Cooking with All Your Senses
Food delights us in every way. The taste is central to the enjoyment, but let’s not forget the enticing aromas, the texture of various foods in your mouth, the sexy sizzle of ingredients cooking in hot oil, or the magnificent colors of Mother Nature when we see the perfectly cooked vegetables on a plate.
Eating is sensory, no question so it’s easy to forget to use all our senses when we’re cooking. Tapping into all five of your senses unlocks a wealth of information, resulting in dishes that are so much more satisfying (and yummy) than simply following a recipe and hoping for the best.
Immersing yourself in the process of cooking can transform your talents as a home chef, whether you’re a novice or you cook daily. Open the door to creating dishes tailored to your own palate and you’ll find the confidence to experiment more freely in the kitchen and not be bound to recipes. You’ll be amazed at how much more you love cooking when you’re not under the thumb of what I call ‘the trembling measuring spoon,’ ensuring your measures are super-accurate.
People eat with their eyes first. If the food looks beautiful, they’re attracted to it. The same idea is true in cooking. Use your eyes.
Some of this will just be common sense, but stay with me.
Simply watching the action in a pan can tell you if you need more or less oil or other liquid. If your recipe calls for 2 tablespoons of olive oil and yet it looks dry or the onions are sticking, check two things: the intensity of your flame and your oil or liquid. Adjust so the food cooks evenly and well.
The size of your pan will also dictate how things cook. A pan that’s too big for the task will see things burning or sticking quickly, while a pan that’s too small will see the food turn to much. You’ll see it happening.
When you sauté onions, watch them. They’ll turn from opaque to translucent as they sweat and it’s a marvel to watch and smell as the onions turn from strongly pungent to sweet. Using your eyes is far more reliable than timing the sauté from a recipe.
Color is a huge indicator of how things are going in the pan as well. Rich golden browns indicate that a fritter or tempeh or tofu is perfect while black is well…not.
Bright rich colors in vegetables usually indicates that they’re perfectly cooked while dull, dark colors are sure sign that things are overcooked.
Food is most delicious when flavors and textures are balanced; harmonious.
Many people say that the only way to know for sure if you’ve achieved what you were going for is by tasting your food as you cook. I am personally not a taster but, I know many chefs and home cooks are so here are my rules for tasting:
Dip a spoon into a pot of whatever you have simmering. Does it need more salt? More herbs or spice? Your efforts should yield a balanced flavor.
When it comes to taste, a little contrast can go a long way. I love crunchy vegetables stirred into a salad or stir-fry to create a different texture; vinegar or lemon juice whisked into a sweet glaze brings it to life. Opposites don’t only attract in relationships but in cooking.
Finally, tasting certain foods can indicate if it’s done or not, like testing pasta to see if it’s al dente.
The perfumes of cooking that fill our kitchens work up our appetites and play a huge role in how we taste food. On top of that, they give us essential clues during the cooking process. Yu often smell something burning before you see it, right?
Let’s look at ingredients. So many, like ginger and garlic become more aromatic as they cook, more intense. When that fragrance hits your nostrils, it’s time to add the next ingredient or take the next step in the dish.
Dry-roasting whole spices opens up their aromatic compounds, adding more depth of flavor to a dish. As you toast them, their intense fragrance tells you that they’re ready to be ground into the dish. Oil takes on a buttery richness when cooked properly and if you cook with wine, you’ll smell the sweetness of the grapes as the alcohol burns off.
When you whisk together seasoned dry ingredients for a rub, a cake, cookies, a coating, you should be able to smell the ingredients mixed in with the flour. The scent of fresh herbs and fragrant spices should be strongly forward. If not, make adjustments until you’re happy.
And don’t forget that your nose is your best defense against food that has gone off. Follow your nose closely on this one. It’s rarely wrong.
Our food has a lot to say if we play with it. Touching food, carefully and with good sense reveals a lot about it.
Tomatoes, peaches, grapes should be firm but not hard to the touch.
Without sticking your finger in a simmering sauce, a quick stir with a spoon gives you a feel for the thickness or creaminess you’re going for.
Hovering your hand over a skillet or other pan can tell you if it’s hot enough to begin to cook.
Use a fork to see if an ingredient is tender; if a vegetable pierces easily, that’s usually a sign that it’s done.
Cooking whole grains can challenge people too. But simply drill the handle of a wooden spoon into the center of your simmering whole grain in the pot and if there’s water at the bottom, you’ve more cooking to do. If the bottom of the pot is dry, turn off the grain as it’s done to perfect tenderness.
Listen to the sounds of the kitchen while you cook is magical. A scratchy, dry sound often means you need a touch more oil or liquid is needed, while runaway noise means you need to lower the heat. Listening to your cooking tells you if your soup is about to boil over or if you’re burning your stew because all the liquid is gone.
One of my favorite sounds comes from frying tofu. So many people struggle with it sticking to the pan, but all you need to do is listen. When moisture-rich tofu is ready to flip to the other side, its music shifts from wet and bubbly to a dry sizzle, almost a hiss.
And then there’s bread. Tapping the bottom of a fresh-baked loaf of bread, listening for a hollow sound tells you it’s cooked through, cooled, and safe to slice. Watermelons should feel heavier than they look and feel “full’ when tapped.
Touching, poking and prodding our foods (carefully) can reveal so much about the freshness, ripeness and doneness of any fresh ingredient.
And then there’s intuition
There’s an end goal to mastering your five senses in the kitchen…and it’s not just a great meal. You’ll develop the confidence to set recipes aside and begin to create in the kitchen. You’ll be completely off script and you’ll love it.
You’ll intuitively understand how ingredients work; those that play well together and those that well…don’t.
You’ll begin to shop by season and by your desire, not by the crumpled recipe in your hand or the sub-par ingredient staring back at you in the produce section.
You’ll learn to play with ingredients, textures, flavors and temperatures.
Utilizing all of your senses allows you to step back assess your dish with new eyes (ears, nose, hands and mouth). It will allow you to fully immerse yourself in the process of cooking and give you the space and confidence to create meals that exceed anything you might find in a cookbook (although you will always love them for inspiration).