This is the third article in July of the School for Housewives 1907 series published on July 21, 1907, and is an educating article on cooking.
Transcribed from the Sunday edition of the Boston Sunday Post.
Learning to Cook and Proper Utensils
A KNOWLEDGE of cookery does not come by nature, although many persons seem to think it does, if one may judge from the little trouble they take to prepare themselves for the work. Neither is it a “knack” that can be picked up at will and requires no preliminary instruction. Any one who wishes skill in the practice of cooking has to work for it as for any other profession. The great advantage of it over many other kinds of work is that even a little attention and labor will produce good results, and that such results appear at an early stage of the study.
Cookery has been called an exact science, and in a way this is true. But it is not like chemistry in its exactness—rather like agriculture, which, after the best efforts have been made, must in a great degree depend for success upon the weather. So in cookery perfect work in preparation may sometimes be spoiled by the eccentricities of the oven or the fluctuations of the fire.
Barring such accidents as these, however, one may be fairly sure of good effects, if one goes about the task in the right way. A few things even the “born cook” must know to start with, or there will be a failure.
Of course, the ideal method of learning cookery is by the practical direction of a skilful teacher—not by attendance at a cooking school, but by work in a kitchen, where, in the good old style inculcated by the immortal Mr. Squeers, we “spell it first and then go and do it.”
In other words, if one have a good cook book, and a competent cook at one’s elbow to give a few needed directions and corrections, one can learn more quickly by experience than in any other way.
DETAILS ARE IMPORTANT
If this cannot be attained, and if there is no motherly soul at hand to give counsel, the cooking school may be resorted to. I have known persons who declared they had derived great good from cooking lessons, but my observation inclines me to think that the gain was made when the pupils had had some preliminary instruction.
If one understands the rudiments, the “frills” can be acquired at a cooking lesson; but unless one enters a class for beginners at a regular cooking school, it is hard to attain familiarity with the first things of the kitchen.
The tyro in cookery who must make her own way with little or no aid except that which she can derive from a cook book should resolve from the first not to despise the day of small things.
There should be no high-flying attempts at elaborate dishes; and I may add that this advise is worth heeding even by those who know a little something of the outlines of cookery. When a familiarity with simple dishes is once gained the more involved processes will follow more or less as a matter of course, but they should be avoided for a good while.
A man once said that if a woman knew how to sweep a floor, to broil a beefsteak, and to make a loaf of bread, she would have no difficulty in getting a husband. He might have added, “or in keeping one.”
Even with this high aim in view, however, it is not well for the beginner to start too rashly upon a career as a bread maker. The broiling of the steak, a knowledge of how to cook plain vegetables, to roast a piece of meat, to make toast, tea and coffee, even to boil eggs, will all serve as beginning better than any process where judgment has to be used, as is essential in making bread, biscuit or cake or anything else in which the thickening qualities of the flour or other uncertain quantities have to be considered.
I have often wondered why it is that the young girl learns to make cake before she attempts anything else. Perhaps it is on the same principle as that which moves her to acquire a knowledge of embroidery before she can darn stockings and to play the piano before she can make her bed or sweep her room!
When I had daughters of my own who had to learn to cook, I gave them instruction in cookery and kitchen economy as I would have done in a language or a science.
They were taught how to broil steak and chops, how to mix bread and biscuit. They were enlightened as to the difference between the consistency of dough for bread, for cake, or batter for griddle cakes and waffles.
They were taught that there were two kinds of frying—one, the process conducted in shallow fat, which is described by the French as to “saute” (pronounced so-tay), and is employed in frying sausage, pan fish, cutlets and the like; the other, the frying in deep fat, in which the object is immersed, and which is suitable for doughnuts, crullers, croquettes, fritters, potatoes and so forth. They learned that the heat in the latter case must be such that a bit of bread dropped into the fat would brown in a minute, and that food cooked in this mode was different thing from articles left to soak in lukewarm grease.
Also they learned that bread to rise to the correct degree must increase to double its bulk; that if eggs and milk were cooked together more than just the right length of time they would curdle; that to make a white sauce—the model of nearly all sauces—a tablespoonful each of butter and flour must be allowed to half a pint of milk; that the oven for roasting meat must be kept at a high temperature for ten or fifteen minutes after the roast goes in, so that the outside may be seared and the juices retained; that soups must always cook slowly; that the toughest meat can be made tender by long, deliberate cookery, and a score of other things which, while they were not sufficient to produce experienced cooks, were yet superstructure could be reared. I would advise every woman with daughters at home to go and do likewise.
But there are housekeepers who have already homes of their own, or who are entering upon them, and are unequipped with the rudiments. If they have to learn these for themselves, I can only repeat, the advice I gave a few minutes back— “Go slow!” Provide yourself with a good cook book, and begin with simple dishes.
Believe the words of a veteran housekeeper when I say that your John would rather have for his dinner a well-baked potato, a perfectly broiled steak and a satisfactory cup of coffee than all the fancy and made dishes that you can perpetrate—unless these are done with the skill that bespeaks practice as well as enterprise.
Often I am asked concerning the utensils required for the cook, and I never hear the query without recollecting the dishes I have eaten that were prepared with the simplest utensils, and were yet good because the cook knew how to handle them.
One might as well expect French to be won by the purchase of a dictionary and a phrase book as cookery to be gained by an outfit of utensils. Certain articles are, of course, indispensable. A gridiron, a frying pan, baking tins, a covered roaster, mixing bowls and spoons, a grater and a vegetable press, a skimmer and a strainer, measuring cups and flour sifters, egg beaters and paring knives—but the list of these you will find in your cook book or can obtain from any housekeeper or from a salesman in a house-furnishing shop.
Having secured your utensils let me give you one bit of advice about them. Never begin to cook until you have gathered to you everything you are going to use in the preparation of the dish you have undertaken.
DELAYS ARE PERILOUS
The inexperienced cook wastes time and imperils the product of her hands by having to stop at critical moments to run to the pantry for this or that essential.
If you are making a batch of biscuit, have ready your mixing bowl and flour sifter, your spoon, measuring cup and rolling pin, your biscuit board and tins. Bring together all the materials, too: your flour and shortening and salt and milk and baking powder.
Having these and your recipe, recall to mind all you have heard about cookery being exact.
Remember that the famous French cooks are careful to weigh even the vegetables they use in their soup and leave nothing to chance. Presence of mind and happy guessing may be admirable in some emergencies, but they are out of place in the category of the inexperienced cook.
Be sure of your recipe, then go ahead! Follow directions and take no liberties. Nice customs may courtesy to great kings and queens, but a woman must be pretty sure of her dominion in her kitchen before she departs from the customs dictated by her superiors in knowledge and experience.
One of these days you, too, shall arrive, but, until then, “follow the man from Cook’s!”
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