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I can't cook!

(I'm not talking about me. I can cook quite well, thank you.)

I'm wondering what you think about people who say "I can't cook!" or "I can't even boil water!" blah blah, whine, whine.

Personally, it drives me nuts. You may choose not to cook, or not enjoy cooking, or perhaps you can't cook well, but I would argue that certain handicaps aside, anyone can cook. For instance, I do not like to bake, I only bake when I feel it's absolutely necessary (ie, some sort of occasion, or to use up some ingredients), and I don't think that baking is my strong suit in the kitchen. But I wouldn't say that I CAN'T bake.

Even if you can't come up with your own things to cook, can't anyone follow a recipe if they want to?

Please note, I am not asking about people who say they are "too busy to cook", that's another topic.

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  1. Actually, my sister can't cook. It is like she has a block against it. She explodes hard-boiled eggs, makes meat that tastes like sawdust no matter what she does to it or how rare she tries to make it. I walk her through recipes, she does fine with them then, but something about the pressure of all her past failures raises its ugly head and ruins meals she tries to make alone.
    Much like I would say that I can't play softball. No matter how slowly I get walked through things, the minute I am actually at bat or with a ball coming towards my glove, my history of inability seizes me and I miss it every time.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Meredith

      I feel the same way Cookinggirl does whenever I see one of the "I can't cook. Pleas help" posts. Your sister knows how to cook, if she were left alone in the house full of raw ingredients in the snowstorm, she'd probably survive. The question if she CAN cook (delicious meals) is a different story. But it's like old women and VCRs, if they can give enough thought to it, they can program them, but since they have their kids to do it for them, why bother?

      1. re: welle

        >>> perhaps you can't cook well, but ... anyone can cook <<<

        So are we just annoyed about semantics here. If people added the word 'well' to the sentence it would stop annoying you. Ok, I can't cook well.

        That's what I think most people mean when they say they can't cook.

        >>> Even if you can't come up with your own things to cook, can't anyone follow a recipe if they want to? <<<


        There's sheet music. There's a piano. You have eyes and fingers. Can everyone play the piano ... no.

        No different than a recipe.

        Yes, there are a few things I can cook, one or two I am brilliant at. But 95 percent of the time it turns out like garbage no matter how closely I follow the recipe.

        Let me tell you about ten or more times that I tried to make a Martha Stewart recipe for mashed potatoes and scalded the milk each time, burned the potatoes and finally ruined a pot and gave up. I followed that #@#) recipe religiously.

        Or the tuti fruti that I tried to make five years in a row ... fruit ... alcohol ... let sit on a counter ... and each year wound up throwing it out in October.

        Yes some of it has to do with patience. If you don't enjoy something you don't want to put the effort into it. Most people could probably bang out a recognizable, if hard-to-listen to song on the piano if they really put a lot of time and effort into it. I would not call them pianists.

        I guess what annoys ME is people insisting others can cook. Why is that? I'm not asking you to cook for me or eat my cooking ... although if I did make you eat it you might also come to the conclusion that I can't cook ... well.

        1. re: rworange

          I very much agree with your entire post. What also gets me are the cooks who believe everyone should enjoy cooking, keep trying, etc. I get very frustrated spending $$$ on quality ingredients to get below average results and then told I need to try again. In this day and age with markets having veyr good prepared foods, take out being inexpensive and many other options, I don't need to cook and prefer not to if/when possible.

          1. re: rworange

            I agree with what you say, although I think most of us can learn to cook better...that said, in answer to the question about why can't folks just follow a recipe, part of the answer is that many recipes are *extremely* poorly written, and you have to already know how to cook well to decipher them!

      2. Every time someone I know claims they are unable to cook well I suggest they do not give up, they try to prepare their favorite dish one more time with the temperature on the stove/oven at about half of what they would use in the past. Obviously not a cure all but it makes a HUGE world of difference and prevents them giving up on cooking all together. For whatever reason people seem to think you can substitute time for heat and still ake a dish taste decent.

        1. In the past, I have claimed that I couldn't cook. Actually, I can. But, I'm not an especially good cook or experienced cook. The repertoire of recipes I feel confident cooking is pretty small (for a chowhound.) I don't have the patience for it.

          Because I don't cook as often as I probably ought to, I don't have a feel for things. People who cook a lot and are good at it know their instruments and understand the properties of their ingredients. They know what "medium heat" means without guessing. They know when something is going awry and how to respond.

          I'm the kind of person who doubles a recipe, but then slips up and forgets to put twice the amount of ______ in and doesn't notice. A more skilled cook would look at what they've assembled and think, "Hey, that looks too watery/gooey/sticky/stiff/etc., I must have forgotten to double the ______" and then correct themselves. I don't notice and don't know how to correct a situation gone wrong.

          Also, I think good/experienced cooks know how to substitute ingredients. You know when you're humming along and realize you're out of something? A good cook knows how to make the most out of what they do have. Me? I'm completely dead in the water.


          4 Replies
          1. re: The Dairy Queen

            None of this means you can't cook, you just need more experience.

            I have no problem with people saying they can't cook, it usually means they don't care about it. That's fine with me, as long as they understand I'm not going to cook for them without some quid pro quo.

            1. re: cheryl_h

              With certain friends (and family), I'd rather do the cooking than expect "quid pro quo".

              1. re: OCAnn

                Agreed! I didn't mean I expected them to cook for me, but to do something in return. Too many people, including the menfolk in my family, think it's women's work, or "she likes to cook" so expect to be served all the time.

                1. re: cheryl_h

                  So true. I'm so much happier cooking for the person who asks "Do you need anything?" than the person who just arrives (even if I say "No, thanks, I don't" and no one ends up bringing anything). It's the thought that counts.

                  Sometimes my friends who never cook bring me random things like a bottle of olive oil or a sack of sugar. Best presents ever!

                  As for the "just not trying" crowd, my friend caught her roommate cooking with the gas light clicking away on the stove. She showed her how to turn it "down" to high to make the sound go away, only to come home three days later to find the gal doing the exact same thing. That has nothing to do with cooking. It's just plain...well, you know.

          2. Oh, I completely agree with you, which is why I don't say "I can't cook" anymore. But, saying "I can't cook" was my shorthand for saying what I said above. :)


            1. It's like driving. There are bad drivers, overzealous drivers, bad drivers who think they drive well, drivers who actually shouldn't drive, etc. Just like cooking.

              You can say, "can't anyone follow a recipe if they want to?" That's like saying, "can't you follow the DMV handbook?"

              It's like any skill: experience doesn't always make someone better at something. And some people just can't.

              2 Replies
              1. re: OCAnn

                I can't drive either.

                I eat well! I'm a great eater!


                1. re: The Dairy Queen

                  LOL. That was funny.

                  My best friend is an admitted "can't" cook. She's not whining, nor complaining. This Executive Director of a non-profit really can't cook. I don't find why it should drive me nuts; but rather, it's an excuse for us to go out, relax and find new restaurants or go to old favourites.

              2. I know of several younger women who recently got married and mentioned that their new husbands don't cook. I asked them if they were okay with eggs, pancakes, french toast or grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner, dished that are easy to make. Work on perfecting the simple dishes. Almost everybody can cook something. My "non-cooking" husband will now make quesadillas and experiments with additions to scrambled eggs- hasn't worked up to omelets yet.

                Also, I think that a lot of people chose the wrong recipes to start with. I am not a great cook,but I have a few recipes that everybody is always asking for. My twenty- something son called last night and mentioned that he made some pork chops from a recipe from Epicurious. I asked him how he chose a recipe, because there probably are hundreds for pork and he said he chose the one with the ingedients he had in the house- which are few. Start with simple.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Leslie

                  Men who don't "cook" usually are happy to lay meat over a fire... and that's not so far from sticking it under a broiler.

                  Actually, there's more to it than it appears. Some people simply cannot follow instructions step by step; you have worked with people like this. No matter how many times they are told or how many procedure manuals they have to consult, a step is missed. One Thanksgiving, I was served a pumpkin pie with absolutely no sugar in it. Mmmmmm.

                  Others feel that they can't trust their own judgment. So rather than try to correct or re-do something that tastes weird, they take it on faith that the recipe must be correct. This often ends badly, as anyone who tries a lot of recipes must have discovered ("oh, tsp. of salt, not TBSP").

                  This is not to disagree that some people say "can't" when they mean "don't want to," but to recognize that some people really should not be in a kitchen!

                2. Yeah, unfortunately I WAS married to someone that couldn't cook. At all. He is a brilliant man in other aspects of his life, with two degrees, but food and cooking simply are not concepts he can grasp.
                  During the marriage, I worked the early shift, having to be to work at 6:00 am. I'll never forget the times he'd wake me at midnight or later, telling me he was hungry and asking me how to boil water to make spaghetti. Those were the days.

                  1. Was watching the Fab 5 show last night and they'd taught this guy how to make lasagna. But when it came down to actually doing it he was asking his father whether he should cover the baking dish with plastic wrap or tin foil to go into the oven. Yeah some people can't cook even after being instructed by the Fab 5.

                    1. I tend to think that the "I can't cook" thing is an excuse for not really trying, or is something people say when they are making things for someone who they knows really likes food and can cook well and they are intimidated.

                      I think anyone can cook basic stuff; it's a matter of reading and paying attention to what you're doing. Enjoyment of cooking is completely different and I don't expect everyone to share my enthusiasm.

                      1. Not sure if "I can't cook" is an excuse, but sometimes the person sets a high standard for "I CAN cook". One mistake=total failure, etc.

                        1. I'm glad when people can't cook. It keeps me employed. They keep coming back for good food.

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: chef poncho

                            I've been cooking since I was maybe five, and love doing it, but many of our friends absolutely do not cook. I finally narrowed it down to - they don't really like to eat. They don't know or care about how good food tastes or feels, so of course they can't cook because they can't tell when something comes out right. They are perfectly happy to eat the wonderful meals I prepare, but I long ago realized that they would be just as happy eating some generic mass-produced meal. My husband is a little like that too - he can fix himself simple meals, but he has no sense of smell and that means most food is pretty tasteless for him.

                            So, these are folks who just don't get the point of going to all that effort, since they can't tell the difference. My mother is one of them - she is a terrible cook, and everything she makes starts with a can, box or jar of something prepared. She honestly can't tell the difference between my lovely handmade mashed potatoes and the packaged ones, or a loaf of really good bread and the wonderbread from the store. She prefers the wonderbread.

                            Fortunately, other friends and family do love to eat, and I'll cook all day for them... and happily eat what they cook for me.

                            1. re: sheiladeedee

                              I care very much about how food is prepared, how it tastes, smells, etc. And I love to eat and appreciate wonderful meals, great baking, etc.

                              But I do not enjoy the preparation myself. It's a burden to me and something I am not very good at. I recognize that.

                              1. re: Janet from Richmond

                                In that case, would you be my new best friend? Richmond, Rhode Island, not that far...

                                Nobody has to be good at everything, and I can no more dance than I can fly. I love to watch dancing though, and recognize it as a skill worth working on.

                                But it can be disheartening to deal with these people I have to cook for who truly do not see the point of good food and of cooking it.

                                1. re: sheiladeedee

                                  Sorry....Richmond, Virginia.

                                  And yes, I know those people you speak of who do not appreciate the effort and love that goes into good cooking.

                          2. Well, I love everything about food and cooking since I was a wee little bugger. I would get up on the kitchen counter and open spices, bags of sugar etc, when just a toddler.. drove my mom nuts..you should have seen the crazy things I made with my easy bake oven...I even taught vegetarian cooking classes in my high school extra curricular program.
                            I don't hold it against anyone if they are not a good cook, but I know that what does bug me is something about how SOME people SAY they don't cook. My sister in law, very much the A type professional, she can't cook, and the way that she explains it makes it clear that she considers it beneath her. I try to avoid people with this attitude.....

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: ciaolette

                              I'm the opposite. I am in awe of those who cook well and enjoy it.

                            2. I think the answer is fairly simple if we focus on what cooking actually is. My premise is that if you cannot eat it, it is not cooking.

                              Cooking is essentially defined as preparation of food for eating. If a person regularly makes food preparations that are so poor as to make it impossible to eat (by vile taste, or tough texture, etc), then that person by definition *cannot* cook. They will need to learn, but that takes practice and access to people who have food sense. They might be able to cook in the future, if they do not have an attention deficit or learning disorder ("certain handicaps", as CookingGirl mentions), and are able to follow technique and develop some basic food sense. But as long as they continue to make predominantly inedible food, they cannot cook.

                              I'm not talking about food that just doesn't taste good. I'm talking about jagged burnt edges that cut your mouth, toughness that tires the jaw, tastes that curl the tongue, uncooked flesh that has potential to cause sickness. I'm talking about a "cook" not noticing that something has gone bad, and using rotten or soured food, smelly fish, bad meat, curdled milk, etc. Anything that prevents you from actually eating.

                              It's also not just a question of food sense. Some people cannot follow a recipe because they haven't mastered technique. Recipes do not describe technique; they describe what technique to use, but you must know how to employ it, or you will merely have a series of disasters. I think rworange expresses this perfectly.

                              Although some of the best cooks I ever knew were Italian, so was one person (I'll call her L) who literally could not cook, despite often inviting a group of friends over for meals. Every meal that L "cooked" was so inedible, for one reason or another, that I (and others) would insist on helping, bringing ingredients, and/or eating prior to going over for "dinner"...otherwise we would leave hungry. I can safely say that L could not cook.

                              1. >>>can't anyone follow a recipe if they want to?<<<

                                You'd think, but my 24 yr old daughter couldn't follow the recipe on the jello gelatin package.

                                She's very smart...almost to a fault, but she has no common sense. She couldn't figure out how to get 2 cups boiling water. If you measure prior to boiling it will no longer be 2 cups of boiling water as some will be lost in steam. If she measured after boiling it might melt her plastic measuring cup. This was her logic in the process. I almost couldn't stop laughing when she called.

                                She's a terrible cook on her own but more then willing to learn. So when she comes to visit we make one new recipe. She's learned to write down very specific instructions. She's much better, but no not everyone can on their own follow a recipe.

                                3 Replies
                                1. re: tlegray

                                  Did you teach her that 2 cups is 2 cups if you proceed immediately after boiling? (and cover the top before, if you really want to be a stickler)

                                  1. re: tlegray

                                    I can cook well enough to know to measure the water before boiling, but your daughter's question isn't completely off the wall. There probably is less than 2 cups after boiling, not that it would make any difference.

                                    Someone above pointed out that a recipe consists of a series of cooking procedures and if you don't know the basic procedures... When was the last time you saw instructions on how to boil water or grate cheese?

                                    1. re: chocolatetartguy

                                      It's funny about boiling water, though. For example, making tea...I was taught to use cold water to start with, and a freshly filled teapot. Later, with other knowledge, I can surmise that cold water has fewer dissolved impurities and freshly filled water has more dissolved oxygen, although I would be eager to learn other reasons from those with more scientific expertise.

                                      Your point is well taken, though, boiling down to common sense, I think.

                                  2. There are some people who simply have no intuition of how the physical world operates. They know enough not to put their hands onto a lit burner, but any more complicated cause-and-effect chain leaves them baffled. I would say that if you can't look at a jack, a lug wrench and a wheel, and figure out from what you see how to change a tire, then you should probably let someone else do the cooking, because it's simply another set of interactions with the physical universe, using mechanical and chemical procedures which you learn to employ as you go along.

                                    I can screw up recipes, too, but I usually know WHY.

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: Will Owen

                                      I like your attitude. One of the keys to continual improvement is to learn why I screwed up, and then how to do it correctly. People who cannot do this will never cook well.

                                      1. re: ShortOrderHack

                                        Nor will people who take the failure as some sort of personal affront, or as proof of inherent ineptitude, instead of as a lesson to be attended to.

                                        The first thing you need to understand is that you WILL screw up. The second thing is that unless you've incinerated it or doused it with some vile and/or toxic substance, you can probably still eat it.

                                      2. re: Will Owen

                                        Ha - you just described me. I could not change that tire to save my life. But, I have a good palate. And I care. So I will never be a chef or even a great cook, and there's lots of trial and error, and I still regularly screw up even familiar foods (I burn garlic all the time); a new stove or pan is a real learning curve for me. I'm scared to death of the BBQ. Cooking shows help because I can actually SEE how to sear meat, for example.

                                        But I can say I'm a good cook by most people's standards (probably not by chowhound standards), mostly because I care. I've learned how to pick recipes, but I can also come up with my own flavour combinations and adjust a known recipe or technique and get good results. I rely on more forgiving dishes like stews. I'm a good basic baker because again, I can pick a recipe and then modify the spices, add toasted nuts, etc, without fooling with the basic chemistry of the recipe.

                                        So I know what you mean, but I basically disagree with the premise!

                                        I don't drive either.

                                      3. Sometimes people who like to make a point of saying they can't cook or don't cook are really saying something else: 1) "I manipulate other people into cooking for me because I want to be taken care of". Or, "To me, cooking for somebody means putting myself in a subservient position---I regard cooks as dowdy, uncool people---so not MOI."

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: Querencia

                                          Yes, this was my (paternal) grandmother. And d*mned if it didn't work for her -- she was catered to pretty much her whole life. Although one memorable evening I was on the phone with her on the cook's night off and she was trying to open a can of turkey hash. Somehow the whole thing went straight from the can opener to the floor.

                                        2. one of my friends love to cook, but she really can't.... everytime we eat her food (when going to the cabin) when its her turn to cook, we all get sick off her french toast or her eggs, etc. she burnt water.... how do you burn water, leave it in the pot and not put enough water, then set the pot on fire....

                                          my dad can't cook... he doesn't know how to turn on the stove, or the oven. he almost refuses to... when i was younger my parents got into a fight, so my dad refused to eat my mom's food. he made ramen everyday twice a day, but he used the hot water dispenser that asian people have to make his ramen... ate it til he got extremely sick... thats really all he can make... when my mom would go on business trips, its out to eat everyday. he served two years in the army (mandatory in the country he was born in) and they would have cooking duty or laundry, etc. he would pay people to do this for him... so im sure all those knobs and pots and pans in the kitchen baffle him... he definitely knows how to complain about your cooking though

                                          1. I'm shocked when people don't have basic cooking skills. Isn't eating important anymore?

                                            I have one friend who manages to get people sick on very basic dishes. I don't think that it's an issue of hygiene as she is obsessive about keeping a clean kitchen. She now has a basic skills cookbook but she still doesn't take any interest in cooking. Luckily, she married someone who loves to be in the kitchen.

                                            But is the definition of cooking a matter of cooking from scratch/memory or consulting a cookbook?

                                            2 Replies
                                            1. re: Zengarden

                                              I had an acquaintance whose family was always suffering indigestion. A friend went to dinner there, suffered likewise, then discovered that while the woman kept her dishes and cookware scrubbed clean, she used a lot of soap on everything and refused to rinse anything. Her rationale: soap=clean. You rinse off soap, it's not clean anymore. She also believed that cramps, bellyache and runs were a normal component of human existence, as she'd had them all her life...needless to say, she had gotten her cleanliness philosophy from her mother.

                                              1. re: Will Owen

                                                That's disturbing. Was she obsessive-compulsive?

                                                But if it's a matter of home culture, I remember usually having home cooked meals made by mom. Yet in going to other people's homes, their moms would do take out or open cans of food. Yech.

                                            2. "Actually, there's more to it than it appears. Some people simply cannot follow instructions step by step; you have worked with people like this. No matter how many times they are told or how many procedure manuals they have to consult, a step is missed."

                                              Alternatively, the nomenclature and assumptions of an experienced cook are fundamentally incompatible with an inexperienced one. I even find this troublesome when trying a recipe from a foreign cuisine. How about adding chiles "to taste?"

                                              For basic cooking, it costs about fifty dollars of wasted ingredients and a good dose of embarassment. For intermediate cooking for all but a gifted pallete, one will go through over 500 dollars in failed experiments and a stronger dose of embarassment. "I just spent ten bucks on that wine for the wine sauce and they said just two minutes. Why isn't this thing reducing?"

                                              Perhaps you had an able instructor. I have a friend whose mother's idea of cooking was sticking a frozen lasagna in the microwave. He doesn't have much more in his repotoire than kraft macaroni and cheese.

                                              Perhaps the true phrase is, "I cannot cook to the level that I would be comfortable serving food to another individual." Just as I would not presume to make art for another individual for a gift, I accept that they, for most intents and purposes, cannot cook.