeed color before disintegrating, and that they turned a delicious light caramel color.

At this realization, I, at first, became thrilled–cooking was novel again. And then I felt a pang of disappointment, then bitter resentment. No wonder, I thought, more people don’t enjoy cooking! It’s amazing what a difference good kitchenwares make. I have slowly been purchasing quality cookware and have been amazed that it not only makes cooking more enjoyable, it also often makes food taste better. That night, I made taco meat, using a recipe from an America’s Test Kitchen cookbook, and was amazed that using a stainless steel pan lended the meat even more flavor through the browning of the onions, spices, and meat. It was delicious; I couldn’t imagine why anyone would deign to use one of those packets of taco seasoning.

Many people, I’m sure, don’t know any better. They grew up with seasoning packets and hamburger helper and don’t know that you can cook from scratch, really from scratch, and that it tastes better. And then there is the lack of cookware. I find cooking so much more enjoyable now that I have some quality stuff, and it makes me sad that so many people dislike cooking, but are cooking with pans that should never have been made, let alone purchased. I’m sure they are basing their dislike of cooking, in part, on the difficulties they face with their inferior cookware. If they had good cookware, I dare say they would find more enjoyment. And they would certainly enjoy what came out of the pans–somehow, Teflon gets in the way of flavor, even when a fond, the delicious browned bits left on the bottom of the pan and stirred up when liquid is added, isn’t a part of the dish.

After my experience, I am convinced that it is imperative that young people, out on their own for the first time, should begin with a few pieces of quality cookware. A huge collection is unnecessary; but a few indispensable pieces, I believe, would go a long way in helping someone develop their talents and appreciation of the culinary arts. If I were to set up house again, I would begin with just a few pieces. A good Chef’s knife, a good bread knife, and a good paring knife, a 6 qt. Dutch oven, an 11- or 12-inch stainless steel skillet, a 9-inch stainless steel skillet, and a 2 quart saucepan. Yes, it would be an investment, likely of close to $500. But it’s an investment in good health. It is my opinion that someone could make just about anything with those pieces of cookware, and I’d venture to say that they just might enjoy it as well. Therefore, I believe that $500 would be an investment in one’s health, as it would enable them to cook real, healthy food instead of relying on so-called convenience food. I am unimpressed with Teflon, though I’ve used it for most of my adult life; it seems to be a way to “dummy-proof” recipes, as it allows a cook to turn meat prematurely, for example, instead of waiting for the meat to attain a proper sear which enables the meat to release easily from the pan, well-browned and perfectly textured. It also enables a cook to add food to the pan before it is properly preheated without risking the sticking that would occur in a stainless steel pan. It allows cooks to be lazy. But, what it gives in convenience, it takes in flavor. My Teflon pans are headed to Goodwill, though I wouldn’t wish them on anyone and almost feel guilty sending them to some unsuspecting new cook, a new dummy looking for a way to cook mindlessly, ambivalent (or ignorant) to the enjoyment and flavor that comes with quality cookware.

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