So with no further ado, here comes NYS’s (in)famous ‘kabbalistic’* theory of cooking.
The way I see it, cooking is all about the interplay of four elements that parallel the four primal mystic elements of creation.
These are: Fire, Air, Earth, and Water.
Creating a successful dish depends on nothing more than achieving a balance-point, or harmony among these four elements. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all four elements will be equally expressed within a given dish or cooking process, but rather that they’re combined in a way that produces a gastronomically appealing result.
Virtually every recipe incorporates these principles, although perhaps subconsciously on the part of a recipe creator, and almost certainly unconsciously on the part of a recipe follower.
While I realize this all may sound a little stratospheric, it’s really quite down to earth, and not only is viewing cooking through this ‘4-Element’ lens and adopting its technique is a learnable skill, but it’s very practical and satisfying (and fun!) as well.
One of the biggest benefits of mastering this method of cooking is the ability and freedom to organically custom-create your own recipes based on your own priorities, preferences, budget, and available ingredients time and tools.
So to begin at the beginning, let’s get to know our elements:
FIRE – Obviously refers to heat. This includes the intensity of heat at which a food is cooked, as well as the type of heat which is used (oven, stovetop, grill, crockpot, sous vide, etc.)
‘Fire’ also refers to the degree of doneness at which the cooking process stops (or is halted).
Subcategories of ‘fire’ include reheating (which is an art unto itself), warming or maintaining heat, and serving temperature.
A food’s spiciness is also related to fire.
WATER – Besides water itself, the element of water refers to a food’s moisture (both regarding its cooking process and its finished state).
It also encompasses the concepts of liquidity vs. solidity, as well as a food’s (or liquid’s) degree of concentration and/or dilution.
Oil is related to the element of water, as is blandness or subtlety of taste.
AIR – How dry something is depends largely on air. Also how dense something is. Air facilitates evaporation and condensation as well.
It also tends to enable crispness and crunchiness; it can also make things stale.
EARTH – Earth generally refers to solid ingredients, alone or in proportion to liquids. It also includes ingredients that cause things to solidify (starches, rennet, etc.), as well as the process of freezing (and/or congealing), which turns liquids into solids.
‘Earth’ can also refer to utensils used to maintain or alter the shape of food, and also those which hold it while it cooks, thus separating it from its fire source and at times controlling its exposure to air.
For now let’s end on that ‘earthy’ note, and next time we’ll begin to bring things further ‘down to earth’ as we discuss how the four elements interrelate.
(*Disclaimer: I am not a kabbalist in any sense of the word and merely borrow certain terms and concepts as a convenient frame of reference.)