How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Kitchen
“What are you doing?”
The look on my wife’s face suggested both confusion and amusement. I was standing at the sink with a measuring cup, dumping cups of water from the running faucet into a large saucepan.
“Making pasta…” I replied, developing the feeling that I was doing something horribly, hilariously wrong.
“Are you measuring the water for pasta?”
Part of me wanted to shout “NO!” and run out of the room screaming, but a bigger part of me wanted to defend measuring out exactly six cups of water to really go the extra mile on my Kraft macaroni and cheese. The conversation didn’t end well.
This whole exchange really sums up my relationship with cooking for the first twenty-five years of my life or so. I was a university-trained chemist before I was a cook. In chemistry, following procedures to the letter is important to ensure that experiments work as planned. Making chemicals requires precise and careful technique. Naturally, I translated that same mindset into the kitchen whenever I had to make food. Aside from measuring pasta water, I would agonize over the settings on my stove (what number is medium heat?!) and babysit all manner of foods, including frozen dinners that took over an hour to cook through.
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t cook often and when I did, I didn’t find it satisfying at all.
All of a sudden in 2014, everything changed. I stumbled across Harvard’s Science and Cooking online course during the massive open online course (MOOC) craze of the mid-2010s. The course was a fascinating blend of theoretical science, kitchen experimentation, and instruction from some of the world’s foremost chefs. It changed the cooking game for me. I realized that by understanding how cooking works and why things are done as they are, I could stop worrying about unimportant details and start making connections across different recipes. I started learning how to be creative within the confines of making good (or…at least edible) food. My mental Rolodex of techniques and actual notebook of recipes ballooned.
Experiments in the teaching laboratory with very detailed procedures are commonly called “cookbook” experiments, presumably because they involve following a step-by-step process like a recipe. But I find this term ironic: the more I learn about cooking, the more I realize that cookbooks are catalysts for creativity, not collections of rigid procedures.
Most importantly, I learned to stop worrying and love the process. Cooking is chemistry, but it is generally very forgiving chemistry, with kinetics that doesn’t require babysitting and reactions that usually make food taste better. Once I understood that fact, I realized that becoming a good cook means thinking about recipes on a higher level than cups of pasta water or settings on the stove. I also realized that you don’t need an amazing grandmother to become a great cook. Like many of the alchemists of old, family cooks have passed down their knowledge in a series of rules and techniques that are nothing but science dressed up as a tradition. As dish after dish piled up, I started to devour the science-and-cooking media, which pulls back the veil obscuring the origins of the “sacred knowledge” of the household cook. America’s Test Kitchen and Alton Brown’s Good Eats (Atlanta born!) became obsessions. I read Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, the “textbook” for the MOOC, from cover to cover twice. I finally understood that my attraction to chemistry, the ability to “play” and create with molecules on a submicroscopic level, could also be applied in the kitchen.
I am a chemistry laboratory coordinator by day. Experiments in the teaching laboratory with very detailed procedures are commonly called “cookbook” experiments, presumably because they involve following a step-by-step process like a recipe. But I find this term ironic: the more I learn about cooking, the more I realize that cookbooks are catalysts for creativity, not collections of rigid procedures. If anything, “cookbook” procedures should encourage students to make experiments on their own!
I don’t do much “wet” chemistry anymore myself, but as an avid homebrewer and baker, the kitchen has become my laboratory. I don’t measure pasta water anymore and if I need medium heat, I set the burner to 4 and forget it. I even stopped using a kitchen scale to measure dry ingredients for baking. If I ever get stressed, I just imagine crystals of sucrose creating micropores in creamed butter or liberated carbon dioxide molecules puffing up the gluten matrix of a cake as it heats.
Perhaps no dish screams “Kentucky!” more than the hot brown. As a native Kentuckian, I have been eating this combination of cheese sauce, turkey, bacon, and toast for over thirty years. I figured out late in life that my mother is very good at making cheese sauces, which has helped to explain the popularity of her macaroni and cheese and hot brown recipes. In both cases, the secret to the cheese sauce (sorry mom!) is preparing a roux, a simple combination of fat and flour used as a thickening agent. Although this is a classic French technique, making a roux is simple and easy!
2 tbsp. butter, unsalted
2 tbsp. all-purpose flour
0.25 tsp. salt
pinch white pepper
1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1 slice white toast
1 slice turkey, white meat
1 slice ham
2 slices bacon, cooked
0.25 cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated
Slightly less than 0.25 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
Melt butter in a saucepan over low heat. Add flour, salt, and pepper and stir until blended into a roux.
Add milk slowly, stirring to disperse the roux.
Add cheese and continue to stir over low heat until the cheese has completely melted.
Preheat oven to 400 ºF. Add 2 tbsp. of cheese sauce to the bottom of a baking dish and place toast on top of the sauce. Cover toast with 3 tbsp. of cheese sauce.
Add ham on top and cover with 3 tbsp. of cheese sauce and half of the Parmesan cheese.
Add turkey on top and cover with 3 tbsp. of cheese sauce, grated cheddar cheese, and the remainder of the Parmesan cheese. Place bacon on top.
Bake at 400 ºF for 15 minutes. Makes 1 sandwich.
For five sandwiches, use a 13” × 11” greased baking pan and double the cheese sauce recipe. Layer meats, cheeses, and sauces as described above.