On cooking

It may come as a surprise that I love to cook. Since I left the laboratory environment nearly a decade ago, cooking has been an outlet for me to experiment with materials and methods in a small way. It is cause and effect in a contained environment. It is chemistry at the interface of biology and physics. And most importantly, it has the tangible outcome of a (usually edible) meal that can be shared, critiqued, and improved. 

But in my case, the similarities between cooking and science are not perfect. While I trained in science for many years, I have no formal training in cooking. In science, everything has to be measured precisely: protocols have to be followed exactly until you are confident enough to make one change at a time to optimize your experiment. When I cook, I try to understand ingredients and procedures as much as I can– often through trial-and-error– but I don’t follow exact recipes. I substitute ingredients quite often: I also try to replicate what I’ve eaten and enjoyed based on a personal sense of taste. 

Maybe a better comparison can be made in my case between music and cooking. I was never taught how to play a culinary instrument, but I know what is music and what is not. Similarly, it took me years to recognize good food. It possesses an economy of seasoning: it is not loud or overbearing, but balanced. Like a jazz musician, my own style consists of improvisation, but I also know my limitations. I can play for friends in an informal setting, but I’m never going to perform a solo concerto for a paying audience. And, because my cooking is freestyle, by and large, I avoid the exact art of baking.

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