The Art of Stopping

As this blog develops, I’ll do my best to balance my fondness for theorising and pontificating with some more practical thoughts around the many aspects of cooking that recipes can never adequately cover.

And where better to start than with the question of when to stop?

OK, perhaps there are more logical places to start. But stick with me, because this one’s pretty fundamental – especially if you’ve ever found yourself in a panic in the kitchen, feeling that you’re losing all control of the meal you’re cooking.

(If you’ve never experienced a kitchen panic of this kind, congratulations. It probably means that everything I’m about to say will seem ludicrously obvious. It also means that you’re weird, and that normal, fallible people are very likely to hate you.)

One of the most fundamental but rarely discussed skills of cooking is knowing when to stop. I mean that in a couple of closely connected senses: firstly, the ability to recognise when food is optimally cooked and to halt the process at that point; and secondly, the capacity to calm down, take a deep breath and, if necessary, re-plan.

Neither of those abilities is straightforward to develop. Both come with experience, and with familiarity with particular ingredients and processes. So it’s hardly surprising that I’ve rarely seen a recipe that offers much help with either.

But on both counts, a simple change of method, allied to an associated change of psychology, can make an enormous difference; not only to the quality of the meals you produce, but also to the amount of nervous energy you expend while making them.

For some reason, we have a tendency to view cooking – and in particular, so-called “fast” cooking, such as stir-frying – as a continuous, unarrestable process. Heat the pan, start adding ingredients, and keep adding, cooking and stirring until everything’s ready.

With a stir-fry, our perception is that this all has to happen very quickly. This is why any chef will tell you how important it is to have your mise en place set up in advance. (A non-chef might instead talk of the importance of getting all the meat and veg chopped before you start cooking. It doesn’t matter. It’s the same thing.)

The thinking behind this is entirely sound. If you have to turn away from a sizzling wok to slice a pepper, there’s every chance of something unfortunate happening during the minute or so that your attention is elsewhere. Get the preparatory tasks out of the way, and you can focus completely on the cooking.

But while the advice might be perfectly correct, it only perpetuates the notion that the cooking absolutely has to be done in a tremendous rush. Heat the oil, then it’s all systems go. Add the meat, stir, add the veg, stir some more, add your sauces, powders and unctions, stir again, serve. But whatever you do, don’t stop. You’re Magnus Magnusson: you’ve started so you’ll finish.

Most of us approach our stir-fries with this mentality, and that’s none too surprising. It’s the only way we’ve ever seen it done; either on the telly, or in the open kitchen of a noodle bar.

But, at the risk of stating the obvious once again: these are professionals, working with excellent equipment in well-appointed kitchens. When we’re armed instead with clapped-out electric cookers, a flimsy frying pans and far less experience and confidence – and when we’re subject to all the interruptions and distractions of domestic life – it’s little wonder that our own attempts often turn out rather differently.

For instance, what do you do if you misjudge the heat of the pan, so that the chicken takes forever to cook, and steadfastly refuses to brown on the outside as intended? What if you’re a little heavy-handed with the soy sauce, leaving your stir-fry sloppy and wet, instead of the prescribed “glossy”? What if your best-laid plans are sabotaged at a crucial moment by an external source: a ringing phone, or a crying baby?

If your answer in each case is “plough on and hope for the best”, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s what most of us do, most of the time. But it rarely produces a happy outcome – and more to the point, it isn’t necessary.

Keep frying the chicken pieces in the under-heated pan until they finally turn vaguely brown, and they’ll end up dry and overcooked. Leave the vegetables in the pan while you wait for the excess liquid to boil down, and they’ll become soggy and miserable. Let the whole thing continue cooking for as long as it takes you to placate a screaming child, and God only knows what will happen.

But in each case – and as with so many things in life – the best solution is also the simplest.

Stop.

If the chicken isn’t browning as it should, lift it into a bowl while you get the pan back up to temperature, then try again (perhaps in two or more batches, if you’re struggling to maintain a high enough heat).

And if the meat and veg are cooked but you need to reduce the liquid, put them to one side while you do. What harm could they possibly come to as a result of spending a few minutes away from the heat? Far less, certainly, than if they were left in the pan to overcook horribly.

Extend these principles, and a potentially stressful method of cooking becomes far easier to control, and to carry out successfully.

Yes, it’s worth getting all your chopping (or mise en place, if you will) done first; but if you’ve already started cooking and suddenly realise you’ve forgotten the onions, don’t fret: just stop.

And if you regularly struggle to get the various elements of the meal ready at the same time, try a change of approach: do them one by one. Put a large bowl next to the cooker, and get started.

Fry the chicken, in as many batches as seems appropriate to the size of the pan, and put the pieces in the bowl when they’re done. Do the same with the veg, halting the cooking process while they still retain the desired amount of crunch. Then get the sauce – whether bought, concocted or some combination of the two – to a taste and texture you’re happy with, before returning everything to the pan for a final amalgamation.

Written down, this might seem a long and convoluted process. But in practice, it barely takes any longer than trying to do the whole lot in a frenzied oner.

In a suitably hot pan, and with plenty of room to move around, the chicken should be nicely browned all over in a couple of minutes. Even if you have to cook it in three batches, that’s still only six minutes in all.

But if you try to cram all the chicken into the pan at once – which, given that you’re filling it with fridge-temperature meat, is bound to cool the pan down significantly – and it’ll take at least six minutes to cook through, and probably more. And you’ll be lucky to achieve any surface browning at all.

The same applies to the veg, and in particular to the sauce. On its own in a hot pan, the liquid will reduce rapidly, and should reach a desirable consistency in moments. Force it to share the space with all the other ingredients, and you slow this process dramatically. It might take several minutes to reduce sufficiently; during which time, the meat turns to shoe leather, and the vegetables to mush.

When you break the process down into distinct, manageable stages – and in so doing, come to realise that even stir-frying, for all its associations of frenzied pace, affords you plenty of opportunities to pause, breathe and reassess – you regain control over what you’re doing. So if the phone rings, that’s OK: just turn off the heat, take the call, realise it’s another sodding recorded message about PPI, hang up and start cooking again.

Best of all, you can take the same principles and apply them to almost any style of cooking.

If the beef in your stew is cooked but the sauce is too runny, you don’t have to chuck in a load of flavour-deadening flour, or carry on cooking and risk ruining the meat. Stop; lift out the solid ingredients (or, if it seems easier, use a colander to drain off the liquid into a clean pan), and reduce the sauce, pretty much as fast as you like. A few minutes off the heat won’t do the meat or vegetables any harm; and stirred gently back into the newly reduced, thickened sauce, they’ll soon come back up to temperature.

Or if you’re making a fry-up for several people, and you’re struggling to keep track of multiple pans at once, don’t bother to try. If the sausages are ready but you haven’t started on the bacon yet, don’t worry. Just keep a dish in a very low oven (around serving temperature, 70°C or so), transfer the cooked items into it when they’re done, and forget about them until you’re ready to serve. Even toast will cope with a lengthy stint in this “holding chamber” without losing its crunch.

So you can stop worrying about getting everything ready at once, and just let things take their own time. That way, you can leave the one task that’s really time-critical – cooking the eggs – until everything else is done. Your friends might get ravenously impatient after a while; but the quality of the finished product will more than make up for the brief wait.

Almost any cooking task is rendered so much easier if you give yourself the chance to stop, think and relax. And it’s no coincidence that the few that don’t really allow you to do that – deep-frying in batter, for instance – are the same tasks that I’ll rarely bother to take on at home. Instead, I’ll try to keep my cravings for such foods in check until I find myself somewhere that’s better set up for cooking them. The chippy, for instance.

So when you next find yourself in a kitchen panic, remember that just about the worst thing you could do is to “keep calm and carry on”. Firstly, you can’t keep calm, because you’re already not calm. And secondly, it’s rarely a good idea – for your meal or your sanity – to carry on doing something that patently isn’t working.

On that basis, perhaps we could all throw away all those stupid bloody “Keep Calm” T-shirts, tea towels and mugs, and agree to a more appropriate mantra.

“Become calm…and stop.”

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