My husband is a scientist — an MD/PhD, or physician-scientist, which means he's spent the last 11 years in either a research lab or at the hospital. He's smart, inquisitive, kind, and hard-working (and looks like a young Harrison Ford, but I digress).
He's also an excellent cook, and over the years I've come to believe that the two are very much related. The same qualities and requirements that led him to a career in science are also what sparked his interest in cooking. His way of working in the kitchen, much like how he works in the lab, and the way he thinks about cooking have taught me a lot about how to be a better cook. Here's what I've learned.
5 Things My Scientist Husband Taught Me About Cooking
1. When something doesn't work, it's not a failure — it's a learning opportunity.
A scientist's life is essentially a series of quests, diversions taken down various roads at various times, all in search of the answers to the questions posed at the beginning of the journey, and those that have popped up along the way. In other words, everything is a discovery, and when everything is a discovery, nothing is a failure — it's just new information, a new piece of the puzzle.
This is how my husband cooks. A mediocre recipe attempt doesn't ruffle his feathers. Sure, he gets disappointed, as he does when an experiment doesn't yield the results he'd hoped for. But he understands that trial and error is part of the process: "I tried it this way, it didn't work, so next time I'm going to try it that way. And if that doesn't work, I'm going to try it another way." He's critical of what he cooks, but in a constructive way, logically parsing out the parts that weren't to his liking so he can make tweaks the next time around, which leads to this:
2. When trying to master a recipe, change one variable at a time.
Every good experiment has a control group — the baseline, the set that doesn't change — and an experimental group, which is exactly like the control group except for one variable. That variable is what's interesting. If the experimental group yields different results than the control group, you should be able to pin it to that variable (assuming you rule out any human error). This is why it's important to only alter one thing at a time, so you can pinpoint the source of the change.
Often when my husband cooks something he's made before, he tries to improve on it, but he doesn't throw down a bunch of changes at once. He doesn't switch up the spices and change the cooking temperature and add in a new ingredient or two. He picks one thing, and waits to see how that affects the dish. Sometimes the thing he decides to change is a whim (we're out of the called-for ingredient, so he subs in something else) or it's because he read about a tip or technique that he wanted to try. But the slow, steady progress, this gradual, thoughtful tweaking, is how he masters a recipe, and becomes a better cook. (I can totally vouch for this technique, too. He honestly makes the best steak I've ever had.)
3. Precision is important ... except when it's not.
Any scientist will tell you precise measurements are essential, otherwise results can be skewed and unreliable. The same goes for cooking, especially baking: attention to detail can mean the difference between an amazing outcome and a totally average one. This is where a good food scale and setting mise en place become very important.
But cooking is about more than being precise, as all home cooks know. It's about instinct, and using all five senses. It's about tasting and trusting your taste. It's about being creative! Sometimes my husband is as exacting with his ingredients as if he was in the lab, while other times he just lets it go and follows his nose. I appreciate how he values and understands both of these things, and it reminds me to pay better attention to the recipe at hand: is precision required here, or is there a little wiggle room?
4. As always, clean as you go.
When you work in a lab, it's imperative to keep your station neat, clean, and organized. Accidents in a lab can be dangerous; you'd never find reagents randomly out and about, or used tools dripping chemicals on the lab bench. Everything immediately goes back where it came from, and tools are properly cared for and sanitized. (Plus, this is just common courtesy when you work with other people.)
My husband definitely works clean in the kitchen, too. He wipes down and washes as he goes, and immediately puts away ingredients right after he uses them. I'm still working to be as efficient as he is!
5. Don't be afraid of the Big Question.
My husband loves the documentary El Bulli: Cooking in Progress. He doesn't do modernist cooking, but the film, as he tells me, gets the link between science and cooking — the blend of experimentation, creativity and rigor that make both disciplines so compelling.
To devote your life to science, you have to get a thrill from "what could be." You have to live for the discovery on the other side of the experiment. You have to be bold (no pun on our last name intended) and adventurous to ask big questions, to try new things, t0 follow an idea when you know it may not lead to what you've predicted. (If that happens, no worries! See #1.)
In the kitchen, this translates to my husband deciding to roast a leg of lamb, even though he'd never done it before, for an Ottolenghi-approved feast on Easter. Conventional wisdom states that you should never cook something new when you're having 12 people over for dinner, but as he said to me, when else are we going to get a chance to try a big recipe like that? We'd probably not go to the effort for just the two and a half of us (we have an eight-month-old) on a regular weeknight.
When I ask myself the Big Question — "Can I cook this?" — I now try not to let my own fears and self-doubt steer me to safer grounds. Experimenting is what my husband does for a living, and it's also part of the reason he enjoys cooking. His answer to the "Can I cook this?" question is "Well, let's find out, shall we?"