Difficult cooking techniques or recipes
February 13, 2013 10:14 PM   Subscribe

I'm a curious amateur chef looking for some challenges. What's given you the most trouble in the past?

I'm a 22-year old male about to finish college and start my job in a new state. An important skill that I've wanted to work on is my cooking ability (you know, to, *ahem*, woo the ladies and all). I began seriously challenging myself to do that these past couple semesters, when I've finally had my own kitchen to work with.

My culinary journeys thus far have included (all with varying degrees of success) frittatas, chilis, egg drop soup, stuffed bell peppers, rice pilafs, marinated meats, and many different combinations of vegetables and spices in a frying pan. I want to get to a point where I can cook a meal that's both delicious and interesting. I want to be proud of a meal. With an eye to the interesting half of "delicious and interesting," I've been in search of meals that are technically difficult to do right, so that I'll be able to practice them.

So, my question for all the experienced chefs of the green is, what are some of the most difficult dishes you've ever tried to make? Did you ever manage to finally do them right, and what advice would you give someone who wants to give those recipes a shot?
posted by Ephemeral10 to Food & Drink (39 answers total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
My holy grail of techniques include...

- A proper Tarte Tatin, cooked in a cast iron pan. (I actually nailed this once, but in my joyess state, forgot to write down the exact tweaks that helped me nail it. I know it involved lady apples, though, and scratch made pate brise, not puff pastry.)

- Uh, I can't think of any others. I even mastered Turkey last year! (Dry brine a truly pasture raised bird for 3 full days, rinse, pat dry, and let it hang out ithe frig for half a day to let the skin dry out. Stuff herbs (or herbs and butter) up under the skin. Roast.)


What you should master to impress the ladies.....

- Crepes.

The best party I ever went to, the hostess started making late nite crepes, filing them with good jam, and dusting with powdered sugar. Heaps of them. If you make these late night, or for breakfast, you will be SURE to impress.

Once you have basic crepes down, you can stuff them with seafood to make a variation of a French dish, Crepes St. Jacques - so good!

- Steak. And it's fancier cousin, Steak au Poivre.

Cooking a good steak is not easy. Hint: get a sirloin for about $10 per lbs, salt it and let it hang out wrapped on the counter for about 45 minutes. Rinse off the salt, dry it completely with a paper towel. No moisture! Get a cast iron pan screaming hot, do NOT add any oil, drop in your room temperature steak. Don't shake the pan, just let a crust form. When the first side is nice and brown (hot pan + dry steak will make this happen) flip your steak and finish in the oven at 400 degress. I can't tell you how long because it depends on the thickness, figure at least 6 minutes for a 1 inch steak. Baste with melted butter, hit it with some black pepper (no salt! You already did that!!) and LET THE MEAT REST. After 5 minutes or a little more, slice and serve.

- The Perfect Omelette.

Cooking eggs perfectly is difficult, plus some people prefer runny, some like them hard, some like a little crust on them. Ask your guest(s) their preference. Do master cooking them through without browning them. The perfect French omelette is just barely cooked through with no color.

- DVR America's Test Kitchen on PBS. Try anything they do:))

I love your intiative here. Good luck and Bon Appetit!
posted by jbenben at 10:47 PM on February 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

There's difficult, and then there's just laborious or drawn out.

For laborious, Julia Childs' Boeuf Bourguignon is almost a cliché now. I don't think I've been wholly satisfied with the results when I've tried to seriously follow her recipe in Mastering the Art, and frankly, I'm not sure I'l ever try it again. I'm just not convinced that it'll be worth it. (Sacrilege!) But, if it's wooing you're after, this is a storied dish for aspiring cooks. You owe it to yourself to try.

For drawn out, making Bourdain's recipe for cassoulet, from the Les Halles cookbook over the course of 3 days—including confiting your own duck, because why not?—was totally worth it, and you will feel like a badass.

For perceived difficulty (which secretly isn't so hard) I suggest a galantine. In this video, Pépin walks you through deboning a whole chicken. It's really all you need to know. Practice a few times and you'll be making wacky boneless stuffed birds in no time. He's is great for learning technique.

It's also well worth investigating the world of terrines for big payoff unexpectedness, if they seem like the sort of thing that would suit you and yours. They certainly don't have to be livery. It's worth making one or two just to be forced into finding a local source of caul fat; wherever you find that, you're likely to find other uncommon ingredients to treasure.
posted by mumkin at 10:48 PM on February 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'll second American's Test Kitchen. They taught me to cook.

The Pioneer Woman has helped me too. She's kind of the opposite of the Test Kitchen. America's Test Kitchen breaks everything down and tries a bunch of recipes and then uses SCIENCE to explain why one method was better than all the others. But the Pioneer Woman simple raids her pantry and produces magic.
posted by dchrssyr at 11:02 PM on February 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

French macarons, by far. I like David Lebovitz's instructions for making them, but I only get about 1/3rd of each of the many batches I've attempted truly perfect.

Also, deboning ducks without wasting a good portion of them.
posted by halogen at 11:15 PM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Pie crust and pizza dough both require a fair bit of practice, because they require a bit of tweaking depending on the humidity/temperature/brand of flour/etc. You can't just measure really well and expect to get the same great results each time - you have to actually know what it's supposed to look and feel like. In my experience pie crust is the harder of these two.

I've also heard a lot of people say that French Macarons are notoriously fussy and hard to get right. I haven't gotten up the guts to try making them yet, myself.

If you really want to impress the ladies with your cookery, may I recommend the following?
- Know at least one really delicious vegetarian recipe, even (especially) if you're not vegetarian yourself, so you can offer to cook for a vegetarian girl without freaking out.
- Be able to make an awesome breakfast, in case you end up wanting to further impress a girl who spent the night. Perfect the major ways of cooking breakfast eggs, know how to mix up a fantastic bloody mary, and get good at flipping pancakes. Know how to cook bacon without making a gigantic mess. Being able to crack and pour an egg with one hand is always a nice bit of showmanship too.
- Memorize a recipe that's delicious and has wide appeal. Say you're out for an afternoon coffee with a girl and suddenly you realize time has flown by because she's so awesome, and it's dinner time and your stomachs are growling. Imagine if you could invite her over for dinner, with a quick stop at the grocery store together on your way there, without stressing about what to cook or what ingredients you sorta remember you might need. Maybe you even offered to cook for her at her place! And then you cook an amazing meal without referring to a book or the internet. Super suave.
posted by vytae at 11:15 PM on February 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

Memorize a recipe that's delicious and has wide appeal...with a quick stop at the grocery store ...without stressing about what to cook or what ingredients you sorta remember you might need.

Yes, you should do this. But also! If you have a smartphone of relatively recent vintage, you can and should take a picture of the recipe you intend to / may want to make before heading out, just to have it handy. Just in case. That way you know what you need, and never have to fall back on some watered-down food.com recipe that you searched-up in the aisles. Looking suave and effortless is great, but looking prepared is worth something too.

Oh, and yes to mastering a vegetarian something. Weirdly good, weirdly interesting veg entree to add to your repertoire, with bonus pastry dough feature: Russian Cabbage Pie. So good.

Always put orange zest in your daube.
posted by mumkin at 11:39 PM on February 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

I found making a decent tofu stir-fry to be surprisingly difficult.
posted by empath at 11:55 PM on February 13, 2013

Salt and pepper squid - or any sort of squid. Hard to get to the point where you can always be sure it won't turn out rubbery.

Bread. There are simple bread recipes that almost never fail (e.g. the NY Times No-Knead bread), and then there is the wonderful world of sourdoughs and bagels and enriched breads.

The perfect pan-fried fish isn't super difficult, but like a good steak, you need to have practised a few times to be able to time it just right for the perfect combination of crispy outside and juicy inside.

Pastry (made from scratch).

Brownies (getting the texture right).

Sauces: hollandaise, gravy, bechamel - all things that require practice so you can be sure it won't end in a lumpy or curdled tragedy.

Poached eggs. Hard to get a nice shape, no water caught up in it, and the yolk exactly how you like it.
posted by lollusc at 12:05 AM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I had a boyfriend with a bread machine. He would put dough in the machine at night before going to bed, and in the morning, he would bring me fresh toast and coffee in bed.

He had other downsides that did not make him "a keeper."

That said, the man I happily married many years ago has this same sensibility.

posted by jbenben at 12:16 AM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

You're on the right track here and I love your style. Yes, cooking is the right way to impress the other sex and I've tried to do so myself with different levels of success. Looking back, the only regret I have, is that I didn't know this recipe for a crème citron pie when I was your age. I am just another average dad now, you know, with a family and stuff, so going all Californication is out of the question. But hell man, if you're 22 and you will figure this one out, THIS RECIPE WILL GET YOU LAID 100%. Tarte au citron, recipe by Pierre Hermé

I make this incredible piece of pastry at least once a month and whatever the occasion, all the women come up to me like there isn a Mrs. Ouke in the room(much to her amusement). We're talking literally drooling here, my man.

The recipe itself is not for the faint of heart though. You can get away with fairly cheap ingredients (I just use Brand X flour and butter), but pay some attention to the quality of the lemons. The more fragrant the skin, the better.

Then you need hardware. A cooking thermometer, a simple au bain marie set up (for steaming, so the bowl doesn't touch the water), and a kickass blender. The right blender makes all the difference to make it fluffy and creamy. I used a generic Braun before, but the filling stayed too dense. Then I got a Bamix and the magic started happening. Also your kitchen will be a mess. You absolutely need patience. It took me at least 10/12 tries before I got what I wanted. I knew this beforehand, so be ready to invest some time in this. I had the opportunity to taste the original in Paris (at Pierre Hermé's shop) so I knew what i was aiming for. The recipe I refer to adds all kinds of fruit, my suggestion: don't. Try to make some apple or quince jelly or leave it as is.

If you have any questions, don't hesitate to MeMail me. I don't know you personally, but as a fellow Mefite, I care for your health, so buy a pack of Trojans for every lemon used in the recipe.
posted by ouke at 1:07 AM on February 14, 2013 [19 favorites]

A good roast dinner should be part of any cook's repertoire; learn how to get the pork crackling perfect, learn how to get perfect Yorkshire Puddings
A perfect piece of fish with a beurre blanc
Poached eggs
Pasta from scratch - try DIY ravioli
Souffle, and if you can manage that successfully, then cheese souffle
Chocolate mousse (originally mistyped as "chocolate mouse")
Seconded the tarte au citron
Creme brulee
Sponge cake
posted by emilyw at 1:16 AM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

One sort of unusal thing that I make (and in fact am going to make today!) are bagels. They involve basically the same procedure as making bread, just with the added step of boiling them before putting them in the oven. To be honest, they are actually not that difficult to make, especially if you have made bread before, but people are always really impressed that I do make them. And it could be interesting/challenging to make different kinds of bagels - I made a few cinnamon raisin ones last time and that was kind of fun.

Oh, and another thing that I have found challenging and have in fact never mastered myself is wheat bread. White bread is fairly easy, but I always have trouble with wheat bread because it turns out too heavy. Now, I don't have a bread maker and knead things by hand so that could be part of it, but since people made bread by hand for ages before bread making machines were invented, I have to assume that it is possible to make a good wheat bread by hand, just challenging.
posted by thesnowyslaps at 1:28 AM on February 14, 2013

Macarons, with a bullet. Very hard.

Consistently good steak, cooked medium rare. Much, much harder than people appreciate. You will go through a lot of steaks to get this one right, it's all by touch.

Poached eggs can be much harder than people think.

Good, neapolitan style pizzas. Also much harder than people think.

I personally find malai kofta a bit of a holy grail in Indian cuisine (one of my specialities). Getting a good gravy and those damned balls to stick together when you deep fry them is hard, and very dependent on the right recipe - and recipes are all over the map.

A good piece of pan-fried fish is also very difficult. Fillets of meat that aren't slow cooked are generally challenging, as a minute or two can make a big difference, and you need a lot of experience to know when to stop.

Bear in mind, some things will be limited to your equipment. You need to be putting out a decent amount of heat to pan fry a piece of fish well. Stove top and pan will matter.
posted by smoke at 2:14 AM on February 14, 2013

I know you mentioned difficult recipes, but I am going to chime in here with another viewpoint. Find recipes that have few ingredients, where you can't "hide" anything with "many different combinations of vegetables and spices in a frying pan" (i'm not saying that you do this). For me, a *PERFECTLY* roasted chicken is a work of art because of the attention you need along every step of the way, with only chicken, salt, pepper and, maybe, rosemary or thyme. A *PERFECT* creme brûlée, because, again, its so simple you can't hide any mistakes. In the book "Soul of a Chef" Ruhlmann writes of how Thomas Keller describes the simple act of blanching and shocking green beans perfectly:

"Keller continued, 'How do you cook green beans?' He described the key factors for perfectly cooked green vegetables: 'You've got a certain amount of water, a certain amount of salt in that water, and a certain amount of beans relative to that salt and that water. All of it is important."

A simple explanation for a perfection that's pretty difficult to achieve.

Just my POV on how to get better in the kitchen.
posted by alchemist at 3:42 AM on February 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Really well executed pan seared scallops are entirely dependent on perfect technique. Once you have the technique down they're mad easy and you can make ridiculously delicious/impressive salads. Bonus: in my experience, ladies love delicious and impressive salads.
posted by nathancaswell at 4:31 AM on February 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think you should learn to bake really good bread in 3 categories: a sandwich bread, a crusty loaf, and one "specialty" - cheese bread, molasses bread, or even a quick bread like banana or zucchini.

It's not difficult to make tasty bread (and I have an extraordinarily detailed recipe that I once wrote down for a nervous cook, MeMail me if you want it), but it *is* hard to make the best, most perfect bread.
posted by Cygnet at 5:13 AM on February 14, 2013

Homemade puff pastry. It's more laborious than difficult, but offers some unique challenges the first couple of times you try it, and then when you use it for something like chicken pot pie or vol-au-vent or some awesome dessert, it scores big with the audience both for perceived skill and dining delight.
posted by briank at 5:15 AM on February 14, 2013

-sourdough bread
-soup dumplings
posted by melissasaurus at 5:58 AM on February 14, 2013

Try clarifying stock. I'm talking crystal clear not just strained. I dare you!
posted by Max Power at 6:03 AM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hey, I'm totally with you on this. I love to pull out all the stops and really make something fantastic.

Lasagne Bolognese is one of those things that you have to fuss around with, but it's so freaking WORTH it at the end. Hint, cheese factors in this very little.

Osso Buco is in that same family. I have a wonderful Italian cookbook with all sorts of complicated recipes, and I love it so much.

For dessert, Zabalione with fresh berries.

I love pouring through cookbooks to see what fun things I can make.

If you want to really spend time in the kitchen, throw a cocktail party with lots of fussy hors d'oeuvres. Or as we call them in my family, Horse Doovers.

Untill you've made pastry dough, put it into barquette molds, and filled it with a goat cheese and sun-dried tomato mixture, you can't really say you're into cooking.

Chicken Liver Pate with Calvados is another thing. I wish I liked liver because I used to make this all the time, but then I never ate it!

While techniques are fun, (whisking over a double boiler is a total act of love) I find that the simple things, but done with the very best of ingredients are the tastiest.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:21 AM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

So many awesome suggestions above, and I'd like to offer one more that's not particularly difficult but is so versatile - learn how to make a good buttermilk biscuit. Alton Brown's recipe is excellent, but there are lots of methods out there. They're excellent for breakfast with jam and coffee (or sausage gravy, or mushroom gravy for the vegetarian ladies), they go well next to a roast chicken or other beast, they sop up chili and stew like nobody's business, and once you get good at them you can go from bowl-o-flour to piping hot biscuits in less than 30 minutes. I'm just an old married lady now, but I could've been wooed by a good biscuit, for sure.
posted by hungrybruno at 6:24 AM on February 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Dishes or foods that have proven difficult for me in the past:
Pie crust

Non-blended Soups I find surprisingly hard to get right. Maybe I'm just picky, but they turn out either watery and bland, or just tasting of salt, or the texture's not right. The only one I can do that tastes decent is Avoglemono.
posted by LN at 6:31 AM on February 14, 2013

Max Power beat me to it with the clarified stock. I once saw Jacques Pepin take a chicken and a pot of water and demonstrate the process from stock to demi-glace but I can't find a link right now.

Also seconding thesnowyslaps about bagels blowing people's minds. I make them frequently, and people still can't believe they are home made.

Personally, I've still not gotten the hang of shallow frying, from the actual technique to not covering the kitchen in oil.
posted by Room 641-A at 6:36 AM on February 14, 2013

Making a perfect roux - and getting all stages of it down. Getting the blonde vs dark roux without burning it will do a lot to open up a fair amount of cooking.

Now, if you want a real challenge? Gluten free baking. It really is alchemy at that point.
posted by skittlekicks at 6:42 AM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

You want Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which is not so much a cookbook as a textbook of very proper techniques. There have been several things from that book that I've made in order to learn how to do it "right," that as a general thing I'm happy to do with shortcuts, but now that I know the "proper" way, my typical modern shortcut way is much improved. Also some of the recipes are crazy-delicious, and many of them are impressive!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:10 AM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Jambalaya. Very hard to consistently get right, and very versatile once you get the hang of it.

Then, if you're insane, you can try Gumbo.
posted by digitalprimate at 8:53 AM on February 14, 2013

There are some great suggestions up above, but I don't think I saw one for custard. There are many applications of custard, such as lemon tarts, creme brulee, etc. Custard for some reason is one of the few things I've tried to cook that sometimes just doesn't work out right at all. Sure, some things aren't as good as I'd like, but custard and custardlike things will often not set right, and that is no good. If you really aren't looking for dessert applications, then try souffle!

Generally, I feel like you are missing desserts, but perhaps that is by design?
posted by freezer cake at 9:26 AM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Croissants. I read the recipe, which involves carefully folding and kneading and refrigerating layers of butter and flour over the course of multiple days, and did not attempt it.
posted by steinwald at 9:43 AM on February 14, 2013

My biggest kitchen failure was my attempt at pad Thai. I used Bittman's recipe, which called for ketchup as a tamarind substitute; don't do that. Ketchup is not freakin' Thai. But I tip my cap if you can cook a passable pad Thai.

Also, home-made bread. Kneading is tricky, but good bread is worth it.
posted by Turkey Glue at 10:31 AM on February 14, 2013

Hash browns are hard to do right. My tricks:
- squeeze the water out of the potatoes
- using the same kind of pan each time
- more oil than I think I need
- more time than I think I need
- I feel like I've heard that freezing the shredded potato beforehand does something handy as well

Baked goods are also a challenge for me. The trick is that you have to follow the recipe.
posted by aniola at 10:39 AM on February 14, 2013

Great bread is the fuzziest science ever. You can know what the variables are, but you can only get a feel for how to react to them. Get a copy of Beard on Bread and start working.

Mayonaise. It's not difficult at all, but it's a whole different world from store bought, and people literally think you're some kind of wizard.
posted by cmoj at 10:47 AM on February 14, 2013

Basic pan sauce isn't that difficult, but once you've got it down you've got it down and you can quickly and easily elevate any meal. Pork chops and potatoes? Tasty, but eh. A few more minutes and a couple extra ingredients to make a pan sauce and you've got pork loin with potato puree and an herb gravy. Get the basic technique down and you can use it with any meat and any herbs/aromatics/liquids you've got on hand.

A uniformly perfectly pink prime rib roast--with no grey stripe between the meat and the brown crust--was my challenge for awhile, and I am inordinately proud of myself for achieving it and being able to reproduce it every single time. (The same applies to steaks, too, they're just a little easier to get right than a whole roast.)

I have not yet mastered bread outside the bread machine, but one of my partners is an excellent baker and I'm always impressed by his skill and incredibly touched when he goes through the effort of making bread for me. Eating bread he's baked makes me feel loved and cared-for and very close to him (and kinda turned on to think about what a physical, sensual, hands-on activity it is). Probably not everyone has this an intense a reaction to homemade bread, but I think enough other people do that learning to bake bread is a worthwhile pursuit.
posted by rhiannonstone at 12:50 PM on February 14, 2013

Pie crust is tough for me.
Souffles have taken some work to get exactly the way I want them, but the payoff for something that in actuality is really simple is huge. People are impressed by souffles.
A perfect poached egg is a rarity, but so good when done right.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:10 PM on February 14, 2013

Beef Wellington, my man. Making sure the puff pastry is not soggy and that the beef is cooked just well enough is art.
posted by Lucubrator at 7:03 PM on February 14, 2013

profiteroles--choux pastry puffs filled with vanilla bean pastry cream and drizzled with high-quality chocolate ganache. a fun challenge to get all three parts right, plus delicious!
posted by miss patrish at 10:07 PM on February 14, 2013

Ideally, you want to learn to pull together a somewhat preplanned three or four course dinner while someone stands in your kitchen and chats with you.

It also gives you a hell of a line; "I want to learn to cook someone a nice dinner, and wondered if you'd watch me learn."
posted by talldean at 6:44 PM on February 15, 2013

I've made mole, which was challenging because there are So Many Ingredients. That was a whole day's work, and really fun. I highly recommend it. I used Rick Bayless's recipe, but I can't remember which of his books it's in. I think it was the Mole Poblano in Authentic Mexican.

But does it have to be specific dishes to make you proud of your cooking? There's a lot of satisfaction in learning the basics, and it really elevates the food. I've been getting a lot of enjoyment from learning to cut stuff up properly. I love the book Knife Skills Illustrated. I learned to make compound butter, with chives and sage and whatever, and learned how to use shallots. There's one chapter in Kitchen Confidential that talks about all the mise en place they have in "real" kitchens, and it changed the way I cook at home. On the mental list of "things to learn" are butchering a whole chicken properly, poaching an egg without an egg poacher, and getting a really good sear on a steak every time. Something about doing stuff the "real" way just really pleases me.
posted by kostia at 11:15 PM on February 15, 2013

Learn how to make things from scratch, instead of relying of canned goods, bouillon cubes, and boxes. Those foods have MSG and other exitotoxins that make you think they taste good while masking off flavors. Plus they keep you from tasting the good, fresh flavors - fruit of your labor and $.

Not difficult but a great base for numerous dishes: bone broth that gels. And I mean really gels, even out of the fridge. It's also wonderfully nutritious and can be frozen so you can use later on those various dishes.
posted by Neekee at 6:09 AM on February 16, 2013

Perfectly tender and seasoned lamb tends to be a hit with the ladies, the meat-eating ones.
posted by Neekee at 6:11 AM on February 16, 2013

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