Learning with my hands

I cook like my mother.
I rarely measure anything out, even though I have lovely sets of measuring cups and spoons and am always tempted to buy more when I pass by Pier 1 Imports or Williams Sonoma. I come from a “pinch of this” and “dash of that” heritage. When it was time to learn the secrets of spaghetti sauce, I stood beside the stove and watched my mother pour spices into her cupped palm until the piles of crushed leaves looked big enough to add to the simmering pot. She instructed me on proper measurements: “Cup your palm tighter for the thyme, you only want a small handful.” I’m very lucky: our hands are the same.
Her recipes are frustrating, because they include measurements like a “a squirt” and directions like “until it’s the right consistency.” Unless you’ve watched the process all the way through a few times, it’s difficult to do her dishes justice on your own. But I watched. I watched for years. I pinched pie crusts between my fingers and I dripped sauces off the back of a spoon. I learned.

My spaghetti sauce is nothing like hers, now. But it’s incredible.

A consequence of this learning method is that no recipe is safe with me. I intend to follow recipes – really, I do – but sometimes I only have boneless chicken breasts instead of the bone-in-thighs that the recipe calls for, and the substitutions start. I’ll use cheddar if I don’t have Monterey Jack. I’ll toss in skim milk because it’s probably a better substitute for cream than my Bailey’s Toffee Almond coffee creamer. I’ll automatically double the garlic content of any recipe I’m following.ย 
Of course, the biggest drawback to the substitution game is that I never make exactly the same recipe twice. When someone loves what I’ve made for dinner and asks me for the recipe, I can lend them the book or forward them a website link, but the version they’ll make will never be quite right. I try to explain what I did differently, but sometimes I don’t even know. I added more honey to sweeten the glaze, but I couldn’t tell you exactly how much, because I flipped the honey bear over and squeezed him until it tasted right. I kept adding chicken stock to thin the soup, but I didn’t keep track of how much more I needed.
I’ve considered being more scientific about the process and trying to write down what I’m doing as I go. I should probably add the honey by teaspoons, not blobs, and I should pour the broth from a measuring cup instead of the box, so I can see how much I have left and do the math. But although I consider myself a scientist, I just can’t seem to bring a calculating mentality into my kitchen. My meals are art. Not always good art, mind you, but it’s a creative process more than a formula, and I don’t know that I can change it. I don’t think I want to.
I’d love to cook for you. I have so much fun experimenting in the kitchen, and it’s wonderful to share the results with friends. I promise to do my best to give you an accurate recipe if you ask for it, but unless you’ve been hanging out with me in my kitchen and watching me work, you need to take those recipes with a grain of salt. Maybe two grains. I’m not sure, exactly. Stop when it tastes right.

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34 thoughts on “Learning with my hands

  1. Nicole

    This is also how I cook. Works beautifully 90% of the time. The rest I eat anyway.

    Also “I flipped the honey bear over and squeezed him until it tasted right” is a great line. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Gia

    I hear you! I’ve been experimenting with quinoa lately and it’s always different. i need to write it down so I can recreate it, damnit.

  3. Zsoop

    This is how the husband cooks, which is why he now cooks for the both of us. I can follow a recipe but have no inherent feel for cooking, and my stuff is always uninspired.

    Have you ever considered filming yourself cooking instead of trying to write things down at the moment? Then you could go back and analyze what you did when you aren’t in the thick of it.

    1. Jen

      If I didn’t have such a strong dislike for how I look and sound on camera, maybe! Till then maybe I’ll hire an assistant who is willing to work for food!

  4. Louise Ducote

    I automatically double (or triple) the garlic, too. You cook the way the best cooks do, and why not? Your method will work for everything except baking, when the amount of baking soda/baking powder really does matter. And now I want some spaghetti!

  5. Ginny Marie

    I’m becoming more confident in how I cook and in making substitutions! I have a recipe from my Grandma, where she writes, “It’s a process.” I haven’t been confident enough to try it yet, but I’m getting there!

  6. Laura Bedingfield Herakovich

    Love this! Terrific, vivid descriptions (loved the honey bear reference, too!)

    As someone who loves to cook, I am completely on the same page with you. My husband had never had homemade mac-and-cheese before meeting me. Now he has it a different way each time (sometimes it’s pepper jack cheese, sometimes some Swiss; might have some thyme, might have some onion…just depends on the mood) and loves it. Cooking is an art. Artists never follow the rules. Bon appetit!

  7. Natasha

    I automatically double the vanilla in any given recipe. And I mess with baking recipes regularly.

    Oddly enough, though, I am NOT a great “by feel” cook. Getting there, though.

  8. Samantha Brinn Merel

    I cook this way too, and I learned from my mom and both my grandmothers, also of the “a sprinkle of this,” “a dash of that” school of cooking. I do my best cooking when I don’t follow recipes exactly, but I’ve never quite been able to translate this into baking. There, I’m way more of a recipe follower.

  9. Jared Karol

    I’m no cook, but this post resonated w/ me – the spontaneity and improvisational approach to cooking is how I too approach many of my endeavors. . . writing, music, relationships (at times). . . You said: “I’ve considered being more scientific about the process and trying to write down what I’m doing as I go” . . . nah, that would kill the art. . . keep doing what you’re doing. Come to the Bay Area and you can cook in my kitchen. . . ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. My Half Assed Life

    I’m nearly positive that in the past 10 years I have not once cooked a recipe exactly as it was written.

    I measure all spices, salt and herbs with the palm of my hand. Sometimes even yeast and baking soda. My hand never disappears but my measuring spoons do.

  11. Marcy

    I cook this way too, and I don’t really like making a dish until I’ve made it mine and do it without looking at any recipes. The ones I really have down are chili and spaghetti sauce–so good–but they are always a little different, and every now and then I make a really great one or a not-as-good one, and that is frustrating. I hate measuring, though, so it’s all good.

  12. Tiffany Kummer

    You are so brave. I am such a rule-follower by nature that when I make a recipe I do Exactly. What. It. Says. I’ll then sit down and eat it and say, “wow, this needs more of _______” and then the next time I make it I will do Exactly. What. The. Recipe. Says. (Rinse & Repeat)

  13. Michelle Longo

    I tend to follow recipes exactly the first time and then experiment the second to make it more how I’ll like. I’m always in awe of people who can cook without a specific recipe!

  14. Larks

    I wish I could cook like this. No one ever taught me how to cook so I learn master recipes until I can do them in my sleep. Only then I am a confident enough to add a little but of this, a pinch of that.

  15. Kathleen

    I’m with you on the garlic, girl. There can never be enough as far as I’m concerned.

    I’m more of a recipe follower, but my husband is a wizard in the kitchen. He can make something out of nothing and does it regularly when I say “but there’s nothing in the pantry.” I don’t know if he just wants to prove me wrong, but the end result is always delicious.

    P.S. Now I’m hungry.

  16. Dilovely

    This is great. I love the idea of “cupping your palm tighter” for certain herbs. I enjoy sprinkling, shaking generously… and garlic-doubling, for sure.


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