How Cooks Learn

Scone dough

Scone dough

I was half-reading along in "Romancing the Scone," an interesting Houston Chronicle piece that included some scone recipes, but seemed to be more about tea, both the drink and the meal or ritual of drinking it. Kind of interesting...and my mind wandered a bit to "The Meaning of Tea," a documentary I saw recently, and to the odd point that young people in tea-drinking cultures (and older people too) are abandoning tea-drinking in favor of colas because Americans in movies do not drink tea. Hmmm... Then I started thinking about how scones are like biscuits, and about the unusual Frozen Grated Butter Biscuits and the comments some friends who are cooks have sent ("worked well," and "worked well with 1/4 cup less butter") and I'm thinking "So the internet is one way we are all learning to cook better" and I am still half-reading along about scones while my mind is half-wandering when I read this: "...I cut the dough, being careful not to twist, since that would compromise the rise."

NOW I am wide awake. Here's a new cooking principle I can use. Don't twist the cutter when cutting biscuits or scones. That must mean one needs to cut straight down and lift straight up. Period.

I had never heard before that in cutting out a biscuit or scone, twisting the cutter would compromise the rise. Yet I could see that it might be true, since biscuits and scones often rise higher in the middle than around the edges. The edges, in fact, can seem compacted and even tough -- maybe because I have been twisting the cutter.

Because I have been trying, again, to learn to make good scones and biscuits, that little piece of information got my attention. I am going to do a scientific test with my next batch of dough, twisting with the cutter for some biscuits and not for others.

Did the great biscuit makers I've known and watched know not to twist the biscuit cutter, but they forgot to tell me? Maybe they knew without even knowing they knew. Maybe they said and I didn't listen. Now that they are no longer around, I am learning biscuit making the hard way, from recipes and little tips -- "Don't handle the dough too much," "Freeze and grate the butter,"  "Don't twist the cutter."

I have been cooking with more people recently, or watching others cook. With novice cooks I find myself wondering how many suggestions to make. "Heat the pan before adding the oil." "A wooden spoon is the perfect utensil for stirring that." "Milk boils over easily." "Let the butter and chocolate cool before adding the rest of the brownie ingredients."

I typically choose not to offer advice because I'm not sure it's wanted, and because I wonder if I am right about my approach to much of the hidden infrastructure of cooking, the basics one needs to cook successfully even with detailed recipes.

I hope to learn, though, how other cooks like to learn. Cooking is a freedom skill, and we can all use more freedom and self-reliance.

I'll have a scone and a cup of tea while I think about that some more....

Photo credit: Amit Erez