Crutches in Cooking

Those of us who consider ourselves to be good cooks may not like to think that we have a crutch when it comes to cooking, but many of us do. What do I mean by crutch? Well, it’s more than just flair or a style”¦a crutch is an ingredient that you use too much. It can stunt your growth as a cook and keep you from trying new things in the kitchen. So stop it!

Cooking crutches come about for a few reasons. First is poverty: you can’t afford fancy food, so you dress up what you’ve got with spices and flavors (hi!). Another could just be a strong preference for one ingredient that leads to an obsession (um, also hi). Or, maybe you just aren’t confident enough in your cooking to branch out, so you just rely on the things that work for you. So”¦how bad is this? Let’s find out.

Here are a few common crutches:

Garlic ““ The obvious first choice, because it happens to be my primary crutch. It’s not just that I choose a lot of garlicky recipes. I’ll add it to recipes that don’t call for it. If it does call for it, I’ll routinely double (if not triple) the garlic content. (Side note: did you know there are garlic festivals throughout the US? Google it.) This may come from the fact that part of my family is Italian and I grew up associating the smell of garlic with a big, delicious family dinner. I also have bad breath.

Hot pepper ““ This is a point of contention, because spicy food is incredibly polarizing. I have a friend who consumes sauces so spicy that he sweats, gets contact burns, and sometimes starts hallucinating. (This isn’t even to mention what happens the next day.) Meanwhile, I’m that loser at the dinner table who tries a bite of a dish that someone has assured me “isn’t that spicy,” and then spends the next 10 minutes dramatically sputtering and sipping water. Using hot peppers to spice up a dish can make it more interesting, or it can be a way to hide an otherwise unremarkable course.

Salt ““ Mr. McDoogal is certainly guilty of this and he’s not alone; we as a people love salt. It has its benefits, as it preserves food, draws out flavor (when used in moderation) and is an important aspect of our diet in small doses. But since we crave salt, adding too much of it to a dish, either in preparation or at the table, reeks of laziness. Processed food companies have claimed under duress that it’s our fault their food is so salty; we collectively reject unsalty foods. Yikes.

Cheese ““ I don’t generally do this, but I’ve noticed this phenomenon a few times, generally at restaurants: when all else fails, smother it in cheese. Americans historically go for blander cheeses; American cheese itself is just a marginally cheese-like abomination that at some point was a blend of Colby and cheddar. Cheese is a primary comfort food for many people, myself included. Mac and cheese. Grilled cheese. Night cheese. Adding cheese means adding instant yums.

So, what am I getting at here? Well, boringly enough, it’s that moderation is the way to go.  When you’re in a bad mood, want a quick meal, or are trying to please a big group, then go ahead and use one or more of your crutches, whatever they may be. Pander to your audience! Why not? But, if you find that you’re stuck in a rut, try swearing off an ingredient. Italian chefs caused a stir a few years ago when they started pushing to eliminate garlic from Italian cuisine. A horrifying prospect, to be sure, but an interesting and exciting one. Maybe one of these days, I’ll try it!

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2 replies on “Crutches in Cooking”

I’m with you on doubling and tripling garlic in recipes. I do the same thing with minced onion and have been known to coat my entire slice of pizza in crushed red pepper. I’m weaning myself off the garlic addiction, but I think a big factor in over-using is I buy bottled, minced garlic (often too lazy to mince it up myself) and it doesn’t seem to be as strong as fresh garlic.

I used to be a huge garlic over-user (hi, also Italian), but the Mister is not a huge fan of garlic. He can smell it on me for days after I eat something particularly garlicky, and he says the smell on him and on me and in general makes him have a funny feeling in his throat area. Odd. Anyway, since we moved in together, I have not used garlic as much as I did in the past. It is a sad, sad state of affairs.

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