One of my favorite illustrations in Samin Nosrat’s cookbook Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is of an oven dial. (All of the illustrations are done by Wendy MacNaughton.) The temperatures have been scribbled out with a nearby Sharpie; only LOW and HIGH remain, along with the nearby scribble, “SAMIN WAS HERE.”
The suggestion is obvious: Abandon your oven dial, your timer, your thermometer, and use your nose and ears and eyes instead. They’re all you need to be a good cook.
A lot of cooks already do this instinctively: I’d wager that very few of us actually set a timer for the suggested 7 to 10 minutes while softening onions in a pan—we just investigate. Do they smell sweet? Are they sizzling actively or with a little more reserve? Are they looking soft and translucent? Are they getting a little too brown too quickly, and should I turn the heat down? It’s how we know when to stir, when to flip, when to pull off the heat.
“When you read recipes, think of temperatures and cooking times as strong suggestions, rather than fixed rules,” Samin writes. “Set your timer for a few minutes less than a recipe might suggest, then use all of your senses to check for doneness.”
“Strong suggestions” is just the thing—because yes, the recipe you’re following has been tested, and the temperatures and times given for a reason. But every stove and frying pan and oven is different (mine, for example, runs a little bit cold and follows the tilt of my very slanted kitchen floor, yielding slope-topped cakes). The dial, the timer, and the thermometer all ensure consistency—but when we’re completely reliant on them, we lose faith in our own instincts; we’re more likely to trust the recipe than ourselves. And yet we, the cooks, are the active agents in a recipe! What good’s a recipe if we’re not listening to (and looking at, smelling, prodding, and tasting) the food itself?
I cook for a living, and yet most of the time it feels I’m either overconfident or underconfident in the kitchen, with a very teeny, sometimes non-existent window of middle ground. But this lesson of Samin’s reminds us—me!—that no matter what’s going on in the oven or on the stove, we all have the basic skills as cooks to investigate and act accordingly. So: Have a result in mind for a recipe, and if that’s not what you get, begin to think about all the skills and experiences you have in your arsenal to adjust. Is it browning too quickly? Not getting golden-brown? Will the juice from the chicken’s hip crease run clear? We already know how to do this, because we know instinctively what looks and smells and tastes delicious.