The Kitchen is No Place for Perfection

The Kitchen is No Place for Perfection

I love cooking.

My younger self would never understand that sentiment, but in recent years I've really taken to my kitchen. I blame YouTube for constantly recommending Gordon Ramsey videos to me late at night when I was in college, but I find something very romantic about working hard in the kitchen to create something you can enjoy almost immediately.

The problem for those whom I need to feed is that I hate following recipes. Recipes are boring and slow me down. What if I'm not feeling like cumin today? What if it's particularly cold and I want some extra kick from the cayenne? What if I don't want to go to the store to find that one ingredient the recipe is calling for? A recipe is there to show me what could be possible, and my job in the kitchen is to turn that possibility into a reality. Sometimes that reality is mediocre, or horrible looking, or just plain horrible.

Everyone likes chocolate
Cast iron brownies I made last year.

The kitchen is no place for hard-and-fast rules. It's a place with endless opportunity to tweak and improvise. The beauty of cooking comes not from the recipe you write down, but the process you took to get there.

Sometimes you strike gold in the kitchen but can't figure out how you got there. I made some bean chili a couple last year that was spectacular, but I have no idea what I put into it. I know there was vinegar, a ton of cumin, and more hot sauce than was necessary. It took me something like an hour to cook everything up and I couldn't tell you the proportions of anything. But to me this is part of the fun. I know the flavor combinations that worked so well in that chili, and I basically remember the steps I took to get the beans to the consistency that I liked so much. If someone asked me for a recipe, I could only give some guidelines and where to go. They might not appreciate that, but I love that the next time I try to cook some chili, I'm not bound by my previous success. After all, I have no real record of what created that success! I get to experiment all over again, just this time with a bit more knowledge about what roughly makes things good.

Some people hate cooking this way. They want to know something is going to be "correct" and consistent. They want to know that they'll like the final outcome. Most of the people I've met like this want to make a dish exactly like their grandmother or mother made. I think that's fine, but it's not for me. It also doesn't work. My oven isn't the same as the one in my old place. My stove heats radically differently than the one in my parents' house. And the ingredients can even be different! My flour is packaged differently from the flour my parents have available, and it comes from a different mill. These differences are even more extreme when I try to compare to the equipment my mom or grandmother had available when they wrote down those recipes.

During lockdown I had a hard time finding sugar for baking, and I had to buy a fancier sugar one time to fill out the cupboards. So when I took inspiration from my mom's brownie recipe, I knew that nothing in my kitchen would behave like it does in her kitchen. And it didn't! But because I knew what the brownies should look like at various stages, I was able to make the appropriate adjustments as I went. They weren't the same as hers, but that didn't make them worse or better. They made them different.

Pro tip: don't cook things over a fire while it's raining. Things get smokey very quickly.
Roasting some chestnuts over a fire at my grandparents' home.

My issue really comes from the idea that you can craft the "perfect" meal, or be able to write down a recipe that will be "perfect" for everyone, regardless of their equipment or ingredient sourcing, quality, and freshness. There is no such thing as perfect, there is only a great meal for you on that specific day. Every day is different. Every meal is different. And tastes change over time. I used to prefer mashed potatoes, low I think I prefer them baked. I used to literally gag on mushrooms but can't get enough of them now.

Even those teaching us how to cook have changing tastes. You may say "oh, but to stay in the spotlight you have to keep coming up with the same thing", and that's true. But if a recipe is perfect, you wouldn't ever have to change it. You could repackage the video or recipe to be prettier, or better worded, or to clear up some things you missed in the past, or to include more sexy shots of your food to put on Instagram. Here's Jamie Oliver, a world-renowned chef, teaching people how to cook the "perfect" steak and save some money in the process:

Jamie Oliver's perfect steak, circa 2013

This was a great how-to on steak, especially for a kid in college trying to figure out whether it was really worth paying for a premium cut of beef. There were a lot of little things to take from that video: marbling is important, price is not necessarily an indicator of quality, sometimes doing a little bit of work yourself makes a world of difference, and cooking techniques don't have to be complicated.

But then Jamie turns around and reveals the new best way to cook a steak! What happened?

Jamie Oliver's perfect steak for 2020, now with color correction and romantic lighting

An observant person may notice he's cooking a different cut of steak, and think that's all there is to it. Flat iron steaks go in a pan, sirloins go under a heated brick. But there's so much more here: the seasoning is very different, the cooking temperature is very different (see all that smoke?), and he doesn't even mention how to tell when the cooking is finished! At least one of these steaks is not "perfect".

Even worse, Jamie got his friend to show the world the perfect steak all the way back in 2010! And his cooking method is different from either presented by Jamie!

Funnily enough, this video was my introduction to ASMR

So what's my point? I suppose it's that my kitchen is my playground, and my playground doesn't believe in perfection or rules. It believes in guidelines, and like all playgrounds, fun.

I don't want this to sound overly dramatic, but I take great pleasure in playing with my ingredients. I want to know all the ways I could cook something, and then I'd like to figure out when I would want different combinations of those ingredients. I've heard people say you shouldn't drink fish and red wine, but why is that? And I've heard I should always wash my rice, but what if I'm making a risotto and I want the extra starch? These are the questions I want to answer, and I want to answer them myself in my own kitchen eating my own evidence.