The Senses of Good Cooking

You may think you have five, but the sixth is most important.

Here’s a silly sounding but really valuable cooking tip: When you’re roasting nuts in the oven, keep one nut out on your cutting board, and you’ll never burn them; while you’re doing all your other work, you will continually want to wipe that nut off your board, only to remember why it’s there. That’s one way your valuable sense of sight helps you out; if you smell your roasting nuts, it’s probably because they’ve gone too far.

We cook with our senses, and we have six of them, all of them critical, the sixth most of all.

For the cook, one might think that taste is the most important sense. It is indeed a common mantra among chefs: “Always be tasting.” But it’s not just tasting to taste, but rather to evaluate what you’re tasting. Is there enough salt so that it tastes not salty but rather seasoned? Is there enough acidity? Enough richness, enough depth? If not, then think: How should I adjust this?

But often overlooked as a fundamental cooking sense is hearing. When I cook bacon, for instance, I start it in water. The gentle heat of water begins to render the fat and the bacon will never go above browning temperature; it’s cooking, but it can’t burn. But once I hear that pan crackling, I know that the water is almost gone; rendered fat can get very hot, and so I must attend to the pan.

But more important is imagined sight. What you expect to see should be a part of the cooking process.

Smell, likewise, is important, not just as an indicator of deliciousness (or the reverse) but of where you are in the cooking. If I am finishing up the components to go along with the prime rib I’m roasting in the oven, and I don’t smell that delicious roasting meat, I’d better check the oven because it’s probably not cooking properly, and not nearly done. If I smell it too early, perhaps the oven is too hot.

Touch is essential, a sense to call attention to because Americans, terrified of germs and bacteria, seem increasingly afraid of touching food. We touch a bread dough to evaluate if it has risen sufficiently. We press down on steak to intuit how done it is on the inside. We touch the top of a crème brûlée to ensure that it is smooth and brittle, not soft and sticky. Touch your food.

Sight is important, obviously — you can see that you’ve overcooked your pine nuts, or how delicious that roasted chicken is because you’ve put an aggressive coating of salt on it and roasted it in a very hot oven. You can see the oil ripple and swirl when it hits the sauté pan telling you the pan is good and hot.

But more important is imagined sight. What you expect to see should be a part of the cooking process.


When you are reducing a sauce, for instance, you should have in your mind the image of how thick that sauce should be when it is properly reduced. You should see it in your mind. Then, as the sauce reduces and you keep looking at it, stirring it, it should be continuously approaching the image in your mind. You should imagine how brown your fried chicken will be before it reaches your ideal, how much broth relative to garnish in a soup, how much fat you will render from the bacon.

But sight, both actual and imagined, can be a detriment if you are not careful, because what we see can also get in the way of our cooking. When I was in cooking school and working the grill station at the school’s busy restaurant, a student named Chen worked sauté beside me, and found himself deep in the weeds one midday service, behind in his orders, his station a mix of scraps of food, burned pieces of paper towel used to relight burners that were going out, sauce and salt and pepper spilled everywhere.

Dan Turgeon, the rugged chef instructor, seeing that Chen was a mess, stopped to chat, knowing Chen didn’t have the time, but Chen needed a lesson.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *