Technique is everything
November 11, 2016 | Food & Gardening
One of the biggest money-making concepts in the world of cooking is the idea of a “secret recipe.” Fortunes have been built around the allure of the secret recipe. For example, Coca Cola guards its formula for its soda pop. The recipe for the original sacher torte (a delectable chocolate layer cake from the 1800s that contains apricot preserves) has supposedly been lost -- or successfully hoarded, depending on which legend you believe. Scores of pastry chefs have made money by claiming to have re-created the “original” sacher torte. If you’re a food professional, and a secret recipe is the secret to your success, all the more power to you. I won’t talk you out of a profitable business model.
Marketing strategies aside, I’m here to tell you that “secret ingredients” and “secret recipes” are mostly hype and magical thinking. Give five cooks the exact same recipe for, say, simple shortbread (flour, sugar, butter) and you’ll end up with five distinctly different shortbreads. Why? Well, Scottish legend says that each baker’s fingers impart something special and distinctive as she works the dough by hand. But my reason is more straightforward: Technique is everything.
What do I mean by technique? I am referring to the ability to manipulate ingredients to get a particular outcome. Technique cannot be mastered overnight, it cannot be successfully taught by simply reading through a recipe. You acquire good technique by practicing good technique – just as you do when learning a musical instrument. That means being hands-on, paying attention, keeping an open mind, and revising old habits if you find a new technique that produces a better outcome.
You can have the exact same ingredients that went into your friend’s mushroom soup, and yet have yours come out completely different, thanks to technique. That is why I have no patience with folks who refuse to give out certain recipes on the grounds that they’re a family secret. I have even less patience with the deceptive cook who shares a recipe, but leaves out a key ingredient on purpose so that nobody else can successfully re-create it. That’s worse than not sharing the recipe at all.
My recipe for roasted chicken contains two essential ingredients: chicken and salt (herbs and lemon are optional). I could write those ingredients on a postage stamp. But the technique of how to get a succulent chicken with perfectly browned skin takes three paragraphs to explain. And it takes a fair amount of practice to get it right.
Here are other recipes where the ingredients could be written on a postage stamp, but which require good technique to get right: omelets and scrambled eggs (eggs, cream, salt), baguettes (flour, water, yeast, salt), ganache (chocolate and heavy cream), peanut brittle (peanuts, water, sugar), a perfectly-cooked steak (beef, salt, and pepper), and fettucini Alfredo (fettucini, butter, parmesan).
Of course, quality ingredients are key. A good fettucini Alfredo demands the best fettucini you can buy (or, better yet, make yourself), along with top-notch butter and authentic, top-of-the-line Parmesan. Give these exact same three ingredients to three cooks, and watch -- and taste -- how they turn out three different versions of fettucini Alfredo.
Along the same lines, a good cook can take mediocre ingredients and make the final dish taste better than the sum of its parts. Here is a real-life example, told by Jim Leff, a professional musician and food critic, and the founder of Chowhound.com:
In 1992, I had a week-long gig at the Olympics in Seville. Like lots of gigs, they kept the band so far out of town that there was nothing to eat . . . Me and the sax player [Ralph] strolled over to a convenience store to buy identical boxes of lousy pasta and jars of lousy sauce. We brought them back to our identical convenience apartments, with identical stoves and pots, and we both cooked up dinner. Mine tasted like convenience store pasta topped with convenience store sauce. His wasn't exactly great, but it had unmistakable pizzazz. It tasted ITALIAN (he was, in fact Italian). I searched his apartment for oregano or EVOO [extra virgin olive oil], but there was none. . . . What WAS it about Ralph's pasta? I do have an answer . . . I live for the "greater" part of "greater than the sum of its parts". That's all that matters to me. Everyone else pays attention to the parts, but I'm completely obsessed with the magic part of the equation. And it IS magic (not like making rabbits disappear, or stirring cauldrons; this is, I believe, what magic really is). And once you start paying attention to it, you can't settle for less.
So if you’re one of those people who have been reluctant to share recipes, don’t be. Chances are, your signature dish is something that nobody is going to be able to exactly reproduce, no matter how hard they try. Yes, their version might be good -- maybe almost as good as yours -- but it won’t be exactly the same. And if you think the difference between your oatmeal cookies and your co-worker’s has to do with some missing ingredients that she “forgot” to include in the recipe she gave you, you may be worrying for nothing. It might simply boil down to technique. Stay focused on practicing and refining your technique, ask questions, listen to the answers, practice some more, and your culinary creations are bound to reach new heights of deliciousness.