PERSONAL ESSAY

How long does it take to master a recipe?

“Getting it right will bring you something — give you meaning, connect you to someone, grow roots."

Published April 24, 2022 5:30PM (EDT)

Cold skin noodles from Xi’an Famous Foods (Xi’an Famous Foods)
Cold skin noodles from Xi’an Famous Foods (Xi’an Famous Foods)

Pati Jinich couldn't figure out what all the fuss was about over Lomitos de Valladolid, the simple dish of pork tenderloin pieces cooked down with tomato and onion that she sampled all over Mexico's Yucatan peninsula while filming her PBS show, "Pati's Mexican Table." 

"I was always wondering why every restaurant and hotel was serving this dish in all these areas when it's not that great — just pork meat, cut into small pieces and then cooked and served in a watery tomato sauce, (which) you eat with tortillas and black beans," said the Mexico City-born Jinich, who's a chef and cookbook author in addition to hosting her James Beard award-winning PBS series. "People are so fond of this dish; it's called lomito — the 'ito' ending referring to something that's small or really loved. And it has the last name of a city in the name, which means the city is insanely proud of it. I kept ordering it, thinking maybe I'm getting something wrong."

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That was, until she got to Valladolid. Her first order of business upon arriving late at night to the Mesón de Marques hotel was to order yet another plate of lomitos for room service. "It was life-changing," she said. A distant cry from the insipid versions she'd eaten for days; this rendition comprised caramelized, carnitas-like meat in a luscious jam of deeply reduced tomato and onion — served on a griddled tostada with refried black beans and avocado. 

A distant cry from the insipid versions she'd eaten for days; this rendition comprised caramelized, carnitas-like meat in a luscious jam of deeply reduced tomato and onion — served on a griddled tostada with refried black beans and avocado.

When she went into the kitchen to find out how the chef makes it, she witnessed the crucial step so many others around the Yucatan seemed to miss. 

"In Valladolid they cook it until everything is cooked, but then they open the lid and continue cooking it 'till the tomato and onion become one — an irresistible tomato-onion paste — and the meat pieces are almost dry," she said. "You only need someone to tell you, 'just when you think it's ready, cook it for another 40 minutes.'" 

She shared this example to illustrate the delicate balance of formula and feel that separate a serviceable recipe from a great one — the hours of repetition, tinkering and mistakes required to yield answers that may seem illogical to the uninitiated. 

"Sometimes it's the most basic and unexpected things that are actually counterintuitive," Jinich added. "You have to learn from someone making the thing right who can give you that crucial part of the technique that you may not read between lines in a recipe." 

The concept that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a complex skill was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell's 2008 book Outliers: The Story of Success. As of publishing, team Gladwell hadn't yet responded to my query about how cooking (and its wide range of requisite skills) fits into this construct. In any case, recent studies have shown that 10,000 hours is not necessarily the magic number to achieve greatness due to a range of overlapping factors like environment and genetics. Still, you can't deny the benefits of repetition in cooking, particularly on something simple yet maddeningly elusive, like making a perfect omelet or cooking a steak just right every time.  

Repetition is the lifeblood of professional cooks, who spend hours each week churning out the same dishes at (hopefully) the same level of quality and consistency. The same could be said, to an extent, of those charged with preparing the majority of meals for their household. 

And yet, the proliferation in food media of recipes starring one trendy ingredient after the next has liberated many home cooks from their small cadres of mostly inherited recipes — rendering many of us restless flavor magpies, forever seeking what's next. Vicky Bennison, the creator of the YouTube channel Pasta Grannies, which documents the women in Italy who still make fresh pasta by hand (and inspired a 2019 compilation cookbook), agreed. 

"Modern cooks have so much choice," she said. "For older generations (in Italy), there were a limited number of dishes — based on seasonality and income. At the same time, children, especially girls, were encouraged to be involved with cooking from a very early age alongside a bevy of female relatives, so their culinary memories developed along the way. Factor in, for those with access to land, growing one's own produce when one learns what tastes ripe or is at its best." 

Watching the signore knead and roll out buttercup-hued fresh pasta is rhythmic and soothing; Bennison once joked to me that it's like watching laundry spin, in that ASMR sense. The women's decades of honing their skill have imbued the kind of mastery that means they can feel the right flour-to-egg ratio in the pasta dough and know implicitly how much liquid is needed on a dry versus humid day.


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"Pasta making, I think, demands attention to what one is doing, and it's this mixture of practice or repetition, memory and attention to taste and texture, that makes one a master," she said, adding. "But I couldn't put a time scale on this!"

It's easy to internalize the dedication that originates out of necessity, limited resources and livelihoods. For those of us privileged enough to cook for different reasons, the determination that drives us back into the kitchen to workshop the same dish over and over, through screw-up after screw-up, until we get it just right must come from someplace deep within, as Jinich pointed out. 

It's easy to internalize the dedication that originates out of necessity, limited resources and livelihoods. For those of us privileged enough to cook for different reasons, the determination that drives us back into the kitchen to workshop the same dish over and over, through screw-up after screw-up, until we get it just right must come from someplace deep within.

"I think, on the one hand, it has to be something aspirational," she said. "You think that by making fresh pasta or corn tortillas, you're enriching your home with culture, tradition or family connection. (There's) also this bit about the value of cooking per se because you want to nurture yourself and give time to you and family, or just you, that space of, this is not another chore, this is giving me mental health. Or it's therapeutic. Or I need this space to focus on this technique and forget about other things."

Jason Wang set out to perfect his dad's cold skin noodles, chewy noodles with spongy homemade gluten (seitan), back when he was in college. Stir-fried with scallions, soy sauce, black vinegar and chili oil, the dish is a hallmark of Xi'an Famous Foods, the chain of New York City restaurants Wang's dad opened in 2005 to share the food of his native Western China, and where Wang is now owner and CEO. 

The formidable, two-day process involves making wheat flour dough and washing it until the starch separates from the protein, or seitan. After sitting overnight, raising agents are added to the seitan before it is steamed then cut. Meanwhile, the starchy leftover liquid gets poured into sheet pans, steamed like big crepes, sliced and added to the seitan. For a dish comprising so few ingredients, cold skin noodles are finicky and complicated; everything from the humidity in the air to the consistency of the starchy liquid and the steaming temperature can affect the outcome. 

"People don't make this dish mostly because it's such a waste to do at home," Wang said. "It takes two days to make it, after which it may or may not have worked. If it does, you get maybe a couple portions out of it. That's why it's typically served by street vendors. It's a great dish, but it is hard to nail down." 

Part of what makes it so challenging is the fact that you can't get too specific with measurements; the formula and method require some fluidity. The maker has to pay attention and know what it should feel and look like — which only comes with dogged practice. Indeed, what got Wang through the agonizing hours of repetition and mistakes ran deeper than the need to standardize the dish as eventual owner of Xi'an, so he could teach it to the staff or, eventually, immortalize it in the restaurant's 2020 cookbook. It became about preserving the most traditional version of this dish he and his dad grew up ordering from pushcarts in the Xi'an countryside to slurp down on hot summer days. 

"We enjoy the old-school way of preparing it and serving it with the traditional sauces you only find in small towns and villages," Wang said. "That's why we're so proud of that; we're keeping a time capsule of the food almost. Nowadays people love to try new things, and the restaurant business is all about bringing stuff in that no one has ever seen before. Call me a traditionalist, but I really respect the old ways of someone serving the same thing for decades, if not 100 years. I feel like there is value to it. If it's done for that long, something must be right about it. " 

Of course, we're the beneficiaries of the labor and countless mistakes of ambassadors like Wang, Jinich, Bennison, Israeli chef Yotem Ottolenghi and Italian cooking writer Marcella Hazan. They spent time at the sides of the experts who perfected these dishes before they did, practiced enough to discern for themselves those counterintuitive details that take dishes from good to irresistible, then chose to share the results with all of us. At some point, though, we have to take up that mantle — and return each day with as much dogged curiosity as we can muster to learn the feel of a corn tortilla with just enough moisture so it will puff up like it should when we griddle it, or what it looks like when the tomato and onion have melded into a burnished jam just as the lomitos achieve perfect caramelization. 

"Curiosity exists as long as you want to get it right because it means something to you," Jinich said. "Getting it right will bring you something — give you meaning, connect you to someone, grow roots, make you feel at home." 

Find Jinich's exhaustively tested recipe for Lomitos de Valladolid here.

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By Maggie Hennessy

Maggie Hennessy is a New Mexico-based freelance food and drink journalist and chef, and the former restaurant critic for Time Out Chicago. Her work has appeared in such publications as Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Taste, Eater and Food52.

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