Surviving the Dog Days of Summer: On Not Stressing in the Kitchen

Last week, my boyfriend Sam strolled into the kitchen while I was in the middle of a pretty big recipe development day. The oven was cranked, the burners were going, I was simultaneously using the food processor with one hand and trying to mop up a maple syrup mess with the other. He looked at me and said he had good news. What he'd always suspected was finally being recognized: oven temperatures are a sham. It was time to relax.

Of course, that's easier said than done in the middle of testing three recipes at one time. And of course there's more to it than that (and for the record I will always use oven temperatures as a guide regardless of who deems it necessary or not). But Sam had just read that great little piece by Brian Palmer in Slate (which we wrote about this morning) that stated, "You can't control the temperature of your oven very well so stop worrying about it." In the article, Palmer traced how recipe writers used to give oven instructions, with simpler heat terminology including "slow," "moderate" and "hot." Then when temperatures started to be included on dials, they were indicated in ranges (such as 10 to 25 degrees).

Today, we're quite married to these temperatures (myself included), convinced that a recipe just might not turn out as it should if our oven is off. I'm guilty of having three separate thermometers inside of our oven to gauge how off it may be at any given time. The article makes the point that temperatures are so often off and it would behoove all of us to get to really know our food and be able to judge for ourselves when it seems done. For me, easier said than done. But I like the concept.

Similarly, Mark Bittman just wrote a piece for The New York Times discussing a fish dinner he recently made for himself. Bittman discusses how these days he rarely relies on recipes; instead he feels as though "cooking is like music, but easier: the basic skills are not difficult to attain, and the creativity comes not in reinventing them but in imagining new ways in which to combine them." And this imagining often comes from simply opening the refrigerator door and trusting your instincts.

I think these two pieces are especially relevant as we sit here in August, many of us with hot kitchens and no desire to turn on the oven in the first place, and with a ton of wonderful produce at the ready: this is the time to let your instincts, cravings, and inspiration take hold.This is the time to put away the recipes, rely on your senses, and trust that you know much more about your food than you think you do.

Any tips or stories of August kitchen freedom to share?

Related: Throw a Stress-Free Dinner Party: 5 Tips

(Image: Flickr member land_camera_land_camera licensed under Creative Commons)

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