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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 24, Issue 5

How to Be a Better Cook

Cooking tools Illustration



Stuart Bradford

I've never enjoyed cooking. All the chopping, stirring and waiting—not to mention handling raw meat (the former vegetarian in me can't help but shudder). Somehow I still pull together meals for my family that they seem to enjoy. But when I think about teaching my daughter to cook or about ways to help my husband become more comfortable in the kitchen, I'm at a loss. How do you translate habit and instinct into step-by-step pointers anyone can follow? I asked the experts what makes for success in the kitchen, and here's what they had to say.

#1 Boost your focus.
Complex dishes can involve long lists of ingredients and instructions, and even simple ones can get mind-numbingly repetitive—measure, pour, stir, repeat. A skill that will help you deal with both issues is simple concentration. “To me, focus and tenacity are key to being a good cook,” says Jason McClure, chef of Sazerac, a restaurant in Seattle. “You can get an initial thrill from cooking a new dish, and it's always perfect and gorgeous that first time”—but boredom and distraction can lead to charred meat and soggy pasta. One well-known way to increase your natural ability to concentrate? Meditation. A 2010 paper in Psychological Science found that people who went to an intensive three-month meditation retreat for a week were better able to maintain their concentration during a boring test than a control group; in another study, college kids who meditated for 20 minutes a day saw a difference in cognitive abilities after just four days.

#2 Make like a cooking show and mise en place.
There's a reason Rachael Ray and Ina Garten look so relaxed while they are cooking on TV—everything has been measured and laid out for them beforehand. “Preparing all of your ingredients in advance so everything is all set up and ready to go, called mise en place, is really important,” says Jackie Newgent, a New York City nutritionist and author of 1,000 Low-Calorie Recipes (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). This way your garlic will not burn in the pan while you are trying to rinse and slice the chicken. Measuring and chopping everything beforehand also leaves you free to be mindful of more subtle cooking cues such as whether things are cooking faster than expected. “A recipe will say something like ‘cook until browned, about 10 minutes,' but some people will cook it for 10 minutes regardless of whether it browned more quickly,” Newgent says. “You have to be able to adapt as things go, paying attention to visual or texture cues.”

#3 Cook more.
If you can force yourself to start cooking at least three times a week, your skills in the kitchen will blossom fast, says Adam Roberts, author of Secrets of the Best Chefs (Artisan, 2012), who painstakingly taught himself to cook during law school and eventually made a career of his love affair with the kitchen. The best chefs in the world are what they are because, he points out, they spend most of their time cooking. Cognitive scientists would call this skill refinement—the improvement in performance of a cognitive or motor skill with practice. But Roberts explains it in simpler terms of shaping a new habit: “Cooking is a lot like anything in that the more you make a routine out of it, the easier it becomes. If you cook three nights a week and you get into the rhythm of that, it won't seem like such a big deal when you come home from work tired and you don't feel like making dinner.”

#4 When all else fails, add butter and onions.
This admittedly lazy tip comes straight from my amateur kitchen. I can't tell you how many times my husband has marveled at the flavor of some omelet, veggie hash or even reheated pasta that I “magically” (as it seems to him) made appear on the dining room table during the time it took him to drive our daughter home from preschool. This usually happens when I took the time to add some onions that have been sautéed in full-fat, salted butter. A little pat of butter is only 25 calories, but the flavor it adds is enormous. As for onions … well, as Julia Child herself wrote, “It's hard to imagine a civilization without onions.”

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