Cooking with gadgets and technology is a trade-off – we gain convenience, ease and speed, but perhaps we lose the very essence of ingredients and dishes themselves.
I know a wonderful cook who rolls sheets of pasta by hand until thin enough to read a newspaper through. She also makes pastry, bread dough and ice cream by hand. Oh, she has the gadgets that would make the task easier, quicker and more uniform. But, for her the old-fashioned ways are best.
She’s not alone, many chefs in Southeast Asia insist on using a mortar and pestle to make an aromatic curry paste. While a food processor is quicker, it tears and bruises the herbs they will say. Similarly, a recent viral photo showed the difference in structure between hand-kneaded and machine-made focaccia. The former airy with large air pockets and the latter deflated in comparison with none of the same rise. The principle is true for anyone who has tasted fresh coconut milk, its flesh painstakingly ground and mixed with water, versus the canned version. They will attest to there being an remarkable difference.
Convenience is a wonderful thing and in some instances modern gadgets can make for a superior process, or taste. But, first of all, it is important to know, that there is a difference between the handmade and the machine made and that that it can make an appreciable difference. One of the marks of a great cook is the ability to discern their differences.
Anyone who has baked a cake from scratch will recognize the difference in the crumb when compared to the boxed version. Each has its place, but it is important to know that one is not a substitute for the other.
A French chef I know prefers peeling garlic cloves rather than the more expeditious and (aggressively satisfying) method of smashing it on a board to release the skins, purporting that the latter allows all the oils and therefore all the flavour to seep into the cutting board. Recall too, the days before the candy thermometer and laser temperature gauges when knowing about sugar meant dipping a slotted spoon into it and blowing bubbles or testing it in water to see if it reached soft ball stage. All knowledge that may be forgotten entirely in a few decades.
Of course, the traditional ways are not uniformly better – I love the texture of ice cream made in a paco jet, I’d prefer a pesto made in a food processor to none at all, and acetate aids tremendously in making unusual shapes with tempered chocolate. Not to mention, the microplane which has become indispensable recently, or the shortcut in the form of a pressure cooker for rendang, beans and meat. Personally, I prefer a coffee maker’s convenience and speed to that of a French press or even at times to that made by a barista, though I concede the latter tastes superior.
Most importantly, I have to remind myself that there is continuously a trade-off. We give up certain knowledge (not always consciously) to gain efficiencies in other ways. We give up certain things, wonderful as they may be, to conform to the needs and requirements at a particular time. Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way, “for everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you gain, you lose something else.”
This original editors letter first appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of City Style and Living Magazine.