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Cooking without Looking, Part I

I need to preface this post with a disclaimer: Although this is the first of a two-part series on cooking as a blind person, I myself have never listed cooking as one of my skills. My efforts are confined to recipes that do not include more than three ingredients and don’t take more than three steps, and boiling water counts as both an ingredient and a step. If I had 20/20 vision tomorrow, however, none of this would change. But, there are a surprising number of blind people who enjoy cooking and are good at it.

Below are some excerpts from an article, “Stop, Sniff, and Listen,” that appeared in the New York Times of March 30, 2017 that will give you some idea how this can be done.

Julia Moskin

Kate McDermott describes it as “the sizzle-whump.” It’s the sound a pie makes when it’s perfectly baked, said Ms. McDermott, the author of Art of the Pie. The “sizzle” is the sound of hot butter cooking the flour in the crust, melding it into a crisp, golden lid. The ‘whump’ is the sound of the thickened filling bumping against the top crust as it bubbles at a steady pace. “I call it the heartbeat of the pie,” she said.

… “I’ve been listening to pies since I started baking them. Any experienced cook knows that there is much more to cooking than just taste.”

There is touch (tapping the top of a pie to make sure it is completely firm), smell (inhaling the changing scents of the crust as it bakes), sound (listening to its heartbeat) and sight (watching for the juices to turn thick).

Learn to use all five senses in the kitchen and you’ll become a better cook — especially if you sharpen the ones that are less associated with cooking: hearing, touch and smell. Cooks with visual impairments, who cannot see the golden brown of a pie crust or the shine of perfectly scrambled eggs, know this better than anyone.

The cook and writer Christine Ha, 37, said that touch has become her primary guide in the kitchen since she began losing her sight soon after starting college. “It’s like my fingertips have become my eyes,” she said. “I can learn so much more by touch than I would have thought.”

Ms. Ha, who lives in Houston, learned to cook only after she could no longer see. Like about 90 percent of visually impaired people, she is not completely blind: She can see some light and color, and describes her view of the world as “like looking into a steamy mirror.” All the more impressive, then, that in 2012 she won the third season of the frenetic television cooking competition “MasterChef.”

She started cooking with her late mother’s deep-fried spring rolls, reverse-engineering them through touch and hearing as well as taste and smell. Her fingers test the pliability of the wrappers; she listens for the sound the bubbling oil makes when she throws in a bit of filling to test its heat; she taps the frying rolls with tongs to test whether the shells are crisp and blistered.

David Linden, a neurobiologist at Johns Hopkins University and the author of the book Touch, confirmed that the fingertips become more sensitive in people who are blind from birth and in those who learn to read Braille. “Hearing and touch become more acute in the absence of sight,” he said. The part of the brain dedicated to gathering information from the eyes actually shrinks in size, while the parts that receive signals from the ears and touch-sensitive nerve endings grow larger.

… Many of the important cues in any kitchen have nothing to do with sight or taste: distinguishing the sound of a boil versus a simmer; knowing the feel of a rare steak versus a medium-well one; biting into pasta as it cooks to catch the brief, perfect moment between chewy and soft.

For most of human history, children learned those cues simply by being near the stove. But today, unless they spend a lot of time in a kitchen, their sensory cooking skills may be limited to listening for the moment when the microwave popcorn stops popping. Those children grow up to be cooks who focus on reading and rereading recipes, often at the expense of paying attention to the stove.

But recipes are inherently limited when it comes to sensory information. An instruction like “simmer over low heat for 30 minutes, until thickened” can produce endlessly different results. The recipe doesn’t know what your stove considers ‘low’ heat. It doesn’t know what your pan is made of. It doesn’t know what ‘thickened’ looks like to you. That’s why the best cooks learn to work not just with their minds and their taste buds, but also with all their senses.

The cooking teacher James Peterson uses a chicken breast to teach students how to feel for doneness, because it has thick and thin areas. “As it cooks in the skillet, keep your fingers moving from the thin part to the thick,” he said. “You’ll be able to feel how the heat gradually moves through the meat.”

Edna Lewis, the doyenne of American Southern cooking, taught that listening to a cake is the best way to know when it’s done. A cake that is still baking makes little bubbling and ticking sounds, but a finished cake goes quiet.

Next time, I’ll share ten ways to sharpen your kitchen senses that are used by successful blind cooks, and, don’t worry, none of these will be my own ideas.

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