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how do I become a better cook?

I can cook a few dishes quite well at the moment, nothing fancy. I am good at making creamy dishes; pasta with creamy sauce and prawns, steak with a creamy cider sauce, etc. and I make an alright thai green curry. But I am very competitive and I hate not being the best cook I know. I am quite good at following recipes but get a bit stuck for ideas when it comes to trying to come up with recipes myself.

please provide me with some tips to becoming a better cook.

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  1. Keep cooking. The more you cook, the better you are. Don't be afraid to fail, it's often your failures that will teach you about cooking. Don't be in too much of a rush when you're cooking, that's when you tend to miss steps and forget things. And keep following recipes for a while -- when you make a lot of food that turns out well, you'll figure out what goes well together and how to experiment. And use the best ingredients that you can.

    1. Just keep at it. Ain't no easy way.

      Read lotsa cookbooks - not just for recipe's (although that's always a good place to start) but to get ideas for things you ca ndo yourself. Some cookbooks are good at teaching why and how as well as just providing recipe's - I've listed some I like, below.

      Learn the basics - different methods of cooking and when and how to use them (bake/roast, broil, braise, fry/saute), knife skills (making mirapoix or similar standard veggie mixes ought to be completely second nature). Learn technique and process - prep ahead (mise en place). Cream is ok but as you have discovered, one-dimensional - learn about all kinds of master sauces (Ming Tsai is good at this), bechamel, hoisin, teriyaki, thickeners like roux's...

      My favorite learning cookbooks: Japanese Cooking, A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji; Cookwise by Shirley Corriher; I'm Just Here For The Food, by Alton Brown; The Way To Cook by Julia Child; The Barbecue Bible by Steve Raichlin, The Encyclopedia of Fish Cookery by A.J. McClane. Plus you need one cookbook that has the basic info - temperature and times to cook different meats, lobster, etc., basic ratio for oil/vinegar dressings... stuff like that. Betty Crocker is good for that, as is ATK (America's Test Kitchen) - they have several including The Best Recipe.

      Have fun.

      1. If you want to be the best cook you know, good luck, you probably won't be then.

        If you really love to cook, however, and are anxious to learn more, I would follow JasmineG's excellent advice. To learn any skill requires the patience to fail often and still maintain a strong sense of **hope** to stick with it. If you can't tolerate being absolutely awful at something at least for a period of time, it's unlikely you will ever get that good at it. Of course it helps if you really like to do what you're trying to learn regardless of what anyone else thinks.

        I continue to learn how to cook the way I always have: I watch lots of tv cooking shows, buy lots of books to maintain a sizable library, keep up with 'Home Cooking' posts, and learn recipes by following each one the first time to the letter. Over time by rigorously following directions I started to 'get the idea' on how to compose various types of dishes in various types of cuisines as the best recipes have basic commonalities amongst them. And the recipes that turn out to be very good as opposed to the ones that don't are usually differentiated by small yet important and distinct differences.
        I realized I was starting to actually get somewhere with cooking when recipes I would follow for the first time didn't make sense and the second time through I decided to throw my own spin into them based on my overall experience and was able to improve dishes noticeably sometimes dramatically.

        Basic rule though is to just keep at it. Good luck!

        1. There is a lot of good info and suggestions on this thread.

          http://www.chowhound.com/topics/417985

          1 Reply
          1. re: yayadave

            Hi Zelu. I'm the recipe jockey that posted the topic that yayadave refers to. I did buy one of the books that was recommended - Culinary Artistry - and have been reading it for the past week or so. It's a great compendium of "tools" and knowledge on which to build. I've even been so bold as to have made a couple of dishes without a recipe recently...and they haven't been half bad!! Listen to the hounds here. They have great advice!

            Most of all - enjoy the learning process!

          2. When you read through cookbooks or cooking magazines, pay attention to the foods and flavors that get combined in a dish. Flavors that go together in a soup may also go together in a pasta sauce or salad.

            If there is any cooking school near you, even a small one, see if they have knife skills classes, or other basics such as saute, roast, braising, frying. This can help you get up to speed with a wider range of techniques, so you can avoid re-inventing the wheel.

            And keep cooking. I try a *lot* of new recipes, all the time, and very few go into regular rotation, with or without tweaks. If you need someone to dispose of the evidence, have some friends over and warn them they'll be guinea pigs.

            1. Nothing beats a lot of practice and I am adding my voice to practice, practice, practice. You might also want to look for the book How to Cook without book

              1 Reply
              1. re: Candy

                Relax, enjoy the sensory experience (shop, smell, taste, touch), cook with a friend, keep a well stocked pantry, follow all the great advice & suggestions already given. Use fresh ingredients, it makes a huge difference (shop at your local greenmarket or grow your own if you are lucky enough to have a back yard), drink a nice glass of wine while you cook.

              2. I think all of the above are good suggestions. Also, you should enlist a family member or friend who you know is a good cook. Watch them in the process, talk to them about planning the meal, go shopping for food with them. You can't learn by yourself.
                If you do this with two or three people in your life, you should be able to develop your own cooking style.

                1. All great ideas. I would just add the following: I think to become a better cook also requires that one expand one's tastes and dining experiences. Try different ingredients, different foods, and dine at a variety of places. Don't limit yourself to one cuisine or limit yourself to a few dining spots. How do you know what's out there or what you're missing (or not) if you don't also become a more discriminating eater?

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: Pamela

                    Get the Silver Palate cookbook everything in it looks great. They have a new 25th anniversary version that Costco was selling at a very good price; I'm sure Amazon has it. The recipes are concise on easy to read white paper. On the rec of this board, I bought Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Italian Cooking, even tho I thought I should not buy any more cookbooks, esp. with so much available on the internet. I'm going to try to tackle the fresh spinach lasagne with meat sauce. I think it's good to master a few really wonderful dishes. I love a recipe for Asian chicken patties, it's probably on epicurious. I use serranos instead of jalapenos, also takes cilantro, green onions, water chestnuts. I use ground chicken breasts -- that's what I prefer even tho it's a little dry - you can use thighs, instead.

                    1. re: Pamela

                      I would combine a lot of the above suggestions to practice with different methods and techniques with Pamela's recommendation. Eat lots of different foods and types of food. Get to the point where you can say, "This is great and I think I know how they did it" and be able to go home and do it.

                    2. jfood, type-a, very competitive. also coached little jfood's teams for 20 seasons. Best advice...Realx and Have Fun.

                      - learn the terms. braise sautee, poach, dice, mince, etc.
                      - read and learn. great cookboks can teach techniques and theories as well as recipes. Haza, child, silver palate, la verenne, schlesinger or raichlin, etc
                      - imagine the end product. many of us like to try recipes that come with picture. epicurious.com and foodnetwork.com give a lot. of picture cans ho youthe end product then when you read the recipe you can see the steos to get there
                      - Be a boys scout - be prepared. when starting make sure you have all the ingredients you need BEFORE you start. Nothing worse that getting to step 7 in a recipe and realize you do not have 1/2 cup of red wine vinegar. pretty basic but can ruin an afternoon.
                      - try, try, try. we have all ruined recipes. jfood ruined jello when he was 19. now there is no recipe he will not try. it may come out like daniel boulud's but it will taste pretty darn good.
                      - learn when at a resto. try to see the technique in the dish. then say, hmmm i can do that.
                      - use what's in season. cooking with the best flavors available make the dish have the best possible flavor.
                      - listen. discuss the dish with your friends and family. ask what they like and ask what they do not like. listen and learn. great to have teachers available
                      watch TV - many good tips on the food network. you'll see who you like and who you dislike. stay with and open mind.

                      - most importantly enjoy it

                      1. Absolutely nothing beats experience. This, I hate to tell you, means time - and a lot of it. Cook as much as you can; as many different things as you can; as often as possible. Have dinner parties. Try recipes you've never tried before - even if they seem complicated and difficult. You learn even from failure. Eat out a little and absorb from that what you can - but home cooking is what you need to learn, so do a lot of it. Use good recipes and follow them religiously the first time. After that, you can make changes. It's like drawing or playing a musical instrument - you need to learn how to do it properly before you can really improvise with any confidence. I started cooking in earnest when I moved out on my own - about 35 years ago. And what I have found is that over the years my cooking has actually become simpler, not more complicated. But the simplicity comes from years of cooking more complex dishes and knowing how to express the essence of the dish. Also knowing what I personally like - and that also can only come from experience. Don't be impatient. Don't be afraid to fail. And don't be too self critical. It may be a good thing to never become the best cook you know - because we all need something that will dazzle us; something that will keep us trying to do better and more interesting stuff. There's no end to possibilities in food - that's what makes it so great.

                        1. I have no idea if this is true for anyone else, but I find that I am a more creative and intuitive cook when I *don't* have an audience to cook for. When I am alone, I usually just open up the fridge/pantry and cobble something together -- and often (but not always) I am happily surprised by the result. At this point, I am too self-conscious about my spontaneous cooking to do it when I am cooking for others, or too scared of failure. The point being that this is one example of how to stretch your wings as a cook if you're worred about being the "best."

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: mutterer

                            I have felt the same way. When I first started cooking, only my boyfriend (now husband - i can't have done too badly) got guinea-pigged. My most extreme tests though were always when I was alone, and it was wonderful. But after a few years, I started to feel more confident, and have become much more comfortable about having people over for dinner. As everyone else is saying, practice and time will do the trick.

                          2. Agree that experience is a great teacher...Other tips include getting good recipes...I recommend anything written by Ina Gartner or Sheila Ludkins...Very important as well, is to buy the very best ingredients that you can afford...Last but not least, you have to know spices, and alter the amounts to your taste...I find that many recipes can be enhanced by more spices, or more of the spices listed....

                            1. Read Chowhound! I have learned so much from others on this board. It's truly amazing how much the wisdom of the others posters helps.

                              And reading cookbooks, magazines (particularly for me is Cook's Ilustrated) has also really helped me with improving my cooking. Now that I think about it, just about everything that I read lately has to do with food and/or cooking.

                              4 Replies
                              1. re: valerie

                                I agree with all the advice. Practicing, Reliable cookbooks, many that are mentioned. I like reading and trying recipes from Cook"s .Illustrated. Also breaking up a recipe into parts. I try to do as much prep work in the morning or whenever you have time.
                                Cooking does take time, but it is a vital ritual of living, and I hope you put good energy into every dish you cook!

                                1. re: valerie

                                  I agree with what everyone is saying about experience. I'm just throwing in a second on the Cooks Illustrated recommendation here. Their books and magazines are helpful because they explain *why* you are doing what you are doing. For me, that always helps the information stick in my head. I think it also helps provide confidence to vary a recipe according to your needs--volume, time, ingredients on hand. If you understand the purpose of the steps, ingredients and techniques, you know which ones you can tinker with, and how. If that makes sense.

                                  1. re: Pistou

                                    Another rec. for Cook's Illustrated! I found this gem after seeing Chicago Tribune rank it as one of Top Five magazines. Their essays before each recipe are exactly what I had been looking for when starting out.

                                    1. re: roasted138

                                      You might like their "Best recipe' cookbook anthologies where they do extensive comparative research on the best way to make classic recipes. They are great "reads".

                                2. Practice, exploration of different foods, and studying techniques, and ingredients are things that can be done to improve someones cooking skill. I also think being humble is another important thing for a cook to learn.

                                  With the above said, I think that cooking is an artform, and in my humble opinion a person cannot just wake up one day, and decide they want to be a great cook, in the same way a person cannot wake up one day and decide they wnat to be a great musician, or artist. You have to have it in you. I dont cook for a living anymore, but I feel lucky to have been paid for the priceless skills, and techniues I learned back in the day. Now I just cook for my family and friends, and love it.

                                  I always loved to cook as a child, and when I was old enough to work, I went to work in kitchens, from greasy spoons, to hotels, to fine dining, and learned something at every stop. It didnt matter if my boss was an unaccomplished guy working a flattop grill, or some of the CIA grads I worked with. All had things to teach, and information to be learned.

                                  good luck to you.

                                  1. I usually get better at anything I try by immitating people I think are good at it. So watch the Food Network, friends that are good cooks, etc.

                                    I also Google "Cooking Tips" or something like that to find zillions of sites with words of wisdom.

                                    I generally find that, for main courses, the key ingredients are onion, garlic, salt, pepper, butter, and lemon juice for about 80% of the recipes out there. Embellish with herbs, spices, green pepper, soy sauce, soup stock, and a zillion other things.

                                    Some other words of wisdom: preheat ovens and pans, cook foods that are already brought to room temperature (unless instructed otherwise), learn knife skills.

                                    There is so much to learn and so little time!

                                    1. When I make a new recipe I do my best to follow it. Then I make notes on the page of what I thought, how I would change it. This helps the next time, but more importantly it gets you thinking of what to do with food. I now look at many recipes as a guide. Also, I realized many of my spices were outdated and it showed in the meal. I tossed 90% of them and have been buying them thru penzey's once a month till I fully restock. (Didn't realize how much $$ is in a spice cabinet!)

                                      1. The advice to keep cooking is the best. Practice is the only way to improve and do not be afraid of failure. The lovely thing about cooking is that there is always another meal.

                                        If you can find someplace nearby that offers cooking classes or demonstrations, you can pick up fabulous tips from those places. Farmer's markets and upscale grocers often have classes and demonstrations from top chefs. For classes that you pay for, concentrate on the basics: baking, pasta making, sauces, holiday meals, etc. and be sure to take classes if there is a chef from a favorite restaurant teaching. I used to volunteer at a cooking school and learned an incredible amount from that.

                                        Watch cooking shows. Find chefs who have styles you like and try to watch their shows reasonably often. Even if you aren't cooking their recipes from every show, you will be surprised at how much you pick up on basic food and technique.

                                        Try to keep it simple. Master a really good roast chicken, a beef stew, rice (yes, just plain old rice), making a simple pan sauce, saute vegetables. And cook things you want to eat. Nothing inspires me to cook better than a recipe that sounds mouthwateringly good. Even if I don't get it right the first time, I'll keep trying.

                                        Check out cookbooks from the library.I highly recommend Simple to Spectacular by Jean Georges Vongerichten and Mark Bitman. It's a great cookbook that takes an ingredient or a cooking method and starts out with a basic recipe and then provides 4 additional recipes based on the first that are increasingly sophisticated. It's an excellent way to learn techniques and ingredients. Candy's suggestions of Pam Anderson's How to Cook Without a Book is another good one. It provides ideas such as simple pan sauces to put on meats, pastas, stir fries, frittatas, and other things and talks about how to combine ingredients to come up with quick, simple meals with a touch of something special. It's especially good for weeknight cooking.

                                        The more you cook, the better you will get at coming up with your own recipes.

                                        1. Have you thought about cooking classes?
                                          I use to teach a series of technique classes - knife skills, roasting, mise en place, grilling - each class had 4 sessions - students who had been cooking for 20 years were surprised how much they learned.
                                          Another book recommendation: James Peterson's Essentials of Cooking. Loads of great photos.

                                          1. Good questions. I think there is a real differ=ence between being a cook and just following recipes. If I just want to follow a recipe, I find myself working from cooks Illustrated or the NYT cookbook. Wen i want to cook better, working frm my gut, Tom Colicchio, Nigel Slater and definitely Bittman/Vongerichten. As everyone said: Keep pratticing. To give yourself some direction/motivation, tr ynad find one cuisine you would really like to get the basics of. Then, work from there.

                                            1. Practice, practice, practice, and try to make a dish with a new ingredient or technique a couple times a week (ideally NOT for guests so that if it doesn't turn out how you'd like, you won't be embarrassed to serve it).

                                              1. As everyone said already practice is most important.
                                                My favorite way to learn is to cook with someone who's good. That and reading a good author - one that teaches techniques rather than give exact recipes.
                                                When I'm cooking by myself, since I often multiple meals at a time, I often do this - start out with a common base (say, grain or pasta) - divide into several smaller portions, and then mix different sauces and spices for each portion. This way I learn how each change impact the overall dish. Also, try to make the same dish several times in a row slightly differently, while tedious, can be the key to perfecting a dish.
                                                And finally, dont forget to experiment. Even things that seem weird together. Just don't make a week batch when getting too experimental....

                                                1. I seriously recommend Fine Cooking magazine (http://store.taunton.com/onlinestore/...). As opposed to other cooking mags full of recipies & travelogues, this one is designed to make you a better cook. Recipes, yes, but embedded in articles full of techniques and general guidelines on selecting, prepping, and combining ingredients. This one really expands your kitchen WISDOM - isn't that what it's all about?

                                                  1. Cook A LOT. Cook a real dinner every night. Cook your weekend meals. Chop huge amounts of vegetables. Look up recipes for classic long cooking soups and stews and get them on the stove early in your day. Maybe get a slow cooker. When you plan a day of cooking and you get that long cooking item going early in the slow cooker then you have all your stove options still ready for anything all day. Then develop a repertoire of salads and vegetable dishes - a couple of dozen of each that you like and can do in your sleep. Volume is key. Just cook every day and get down the main techniques that are standard for the important things you will need to adapt then to for your lifetime of cooking. My cooking philosophy is to learn A LOT of recipes - get them on automatic so while your hands are chopping and stirring - basically the brain knows the process so well your cooking is on auto and then the only time you ever make a mistake is if you're doing something in the kitchen and the phone rings.. Otherwise you no longer even have to think - unless it's to make innovations like "Oh wow, I never thought of doing it THIS way but I bet it will come out EVEN better!" (Then you can report to us here!) The thinking can be reserved for dreaming up new creative dishes that your skills can easily bring to reality.

                                                    1. experamenting is the best teacher, it goes along with experience as the best teacher.
                                                      win or fail you will learn something. never be to afraid to try. you will always learn
                                                      something.

                                                      1. Excellent suggestions here. I second all of them. And would add this: don't create unnecessary hurdles or barriers for yourself.

                                                        You say that you do a few dishes quite well at the moment, "nothing fancy." Food doesn't need to be fancy to be delicious or special. In fact, mastering simple dishes can be the best way to learn good technique. Someone suggested perfecting simple rice. Great idea. Zuni Roast Chicken, a particular favorite on Chowhound, is, in the end, a simple roast chicken. But a sublime simple roast chicken that is all about technique. All I have to do is say the words "Zuni roast chicken and bread salad" and my friends get excited.

                                                        Like Nyleve, my cooking has become simpler with time. Alice Waters was a huge influence on that way back when...the notion that when you use good seasonal, local ingredients, less is really more. I think it's often difficult for cooks, especially beginners, to know when to back off...when it's better to let a great core ingredient do most of the work, with little intervention from the chef. When you cook this way, technique is everything, 'cause there's not a lot going on to mask sloppy technique.

                                                        You say that you're good at following recipes but get stuck when trying to make up your own. There is nothing wrong with using recipes. As others have pointed out, it's how you learn. I improvise a lot but, to be honest, I get no more or less satisfaction from my kitchen freelancing than I do from discovering an interesting recipe and turning it out perfectly. The real payoff is serving a delicious meal that I and my family and friends enjoy. Just being able to discern a good recipe from some misbegotten list of ingredients is a talent in itself, and a sign that your culinary skills are improving. Ditto recognizing that a recipe has interesting ingredients but flawed technique. And knowing how to fix it.

                                                        Finally, relax and have fun. When it's just you, your favorite tools, and some good ingredients in the kitchen, there's no competition. Turn on some music, make some tea, and enjoy yourself.

                                                        1 Reply
                                                        1. re: Old Spice

                                                          Wow. I could not agree more. In looking back over the cookbooks I used inteh early going (Gotham, Vongerichten) I am amazed I tried so hard to make fancy-ish dinners. I am a MUCH better cook 5 years later - just using simpler techniques and great ingredients. I know it is really hard, but simply, perfectly cooked in-season ingredients do make a difference. If I make an error now, it is still that I do not quite trust the ingredients and technique and slightly overseason. Go simple early on, and THEN try to shoot for the mon. You will be so much happier for it.

                                                        2. The only thing I can add to all the great advice above is always use good ingredients and when you buy new things for the kitchen spend a little extra money to get the good stuff because it makes a difference and will last so much longer in the case of knives, pans, etc. I find when I have good, fresh ingredients, even the really simple dishes just taste so good. I love the farmer's market and the local butcher and when I go to the grocery store I am the geek that sniffs the fruit to see which is ripe, but it ends up well.

                                                          1. great advice so far.

                                                            i wish i could plagerize elizabeth david's exact words here, so eloquent: here's my ham-handed rewording:

                                                            to understand what makes a great recipe great, and how it works, take a recipe you do well and eliminate all but the very minimal essential ingredients. cook the dish. sometimes you may surprise yourself, the simpler dish is better! on the other hand, you may realize the flavors could be fuller, more nuanced, or that there could be one ingredient to bring everything together and make it pop. cook it again, building it up one ingredient at a time, until you *know* that you like your coq au vin with one small carrot instead of three, and why it matters when you add the hint of lemon or cinnamon to the waffle batter. if you cook this way you'll figure out how to improvise without being *random* at all, you'll be a more thoughtful and nuanced cook, & you'll learn how your trusted recipes evolved and how to riff off of them for your own successful new dishes.

                                                            2 Replies
                                                            1. re: soupkitten

                                                              Wow, Soupkitten. I don't know the original quote, but yours is quite eloquent, and very interesting. I want to run right home and start stripping down old standbys!

                                                              1. re: soupkitten

                                                                You deserve a lot of credit for paraphrasing that great passage for us. But now too, you have deeply internalized the wisdom. It put me in mind of how I recently made a huge pot (12 quarts - to be frozen in smaller containers) for a recuperating friend. I thought of how chicken soup is supposed to have a natural antibiotic quality, but that essentially, the most nutritious ingredient was carrots. So, I added about 2 extra carrots to the pot. Result: too sweet! Such a small revision can actually have a profound effect on a recipe. But it took your Elizabeth David wisdom for the subtle truth to gel in my mind. So, friends, if you've got a recipe you know is PERFECT, do not mess up perfection - even with 2 carrots in 12 quarts of soup!

                                                              2. To me being a good cook mean two different things.

                                                                The first is being able to reliably get the results I want, and that comes from mindful practice, being aware of what is happening as you cook, remembering the appearance, sounds, smells, feel, of your cooking, and recalling how all of those connect to your final results. If you pay attention you'll eventually learn to be able to use that accumulated knowledge to get consistent results and be able to try new things with fewer "surprises." Otherwise you can stumble along for a long time without making much progress.

                                                                Ultimately it's about making food the way you (and others you are feeding) like it best. I happen to think that braised food tends to be underappreciated, so often a cheap piece of meat that will take a long time to get tender is the best to me, regardless of how much steak is revered in our culture.

                                                                All of that being said, knife skills can really be important. Cutting things to a consistent size means things get cooked evenly, using different cuts can give even a dish of mixed vegetable an attractive appearance, and you won't need to buy as many band-aids.

                                                                1 Reply
                                                                1. re: knecht

                                                                  knecht, I think you're getting at an important point here, something that just kind of creeps up on you over time until you realize, "whoa, I'm cooking with ALL of my senses." If I've got a few things on the stove at once, I count on my ears to tell me if a pot's cooking too hot...better early warning signal than waiting for my nose to tell me something's burning, or eyes that are focused on something else to notice overbrowning. Speaking of noses, I don't always need to taste something to know if I've been heavyhanded or shy with a spice...the nose knows too. Touch, whether with fingers or a skewer, lets me judge the doneness of fish or meat, without slicing into it for a peek and messing up the presentation. Watch the darned garlic brown sooner than any other vegetable a few times and you'll learn to add it later. Or sweat it first and set it aside for the time being. Anyway, it's interesting how things that you don't practice doing get to be things you unthinkingly come to rely on.

                                                                2. Keep a notebook & jot down what did & didn't work with each dish, observations & and any changes you made. There are several wonderful dishes I concocted prior to implementing a notebook which I have never been able to duplicate!

                                                                  Learn what your ingredients smell, taste & feel like. After awhile you can just do an open-mouth style sniff and tell what will work well with what.

                                                                  Look at every show, book, magazine you can at first until you find the ones that explain in your personal language and fit your palate & cooking style.

                                                                  A few great guides: books- "How to read a french fry" by Russ Parsons, anything by Alton Brown, "Timing is Everything" by Jack Piccolo (wish I had it when I first started) is an amazing and dizzyingly comprehensive listing of any cooking timetable you could ever need. Joy of Cooking an oldie but goodie, excellent basic instructions & explanations. Magazines: Cooks Illustrated & Fine Cooking are both superb instructional aids. Eatting Well is very good at helping you make knowledgable nutritional choices with a seasonal focus. Their recipes have been straight forward enough for a beginner to produce very successful dishes. Real Simple had a master one basic kitchen skill per isuue series a year or so ago. An issue might have a "roasting" focus, with good explanations and recipes for various dishes. My students who were following the series liked the format and had good results.

                                                                  Like any skill, by the time you reach the level you currently hope for you will be at a point where you can envision a newer level!

                                                                  Enjoy the process, set some goals & challenges but keep it fun!

                                                                  1. Besides the consensus advice of practice, below are some tips that have made a huge difference in my cooking.

                                                                    1. TASTE. When possible, taste your food during different stages of cooking. I even like to taste my raw ingredients like veggies, fruit, spices, etc. when possible to gauge their baseline flavor, freshness, and how they will impact the overall dish.

                                                                    2. SALT. As a budding and tentative cook, I used to undersalt my food while cooking. When I started adding more salt (I favor kosher salt for cooking), my food really came to life. When a dish tastes flat and I'm not sure what to do, a little salt usually helps. I'm not suggesting you oversalt, but try to find the "sweet spot" by playing w/ it.

                                                                    3. READ. I used to get food mags like Bon Appetit and Gourmet during my early days of cooking. Even if I didn't make most of the recipes, I started seeing patterns in methodology and flavor profiles. I often check out cookbooks from the library just to read and get ideas.

                                                                    4. FEEDBACK. Solicit feedback, in the appropriate context, from those you feed. My husband is my #1 taste tester and critic, and I have certain friends and family who can be completely honest w/ me. Like w/ anything, reflection and future modification deepen the process.

                                                                    5. EGO. Accept the fact that you are not the best cook you know and that you have much to learn from others. I can be competitive w/ perfectionistic tendencies, but I try to have fun in the kitchen.

                                                                    10 Replies
                                                                    1. re: Carb Lover

                                                                      You mention something that comes up for all cooks almost every day. We taste. Our brain says: "something's missing". That means we want to subtly adjust the taste. Science tells us there are only a few base tastes that our toungue recognizes, although there are an infinite number of flavors that the nose knows, but the tongue can taste - sweet, sour, salty, bitter and maybe something else I'm forgetting, maybe "fatty" - but that's definitely not on the scientific list. So, rather than get complicated, it makes more sense to delicately add a bit of one or more of these basic tastes. A little sour - a squeeze of lemon. A little sweet - a pinch of sugar. A bit of salt, a bit of fatty - a knob of butter. These almost always add a helpful kick. Bitter? Uh, I think you can leave out the wormwood and no one will complain!

                                                                      1. re: niki rothman

                                                                        Actually, in some cuisines, a bitter component to the flavor of a dish is important, for example, bitter melon:

                                                                        http://www.thaifoodandtravel.com/feat...

                                                                        1. re: niki rothman

                                                                          Umami is the 5th taste receptor on our tongues. It includes fattiness in terms of the sense of fullness or roundness that fills the mouth - but many vegetables do this without the fat. Umami is most often translated as savory. MSG gives you a concentrated version of that dimension, which is why it's an important ingredient that can't be dismissed with unproven rumors.

                                                                          I think that tasting is actually quite complex and requires some decent amount of skill and understanding. It's easy enough to correct some foods at the end - it can even be done at the table to each person's taste. But the real understanding of how these tastes interact, and what ingredients play through with what tastes, is something that you go to culinary school for (or apprentice with a genius that can teach...).

                                                                          I do agree that it's all about taste. If you're not tasting the food as you cook it, you might as well be painting blindfolded. But I'd recommend, to the beginner, that they not get lost in all of this. Play! Get a tune out! The technique and detailed understanding will come with time. (The Suzuki method for cooking!)

                                                                          1. re: niki rothman

                                                                            I just got a cookbook that is all about umami, the fifth taste that you refer to. Apparently, umami been documented for nearly a century and it is on the scientific list as of about 5 years ago. Umami is glutamate (and don't ask me what glutamate is beyond a molecule--I am so not a chemist it's not even funny). It was recently discovered that we have certain taste buds that are the negative image of the umami molecule--in otherwords those taste buds are designed to fit with or receive glutamate molecules just as others receive sweet, salty, sour and bitter (again, please don't ding me on my non-scientific description).

                                                                            Anyway, umami is that full, deep flavor in grilled meats, anchovies and fish sauce, and soy sauce. Tomatoes and mushrooms, interestingly, also contain a lot of glutamate. MSG adds glutamate to foods and with it that depth of flavor that is umame.

                                                                            1. re: Pistou

                                                                              I just made that up myself about fattiness being a possible other basic taste, so I'm amazed the Japanese ("umami" IS a Japanese word, no?) brought that one to the game, or should I say, table?

                                                                              But then, I've always felt the Japanese do EVERYTHING better than anybody else! Personally, and everyone's more subtle sense of taste is very subjective, personally MSG does NOT taste fatty or buttery at all to me, it tastes like a combo of sweet and salty.

                                                                              1. re: niki rothman

                                                                                It is Japanese, and I don't remember the details but I'll look them up and post more later. Basically it was a Japanese scientist who figured out that there was another flavor going on, based IIRC on bonito flakes in his miso soup, and experimented until he isolated glutamate. Then a few years ago they found the taste bud correlation.

                                                                                Umami isn't fatty or buttery flavor, though. Think grilled meat, or the depth that anchovy paste gives to Caesar salad dressing, or fish sauce gives to pad thai.

                                                                                1. re: Pistou

                                                                                  Here is Janet Zimmerman's discussion of tastes on eGullet - I've linked to this before as it is an excellent discussion of not only Umami but all tastes. Herve This also discusses Umami at length in several of his books.

                                                                                  http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?s...

                                                                                  Japanese love fat (not in a steady diet as we often do, but as a special, high-quality item that is revered and eaten sparingly), and describe the taste as having both sweet and umami aspects. There is the whole unctuousness aspect which is a texture, rather than a taste. But in fact, under some definitions, that unctuousness is part of umami - as you will see in the article I referenced. I have not heard of grilled meat as being particularly umami-filled, other than the fat aspect - hence a marbled piece of Kobe has great umami whether grilled or raw. A piece of filet, on the other hand would have no umami even if it was grilled nicely (a great maillard reaction).

                                                                                  Herve This gets into the science much deeper - measuring thermogenesis induced by msg in rats, for example - there glutamates actually acted more like catalysts, causing carbohydrates to be treated like proteins.

                                                                                  But this is far afield from the op and may even discourage people from tackling cooking - If learned scientist chefs like This or Adria spend so much time isolating and dissecting flavors and rebuilding foods with unheard of techniques and elements of cooking, then who are we mere mortals to try to understand the depths of tastes and flavors?

                                                                                  Well, obviously, we are indeed mere mortals who have the desire and the willingness to work at cooking to perfect a dish or two, and to challenge and to enjoy ourselves in the process.

                                                                                  1. re: applehome

                                                                                    I've often heard that fat is a 'flavor carrier;' that is, it enhances other flavors that are already present, whether they be umami or sweet or sour or whatever. So to bring it back around to the the OP, something that will improve your cooking is learning techniques to add fat in ways that will enhance the flavors of your ingredients. Sauteeing in butter is a pretty basic example (doesn't everything taste good sauteed in butter?)

                                                                                    1. re: Bat Guano

                                                                                      Perhaps the word derivation is from the exclamation a baby says, in pure rapture, when looking up at mommy when taking a nursing break.

                                                                                      "Oooooh, Mammi!!!"

                                                                          2. re: Carb Lover

                                                                            This is fantastic advice, especially about the salt, and about having an honest critic. I love cooking with my mom, because she and I can tell each other that something didn't turn out well, and then when we tell each other something turns out really well, I KNOW that it's great!

                                                                          3. Practice, experiment, and practice some more. Remember that very few failures in the kitchen are inedible...unless things are burnt beyond recognition or intolerably hot (spicy, that is), you can eat even the strangest results. And also, anybody who dares to criticize your cooking volunteers to prepare the next meal!

                                                                            1. In addition to practice, practice, practice, I'd recommend taking a recreational techniques class. I was home cooking quite a bit with a limited repertoire before I took a course called Techniques of Fine Cooking. It was a once a week, 6 week deal, and each lesson was focused on a different method of cooking (such as sauteeing, braising, roasting, etc.) or a particular ingredient (eggs). It gave me the confidence to try out recipes that I had previously found too complicated and helped me to understand why you cook things different ways and how different techniques affect how your food comes out. It also seriously improved my knife skills, so I didn't always burn an hour on prep before even starting to cook.

                                                                              In the absence of a techniques course (or as a supplement to), I'd highly recommend getting Jacques Pepin's Complete Techniques which will explain the how of many, many kitchen tasks.

                                                                              1. Congratulations on the cream sauces! Those are the hardest, in my opinion.

                                                                                I agree with the others -- keep trying new things and when you like something, make it three or four times without variation to get it down right. I still try things that disappoint me because they are new and the ingredients are unfamiliar. It comes with the territory. Just don't try new things for parties and big dinners -- that is a high wire act.

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                                                                                1. re: RGC1982

                                                                                  I agree with some of the comments about not worrying if you're better than other cooks. Cooking for the shear love of cooking is where the happiness is. Yes, it takes time to learn the basics and beyond. I agree with everyone who says get the best ingredients, read cookbooks, watch cooking tv and read chowhound. I have subscribed to Bon Appetit and Gourmet for years. Bon Appetit is great for not too intimidating everyday cooking. Plan what you want to cook for the week on the weekends and shop with a list so you can actually cook every night or almost every night. Definitely spend some bucks for the essentials. I swear by my Kitchen Aid mixer. Stock your pantry well. Always read recipes all the way through before you start to make sure have the ingredients and the time to do a good job. Relax and enjoy.

                                                                                2. Smell things. Get a fully stocked spice cabinet and learn what each spice smells like. Learn that cloves can go with beef, that cinnamon is good with eggs, don't think just inside the box.
                                                                                  Then when you dine out, taste things. Savor the odd flavor in the pasta and then think *nutmeg.*.
                                                                                  Learn techniques. Learn how to make a cream sauce. Learn why 20 minutes is a magic number in meal prep [amazing the number of processes/cooking/things finish in 20 minutes.] Learn to make a gravy---several different ways. Learn that fruit and chicken do mesh, and how to make them do it. Learn what to do with sour cream, and how NOT to treat it.
                                                                                  Arrange your kitchen efficiently. Get things within an easy reach in a ballet of movement once the stuff starts cooking.
                                                                                  Get good pans. Yep, you can cook in bad ones, but why swim upcurrent?
                                                                                  Eat ethnic. Learn to identify those spices in action. Eat haute cuisine. Learn to 'read' those recipes off your palate.
                                                                                  Learn how fast to cook meat for what effect. Learn how to prepare veggies from scratch [it's actually faster than frozen in most instances.]
                                                                                  And finally---stow every single cookbook you own where you can't readily access them, look around your well-stocked kitchen and figure out what you can make out of what you've got to please the palates you're dealing with.
                                                                                  I once got a passel of 30 high school students to eat eggplant, yogurt, and cucumber and come back for seconds and thirds---the deal was they could tell me if they had any allergies and/or religious taboos, and I'd dodge them all; but they couldn't ask me what was in anything. They were REALLY surprised about the eggplant, which none of them would have touched with a pole.
                                                                                  The thing is, food hits you with the eye [presentation], the nose [smell/aroma], the ear [the sizzle and the crunch] and only lastly with the explosion on the palate, which partakes a bit of all of them.
                                                                                  That's my philosophy, at least: I read cookbooks for knowledge of what other people have done, but then I put them away and do my own, and have fun with it.

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                                                                                  1. re: dragonfare

                                                                                    I agree with just about everything you said EXCEPT the stowing the cookbooks part. Over the years, I've found it immensely helpful to follow good recipes quite exactly before launching off on my own path. When you just work off the top of your head, you'll rarely venture outside your comfort zone - either in technique or ingredient combos. I know that I would probably wallow in basic Mediterranean peasant cookery if I didn't occasionally challenge myself to follow a recipe that offers me a totally different way of dealing with food. Plus a really excellent recipe - one that has stood the test of time - will give you a benchmark from which to measure all riffs on the same theme. That's a good thing - you can identify where the variation has occurred and what was done differently. You learn from that.

                                                                                    1. re: Nyleve

                                                                                      I agree with Nyleve on this - and as someone else pointed out, being a good cook is in part having reliable results. My husband can whip up some pretty tasty meals on occasion but never uses a recipe (doubt he ever has) but I find that there is a lack of consistency to his cooking - i.e., sometimes I want the dish to be the same dish he made for me before, and it never is. I think you can learn a tremendous amount from following recipes. Someone else made a point about salt and it is a good one. One of the things that I really liked about cooking from Goin's book is that she tells you how much salt to put in, whereas so many books say to add salt/pepper to taste, which doesn't help you much if the salt is added at the beginning of the dish. So, I'd try to cook from recipes that tell you how much salt to use, to get a sense of an "appropriate" amount for a particular dish. After 20 years of cooking, I'm often still not sure whether to add 1/2 tsp or 2 tsps!

                                                                                  2. Cook ingredients you love for people you love and develop your curiosity rather than your competitiveness. No one is ever "the best cook." Bad cooks just aren't cooks. I see food preparation as an almost holy form of creative expression.

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                                                                                    1. re: Amanita

                                                                                      great advice from all of the above.my wife of 10 years is a good cook but always cooks the same 5 or 6 favorite dishes.she is afraid to try something different.this is what i did to help her.we got out a great cook book had her close her eyes and flip through the pages and stop and point to a recipe and then cook it.of coarse it is something she has never cooked before.boy is she now having fun trying new recipes.did i mention i am a chef (45years) and currently a culinary arts instructor at a local community college here in sacramento.

                                                                                    2. What a wonderful array of wisdom and encouragement. Two more suggestions from personal experience:

                                                                                      1/ Keep a well-stocked pantry / fridge and just spend some time everyday examining and reexamining at their contents. Orchestrate combinations in your mind -- there and throughout your spare time and wherever you buy your food. Sometimes we feel like 'There's nothing to eat' -- but there's ALWAYS something to make. Cook as often as possible, of course, as everyone has said, but you still won't have time to cook every possible combination -- so daydream about meals, play with ideas, be preoccupied by them. Some of these ideas will falter when you put them to the test, but this process -- this state of mind -- will cultivate your creativity and cooking intelligence.

                                                                                      2/ At some point, you're going to want to write some stuff down. This needn't be a series of full recipes -- but, like a jotting composer, just a few notes designating a theme, or a chord of striking, harmonious flavors. Your mind will be brimming with possibilities, and your experience as time goes on will accrue some tricks or secrets or shortcuts or sure-things worth keeping throughout your life of cooking. Save these things and build your own repertoire.

                                                                                      2 Replies
                                                                                      1. re: sequins

                                                                                        Along the same lines as #2, fill your cookbooks with marginalia, so when you go back to a recipe again you'll remember what worked and what you might want to fiddle with the next time around. That you wanted more thyme, or olives, or that you need to have x step done before starting y, or whatever little hint will make it more successful.

                                                                                        1. re: Pistou

                                                                                          I agree wholeheartedly, pistou! One of my most treasured possessions is my grandmother's copy of "Joy of Cooking" that has her notes, my mother's notes, and now mine. It's endlessly amusing to read what Nana thought of chopped liver and corned beef.

                                                                                      2. To become a better cook you need to love cooking and feeding others. You can perfect your knife skills all you want and be able to make a perfect hollandaise, but if you are only doing it to be the best cook you know, then you are doing yourself, and the people you are feeding, a disservice.
                                                                                        Once that's in place, try new things, eat out a lot so you can see how flavors blend together. Cookbooks from chefs you admire are also a good idea. Also, use the best quality ingredients you can afford/find. Notice I didn't say most expensive because higher price does not equal better quality.
                                                                                        And finally, stay informed on what goes on in the world of food.

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                                                                                        1. re: HungryRubia

                                                                                          Hey thanks HR, you put into words a lot better than what I was trying to say myself above! Big difference between competition and applying oneself to an art they grow to love. Being a competitive person myself by nature, I full well know the pitfalls of the former.

                                                                                        2. TASTE, TASTE, TASTE, and then Taste it again. Think about what you are tasting. There are a lot of good suggestions here but I think Tasting, and thinking about how the dish has changed after each addition is just about the most important thing you can do. Don't be afraid of salt, lemon juice or vinegar, sugar, and cayenne, even if the recipe doesn't all for it. Think about what flavors will go together. Stop being concerned about being the best--are you a 1st born? Stay away from celebrity cookbooks and Cooks Illustrated. The original Silver Palate is indeed great.

                                                                                          6 Replies
                                                                                          1. re: Curmudgeon

                                                                                            Since I and others recommended Cooks Illustrated above based on the explanatory essays, which we find useful in understanding why we are doing what we're doing, I'd be interested to hear why you recommend against CI.

                                                                                            1. re: Pistou

                                                                                              Because Cooks Illustrated doesn't teach you how to think about food. Kimball prefers to re-invent the wheel starting from scratch--because he knows nothing to begin with. I'd go for Madeleine Kamman and Shirley Corriher to help understand what is happening during cooking and when and why. Seasoning may be a matter of experimentation-- but cooking is not. You don't need make every mistake to learn the basics. You don't need to cook a pork loin to 155 degrees yourself to know it will be tough.
                                                                                              Keeping notes is a really good idea. Also if you have a mother or grandmother who is a good cook, make them cook your favorites in front of you, and take extensive notes.

                                                                                              1. re: Curmudgeon

                                                                                                There's another factor, which is that because they assume that everybody else also knows nothing, they should recommend the methods with the greatest leeway - room for error. Hence brining. It insures a still moist pork chop or turkey or whatever, even if you overcook - which they expect everybody to do. But brining busts the cell walls of meat and makes it mushy - apparently not enough for the novice followers to notice - but no serious chef would brine a fine pork chop. They would know that first, you take that US supermarket pork chop and toss it in the garbage - then go buy a Berkshire/Kurobuta pig...

                                                                                                But I think that CI/ATK is exactly in the space that Betty Crocker is in - a place to go look for specific data, which is in fact sometimes hard to find. Both test kitchens experimented and published results of some very basic kitchen processes. If you want to know how many minutes per pound you should give a bone-in rib roast to get to medium rare at 375F, it's a good place to start. How long to boil a chicken vs. a select lobster? Are the times for pork and lamb any different from beef? Are the cuts different?

                                                                                                But if you want an understanding of whether you should be cooking that rib roast at 325 or 425 - what the effects of each will be so you can decide what you want to do, you won't get it from these books.

                                                                                                So I would not recommend these books to a beginner for their recipes or their how to info. But I do recommend them as a reference for basic cooking data.

                                                                                                1. re: applehome

                                                                                                  Thanks. Those are all very interesting thoughts on CI. I enjoy reading the process of breaking down a recipe and building it back up step by step, and think I've learned a lot from reading their essays (though I do think they ran out of good material a while back and now it's either repeats or torturing good recipes to death). But I see your point about the Cooking for Dummies factor.

                                                                                                  On the other hand, this is on my mind at the moment because I spent all last night making a buttercream from The Cake Bible that was supposed to hold up to higher temps. Maybe it would've, but I never got that far. It completely collapsed on me tonight when I was supposed to frost my cake, and I resorted to an infinitely simpler recipe from Baking Illustrated that performed like a champ. So I stand by the value of their books as basic resources.

                                                                                                  1. re: Pistou

                                                                                                    The Cake Bible is really for people who want to make high end bakery cakes. It's sort of the French Laundry cookbook for cakes. It isn't really a home baking book. For home baking I'd go to James Beard or Fanny Farmer. I can't say I have ever met anyone who uses Betty Crocker. If you want to make French Laundry type of food, go to school to become a professional chef, or baker.

                                                                                                    With regard to ATK and CI, If you are looking for people to think for you, at least choose someone who isn't still experimenting. They are still experimenting, because their mothers didn't cook and they didn't learn to cook or even appreciate good food at home. I do like the tips from readers section of CI, but otherwise it's like lightung a match and then claiming that fire is your original invention.

                                                                                                2. re: Curmudgeon

                                                                                                  I look at what Cook's Illustrated does from a very different perspective. I think the way they describe their recipe development teaches a great deal about how to think about food. Even when I disagree with their "best," after reading their work I have a better sense of how technique, proportions, and ingredient selection can affect a particular dish. And they don't usually start from scratch, but review a number of alternative recipes as a starting point.

                                                                                            2. i would suggest trying the culinary text books: The Professional Chef is the CIA's basic text and On Cooking is the same for Johnson and Wales. They provide the knowledge required about "how to cook" in a much more systematic and comprehensive way than any simple cookbook. Both are also well illustrated.

                                                                                              1. Learn by doing. That is all.

                                                                                                Edit: Oh.... And always try new things.

                                                                                                2nd edit: I recommend Joy of Cooking. It's very comprehensive, educational, and the recipes aren't bad at all. I think they skimp on the fats sometimes, but meh...

                                                                                                1. I agree with most of the previous replys. Develop your passion. I've made recipes 10 times 10 different ways. Then I know which one I want to keep. Keep a log. Compile your own favorites, and despite what others may say, Martha Stewarts cookbooks are extremely informative and explain things very well, usings photos, diagrams etc. Keep at it and do what you love.