Update from 28 Dec 2019: This was originally published in 2015 when I didn’t write very often. I made some edits to make the article more readable. Scroll to the bottom for an update on where I am with cooking (spoiler: not much has changed since 2015).
Upon moving out of my parents’ house I didn’t know anything about cooking. I was enthusiastic to learn and made some progress in the first few years of living by myself. I usually chose recipes to make based on the pictures that looked appealing in the cookbooks, and just followed the steps as closely as possible.
I made most things only once. After a few years of this kind of cooking I realised that had the recipe books been taken away, my cooking talents would be worth nothing. This was a problem, as I wanted to be a self-sustaining home cook. My goal was (and still is) to cook delicious food every day without with a reasonable amount of effort or preparation using the best ingredients I have access to. I started looking for books that could teach me how to learn “the essence” of cooking.
Most books on cooking fall into one of two groups:
a) Cookbooks — books that focus on recipes united by a common theme, for example Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi.
b) Cooking theory — books that focus on techniques, the for example CIA’s The Professional Chef.
With the cookbooks, one idea was to memorise as many recipes as possible with the hope that I’d eventually deduce the cooking basics and at that point would be able to mix and match the parts of different recipes to create new dishes. This isn’t great as not all recipes work as expected, and memorising recipes without understanding them well just doesn’t sound like an exciting idea.
The cooking theory shelf consists mostly of textbooks used at culinary institutions. These books normally walk you through culinary techniques before giving you a bunch of classic recipes you are supposed to make in the classroom. I am not studying Culinary Arts, so my classroom would have to be my home kitchen, which lacks equipment, ingredients, and, most importantly, experienced chefs to give me advice. The theory books are generally not very accessible to non-professionals.
Not satisfied with these options, I started looking for other solutions.
An inspiration from software design
Looking at Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software by Gamma, Helm, Johnson and Vlissides (PDF from a sketchy Chinese website, Google Books), you might notice the following definition of design patterns:
A design pattern is a general reusable solution to a commonly occurring problem within a given context in software design.
The benefits of using such patterns are an increase in the development speed and improved quality of the final application, and these benefits are achieved by adding one or more layers of abstraction between the problem and the solution.
Back to cooking, we could view a finished dish as a problem to solve. Then cooking techniques could be perceived as actions we can perform on an ingredient, therefore mutating some of its properties. For example, roasting a carrot will make the carrot a) hot, b) softer in texture, c) darker in colour.
So what do we get if we assemble a sequence of actions on a list of ingredients?
A recipe is basically a fixed set of actions and ingredients, while cooking techniques are just the possible actions. If we invent cooking patterns – an abstraction on top of each ingredient / action pair – we could have more understanding of the dish we are preparing while keeping the flexibility in ingredient and technique choice.
Let’s take fritters as an example. Wikipedia says the following:
Fritter is a name applied to a wide variety of fried foods, usually consisting of a portion of batter or breading which has been filled with bits of meat, seafood, fruit, or other ingredients.
Notice the “wide variety”, a fixed ingredient (batter) and a list of possible variables (meat, seafood, vegetables, fruit) that could influence the fritters you end up making. This looks like a pattern! A couple of famous implementations of this pattern could include:
- Leek fritters by Yotam Ottolenghi
- Ricotta fritters by Jamie Oliver
- Salt cod fritters by Nigel Slater
Benefits of using patterns
If you think in patterns when cooking, you could in theory prepare great dishes without having to design them from scratch but keeping the flexibility in ingredient and technique choice. Here is why I think this is a big deal:
- It’s far easier to memorise patterns than concrete recipes, as all you have to remember is just the general idea. The details are not so important.
- As it is easier to memorise patterns, you can remember more of them at the same time. Great for learning how to cook.
- When you have a library of your favourite cooking patterns, you do not depend on specific ingredients to make specific dishes, and therefore can substitute the ingredients which are not available or are not in season.
- The result is more or less defined – you know what to expect from each pattern, for example cooking times, presentation, texture, taste.
- At the same time you can vary the flavours by changing ingredients or techniques, and therefore constantly discover new combinations.
- You can come up with meals faster – learn a few combinations of patterns, and you’ve got dinner ideas handy at any time.
Examples of patterns
In short, you simmer vegetables in stock, and then serve both the vegetables and the stock together, topped up with spices or additional ingredients. Soups can be served hot in winter and cold in summer. Concrete implementations by Jamie Oliver, Yotam Ottolenghi, David Tanis (with slight variation in technique).
Make one soup, and you know how to make almost all of them.
For me, a perfect salad is a combination of a soft green (butterhead lettuce, for instance), a crunchy vegetable or fruit (carrots, apples), a protein (cooked chicken breast or smoked salmon), a topping (walnuts, pumpkin seeds) and a vinaigrette (lemon and olive oil, or balsamic vinegar and sunflower oil). Concrete implementations: Aran Goyoaga, David Tanis, Jessica Merchant.
Notice how vinaigrette is a pattern in itself. Pattern nesting!
Building a pattern collection
I started a Github repository with a few cooking patterns. Creating a more widely accessible (and, honestly, better quality than I can produce) list of patterns could help the beginners to get over the dip of cooking quicker, and could give the professionals a way to organise their cooking experience. I welcome your pull requests.
Thanks to Josep M. Bach for reading a draft of this article.
PS from 28 Dec 2019
I never took the time to actually create a library of cooking patterns that I would be proud of. My cooking knowledge today is as dispersed as it was in 2015, although I’m a bit more comfortable with cooking now. I mostly use basic techniques (a lot of sous vide) and rarely try new dishes. This is not where I want to be and I’m looking forward to spending more time on my approach to cooking. I definitely still believe in the idea of cooking patterns and the potential to organise the cooking knowledge.
Since writing this article in 2015 I discovered the first truly accessible book that covers cooking techniques (not just recipes) and is fun to use: The Food Lab by Kenji López-Alt. I recommend it greatly.