#2. Going Crazy With the Seasoning
What New Cooks Tend to Do
"Look, buddy, I've watched cooking shows enough to know that the secret is in the seasoning. How much to put on, as well as the quantity of different spices. KFC makes the best chicken in the world, and their tagline is that they use '11 different herbs and spices.' So it's all about the complex chemistry of combining all of those different flavors."
OK, first of all, you need to see someone about your KFC problem. You're obviously in the throes of a debilitating depression, and you can't let that go unchecked. Second ...
"You're being punished, young lady. Now you sit on the ground and eat that KFC and think about what you did!"
Why That's a Bad Idea
This is one area where the college kid who only has salt, pepper and some garlic powder is at an advantage. When you start cooking seriously, you'll be tempted to buy a whole rack full of spices because you want to take that shit to the next level. But for the most part, this is all about restraint.
Now obviously some dishes are going to have a ton of spices -- nobody wants chili that's just meat and beans soaking in hot water. But when you're talking about the general preparation of dishes, it's a pretty agreed upon philosophy among chefs that good ingredients should be the focus. The seasoning is only there to accent and enhance the flavor of your centerpiece. If I'm paying $15 for a thick New York strip, I want to taste the steak -- not 40 cents' worth of seasoning that was already in my cabinet. If you get good at the cooking part, and buy good meat, you shouldn't have to season the hell out of it.
"And you can really bring out the flavor with my patented pork icing."
When looking up recipes online, I have a pretty solid rule of thumb that has never failed me: If the chef starts talking about marinading an already expensive piece of meat, I start to worry. I won't write him off just yet, because a good marinade can be awesome if used properly. But if they then start talking about five or six different spices to throw onto it after that, it's time to find another source. Unless they're a well known, proven, trusted name in cooking, chances are they're putting too much shit on it, and they're about to ruin a meal that represents several hours of time at your job in order to buy.
Of course, it's not always about just the seasoning. You can fuck up a dish just as badly by trying to make it too complex, piling lots of other foods on top. Watch this clip from Kitchen Nightmares where Gordon Ramsay encounters an entire staff of Michelin-trained chefs in a dying restaurant, devoid of customers:
They are serving high-end ingredients like lobster, but ruining it by covering it with sauces and pasta and other bullshit. It doesn't need it -- combining five good flavors often just creates one bland one. Let me put it this way: Take a hot porn star and throw a cheerleader outfit on her, and it looks great. Or maybe a Catwoman type of latex suit. Or any one of a hundred fetish outfits that come to mind. But put them all on her at the same time, and she just turns into a coat rack. What I'm saying is that cooking is exactly like porn in every way.
I'm not good with analogies. Don't put lots of shit on expensive meat.
While you're at it, don't just jam a fork through raw meat and then point at it and smile like a fucking idiot.
But the hardest habit to break, and the most difficult lesson to accept, is when you learn that you are ...
#1. Fucking With It Too Much
What New Cooks Tend to Do
Has it been on one side too long? It has, hasn't it? I can hear it sizzling like crazy -- it has to be burning. Should I flip it? I'm going to flip it. No, wait, it can't be burning because it's only been on there for like 20 seconds. I should leave it alone. But I can't. Listen to that thing! There's no way it's not burnt. I have to flip it right now. Here I go.
Shit, it hasn't even lost its pink yet.
"Fuck it, it'll have to do. Here."
Why That's a Bad Idea
One of the coolest things to watch, even if you're not a fan of or don't even understand baseball, is an outfielder's reaction and motion the second the ball comes off of the bat. Just from the sound of the contact, the trajectory and the speed, he can make NASA-level calculations in a fraction of a second and position himself within inches of where that ball will land, 200 feet before it gets there. Of course, he's not a rocket scientist, and he's not psychic. He has just played so many games that it's become instinct.
That same type of second nature reaction is something you'll pick up the more you cook. You'll be able to hear a change in the way a piece of fish sizzles when its texture changes after a few minutes in a hot pan. You'll be able to tell from sight if a piece of chicken is overcooked by the way the meat draws back from the bone. Without a timer and without opening the oven door, you'll be able to tell how much longer your cake has to bake just by the smell. But until you get to that level, just like the baseball player, you have to learn the fundamentals, and don't fucking deviate from it, or you'll be playing for the Houston Astros.
"I don't know what to do with these! Vegetables make me explode with rage!"
If you're pan searing a steak, and the recipe says to let it sit on high heat for five minutes per side, don't lift that motherfucker up to see if it's burning. Every time you do, you're screwing up the time it needs to do its thing. You're removing heat, which forces it to rebuild its momentum, and now it's fighting an uphill battle to get a simple sear.
Have you ever tried to pan fry chicken, and when you ran a spatula or tongs under it, it was stuck to the bottom of the pan? If you've properly lubricated the pan, then chances are that you didn't catch the chicken too late -- you're actually more likely to have caught it too early. Sounds crazy, doesn't it? But top chefs tell us that this is natural, and once the breading has cooked long enough, it releases from the pan on its own, and you're then free to flip it.
So leave that shit alone. Let it cook. That doesn't mean to walk away from it. Stay and listen to the sounds it makes while it's cooking. They change from minute to minute, and knowing those will improve your timing and your reaction to necessary adjustments, and make you an overall better chef. Notice the change in smells. The way it softly coerces you to stab your loved ones. The way it constantly urges you to put your dick in the bubbling oil.
"The ham told me about your dirty little secret. You must be cleansed."
I ... I have to go. I suddenly got hungry for Fuck Muffins.
John has a Twitter. Because sometimes a dude just has to fucking FLIP OUT and type one-liners.
For more Cheese, check out Worst Job Ever: Video Game Sewer Repair and 5 Ways Television Went Crazy Since I Quit Watching in 2003.