Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Cooking Skills - Hands vs. Machines

Cooking consists of numerous steps requiring several skills. Some of the steps can be carried out with a machine and some by hand. There are certain steps which, while they can be carried out with a machine, the ability to do them by hand is still valuable.

Which skills are important to master by hand and which can and should be delegated to a machine? Deciding can be both subjective and personal. In 1961 Julia Child, writing about making pastry dough in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, said, “A pastry blender may be used if you wish, but a necessary part of learning how to cook is to get the feel of the dough in your fingers.” Seventeen years later in Julia Child’s Menu Cookbook, Ms. Child said, “Of course you can make the dough by hand or in an electric mixer, but the food processor is sensationally fast and foolproof…” I guess even the venerable Julia Child never stopped learning and adapting and neither should we.

I never make pastry dough by hand, preferring to use the food processor. On the other hand, although I normally use machines to whip egg whites to stiff peaks and make mayonnaise, I believe it is important to be able to do both by hand. It’s hard work and not something I do as a matter of course, but I have successfully conquered both skills.

It’s easy to make perfect rice in a rice cooker or bread in a bread machine but can you do both without these specialty appliances? I knead bread dough with my KitchenAide stand mixer. I can certainly do it by hand and I have but normally I don’t. Knowing how the dough feels when it’s ready is important, kneadng it until your arms are ready to fall off isn’t something that is important to me. I’ve never had a rice cooker but the principal’s the same. I’d want to know how to do it in a saucepan on the stovetop before I gave it up to the appliance.

Even for home cooks, good knife skills are extremely important. Uniform dicing leads to uniform cooking. The proper use of sharp knives leads to less injuries and better looking food. Mastering the art of the mandoline is also a skill but I think it’s important to be able to turn out thin, uniform slices, dices and juliennes with a knife before you turn to the handy, time-saving mandoline.

The passage of time plays some part in the evolution of cooking skills. I've never churned butter and, other than grilling, don't cook on a fire. I'm perfectly content with my oven and store-bought butter. Neither of these are skills I'm particularly interested in mastering. If you've ever read a really old cookbook you know how hard it is to even understand some of the instructions.

Would you like to try mayonnaise by hand? Here's the recipe I use. It's copied verbatim from my old Mastering the Art of French Cooking (italicized notes are mine and yes, this is exactly the way this wonderful, classic book is written):

For 2 - 2 3/4 cups of Hand-beaten Mayonnaise

Use a round-bottomed 2 1/2 - 3 quart glazed pottery, glass or stainless-steel mixing bowl. Set it in a heavy casserole or sauce-pan to keep it from slipping (I put it on a damp, folded dish towel).

3 egg yolks
A large wire whisk
1 tablespoon wine vinegar or lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon dry or prepared mustard
2 tablespoons boiling water

1 1/2 to 2 1/4 cups of olive oil, salad oil or a mixture of each, if you are a novice, use the minimum amount

Points to remember when making mayonnaise by hand:

Temperature - Mayonnaise is easiest to make when all ingredients are at normal room temperature. Warm the mixing bowl in hot water to take the chill off the egg yolks. Heat the oil to tepid if it is cold.

Egg Yolks - Always beat the egg yolks for a minute or two before adding anything to them. As soon as they are thick and sticky, they are ready to absorb the oil

Adding the oil - The oil must be added very slowly at first, in droplets, until the emulsion process begins and the sauce thickens into a heavy cream. After this, the oil may be incorporated more rapidly.

Proportions - The maximum amount of oil one U.S. Large egg yolk will absorb is 6 ounces or 3/4 cup. When this maximum is exceeded, the binding properties of the egg yolks break down, the sauce thins out or curdles. If you have never made mayonnaise before, it is safest not to exceed 1/2 cup of oil per egg yolk.

Warm the bowl in hot water. Dry it. Add the egg yolks and beat for 1 to 2 minutes until they are thick and sticky.

Add the vinegar or lemon juice, salt and mustard. Beat 30 seconds more.

The egg yolks are now ready to receive the oil, and while it goes in, drop by drop, you must not stop beating until the sauce has thickened. A speed of 2 strokes per second is fast enough. You can switch hands or switch directions, it makes no difference as long as you beat constantly. Add the drops of oil with a teaspoon or rest the lip of the bottle on the edge of the bowl. Keep your eye on the oil rather than on the sauce. Stop pouring and continue beating every 10 seconds or so, to be sure the egg yolks are absorbing the oil. After 1/3 to 1/2 cup of oil has been incorporated, the sauce will thicken into a very heavy cream and the crisis is over. The beating arm may rest a moment.

Then beat in the remaining oil by 1 to 2 tablespoon dollops, blending it thoroughly after each addition.

When the sauce becomes too thick and stiff, beat in drops of vinegar or lemon juice to thin it out. Then continue with the oil.

Beat 2 tablespoons of boiling water into the sauce. This is an anti-curdling insurance. (I've never done this.) Season to taste.

If the sauce is not used immediately, scrape it into a small bowl and cover it closely so a skin will not form on its surface.


Unlike store bought mayonnaise, because of the egg yolks handmade mayonnaise will be yellow. Fresh mayonnaise can be flavored with any number of things. To make aioli, which is a garlic mayonnaise, mash one peeled clove of garlic to a fine paste and add it at the beginning of the recipe before you start adding the oil. Try various herbs and seasonings for different mayonnaise flavors. I like to add a few drops of Sriracha hot sauce to an aioli - delicious!

What cooking skills have you mastered by hand even though you could do them with a machine? Do you think it’s important to know how to process food by hand even when you have a time-saving device? Do you regularly practice your knife skills? Are you more about the techniques or the recipes?

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  1. I've often thought about this dilemma. I knead my dough by hand but only because I don't have a stand mixer. But there are things in cooking I much prefer to do myself because I enjoy the process.

    I was reading through a book I have called Martha Washington's Cook Book and back then they didn't use leavening for their cakes - they whipped it so much it rose on its own! Talk about using elbow grease!

    Modern conveniences are wonderful things after all, though I do agree that mastering cooking skills by hand before giving it up to a machine is important in learning to cook.

  2. Great post! My grandma always made homemade mayo and I always liked it better than store bought. I'll have to try your recipe some time, but we don't eat a lot of mayo now. Maybe next time I make a potato salad or something that'll use it up.

    I always knead dough by hand, mostly because I feel no guilt eating as much as I want if I've hand-kneaded :) I always make pie dough in the food processor, but cut in the butter in biscuits or a crumb topping with my hands. Don't know why, that's just how I do it.

  3. @Sarah - I think we all make those choices individually, some we feel good about and some, like churning butter for me, we don't care about. I love that you're reading an old cookbook. Some of those things are amazing, aren't they?

    @Farmer's Daughter - Kneading burns off the calories allowing bread to be eaten guilt free? I love that! Homemade mayonnaise is extremely perishable so I only make a little at a time. Lots of sauces are really just mayonnaise with some different flavors. Remoulade sauce, for example. If you care to make your own mayonnaise by hand, maybe you could think about it that way as opposed to making a bread spread. I don't use a lot of mayonnaise either and always end up tossing some before I can eat it all.

    I'm a technique person and always have an urge to master techniques. Once done, I frequently feel no need to do them again.

  4. Great post! In my own kitchen, I've come to the conclusion that, if an appliance will help me get the job done and allow some ease and convenience then it is a good thing. Often, people get so overwhelmed by the thought of making from scratch because they are ashamed to take advantage of the "cheats." Bring on the modern conveniences!

  5. I agree it's important to know how to do many things by hand BUT a modern mom wearing so many hats: running a home, maintaining finances, chaufer, appointment master record keeper, chef, cleaning lady, and an gazillion number of other things - modern conveniences are quite helpful. I wished I had a mixer with a paddle and doughhook attachments. Mine is so old, they don't make them any more!

  6. @Tina & Jennifer - you're right, these definitely are NOT "get the job done, dinner on the table" type skills to be concerned about. In that case, I agree, you get the food out as quickly as you can so you can move on to the next thing. These are skills you might be interested in perfecting if you were working on increasing your cooking skills merely for the sake of learning some techniques. When I was married, working a 40 hr a week job and had a young child at home I didn't dabble in stuff like this either.

    Now that I'm cooking for myself and have more time on my hands I've developed my love of cooking and my interest in different techniques. Making the perfect mayonnaise by hand, whipping egg whites, making pasta, etc., are indulgences for which I am thankful!

    Thanks for your valuable comments everyone!

  7. Can you explain how you make mayo by machine also?

  8. Sure Mindy - I'll do that next week!


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