Theory of Cooking (or helpful general tips)

I would appreciate contributions from people who know something about the theory of cooking, even if it’s just a tidbit or two.

Rather than recipes or specific instructions about every step of baking an apple pie, I’m looking for more general things like what spices go best with what fruits, how to make sure your sausage gravy doesn’t taste like flour, what is the key ingredient/technique to ensure a flaky pie crust — things you might have learned from your grandmother. My hope is that, armed with sufficient knowledge of such things, I can try out some creative ideas and explore cooking as an art and science instead of just paint-by-numbers recipes.

As an example, here is one of the few that I know. When making southern style biscuits, do not over-knead the dough. In fact, fold it only three or four times and then roll it out immediately. Feel free to offer opposing views when you see something that differs from your experience, and explain why you think some other way might be best.

When making gravy, let the roux (the flour-fat mixture) bubble for a few minutes, at least. If at all possible, let it simmer for a few minutes more after adding the liquid. If the liquid is dairy based, it is likely to curdle in the simmering, so be extra careful to let the roux bubble and brown before adding the milk or cream or whatever. This will eliminate the floury taste of gravies/sauces. I actually DID learn this from my grandmother.

Some people toast their flour. They do this by putting it in a slow oven and stirring it now and then. I’ve tried this, and I think it doesn’t give enough benefit for me to fuss with it.

When making a tuna casserole or pot pie, use cream of celery soup rather than cream of mushroom. While I’m a big fan of cream of mushroom soup (I could eat it straight from the can)(hush, Uke Ike), somehow cream of celery seems to go better with tuna.

Do not allow the cats to help with the cooking. They never wash their paws with soap, and tend to make off with the more interesting ingredients. Also, cats don’t share.

Lynn, what approximate flour/fat ratio do you use? Is corn starch as good as flour? Do you use lots of sausage bits in the pan? When do you season with salt and pepper, after it’s done or in the roux? If you let the roux brown, how do you make a white, creamy gravy? I would love to make a good gravy, but I’ve never succeeded. Thanks for your great tips!

Common wisdom says:
Don’t overwork the dough. Working the dough develops the gluten which will make the dough (and your final product) chewy & tough. Gluten is what makes bread sringy & chewy - d’ya want springy & chewy pie crust? :smiley:
Also start with a low-gluten flour.

I can offer this advice after many years of trying to eat my mom’s pie crust.

White sausage gravy my way:

cook sausage, crumble up one or two patties and leave in the grease, remove other meat.

Slowly add flour (I find corn starch too gritty), keeping at a simmer, until mixture bubbles and browns

Add seasonings–I like salt, pepper, sage, and maybe a bit of onion powder or nutmeg–and milk. A few more minutes and it should thicken up into a nice creamy gravy.


Re: gravy. My grandmother taught me to never, never use dairy products in a gravy. (It’s fine for a white sauce or a cream sauce, soup bases, etc.) She made a slurry of water and flour (you could use corn starch, but I like flour better) then whisked it in with the fat and whatever bits of meat left in the pan – it was her own sort of deglazing.

I was taught with a roux to use equal parts fat and flour. I season the flour first, and then might season the dish again after a taste, near the end. To make a white, creamy gravy, don’t let the roux cook as long as you would for a brown gravy – just don’t let it brown. Creamy golden yellow is fine. Once you’ve mastered the art of the roux, you can make about any gravy, sauce and soup.

Cookies: Never use a dark cookie sheet, gray, black etc. Nonstick cookware is evil and should be abolished. I use silpat sheets, but the alternative would be parchment to line the pans. Never grease a cookie sheet – it makes the cookies burn. Mix wet ingredents together first, then add the dry ingredients. Roll out cookies between two peices of parchment or wax paper – much easier and less messy than flinging flour all over the kitchen. Never put more than one cookie sheet in the oven at a time and that one should be in the middle.

Seafood: The secret to cooking seafood is that cooking too long makes it tough. Shrimp only need about three minutes, regardless if you’re frying, boiling, grilling or whatever. Fish need about 20 minutes for every one inch of thickness. Most shellfish only require a couple minutes.

Check any cookbook for a list of what herbs/spices go with what meats/veggies. I use a lot of herbs in my cooking and cannot even decide where to begin. Or find a cookbook specifically geared toward herbs. If you’re not into reading or don’t have the time, then my advice is to pick one herb at a time. Use it in everything. Once you’re familiar with the flavor that herb imparts, you’ll discover what it works well with and what it doesn’t. Use fresh if possible, but use more than you would if you use dry. Always, always always, add herbs in the last two minutes of cooking so the essential oils from the herbs don’t cook/boil off. I turn the heat off, throw in my herbs and serve a couple minutes later. Spices, on the other hand, I throw in at the beginning of cooking to allow time for the flavor to infuse into the dish. Difference betwen herbs and spices: herbs tend to be the green parts of a plant: stems and leaves. Spices tend to be the seeds, berries, bark or other non-green parts.

Would that apply to dried herbs as well as fresh? (I can see why it would be true for fresh, but am not so sure for dried…)


Grim, when I’m using dried herbs, for example, in a pasta sauce, I usually saute them in olive oil (along with the garlic and onions) as one of the very first steps. It’s always worked well for me.

Instead of beginning with baking, which is a science in which exact measurements are important, get comfortable with something forgiving, like soups and stews. If you add more garlic than a soup calls for, it usually won’t screw up the recipe. If you subistitute thyme for rosemary, no big deal. With most soups, you have plenty of time to taste and adjust flavors as you go along.

Relax and have fun. Like any skill, it takes time and practice to become a good cook. If a recipe doesn’t come out right, don’t get discouraged. You can tweak it next time. Don’t be afraid to experiment. The worst that will happen is that you’ll make one lousy meal, your family may rib you a bit, and it will make an amusing anecdote 20 years from now when you’re a great home chef.

Lib, if you can find a copy in the US, the cookbook Appetite by Nigel Slater has a page-long list of which main ingredients go best with which spices, and another 40-long list of which main ingrdients combine best. I’ve tried a couple of his less-common suggestions and I can vouch for their success. I suppose if you didn’t want to buy the book, you could just copy it from a bookstore or library, as it’s only a page or two long. Those lists should be able to give you a good start on “what goes with what.”

If you’re looking for tips on the theory and science of cooking, you really ought to check out Alton Brown or Cook’s Illustrated. At least, Dr.J assures me Alton’s a big kitchen nerd. I wouldn’t know; cooking shows are too much like cooking for my taste.

I do know that the secret to a flaky crust (or flaky biscuits, for that matter) is lots and lots of fat, preferably Crisco shortening. The higher the fat content, the flakier you get (no comments from the peanut gallery, thanks). Up to a certain point, anyway; beyond that point it just tastes like Crisco.

Here’s a great cookbook for you - How to Cook Everything

You get the *why * behind the recipes and good ways to improve them. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

You’ll get better results from dried herbs if you reconstitute them in water first before adding to the dish. This is inconvenient and can be messy, depending on what you are preparing, but you won’t have chewy bits in your food.

Very good advice on roux, gravies and sauces from dogzilla. The coloration of the gravy is not due to the drippings, but rather how dark you brown the flour. The darker it’s browned, the more smoky the flavor. Creole sauce, for example, uses a roux that is almost black.

Here is a weird secret that I discovered about pasta tosses. Basically, if you want to make a yummy pasta toss you can pick 3 vegetables whose colors look good together and almost never fail. I am sure that someone could find exceptions, but as a rule this almost always works.

Salt and pepper is the key to covering up the flour taste in sausage gravy; but you’ve been told that already.

The best advice I have is that when you’re trying out a new recipe, follow it to the letter the first time or two; then experiment with ratios and seasonings.

Hear! Hear!
My tips:
The key to good chicken is cook it slowly and over a low flame. Keep it moist. Throw out those thick, pastey barbeque sauces, and use a vinegar/butter mixture. This will keep the chicken moist.

If you’re griling ribs, boil them a few minutes before grilling. Cut the thick, pastey sauce with apple cidar vinegar. It will make the sauce go further, and help keep the ribs moist.

As for books, get The Joy of Cooking. In addition to basic recipes, the chapter “Know your Ingredients” will tell you everything you have ever wanted to know about anything you plan to use in your cooking.

This is a huge subject, so I’ll first suggest a couple of books
Donna Hay has a cook book called ‘Flavors’ that is arranged by flavor (salt, citrus, sweet, pungent etc.) which is very good for getting you thinking. If you can find the Sunday Times Cook’s companion, that is a fantastic book with everything you need that is not a recipe.

Now for some of my tips

Don’t cut costs with olive oil, vinegar, or parmesan cheese.
Get a mandolin (the Japanese ones seem best) as it is a great time saver, and it is amazing how much extra flavor is obtained by very finely slicing vegetables.
Good chef’s knives are well worth the cost.
If you like toasted sandwiches, get a Panninni maker, they aren’t terribly expensive, and are the ultimate for quick and easy gormet lunches and snacks.

Make your own salad vinigerettes, allways add a little mustard to any that you make (even if you don’t like mustard, add an untasteable dab) as the mustard helps the oil and vinegar emulsify together.
Get hold of pure fruit oils, they are a long lasting item that has the natural (not the artificial) flavor of the fruit they are extracted from.
When you have cooked a steak, let it stand a little before cutting up or serving, this makes the juices and flavor better.

When making my grandma’s delicious Maple Fudge you have to whip it until it loses it’s shine. This will insure that it sets up properly.

Recipie, so that this tidbit is meaningful, upon request :slight_smile:

(I do think this particular factoid holds true for almost all home-made fudges.)

I’ve always been told to add black pepper at the end of coking a sauce, otherwise it will turn bitter.

Also, use glass or plastic bowls to whip up egg whites. Don’t even attempt to whip eggs or make peanut brittle if it’s raining outside.

To echo Bippy, always use good vanilla.

I’m so proud. What a great compliment. Thank you.
Another tip: If you don’t want spaghetti or other long stringy pasta (like linguini) to stick together, make sure the water is at a full rolling boil before tossing it in. And stick one end in and let it sink into the water as the boiling softens the pasta. If you follow this technique, you do not need to add salt or (god forbid) oil to the water.

Also, always let your pan heat up with the fat (oil or whatever you use) in it. Never throw anything in the pan unless the oil is hot. If you put something in a pan before the oil is hot, the veggie or meat (or whatever) just soaks up the oil and will come out tasting greasy.

Now that Chefguy has praised my roux//sauce/soup/gravy advice, I’m quite convinced that I’m an Expert now. :smiley:

One more book recommendation: although there are recipes in Cookwise, mostly they’re there to illustrate principles of cooking. The book goes into these principles in gory detail, explaining how (for example) heat affects egg proteins, how starches change when mixed with fat, how acids tenderize meat, and so forth. It’s fascinating reading, and the recipes are pretty fun, almost like labs you’d do in a science class.

A more general tip: I find it easiest to learn one type of cuisine at a time. I’ll decide I’m interested in Indian food, say, and so I’ll make a bunch of Indian recipes until I get a feel for what flavors mesh well in this style; only then will I begin doing my own experiments.