Processed and convenience foods and shortcut cooking methods have become so entrenched in our culinary culture, it’s easy to forget just how much we have forgotten about real cooking.
But cooking instructor Darina Allen knows all too well. More and more of her students arrive having never cooked so much as an egg, or needing lessons in remedial onion chopping. She remembers one student who thought she’d ruined a bowl of heavy cream because she’d whipped it too much. She thought the clumps and clots in the bowl meant it was bad.
“I said, ‘Stop! Don’t throw it out!’” says Allen, author of “Forgotten Skills of Cooking.” ‘‘I said, ‘You’ve made butter!’ She was completely fascinated.”
As cooking has been rendered optional — the victim of rising restaurant culture, myriad take-out options and supermarket sections packed with pre-cut vegetables, shredded cheese and prepared foods — Allen and others say cooks are increasingly losing touch with skills considered basic, or even essential, just a generation or two ago.
And that is changing the way people like Allen teach, as well as how recipes are developed and written.
“Nowadays, we have to be more specific — ‘Fold it in with a rubber spatula.’ — because people don’t know what folding is versus stirring,” says Julia Collin Davison, executive food editor for books at America’s Test Kitchen. “Now we list in our recipes more often what utensils to use: Stir with a spoon. Use a chef’s knife for this. Use a paring knife for this. Over the years we’ve altered our recipe style dramatically based on reader feedback.”
America’s Test Kitchen, known for its almost obsessive precision in recipe development, isn’t the only one. During the last decade or so, most cookbook and magazine recipes have begun to reflect the change in reader knowledge. While recipe writers could once use a shorthand style that assumed a basic knowledge, they now need to be far more explicit.