Sunday, July 7, 2013

Technical Artistry

At its broadest level, the art of cooking is split into three broad categories - cooking, bread-making, and pastry.

It's routinely mentioned that the pastry-making is a science but the remaining two are arts. Ever wonder why that is the case?

Let's digress since the CC loves digressions (particularly when they shed light on the subject via metaphor.)

Many moons ago when the CC was but a wee lad, he studied chemistry. Inorganic chemistry was all moonlight and madness but organic chemistry was systematic and staid. It took twenty further years to figure out why this was the case and the answer is obvious as all answers, in hindsight, routinely are.

Organic chemistry consists of studying just three molecules (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen) which have the advantage of being "light" (meaning: the quantum mechanics is particularly simple.)

(You can add in the rest - nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, etc. but it doesn't change the basic fact.)

So it's simple because it's a highly restrictive system. The interactions are easy to understand and model.

Compare with inorganic chemistry (100+ fuckers!) with complex quantum interactions and you've gotten yourself a mess.

What does this have to do with cooking?

Everything as it turns out.

Pastry-making consists of manipulating just four variables - flour, eggs, milk, sugar. The products are complex but the interaction can be modeled almost perfectly. Even better, the products are regulated so you know exactly how much fat and water there is in the milk and you can weigh the flour, eggs and sugar. There is total control.

Compare it with cooking - you have almost no control. The ripeness of roughly 200+ ingredients varies, the meat and fish vary in complex ways, and the water content of vegetables changes with the seasons.

Bread-making, at least classically, is the same. You have no control over the starter (= combination of yeast + bacteria.) Plus, it changes seasonally with the temperature and humidity.

So you must improvise even though you know the rough path of the score.

Pastry-making is score-driven. Cooking needs basic routine and technique but is ultimately improvisatory.

Cooking is jazz, baby!

† Milk includes milk-related products like butter, cream, cheese, etc.

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