Notes on Cooking: A Short Guide to an Essential Craft

Notes on Cooking: A Short Guide to an Essential Craft

by Lauren Braun Costello

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As an essential primer of immediately useful and utterly relevant guidance, this guide can help anyone become a better cook—without a single recipe. The book’s 217 notes deliver indispensable culinary truths, the highest standards of conduct, and timeless gems of cooking wisdom that have been taught and passed down by top chefs for generations. The notes


As an essential primer of immediately useful and utterly relevant guidance, this guide can help anyone become a better cook—without a single recipe. The book’s 217 notes deliver indispensable culinary truths, the highest standards of conduct, and timeless gems of cooking wisdom that have been taught and passed down by top chefs for generations. The notes provide explanatory commentary, helpful examples, and insights from Alice Waters, Daniel Boulud, Georges Auguste Escoffier, Leonardo da Vinci, and many others. They also include life lessons—about how to bring delight, how to recognize quality, and how to see beauty in simplicity. For the beginner wanting to improve, the seasoned expert looking to review the highest culinary standards, or the food lover seeking a fascinating glimpse into the pursuit of epicurean excellence, Notes on Cooking provides a unique and invaluable apprenticeship.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In all ways to-the-point, Costello and Reich's guidebook offer kitchen commandments for a realm that often tends to "a little of this, a little of that" thinking. Costello's culinary skills are well matched with Reich's pithy writing in more than 200 directives on everything from cooking duck to ripening fruit, for which they lay down the major rules of cooking and kitchen conduct in as few as a couple of lines. Beginning cooks will find relief in their strong declarations-"Do not stuff a turkey"; "Always preheat the oven"-instructions that, once learned by heart, make cooking easier and end with better food. The explanations for these rules are succinct but amply informative so as to please anyone who has cooked long enough to already be following them instinctively; they draw on basic kitchen science as well as the collective knowledge of culinary experts like Jeffrey Steingarten and Michael Nischan to make a case for the validity of their decrees. Some "notes" are less concretely didactic than others ("Chicken is the test of a cook's versatility," for example), or leave room for interpretation ("Dress salad lightly"), but all are brightly informative enough to help cooks make better decisions and, in the end, be more productive and happier in the kitchen. (June)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Costello takes the many culinary lessons she has learned over the years, from master chefs and her own experience, and distills them into digestible koans for this book,"of interest to the aspiring cook" and a "stimulant to the experienced practitioner". She notes that as she draws firm lines always and never instead of usually and rarely this will likely lead readers to disagree with her on occasion or spot certain contradictions, a process she admits might be just as valuable for a deeper awareness of craft as ingesting any of her dogmatic assertions. The "notes" contained herein range from Zen-like mantras ("Do not be surprised by surprising results"); to more fundamental but essential reminders to take proper care of your knives and shop locally; to weirdly specific admonitions, such as avoiding using even numbers or symmetry when plating. Chefs will find themselves nodding along here and frowning there, but anyone who's ever wielded a whisk or screwed up a sauté will nonetheless find this book both
Kitchen Craft. A handful of high-quality, petite non-fiction books seek to deliver content in short, pithy, declarative statements believing the technique lends authoritative credibility; the best example being Strunk and Whites The Elements of Style. One wonders why book reviews cant effectively play this game, especially now that we have another excellent example of the genre in Notes on Cooking: A Short Guide to an Essential Craft (RCR Creative Press, 978-0-9724255-1-3), by chef Lauren Braun Costello and acclaimed writer Russell Reich.
1. Beware the book cloaked in numerous glowing testimonials unless the blurbers have unimpeachable reputations like Daniel Boulud, Jacques Pepin, James Peterson, Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and the other heavyweights as is the case in Notes on Cooking. 2. Cooking wisdom must be timeless and applicable to cooks of all levels. A veteran of professional kitchens, Costello chides her peers to always be "open to considering new perspectives and ways of working," and counsels humility by encouraging cooks not to "bemoan the pedestrian tasks. Find pleasure in peeling a carrot, steaming rice, searing a steak, prepping, cleaning. " 3. Useful books offer nuggets on every page without requiring readers to start from the beginning. Notes on Cooking is expertly organized into 19 chapters, from Understanding the Recipe through to Presentation and Last Thought where readers are lectured: "Always be cooking. Hone your craft by doing it. Stop reading. Start cooking. " 4. That said, readers who hang on until the very end will find in the Appendices superb lists of food adjectives and 80+ flavor combinations, e.g., beets and lemon, leeks and chestnuts, sweet peas andpancetta, to name only three.
—Matt Sutherland
Library Journal

This small primer by restaurateur and chef Costello and coauthor Reich (Notes on Directing) delivers both practical and philosophical advice beyond what one will find in a cookbook. Its goal is to pass on knowledge that will help readers think like a chef, not merely follow a recipe. Some 217 "notes," or entries, are organized into 19 topical chapters that can be read in any order and include cross references among the notes. The notes offer simple advice like remembering to date and label perishables to lesser-known tips like how to pick the healthiest chicken in the grocer's case and testing eggs for freshness. The authors also include appendixes on flavor lexicon, classic combinations, and cooking essentials as well as 11 annotated recommended readings. VERDICT Both novice and more experienced cooks will appreciate the plethora of useful and valuable advice here. Overall, a delightful culinary resource.—Lisa A. Ennis, Univ. of Alabama at Birmingham Lib.

—Lisa A. Ennis
From the Publisher

"Concise, clear, and encouraging, Lauren Braun Costello will make a much-better-than-good cook out of anyone who spends quality time with this entertaining and useful book." —Beth Goehring, Editor-in-Chief, The Good Cook Book Club

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Notes on Cooking

A Short Guide to an Essential Craft

By Lauren Braun Costello, Russell Reich

RCR Creative Press

Copyright © 2009 RCR Creative Press Incorporated
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-9724255-3-7


Understanding the Recipe

1. Read the recipe.

Turn off the television, don't answer the phone, just sit and read it through. Make a mental inventory of the sort of equipment you need, the cooking techniques required, the ingredients you have on hand. Note the stages of preparation, and get a sense of appropriate timings.

2. Read it again.

This time let your mind wander. Think about the finished look of the dish, the aromas, the flavors, the textures you want to create, and whether any questions you had the first time around are answering themselves.

3. Read at least three similar recipes.

Making boeuf bourguignon? Before you begin, study at least three ways to do it. Take, for instance, Craig Claiborne's use of wine and cognac, Julia Child's delayed use of aromatics (added halfway through the cooking process), and Richard Olney's guidance on the right cut of meat (a gelatinous cut such as oxtail, shank, heel, or chuck).

4. If it's in the title, leave it alone.

Don't mess with core ingredients. Good recipes are designed around particular flavors. If you are considering a recipe of boeuf bourguignon and don't care for beef or Burgundy wine, find a different recipe.

5. Target the result more than the timing.

The time noted might not be accurate. Consider the unfortunate possibility that the writer might not have tested the recipe, but the desired result is certain. If the recipe says "stir onions for 20 minutes until softened and browned," and after 15 minutes the onions are soft and brown, stop.

Note the time it takes you with your equipment and record that change for the next time you prepare the dish.

6. Recognize that recipes are often compromises.

Editors, considering the collective palate of the publication's audience, sometimes urge recipe writers to tone things down for wider appeal. The quantities indicated might not reflect your, or even the writer's, true preference.

If you sense from a lifetime of eating and cooking that two teaspoons of a spice or an herb will not do, add more.

7. When you're ready, mess with the recipe.

"Life," writes Ray Bradbury, "is trying things to see if they work."

8. Do it again.

Repetition of the recipe is the path to refinement. You'll learn something every time.

9. Do not be surprised by surprising results.

You can never control it all. The humidity in the room, the quality of your water, the nature of your fire, the chemistry of your cookware — all sorts of variables are at play. There might be no way to know them all, but do expect uncertainties.

10. Your soul is in the food.

Twenty–four cooks assigned to the same mayonnaise recipe — the same bowls, same spoons, same eggs, same mustard, same oil, same whisks, same peppermills, same measuring cups, same room, same time of day, same marching orders — will create twenty–four different mayonnaises.

Here's why: All of the cook's sensibilities and emotions make a difference. Strength, speed, rhythm, even delicacy or aggression translate to the dish. You get different chemical results based on what you bring to the table.


The Cook's Role

11. The cook's first job is to delight.

Your first identity is as sensualist, then nutritionist, captain, aesthete, or anything else. Lure with aroma, entice with color, disarm with texture, seduce with flavor.

12. Feed others as they wish to be fed.

The Golden Rule: Prepare the dish as you would want to enjoy it yourself.

The Platinum Rule: Prepare the dish as the person eating it wishes it to be.

13. Feed others as only you can feed them.

Yes, you want to please them, but know, too, they want you to do it. That means bringing your substantial and unique contributions into the mix.

14. Work from your strength.

Don't try to master everything. Become known for a few dishes, perhaps even the near perfection of one. Discover your obsession, then make yourself a slave to it: the mastery of a traditional dish, the combination of ingredients that have never before met, precision in presentation, devotion to a culinary heritage, the introduction of color where it never before existed ...

15. Aim at mastery of craft, not at art.

Know the basics. Repeat and practice, and the sublime will rise at rare, unexpected moments. Be open to capturing art when it comes, but craft is your highest daily priority.

16. Don't TRY to be different.

You are different. Cook from your gut.

17. Embrace the mundane.

Do not bemoan the pedestrian tasks. Find pleasure in peeling a carrot, steaming rice, searing a steak, prepping, cleaning. Your reward is in the work, not around it.

Cooking is not about convenience, but the pleasure earned through creation and in giving pleasure to others. Shortcuts are tempting, even necessary from time to time. But if you rely on pre–cut vegetables, pre–marinated meats, and canned sauces, you are not cooking. You are assembling.

18. Cook globally.

Apply the thematic greatness of diverse cuisines to your cooking. The French taught us to build flavor with aromatics, stocks, and sauces. The Chinese gifted us with the pass–through process of locking in flavor with hot oil or water before stir–frying. Enhance your cooking using such techniques and sensibilities.

In Indian cooking, spices often are toasted before being ground. (To toast in this case means heating at low to medium heat in a dry pan until your nose tells you it is ready.) Toasting deepens and darkens both flavor and aroma, like turning up the volume on everything the spices offer. This is genius. Toasted coriander, for instance, smells like popcorn and oranges.

19. Justify your food in at least two ways.

A dish must taste good and be seasonal, or look good and be healthful. Having dual objectives raises your standard of execution. Plus, when a single purpose falls short, you have provided yourself a safety net.

20. Please, PLEASE slow down.

To save time, avoid injuries, and do better work, don't rush. No frantic action. First, master your craft, then earn speed as the external expression of internal fluency.

21. Above all, do no harm.

Primum non nocere. As both Curnonsky, the "Prince of Gastronomy," and the great Alice Waters admonish: let things taste of what they are. Know the product and let it be.

22. Dare to do less.

Do not pull every trick from your toque when you cook. There is a time and a place for every technique, flavor combination, ingredient, and plating style. You will get the chance. For now, do merely what the food requires.

"Simplicity," writes Leonardo da Vinci, "is the ultimate sophistication." (See 209. True refinement is invisible.)

23. Preside happily over accidents.

Get in the habit of celebrating errors and seeking lessons. The unrisen soufflé, the broken sauce, the tough sirloin, the curdled crème anglaise — every mistake is a chance to turn misfortune to education and, in some cases, discovery.

A famous example: In 1889, Stéphanie Tatin left her apples cooking in butter and sugar for too long and risked drying or even burning them. She rescued the dish by covering the apples with pastry to protect them as they finished in the oven, then turning the dish upside down, with its apple base now on top. The result became a classic: tarte Tatin, upside–down apple tart.

24. Don't be grim.

Meal preparation should be demanding and enjoyable. So should you.

25. The best compliment for a cook ...

"More, please." Or speechlessness. Or, in some cultures, a belch.

26. Eat.

Just as a good writer must read, a good cook must eat. Know the experience of receiving and consuming food at least as well as you know the experience of preparing and serving it.


Tools & Equipment

27. Nothing about a kitchen should be dark.

The presence of heat and sharp objects argues against it, as does the need for spotlessness. Also, light is appropriate to the place that signifies life, energy, and sustenance.

28. Cook for the kitchen you're in.

Consider the reality of your workspace. Identify and accept its benefits and constraints. If your kitchen has no windows or ventilation, broil the chicken instead of grilling it on the stovetop. Do not attempt to roast a 20–pound turkey in a kitchenette's half oven. If you only have counter space for the cutting board but not for rolling dough, make apple pie, not apple strudel.

29. Obtain the basics.

It is less expensive and more productive in the long run to buy one quality knife than multiple inferior ones. This is true for most other equipment as well. For a brief, annotated inventory of essentials, see appendix 3.

30. Care for your knives.

Sharpen your knives up to several times a week so you never have a "rolled," or dull, edge. Use a whetstone to raise a burr, and hone with a sharpening steel as needed to refresh the blade. Clean and dry thoroughly after each sharpening. If you are a professional cook, you are already doing all this, of course. If you're a home cook, consult a cutlery pro.

To ensure longevity, use wood or plastic cutting boards. Marble, glass, and ceramic will dull or chip the blade, provide no "bite" for the blade, and encourage slippage.

Never scrape the sharp edge across the cutting board. To gather food bits — either waste or choppings — turn your knife over and scrape with the spine of the blade.

Never put a knife in the dishwasher. Hot water dulls the blade. Wash your knives in warm, soapy water and dry them immediately with a clean towel.

Never leave knives soaking in the sink. This is bad for the blade and dangerous should you reach in, unaware.

Never use your knife for anything other than breaking down foods; it is not a can opener, box cutter, or screwdriver.

31. Hold the knife's handle and blade properly.

A very important note: three fingers around the handle; thumb and forefinger pinching the blade. No other technique provides greater control or safety.

32. Dress for the job.

In an environment of things hot, heavy, and sharp, covered limbs and feet are compulsory. Long sleeves. Hair pulled back and covered. Rings off. Professionals do not wear those double–breasted white jackets merely to resemble members of a brigade; protection from burns and cuts is essential.

33. Carry two towels.

One for each hand. Not primarily to wipe smudges and spills, but to pick up hot things safely. (See also 93. Don't grab a hot pan with a wet cloth.)

34. Do not wear perfume or cologne while you cook.

Anything that inhibits or distracts your senses is inappropriate in a kitchen. Banish fragranced candles, counter sprays, soaps, and lotions. Let only your ingredients and their chemical transformation scent the air.

35. Banter down.

In a professional setting, there should be no voices louder than the symphony of banging pots, boiling water, sizzling, and chopping. Don't stop chopping, stop talking. Focus on your task. You need all your senses at the ready, without distraction.

36. Use your hands and fingers.

Julia Child was fond of saying that a cook's best tool is her hands. As long as those parts are clean, pick up, grab on, dig in. Connect directly to your ingredients.

37. Never use your hands and fingers to taste.

A cook never moves from hand to mouth. A clean fork or spoon does the job just as well. Good manners require it. Sanitation demands it.

38. Be wary of single–use gadgets.

A skilled cook with a chef's knife, for example, can make better garlic paste — with no waste — than any garlic press ever could. An avocado slicer? Onion dicer? Herb stripper? No.

39. Use wet measures for liquids, dry measures for solids.

Yes, there is a difference, negligible in small–scale recipes, but significant when larger volumes apply. A reliable indicator of which is which: wet measuring cups tend to have spouts, dry cups do not.


Procurement & Storage

40. Use what you have.

A good cook wastes nothing. Before you run to the store to buy new ingredients, make use of what is already in your kitchen.

41. Shop locally.

Support your local farmers and artisanal producers who take pride in their products and are less likely to use pesticides, preservatives, or hormones. Sustain your regional culinary heritage and its indigenous crops. Tie yourself to the land and its seasons. Connect yourself to the cycle of nature.

Too abstract? Then consider this functional benefit: If you are prone to seasonal allergies, buy and eat local honey. Local bees collect pollen from local flora. Eating continual small doses of their honey can act like a series of immunology injections, strengthening your tolerance and lessening your allergic discomfort.

Aside from the cultural and medical benefits of local ingredients, there are culinary advantages, including speed to market and inherent freshness. "Shipping is a terrible thing to do to vegetables," writes Elizabeth Berry. "They probably get jet–lagged, just like people."

42. Learn from your farmer.

Chef Michel Nischan says, "One of the things I've learned in the role of chef–as–student: The farmer is often your teacher." The farmer plays midwife to the ingredient, knows it best, and often can tell you how to cook it properly.

43. Hand–select your ingredients.

Shopping for groceries by telephone or online is a convenient and increasingly common practice, but you lose a level of control over the finished product. Don't let someone else do the choosing for you. Only you know what your dishes and sensibilities require.

44. Shop seasonally.

You can procure nearly anything you want whenever you want it. That does not mean you should. Summer strawberries picked ripe from the bush are ruby red, juicy, supple, and sweet — a far cry from their winterized counterparts that are torched with a heat lamp before their time (note their bitter white centers).

Fresh ingredients serve as a vital seasonal clock and humble us to wait until properly enjoyed.

45. A dish is only as good as what goes into it.

Garbage in, garbage out. Buy the best ingredients you can afford. (See 193. If you won't drink it, don't cook with it.)

46. Don't be seduced by a high price.

Expensive items might not be intrinsically good, just out of season and therefore difficult to procure. Hard–to–get is not, in itself, a virtue. Spare yourself the cost of scarcity and enjoy yet another benefit of procuring locally and seasonally.

47. Use fresh ingredients.

The fresher the ingredient, by definition, the more alive it is, a quality that translates immediately to the plate and palate. A freshly caught fish bares the flavor of the water it came from even after it has been cooked. Arugula picked right from the soil boasts a grassy and peppery tone. Freshly made mozzarella manifests its superior, sweet, milky essence by appearance as well as taste.

48. Date and label perishables.

It is more reliable than remembering what you stored when.

49. Rotate your product.

Shelve your perishables with the newest in the back and oldest in the front. Habituate yourself to the fifo system: First In First Out.

50. Do not use metal for storage.

Metal can leach metallic flavors into food, and acidic food can eat through metals, such as aluminum foil, in as little as a day. Acidic marinades, for example, require a non–reactive container such as glass, ceramic, or plastic.

51. Store non–perishables in a cool, dry place.

Never in direct sunlight. Thank goodness your pantry doesn't have a window.

52. Always store cooked foods above raw foods in the refrigerator.

Never put raw meat on a shelf above the cheesecake. When raw juices drip, bacteria spread.

53. Practice individual quick freezing.

Prevent the formation of giant, gnarled boulders of frozen food. Set each piece of like items with ample space on a sheet pan and place in the freezer. Once the individual food items are frozen, then place them together in a plastic bag and back in the freezer. Because they were individually frozen first, they will never form into a solid block.

And surely you know not to freeze raw chicken and broccoli together. (See 68. Do not cross–contaminate.)

54. Keep cold foods cold, hot foods hot.

Store cold foods below 40°F (about 5°C) and hold hot foods above 135°F (57°C). In between is the Food Temperature Danger Zone, where bacteria can grow rapidly.


Excerpted from Notes on Cooking by Lauren Braun Costello, Russell Reich. Copyright © 2009 RCR Creative Press Incorporated. Excerpted by permission of RCR Creative Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

Gael Greene
"It's amazing how much cooking wisdom, sense and technique is crammed into this little book. It's like Mom, James Beard and Julia Child, Harold McGee and Escoffier all together in the expurgated version."--(Gael Greene,
Jacques Pépin
"Concise, focused, and sensible. Notes on Cooking is full of useful advice for young chefs. Well worth reading."--(Jacques Pépin, Chef, Cookbook Author, and PBS-TV cooking series host)
Dan Barber
"Notes on Cooking is exactly what it says it is: a short guide to an essential craft. There's enough wisdom here to inspire any home cook or seasoned professional."--(Dan Barber Executive Chef / Co-owner, Blue Hill)
Michael Romano
"I wish Notes on Cooking had been written about 35 years ago, when I started cooking professionally. It is an excellent source of level-headed, practical and essential advice; indispensable and wonderfully succinct."--(Michael Romano, Chef, Union Square Hospitality Group)
Daniel Boulud
"In Notes on Cooking, Lauren Braun Costello and Russell Reich bring you indispensable advice, experience, and know-how of many great chefs. This handsome book is both inspirational and practical, and a superb addition to the library of any passionate cook."--(Daniel Boulud, Chef, Restaurant Daniel)

Meet the Author

LAUREN BRAUN COSTELLO developed her craft in the kitchens and classrooms of some of the world 's most renowned chefs and as the owner and Executive Chef of Gotham Caterers in New York. City. From her work as a recipe tester for the 75th anniversary edition of Joy of Cooking, to culinary producer for Pure & Simple with Michel Nischan, she now applies her culinary skills as a private chef, instructor, and as a food stylist for national television broadcasts including The Early Show on CBS, ABC's The View, and CNN's dLife. She received a Grand Diploma in Culinary Arts with distinction from The French Culinary Institute and was awarded a Les Dames d'Escoffier Scholarship.

RUSSELL REICH is a writer and creative director living in New York City. He is the co-author with Frank Hauser of Notes on Directing: 130 Lessons in Leadership from the Director's Chair.
DOROTHY HAMILTON (Afterword) is the founder and CEO of The French Culinary Institute, the chairwoman emerita for life of the American Institute of Wine and Food, and was chairwoman of the Board of Trustees for the James Beard Foundation.

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