I agree with Ironchef in that techniques are more important than are recipes. The things I think are immportant to know, and that serve me well through all of my cullinary adventures.
1. My most important asset is my ability to understand haw foods react to heat.
2. The differences between cuts of meat, especially beef cuts, will dictate how they must be prepared.
3. What flavors go well with each other.
4. Understanding how to make roux based sauces, cream sauces, stocks and broths, and the mistakes that can break a sauce.
5. Emulsifiers and how they affect recipes they are used in.
6. knowledge of water based cooking techniques.
7. Understanding the different types of frying, and knowing how to select the appropriate frying technique.
8. The differences between baking, roasting, and oven-frying.
9. undertstanding yeast and chemically raised batters and dough
10, types of thickeners and their effect on flavor and texture
11. Proper final temperature for different food types, i.e. meats, fish, veggies, ect.
12. Knowing your sweeteners and how they affect flavor and texture
13. How to insure moist pastries and breads.
14. Knowing the characteristics of different flour types, including high, medium, and low gluten flours, as well as the properties of different grains.
15. How to ballance flavors
16. How to build the proper fire for grilling, barbecuing, or fire-roasting.
17. The difference between barbecue and grilling.
18. Tenderizing meat through cooking technique, mechanical technique, and enzimatic technique.
19. the difference between a marinade and a brine.
20. Understanding acids and alkalies.
There are many more things to learn. But if you understand these basic 20 priniples, you will be able to succesfully make everything from hot dogs to crown roasts, to standing rib roasts, to bacon. You will be able to make a simple chemically risen batter and understand that those same ingredients can create for you pancakes, cakes, biscuits, banana bread, muffins, etc. with but a few simple changes from one recipe to the other.
The same is true of yeast risen batters. They can make everything from belgian waffles to french bread, simply by changing the amount of liquid, and a few other ingredients.
Once you understand the basic pie crust, you can use it for fruit and cream pies, meat pies, pasties, tarts, cookies, shortbread, and many other treats.
Cooking isn't about learning and memorizing a thousand different techniques and recipes. By understanding that chicken dries out and turns tough at any temperature above 170' F., I can make wonderful soups, roasted, baked, fried, grilled, and barbecued chicken dishes, including whole birds, cornish game hens, chicken pieces, caseroles, stews, etc.
I have studied the cuts that come from beef and pig carcases. Once you understand those two animals, and how to treat the respective cuts, you can extrapolate that info to lamb, mutton, venison, bison, elk, bear, etc. You will learn to recognize similarities between different animals and thus how to prepare them.
The most important thing you can understand about food preperation is to understand that everyone is different, and that there are very few preperations that are "the right way" to make. Everyone likes their food seasoned a bit differently. Even textures are subjective. One person likes firm, dry, almost crunchy rice, while the next person will only eat soft and sticky rice. Understand that your opinion is valuable mostly to you. My opinion suits me perfectly. After all, the way I prepare food is geared to my likes and dislikes. Of course, I try to understand the likes of the people I'm preparing food for, so that I can tayloy my meal to create the most enjoyment for any given situation.
Don't be afraid to experiment. And don't be afraid to fail. For every failure, there will be more successes. And you learn from both.
Cooking is a science, a hobby, and an art. It can be a profesion, a passion, or just a way to fill the belly. It's up to you.
Oh, one more thing; know your cooking tools, and which ones are necessary for the kind of cooking you want to do. Also, don't become a food snob. If you enjoyed beans and wieners as a kid, or pbj's, keep enjoying them. Just add to your list of foods you have experienced.
Did you know that if you take a simple pbj, spread butter on the outside of both bread slices, and gill it on a pan, like a grilled cheese sandwich, it completely changes the character of the end product. It's not the same as making a pbj with toasted bread either. And it's deliscious, if difficult to eat.
Be open minded about new foods and new techniques. But use logic to evaluate what people tell you, including, and maybe especially what the TV "Chefs" tell you on their shows. I've heard a lot of garbage come from some of those chefs that just wasn't correct, or was at best, misleading. If you have a physics background, and maybe some chemistry, adding in a bit of mehcanical engineering, you will have a definite edge in you ability to build a mental database to use as you cook. That database will eventually help you to be intuitive, seemingly to know what will work, even if you've never tried to make a particular type of dish before.
If you don't have the schoolastic background, don't fret. As I said before, cooking is somewhat of an art, but one that can be learned by nearly everyone.
Yeh, I can get wordy. BT, no comments here. We have new members who will read this and come to understand that I often have a lot to say (sometimes too much
). But you always have to have someone like me on a site to ballance out those people who never say more than a single sentence.
I'm going to bed now. Hope some of what I've said helps.
Seeeeeeya; Goodweed of the North