What Cooking Is
When we cook, we use three basic skills. Let’s call them Mechanics, Chemistry, and Ephemera.
Mechanics is the hard work of the kitchen, cutting, chopping, peeling, stirring, tossing, whipping, etc. What children do as helpers.
Chemistry is many things: timing, temperatures, coordination of dishes in the oven, on the table, etc. Also emulsions, expansion of gasses, toughening of proteins, reduction of liquids and so on. A Vinaigrette is Chemistry.
And last, the ephemera, those intangibles which truly make a gifted cook, and a memorable meal. The exploration of possibility, the alchemy which transforms simple ingredients into composed meals. The creative stuff.
How you balance these abilities determines what kind of cook you are: Visual, original, labored, or even poetic.
Do you burn things a lot but can turn out a vinaigrette with your eyes closed? Are you great at temperature control but have trouble with mirapoix? Or do you know precisely when things are good, but don’t know quite how to get there?
Next time you cook, try to be aware of process. Cutting onions, whipping cream are mechanical. Reducing a sauce, salting an eggplant are chemical. Correcting the seasoning, or judging the color of a gratin are more delicate considerations. Once you identify the weakest link you can concentrate on strengthening it.
Remember to be very careful about how you learn, because the mind works in a consistent way, and tends to favor what is easiest to absorb. If you get most of your culinary input from television, you are going to be proficient at cutting and stirring. Sensitivity to chemical reactions, and especially timing are going to be elusive, because they are difficult to convey visually. As for seasoning and flavor in general, television is not helpful. Go out and taste everything you can, and then fold those experiences into your technique. That’s how you go from a helper to a cook.