The first thing you will learn in any basic cooking class is how to appropriately wash your hands for maximum sanitation. This is so basic and obvious that your first response is to become offended. Of course, I know how to wash my hands, and I’m paying for this class? However, the enthusiasm of the cooking class experience is still fresh, so you shrug your shoulders and suds-up your hands anyway.
After the hands are clean, the instructor moves on to the second thing you learn in any basic cooking class. This, she states, will be the most important thing you learn today. But as she continues on you become slightly offended again, just as you did with the hand washing. Her lesson is elementary, intuitive, and obvious. “Let’s get on with it,” you think, “teach me how to Sous Vide!”
But this lesson, the chef states once more, is the most important lesson in all of cooking. Sure, she admits, it is simple and basic, but that, by nature, makes it underappreciated and overlooked. Today you become a master in the kitchen, she promises. Today you learn how to use salt and pepper.
Here we go.
Salt comes in many forms, but basic table salt is inherently useful because it boldens flavors in anything that it is added to. When the appropriate amount of salt is applied (more being better than less), it has a way of making the food actually taste more like itself, not just more salty.
For example, if a piece of meat is adequately salted, it will actually taste more like meat. And, consequently, if a zucchini is salted, for instance, it will bring out the zucchini flavor even more than without it. This premise, the chef states, calls for a default to add more salt than the amateur cook typically applies. She encourages an extra dash here, a sprinkle there.
She adds another pertinent lesson, that salt can also be used during any part of the cooking process. In the beginning, while preparing a dish, salt can be added before heat is ever applied, but it can also be added during cooking and even after cooking is completed and the dish has hit the plate. Taking into account only the boldening of taste, and putting all health concerns aside, salt is worthy of being used liberally and at any time during a dish’s preparation.
Pepper, on the other hand, has more restrictions (for a chef) than salt does. While salt brings the flavor out of a food, pepper adds flavor to a food. Pepper is used when a food might be bland or needing some additional character. Pepper is a distinct flavor of its own, and its complementary nature adds complex layers of flavor to a dish or meal. Pepper shouldn’t be used as liberally and should not be used in everything. Because Pepper brings its own taste, it can often clash with other tastes or mask the taste that a dish is truly intending.
Additionally, unlike salt, pepper has to be used at the right time during the cooking process since its flavor and texture can change with heat. For instance, if you are frying eggs in a pan, you may want to add the salt early on or during the cooking, but it is important to only add pepper after the eggs are completely cooked to your liking. In another example, when cooking chicken, you may, or may not, want to add the pepper before or after putting it on the grill, depending on preferred taste and texture. The decision of when to add pepper greatly impacts the dish.
Salt and pepper. Such a simple lesson that is overlooked and underappreciated. Second only to washing your hands it is the most important lesson in cooking and, subsequently, it is also an important lesson in relationships and communication.
In relationships, we often communicate without reason or thought. We carry on how we always have, floating through conversations and interpersonal interactions operating intuitively and with habits that we believe we’ve mastered, or worse, haven’t given much time to reconsider. Most people believe they are good conversationalists and enjoyable to talk to. Few believe, even if it is true, that they monopolize conversations, speak about themselves too often, or leave people with little desire to engage with them again in the future.
Many of us carry on talking and interacting each day with the same errors that an amateur makes in his cooking, by misusing the most basic of ingredients.
Let me explain.
Your salt is your ability to bring out the uniqueness of each person you interact with. Salt comes in many forms: curiosity, question asking, and listening. By demonstrating genuine curiosity, asking sincere questions, and listening intently, you bring out more of the greatness that is within a person. Your addition to the conversation is like the perfect pinch of salt which enhances the person’s composition by absorbing and strengthening her great qualities.
Salt can be used liberally and at any time in the communication process. It is subtle yet significant, simple yet extraordinary. Like salt, there is little risk in overdoing it. Being too receptive or giving too much attention rarely spoils a conversation. More is usually better than less.
Pepper, on the other hand, is the unique flavor and perspective that you bring to others. You sprinkle it in at the right times, usually at the end, after the listening has been done. When added to a dish or a conversation, pepper adds color, texture, and variety to a source that otherwise would not have had those qualities. Adding your personal take, your unique perspective, and your opinions add value to others when done at the right time in the right amount. Often less is better than more.
A simple rule for the aspiring culinary communicator is to “listen first and listen often.” With listening, you really can’t overdo it. Then, when it is time, speak and add your own unique flavor. Remember that, as in using pepper, your words, opinions, beliefs, and thoughts are not always needed, even if sharing them is what you want most to do.
The next time you enter a conversation with a spouse, child, coworker, or colleague, remember: salt and pepper. Even in the most basic interactions, there is a recipe for creating the perfect experience.