The Write to Roam

The Personal Blog of Ethan Brooks

Category: How-To (Page 1 of 2)

In Case You Forget: Practical Thoughts on Anxiety for People Who Have Shit to Do

In the winter of 2012, I was surprised to find that my heart would suddenly (and inexplicably) begin racing at random points throughout the day. At first, I thought it was a bout of the flu. But after several weeks, I began to worry it was some sort of heart problem.

I had tests done. I got a check-up. I had blood drawn. I even spent a week walking around with a mobile heart monitor. All of it was inconclusive.

As the months wore on, my life continued to change, and I slowly came to the realization that I was dealing with a very mysterious case of anxiety. The symptoms got worse, and worse. I couldn’t travel. Social environments petrified me. My life turned upside down.

At my worst, I remember stumbling across a photo of a scraggly looking scuba diver. He had a mop of hair, bright eyes, and seemed not to have a care in the world. It took whole seconds to recognize that it was a photo of myself, taken during the days when I lived out of a truck in the jungles of Oahu.

At that moment, I finally admitted that I had a problem, and needed to learn how to get better. I began a journey to learn everything I could about anxiety, and fear, and how to deal with both. I swore I would come out better than when I went in.

This article is composed of a series of letters I wrote to myself, sharing some of the most important tactics and strategies I learned along the way. The idea was to preserve these lessons so that I could refer back to them next time I was facing something difficult.

I’ve decided to share them here as a way of giving that whole experience meaning. If these words can give one person just one idea that helps them make sense of a struggle they’re facing, then I will consider that whole chapter of my life worth it. It took five years — almost to the day — to write this piece. I hope it remains useful for many, many more.

If this work is meaningful to you, and you’d like to support it, you can share it, or you can get the kindle version. But the full text is offered here for free for anyone who wants or needs it.

1.

The Basics

Dear Jackass,

If you’re reading this, it probably means you’re feeling anxious again.

After watching you for several years, I’ve found that you routinely slip into old habits which you know cause anxiety. Sometimes you don’t realize you’re doing it. Or you do, but the symptoms aren’t immediate so you continue anyway, knowing full well that the things you’re doing will have negative consequences at some point.

Then that point comes — perhaps it was today — when you wake up after a restless night’s sleep, filled with the pulsing dread of low-grade general anxiety and suddenly realize that you need to get your life back on track.

In those moments I’ve found that you sometimes can’t remember which things cause you the most anxiety, or which actions are most helpful in getting rid of it. So, I’ve decided to write these letters to you, my future self, in the hopes that these lessons learned are never fully lost to your questionable memory.

The ideas shared in this article were hard-won. They came during the most difficult struggle of your young life. A time which wrenched back the layers of your personality, stripped away things you thought were concrete, and left you bare and exposed. They came from great teachers, from lost relationships, from success, and from failure. They came at great cost. Don’t let them fade.

This is a article about tactics; small changes that had a big impact in helping you get past anxiety, and regain a handle on your life. But the tactics rest upon an underlying philosophy; A few key beliefs which you developed over time, and which I believe transfer to overcoming other major challenges you may be facing.

I’d like to begin by sharing the three core beliefs of that philosophy with you in this first letter. If I’ve done my job right as a teacher, you may well be able to navigate away after this section. If I’ve done my job right as a writer, you won’t want to.

Belief #1: Change is Constant

The first belief is also a disclaimer, and it is this: You are in a state of constant change. Nothing is fixed. Nothing is forever.

When it comes to this article, that means it’s possible some of what you read in these pages won’t align with your opinions by the time you read it. Of the two of us, you are the more experienced, and while I think that most of what’s written here will stand the test of time, the only thing I can say for certain is that your experience will lend extra insight that I don’t yet have.

Use this then as a coat-hook. A structure upon which to hang the experiences you’ve been carrying with you so that you can walk across the room and see them from a different angle. Don’t take what’s written here as gospel.

When it comes to anxiety, this state of constant change has two important implications. First, that you are never completely stuck with anxiety. And second, that you are never completely free of it.

You may think it disheartening to hear that you’re never completely free from the possibility of anxiety or similar feelings. But actually, it’s a good thing. It means that if you’re experiencing it, you’re not broken. It also means that if the anxiety goes away, and then comes back, you’re also not broken.

Believing that you’re not inherently, unfixably broken is an important step in overcoming anything. It is key in making use of the second belief of this philosophy.

Belief #2: Don’t Confuse Problems with Symptoms

The second belief is simply this: that the symptom of a problem is not the same thing as the problem itself.

Anxiety is real, but it’s not a disease. It’s a symptom of something else. Your body is capable of anxiety in the same way that it’s capable of pain.

If you fall and break your leg the pain is very real. But the pain is not the problem. It’s a symptom of the problem. The problem is that something is broken, and the pain is there to warn you of that fact so that you don’t continue to make the problem worse.

You would not say you’re inherently broken just because you feel pain. Indeed, if you fractured a femur and felt nothing, that would be a sign that you were somehow misconfigured. The same is true of anxiety.

The goal is not to never feel anxious. The goal is to only feel anxious when it’s appropriate and to respond to that anxiety in a way that’s healthy.

The idea of this article is that anxiety, even severe anxiety, is primarily a natural reaction to habits you routinely partake in but may not be aware of. The anxiety is the symptom, but those habits are the actual problem. If that’s true, then the key to minimizing unnecessary anxiety is understanding which habits are problematic, then dealing with them proactively.

I say that these lessons transfer to other areas of life, and I think this focus on “problems over symptoms” is a good example.

Perhaps you’re not facing anxiety right now. Perhaps you’re simply an old man and you’ve stumbled across this piece somewhere.

If that’s the case, let me take this moment to remind you of how truly good looking you were when you were my age.

Even without anxiety, I’m sure we’re facing some other challenge.

Perhaps we’re broke, or maybe we’re fat (we better not be fat). Those can both be discouraging problems with real consequences. But in the end, both are symptoms of something deeper.

Being broke is a symptom of poor financial judgment. It’s the result of consistently poor financial decisions. Being fat is likewise a symptom of consistently poor lifestyle choices.

Similar to pain, and anxiety, neither one can be solved by waving a magic wand. If you’re broke and you woke up tomorrow with a million dollars in the bank you would not have it for long because the decisions you currently make every day lead you to be broke. You don’t know how not to be broke. We see this play out over and over with lottery winners. The same goes for being fat which is why crash dieters are notoriously unsuccessful.

When you focus on treating symptoms, rather than root problems, any success is only temporary. When the symptoms come rushing back — and they will — it will seem an even greater defeat. In life, and in all struggles, it’s important to be sure you’re working on the root problem.

Belief #3: Look for the Learning Opportunity

The third pillar of this philosophy is that all struggles, no matter how severe, can be seen as an opportunity of some kind. Healing begins when you decide to find the opportunity in the problem. And when you do that, you unlock the potential to walk away better than you were before.

I still remember the moment everything started getting better for me when I first struggled with severe, crippling anxiety.

I was sitting around, thinking about how much my life had changed. Over the course of eighteen months, I’d pulled away from friends, stopped traveling, and was living in my parents’ basement. I couldn’t get on a plane anymore. Even driving people to the airport was enough to send me into a panic. I couldn’t go to parties or even small gatherings with known friends, and I’d begun learning to code because it was the only job I could do without ever having to see anyone.

I was afraid of everything. I spent my days constantly on-edge and on-guard against anyone realizing I was on-edge. I felt as though my life was slipping by un-lived. I knew I was capable of more, but this fear had its fangs in me.

Then, I had an epiphany.

Fear is all that keeps anyone from reaching their full potential. Whether it’s fear of public speaking, or the fear of asking for what they want, fear of failing, or more often, of succeeding beyond their wildest dreams (and then not knowing what the hell to do). More than any other thing, fear is what keeps us small.

That’s all cliche, but here comes the insight: It’s difficult to overcome fear when you don’t experience it regularly.

Most people have to get on stage in order to face near-crippling anxiety. They have to quit their job or wade into a pit of snakes.

All I had to do was sit in the back of a coffee shop, far from the doors. Having a drink with a friend was enough to send my pulse racing, and sitting as a passenger in someone else’s car was almost unbearable.

For months I’d felt as though I’d lost control of my life. But at that moment I realized there was another way to look at it. I could believe I was a victim, or I could choose to believe that I was being offered a master class in fear. If I passed, I would overcome the most difficult obstacle I’d ever face — myself — and would unlock literally untold potential for the rest of my life.

At that moment I decided I would use this problem as an opportunity to learn everything I could about fear and how it affected me. I decided that I would not only get through it, but I would come out the other side better for the experience.

That decision, more than anything else, is what led to my getting better — to your getting better…

You’re welcome. 

You weren’t fixed immediately. In fact, some of your greatest struggles were still ahead. I’m sure there are more ahead still. But when anxiety got the best of you, you simply looked at the situation and asked yourself what you could learn from it.

Making the decision to learn gave you room to be wrong. It gave you room to mess up. It gave you space to admit that perhaps you didn’t have the answers and couldn’t be held accountable for succeeding every single time.

Somehow, having that space enabled you to succeed more and more often.

Today, just a few years later, your life is completely different. You’ve traveled through Europe living in other people’s houses. You’ve trekked long sections of the Appalachian Trail, sleeping in shacks with complete strangers and shitting in the woods. You’ve taken a job at a tech startup where most of the work involves flying around the country hosting parties, and having conversations with people. You’re unrecognizable from the shadow of yourself you were just a short time ago.

It’s been incremental progress, but progress nonetheless. And it’s hinged on those three ideas:

First that you are in a constant state of change. Nothing is permanent, and everything is malleable. Second, that you must get to the root of the problem and work on that. And third, that every problem comes with an opportunity to learn, and you get to decide whether to look for it or not.

Upon those core ideas, everything else rests. Without them, all success is only temporary. With them, well… your success is still temporary. Because one day you’re gonna die. And I guess that’s the fourth pillar of this whole thing — Don’t take any of it too seriously because, in the end, we’re all worm food.

Speaking of food, let’s take a look at those tactics.

2.

Eat Well

Stop eating like an asshole.

I put this one at the top of the article because I know it’s your weakness. If I had a dollar for every time you swore you were going to turn over a new leaf and begin eating well, I’d be dictating this letter to my personal assistant aboard my personal jet headed to my private island.

It’s not just that shit food makes you feel bad. It’s that the habit of eating like you don’t give a damn carries over to other areas of your life and causes anxiety there as well.

Food is your kryptonite.

There’s an entire industry worth of books that will dive into the details on how and what to eat, and suggesting an “Anxiety-free” diet is not only outside the context of this collection of letters, it’s also gimmicky. I’m not into it.

But I think Michael Pollan summed it up nicely when he said, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Vegetables.” Michelle Davis put it even better when she said, “Eat like you give a fuck.”

What both of these comments have in common is the underlying idea that eating healthily is not complicated. We all know what we should be eating.

When Pollan says to eat food, he means to stick with things that will generally die if a twelve-gauge slug passed through them. Mammals, fish, and just about every conceivable fruit and vegetable fall into this category. Poptarts do not fall into this category. Pizza does not fall into this category.

“But pizza’s made from plants!” you say. And just like that, you’ve stopped giving a fuck, and re-become an asshole.

Heroin is made from plants. Cow shit is made from plants. Oil from the deepest wells in Saudi Arabia was at one time nothing more than a plant. But you don’t eat them because they aren’t plants anymore. You know what counts.

Pollan’s advice is not just nutritional though. It has wider implications.

For example, when he says not too much, he is at once advising that you do not stuff yourself and that you temper your need to consume.

The more you eat, the more you must eat in order to maintain a feeling of calm. And if you must eat often, then your decisions are driven by the need for short-term gratification, rather than long-term success.

I’m reminded of a story from Sidharta when a merchant asked him how useful it was to be able to fast. He said it was very useful indeed. For if a man needs food, he said, then he must work, and work for whoever is willing to hire him so that he may eat. But if he can fast, he can take his time. He can make decisions about what he wants long-term, rather than in the immediate moment.

If you temper your need to consume, you live free. Free from the fear of going without. Free in the knowledge that your money, however much or however little, can carry you through because your demands are even fewer.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t own things. Sitting here as the younger version of yourself, I sincerely hope we own at least a few nice things. But you should be ruthless in differentiating between what’s truly necessary for happiness, and what’s simply nice-to-have.

Both Ben Franklin and the great Roman playwright, Seneca, offered further advice on this.

The old story goes that Franklin was once asked to publish the work of a client that he felt was “scurrilous and defamatory”. Rather than simply take the money and do the work, he went home that evening and slept on the floor, eating nothing but cheap bread and drinking a mug of cold water. When the experience didn’t kill him, he decided he’d never take on work he was ethically opposed to, knowing that so long as he had a coat to sleep in and a floor to sleep on he could make it through to the next client.

Of course, it never came to that. He died one of the wealthiest men in America. But perhaps one of the reasons Franklin did so well was because he did not live in fear of poverty. As a result, he was free to follow his own path.

This is the freedom Sidharta was talking about. The hungry man must work for whoever is willing to hire him. He doesn’t get to live by his own ideals. He is a slave to his hunger, or more often, his fear of hunger.

Hunger itself is not so bad. But fear of hunger antagonizes us before the hunger comes, and long after it leaves. Only when we’re free of this fear can we live our lives truly, as free men.

And like many fears, there is only one way to get over this one: Practice.

This is where Seneca weighs in. In his moral letters to Lucilias, Seneca recommends setting aside a few days each year where, like Franklin, you practice true poverty.

“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’”

Practice the things you fear most, and you rob them of their power over you. Speaking of practicing uncomfortable things…

3.

Take Cold Showers

Take cold showers. The colder the better.

I don’t have much for you here, except a reminder that cold showers are an opportunity to do one thing early in the day that you find uncomfortable. Proof that you’re capable of doing other things you might not want to do.

There are other documented benefits to cold showers. But this one is the one I find most valuable.

After a week or so of consistently cold showers, you begin to crave them. They never become comfortable, but there is an after-effect, a buzz, which is addictive.

More than that, there’s something freeing about preferring something the simple way. When you don’t need hot water, there’s no such thing as a bad shower. It doesn’t matter how crummy the hotel is, or how many people shower before you, you always get a perfect shower. There’s something very neat and satisfying about this.

Seneca mentioned something similar about simple food in his letter to Lucilius on practicing poverty.

For though water, barley-meal, and crusts of barley-bread, are not a cheerful diet, yet it is the highest kind of Pleasure to be able to derive pleasure from this sort of food, and to have reduced one’s needs to that modicum which no unfairness of Fortune can snatch away. Even prison fare is more generous; and those who have been set apart for capital punishment are not so meanly fed by the man who is to execute them. Therefore, what a noble soul must one have, to descend of one’s own free will to a diet which even those who have been sentenced to death have not to fear! This is indeed forestalling the spearthrusts of Fortune.”

I don’t know about a noble soul. But I do like the sound of this forestalling the spear thrusts of fortune business.

This is the dirty little secret of discomfort. While most people fear it, you can learn to love it. And when you do that, you set yourself up for success. Discomfort is inevitable. The people who can deal with it best are the ones who win. Stephen Pressfield put it this way when talking about the Marine Corps in The War of Art.

“The Marine Corps teaches you how to be miserable. This is invaluable… Marines love to be miserable. Marines derive a perverse satisfaction in having colder chow, crappier equipment, and higher casualty rates than any outfit of dogfaces, swab jockies, or flyboys, all of whom they despise. Why? Because those candy-asses don’t know how to be miserable.

The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not, he will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation. The artist must be like that marine: he has to know how to be miserable.

I believe the same applies to anyone struggling with anything big. Whether you’re reading this because you’re anxious again, or because you’re tackling some other problem, the truth is that there’s a hard road ahead. You can tip-toe along, always fearing the discomfort that’s just around the corner. Or you can practice enjoying misery and step-to.

The hard knocks will come either way. As Pressfield put it, “because this is war, baby, and war is hell.”

4.

Call It by Its Name

I’m sitting on the balcony at Mozart’s Coffee Roasters looking out over the lake as the morning begins here in Austin, Texas. I’m sipping a caramel cappuccino.

The air is warm, despite the fact that it’s November, and the coffee shop is still quiet. There are just a few people out here with me. It’s early. There are birds sitting on the railing. They’re looking out over the water the same way people look out over water as the day begins — calmly. Reflectively. As though they’re considering the possibility of the day.

It’s quiet now, but based on the sheer number of tables here — dozens from what I can see, spread across several balconies — it won’t be quiet for long. This place is going to be a mad-house, and my job today is to hang out here and socialize.

Nothing seems to inspire trust in the wholesome opportunity of a day like a warm cup of dark roast poured steaming into a heavy ceramic mug. To sip this, and to watch silently as the sun comes up, is to be momentarily at peace. And as the rays of sun spread slowly over the landscape, so too does the warmth from the cup work its way into every corner of your soul.

It is one of the few totally enjoyable experiences on Earth. To be placed in the same category as strolling apple orchards in the fall, and being with a truly beautiful woman. A pleasure to sight, and smell, and taste.

I still remember how horrified you were when you realized that coffee was the direct cause of so many of your symptoms. They came two hours after drinking, almost like clock-work. First your pulse would begin racing, then your stomach would turn, and finally, you’d feel sweaty and panicked, unsure of what was happening to you.

It took years to learn this, and when you did, you decided to cut coffee (beloved coffee) out of your life.

For the longest time, your rule was “Skip the coffee”, which seems a strange thing to write about in a coffee shop over cappuccino. But I’ve been trying to write this letter for weeks now with no success, so hell with it, maybe this is the perfect place for it.

Because the more I think about it, the more I realize that the point is not to skip the coffee. This — thriving through anxiety — isn’t only about avoiding the things that cause you worry. Especially when those things are as enjoyable as this coffee is now. Far from it. To avoid the things that you love simply because they cause you anxiety is the ultimate failure of the anxious person.

It’s about learning to live even though it makes you anxious. Breaking down the barriers between you and the things you enjoy.

When it comes to coffee, you found that the symptoms weren’t so bad once you knew what was causing them. A big part of anxiety came from not knowing why your pulse was suddenly racing. Why you felt nauseous. Once you knew the culprit, knew what to expect, things never seemed as bad.

Similar to the old tale of Rumpelstiltskin, when you can call a demon by its name, it loses power over you.

And so, the rule changed.

It’s not always easy to call a problem by its name. It can be difficult to identify the root cause. Our culture is a prescriptive one, and we tend to try and search for solutions by looking for what we can add.

Have a health problem? We add a pill. How about a people problem? Let’s add a policy or a law. We add layer upon layer, building armor against the uncertainty of the world.

When it came to your personal life, you used to think that more armor was always the answer. But all the armor in the world won’t help fix the stone in your boot.

Oftentimes you can’t add a solution. You have to peel the armor back, layer by layer, until you get to the root of the issue.

But now, my cappuccino is almost empty and the birds are getting feisty, and it’s time to start my work for the day.

5.

Get a Dog

Get a dog.

Dogs are incapable of living with anxiety, and they’re wonderful teachers to learn from. Some people will say cats are better at soothing fraying nerves or horses perhaps.

But cats are too independent to provide the kind of support that a debilitatingly anxious person needs. They are happy to know you. But if you fell down the stairs tomorrow they’d walk over you on their way to the food bowl.

Horses are exceptionally attuned to your emotions, it’s true. But they are prey animals, and so can’t relate to humans the same way other predators can.

Fish are damned out of the question. Good for nothing but food.

No, you need a dog.

But make sure it’s a real dog. Nothing under thirty-seven pounds. Anything under thirty-seven pounds is likewise a prey animal, and prey animals survive only through anxiety.

Dogs were put on this earth to teach us how to live. Of this, I’m sure.

They focus only on the things that matter, namely eating, sleeping, screwing, and vigorous play, and cannot be whipped into a frenzy over anything as trivial as bills, or deadlines, or other people’s opinions. To care for a dog means you must once again make time for the important things. And taking time for those things will put the others back in perspective.

They are nonjudgemental. You cannot disappoint a dog. There’s something surprisingly refreshing about a companion who’s willing to yell at the top of their lungs out the window and lick their own butt in public. They’ve got a very high bar for what it means to be unsociable. Since your anxiety has a large social component to it, it’s nice to have a friend who doesn’t notice when you’re being weird.

It’s not that they don’t think you’re strange. Walking on two legs is very strange. But they decided to love you a long time ago, despite your obvious strangeness, and they will never un-make that decision.

They also don’t seem capable of fully disappointing other human beings. Dogs are guilty of some of the most horrific social faux pas. They throw up on the carpet, shit on peoples lawns, screw complete strangers in public, lick dead things they find on the ground, and have terrible breath. Despite all this, we love them. We happily feed them and house them, and lounge around on the couch with them. Indeed, once they’ve entered our lives, things don’t seem quite right without them around.

Perhaps these things aren’t flaws, per se. Perhaps they are simply what the human soul yearns for, and we’ve just learned to view them as flaws so that civilized society may exist.

If that’s the case, then the charming thing about a dog is their complete and utter sincerity. They greet you at the door utterly happy to see you. They bark at the mailman utterly willing to die protecting the house. They eat with utter gusto, even if the food has been the same for three nights, or three weeks, or three years.

Everything they do, they do with complete focus and total sincerity. And perhaps there’s a lesson there for us.

And if I’m wrong, and dogs are just four-legged scoundrels, then our love for them is at least an interesting mirror of the human capacity to see beyond weakness. If dogs can be loved with so many flaws, surely you can be as well.

6.

Learn to Say No.

Learn to say no.

This is so hard. Your tendency is to say yes. You tell yourself that you’re saying yes because you’re a nice person — because you want to help people, or because you don’t want to let them down.

But the truth is that when you offer a blind yes, it’s anything but helpful.

To begin with, it doesn’t help the other person much. In fact, it puts them at extreme risk. This is because you’ve agreed to help them without being sure of whether you actually can.

If you don’t have the time or mental bandwidth to devote to them, then at best they’re going to get your partial attention and effort. At worst, you are going to begin helping them, only to find that the situation is unsustainable. Then you’ll have to cut them loose and leave them to find someone else anyway. Only you’ve wasted some of their time, and maybe their money.

No bueno.

Even less bueno — when you offer someone a blind yes you are really making one of two assumptions; Either you think they are too fragile to hear no, or you think you’re not valuable enough to say no without losing the relationship. Both of these deserve further questioning.

The worst part about saying yes blindly is that every time you say yes to something, you say no to a hundred other things you might be doing instead. Though it may not seem like it at the time, each yes comes with a huge opportunity cost and takes time and attention from something else.

Saying no gives you the space to do an amazing job on the things that matter most. It offers you the clarity, time, and energy to focus more on the people and projects you care most about. Success starts with no.

This is such an important concept that Tim Ferriss devoted entire sections to it in his book Tribe of Mentors. There he asked 130 of the world’s most successful people how they handle saying no to things, and the answers are always worth revisiting.

“But those people are different. I can’t possibly say no!” This is where anxiety comes in. I’ve come to believe that many of the negative physical symptoms of anxiety are directly related to your habit of doing things you don’t want to do.

After years of saying yes to things you don’t want to do, your body takes over and shuts down.

Anxiety forces you to say no. Through crippling fear, pounding heart, nausea, and more your body demands that you take a stand for yourself. It forces you to figure out how to say no where previously you didn’t think there was a way.

It forces you to say no to everything. To the things you like and dislike. And only after you say no often enough, once you know in your bones that you can say no to anything you truly don’t want to do, only then will your body begin to trust you again and allow your symptoms to subside.

So on those mornings when you wake up and your heart is kabooming, ask yourself if there’s anything you’ve said yes to recently that really deserved a no. Is it too late to say no now (hint: it’s never actually too late if you’re willing to deal with the consequences)? How might you avoid giving a blind yes next time?

7.

Anxious or Excited?

Are you anxious, or excited?

Anxious? Are you sure?

These feelings are close cousins. Sometimes, when you’re feeling anxious, you can trick yourself into thinking that you’re actually excited. It helps to ask yourself what you might be excited about. What would make this time exciting?

I will often use this technique when preparing for a flight somewhere.

I don’t much like flying. More accurately, I don’t like all the hoops you have to jump through in order to fly. The long lines, the rigid schedules, the recycled air. I don’t like being told what to do on a good day. Air travel is bossiness refined — wait here, line up there, please remain seated, etc, etc… — so I’m not a huge fan.

But there are parts of air travel that I enjoy tremendously. I like meeting new people. I like chatting with strangers. I like browsing airport gift shops, and I love those little Lotus Biscoff cookies.

So when I’m preparing to get on a plane, if I find I’m jittery or anxious, I’ll just ask myself whether I’m anxious or excited. And if I’m not sure, I’ll imagine a version of myself that was really excited, and try to copy what he’d do.

Other times, if I feel like I’m skirting the edge of anxious and excited, I’ll ask myself how I could use a renewable resource (like money) to tilt the scales.

To use flying as an example again, when I can, I will pay to upgrade my ticket to first class. First class passengers skip the security lines, and the boarding lines, and are generally bossed around less. In short, they aren’t subjected to most of the things I hate about flying.

If I can trade a finite amount of money in order to avoid a day or two of anxiety, indeed to look forward to something that would otherwise cause me stress, I’ll make that trade every single time.

It can help to purposefully plan things every so often that you’re actually excited about. That way, even if you’re headed off to do something you don’t want to do, you have something on the other side of it that you are looking forward to.

Of course, sometimes you can’t trick yourself into being excited. Sometimes you’re simply scared out of your mind. And when that happens, I lean on the last, and most important lesson I found over the last few years…

8.

Go with the Flow

Go with the flow.

Let me be clear: I hate this sentence.

Alone it’s very abstract and woo-woo. It always felt like a way to justify failure. But it’s become such an integral part of you, of how you deal with hardship, that it must be mentioned here.

I will try to make it more concrete.

At its core, anxiety is a preoccupation with the future. Specifically, it’s the fear that the future will be unpleasant. On this, I think you and I can agree.

A close examination of this fear shows that it’s riddled with a number of faulty assumptions. First, you are assuming to know that things will go wrong. Which itself means that:

  1. You believe there exists a right and wrong way that things should go (which there isn’t), and…
  2. You think you are reasonably good at predicting the future, which experience has shown, you are not.

So anxiety makes no logical sense. But then, we already knew that and experienced it anyways. So we cannot rely on logic to solve our problem.

Instead, we have to rely on the cultivation of two other character traits: resilience and openness.

Resilience is the knowledge that you are capable of handling hardship.

Many of the tactics discussed in these pages are designed to help cultivate resilience. When you learn to eat well, you learn that you can survive cravings and other internal conflict, and are thus more resilient. When you step into a cold shower first thing in the morning, you learn that you can live through physical discomfort, and are therefore more resilient. And when you learn how to tell someone no, you learn that you can deal with interpersonal conflict, and you become more resilient.

Each trial you survive makes you more resilient for the next. Much of the success of life is simply accumulating a list of things that didn’t kill you. That way, when you begin to fear the next new thing, a small voice in your head can point to the list and say See? We shall endure.

Resilience is the ability to face a hardship, and believe, even if it’s only a tiny belief, that you can endure.

Openness, by contrast, is the ability to live with uncertainty and to accept what may come with grace and poise.

At its core, openness is the understanding that you do not actually know the future. It’s the belief that, though a situation may be painful or unpleasant in the short term, you do not actually know for certain whether it will be good or bad in the long term. It’s the ability to experience things as they are, rather than as you think they should be. And it is commonly known as going with the flow.

You were not raised to go with the flow. Growing up, your parents literally used to greet you each morning with the question “So, what’s your plan for the day”. This was code for “I have a bunch of chores for you to do”, so you quickly learned to plan as much as possible in order to escape work. And for years into adulthood, you were a prodigious planner.

You had to learn openness. And as with many of life’s most useful lessons, you learned it from a beautiful woman who no longer speaks to you.

I’ve tried to write about her before. So far, I’ve failed each time.

Nothing shows just how poor a writer you are like trying to describe a woman you’ve loved and describe her in a way that sparks the same fondness in the heart of the reader. Even if the reader is only your future self, it’s damn near impossible. The only thing which I think comes close is this poem I found, dubiously attributed to Roman Payne.

She is free in her wildness, she is a wanderess,
a drop of free water in the parched sun.
She knows nothing of borders,
and cares nothing for rules.
Time for her isn’t something to fight against.
Her life flows clean, with passion,
like fresh water.

Her life flows clean, with passion, like fresh water. I love that line, and I think it’s the best way to describe the way you saw her. So I suppose, in retrospect, it’s no surprise that her parting advice to you was that you needed to learn how to go with the flow.

You’d known this for years. Planners are never oblivious to their nature. It’s just that learning to go with the flow is so fluffy, so hard to get your arms around, that it doesn’t rank high on the priority list.

But there’s nothing quite like the words of a woman you admire to spur action. If she thought you needed to be more flow-y, dammit, you were going to be like a drop of water in a river going over Niagara Falls. You set about immediately to create a plan to learn how to go with the flow.

The plan you opted for was to literally go with the flow — to climb into a kayak, and shove off into a river with no paddle, going where fate may take you. That seemed like a very concrete way of testing the philosophy. What was the worst that could happen?

As it turns out, quite a lot. In the days that led up to the experiment, you were stunned by your mind’s ability to invent creative and lively ways in which things might go wrong.

You might get sucked out to sea, or get wedged under the boardwalk. You could crash into someone’s yacht then owe them a million dollars in repairs. You could drift too close to a navy ship, and they’d blow you out of the water thinking you were a terrorist with a kayak-bomb. And what if, worst of all, you washed up on shore and were stuck there looking really, really foolish?

Dread pooled in your chest as your mind wheeled.

Ultimately, it was an interview with the great comic John Cleese that provided the solution. When asked about creativity, he said that it’s very difficult to be truly creative when you have all day. Being creative requires letting go. Your brain doesn’t want to let go. It wants to keep you alive. If you simply let go, there’s no guarantee you’ll ever come back. Just like you and your little imaginary kayak, you may be swept away.

It’s much better, he said, to set a timer. During that time, you’re free to be as creative as you wish. Afterwards, you can return to being responsible. That time limit, counterintuitive as it may seem, gives your brain license to let go.

I liked this technique and decided I would bring a paddle, but I wouldn’t touch it for a full hour, no matter what. After the hour was up, I’d be able to paddle back to my car, easy as pie.

As you’ll recall, the whole thing went better than you possibly could have planned. Far from a disaster, you pushed off in the boat, drifted through sun for about a half mile before coming to rest along a quiet stretch of shore far from anyone.

You didn’t hit a yacht. You weren’t swept out to sea. You sat, soaking up the sun for about forty-five minutes and then it was over. As far as pleasant boating experiences go, it literally couldn’t have gone better if you’d planned it. And it was only when you began the upstream slog back to your car that you ran into any hardship whatsoever.

This lesson was so profound, so tangible, that it has seeped into every area of your life. Indeed, you could probably write an entire book on this alone. But for now I’ll leave you with a few trusted tools:

First, remember the book The Tao of Pooh, which first introduced you to some of the concepts of Taoism, and helped you to be less judgmental. More flow-y. Also, remember that regular meditation (using the Calm app) has proven to be a life-changing habit.

When all else fails, and you find the anxiety building up inside you, ask yourself whether you’re trying to force something, and if it would really be so bad to let the cards fall as they may. Are you sure that your plan is the best possible outcome? You shouldn’t be. And if you’re stuck in a pattern of trying to force outcomes, grab a boat, and a stopwatch, and remind yourself of the value of going with the flow.

9.

Fin.

Anxiety was a challenge that would find me, at various points, unable to get on a plane, a boat, on trains, or in cars, movie theaters, restaurants, or even friends’ houses as long as there were other people around.

Before anxiety, I was a social person. An adventurer. I had lived on boats, out of cars, and had criss-crossed the US nearly a dozen times by land and air. Less than a year after I first began feeling symptoms, I came across an old photo of a scuba diver, and it took whole seconds for me to recognize the guy in the photo (me).

I had a very long way to fall.

And that’s the way people who experience anxiety sometimes feel, especially if they’re not typically anxious.

For driven people, life is like a race to the summit and when crippling anxiety suddenly descends upon you it’s easy to feel as though you’ve gone careening off a cliff while others have continued to climb.

But you haven’t fallen off a cliff, and this was the realization that had the biggest impact on my long-term recovery.

Life is not a race to a single summit, it’s a journey through the mountains. Sometimes you’re headed up, sometimes you’re headed down, there are summits and valleys, and everyone makes their own way. When you’re struggling with something big, you’re the one who’s marching for the summit. It’s just that that’s the hardest route.

It was Shakespeare who said that there is no right or wrong, only thinking makes it so. What he meant was that nothing in life is inherently good or bad, our perception defines that. Most people see anxiety as a bad thing, but if you change your mind and think of it as an opportunity, then that’s what it becomes. An opportunity to grow, to learn about fear, to get in touch with yourself and your feelings, and overcome the largest obstacle to success and happiness you will ever face: You.

Anxiety gave me far more than it took away. I am happier, healthier, stronger physically and mentally, wealthier, more sensitive, and calmer than I’ve ever been before in my life, all thanks to my struggle with anxiety. I’m writing this to you now from my seat aboard the train, Southern Service to Brighton across the south coast of England. I’ve been traveling for a month now, and I came here by boat. I had to go through hell to get to this point, but I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.

If you’re reading this now, it’s probably because you are headed for one of life’s summits. While it’s a hell of a climb, that’s also where the best view is.

I hope this work was meaningful to you. If you’d like to support it, you can share it, or you can get the kindle version. But the full text is offered here for free for anyone who wants or needs it.

What Happened When I Tried to Triple My Rates

Like many people in the web consulting arena, when I first started I was in a constant battle with myself to charge what I was worth. I had bills to pay, and some particularly lean times had led me to lower my prices in order to get anything. Luckily, the new lower rates brought work, but over time as my business matured they also brought a bunch of headaches as well.

To begin with, I was stressed and distracted. In order to try and meet my financial goals I was filling my schedule with as many as twelve or fourteen projects at once, then juggling them throughout the week to ensure they all continued moving forward. Not only was this hard on me, I was beginning to feel that it wasn’t the best situation for my clients either, who relied on my focus and attention to detail in our work together.

Aside from the stress, I was being underpaid and I knew it. Worse, I was the one who was underpaying myself. I didn’t just suspect that I was under-charging, I had peers tell me so. I had clients tell me so. I had one client ask my price, then offer to pay me 30% more. I recognized full-well that my stress was completely self-imposed, and that the only person who could reverse it was little old me.

But the decision to raise my prices was slow in coming. My lean times had been really lean — like, $0.08 in my bank account and no work on the horizon lean — and when my income finally leveled out I promised myself I’d never end up in that place again. Even though people had told me I was undercharging, I was worried that raising my prices might take me straight back to broke-town. I knew logically that if I tripled my rate (which would put me in about the center of the pack in terms of competitive pricing) I could feasibly lose two in three customers and maintain my income. But there was nothing to say they didn’t all leave me, and that was my major hang up.

Beyond that, I develop close relationships with all my clients. Some of them are like family to me, and I enjoy working with them tremendously. I was partly worried about losing the business, but equally worried about offending them, or seeming to pull the rug out from beneath them.

One afternoon while staring blankly at the cover of a Tony Robins book on my coffee table, I finally had a revelation. I realized that the reason I had so many clients wasn’t because I had low prices, but because I’d put my mind to getting each and every one of them. Each had a unique type of business, and I’d really wanted to work with them, so I’d put in the effort and ended up winning the job. I realized that there was very little — maybe nothing — that I’d ever wanted that I hadn’t gotten once I focused and acted. I realized that I wanted to make a better living for myself, and be able to deliver greater value to my clients, and that the only way to do that would be to raise my prices.

I realized that they might leave me, but I also decided that I wasn’t going to be the one to keep myself or my business down. Then I sat down and drafted the following email:

letter1

Then clicked send, and waited for the world to end…It didn’t.

In fact, the response was overwhelmingly supportive, even positive. Part of the reason, I know, is that many of my clients were self employed and understood the exact same struggle. Some were in the exact same industry as me, and subcontracted to me. As I mentioned, we build a close working relationship and routinely offer each other help or advice on our businesses. one

However, even those who were outside of my industry didn’t press the eject button.

two

In the end it may have taken some short-term work off the table

three

But ultimately no one walked, and virtually everyone was very supportive — even a personal friend whom I’d previously been charging nothing.

Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 8.02.27 AM

In the end I got more than I asked for. My hourly rates went up, my existing project-load may have been lightened a bit, and I kept all of my clients.

How to Duplicate These Types of Results

I don’t think these results are a given for everyone who raises their rates, even if they’re currently undercharging. There are two things I’ve been doing that I think had a profound effect on the outcome of this move. Both of them come from Richard Koch’s book The 80/20 Principle and have to do with developing clients that take your business to the next level.

1. Define the Right Types of Clients

When I first started out I was hungry, and eager, and worried about making it to happy hour with my friends so I took on virtually every project that came my way. Some clients didn’t feel like a good fit, but I took them on anyway with the idea that – when things were better – I’d be more selective.

Then, I proceeded to work straight through happy hour, servicing accounts that took up way too much of my time, and paid way too little (sometimes even shirking the bill). It’s hell, and if you’re self employed you’ve probably been there. The change came when I began listening to Seanwes, and realized that the better work would never come until after I began being more selective.

It’s scary to tell yourself that you’re going to turn down work. Especially when those bills are marching your way, and it seems like the phone’s gone silent. But very quickly I found it to be the best business decision I’d made in months. My project load dropped off a little bit, but the things I was working on were going unbelievably smoothly. What’s more, the good clients were referring more good clients, and the whole system was building on itself.

Now, before taking on work I’ll sit with a prospect to talk and ensure our personalities are a good fit. As a result, my client list is filled with the names of respectful, attentive, successful people who work hard and value my time. I have no doubt this selectivity was a huge driving force in the response I got.

2. Provide Extraordinary Service

The second thing Koch suggests is to go above and beyond for your existing clients.

Whether or not I’m successful at that is ultimately for my clients to say. But the one thing I can control is how much thought goes into providing them with extraordinary service.

Each day I wrap things up by spending fifteen minutes brainstorming ways in which I can take our relationship from good to extraordinary. Ways in which I can step outside the role of my typical advisory position, and provide extra value to them and their clients. That habit has yielded a lot, and I’d recommend it to everyone.

There are other tips in Koch’s book, and I believe every business owner should read it. I also hope that for those who are considering raising their prices this article has served to convince you it’s possible.

Homemade French Pastry

Before handing me the keys to my temporary home in the French countryside, the owner gave me three simple instructions: Play fetch with the dog, Gyp, at least twice a day. Give the cat, Ella, plenty of lap-time. And check the inflatable pool house each week, to be sure it wasn’t leaking.

I followed all three instructions diligently, and for nearly a month everything was fine. Then… drama.

Table of Contents:

Intro
Quick Recipe
Background
Why Learn This Dish?
Ingredients
Instructions
Video

A storm howled like a freight train through the region, battering the countryside with rain, and hail, and gail-force winds. It tossed the pool house like a toy, slamming into it broadside and sliding more than a thousand pounds of water and plastic five feet across the deck and into the pool itself. With time the storm passed. But in its wake it left a massive, heavy, sodden, plastic mess sunk beneath roughly a metric shit-ton of grimy water. And it was my responsibility, as the house-sitter, to get it back up.

To her credit, Gyp tried to lend a hand. She sat dutifully by the edge of the pool, keeping a watchful eye on the donkeys which grazed in an adjacent field. I’m not sure whether she thought this was their fault, or simply that their proximity would thwart any repair efforts, but whenever they got close enough to the fence for their ears to hang over she’d run and bark and scare them off.

Ella, on the other hand, was perfectly useless. She’d slink out to  the pool whenever I was knee-deep in muck and plastic, then sit on the deck looking at me in that judgy way that only felines can.

It took two days of siphoning, pumping, draining, lifting, and stretching. There were more than a few close calls. More than a few setbacks. More than a few sudden hailstorms. But at long last, I was able to get the foundation of the bubble back in place, skim the water off the top, and restore it to it’s bubbly grandeur.

When it was over, I needed to celebrate. More than just a drink — I’d really strained myself. I’d waded through icy green water, gashed my foot on something mysterious, pulled muscles I didn’t know I had. At one point I was almost vacuum-packed by a five-hundred pound blanket of deflating plastic. No a cheap bottle of wine wasn’t going to cut it. I wanted something forbidden. I wanted some fucking cake…

Excuse my french.

What is Kouign Amann?

Kouign Amann (pronounced queen a-mahn) is a buttery, flaky, sugar-coated pastry from the Brittany region of France, where all of this drama took place. Its name literally translates to butter cake in the local dialect. Sweet, crispy layers of laminated dough, with peaks of caramelized sugar and just a hint of sea salt to make the flavors pop. You haven’t lived ’till you’ve tried one, which is ironic because once you have you’ve removed about nine years from whatever life expectancy you had left.

 

“The sea conditions everything in Brittany; its salt is in the blood of the people.”

-R.A.J. Walling, The Charm of Brittany

Salt is the life blood of Brittany. It’s a place that grew up around the sea — “ar mor” as its called — and for more than a thousand years it lay secluded from the rest of France, accessible only by its beautiful rugged coast. Then it was known simply by its Gaulish name, Aremorica, the place by the sea.

According to R.A.J. Walling, author of The Charm of Brittany, even Caesar himself commanding the armies of Rome was unable to conquer Aremorica by land. It took Decimus Brutus and a great naval battle to finally subjugate the region and its people.

But it wasn’t to last. Rome fell, at the feet of invading hordes, and just as the sea brought Brutus’ fleet to Aremorica’s horizon, it ushered in the next wave of people who would call this place home. Small bands of Celts, fleeing the islands of the north, settled at various points along this new land’s shores. They came from Britain. They named this place Brittany.

Like many things in this region of France, Kouign Amann is patently un-French. Brittany is a French region, but the culture is Celtic, and the language spoken around the hearth for many generations was actually closer to Cornish than it was to French.

All of this helps to explain why searching for kouign amann in Google Translate produces no useful results. It also hints at why many people living nearby looked utterly lost whenever I tried to communicate in my (very) basic French.

Why Learn to Make Kouign Amann?

The most practical reason to learn to make Kouign Amann is that in doing so you’ll learn to make laminated dough, which can easily be used to make dozens of other pastries and baked goods from around the world.

Laminated dough is a combination of yeasted bread dough and a slab of butter, laid out carefully, chilled, and folded a few times in order to create dozens of alternating layers. When the heat from the oven hits the dough, the water inside turns to steam which puffs up the layers, while the heat causes the butter to essentially deep-fry some of the dough. The end result is a product with the flakiness of puff pastry, and the heft of something more substantial.

Croissants, turnovers, cinnamon rolls, cheese twists, danishes, and even some pie crusts and tops all use laminated dough. Master this process, and you’ve basically become the king of brunch.

At the Market

Let’s talk about what you’ll need. Below you’ll find a recipe card, complete with ingredient names translated into French so you can find them while you’re wandering a foreign market.

Photo Mar 05, 11 28 24 AM

Further down, you can find in-depth explanations of each item, along with ideas for substitutes.

Substitutes?!

Yes, substitutes.

Some people rail against the idea of substitutes when cooking, and especially when baking. Different ingredients will yield different results, they say. They’re right.

But the point of Cooking Travelers is to make recipes accessible no matter where in the world you are. According to ClassoFoods’ extensive course on bread and bread-making, there are enormous differences in the various types of flours, salts, yeasts, and even water that go into doughs like this. There can even be noticeable differences between two bags of the same flour that were processed by different workers at the same factory.

With so much potential variability, you can either opt for anal-retentive, monk-like obsession with detail, or you can shoot for the main gist of the thing, and enjoy some damn cake. Don’t get me wrong, there’s something inspiring about watching a masterful pastry chef do their thing. But when it comes to this piece, and other pieces on this site for that matter, it’s more important that you understand the concepts, so you can make smart substitutions when you need to.

Then substitute away.

[amd-yrecipe-recipe:2]

yeast

There are a lot of different types of yeast available, and it’s important you choose the right one because the yeast does some heavy lifting in this recipe.

You want Baker’s Yeast, not Nutritional Yeast or Brewer’s Yeast. Both Nutritional, and Brewer’s yeasts are dried at very high temperatures, which deactivates the yeast cells, rendering them useless for leavening.

Baker’s Yeast, on the other hand is dried at low temperatures, so while some of the cells die off, they encapsulate other living cells and preserve them. This is why many supermarket yeasts need to be mixed with water before use. You’re re-activating the dormant yeast cells.

Among the Baker’s yeasts, you’re most likely to run into one of three: Active Dry, Instant, and Rapid Rise. Among the three, each should work fine, but may require different activation so read the instructions carefully. The debate rages on as to whether Rapid Rise is worthy of being used in recipes. I used it, and enjoyed the results.

The one type of Baker’s Yeast you want to avoid if you see it is Deactivated Yeast. It’s usually reserved for pizza doughs, and like Brewer’s Yeast and Nutritional Yeast, it’s got no leavening properties.

Elevation changes the way doughs rise. If you’re traveling high above sea level, and the recipe isn’t seeming to work out properly, try consulting King Arthur Flour’s helpful hints for high-altitude baking.

flour

Flour is another ingredient with loads of options. Most recipes for laminated dough, and Kouign Amann in particular, advise against using All-Purpose (or AP) flour. Some say it doesn’t have enough protein to put out a nice firm dough, others point to the fact that the recipe requires so much time and attention, you might as well use the best you can get.

That said, I used AP flour, or Type 55 as it’s called in France, end enjoyed the results. You can experiment with other flours for fun if you like. But if all you can find is AP, then don’t be afraid to use it.

Some people ask whether they can use gluten-free flour for a recipe like this. Most bakers agree that a gluten-free flour alone won’t give you the kind of consistency you’re looking for. But Nicole Hunn of Gluten Free on a Shoestring has a handful of all-purpose gluten free flour blends which are much more likely to get the job done. She’s even got a recipe for croissants which doesn’t seem much different than this one (save the flour blend).

If you’re avoiding gluten just because you’ve heard it’s bad, then my advice would be to throw caution to the wind for this recipe. The sugar is going to do more damage to your system than the gluten will. But if you’re avoiding gluten because it makes you ill, then opt for Nicole’s flour blends.

butter

You want to use salted butter. You’ll need about a half-pound for this recipe. It’d be best if you can get it as a single large block. But don’t be afraid to simply use two sticks (or a lot of little restaurant butter packets) if that’s all you have access to.  Keep it in the refrigerator until you’re ready to work with it.

sugar

You don’t need anything fancy. Plain old granulated sugar will work just fine.

salt

Most recipes call for a 10-1 sugar-to-salt ratio, but I found that produced a sickly-sweet end product that I didn’t enjoy eating at all. You need some salt, otherwise the sugar just tastes bland. But rather than mixing it into the sugar and dough, I recommend simply sprinkling a small pinch on the pastries right before they go in the oven.

Use the finest textured salt you can find. Kosher will work, but a very fine sea salt will work better.

Wine

What?! I didn’t see wine on the ingredient list!

Shame on you. You should always cook with wine nearby. In this case, it doesn’t go in the mixing bowl, it goes in your mouth. You can use the empty bottle as a club to beat the butter senseless (see step #3), and as a rolling pin.

You could just opt for a rolling pin. But Ella, the cat, would judge you.

In the Kitchen

Alright let’s talk process. In order to make this recipe globe-trotter friendly I’ve tried to remove as many steps and tools as possible, while still getting high quality results.

Equipment

All you need to make this is a large mixing bowl, a baking pan, a knife, a kitchen-towel, and the afore-mentioned rolling pin/wine bottle.

“But what about the dough hook I see in other recipes?” I hear you ask, “What about the wax paper? The plastic-wrap? And the spoons… What about the measuring spoons?”

We need to have a talk about your precious measuring spoons. Did you ever stop to ask yourself where measuring cups or spoons came from? The answer is that they were popularized at the turn of the century by a woman named Fannie Farmer (I’m not kidding).

They were popularized in large part to make reading and writing recipes easier, not because precise measurements were actually needed in cooking. A lot of kitchen equipment is this way; nice to have, but by no means necessary.

Your Italian grandmother didn’t need a set of measuring spoons and with some practice, neither do you!

Use the measuring cups the first few times you try a recipe. But pay close attention to how things look when they go together. The very best batches I made (the fifth and sixth) were eyeballed from start to finish.

The one thing you really can’t do without is some kind of low-temperature environment. If the house is cold, that will work, but a refrigerator or freezer is better. This dough works by creating distinct layers of dough and butter. If it gets too warm, the butter begins to melt into the layers of dough, which will inhibit your puffing/layering effect.

So, with your mixing bowl, knife, and freezer space ready, lets get started.

Part I: Making Laminated Dough

Step #1: Activate Yeast

Pour 1 Cup of warm water into your mixing bowl. Add to that a tablespoon of sugar, and two teaspoons (or one standard packet) of yeast. Stir it lightly, then leave it to activate for about ten minutes.

After ten minutes you should see a very light foam forming on the surface of the liquid. This is important. It’s a sign that your batch of yeast is good. Yeast is extremely sensitive to heat, and can only be stored for so long even at room temperatures. When live yeast begins processing the sugar you put in the water, it releases small amounts of ethanol along with carbon dioxide, which bubbles to the top creating the foam. The carbon dioxide bubbles are what cause bread to rise.

Yeast Activation for Kouign Amann -- Cooking Travelers

If there’s no foam forming on the surface of the liquid, it’s a sign that the batch of yeast you got is de-activated or dead. You need to scrap it and start with a new batch. Otherwise, your dough won’t rise.

Step #2: Mix Dough

Once the yeast has had time to activate, add your flour to the bowl. Stir or mix with floured hands until the flour and water combine into a shaggy dough. It will be sticky at first. Continue adding flour one small hand-full at a time until the whole thing forms a single ball, and no longer sticks to everything it touches.

Then lay it in the bottom of the bowl, and cover the bowl with a clean, dry kitchen towel, and set it aside for about two hours until the dough doubles in size.

While the actual work of laminated dough doesn’t take long, there’s a lot of waiting involved.

Once your dough has doubled in size, roll it out roughly onto a floured baking pan, then store it in the freezer while you move to the next step.

Step #3: Soften Butter

Now that your dough is chilling, it’s time to create the slab of butter which will give the final product all its layers.

Lay your butter out on a floured work surface. Then sprinkle the top with more flour, and proceed to beat the hell out of it with your rolling pin/wine-bottle. Your goal is to smoosh it flat, then fold it over and smoosh it flat again.

Floured Butter for Kouign Amann -- Cooking Travelers

Repeat the process two or three times, flouring as needed to keep the butter from sticking to the counter, and working the butter down into a rectangle that’s about twice as long as it is wide.

Butter for Kouign Amann -- Cooking Travelers

Try not to touch the butter with your hands while you work. Instead, lift the edge with your knife to fold it over onto itself. It’s approaching the right softness when it folds, rather than breaking.

Folded Butter for Kouign Amann -- Cooking Travelers

Work it until it’s a little thinner than your pinky. Watch the surface to be sure it’s not getting too warm and melting. You want a pliable slab of butter, not a melted puddle. If it starts to get even a little bit shiny, simply put it on a plate and return it to the fridge for a few minutes, allowing it to cool once again.

Pound it into a rough rectangle, then set it aside and pull your dough from the freezer.

You want your dough, and butter to be roughly the same texture. As Grant from Chef Steps points out, if the butter is way harder than the dough, then the dough will simply tear when you begin folding. If the butter’s way softer, it can get too warm and begin soaking into the dough.

People get really intimidated by this recipe, but they needn’t be. Practice makes perfect, but even if you’re a knuckle dragger like me, it’s pretty forgiving.

Step #4: The Fold

Okay, this is the basis of laminated dough. It’s the difference between warm, flaky layers, and a pile of bread and butter.

Lay the dough out on a floured surface, and roll to a rectangle that’s abut three times as long as it is wide. Place your butter slab on top, with the bottoms matching. The butter should be almost as wide as the dough, and roughly 2/3 the length.

Dough and Butter for Laminated Dough -- Cooking Travelers

Then you’re going to fold it in thirds. Fold the top of the dough down, then fold the bottom up, then rotate 90° as shown in the photos. This process is known simply as “a fold”. Perform the whole thing once and you’ve done a fold, repeat it four times and you’ve done four folds.

Folding Laminated Dough -- Cooking Travelers

That’s it. That’s the move you have to master. Roll the dough out, fold the top down, bottom up, spin 90°. Repeating this is all that’s involved in making laminated dough.

Folding Laminated Dough -- Cooking Travelers

The real trick is to keep your dough cold, so after each fold return it to the freezer for 5 or 10 minutes. As long as your dough stays cold, you keep the butter from melting into the dough. Real pastry chefs will chill dough for hours between folds. But Grant from Chef Steps says that you can be a little less precise when you’re making Kouign Amann. Cold dough is the force-multiplier in getting really great pastries.

Folding Laminated Dough -- Cooking Travelers

Because of the compounding effect of folding layer after layer, it doesn’t take long to reach the three and four-digit layer zone. After a mere four folds, you’ll have more than 240 layers, which is plenty for Kouign Amann. Make your last fold, and return the dough to the freezer to chill before proceeding to the next step.

Rolling Laminated Dough -- Cooking Travelers

Part II: Turning Laminated Dough into Kouign Amann

Step #1: Add Sugar

This is the step that takes laminated dough, and turns it into Kouign Amann dough. Clear your work surface, then coat it liberally with granulated sugar.

Sugar for Kouign Amann -- Cooking Travelers

Roll your dough out on the sugar, coat the top with even more sugar, and continue rolling.

Roll the sheet out until it’s a large rectangle a little thinner than the width of your pinky. When it’s finally rolled out, coat the top with another layer of sugar, and lift the edges to throw sugar underneath it as well.

You should basically be thinking “Wow, this is a ridiculous amount of sugar”. If you’re not, there’s either a problem with your Kouign Amann, or the rest of your diet.

Step#2: Cut & Fold

Trim the edges of your sheet so that it’s rectangular. When you’re cutting the dough, try to cut straight down, lifting the knife before each cut, rather than slicing. Slicing can crimp the edges, inhibiting puff. You don’t want to inhibit puff.

Next, cut the sheet into squares roughly 4″x 4″. They don’t have to be perfect. We’re going to use these squares to make our final pastries. Here I’m going to show you three different ways you can fold your pastries. The first is the most commonly suggested muffin-tin method. It’s perfect for making interestingly shaped, perfectly caramelized, single-serve portions as long as you have a muffin tin.

Pastry Square -- Cooking Travelers

If, like me, you find yourself elbow-deep in pastry flour only to realize you’re in a house with no muffin tin, you’ll need another solution. That’s where the other two folds come in. They’re my favorites after testing nearly a dozen variations, and judging the results based on final look, caramelization, and  general un-fuck-up-ability.

The Muffin Tin Fold

Fold the corners of your squares into the center, and pinch them lightly together. Place each inside a buttered, sugared muffin tin hole.

Muffin Tin Kouign Amann -- Cooking Travelers

The Vol au Vent Fold 

Fold your square diagonally so it’s a triangle, then make one cut parallel to both of the triangle’s legs, roughly a half-inch from the edge. Don’t let the incisions meet otherwise you’ll just be left with a smaller square of dough.

VOL AU VENT Kouign Amann -- Cooking Travelers

Open the triangle back up into a diamond, so that the uncut sections are at the top and bottom of the diamond. Take the right outer-corner and fold it across to the left, then repeat by folding the left outer-corner over to the right, as seen in the images below.

VOL AU VENT Kouign Amann -- Cooking Travelers

VOL AU VENT Kouign Amann -- Cooking Travelers

VOL AU VENT Kouign Amann -- Cooking Travelers

Not only does this give you a nice final shape, but it also gives you a pocket in which you can stuff fruit jam, or diced apples tossed in sugar. While fillings of various types are popular, they’re not required.

The Pinwheel Fold

Make four diagonal cuts toward the center of your square, leaving the middle untouched, as shown in the photos below.

Pinwheel Kouign Amann -- Cooking Travelers

Then, fold one corner of each triangle down toward the center of the pastry, overlapping them as you go.

Pinwheel Kouign Amann -- Cooking Travelers

Pinwheel Kouign Amann -- Cooking Travelers

Pinwheel Kouign Amann -- Cooking Travelers

Once again, this gives you a little spot in the center of the pastry to add filling if you choose.

Step #3: Bake

Heat your oven to 400°F.

Take a tablespoon of butter and smear it around the bottom of your baking sheet, then coat it liberally with a handful or two of sugar. Tilt your tray side to side in order to coat the whole bottom. This will give your pastries the patent caramelized bottom which is so important for Kouign Amann.

Place your pastries on the baking sheet, then sprinkle them with more sugar. Finally sprinkle just the tiniest bit of salt over the top of each one. A little salt goes a long way here so really go easy on it. A single two-finger pinch spread between all your pastries should suffice.

Put the tray in the oven for 15-20 minutes. Check them at the fifteen minute mark, and roughly every 2-3 minutes after that.

You’re getting very close when the laminated dough is puffed, and you begin seeing browning on the peaks of the pastries. There is a point, just as the caramelized sugar begins to give off little wisps of smoke, which is when you should pull them. But be careful, these things go from caramelized to burned quickly. Keep an eye on them, and pull them early rather than late.

One-Pot Boeuf Bourguignon

I’d gone to France for my very first long term house-sitting job. For five weeks I’d be living in the home of a complete stranger I’d met online, taking care of her pets while she traveled.

My duties were simple: Play fetch with the dog, Gyp, several times a day. Give the cat, Ella, a comfortable place to lounge (like my lap or more often my keyboard while I was trying to work). And make sure the donkeys — Bill & Ted (and Dan) — hadn’t wandered off on any excellent adventures.

In exchange, I had the place to myself.

Table of Contents:

1. Intro
Quick Recipe
2. Background
3. Why Learn This Dish?
4. Ingredients
5. Instructions

The setting was beautiful; Shockingly beautiful for someone who’d grown up on New England winters where February meant iced windshields and burst plumbing. Gyp and I walked along endless fields of lush green cow pasture with hillsides speckled with wood violets, primroses, and wild daffodils.

French Countryside -- Cooking Travelers

Many days it was warmer outside than in. The house’s thick stone walls sucked heat from every corner of its open floor plan. Nights I’d sit near the crackling blaze of the enormous fireplace. Days I spent in the kitchen, where heat from the gas range, hair metal from my laptop, and deep concentration in the bottom of a pot or pan made the cold disappear.

After nearly six months traveling I was surprised to find that France reminded me of home. The cars drove on the right side of the road. It wasn’t always cloudy (unlike in some certain united kingdoms I could mention). Even the region’s flag had a strange familiarity.

Flag_of_Brittany_(Gwenn_ha_du).svg

And of course, there was the food…

What is Boeuf Bourguignon?

Boeuf Bourguignon, or Beef Burgundy as it’s sometimes called, is essentially a stew. It’s similar to American beef stew, except instead of being cooked in just beef or chicken stock, the meat is braised in a combination of stock and red wine.

It’s not technically from Brittany, where I was staying. But then, it’s probably not actually from Burgundy either. Most people believe it was concocted there, and that it’s named for the Burgundy wine traditionally used in the sauce. But according to Adam Balic of The Art and Mystery of Food, there’s more to the story.

While a chef named Auguste Escoffier usually gets the credit for bringing Boeuf Bourguignon into the main, the truth is that his recipe is only similar to the traditional dish. In his now legendary book Le Guide Culinar, he shares a recipe for Piece de Boeuf a la Bourguignonne. But that dish uses one large chunk of beef, rather than the cubes found in today’s recipe.

In the exact same year, and from the other side of the Atlantic, a contemporary of his named Adolphe Meyer published another recipe that’s much closer to the modern interpretation.

“As both Meyer’s and Escoffier’s recipes were published independently in the same year,” Balic says, “This implies there are earlier origins for the modern recipe.”

The most likely source, according to Balic, is a Parisian chef named Joseph Favre who published the Dictionnaire Universel de Cuisine Pratique (The Universal Dictionary of Practical Cooking) in 1894. It includes a recipe for Boeuf Braise à la Bourguignonne which practically mirrors the modern recipe.

In his writings, Balic says, Favre hints at the possibility that Boeuf Bourguignon may have actually developed in the restaurants of Paris, not Burgundy. The name, he says, comes from the ingredients involved. Specifically the use of small glazed onions, lardons, mushrooms and wine, which are together a hallmark of Burgundian cooking.

So while it’s common to use Burgundy in Boeuf Bourguignon, and it’s indeed a popular dish in Burgundy and throughout France, the name comes from the unique combination of onions, mushrooms, and wine rather than the type of wine, or the place of origin.

Why Learn It?

By learning to make Boeuf Bourguignon you’re learning the skills needed to make dozens of other famous dishes from around the world.

Swap the wine out for beer or chicken stock and you’re making American beef stew. Pull the bay leaf, and add ground chilis and you’re making a bowl o’ red. Opt for a dry white wine and veal shanks and you’re cooking Ossobucco. The ingredients vary from place to place, but the process is exactly the same.

And what is that process?

All you’re doing is slow-cooking meat in some liquid until it’s nice and tender. That’s braising in a nut shell.

You don’t need fancy equipment, just an oven and a cast-iron pot. It’s extremely forgiving, so you don’t have to worry about messing it up. And because braising works best on the toughest (read: cheapest) cuts of meat, learning these types of recipes can help stretch your budget when you travel.

At the Market

Below you’ll find a quick reference recipe guide. The shopping list has been translated into French so you can find what you need if you’re wandering a foreign market.

Further down you’ll find more detailed info on the major ingredients and steps involved. It’s not required reading, but if you’re wondering why you should buy chuck rather than tenderloin, or what you can substitute for the wine, check it out.

Some people get touchy when you talk about substitutions in a recipe. Substitutions go against tradition, they say.

I won’t comment on tradition, but here’s my stance when it comes to substitutions for this recipe: If you can’t get your hands on an ingredient, or are opposed to using something (like alcohol), make a substitution.

Cooking isn’t about following the rules all the time. It’s about exploring, and experimenting. Here at Cooking Travelers, the point is to learn about cooking in a way that enables us to re-create a dish’s essence no matter where in the world we are. There will be times when you don’t have access to wine. There will be times when you can’t find pearl onions. That’s perfectly fine.

I’ve personally tested several variations of this recipe, using substitutions for everything from the onions, to the stock, to the wine. Anything good is included here.

Quick Recipe

English
2-3Lbs Chuck Roll
1 Bottle Red Wine
1Lb of Mushrooms
1Lb of Pearl Onions
1Qt Beef Stock
Tomato Paste
Flour
Garlic
Bay Leaf
Thyme
Butter
Olive Oil
Salt
En Français
1Kg Paleron de Boeuf
Vin rouge
500g Champignons
500g Oignons Grelot
1L Bouillon de bœuf
Pâte de tomate
Farine
Ail
Laurier
Thym
Beurre
Huile d’olive
Sel

Wash, dry, and quarter mushrooms. Peel onions, poking a hole at the root, then braise for 20-25 minutes in a mixture of water, butter, and salt. Drain and set aside. Brown quartered mushrooms in batches, taking care not to overcrowd the pan. Once browned, set aside with onions.

Trim roast into steaks, and brown whole in pan over high heat. Pull steaks, and deglaze pan with roughly 1/2 bottle of red wine. Reduce wine over low heat for about 10 minutes. Cut browned steaks into large cubes, and add back to reduced wine. Add beef stock until cubed meat is 3/4 covered. Add 1 tablespoon of tomato paste, a bay leaf, a three-finger pinch of thyme, and minced garlic. Bring to a boil on the stove, then cover (leaving the lid cracked slightly) and place immediately into a 275°F oven for 2.5 hours.

When meat’s tender enough to be cut with the edge of a spoon, pull it from the oven, and remove the bay leaf and cubed meat. Add 1 Tablespoon flour for every cup of sauce remaining in pan. Stir over medium heat with a large dollop of butter until thickened. Add meat back in, along with braised onions and browned mushrooms, and return to the oven until everything’s hot. Serve with red wine, and fresh baguette.

Meat

Jaques Pepín, Martha Stuart, YouTube cooks from around the world; They’ve all got their favorite cuts of meat for this recipe.

When it comes to Boeuf Bourguignon, you can break beef down into two categories— collagen-rich cuts, and tender cuts.

Collagen is an extremely tough connective tissue that can be found within muscles. The more work a muscle does on a regular basis, the more collagen you can expect to find within it.

When it comes to stewing, the more collagen, the better.

Many people assume that stewed meat is tender because it takes on the moisture of the liquid it’s cooked in, but that’s actually not the case. In fact, meat loses moisture when it’s stewed. Heat causes the muscle proteins to contract during the cooking process, squeezing moisture out.

But that very same heat also converts the tough collagen into a delicate gelatin, and that’s what we’re after.

According to Daniel Gritzer of Serious Eats, meat that’s rich in collagen will lose about as much moisture as meat that’s low in collagen. But because of the gelatin created the collagen-rich meat will seem far more moist.

Cuts like tenderloin start off tender precisely because they’re low in collagen. But what makes them eye-rollingly delcious on the grill is exactly the same thing that makes them dry and awful in a stew.

One of Gritzer’s top picks for Boeuf Bourguignon is the noble Chuck roll, which comes from the shoulder of the cow. Remember, the more work a muscle does, the more collagen is likely to be found inside it. Chuck is cheap, and flavorful, and loaded with collagen.

It was also the meat of choice for Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon, as well as the go-to stew beef of J. Kenji-Lopez, best-selling author of The Food Lab.

Opt for a single large piece rather than anything that’s pre-cubed. We’ll cube it ourselves thank you very much, but not before we add some flavor. I recommend a little more than a half-pound of meat per serving, since you’ll lose some to trimming later on.

Red Wine

Ah, the essence of Boeuf Bourguignon. Without the red wine, there’s not much separating this dish from standard beef stew.

Traditionally Boeuf Bourguignon would have been made with red Burgundy. But Red Burgundy is made from 100% Pinot Noirt grapes, so you can actually use a standard Pinot Noirt for this dish and it will taste delicious.

If you can’t find a Pinot Noirt, you can sub in any dry red wine as long as it’s not labeled “Cooking Wine”.

It doesn’t need to be fancy either. Daniel Gritzer of Serious Eats did a series of tests on cooking with wines, and found that there were very few noticeable differences in the results.

Make sure it’s red, make sure it’s dry (Pinot Noirt, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Bordeoux, and Burgundy will all work), and make sure you’d drink it if it came in a glass. We’re only using some of the bottle. You’ll need to find a good use for the rest ;)

According to Chef Mark Thomasson, if you either can’t get your hands on red wine, or don’t want to, you can opt for a smaller amount of red wine vinegar mixed with a bit of Worcester sauce. You’ll want to use much less liquid, since those flavors are really strong. But it can be done.

Opt for about a 3-1 mixture of red wine vinegar to Worcester sauce, and limit it to maybe a half cup total liquid.

Onions

Aside from the wine, another ingredient that makes this dish uniquely Burgundian is the small onions. The recipe calls for Pearl Onions, which you may have seen packed in little mesh bags at the grocery store. They range from gum-ball to golfball size, and are lighter and sweeter than standard onions.

While Pearl Onions are very popular in parts of Europe, they’re more difficult to find elsewhere due to their two-year crop cycle.

If you can’t find pearl onions, you can substitute standard onions from your grocery store, roughly chopped. Like garlic and other aromatic vegetables, the finer you chop onions the more potent their flavor becomes. So keep it coarse.

Seasonings

Besides the tomato paste the three other seasonings which play a main role in this dish are garlic, bay leaf, and thyme.

Always opt for fresh garlic when possible, either minced by hand or put through a press directly into the pot.

If you’re using whole sprigs of thyme, tie them in a bundle with the bay leaf so that they’re easier to fish out later. I was able to find pre-tied bundles which worked perfectly.

Seasoning for Boeuf Bourguignon -- Cooking Travelers

Beef Stock

According to both Julia Child, and J. Kenji-Lopez, the best beef stock is home made. However, if you don’t have access to that, Child says you can swap in beef bouillon.

Thickener

After the beef braises, we’ll want to thicken the sauce in order to give it that hearty, stew-like texture.

For simplicity’s sake, and to make this recipe as universal as possible, we’ll use a combination of butter and flour, similar to Julia Child.

Flour will dull the flavors of your sauce a bit. It’s also suffered a reputation crisis since the paleo/gluten-free movement.

To maintain your flavor or your figure you could use unflavored gelatin instead. If you opt for gelatin, you’ll want to use about one teaspoon for every 2-3 cups of sauce you’re thickening.

What about The damned carrot I see in other recipes?

Even a basic search for Boeuf Bourguignon turns up dozens of recipes with dozens of different ingredients. Some call for bacon, others call for carrots, or shallots, or celery, potatoes, and even soy sauce.

Anything this famous is bound to have lots of variations.

Remember that the basic flavor profile was beef, wine, small onions, mushrooms, and lardons. Everything outside that can safely be excluded.

Okay so what the eff are lardons, and why aren’t they in this?

Lardons are small pieces of fat used for larding. In larding, thin strips of pork fat are actually sewn into tough pieces of meat using larding needles. It’s a technique that evolved from a time when most meat was wild game, and was therefore very lean. The idea is to try and artificially inject some tenderness into meat by via man-made marbling.

However, today’s beef is so well marbled that larding is becoming less and less necessary. Both wikipedia, and Adam Balic of The Art and Mystery of Food say that the lardons are being increasingly worked out of modern interpretations of Boeuf Bourguignon. While Julia Child’s includes them in her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she actually left them out of the process in the premiere episode of The French Chef.

For simplicity’s sake, I’ve left them out here.

While we’re at it, you also don’t have to worry about marinating the beef. According to Daniel Gritzer’s recipe for The Best Boeuf Bourguignon, it’s impossible to tell the difference between beef that marinates for up to 24 hours, and beef that first meets the wine the moment it hits the pan.

In The Kitchen

You only need one cooking vessel for this recipe, a cast iron dutch oven. You may see me refer to it as a pot or a pan at various points, but rest assured it’s just for variety. One dutch oven will get you through this if you follow it step by step.

There’s one trade-off though: heat control.

In order to get a good brown on a piece of beef you need a very hot pan. Later on when you’re reducing your wine, you need lower heat.

As Alton Brown regularly points out, cooking is just food plus heat. Your job as a cook isn’t to memorize exactly what stove-top setting is best for browning mushrooms. Your job is to understand the browning process, so that you can adjust the heat depending on how your food is reacting.

Then you can cook on gas, or electric ranges, or over an open fire no problem. Because you understand the principle, rather than just memorizing the recipe.

Aside from the dutch oven for cooking, you’ll also need a mixing bowl, a cutting board, a sharp knife, a large spoon, and a non-metal spatula. You’d be smart to set these things out before you start cooking, along with organizing your ingredients and opening your bottle of wine.

This act of organization is called mise en place.

Let’s dive in…

Step #1: Wash & Quarter Your Mushrooms

Drop your mushrooms into a large bowl of water. Toss the mushrooms lightly by hand. The goal is to knock off any loose dirt which should sink to the bottom.

Quartered Mushrooms for Boeuf Bourguignon -- Cooking Travelers

Pull your mushrooms out by hand, pat them dry with a clean kitchen towel, cut them into quarters, and leave them spread out on a cutting board to continue drying. Empty and rinse your bowl.

step #2: Peel & braise Onions

First we need to choose how many onions we’re going to cook. It’s important to get the ratio of onions to beef right in this meal. If you ladle someone a nice big bowl of onions with one or two pieces of beef in it, they’ll look at you weird.

I like 3-4 pearl onions per serving of stew. Count them out and set them aside.

Next we need to peel them. Fill your pot with about an inch of water, then set it over high heat on the stove. When the water’s boiling, drop the onions in and wait for the water to return to a boil. Let them boil for about 20 seconds, then fish them out of the water and put them into the bowl you washed your mushrooms in. Turn the heat off, and empty your pot.

Use your knife to shave the very ends off each onion, then remove the skin.

Use the tip of your knife to poke one or two small holes in the root-end of each bulb. This will help them to keep their shape later on.

Peeled Onions for Boeuf Bourguignon -- Cooking Travelers

Put the peeled onions in your pot, then fill with water until the onions are roughly 1/2 covered.

Place the pot over medium heat, and bring it to a simmer. Drop a dollop of butter into the pot along with a dash of salt. Then reduce the heat, cover and simmer for about 20-25 minutes. The onions are done when they’re tender enough to pierce with a fork.

Braised Onions for Boeuf Bourguignon -- Cooking Travelers

When the onions are finished, turn off the heat, fish them out, and put them aside in your bowl. Empty any remaining water out of your pot.

Step #3: Brown Mushrooms

Return your empty pot to the stove and set it over medium-high heat. It’s time to brown some stuff. As it’s heating up, add some oil and a tablespoon of butter into the pan.

Tradition has long said that you should brown in a combination of butter and oil, claiming that the oil raises the smoke point of the butter. But kitchen myth-buster J. Kenji Lopez put this idea to the test and found it wasn’t true.

In order to brown food quickly, and avoid drying it out, you need to be cooking up around 300°F. The proteins in butter start breaking down rapidly between 300°F and 350°F. By the time the pan hits 375°F you’ve got smoke, whether or not there’s oil.

However, according to Kenji there’s still a benefit to cooking with a mixture of the two. First off, diluting the butter in oil makes the burnt flavor less pronounced. But more importantly, those proteins will actually speed up the browning process, which helps avoid overcooking the food.

Browned Mushrooms for Boeuf Bourguignon -- Cooking Travelers

Don’t over-crowd the pan with mushrooms. Drop in enough for a single layer to loosely coat the bottom, but no more. If you add too many, the tight space traps moisture down near the surface of the food. This lowers the temperature of your pot, inhibits the browning process.

Onions and Mushrooms for Boeuf Bouguignon -- Cooking Travelers

If you’ve got more mushrooms than you have space, simply brown them in batches. Stir each batch every minute or so, so that all sides of the mushrooms are exposed to the heat. When brown, remove them to the bowl with your onions.

Step #4: Trim Your steaks

If you know what you’re doing, this step won’t take long so you can leave your pot on low heat. If this process is new to you, turn the heat completely off so that you can focus.

We’re going to take our roast and turn it into a couple of steaks. The reason for steaks rather than cubes is that, according to Kenji, it’s better to brown two or three steaks in a pan than it is to try and brown a dozen smaller cubes.

Smaller cubes lose about 25% more moisture than steaks when browned, which drags out the browning process, and dries the beef out.

Lay your roast out on a cutting board, and get your sharpest knife. Depending on the cut of beef you chose, you may find a thick, sinewy layer of fat or silverskin on the outside of the roast. The first step is to remove it.

Trimming a Roast for Boeuf Bourguignon -- Cooking Travelers

Depending on your experience level, and the quality of the knife you have access to, this can feel intimidating. Try not to worry too much about it at first, it doesn’t have to be pretty. We’re ultimately going to be chopping these into cubes, and cooking them down to melt-in-your-mouth texture. All that’s important is that you remove the tough exterior.

Trimmed Roast for Boeuf Bourguignon -- Cooking Travelers

Trim, and slice until you’ve removed any tough exterior fat or silverskin, then set it aside. It can be frozen and used later to make broth or stock.

Examine your roast. Look for the grain of the muscle fibers. Similar to wood, muscles have a grain that runs in a certain direction. Cut across the grain in order to give the steaks shorter fibers, and make them fall apart easily when cooked.

Cutting Steaks for Boeuf Bourguignon -- Cooking Travelers

Cut your roast into a series of steaks that are about 2 inches thick. Pat them dry with a paper towel. Remember, moisture is the enemy of browning, so you want to get them really dry. If you want to go above and beyond, you could pause now and place them in the freezer for up to an hour. The freezer is the driest environment in the entire house, and is often used to remove moisture from meats before cooking.

Otherwise, simply move on to the next step once you’re happy with how dry they are.

Step #5: Brown Your Steaks

Return to your stove and kick the heat up to high underneath your dutch oven. Add oil and let it heat up for a good 2-3 minutes. Things might start to get a little smokey. Billowing clouds are bad, but a bit of smoke is fine. It’s likely excess butter proteins burning off, showing that we’ve got enough heat to begin browning.

When the dutch oven is good and hot insert your steaks and let sit for a solid minute or two. Remember not to crowd the pan. You can always brown the steaks in batches if you need to.

Don’t poke at them, there’s an important chemical reaction going on. Just stand there and think about this:

For a long time common lore was that browning was used to lock moisture into a piece of beef. It’s not. It doesn’t. Browning is simply done for the resulting flavor reactions. So rather than trying to brown every side of your meat as though you’re sealing it up, just focus on getting a good sear on the two broad sides.

Browning Beef for Boeuf Bourguignon -- Cooking Travelers

After about a minute or two, flip the steaks and let the other side brown. Then remove the meat from the pan and let it rest on a plate.

Step #6: Deglaze The Pan

What you now have is a very hot dutch oven with bits of beef stuck to the bottom of it. Grab your bottle of wine and pour about half of it directly into the hot pan.

This is a process known as deglazing. When the liquid hits the bottom of the pan, it boils violently releasing air bubbles. The bubbles agitate the bits of meat, lifting them off the bottom of the pot and incorporating them into the resulting sauce.

If you were working with a substitute, like red wine vinegar & Worcester sauce, you’d want to use less liquid — just enough for a thin coating, and to get those bubbles going. I found it’s best to pour the vinegar in first, then continue adding Worcester sauce until the aroma smells more wine-like than vinegary.

After deglazing, turn the heat down to medium-low, and stir with a wooden spatula, scraping any stuck-on bits off the bottom of the pan.

Pre-heat your oven to 275°F.

Continue to stir lightly for about ten minutes as the wine reduces. This reduction process concentrates the natural flavors of the wine, while lowering the alcohol content to approximately 1%.

Step #7: Make Your Stew

As the wine finishes reducing, you can begin adding the rest of your braising ingredients.

Cut your seared steaks into large chunks, roughly 2 inches on each side. This may seem big at first, but they’ll cook down in the oven.

Place the cubes of meat into the dutch oven. It’s critical that they go in first, because you’re going to use them to eyeball how much beef stock you need.

Add beef stock until the meat is about 3/4 submerged.

Add your three-finger pinch of thyme, bay leaf, minced clove of garlic, and about a tablespoon of tomato paste. Don’t worry about exact measurements.

In general it’s better to taste a dish often, and adjust based what’s in your mouth, rather than what’s written in a recipe.

Bring this mixture to a boil.

As soon as it boils, put the lid on. Leave the lid cracked. This is a tip straight from the pros over at Serious Eats. When you seal the lid of the dutch oven, it increases the pressure inside actually cooks the meat at a slightly higher temperature than the oven itself.

Dutch Oven Boeuf Bourguignon -- Cooking Travelers

This can throw off your cook time, and dry out your meat.

Place the dutch oven in the actual oven, and set a timer for two hours and fifteen minutes. This is far shorter than most Boeuf Bourguignon recipes call for, and at a much lower temperature too. But it’s a suggestion that comes from Serious Eats food scientist, J. Kenji Lopez.

“The idea of a stew simmering away all day sounds appealing.” he says, “If 2 1/2 hours of simmering makes tender beef, shouldn’t 6 or 8 hours make even more tender beef? Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way.”

Kenji explains that when you stew you’re playing a delicate balancing act with two opposing forces. On the one hand, the heat is breaking down the tough collagen, turning it into the gelatin that we so desire. On the other hand that same heat is causing the proteins to contract, voiding the meat of its moisture.

The secret to the most tender Boeuf Bourguignon is to catch the meat just as the collagen is turning into gelatin.

According to Kenji, this takes around 2.5 hours for large chunks of beef in a dutch oven with the lid cracked at 275°F. He suggests checking around the 2:15 mark, poking the pieces with the edge of a spoon to gauge just how tender they are.

Step #8 Chill Out

You’ve got a couple of hours. Now’s a good time to wash up the few dishes you have, wipe down your counters, then kick up your feet. Another huge benefit of braising is that it’s mostly hands off once the pot’s in the oven.

Grab a spot in the sun, and put the remainder of that wine to good use.

Chill Out -- Cooking Travelers

Step #9: Thicken and Serve

When the meat in your pot can be cut easily with a spoon, it’s ready to pull.

The last step is to thicken the braising liquid so that the meal has the hearty consistency of beef stew. There are many ways to thicken a sauce like this, but in order to keep this as simple as possible, we’re going to take a page out of Julia Child’s book, using a simple combination of butter and flour.

Pull the meat cubes out of the pot, and rest them on  a plate. Pull the herb bundle too. You’ll be left with a pot of semi-thick sauce with garlic. Tilt the pot to estimate how much liquid is in it. Then add one tablespoon of flour for each cup of liquid you’d guess is in there. Add about two tablespoons of butter, and stir vigorously over high heat.

You want to work the butter and flour into the mixture, while bringing it to a boil. This won’t take long since everything in the pot is already hot. Let it boil for a minute or so, until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon when you dip it in. Then add the meat back in along with the onions you braised and the mushrooms you browned and cut the heat.

Put it back in the oven to let everything heat up together then pull after about ten or fifteen minutes.

If you see a layer of grease on the top of the stew, you have two options for removing it. First you can simply drape a paper towel over the surface of the stew, quickly removing it along with the grease. Or allow it to cool, then skim off the solid fat from the surface with a slotted spoon.

Serve it hot with red wine and delicious french baguette.

Boeuf Bourguignon -- Cooking Travelers

No matter where in the world you find yourself when the temperature starts to dip, I guarantee you can take the edge off with a piping hot pot of Boeuf Bourguignon.

Bon apetit!

The Write to Roam TV: Episode 3

This has been a fun little experiment, and I’m happy to present the third and (for now) final episode of my little cooking-show-slash-small-biz-advice session. In this bit I talk about the power of books, dealing with haters, and the oh-so-important question of whom you need to become in order to have what you want.

Here are links to the resources I mentioned:

This isn’t goodbye forever. I’ve enjoyed this format, and think we may be stumbling towards something cool. I’ve got a couple of changes I want to make to the overall focus, timing, and quality, but look forward to version 2.0

In the meantime, if you got any value out of this, have questions or feedback, or just want to say hey, reach out and find me on twitter @EthanDBrooks.

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