September 22, 2019

The Mental Model of Cooking

notion image

A men­tal model is our inter­nal expla­na­tion of what some­thing is and how it works. This is how we oper­ate in the world — we see some­thing, we try to under­stand it, we con­struct men­tal mod­els to explain what we see, and then we act accordingly.

For the most part, we can eas­ily con­struct pretty accu­rate men­tal mod­els. We know that a light switch will turn the lights on or off, or that appli­ances don’t work when you unplug them. Simple.

But the hard part is when we try to con­struct men­tal mod­els for more com­plex and abstract objects or ideas.

There is a whole gen­er­a­tion of peo­ple who think the blue Inter­net Explorer icon lit­er­ally is the internet. That is not true — it is not an accu­rate expla­na­tion of what Inter­net Explorer is. But it’s good enough for grandma or grandpa who just need to access Yahoo Mail and Face­book. It’s also not harmful.

How­ev­er, there are other instances where an inac­cu­rate men­tal model can actu­ally be harm­ful. For instance, if your men­tal model of eco­nom­ics does­n’t include the idea that peo­ple are governed by incen­tives, you’ll never under­stand eco­nom­ics, since incen­tives are so fundamen­tal to the field of study.

But we’re not here to dis­cuss eco­nom­ics, we’re here to talk about cook­ing. I think most peo­ple’s men­tal model of cooking — what it is, and how you do it — is com­pletely wrong. And because of that, they think cook­ing is impos­si­bly hard, and they’ll never get to expe­ri­ence the joy of cook­ing.

Most peo­ple’s men­tal mod­els of cook­ing is prob­a­bly some­thing like “each dish is unique and cook­ing is the act of fol­low­ing instruc­tions to recre­ate that dish.”

This under­stand­ing of cook­ing is inac­cu­rate and harm­ful. I would pro­pose that a bet­ter men­tal model for cook­ing should be: “Cook­ing is the under­stand­ing of fla­vors, ingre­di­ents, and techniques. This under­stand­ing can be applied to cook any­thing across all cuisines — no dish is unique.”

To elab­o­rate, most peo­ple think cook­ing is about fol­low­ing a strict set of instruc­tions to cre­ate a spe­cific dish. When they want to cook some­thing else, they have to use a sep­a­rate set of instructions, and there is no knowl­edge trans­fer. Noth­ing from the first dish applies to the second. This makes cook­ing intim­i­dat­ing and needlessly complicated.

The real­ity is, cook­ing isn’t about recipes. Cook­ing is about under­stand­ing how fla­vors mix and how to treat and pre­pare ingre­di­ents. Once you know that meat should be browned for fla­vor, or that lamb goes well with cumin, you can apply this in every meal you make.

You are not start­ing at zero every time you cook some­thing new. Instead, you learn tech­niques and com­bi­na­tions that you apply and exper­i­ment with each time you cook. This makes cook­ing fun — it’s a con­tin­ual process of learn­ing and adapting.

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