Using Your Senses in the Kitchen

Every morning my day starts the same way, and my morning ritual ends with a bowl of oatmeal—each day—seven days a week. And I always make the oatmeal the same way. First I switch on the left front burner of my electric stove to high. I then assemble my ingredients and tools on the kitchen counter. I always use the same small pot, the same measuring cups, and the same measuring spoon. Each day I measure out three-quarters cup of oatmeal and add it to the pot. Then I add one-eighth teaspoon of fine salt and dump that over the oatmeal. I then shake the pot a bit so the salt disperses through the oatmeal. Next I measure and add two tablespoons of flax seed meal. Finally, I move the pot to the sink and add one cup of cold water. The whole mixture is thoroughly stirred with a small wooden spatula and the pot is placed on the hot burner. Then I go off and do something else like put away the dishes from the previous night’s meal or read the local paper. I’ll know that the oatmeal is ready for the next step when it “tells” me so. Yep, my oatmeal talks to me!

From experience, I’ve learned that if I turn off the heat when the mixture in the pot comes to a boil, cover it, and wait four minutes, the results will be perfect. The proper boiling point makes a unique sound that tells me it’s time to shut off the burner. A few moments before or a few moments afterward, the sound is different. Since I “watch” the pot with my ears, as long as I stay within earshot, I’m free to do other things while the oatmeal is heating. This example may seem a bit trivial, but it does demonstrate that cooking can involve hearing—not one of the five senses normally associated with cooking.

Some people never seem to use any of their senses when they cook. They try not to touch the food directly by using only tongs or wearing gloves. They never taste anything before it’s served. They use a clock to judge doneness, not their eyes or fingers or nose. And the only thing they listen to in the kitchen is the television.

My eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and fingers are all cooking tools. Although I don’t keep them in my gadget drawer, I still use them everyday in many useful—sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious—ways.

I use sight to judge progress when I cook. When I sweat onions, I can tell by the translucency of the onions, how the sweating is proceeding. If they appear moist, the process is progressing properly. If they appear dry, they will probably start burning soon. If I’d like them to brown and there appears to be a lot of moisture, I can see that the heat needs to be increased in order to boil off the liquid and start the caramelization process.

In making crepes, the top surface will appear dry long before it is time to flip a crepe to the second side. I know when to flip the crepe by observing the edge of the crepe. When it starts to appear slightly brown and crispy, I know it’s time to turn the crepe over.

An old way to check if poultry is cooked is to make a small cut near the thigh. If the juices run clear then the poultry is considered to be cooked. If no juice is seen then the bird is probably overcooked.

Recipes often call for creaming sugar and butter until light. I know that the process involves not only mixing the two ingredients together but also beating air into the mixture. As air is incorporated, the mixture appears lighter in color, and that tells me the mixture will be ready soon.

I can also use sight as a means of judging the quality of raw ingredients. A bruised fruit or vegetable may be an indicator of further damage. (But there are some fruits and vegetables, such as avocados, that can have horrible looking skins and still be pristine on the inside.)

When I purchase whole fish I can use my sight to inspect the fish’s eyes. If they are clear, the fish is fresh. As the fish spends time outside of water, the eyes become increasingly cloudy until they are opaque. A fish with cloudy eyes may still be okay to eat, but it will not be as fresh as one with clear eyes.

When I cook sugar syrups, or fruit juices, I know that the frequency and size of the bubbles breaking on the surface will change as the water evaporates from the solution and the liquid approaches pure molten sugar. It’s possible to judge how far along the evaporation process is by the bubbles. This is also true when reducing stock to make glace. It is a change I can easily see.

Taste is the sense that seems like it should be used the most in the kitchen, yet there are many dishes that I never taste before I sit down to eat them. When I cook a steak or other meat, I never cut off a piece while it’s cooking to judge how it tastes. I never taste a cake while it’s baking to see if it is done. Conversely, I may taste a sauce four or five times during preparation in order to verify that it is seasoned just right. Preparations that are “seasoned to taste” make up a large number of occasions when I use my taste buds in cooking.

I also use my taste buds when flavoring a preparation. Whether adding spices or herbs, I often add these in stages and taste the results as I go. It takes a little experience to judge how a finished dish will taste when the flavorings are added early in the cooking. But now with experience, I can come quite close to the final desired effect early in the process.

The addition of flavorings to baked goods is usually done by measure, not by taste. For baking, I seldom use my taste buds before the final product is ready, unless it’s for licking the mixing bowl.

I also use my sense of taste to judge the quality of raw ingredients when I purchase them. I can’t bite into a pineapple to see if it is sweet, but I can sneak a cherry or two. I am fortunate enough to be able to buy fruits and vegetables unpackaged in the market. There are many items that I can munch on before buying. For example, I would never buy a green bean without the opportunity to taste a sample.

I know that my sense of taste is closely connected to my sense of smell. Like everyone else, if I lose my ability to smell, my sense of taste will be altered. But in the kitchen, where I use my senses as part of my personal gadget set, smell and taste can be thought of as two distinct senses.

I use my sense of smell to help me determine whether an ingredient is good or bad. Many items have a pleasant smell when their quality is good and a foul smell when bad. Part of the process of choosing a cantaloupe or a pineapple in the market is to smell the fruit as well as to judge it by look and feel. Fresh fish smell of the sea whereas spoiled fish smell of rot and decay. A fresh egg will have very little odor, but a rotten egg will remind me of high school chemistry. (I once met a chef who would break each egg into a separate bowl and hold the bowl to his nose before using the egg.)

Some ingredients have strong smells when they are fresh. The smell weakens as the ingredient ages. Most spices and dried herbs loose much of their aroma as they age, especially if exposed to air. Freshly minced garlic loses some of its pungency as the juices evaporate after cutting.

Sometimes the smell of a dish as it is cooking lets me know that it is done. When I make brown butter, I know that it is properly browned when it produces a nut-like aroma. Other dishes let me know they are overdone when they start to smell burnt. If I am not in the kitchen when a pot boils over, it is usually my sense of smell (or the smoke alarm) that lets me know that something is amiss.

I am continually amazed in the kitchen by people who don’t want to touch food. Either they think, by their own admission, it’s unsanitary or they are just squeamish. Sometimes it is a fear of burning their fingers that keeps them from using them.

I use my sense of touch in many ways each day to judge whether something is cooked the right amount. When roasting boneless cuts of meat and even some on the bone, I press on them to determine degree of doneness. [Click here to load a movie that shows the change in a chicken breast as it roasts.] When I poach an egg, I set the timer to remind me to check it, but I always press on the yolk gently with my finger to make sure it is cooked to the desired degree. When baking a cake or a custard, I usually press on the top lightly before I ever stick a knife in it to verify that it is fully cooked.

Sometimes I use a knife as an extension of my hand. I know that when I insert the tip of a sharp knife in an asparagus stalk it will feel different when it is undercooked, properly cooked, or overcooked. When it’s undercooked there will be much resistance, when properly cooked there will be minimal resistance, and when overcooked there will be no resistance. Other vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower can be tested the same way. This system also works when testing the doneness of braised chicken or rabbit cooked in pieces, especially when testing the legs.

Sometimes I use my teeth to “touch” food. The best way I know to determine if fine green beans (haricots vertes) are properly cooked is to pull one out of the boiling water and bite into it. I also test pasta for doneness with my teeth.

Old-time pâtissiers and chocolatiers used to usetouch to test the temperature of chocolate when they tempered it. They would stir the chocolate with a wooden spatula and touch a small amount lightly to their lower lip. Cuisiniers would use a similar method to test the temperature of a large roast. They would stick a metal skewer into the center of the meat for fifteen seconds and then touch it to their lip. A skewer at 40 °C will feel slightly warm to a chef whose body temperature is about 37 °C.

I use a knife to judge where to trim asparagus stalks. I’ve learned from experience that there is a boundary zone in each stalk where it turns from tough to tender. Starting at the cut end, I cut across the stalk with a sharp knife about a centimeter from the end and notice how much resistance there is to the cut. If there is some resistance, I move the knife up a centimeter and make another cut. When I move from the tough zone to the tender zone the resistance falls away.

When I make sausages, there is a point where I mix all the flavorings with the ground meat and fat. I can’t tell you how long to mix these ingredients, but I can tell you how the mixture should feel. The final sausage texture is partly due to how the stuffing mixture feels before it is stuffed into casings.

Another way touch is used in cooking is to judge when something is hot enough for cooking. Grilling instructors teach that you know a grill is hot enough when you can only hold your hand a few centimeters above it for a second or two. A similar method can be used to judge when a dry frying pan is sufficiently hot for searing meat or poultry.

I always see people’s ears perk up when I say that my sense of hearing can be an important tool in the kitchen. Is it that hard to believe? Professional kitchens are often noisy places and home kitchens, given the background noise of kids or the stereo, can be noisy too. And I’ve never “heard” a quiet exhaust fan. But I’ve never not heard a pot that was boiling over and making a mess of my stove.

When I’m reducing a liquid, especially one that starts off with a large quantity, I never sit and watch the pot. After all, reducing ten liters of stock down to a liter of glace can take an hour or more. But I’ve found that the sound of the boiling liquid changes as the reduction nears the end point and the liquid becomes syrupy. The sound change is also more noticeable and occurs much earlier when reducing liquids for a sauce. In the former case, I’m already in the kitchen so I just keep a small portion of my attention towards the pot and when the sound changes I’m there to make sure the reduction doesn’t go too far. [Click here to load a movie that demonstrates the sound differences found in reduction when making a sauce.]

When I place a steak in a hot frying pan, or better yet a grill pan, there is an initial sizzle from the juices near the surface evaporating at the hot surface. As the surface of the steak sears and becomes dry, the sizzle lessens. The same is true when browning chunks of meat for stewing. This is why recipes say not to crowd the meat because the juices need to be evaporated in order to brown the meat. If there isn’t sufficient space in the pan, the meat will boil in the liquid rather than brown. All of this makes different sounds.

A similar situation happens when frying mushrooms. Initially, the mushrooms release a generous amount of water. As the water boils away and the mushrooms become dry, the sound changes. Other than shaking the pan once in a while to stir the contents, it’s not necessary for me to stand next to the pan to know what’s going on inside it. This leaves me free to do other tasks in the kitchen while my mushrooms cook.

In addition to our normal five senses, longtime cooks develop a sense of time and a sense of space. They don’t need a timer to know how long to cook something or a ruler to know how thick a slice is. These senses develop with age and experience. Combined with the five physical senses, they comprise a formidable set of tools for all of us to use when we cook.

©2006 Peter Hertzmann, Inc. All rights reserved.