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Do I Hafta??

This Bread and Butter episode is a repeat fromNov. 15, 2019.

I’ve realized, by hanging out with people who don’t know how to cook, that I really can competently make my way around the kitchen. I’m a home chef, not a pro. But I’ve realized, by watching the way my teenagers slaughter apples with a chef’s knife and massacre a brownie mix… a brownie mix! How hard could it be? … that over the years I’ve actually become pretty handy to have around, culinarily speaking.

At my house, we often have pre-dinner cooking tutorials, in which my blood pressure rises while they spill things on the floor. But sometimes we have fun and produce things we can eat. These sessions always remind me that there is a plethora of skills and knowledge that go into cooking … and a lot of my kids’ questions aren’t covered by the recipe on the back of the box. So, for their sake and yours, I’m doing the next installment of the segment I like to call “Do I Hafta,” in which I cover basic cooking questions.

For instance:

Do I hafta wash my hands? Yes, you have to wash your hands. We live in such a healthy environment, when you compare it to the tuberculosis-ridden days of yesteryear, that it is easy to forget that food-borne illnesses can kill you. Or at least make you very uncomfortable for 24-48 hours.

So wash your hands with warm water and soap before, during, and after preparing food, especially after handling raw meat or uncooked produce like carrots from the garden or dried beans. Wash them again if you pet the dog or rub your nose, and wash them again if you touch a surface that had raw meat on it, the garbage, if you use the bathroom, or roll around on the kitchen floor for a minute. I’m not a germaphobe, but we tend to take our health for granted, and you have to learn healthy habits to stay healthy. It only takes one bout of food poisoning to convince a person that hand washing is worth the trouble.

How about this … Do I Hafta follow the recipe? I’m going to say yes … the first time you produce it, follow the recipe exactly. Recipes reflect scores of failures retried and refined for success. Your best chance for a delicious finished product is scribbled on that little grease-spattered card. As you learn to cook, you’ll pick up on the chemistry and artistry of the process. But if you have too many failures at first, you might not stick with it long enough to love it. And you should love it. So follow the recipe to a T the first few times you make it. When you feel more confident in your skills, and learn that particular recipe well, you can begin to meander from the instructions and try a few substitutions. I guarantee that you will have failure. But that is the point of experimentation, right? Learning what works and what doesn’t work. And there is a lot of joy in creation, which can definitely happen in the kitchen.

Just don’t experiment in the hours before you’ve invited 16 people to dinner. Stick to the recipe then.

Do I hafta preheat the oven? The answer to this one depends on what you are making, and on your oven, but a safe answer is yes, preheat the oven BEFORE you put your food into it.

If you don't preheat, the food cooks at a lower temperature as the oven heats up for the first 5-15 minutes. For forgiving foods, like a casserole, this may not affect things much - you'll just have to bake longer than the recipe says indicates.

But if you're baking something that should be done in a short time at a relatively high temperature, your results are going to be very different. For example, take cookies: they're baked hot for ten minutes. This cooks them all the way through and browns the top and bottom. If your oven starts out cold, they will spread flat, be overcooked in the middle, and not get golden brown. You'll also run into problems like lack of rising in steam-leavened foods. Pastries, in particular, could be particularly disastrous.

If you put food into the oven while it is preheating, it will burn on the surface and remain raw inside. A preheating oven can spike in temperature while it is adjusting to the target heat. You may have set the temperature to 350 F, but surfaces in a preheating oven can reach 500 while the temperatures regulated. For best results, Preheat the oven, and then wait a minute or two after the beep to slide in your biscuits.

And finally, Do I hafta do the dishes?  I’m a pretty good cook, but I’m an excellent mom. So, yes. If you like to eat, kiddo, you have to wash the dishes.