Improve Your Cooking by Using All 5 Senses

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Many people cook by look and taste, but smelling, listening and touching offer a lot more help than meets the eye.

I have developed oodles of recipes over the years, and the challenge inherent in writing a successful instruction is that neither ingredients nor equipment are standard from one kitchen to the next. My low flame could be your medium, my half sheet pan likely won't conduct heat like yours, my jalapeno might be insipid while yours might elicit screams and gasps.

I remember a recipe for corn spoonbread by Ladybird Johnson calling for “butter the size of a walnut” – and while measuring by weight is obviously the most precise, I love that kind of hands-on direction that asks the cook to be a bit intuitive. It’s the reason I love recipes by Nigella Lawson, there’s a lot of “stir it until it feels right” vagueness that likewise encourages us to pay attention. It’s how I like to write recipes; I can give a recommendation, but I often ask the cook for some collaboration – not only does it allow them to adjust things to their taste but it allows for flexibility in ingredients (swaps and “use up what you’ve got”) which cuts down on waste.

I’ve always thought of this as learning how to listen to one’s kitchen intuition, but Julia Moskin adds some clarity to my approach in a New York Times article about honing one’s senses while working with food. “Learn to use all five senses in the kitchen and you’ll become a better cook,” she writes, “especially if you sharpen the ones that are less associated with cooking: hearing, touch and smell.”

What does this look like? Of baking a pie to perfection, the author of “Art of the Pie,” Kate McDermott says she listens for the “the sizzle-whump”:

The “sizzle” is the sound of hot butter cooking the flour in the crust, melding it into a crisp, golden lid. The “whump” is the sound of the thickened filling bumping against the top crust as it bubbles at a steady pace.
“I call it the heartbeat of the pie,” she said.

This was a revelation for me. I have been cooking and baking all of my life; beyond visual clues like how a baked item is bubbling, I know when cookies are done my smell and when bread is really done by a few taps – but I have never listened to a pie!

Moskin describes how cooks with visual impairments successfully rely on touch, and that much of the magic that happens in the kitchen has nothing to do with sight or taste, “distinguishing the sound of a boil versus a simmer; knowing the feel of a rare steak versus a medium-well one; biting into pasta as it cooks to catch the brief, perfect moment between chewy and soft.” This is all so true.

She describes how Edna Lewis, the biscuit wizard and American Southern cooking extraordinaire, taught that the sound of a cake is the best indication that it’s done cooking: “A cake that is still baking makes little bubbling and ticking sounds, but a finished cake goes quiet.”

Maybe like me, you have been doing this all along too. And maybe like me, you were chalking it up to intuition – but this is something that can be honed and improved upon all the time. In getting to know your food and paying attention to everything it’s doing on the journey from counter to plate – the noises it makes, the scents it offers, the textures it provides – you form a much more intimate relationship with the things you’re cooking. It’s as if the food is communicating and letting us know how to best treat it, we just have to listen.

“Sensory cooking is the opposite of technique,” says chef chef Justin Smillie. “The formulas you learn in culinary school won’t make you a chef, but cooking with all your senses will.”

The moral of the story? Use your sense of hearing to bake a pie and your sense of taste will thank you.

Read the whole New York Times piece here: To Become a Better Cook, Sharpen Your Senses.