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I was reading this column in the Guardian, where Yotam Ottolenghi and Noor Murad are answering questions from readers. One answer which made me pause is this one from Yotam Ottolenghi on key skills to sharpen when starting out as a cook:

There are certain processes so fundamental to cooking that you want to get them right: when you saute onion and garlic, how far to take it and what you are going to get with different temperatures – low and slow for sweetness. A dish can stand or fall on how you cook your onions at the beginning. It’s amazing how important it is.

So, I guess I kinda get what he's going for - depending on how long you cook onion for, it will affect how sweet it is. Similarly it matters if you add a bit of vinegar and so forth.

At the same time, I feel he is being frustratingly vague about exactly what skills it is you need to sharpen for getting better at cooking your onions and garlic.

Can some some chefs more experienced than me please explain in some more depth what key skills it is important to develop for cooking onion and garlic?

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My interpretation is that this is a combination of knowing ingredients and technique. How you treat ingredients like onion and garlic, whether you cut, slice, crush it...or turn it into a paste, will dramatically impact the dish. In addition, how you cook those ingredients, whether high heat, and quick to brown, or very low and gently will also greatly impact the results...and there are all sorts of permutations on just those few variables for just those ingredients...add more ingredients and more variables...it can get complicated quickly. However, I believe his point is that building your cooking knowledge from a basic understanding of ingredients, and what happens when you treat them differently is a critically important foundation, upon which you build the flexibility to be creative.

My advice-- play with onions and garlic...observe the difference in flavor as you treat and cook them differently...low and slow, high heat with browning...adding ingredients near the end.... How do you want the flavor to be noticed...background...up front....bright...muted? Notice the impact on your final dish. You just have to get a feel for how your ingredients behave so that you know how to get the result you are looking for.

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I don't think this has a name other than "basic cooking skill", it is the same skill as the experts in any field have: based on past observations, predict the effect of your actions.

Let's make a very simple example. Imagine a curious home cook who has cooked attentively for a couple of years. This cook may have frequently sautéed onion cubes as the base of a mixed vegetable pan, and knows how these quickly fried pieces of onion taste. But three or four times, the cook has also made a French onion soup. It contained large pieces of onion caramelized for an hour on very slow heat. Today, our cook wants to make dip, and decides to base it off cream cheese with onions. Now, before cooking, the cook mentally pairs the taste of cream cheese with the taste with sharply sautéed onion pieces, and the taste of cream cheese with slowly caramelized onions. Based on this mental experiment, they decide to make it with caramelized onions.

So, what did the cook do? They have a library of tastes in their head, and can access it, and try out new combinations mentally, and predict the result. And the library includes not only the sensory memory of the taste, but also the knowledge of how to achieve it in the kitchen.

Every cook has this library, at least in a rudimentary form. The difference between cooks comes from:

  • the scope of the library. My grandma cooks everything to perfection - but she only has a repertoire of around ten main dishes and a handful of desserts. If you give her a novel recipe, she will likely fail, even if trying to follow it to the letter.
  • the precision in your library. Now this is the reason why these ten dishes get so great when my grandmother makes them - she instinctively knows the exact moment at which to stir the onions in the pan. A novice will try to guess the moment, but will generally do it too early or too late, because they can't yet recognize it - to them, the onions look kinda like they may need a stir already, but maybe not yet.
  • the resolution of your library. The novice cook in my example above knows only two points on the onion preparation spectrum. Somebody like Ottolenghi might know a dozen or more, and have them all ready for use when needed.
  • the ability to filter your library. This is an automatic skill which all experts in all areas have, and happens automatically during the "library building". When you are mentally looking at possible solutions for your current situation (the "which kind of onion to use in my new dip" problem), the novice's brain suggests random solutions, while the expert's brain only lets the best ones float up to consciousness. So, if you are a great expert who knows fifteen different ways of preparing onions, when you are imagining a new dish, you won't go through all fifteen internally, you will intuitively think of two or three only, and all of them will be suitable.

And now, if you ask how you get this skill, the answer has a few elements, which you may recognize from other areas.

  1. You have to cook a lot. It doesn't matter how much theory you read, without cooking, you will never get the library in your head. Reading is useful, but as a complement to the practice.
  2. You have to pay attention. This is the clichéd mindfulness - it is so ubiquitous, because it works. If you chat on the phone while you have your onions in the pan, you won't add much to your mental library. If you let your full attention rest on these onions, you will soon know them well enough to play with the taste in your head.
  3. You have to fail a lot. If you have never burnt an onion, you won't get the precision mentioned above. Just make sure that you use your full attention every time you fail, exactly as when you succeed.

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