To cook well, 7 commandments are not enough

A place for everything and everything in its place.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Is cooking so simple that only seven commandments are necessary? Apparently not.

When I wrote Saturday’s “Seven steps to becoming a better cook” column, I expected to hear from readers. In fact, I invited it. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Generally, people agreed with the rules I’d set up, with one significant exception: prep.

I advised: “In most cases you can forget about having everything prepped and chopped before you begin (the hallowed mise en place). Cooking at home is different than in a restaurant, and unless you’re making a stir-fry or something that needs to be cooked bang-bang, it’s more efficient to slot in some tasks during the dead time when you’d otherwise be standing around watching water come to a boil.”

I’m going to stand by that one, but several readers offered fairly convincing counter-arguments.


Duffy Clark emailed to say: “Sorry, but I get too nervous if I haven’t prepped everything before I start as you suggest in No. 5. It is probably the area where my wife (who has done all the cooking for our 46 years together) and I most vehemently disagree. She sees me trying a new recipe and wants to join in the fun but off she goes and I am frantically chopping away trying to keep up.”

And “Mike T1” spoke for a couple of commenters on our website when he wrote: “I beg to disagree with the advice about ignoring the prep work, especially for novice cooks. Almost invariably as I am trying a new recipe and I figure I can do some of the steps later I run out of time. Something finishes on the stove faster than I thought or takes more attention than anticipated.

“I suggest that unless there are obvious breaks in a recipe (e.g. “bake at 350F for 1 hour”) that the first time through have all ingredients ready. Then, as the article says, make it more than once. On subsequent run-thru’s you’ll have a better sense of where there is a block of spare time. A good opportunity not just to prep for later steps, but to clean up and put away so there is room to work and clean utensils.”

And that brings me to the most popular addition to my list – and one with which I wholeheartedly agree: Keep it clean!

San Francisco culinary recruiter Jo Lynne Lockley commented on Facebook: “I’d add to 7 ‘clean as you go’ (I think that was Clementine Paddleford, but not sure.)”

I can only add: In 35 years of cooking, I don’t think I’ve learned a kitchen skill that has pleased my wife more than mastering the simple art of cleaning utensils and workspaces as I go.


Here are a few of the other comments:

Reader Catherine Cate: “When you think you’ve got it right, and like what you taste, STOP fiddling with it!”

Cooking teacher and author George Geary: “Invite someone you hate to dinner. They will tell you the truth unlike your family! Ok, hate was harsh ... but someone ... share your meal!”

Food writer Marlena Spieler: “Pay attention. Taste. Have an inner bank of taste/memory that can help guide you. Make only things you love to eat or think that someone who will be eating it loves. Smell (and taste) as you go along. And don’t cook when you are too full, I’m a much better cook when I am hungry.”

Cookbook writer Pascale Beale: “I would only add: savor the time you cook and what you create. Nothing worse than cooking only to rush the meal or eat standing up. Sitting around the table sharing your lovely food is truly one of the pleasures of cooking.”


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