Three Essential Cooking Lessons You Can Learn from Julia Child

Recently, I’ve been reading a few pages of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking before bed each night. 

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And each night, I extract more information about cooking from this jovial heroine of French cuisine, whose cookbook introduced French food to Americans in the 1960s, than you’d ever think possible from a few minutes of reading. 

Here are some of the indispensable lessons I’ve picked up thus far:

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When people say they don’t know how to cook, my guess is that they mean they don’t know how to cook without a recipe. But good home cooks, and even trained professionals, like Julia Child, don’t sit down and memorize every recipe that crosses their path. Through purposeful practice, they come to know by heart techniques: the methods for making (and varying) classic sauces, frying perfect eggs, clarifying butter, and so on. These are the building blocks that allow cooks to put together great meals without having to refer to recipes, and without having to worry that, say, their broad dice is more of a fine chop (right??). 

Whatever your preferred cuisine, invest time in learning and practicing the basic techniques. Get the basics down, and you’ll gain the confidence and extra time in the kitchen necessary to try new techniques and experiment with old. “Eventually,” Julia says, “you will rarely need recipes at all”! 

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When I was a kid, I was a slave to the ingredient list. If I was missing something, I’d skip the recipe altogether — substituting or omitting the ingredient didn’t cross my mind. And no wonder, because recipes are so often written as though they’re prescriptive, with no flexibility in sight. 

Not so with Julia Child. Flip through her recipes and you’ll find ingredient lists that call for this OR that. Which isn’t to say that she thought, for example, that onions tasted exactly the same as leeks and shallots, or that the three were always interchangeable. But, as someone who was aiming to introduce French techniques to the States way back in the day, she did recognize that we’re sometimes limited by our preferences and our grocery stores.  

So don’t feel like you have to fall in line with tyrannical ingredient lists. Actively consider your ingredient choices — your personal preferences, the quality of the ingredients you have available, and the impact of a substitution on the final dish — and you’ll get a better feel for how food comes together (and likely a better dish too!). 

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It can be about learning. So if you struggle to chop veggies with speed, do as Julia would do, chopping simply for the sake of getting better, and not because you specifically need a mile-high pile of veggies. When learning is the goal, let the meal plan follow the technique. Even if the resulting dish isn’t perfect, as long as you’re trying to improve your skills your time in the kitchen won’t have been wasted. 

The more you approach cooking with an emphasis on learning, the quicker those building blocks and that intuitive understanding of ingredients will come, and the better (and happier) cook you’ll be!

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