Back in 2011 when I was really learning to cook I would use Saturday afternoons as my time for dedicated cooking practice.
Why Saturday afternoons?
Well, for a couple of reasons:
- I didn’t work on Saturdays.
- It was the time of the week when I was the most well rested (after a Saturday morning sleep in).
- My hubby wasn’t at home on Saturday afternoons, and would just happen to come home ravenous and be willing to try my latest concoction.
When I think back, it was Saturdays that really helped me to develop, refine and practice my skills so I could become the home cook I am today. Even if you can’t use Saturday afternoons like I did, I recommend that you find a few hours each week where you can set aside time to develop, refine and practice your skills too.
Developing Cooking Skills
Saturday afternoons were the best time for me to cook because I had the time to relax and focus on whatever it was that I wanted to do. Some weeks this meant I would spend hours upon hours pouring over cookbooks (thank god for the local library otherwise I’d be broke!). Other weekends I watched TV cooking shows either online, on TV or on DVDs I’d borrowed from the library so I could expand my knowledge or just find new inspiration and recipes. Or I would spend time just googling whatever information on whatever topic it was that I needed help with or wanted to try (like pastry making, perfecting pizza dough or learning about a new cuisine).
When I began developing my skills I didn’t have a plan for what I wanted to learn so my skills just grew organically. Each weekend I’d just develop some skill or idea that had come to me during the week or that I’d seen someone else do. One week I baked bread for the first time because I’d borrowed a bread making book from the library. Another Saturday it was attempting sweet potato gnocchi (unsuccessfully I might add). And on another week it was learning to control my knife well enough when slicing potatoes so that I could finally make potato bake from scratch.
Whatever I cooked on Saturday afternoon always built upon the other skills or expanded my repertoire – such as learning to debone a chicken, chop an onion or make lasagna from scratch. So if you want to spend your time developing your skills you can either let everything happen organically, like I did, or make a loose plan on the things you want to know, and add other ideas to it along the way. The only loose plan I did make was when I was planning to enter Masterchef.
Refining cooking skills
While I always made time on my Saturdays to learn something new, as I got better I spent time refining the skills I was learning. This might have meant that I cooked 2-3 things each Saturday but it might have also meant that one Saturday was spent developing the skill and the next one was spent refining that or other skills. However you can fit it into your schedule, make time for refinement of your skills, because there isn’t any better way to build your experiences than with refinement. It’s not enough just to cook something once and think you’ve mastered it.
Refinement for me usually meant cooking a recipe I’d made before and deciding to change something as I cooked it. With the upside down pineapple cake that meant adding extra brown sugar to the pineapple and adding more pineapple juice to the mix to keep the cake moister once it was cooked. For pizza dough making it meant trying to make a thinner crust and a better tasting one (I needed to add more salt to my dough mix).
Another way I refined my skills was by repeating the same recipe but with different variations. For instance, I found a great muffin recipe and when my hubby needed to take some sweets to an event I used this opportunity to vary the recipe – I made lemon and apricot, chocolate with chop chip, blueberry, and apple and cinnamon muffins all out of the one recipe base.
What will you spend the time refining? Will it be a cooking technique like finer slicing or making a sauce? Will it be refinement of a recipe you made recently? Will it be to take that recipe and make it suit your own tastes? I’m sure you’ve already got a few ideas circulating through your mind.
Practicing Cooking Skills
You might not think there is much difference between refinement of and practicing your skills. In some cases they will definitely be one and the same, but in others, you will need the practice to get it right. For instance, my dough making skills took both refinement and practice. I refined the taste of the recipe, but I had to practice making it to know when it ‘felt’ right, and to know how thin I could really roll it out without it breaking when I added my toppings.
Practice was the main thing I needed when I was learning how to make Mezze items. Mezze is the Arabic version of tapas (the Spanish version) or antipasto (the Italian version), where small bites of many different things are offered. For me this meant learning how to make fatayeh, sambousek, speha (open mince and tomato pies), spinach and cheese triangles and other Middle Eastern treats. Basically, I learnt a simple dough recipe and then had to practice how to make each type of mezze into a different shape – some were logs, others semicircles, another triangles and another a square with pinched sides.
By practicing that afternoon making dough into all sorts of shapes and sizes it made me a lot more comfortable working with dough in general. I can now make various types of doughs, make my own bread variations and can make sweets using dough as well. And my pizza dough’s improved so much that I can now make it by look rather than a recipe.
And we all know that with practice comes perfection, so isn’t it time you set aside a Saturday afternoon for a big cooking session that’ll teach you how to develop, refine and practice your skills?
What have you learnt through making some dedicated practice time? How much do you think you’ve improved?