Ready to learn the secret of cooking from scratch? Understanding this ONE, simple principle will transform your life in the kitchen.
So is cooking an art? Is cooking a science? That’s a debate for another day. But I think it’s safe to say cooking from scratch involves chemistry, and understanding how that chemistry works can be the key to simply following a recipe vs. learning how to cook from scratch.
The Secret to Cooking from Scratch
Today, we’re going to go through some examples that show how to go beyond the WHAT (what ingredients?) and into the HOW (how are they combined?). Understanding these two things is essential to understanding how to combine ingredients later, to get beyond a recipe and into real cooking from scratch.
Example #1: Taco Meat
Taco meat and chemistry? Fun fact: If you combine spices, like those found in taco meat, with hot oil, you will develop a richer, deeper flavor in the mixture. This principle applies to making gravy too (i.e., a roux made from hot fat and flour).
Example #2: Apple Pie
This is another good example. Generally, when you’re working with pastry, you’ll keep it cold. You’re not mixing it too much. It has a very high fat content compared to, say, regular bread. If you understand how gluten develops, you’ll also understand why you treat pastry or biscuits differently than you’d treat a yeast or sourdough sandwich bread.
Example #3: Bagels
Bagels are another example of baking principles in action. If you understand what you do to the dough and how that influences the texture and flavor, you’ll understand why certain cooking methods are so important. When making bagels at home, do you know how you get that distinctive, chewy texture? You boil the bagel before you bake it in a very hot oven. That’s very different than if you’re cooking something like apple pie or sandwich bread. Those little tweaks are the difference between one recipe and another.
Example #4: Cake
Cake is also different, because it usually contains eggs. When baking a jelly roll or angel food cake, you’ll separate the eggs into yolks and whites. You usually beat those egg whites or yolks until a specific texture forms (e.g., soft peaks). Once you understand how to do that and maintain the integrity and structure of the beaten eggs, and how to incorporate them properly into the dough, it will translate to other dessert recipes that rely on those same chemical processes.
Example #5: Spaghetti Sauce
Tomatoes are acidic, right? Some are more acidic than others, while some are sweeter than others. Generally, however, when you’re making something like spaghetti sauce, you don’t want that deep bite or sharp tang. You want a bit of it, but not all of it. So you add some sweetener to offset that acidity.
The acidity in tomatoes can also tenderize or toughen other ingredients. I tried to make sloppy lentils in a tomato sauce once. I thought, “Oh, the tomato will soften them completely.” Not for legumes! It might do that for meat (like in BBQ), but NOT lentils. Take it from personal experience…
Example #6: Homemade Candy
Granted, I know that marshmallows and other candies aren’t super healthy, but when you stand over a boiling pot of sugar, you learn a thing or two about the chemical reactions involved!
Candy making isn’t always easy, particularly if you have a bad thermometer or you’re at a weird elevation. But the principles used for candy making are the same across the board, meaning the same principles you use for making marshmallows are the same used for making taffy or peanut brittle. If you cook that sugar mixture long enough, the final product will get harder, and harder, and harder.
Example #7: Dill Pickles
Once you understand how salt works in fermented pickle recipes, for example, you understand that it preserves the cucumbers and prevents mold. You’ll also understand you need to keep those pickles submerged under the brine, to keep them from spoiling. You’ll be able to transfer that knowledge to other fermented recipes.
Example #8: Pot Roast
Remember the spices browned in oil? With pot roast, understand that the fat provides flavor and depth to the meat. When cooking pot roast, cook it with the fat cap on top, so the drippings will melt down into the meat, making it more tender, juicy, and delicious.
What’s the secret to cooking from scratch?
Here’s the secret: You need to learn how to use the ingredients and processes first.
How do you do that?
Well, let me tell you a little story.
Recently, one of my family members tried the keto diet. Now, I’m not super familiar with keto foods. I haven’t baked with coconut flour or anything like that. I’m definitely a gluten baker! I had to learn all over again, and that’s okay. (It’s fun actually!) But I’d never cooked with these things before.
The first time I experienced coconut flour, it was different. It was kind of gritty. Sometimes you have to let it set and soak up the moisture. Let me tell you, the first time I used it, I wasn’t yet comfortable throwing it in a pan and making something without a recipe. I didn’t know how to combine it. I didn’t know how it would react. So first, I searched out recipes from other people who were WAY more experienced using coconut flour, almond flour, and some of these more unusual ingredients. I tried their recipes first, to become more comfortable with it.
Now I’m NOT going to turn around and make up my own coconut flour recipe tomorrow, because I still don’t have a complete grasp of how it works yet. I don’t have enough experience. But over just a few weeks, I have started to learn how to use it. By trial and error, I’ve started understanding what it looks like, how it reacts, and what the texture should be.
That’s how you learn to cook from scratch.
You learn by doing. It’s an experience. It’s touching, feeling, listening, smelling…from beginning to end. It’s learning how to use those ingredients and processes.
When you start experimenting like this, some things will work. Some things will not work. But every recipe you try, everything you make from scratch, will teach you something about the ingredients, something about the process, something about cooking.
Just as a side note, I’d love to have you join me here, where you can get a freebie with tips all about making pies! What’s not to love about that? Learn more here.
When you get to the point where you understand how the ingredients combine with one another–how the chemical processes react in cooking, baking, boiling, frying, or sauteing–understanding all of the different components brings you to the point where you can make a recipe with the ingredients in front of you. It’s not that you won’t ever use a real recipe–most people still use recipes, and there are some things like pastry that you might always use a recipe for–but once you learn how to cook basic ingredients and handle those processes, you’ll understand that cooking is just a science. It’s a combination of factors that when, combined properly, will produce a delicious product. That’s the secret to cooking from scratch.