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Learning How To Cook: My Alton Brown Failures

Recently New Yorker columnist Adam Gopnik talked about the gulf between a recipe in a cookbook, and successfully being able to make the item at hand.  I was so relieved to see someone talking about this, because it is a problem that I suffer from frequently.  And people who are good at cooking never understand!  "Just follow the recipe," they say, not realizing that there is a huge volume of dark matter involved.  Information that isn't in the recipe, but affects its contents.

For me, the best example of this gulf is Alton Brown's recipes.  I enjoy Brown's show, I like him as a human being, and I appreciate his mandate to bring science and cooking basics to the public.  But I have never once had success with his recipes.  Why?  I cannot say, but I suspect an excess of "dark matter."

My first Alton Brown disaster was eggplant.  I watched his eggplant show years ago, and promptly went to the store to buy eggplant.  Never having cooked it before, I was eager to try his method for getting rid of the extra fluid inside the eggplant.  Basically you use salt to suck out the extra fluid.  I don't remember if you soaked the slices in salt water, or sprinkled them with salt, or possibly both.  At any rate, the results were so unbearably salty that they made my lips burn, and I had to chuck the whole thing.

I have since learned that the excessive fluid inside an eggplant?  Is not a big problem. Cook it with pasta and let the pasta soak up the liquid, or cook it down on the stovetop and let the liquid boil off.  Or just accept that an eggplant dish is going to be sloppy.  It's okay!  It's not like the extra liquid is poison.  It's just water.

My second Alton Brown disaster was his version of microwave popcorn.  Have you tried this?  His bizarre genius idea was to put regular popcorn inside a brown paper bag, and microwave it.  The first problem is that my microwave is apparently a lot more sensitive than Alton's, because he says you can staple the bag shut, but I totally got lightning that way.  The second problem is that my popcorn always burned.  The third problem is that you end up with the equivalent of "fat free, butter free, flavor free, salt free popcorn."  Terrible.

The last Alton Brown disaster was his salsa recipe.  Looking at the recipe now, it looks perfectly reasonable.  The problem was that I took his description of the roma tomatoes as "chopped" too loosely.  To me, "chopped" means "in fairly big chunks, maybe just quarters or eighths."  Well that's not going to work for salsa, where you want all of the ingredients to be chopped about as fine as you can make them.

My salsa experience is a perfect example of what Gopnik means by the gulf between instruction and experience.  I got good at making salsa by… making salsa.  Over and over again, at least once a week all summer long, until I had figured out the basic parameters.  Discouraging to new cooks, perhaps, but true!