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To Become a Better Cook, Sharpen Your Senses


Kate McDermott describes it as “the sizzle-whump.”

It’s the sound a pie makes when it’s perfectly baked, said McDermott, the author of “Art of the Pie.”

The “sizzle” is the sound of hot butter cooking the flour in the crust, melding it into a crisp, golden lid. The “whump” is the sound of the thickened filling bumping against the top crust as it bubbles at a steady pace.

“I call it the heartbeat of the pie,” she said.

McDermott, 63, who lives in Port Angeles, Washington, leads intensive baking seminars across the country. But before she became a pie coach, she was a professional musician. “I experience the world primarily through sound,” she said. “I’ve been listening to pies since I started baking them.”

Any experienced cook knows that there is much more to cooking than just taste. There is touch (tapping the top of a pie to make sure it is completely firm), smell (inhaling the changing scents of the crust as it bakes), sound (listening to its heartbeat) and sight (watching for the juices to turn thick).

Learn to use all five senses in the kitchen and you’ll become a better cook — especially if you sharpen the ones that are less associated with cooking: hearing, touch and smell.

Cooks with visual impairments, who cannot see the golden brown of a pie crust or the shine of perfectly scrambled eggs, know this better than anyone. The cook and writer Christine Ha, 37, said that touch has become her primary guide in the kitchen since she began losing her sight soon after starting college.

“It’s like my fingertips have become my eyes,” she said. “I can learn so much more by touch than I would have thought.”

Ha, who lives in Houston, learned to cook only after she could no longer see. Like about 90 percent of visually impaired people, she is not completely blind: She can see some light and color, and describes her view of the world as “like looking into a steamy mirror.” All the more impressive, then, that in 2012 she won the third season of the frenetic television cooking competition “MasterChef.”

She started cooking with her late mother’s deep-fried spring rolls, reverse-engineering them through touch and hearing as well as taste and smell. Her fingers test the pliability of the wrappers; she listens for the sound the bubbling oil makes when she throws in a bit of filling to test its heat; she taps the frying rolls with tongs to test whether the shells are crisp and blistered.

David Linden, a neurobiologist at Johns Hopkins University and the author of the book “Touch,” confirmed that the fingertips become more sensitive in people who are blind from birth and in those who learn to read Braille. “Hearing and touch become more acute in the absence of sight,” he said. The part of the brain dedicated to gathering information from the eyes actually shrinks in size, while the parts that receive signals from the ears and touch-sensitive nerve endings grow larger.

Linden said, however, there is no comparable adaptation for people who lose their ability to taste and smell, a condition called anosmia. “People who become anosmic are much more likely to stop cooking and eating than people who become deaf or blind,” he said; anosmics are also at much greater risk for depression and suicide. “The shared experience of food seems to be one of the things that makes us human.”

Many of the important cues in any kitchen have nothing to do with sight or taste: distinguishing the sound of a boil versus a simmer; knowing the feel of a rare steak versus a medium-well one; biting into pasta as it cooks to catch the brief, perfect moment between chewy and soft.

For most of human history, children learned those cues simply by being near the stove. But today, unless they spend a lot of time in a kitchen, their sensory cooking skills may be limited to listening for the moment when the microwave popcorn stops popping. Those children grow up to be cooks who focus on reading and rereading recipes, often at the expense of paying attention to the stove.

But recipes are inherently limited when it comes to sensory information. An instruction like “simmer over low heat for 30 minutes, until thickened” can produce endlessly different results. The recipe doesn’t know what your stove considers “low” heat. It doesn’t know what your pan is made of. It doesn’t know what “thickened” looks like to you.

That’s why the best cooks learn to work not just with their minds and their taste buds, but also with all their senses.

The cooking teacher James Peterson uses a chicken breast to teach students how to feel for doneness, because it has thick and thin areas. “As it cooks in the skillet, keep your fingers moving from the thin part to the thick,” he said. “You’ll be able to feel how the heat gradually moves through the meat.”

Edna Lewis, the doyenne of American Southern cooking, taught that listening to a cake is the best way to know when it’s done. A cake that is still baking makes little bubbling and ticking sounds, but a finished cake goes quiet.

The chef Justin Smillie of Upland in Manhattan, New York, built the short rib dish that made him famous by seeking not a certain flavor, but a certain mouthfeel. “I knew how to get the flavor where I wanted it,” he said. “But the texture was the challenge.”

“Sensory cooking is the opposite of technique,” Smillie said. “The formulas you learn in culinary school won’t make you a chef, but cooking with all your senses will.”

A multisensory approach to food is not only practical, but also all the rage. Ever since the chef Heston Blumenthal put headphones on his guests so they could listen to his dish Sound of the Sea while they ate it, and Grant Achatz served a deep breath of lavender-scented air at Alinea (it arrived at the table trapped in a pillow), chefs have been trying to create dishes that challenge our assumptions about how we experience food.

The most recent multisensory development is the connection between food and autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR. A newly defined sensory state, ASMR is a kind of pleasurable shivering or tingling that spreads along the scalp, upper back and shoulders in response to soothing repetitive sounds. Originally, these included soft whispering, pages turning or having one’s hair brushed.

Now, ASMR devotees have discovered food. Video series like Silently Cooking and Peaceful Cuisine have no talking, no music, nothing to distract from the sounds of cooking: the rasp of a knife shaving chocolate, the rhythmic scrape of a whisk whipping egg whites, the glug-glug of olive oil pouring into a pan. Even eating sounds have ASMR devotees, especially if it involves chewing candy and whispering at the same time.

ASMR may provide a pleasurable new way for McDermott to experience pie. She learned that she had celiac disease in 2006 and can no longer eat most of the pies she teaches others to make (though she has devised a gluten-free crust recipe). When a particularly beautiful specimen comes out of the oven, she said she appreciated it nonetheless.

“It doesn’t matter if I can’t eat this pie,” she said. “I can see it, I can smell it, I can touch it. The only sense I can’t have for it is taste.”

10 Ways to Sharpen Your Kitchen Senses

NOTICE the steady sound of a sizzle when frying in a skillet; popping noises or uneven rhythms mean the heat is too high.

PRACTICE picking up a quarter of a teaspoon of salt in your fingertips and learn what it feels like, so that you can measure without spoons.

LISTEN to liquids as they cook to learn the different sounds of a simmer, a boil and a hard boil.

DESIGNATE one shelf of your refrigerator and cupboard for the ingredients you use most often (flour, lemons, olive oil, soy sauce), so that you can recognize them immediately and grab them quickly.

DEDICATE an afternoon to learning what bread dough and pie crust should feel like when they have the right balance of flour and water; your fingertips will retain the information forever.

LISTEN to your cakes: A cake that is still baking makes little bubbling sounds, while a finished cake goes quiet.

USE the blade of a small sharp knife to gauge when fish is cooked. Slide it into the flesh, then press gently to your lips. It should feel pleasantly hot, like a hot shower: not warm, and not scalding.

TOUCH the tops of cookies to decide if they are done: You should feel crisp crust, not soft dough.

USE your nose and eyes when sautéing garlic in oil, instead of following time guidelines. Garlic is cooked when barely golden and fragrant, whether the process takes 10 seconds or two minutes.

TOSS salads with your hands to ensure the leaves are evenly coated with dressing. Touch the greens before tossing to make sure they are fluffy and cool: Limp leaves should go back to the refrigerator for refreshing, covered with a damp kitchen towel.

Thrice-Roasted Chicken With Rosemary Rub

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Total time: 40 minutes, plus 2 days’ seasoning

For the brine:

1 bay leaf, preferably fresh

4 fresh thyme or small rosemary sprigs

1 cup kosher salt

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1 lemon, thinly sliced

1/4 cup black peppercorns, toasted and roughly crushed

3 1/2 to 4 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken pieces (use whole breasts or legs, or a combination)

For the rub:

1/2 teaspoon toasted black peppercorns

1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 1/2 tablespoons apple cider or white wine vinegar

1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1/2 garlic clove, finely grated

2 tablespoons anchovy paste

Olive oil and kosher salt

To finish:

3 tablespoons butter

1 bay leaf

3 fresh thyme or rosemary sprigs

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar (optional)

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, more to taste (optional)

Salt and ground black pepper

1. Brine the chicken: Using your fingers, rub bay leaf and thyme sprigs until fragrant. In a large nonreactive container, combine 1 gallon cold water with the herbs, salt, sugar, lemon and peppercorns. Stir until sugar and salt dissolve. Add chicken, making sure pieces are completely submerged. Cover and refrigerate for 8 to 12 hours.

2. Make the rub: Combine peppercorns, parsley and rosemary in a mortar or a small food processor. Crush together until peppercorns are finely ground. Mix in mustard, vinegar, lemon zest and juice, garlic and anchovy paste. Rub should be thick, but not stiff; loosen with a little olive oil if needed. Taste and season with salt if necessary.

3. Remove chicken from brine and rinse under cold running water. Thoroughly pat it dry with paper towels. Once paper towels come away completely dry, smear the skin with the rub until evenly coated.

4. Place the chicken, skin side up, on a cooling rack set over a rimmed baking sheet. Refrigerate for 12 to 24 hours, or until the rub dries and doesn’t smudge easily when prodded.

5. Cook the chicken: Remove chicken from refrigerator 1 hour before roasting. Heat oven to 400 degrees.

6. Slick a large, heavy pan, preferably cast iron, with a thin coating of oil and set over medium heat. When oil is shimmering-hot, lay chicken in pan, skin side down. Press down slightly on the pieces so their skin is in maximum contact with the pan. Raise heat to medium-high and sear chicken for 7 minutes, or until edges turn golden brown. You should hear a steady, loud sizzle, but no popping sounds; reduce heat if needed.

7. Without flipping pieces, transfer pan to oven and roast for 17 minutes, or until breast juices run clear and drumsticks wiggle easily at their joints. When ready, the meat should be about 140 degrees at its thickest part.

8. Finish the chicken: Remove pan from oven and place on stovetop over medium-low heat. Add butter, bay leaf and herb sprigs. As butter begins to foam, tip the pan slightly and baste chicken with butter for 2 to 3 minutes, or just until butter browns.

9. Remove chicken from pan and place pieces, skin side up, on a cooling rack set over a large rimmed baking sheet. Let the chicken rest for 10 minutes so the juices settle and skin crisps. The internal temperature should be about 160 degrees. If you’d like, carve the pieces, separating the whole breast into two or four pieces, and separating the thighs from drumsticks. Place chicken on a warmed serving platter.

10. Make vinaigrette, if desired: Pour all the drippings back into the roasting pan. Whisk in vinegar and lemon juice. Taste and adjust the seasonings with lemon juice, salt and pepper. Pour around the chicken. (Alternatively, simply pour the drippings from the cutting board around the pieces.) Serve immediately.

Blueberry Rhubarb Pie

Yield: 1 9-inch pie

Total time: 1 hour, plus cooling

Dough for a double-crust pie, chilled

2 1/2 cups/312 grams rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 1/2- to 1-inch lengths

1 1/2 cups/226 grams blueberries or blackberries

3/4 cup/150 grams granulated sugar, more for sprinkling

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca (also called instant, minute or small pearl tapioca)

1/3 teaspoon salt

Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1/2 tablespoon cold unsalted butter

1 egg white, whisked with 1 tablespoon water

1. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Roll out both crusts. Line a deep 9-inch pie pan with the bottom crust and return both crusts to the refrigerator.

2. In a medium bowl, combine rhubarb, berries, sugar, flour, tapioca, salt, nutmeg and lemon juice. Toss to coat and combine, then scoop into waiting bottom crust. The fruit should come up to within 1/2-inch of the rim of the pan; do not overfill. If necessary, add more or subtract some of the fruit. Break the butter into pieces and dot over the fruit.

3. Lay top crust over filling. Trim excess dough from the edges and crimp, then cut 6 or 7 vents on top. Brush a light coating of egg wash over the crust, including the edges.

4. Bake for 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 375 degrees. Bake another 25 minutes, then open the oven and quickly sprinkle the crust with a thin coating of granulated sugar. Bake another 10 to 15 minutes, or until you see steady bubbling in the filling coming through the vents.

5. Remove pie from oven and listen to it: if the crust is sizzling, and the filling is audibly bubbling against the top crust, it is done. Let cool completely before serving.



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