Having spent my childhood sampling specialty eateries, socializing with chefs, and snubbing lobster bisque, I developed a taste for food that was far beyond my means once my critiquing career ended. However, it wasn’t until I proclaimed myself a vegetarian at age 14 that I fully realized just how far I had fallen. My mother wouldn’t prepare a separate meal for me, tofu was confounding, and the locally produced kalamata and chive hummus was only available once a week, if anyone happened to be going past the farmers’ market that day. Hunger alone is a powerful motivator, and coupled with the knowledge of finer things, the will to feed myself good food has remained strong. Whatever your motivation, this is how I’ve taught myself to cook, and you can, too.
3 Truths about Learning to Cook
- You’ll go a lot further and be a lot better if you’re sincerely interested in cooking.
- It’s going to take a while.
- Don’t buy unnecessary gadgets.
Directions: Any and all of the following can be done in any order, or simultaneously, or whatever. What follows are the tools I used to educate myself about cooking. The kind of cooking we’re talking about here is not just being able to follow a recipe and have it turn out. We’re talking about being able to freestyle in the kitchen, with comfort, ease, and delicious outcomes.
Watch every episode of Good Eats, at least once. Alton Brown is my hero, because he doesn’t just tell you what to do, but why you should do it that way. His frequent reminders against buying “uni-taskers,” (see Truth #3), DIY solutions for unusual equipment, and philosophy of “Organization will set you free,” are all damn good advice, too.
Nearly every episode of Good Eats is available on Youtube, though in parts, and typically low quality video. Lots of episodes however can be found here, in much better quality. Check out the Wikipedia list of episodes to decide where to start. I suggest selecting an ingredient you especially like, and going from there. Remember, you won’t actually learn to cook unless you actually cook, so start simple and try out recipes and techniques.
Follow Foodgawker, or a similar site. Look at pretty pictures of food. Read recipes that appeal to you. You don’t have to cook everything, just read, and read, and read. You can check out cookbooks from the library and do the same.
The point of this exercise is to gradually expose yourself to cooking styles, archetype dishes, successful flavor combinations, and techniques. Eventually you’ll be able to distinguish good recipes from bad (usually), or look at a recipe and be able to improvise ingredients or switch seasonings or generally tweak it to your liking. Exposure to good food is as important in learning to cook as exposure to good art is crucial in understanding and appreciating it.
You can also use sites like Foodgawker to expand your knowledge of a certain dish, or uses of an ingredient. For example, if you want to make macaroni and cheese, do a search for it and compare the recipes that come up. How are they similar? How are they different? What techniques do they use? What ingredient/flavor combinations come up?
Stick to cookbooks that help you break free of recipes. Recipes are fine sometimes, but if your goal is to achieve enough cooking skill and knowledge to throw together healthy and decent weeknight dinners, then recipes will be a crutch more often than not. My favorites are Ratio and The Flavor Bible. You can splurge on other cookbooks later, when you can already cook, because only then can they really be appreciated or useful.
Document what you do. No need to be weird about it, but if something you made turns out really well, then make a note somewhere of what you did, or bookmark the recipe. Evernote Food is kind of cool for this purpose. Soon you’ll have a nice, custom recipe list to turn to for direction or just ideas.
Some final advice:
- Don’t stress about not having the equipment you want or need. If all you’ve got is a skillet or a hotplate, use your creativity and get damn good at cooking as wide a variety of dishes as you can with what you’ve got. Eventually you’ll get a new appliance and realize you hardly use it. But then you’ll know what direction to advance your cooking.
- Just like uni-taskers, don’t bother with ingredients you’ll only use for one dish and then have no idea what to do with the rest of it. If you must have it, learn more than one way to use it. At least try to experiment with it.
- Archetype dishes are the best place to start learning improvisation. Think salads, soups, eggs, casseroles, etc.
- Take the time to learn some basics of nutrition.
- For God’s sake, have fun!