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Oct 18, 2007 12:50 PM

For those who have to teach themselves to cook

It was in the first year after college that I realized every piece of chicken, every steak or slice of roast I'd eaten growing up had been overcooked. Without a reference point, I didn't know that chicken wasn't always so dry in the middle. I didn't know that a piece of beef with pink in the middle was safe to eat.

While my did cook, and most of it was not bad, she lacked the sense of craft to make it stand-out good. The details like doneness or freshness of ingredients were missing from her cooking, and so from my young life.

My dad, on the other hand, had a cooking style from Mars. Random ingredients thrown together, the most important criterion the lack of ANY butter, salt, or anything else that might aggravate our hereditary high blood pressure. A common lunch for my dad was an onion, microwaved. (I did not partake).

I only occasionally cooked with my mom, not enough to learn the small bits of tradition that had been passed on to her.

So, like many other Chowhounds, I'm sure, I've been teaching myself to cook for the last two years, since I graduated college.

My primary teacher has been Julia Child and "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." I find it's great for a novice because it's doable without being overly easy, it's comprehensive and usually explains why a step is taken, and how to do it just right. An added bonus is reconnecting with the French heritage my family has lost in their four-or-so generations in America.

I've had to do a bit of experimenting and have eaten some unappetizing meals, but have fortunately had successes to even things out.

I wonder who else here has taught themself to cook, and what methods you all used to go from someone who can boil water to someone who can perform culinary fireworks?

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  1. I can sympathize with this I pointed out on the twenty something board, my also health obssesed family would be getting a treat if there were an actual entree accompanying our salads.

    I am happy to admit that my first inspiration to cook was an episode of molto mario (it was a while ago, when I was in high school, I believe) where he made spaghetti carbonara: his spaghetti sauce was not red and flavorless, and it did not come from a jar.

    So I will happily credit Mario with inspiring me. I then had great roommates, one of whose father had a chinese restaurant in flushing. Beyond that...don't be afraid to experiment. Maybe my lovely boyfriend choked down some of the downsides of my learning to cook (with a great corus of "its not that bad"), but the payback is great as he is now treated with homemade tamales and soy braised pork belly and the such...

    I found that buying ingrediants before finding a recipe helped me to learn about what goes well with what--read a bunch of recipes, think about the flavors and techniques used for them, THEN decide what you want to put in it...

    Good luck! It's tons of fun.

    1. I had a somewhat opposite experience: my mother made things that tasted good, but it's because they were loaded with butter and oil.

      The best advice I can give is: Take challenges. The more challenges you undertake - and finish successfully - the better you will be. And don't be upset about let-downs. They always make a great story to tell after you've fed your seven closest friends a fantastic meal.

      1. Isn't there some book in which the author chronicles cooking through all of Julia's book in a year, and in the process discovering herself?

        2 Replies
        1. re: paulj

          Yes... she got the book deal after her blog chronicling the project got really popular. The blog, which I've read a fair share of, is called the Julie/Julia Project, and I think the book title is the same (though I've heard the book is not as good).

          Myself, I'm not so crazy or so organized. The poor woman almost never ate dinner before 11 pm. I cook out of MAFC a few times a month, and try out different dishes, meats, techniques, etc.

          1. re: paulj

            I have seen this author (Julie) as a judge on Iron Chef America also.

          2. I'm in a similar boat. I had a year abroad in Swansea where food was not provided. I got such a bad time after eating nothing but Top Ramen for three months that my friends finally shamed me into learing to cook. When i returned to the States I was lucky enough to room with an aspiring chef from Japan and a few Kuwaiti's who loved to cook for dozens at a time. If i haden't had an awakening i'd have never bothered to learn. Now i make it a point whenever i meet someone new to cook them something easy and impressive to return the favor.

            1. You know, I've always wondered how I learned to cook ... I always say it was by osmosis :) My mother is a pretty good cook, although sometimes she would "multi-task" and end up overcooking things. But she always wanted to do it alone, she'd shoe us out of the kitchen & only let us back in when it was time for us to clean up the mess :)

              I cook without recipes (maybe I'll read some for inspiration but I rarely measure anything) except for baking. Or I'll refer to Joy of Cooking for method. I remember once on a holiday where turkey was being served my mother called my sister and me into the kitchen to determine what the gravy was missing. I flung open the spice cupboard--only to discover that she had none of "my" herbs and spices. Same for my sister--she uses another set altogether.

              As far as I know, cooking is magic, and who knows how you learn??

              2 Replies
              1. re: foiegras

                The two most formative cookbooks for me were Capon's Supper of the Lamb, and Joy of Cooking. I particularly valued the large ingredients section of the earlier Joys.

                1. re: paulj

                  You have to save the old ones even if you have the new ones. The other day I was looking for a simple recipe for crumb-topped apple pie and couldn't find in any of of my newer cookbooks, but of course it was easy to find in my mother's old Joy of Cooking, which also has tons of candy recipes.