The Software Engineer Approaches Cookery


As much as I enjoy eating delicious food, I hate the processes required to create it. Cookery is something that I want to love, but I just can't manage to. Half of this is a product of my circumstances. For complex and involved reasons which I won't go into now, the place where I live has remarkably little storage space and much of this space is already occupied by cookware and utensils and crockery and cutlery which I almost never have to use. Quite a lot of this equipment has proven to be of no use to me and there have been some pretty glaring omissions in the collection too: for example, the absence of kitchen scissors, or a breadknife. Buying additional kitchen stuff, then, is something I'm loathe to do, because I simply can't justify buying something for which I don't have room, unless I intend to use it on a very regular basis, which in the case of most recipes is not true. At this point, as a non-cookery bod dabbling in this new art, recipes are generally one-time affairs, experiments which may or may not fail. The same is broadly true of the actual food and general ingredients stocked around here. I have very little room for random pots of stuff, and yet the recipes I've read invariably require me to go to the shops and buy about £15 of brand new pots of stuff and then use about one spoonful of each of them. Unless I make the same recipe over and over about five times after that, the chances are that the rest of those pots of stuff will never get used-- they'll spend months just taking up space and eventually get thrown away. That's not even a risk, in many cases. If I'm cooking a meal for somebody else, and it's a meal I know I personally won't eat because I don't like it, then that's just wasted food.

There's all of that, and then there are the recipes themselves. Hey. Recipe writers.


Maybe there's a recipe which calls for "one lemon, zested". I don't have any lemons. It's the only thing on the list that I don't have. It's a Sunday afternoon and the shops are closed. Can I still make this recipe? What is the purpose of this ingredient? Why is it in the recipe? Is it critical to the process? Can I do without it? What are the possible substitutes that I could use? How do you zest one, anyway? Now that I know how you zest a lemon, don't you mean "the zest of one lemon", since most of the actual fruit is getting chucked? Why have you given me a big list of "Hints and Tips for Steaming" and not explained what steaming is? This other recipe says that I need to melt margarine and chocolate over hot water. Why do they have to be melted at the same time in the same pot? Can't they be melted separately? Why and how is hot water involved? How does it matter to the margarine and chocolate what the heat source is? Heat is heat. Can I just use a hot electric ring? Is this the same thing as "steaming"? This recipe needs a pudding basin. I know what a pudding basin is, and I know I don't have one, and I don't want to have to go and buy one. What can I use instead? What are the key attributes of a pudding basin that are needed in this recipe? Oh, it turns out that to "steam" something you need a coffee can. Coffee, in my experience, comes in cylindrical cardboard tubs, or in glass jars - surely neither of which are suitable for cookery. I don't have either of those to hand anyway because I don't drink coffee. Besides which, surely this recipe isn't requiring me to go out and buy a "can" of coffee and then drink all the coffee and cook using the leftover pan, because that would be stupid.

There are unexplained technical terms like "seal", "rub in", "deglaze" and "fold". Half of them are just posh terms for "mix". Half of them have crucial differences, and are attached to a big article on Wikipedia. Wikipedia isn't a good way to learn about cookery. It can't tell you what aisle to look for something in the supermarket. And I don't want to know the history of the casserole, I just want to know whether this dish is one or not.

And the worst part is that the majority of these are stupid questions to which any fool should know the answers. Guess what: I'm a fool. I don't know anything about cookery, yet. In fact, because I know I have no experience, I'm deliberately trying to avoid making assumptions and asking questions about things I think I already know the answer to because half the time it turns out I'm wrong anyway. I'm completely in the dark about some absolutely crucial keywords.

These were all rhetorical questions, by the way. I've long since had them all answered. But my point is that recipes frequently assume a great deal of prerequisite knowledge. I was always told that if you can follow instructions, you can cook. But this is only true if the other guy can give instructions. I'm used to muddling through stuff on my own, figuring stuff out from first principles-- and, most importantly, as a mathematician, I expect to be provided with those first principles right from the outset, so I can prove the correctness of the result myself. I'm used to being able to follow a series of instructions character by character and have everything work out perfectly. I demand unambiguity. Better documentation. Clear definitions of terms. A reason for doing each thing when it's done, so I know whether I want to really do it or not.

Cookery is not like this. Yeah, I guess the main reason I don't like cookery is because I don't know how to cook.

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