OK, admit it: The only carrots you eat are pre-peeled and bagged. You’ve been buying chicken tenders so long you’ve forgotten that the bird comes with bones and skin. And the only dough you ever touch these days has George Washington’s face on it.
Maybe it’s time to get back in touch with food and let your fingers do the learning.
“Your hands are your most important tools,” says chef Daniel Patterson of San Francisco’s Michelin-starred COI. “You don’t understand ingredients unless you touch them.
“Technology is very good,” adds Patterson, who lets machines aerate, puree and vacuum-seal foods at his restaurant. “But technology is not as good as the human body. The information that you get from your hands, from all your senses, really, is vastly more complex and textured than from a machine.”
Cookbook author Pam Anderson heartily endorses the use of one’s hands in the kitchen.
“Often in interviews, one of the questions people ask me is, ‘What’s your favorite kitchen tool?’ and I say, ‘My favorite kitchen tool is my hands.’ Any tool beyond that is simply an extension of my hands,” she says. “People are always amazed.”
In Anderson’s latest book, Cook Without a Book: Meatless Meals, her hands show up in many photos, from mixing scones to pressing liquid in chopped cucumbers through a sieve.
“When you go in the kitchen, wash your hands and touch, smell, taste, look, freely,” the Connecticut mom says. “That’s definitely my philosophy and my approach. My kids will vouch for that.”
Along with your sense of taste, says Patterson, touch is one of the most important ways you can understand food if you pay attention and develop a “sensory memory.”
“When you touch a vegetable and it’s limp — a carrot or beet — you know what that’s going to do to the final product because you’ve cooked those kind of carrots and you have this memory that connects something that’s too soft with an end product that’s diminished in its spirit,” he says. “The sensory experience of touch becomes linked to taste. It’s one of the first ways you learn what things taste like without even tasting them.
“There’s an intimacy with touch,” Patterson adds. “There’s an engagement on a very close level. And if you don’t have that connection or you’re not willing to make that connection, what you’ve lost — it’s like having a relationship with somebody you never touch.”
Using your hands to mix a biscuit or cookie dough, or using a knife and your hands to cut a hunk of beef into stew cubes or whole chicken into quarters, elevates cooking beyond following a recipe.
Yet learning that can be a challenge. At The Culinary Institute of America, or CIA, in Hyde Park, N.Y., students work on learning the degree of doneness of different foods, from fish to vegetables, and the correct feel of a variety of doughs.
Occasionally, chef Howard “Corky” Clark, a CIA culinary arts professor, undercooks, overcooks and correctly cooks pieces of fish so students can feel each. “It’s not easy to get people to not look, but to feel,” he says.
And when students knead doughs, “chefs will walk by and say it needs more flour, then come back in a minute and say, ‘I could tell it needed more flour by the way it looked and the way it handled. Now do you feel the difference between what you were kneading and what it is now?’ so they can actually feel the difference,” Clark adds. “With vegetables, we teach them to stick a knife in it. Then I say, check one. Feel it. With a broccoli stem, you have to know that it’s going to break apart but not be mushy.”
“Don’t look, learn to feel,” says Clark. “How do I know that there’s not enough flour or too much flour? How do I know that? How do I know that I’ve developed enough gluten? It’s in the way it feels.”
TV’s renowned kitchen geek-cookbook author Alton Brown understands the importance of touch in the kitchen. In “I’m Just Here for More Food (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $35), he writes about trying to replicate his grandmother’s biscuits.
“For years I tried to clone the tender little jewels of goodness that came out of her oven.” He tinkered with everything — ingredients, oven temps, etc. — without success. One day, he watched her make them: Her arthritic fingers, unable to knead the dough, simply patted it. “It’s the detail that made all the difference in the world.”
Reach out and touch your food
Cookbook author Pam Anderson suggests:
Toss a salad • It’s a good way “to evenly coat and spread oil and salt and pepper over all my salad greens and get them well coated. Then add your vinegar and get that evenly coated. You can feel it. With tongs, you’re about 8 inches away from the source.”
Knead it • Use a food processor to make yeast doughs, “but there’s nothing like pulling pizza dough or bread dough out of the food processor, pouring it onto the countertop and giving it that final 30 seconds to a minute kneading to pull it into that baby’s-butt smooth texture.”
Brush vs. hands • “I use a brush for egg washes on bread and pastries, [but] if I’m coating meat with oil and salt and pepper before searing it, that’s generally a hand process for me. You’re more efficient with your hands usually than a tool.”