Trial, Error, Music and Cooking

Music is an endless fount of metaphor and inspiration across all areas of life. As philosopher Dan Dennett once observed, “Music is unique to our species, but found in every human culture.” There are few things more natural to us and few things that I’m personally more passionate about than music (perhaps food can be said to be one of them). Years ago, I read the great autobiography by musician Gregor Piatigorsky, called Cellist, and although the book as a whole is a delight, I was deeply moved by one anecdote in particular. Piatigorsky, as a young student met with the great master, Pablo Casals, one evening in Berlin. It had been a dream of Piatigorsky to hear Casals play cello at least once in his life, but on this occasion, Casals asked to hear Piatigorsky play instead. An anxious and reluctant Piatigorsky delivered among the worst performances of his adult life (in front of one of his heros, no less). Afterwards, to everyone’s collective amazement, Casals cheered with excitement and heaped on praise. Piatigorsky was confused, shocked, devastated, even angry.

Years later, Piatigorsky, now a master in his own right, met with Casals by relative chance in Paris, and wrote of the encounter:

We had dinner together and played duets for two cellos, and I played for him until late at night. Spurred by his great warmth, and happy, I confessed what I had thought of his praising me in Berlin. He reacted with sudden anger. He rushed to the cello, “Listen!” He played a phrase from [the piece I played for him in Berlin]. “Didn’t you play this fingering? Ah, you did! It was novel to me…it was good…and here, didn’t you attack that passage with up-bow, like this?” he demonstrated. He went through Schumann and Bach, always emphasizing all he liked that I had done. “And for the rest,” he said passionately, “leave it to the ignorant and stupid who judge by counting only the faults. I can be grateful, and so must you be, for even one note, one wonderful phrase.”

And with that, Piatigorsky crystalized a perspective on life and success that changed my life. Although his words can be applied to so many areas of study and practice, I’d obviously like to focus on food for the moment. Professional chefs famously obsess over perfection and perhaps in a professional setting this is acceptable (or perhaps not). I personally find such people tend to be pretentious, boring and often missing the point of cooking entirely. The truth is, great cooking is discovering rare and fleeting beauty in pairing delicious ingredients together through trial and error, tasting them for the first time, finding their balance and being left in awe. This process can’t get off the ground without making mistakes, a willingness to make these mistakes and learning from them without getting discouraged. Counting errors, I suppose, is fine for the SAT, but we mustn’t lose sight that food is not a standardized test. Food, like music, is simple and among the most natural things to us. Finding those rare, truly beautiful moments are similarly vanishingly rare. To ignore beauty in the face of a simple mistake strikes me as inhuman or perhaps should be left for the ignorant and stupid.

Real Cooking

As I’ve suggested in previous articles, learning to really cook is more than just following a recipe. There is a deep reason for this. After all, I can describe to you how something should taste at length, but until you actually taste it, you’ll never really know what it tastes like; words are insufficient. You will always have to do the work of tasting things yourself, developing your taste toolkit, as I call it, or the experience-honed sense of what a dish needs to improve its overall balance.

This may sound mundane but let’s take beautiful, summer corn and poblano peppers as an example. For the sake of this example, let’s say you have never tried corn and poblano peppers together but you do know that these two ingredients are a classic flavor pairing in Mexican cuisine. They just go together or so you’ve heard. But, if you’re making a simple salad, what proportion of poblano to corn should you use? No recipe could ever tell you precisely how much poblano to pair with your corn or how much salt to sprinkle because the amounts depend on your ingredients. If you have a sweeter, more richly flavored corn, you’ll need more of the hot, moderate volume poblano than if you had a more subdued corn. How much heat do your poblanos have? Depending on how and where it’s grown, poblanos can vary considerably. The sweet, rich grain flavor of corn balances the heat and subtle pepperiness of the poblano, but depending on the quality of your ingredients, balancing flavor can be difficult to do without ever having tasted a perfectly balanced bite of poblano and corn. All of this is to say nothing of a person’s individual and sometimes idiosyncratic preferences for balance.

Now, how much salt do you sprinkle on? Not only do people have different levels of salt sensitivity (making saltiness highly subjective) but different dishes call for different levels of saltiness (adding a layer of objectivity to the subjectivity). That is to say, bacon should always taste saltier than your corn salad. Bacon is supposed to be salty and tastes good that way, corn less so. Thus, no matter your salt sensitivity, you’re always going to want your bacon objectively saltier than your salad. So, what does “salt to taste” mean when it comes to a simple corn-poblano salad? Generally, you want just barely enough to bring out the savory flavors of the poblano, less being more. There will be just the right amount of salt where the poblano doesn’t taste salty per se, but where its savoriness just starts to pop on the palate and nose, while leaving the sweetness of the corn relatively unchallenged.

How do you know when you’ve reached this salt tipping point? By tasting corn and poblanos with different amounts of salt on them: Trial and error. Which, as it turns out, is the way to master the ratio of corn to poblano in your salad. When you add a drizzle of lime juice and a sprig of cilantro, the same process of trial and error applies. There are, of course, general guidelines for this, but clearly the variables are too numerous to set down a fast and loose rule in matters of corn and poblano.

The Red Hot Hope

The process of trial and error can get time consuming, expensive and calorically challenging. But there is hope, dear Reader: Hot sauce. Hot sauce is a quick, forgiving, relatively easy and inexpensive testing ground for flavor combinations. You can start with a base of one kind of hot pepper, vinegar and salt then add, say, a little bit of garlic and notice how the flavor changes. What happens when you add a little more? How about a lot more? You can also notice what happens to the flavors and how they interact when you add ginger or lemongrass. And the results are almost always very pleasing. Hot sauce is incredibly forgiving and, unlike random experiments for dinner, have a long shelf life and generally don’t use especially expensive ingredients.

To start you off on your experimentation, I’ve developed a hot sauce quick guide that sets down some rules of thumb. The best way to approach the quick guide below is to use one or a combination of ingredients from each of the categories below, in the proportions in terms of grams per liter (g/L) as indicated. At a minimum, you must use the base components in any hot sauce. That said, the optional components and delicious, well-honed flavor pairing between and among categories can make for really exceptional sauce. Also, using a bit of common sense with the guide is always helpful. For example, adding 100 g/L of garlic to your base components is fine, but 100 g/L of rosemary would be inedible. Keep balance in mind when using aromatics. The gram weight amounts in the guide should ultimately add up to be roughly one liter, depending on the ingredients employed.


To start your sauce, crush all of your chosen solid ingredients in a mortar and pestle until broken down, but not a paste. Next, combine your dry and wet ingredients in a blender and blend until fine. Add finishing elements (for example, salt) to taste. And that’s it. Try using your new sauce on delicious, roasted corn and poblanos to start.


For further reading, take a look at my guide to balancing the taste of any dish and my guide to spice blending. Also, try my taco recipes to utilize these hot sauces with great affect.

Have a question? Ask me anything!



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