Michael Ruhlman recently posed the question, “Why do you cook?” I believe I touched on a bit of the answer in my post about his rolls, and I definitely remember having to write an essay in the topic towards the end of my tenure as a culinary student. I’d like to go back and read that now, seven years later – I’d be interested to see how my answers have changed, and in what ways they remain the same.
Why do I cook? Well, that’s actually a complicated question, as cooking is both my job and my hobby. But it was a hobby first, one I developed a passion for to the point of making it my career. I guess the most interesting question, to me anyway, is “Why do I still cook at home when I do it all day at work?”
I know plenty of chefs, cooks, and bakers who don’t do any cooking at home, which is perfectly understandable. Me, I come home and cook because it relaxes me, believe it or not. After a day filled with deadlines and production goals, it’s nice to come home and cook what I want to cook, not what the schedule or the orders or the inventory say I need to cook. I like being able to make all the decisions, and making last-minute changes when the mood strikes. I cook because it’s relaxing and fun.
Another thing I enjoy about cooking, that I don’t always get to enjoy at work, is the creativity. Being able to cook at home keeps those creative muscles in shape. From coming up with dinner every night, to the challenges posed by the CSA grab-bag, to the wacky ideas that I simply must give shape because they won’t leave me alone, cooking at home prevents me from getting bored with food. I cook to stretch my imagination.
In any given cooking job, there are always tasks you do more often, and ones you don’t do at all, and these change from job to job. When I cook at home, I practice those techniques that I am not using at work, because you never know when you’re going to need to butcher a chicken, bake bread, or chiffonnade some basil in a future job. I cook to hone my skills.
Finally, I love to eat, and I love to eat well. I certainly can’t afford to dine out every night, and cooking at home is a much cheaper option. (The downside to this is that after a certain price point, I get irritated if the food is nothing better than I could cook myself.) I also like knowing where my food came from and what’s in it, and I feel good serving lovingly made food to my family and friends. I cook because I care what goes into my body.
All of which ties in nicely with my attempt to bake sourdough bread last weekend. I got it in my head Saturday night that Sunday would be a good day for bread baking. I asked Nick what kind of bread he wanted (“You can have ANYTHING you want!”) and he asked for sourdough. My starter was healthy, so I fed it to bulk it up and while it waited on the counter, I looked into some recipes.
I ended up winging it, using Ruhlman’s ratio (5: 3 flour to water), assuming that my starter was 1:1. I didn’t use any commercial yeast, only the starter, and it didn’t take nearly as long as I thought it would. (Must finally be getting warmer out!) But here’s the thing: I had no idea if this recipe I had slapped together would work the way I wanted it to, but I did it anyway. I paid close attention to the development of the dough – I didn’t let it get too excited because I wanted a fairly dense crumb, something good for sandwiches. And you know what? It worked. It didn’t taste very sour, but the texture was just what I was looking for. In fact, it tastes a lot like French pain au levain, which I guess it technically is.
But there you have it: I experimented, I learned something, and I was rewarded with tasty homemade bread. Plus the immense sense of satisfaction I get from turning ingredients as simple as flour, water, yeast, and salt into something as wonderful as a loaf of bread.
On this day in 2009: When in Alsace…
Originally published on Croque-Camille.