'In Cooking...There Is a Right Way and a Wrong Way'

It was with some shock that I realized that Christopher Kimball--of Cook's Illustrated, America's Test Kitchen, and the NYT op-ed arguing that the internet killed Gourmet--has a blog.

(On a side note, it is worth remembering that Gourmet had an excellent website, full of serious food journalism.)

So, Kimball has a blog, and he got on it to respond to some of the criticisms to his op-ed, in which he most memorably called the Internet a "ship of fools." And he's not backing down--rather, he's sharpening his knives. First, Kimball shoots some fish in a barrel, noting that most food chatter on the web is less than thoughtful, and notes that, in the white noise of the Internet, it is harder to get at the truth.

Then, he writes this:

Go ahead and make that broccoli casserole off your Google search and see how you like it! In cooking, as in all things, there is a right way and a wrong way. Very little in life is truly relative.

And that stopped me short.

On one hand, I agree with him--any old broccoli casserole recipe you get off the Internet has--maybe!--a 50-50 chance of working. But: In cooking, there's a right way and a wrong way? I admire Kimball's work very much, but this is not the blog post that will attract novices to the kitchen.

His statement is true in the sense that medium-rare is not relative--it's meat in a certain temperature range. Crisp-tender is a particular state for vegetables to be in, and if you don't salt your cooking boiling water before blanching, and then plunge the blanched vegetables into ice water, you won't properly achieve crisp-tender. Oil should be at least 350 degrees for deep-frying, or your fried treats will be soggy. There is a certain way to make the mother sauces, specific stages to browning a roux, and to cooking sugar for candy.

It's comforting to know the rules in cooking--once you do, you can lean against them for support. Say I've never made this particular batter for squid before, but at least I know that if I get my oil to the proper temperature, it's likely to fry up crisp.

So I'm not saying there is no truth in the kitchen, and that you should just flail around Googling recipes and expect them to work. But there's a right way and a wrong way? What about Floyd Cardoz's shrimp gumbo recipe in One Spice Two Spice, which calls for chickpea flour instead of white flour in a roux, creating a wonderfully nutty sauce. The right way to make a roux is with white flour. Otherwise, you shouldn't call it a roux. For that matter, should you call it a gumbo if the aromatics are ginger, garlic, and chiles, instead of onion, celery, and green pepper?

Between this and the New York Times Magazine's food issue last week, I feel like all the joy is being sucked out of cooking and eating. If you want to get people into the kitchen--if you really want to get them cooking--it's not very helpful to say that there is one correct broccoli casserole that descends from on high, and you better follow my recipe. What if I like cumin in my broccoli casserole?

Judith Jones, whom I recently interviewed, also commented that a recipe found online is without context and not as helpful as one in a well-researched cookbook. And I couldn't agree more. But in her new book, Cooking for One, she constantly calls upon the cook/reader to think for his or herself--salting to taste, substituting a different acid if you forgot to buy the lemon, making bigger or smaller portions according to appetite. That's how you and your food come alive in the kitchen, and that's how you really learn to cook.


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