Dizzy Tips: Cooking by Feel Using your Senses

Most folks would love to simply follow directions in a recipe and produce a fine meal.

Sometimes novice cooks create really good meals this way — perhaps with a little luck. Pull out the book, set the grill at 400°F, preheat, cook for 20 minutes, and hope for the best.

But when you watch an experienced cook notch the temp up to 425°F after 10 minutes because the color is not developing as quickly as expected. Or maybe the smell coming from the grill (or oven) is not yet right.

You start realizing there is no magic formula, and that we have to use our senses and make adjustments.


Too Many Variables in Cooking

Cooking barbecue, especially, is not simply a matter of minutes and degrees. There are just too many variables:

  • Quality/tenderness of the meat,
  • Level of the meat in the cooker,
  • Air flow in the cooker,
  • Moisture in the air, and
  • The list goes on…

Bakers, who use the same oven every time can pretty much follow their formula, temps and times and come up with a consistent product every time. Yet even they need to make adjustments, and it takes them time to find and tweak “their” formula.

While we realize many of our customers are accomplished cooks, the goal of this article is to introduce the concept that using all of your senses can make you a better cook. In the case of this article:

Cooking by feel is the ability to observe what is happening during your cook and to use your senses (along with your knowledge) to make adjustments.

Everybody thinks differently, and cooking by feel tends to come more naturally for some folks.


Are you Left Brained or  Right Brained?

Generally speaking, left-brained people (logical/practical/analytical) have the toughest time. They are also the people that should read this article carefully, as it may take some effort to get away from a rigid system of time and temperature.

Right brained people (musical/impetuous/visual/subjective) are somewhat better suited to learning to cook by feel, and perhaps learn the skill more naturally. However, without some technical knowledge, the learning curve could be steep! If you have always cooked by feel, it may be time to arm yourself with some technical knowledge.

If you are lucky, you have a nice balance of technical knowledge AND the ability to forget about the numbers and rules. Unless you are new to cooking, you probably already have an understanding of the cooking process and what works for you. Maybe you have notes of times and temperatures of different cooks you have done. That’s great if you do, and it is something to build on.


Use your Senses

Probably the most important thing you can do to get a better feel is to start observing every possible stage of the cook.

Open up your senses and use them.

  • How does the rub that you are putting on your meat smell?
  • What does your meat smell like?
  • How does the smoke coming from your cooker smell before you put your food on?
  • What does the smoke smell like at different points during the cook?

  • Is the rub faded and old, or rich in color?
  • What color is the smoke coming from your cooker: tan, white, blue or clear?
  • Is the outside of the meat browning?
  • Does the surface look wet, or starting to brown and form a crust?
  • Is the meat pulling back on the bone, or is it shrinking?

  • Is the outside of your cooker hotter than you remember last time?
  • How close is the grate to the fire?
  • Is one side of the fire hotter than the other?
  • Does your meat feel like it’s starting to firm up?

  • Did the meat sizzle when it hit the grate?
  • Is the liquid boiling hard in the drip pan?
  • Is the charcoal popping and cracking?

  • Does the rub taste bright and fresh before you put it on?
  • Is the meat too smoky, or smoky enough?
  • Does the sauce overwhelm the meat?
  • Is there enough salt?
  • Does the spicy heat hit you up front, in the back, or not at all?
  • Is there a sweetness that compliments the meat?
  • A tanginess?

Smell, sight, feel, sound and taste… they all tell you something.


Observe and Adjust

The more you observe and adjust, the better cook you will become. For example:

  • Meat was perfectly done in the middle, but not brown enough on the surface – cook hotter and shorter next time.
  • Surface is too dark and a little bitter, and the inside is not quite done – cook less hot and longer next time.
  • Meat on one side of your cooking grate is darker than the meat on the other side – the grate or meat needs rotating at different stages during the cook.
  • Too smoky tasting – use less wood and let the fire get established for longer until it is burning cleanly.

These examples may seem obvious, but the list of different ways that cooking by feel can improve your cooking goes on and on.


Let the food talk to you, and listen!

The longer you observe and learn to adjust, the better a cook you will be. And without being tied down by minutes and degrees, you’ll have more power to be creative.


To help get your creative juices flowing:

Check out our lineup of recipes

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