Last week, as I was housesitting for a friend, I decided to make something with a package of beef chunks in the freezer. Since it wasn’t the leanest of cuts, I decided to cook the heck out of it and make a type of thick, savory, oniony stew to put over rice or pasta.
So I did what I always do for this kind of dish: Get a pot going with hot oil, drop in the beef with some salt, then a massive amount of onions and garlic, deglaze with stock, cover, walk away for a while.
Except, I really wanted mushrooms in it, and because I decided at the last minute to quickly slow-cook stew (yeah, that’s as lame-brained as it sounds), I just didn’t have the time to develop the flavors I wanted. I was running out of time, and in a desperate attempt to thicken and “flavorize” the stew, I put in a can of my friend’s cream of mushroom soup. I may have literally lost sleep that night as I pondered on that mistake.
You may notice that the majority of the ingredients I use are considered “whole foods”. I rarely use processed or pre-made ingredients for (what I initially thought) 2 main reasons.
1) I want to know what I’m eating.
2) I dislike the taste of preservatives.
I’d rather learn how to make it myself so I can customize the flavors to my liking and avoid the TASTE of the processed stuff. Perfect example: Hummus. Store-bought hummus is the worst because of those pesky preservatives.
But I learned a valuable lesson last week the moment I opened the pot of beefy stewish stuff. The sauce was tragically burning on the bottom of the pan because the soup I added was obviously thick and dense. And little did I know that the 1955 mg of sodium (81% of the day’s salt, mind you) had condensed and made the stew unbearably, painfully salty.
Without stirring up the burned gunk, I quickly transferred the stew to another pot, took out some of the formerly potentially delicious salty sauce and replenished it with water.
The sauce was saved, but my confidence was not.
3) I lose control.
When you use artificial or processed ingredients like canned soup, for example, you’re throwing a wild card in your dish. If you know exactly what you’re doing and have done it a hundred times, then by all means use it. But for the most part, you suddenly lose control of the textures, flavors, and chemistry of the dish. If I had never used that canned soup, my beef could have happily cooked on the stove for hours without burning. I would’ve controlled the salt levels on my own and would have a very clear idea about exactly which flavors were in that pot. Side note: It’s not the soup’s fault, it’s mine for trying to quickly slow-cook beef. Duh.
In my first culinary class, the chef vented his frustration with garlic salt. He said, “Don’t tell ME how to use my garlic and salt ratio! Let me choose exactly how much salt and how much garlic I want.” I laugh every time I think about his strangely passionate dogma, but he’s right. Even when using something as simple as garlic salt, you suddenly lose the ability to customize the flavors for your own taste buds.
With that said, I won’t judge you for eating and using processed stuff. I think Cream of Golden Mushroom soup is amazing with a London Broil in a slow cooker. I’ll eat a hot dog with chili any day of the week, and doggonnit, my favorite ice cream is the chemical-ridden, fake green, weirdly fluffy mint chocolate chip ice cream. But like everything in life, it’s all about balance, so try to take small steps toward a sort of “culinary purity”. You won’t be sorry.