Food & Beverage
Skill Builder: Hello, Kitchen!

Jeff Potter’s book, Cooking for Geeks, is based on a simple premise: “We geeks are fascinated by how things work, and most of us eat, too.” Food month here on MAKE is built upon that same idea. We’re going to be excerpting from Jeff’s book over the next few weeks, and publishing some of his original content as well. Below is an excerpt from the first chapter of book, fittingly titled, “Hello, Kitchen!” In the next installment, we’ll cover some kitchen equipment basics. -Gareth

Tips for Newbies

Knowing how to overcome functional fixedness problems such as Duncker’s Candle Problem requires understanding how to read a recipe and break it down into the individual steps, so that you can control and vary the discrete stages. As with any protocol, understanding the structure is critical; you have to understand a system before you can hack it. Here are a few tips for getting yourself in the right state of mind to learn the kitchen equivalents of programming’s “open, read, close”:

Have fun! Learning is about curiosity, not work.

Know your type. Like to grill? Then grill. Rather bake? Then bake.

Read the whole recipe before starting, and make sure you understand each step.

Take time to taste things, both to adjust seasoning and to learn how the taste changes during cooking.

Don’t be afraid to burn dinner!

Have fun!

I was talking with a friend of mine, a fellow geek who was just starting to learn to cook, when he said:

I was never that curious about cooking, so I thought that buying The Joy of Cooking and going through it would be the right approach. That’s probably like sitting down with Donald Knuth’s The Art of Computer Programming in order to learn to program, when really all you should be doing at first is trying to make something you like.

He’s right: make something you like, give yourself enough time to enjoy the process, and have fun doing it. Slaving through the Joy or Knuth will work, but it’s not the way most people learn to cook or write code. It’d be like picking up a dictionary to learn how to write. The culinary equivalent of The Oxford English Dictionary or The Art of Computer Programming is Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking (Scribner). It’s a fantastic reference and a substantial contribution to our understanding of the everyday processes in food, and you should make space for a copy on your bookshelf. But it is not a book for learning how to cook.

If there’s one secret about learning how to cook, it’s this: have fun in the kitchen. Go experiment. Play. Take that hacker curiosity that you use in front of the keyboard and bring it with you into the kitchen, to the grocery store, and on your next meal out. Cook to please yourself. Doing someone else’s work is nowhere near as much fun as working on your own projects, and it’s no different in the kitchen: pick something you want to learn how to cook and try making it.

Caught between two different ways of cooking something? Do an A/B test: make it one way, then a second way, and see which works better.

Don’t cook a new dish for an important guest. If you’re nervous about how it’ll turn out, cook for just yourself, so you don’t have to worry about trying to impress someone (especially a potential romantic interest!). It’s entirely okay to screw up and toss it in the trash; it’s no different than a programmer refactoring code. Most people’s first drafts of software, food, or books need refinement before they’re ready to ship. Sure, it’ll hurt a little on the wallet, but it’s not wasted: you did learn something, yes? Success!

Finally, don’t expect your cooking to taste exactly like restaurant or packaged foods. For one, a lot of commercial cooking is designed to appeal to the palette via a salty, fatty, or sugary assault on the senses. Tasty? Yes. Healthy? Not exactly. Learning to cook is a great way to control what you eat and, by extension, your health.

Know your type

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide people into two kinds, and those who don’t. Or is it 10 types: those who know binary, and those who don’t? All joking aside, “binning” yourself into the right category will make the learning process a whole heck of a lot easier. And in case you’re the irreverent type who insists you don’t fit into any standard category, work with me here. Consider the following: vi or emacs? Windows or Mac? PHP or Python? Sure, you might not have strong preferences, but it’s still clear that divisions exist.

The culinary world has its divisions, too. The biggest one in the professional world is that of cooks versus bakers. Cooks have a reputation for an intuitive, “toss it into the pot” approach, adding a pinch of this or a dash of that to “course-correct” along the way. Bakers are stereo-typically described as precise, exact in their measurements, and methodically organized. Even culinary schools such as Le Cordon Bleu split their programs into cooking (“cuisine”) and baking (“patisserie”). But this is probably due to the differences in technique and execution. Cooking is split into two stages: prep work and then an on-demand, line-cook portion. Pastry and baking is almost always done production-style, completed in advance of when the order comes in.

This isn’t to say that professional cooks hate baking, or that bakers don’t enjoy cooking. But if you find yourself dipping your finger into the cake batter and being tempted to add more of this or that, pay attention to what it means. If you’re the type who really likes to have an exact set of instructions to follow, taking the guesswork out of the process, learn to relax and develop your kitchen instincts when whipping up a dinner. Give yourself permission to dislike some parts of cooking. For most of us, it’s a hobby, not a profession, so it’s okay to skip the culinary equivalent of documenting your code.

Avoid PEBKAC-type errors: RTFR!

Avoid Problem Exists Between Knife And Chair–type errors by Reading The F’ing Recipe! Recipes are code, although they require some interpretation, so read the recipe, top to bottom, before starting. One interviewee, Lydia Walshin, explains:

The biggest, biggest piece of advice that I can give any cook starting out, and even a lot of experienced cooks, is to take a minute, breathe deeply, read the recipe first, and know from the beginning where you think you want to end up. Don’t start out thinking you’re making a soup and halfway through you find out you’re making a stew, because it’s a recipe for disaster.

Every. Word. Matters. I’ve watched geeks with PhDs in chemistry skip right over steps that say “turn off heat” in the middle of a recipe that involves melting chocolate in simmering port. Turn off heat? But melting things requires heat! In fact, the residual heat from the port will melt the chocolate, and this way you don’t accidentally burn it.

It’s okay to go “off recipe.” In fact, it’s a great way to learn; just do it intentionally. Maybe you don’t have all the ingredients and want to substitute something else. Perhaps the recipe is poorly written or has errors. Or, as in programming, you can see there’s more than one way to do it and you want to do it differently. A recipe isn’t a strict protocol, but do understand the suggested protocol before deviating.

There’s a lot of room for personal preference in cooking. Just because a recipe for hot chocolate might say “½ cup heavy cream, 1 cup milk,” that doesn’t mean you must use those quantities. As another interviewee put it, “Please, let’s get off the recipes!” I couldn’t agree more. If you’re following a recipe and think it needs more or less of something, or could benefit from an extra spice, go for it. I usually stick to the recipe the first time I make something, but after that, all bets are off. I’ll pull out a pencil, make notes, change quantities, drop and add ingredients. I encourage you to do that to this book! After making something, take a pencil and make notes as to what you’d do differently next time. That way, when you next pick up the book, you’ll remember how to tweak the recipe to your taste. (And if there are any errors in the text, you won’t repeat them.)

If a brownie recipe calls for walnuts, but you really like almonds, yes, it’ll still work! Out of vanilla extract? Those chocolate chip cookies will be fine. Your timer says the chicken has been in for the prescribed time, but it’s still got that gross, raw chicken look? Pop it back in the oven. (Better yet, use a probe thermometer.)

In most modern cookbooks, recipes are laid out in two sections: ingredients and methods. The ingredients section lists the quantities and prep steps for each of the ingredients, and the methods section describes how to combine them. Recipes in this book are laid out in a more conversational format that walks you through the recipes with ingredients listed as they come up. Pay attention to the notes, as they show where you can do things differently.

To get started, consider the recipe for hot chocolate on the following page.

The recipes in this book give both weight in grams and standard U.S. volume-based quantities. Sometimes, the weights are rounded up or down a bit. 1 cup milk, for example, actually weighs 256 grams (1 cup = 237 ml).

What kind of milk? Whole milk? Skim? If a recipe doesn’t specify, it shouldn’t matter too much, although as a general rule I tend to split the difference and grab lowfat/semi-skimmed milk. Sometimes the choice is governed by taste preference, so if you’re used to that watery stuff or are the stick-of-butter type, go for it. Some cookbooks will specify defaults in their introductions, perhaps defining milk as whole milk. The most common generic term is flour. When it’s called for, you can assume that what you need is AP (all-purpose) flour. AP flour really isn’t all-purpose; it just has a moderate amount of gluten (10–12%) as compared to cake flour (6–8%) or bread flour (12–14%).

When a recipe calls for something “to taste,” add a pinch, taste it, and continue adding until you think it is balanced. What constitutes balanced is a matter of cultural background and personal preference for some ingredients, especially seasoning ingredients such as salt, lemon juice, vinegar, and hot sauce. There’s some evidence that some of these preferences are actually a matter of biological differences between the way different people taste.

f(g(x)) != g(f(x)) Translation? Order of operations is important! “3 tablespoons bittersweet chocolate, chopped” is not the same thing as “3 tablespoons chopped bittersweet chocolate.” The former calls for 3 tablespoons of chocolate that are then chopped up (taking up more than 3 tablespoons), whereas the latter refers to a measure of chocolate that has already been chopped. When you see recipes calling for “1 cup nuts, chopped,” measure the nuts, then chop; likewise, if the recipe calls for “1 cup chopped nuts,” chop the nuts and then measure out 1 cup.

Taste == Feedback

Learn to really taste things. The mechanical aspects of cooking—combining ingredients, applying heat—come down to smell and taste. Pay attention to your sense of smell and see if you can notice a change in the odors just as the food finishes cooking. Take time to taste a dish and ask yourself what would make it better. And taste things throughout the process of cooking to see how the flavors evolve over time.

One of the first things I was taught in painting class was to be comfortable scraping the still-wet oil paint off the canvas. We were told to paint a still life; a few hours later, our instructor said, “Great, now take the palette knife and scrape the paint off. All of it.” Talk about frustration! But it’s a good lesson: becoming attached to the current state of something prevents you from being able to see better ways of doing it. In writing, it’s called “killing your babies”: deleting favorite bits of the text that no longer serve their original purpose. (These are usually pieces of text that are older and have survived rewrites due to emotional attachment.) “Killing your babies” is about getting beyond the current version, about getting from point A to a better point: B.

How does all this relate to cooking? Given a sauce, stew, cookie dough, whatever food you’re working with, its “current state” is A. If you taste it and think it’s not quite right, how do you get to B? Start with A, taste it, take a guess at what might make it better, and try version B. Turning out great food isn’t about following a recipe exactly and getting it right on the first pass; it’s about making many small guesses and picking the better choice with each guess.

Try making a guess with a small side portion if you’re unsure. Making stew? Put a few spoonfuls in a bowl and season that. Making cookies? Bake just one cookie, see how it comes out, and tweak the dough before making the next one.

Sure, to be proficient at something you do need the technical skill to be able to see where you want to go and to understand how to get there. And happy accidents do happen. However, the methodical approach is to look at A, wonder if maybe B would be better, and rework it until you have B. (“Hmm, seems a bit dull, needs a bit more zing, how about some lemon juice?”) The real skill isn’t in getting to B, though: it’s in holding the memory of A in your head and judging whether B is actually an improvement. It’s an iterative process—taste, adjust, taste, adjust—with each loop either improving the dish or educating you about what guesses didn’t work out. Even the bad guesses are useful because they’ll help you build up a body of knowledge.

Taste the dish. It’s your feedback mechanism both for checking if A is “good enough” and for determining if B is better than A.

Don’t be afraid to burn dinner!

Talking with other geeks, I realized how lucky I was as a kid to have parents who both liked to cook and made time to sit down with us every day over a good home-cooked meal. Because of this background, approaching the kitchen has never been a big deal for me. But for some, the simple idea of stepping into the kitchen sets off panic attacks as the primitive parts of the brain take over (you can blame your brain’s locus coeruleus; it’s not your fault).

Here’s the thing. Failure in the kitchen—burning something, “wasting” money, and having to order pizza—is actually success. Think of it this way: there’s not much to learn when things work. When they fail, you have a chance to understand where the boundary conditions are and an opportunity to learn how to save something in the future when things go awry. Made mac ’n cheese from scratch but the sauce turned out gritty? Spend some time searching online and you’ll discover that gritty cheese sauce = “broken” sauce, which is caused by too much heat and stirring, or using nonfat cheese. The key to learning how to cook is to define success as a chance to learn rather than as a perfect meal. Even if dinner does end up in the trash, if you learned something about what went wrong, that’s success. Failure in the kitchen is a better instructor than success.

Fear of failure is another thoroughly modern American phenomenon. We’re bombarded with images of the perfect Thanksgiving turkey (they probably used a plastic one during the photo shoot), photos of models sporting impossible physiques (thanks, Photoshop), and stories of triumph and success (where they don’t disclose the sad parts and trade-offs). Then when we go to try something, we often find it doesn’t work for us the way it seems to for others. Setbacks. Negative feedback. No wonder there’s so much fear of failure: we’ve set ourselves a bar so high that it simply doesn’t exist.

There’s a generation of Americans hung up on being perfect. The perfect white teeth, the perfect clothing, the perfect “carefree” tossed-together wardrobe. Helicopter parents. Overly critical reviews that rag on everything, down to who cuts our hair and the food we eat. Insane expectations in reviews on about the books we read. (A good book is one that gives you more value than the cost of the book and your time. Be kind. ;-) ) No wonder why some parts of American society seem to match the DSM-V criteria for schizophrenia: we’re literally going insane trying to be perfect when it just isn’t possible. It’s much easier to love yourself for who you are than to try to be perfect (the latter will never bring true happiness), and it’s much easier in the kitchen to aspire to “fun and tasty” than the perfect 16-course gourmet meal (although attempting it can be fun on occasion).

Be okay with being “just” good enough. Part of the appeal of Julia Child was her almost-average abilities and her “nothing special” aura. The reason some people fear Martha Stewart is because her cooking looks perfect and always comes out perfectly on the first try. (I have the world of respect for Ms. Stewart.) Given her background—starting a catering business out of her basement—she had to be perfect to succeed. (Wedding days have to be perfect, no?) This quest for perfection comes at a real cost, though; even if it’s achievable for a day, it isn’t practical day-in, day-out.

Set reasonable goals, and expect to get frustrated on occasion. Cooking well takes practice. Play around with various ingredients and techniques, and come up with projects you want to try. (Mmm, bacon and egg breakfast pizza.) It’s like learning to play the guitar: at first you strive just to hit the notes and play the chords, and it takes time to gain command of the basic techniques and to move on to the level where subtle improvisation and nuanced expression can occur. If your dream is to play in a band, don’t expect to get up on stage after a day or even a month; start by picking up a basic book on learning to play the guitar and practicing somewhere you’re comfortable.

A beta tester for this book commented:

While there are chefs with natural-born abilities, people have to be aware that learning to cook is an iterative process. They have to learn to expect not to get it right the first time, and proceed from there, doing it again and again.

What about when you fubar (foobar?) a meal and can’t figure out why? Think of it like not solving a puzzle on the first try. When starting to cook, make sure you don’t pick puzzles that are too difficult. Start with simpler puzzles (recipes) that will allow you to gain the insights needed to solve the harder ones. And give it time. You might have days when you feel like you’ve learned nothing, but the cumulative result will lead to insights.

If a recipe doesn’t work as well as you’d have liked, try to figure out why and then try it again. It might also be the fault of the recipe, or that the recipe is simply too advanced. I know some newbies who have gotten stuck trying to perfect one dish. They usually burn out in frustration. If you’re not happy with the results of your early attempts, try a different source of recipes. Some books, especially those from top-tier restaurateurs such as Chefs Thomas Keller or Grant Achatz, are highly technical and complicated. Don’t begin with these recipes; instead, pick recipes that limit the number of variables to just a handful that you can manage.


In the Maker Shed:
Cooking for Geeks

Jeff Potter, O’Reilly, 2010
Are you the innovative type, the cook who marches to a different drummer, used to expressing your creativity instead of just following recipes? Are you interested in the science behind what happens to food while it’s cooking? Do you want to learn what makes a recipe work so you can improvise and create your own unique dish? Author Jeff Potter has done the cubicle thing, the startup thing, and the entrepreneur thing, and through it all maintained his sanity by cooking for his friends.


Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and “lazy man’s memoir,” called Borg Like Me.

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn