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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 one...as 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.

              2. Read, watch, and cook with others. Read cookbooks like novels, get some food Mags. Check out Jack Pepin's books on tecgnique, he is the best. Watch old PBS cookshows, when they really cooked. And cook with others to share info, friendship and experience.

                1. My family's one glaring example was overcooking asaragus. In our house you'd think we were eating thick green fettucini pasta.

                  1. My mother showed me how to cook certain things, but I really didn't like them! So when I go married, to a picky eater who wouldn't eat anything I knew how to make, I was "up the creek." I watched cooking shows on PBS (Julia Child showed me how to cut up a chicken, bless her!), read magazines, and relied on my neighbors for help. We lived in a small apartment complex, where the average age was 60, and I was 20. These sweet ladies took me under their wings, and helped me with recipes, and ideas. I also learned a lot from my DH's grandmother and aunt whenever we had family gatherings. I hung out in the kitchen and asked lots of questions. Notice I didn't mention my MIL - she was a great baker, but I thought her cooking was pretty much like my mom's. But her desserts were very good.

                    1. Lots of old-school late-90s Food Network and experimenting with different cookbooks. How To Cook Everything was my bible, and while I don't cook from it much anymore, I highly recommend it for the novice home cook.

                      There is also a great cookbook by Mark Bittman and Jean-Georges Vonterichten called Simple to Spectacular. They start with a basic (but tasty recipe) and do four different variations, each one more complicated than the last. It's not a comprehensive cookbook by any means, but it's great to start with a simple recipe and, as your confidence builds, gradually up the ante.

                      Jacques Pepin's Complete Techniques is a great resource for understanding the "how" of many cooking and food prep methods.

                      1. The food of my youth was primarily vast cauldrons of something healthy and cheap, so as an adult, I had to relearn everything about the kitchen. Having an open minded and critical ( as in critique) palate gave me my start. My advice to self- taught cooks is to get comfortable with a simple technique and menu and then build from that point. Don't try fried chicken for twelve or flambe'd anything until you can cook rice!

                        1. jfood's mom had two style of cooking, tasteless and burnt. Jfood's dad left on his 12th b'day and at 14 jfood couldn't stand it any more and went to the library and checked out Joy of Cooking. First dish he ever made was Steak with a Marchand de Vin sauce and he scribbled notes on a sheet of paper. Then the Galloping Gourmet came onto TV and Jfood watched every day.

                          In college when he moved off campus he caooked every night for his roommates. They cleaned so it was a great deal. Likewise college girls loved a cooked meal instead of a movie for a date.

                          And it just took off from there. Jacques Pepin, Julia Child, Geoff Smith (ouch) were early favorites, then the Silver Palate ladies early inhis marriage.

                          Now it's pure relaxation and the family participates in the eating for sure and little jfood has asked her dad to prepare a cookbook as she readies herself for the real world.

                          circle of life in a positive sense

                          1. I was raised by my great grandparents. My grandmother only knew one way to cook...overdone. Spagetti cooked to mush with ragu, block rump in the oven til it was shoe leather, iceburg lettuce and cucumber with french dressing, cottage cheese with jelly and every damn pot and pan in the house used. Sigh.

                            When I was 12 I discovered PBS cooking shows and went from there. Now that I am old, I still find myself wishing I had a better love affair with pastry, yeast anything and while I CAN bake, I prefer not to because all of that precise measuring makes me crazy.

                            I love to free-flow cook, taking basic recipe ideas that inspire me and then go from there. While my resources are a little limited right now as to some of the dishes I can afford to make, we do pretty good for what we have. My SO's friends love to come over for dinner...one of them said "I've never seen someone put so much thought into what they are cooking before". Total compliment.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: chelleyd01

                              I am luckier than a lot of you because my mum was a very good cook. Both unlucky ... and lucky in a way ... that we had very little money. My dad died when I was 15 after years of various smoking-related diseases, and though my mum managed to requalify as a teacher, they didn't make as much money back in the late 1960s.

                              But overcooking seems pretty much universal, except in recent decades, in many parts of the Western world. I'm sure it is a holdover from our parents' and grandparents' forebears, when electric fridges were far from universal.

                            2. Discoethan, I think we grew up with the same parents!

                              When I was 15 I became a vegetarian, because meat was nothing special to me. Everything ever served to me by my parents was an overcooked, dry disaster. I thought that was just the way meat tasted, and I cut it out of my life without difficulty.

                              (After cutting out red meat, and then all meat/fish, and then becoming a diet-ignorant vegan my body screamed for red meat.. and two years later a medium rare steak changed my life)

                              My mother always had cookbooks and clippings lying around, but she was more of a collector than a cook. I realize now she most likely coveted the beautiful dishes she'd see in magazines and cookbooks, but lacked the skills and, really, the motivation to engage even half-seriously in producing those dishes. I don't blame her a bit today; looking back, with a husband who didn't help with that kind of thing and a couple of undiscerning kids.. why would she bother?

                              Anway, that medium rare steak and a boyfriend who opened my eyes to how diverse and fantastic food could be - Thai, Indian, real Italian (mom, I love you, but warmed up tomato juice and boiled pasta does not an Italian meal make) - turned upside down my perception of food.

                              I coveted food of all kinds, but was spending so much money eating out I figured it'd be a good idea to learn to make the stuff myself. With zero influence from my family's kitchen, I turned to cookbooks, the Internet and, yes, the Food Network.

                              There is only so much you can learn from reading and observing, so I've found experimenting and repeat, repeat, repeat is the best way to make something spectacular. I go through phases where I'll crave something so I'll make it over and over again within the span of a couple weeks, and it gets better and easier each time.

                              Today, you can open an expensive cookbook and dive into making an elaborate dish. I enjoy that, but feel like I've missed definite culinary basics, so I am attending school in the new year.

                              ...As a side note, my love of cooking has been strangely influential on my parents! I visit and cook for them at least once a week, and every time I drop by my mother proudly has a new ingredient she "found" waiting for me to use, or excitedly tells me what she has cooked for her and dad in the past week. She is most proud when she "didn't even follow the recipe exactly".

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: NovoCuisine

                                Novo is so right about experimenting and repeat, repeat, repeat. It took me awhile to perfect my pot roast, but once I did I wrote it down and it's a keeper. But, even saying that, as my palate changes I add a little of this and a little of that to mix it up. If you have a good cookbook that tells you what herbs and spices are complimentary to the meats, or vegetables, that helps, but don't forget to think outside the box sometimes.

                              2. I started cooking as soon as I was big enough for my mom to trust me standing on a chair by the stove so I could look into the pot I was stirring (supervised, of course).

                                Like most kids, I started out with sweet things and mostly baking -- cookies, cakes, trying to make fudge (I still like the challenge of determining the correct "soft ball" stage instead of fiddling with a thermometer). from there, I segued into all kinds of eggs, and then pasta dishes and chili. When I moved out, then there was a whole lot of experimenting going on with roasting and stir frying and savory dishes. Graduated to sauces from that point.

                                Now, because of time constraints, I mostly enjoy quick sautes of very fresh ingredients and a narrower flavor band for each dish -- frenched green beans with garlic & walnuts in olive oil, pork chop with mushrooms in an apple brandy reduction, a nice steak with a shallot & red wine & butter sauce. If I'm not doing a roast or a casserole, I spend less than 20 minutes most days fixing a meal.

                                1. When I think about it, I must have learned to cook by osmosis, as someone else has said. My mother and father were wonderful cooks, as was every member of both sides of the family! It's a wonder we're not all 500 pounds. As I bride I just plunged in and remembered basic dishes the 'rents made and pretended I knew what I was doing. After all, I had eaten many meals with them and listened to the discussions with other family members so I knew what ingredients to use and the technique involved.

                                  Additionally, I became an avid cookbook collector, TV cooking shows were a thing of the future. What a joy it was when the PBS channel in our area started airing The Galloping Gourmet and the other shows jfood referred to.

                                  Finally, I think what makes a good cook is the passionate desire to do it, to share meals with loved ones who encourage you , and to never stop learning.

                                  1. The responses to this question have been so interesting. I learned to make egg salad before I was ten, from my mother; and my sisters and I did any baking that was done in our home. But like so many others, I did not care for most of my mother's dishes! I don't think she cared very much about the quality of what she was feeding us. However, I could glimpse something of what some of the dishes were supposed to be. When I married, I began learning how to cook American homestyle. And early in my marriage, I read Adele Davis, who influenced my cooking very much. I wanted to cook stuff "right." I did consult cookbooks. And, like so many others, I learned by doing this every day for all my adult life. I'm still cooking and trying to learn more technique as I go. And we've had to modify our salts and fats. But I am proud to say that my three grown sons all know how to cook, and they do it for us when we visit them.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: sueatmo

                                      I was introduced to cooking, actually by my home ec teacher! She was a wonderful cook, and although we didn't do any major dishes, you could see the love in her eyes!

                                      I started to make a few dishes at home, in high school. My mother didn't like to cook, and we just had the Irish dinners, meat and potatoes. She did teach me to make a great turkey dinner with the fixings though, and her gravy is still the same one that I make today!

                                      In my early 20's and married, I got a couple of easy cookbooks, and then went to The Joy of Cooking. I will say, I learned alot from the Joy of Cooking. And into the 80's watched Julia and Graham on PBS, both of which were good and entertaining shows!
                                      I also had an Italian mother in law, and learned all of the wonderful dishes, from Italy. My one regret, was never to pay attention to her homemade ravioli. They were light and scrumptious, and she never even had a cookie cutter. She rolled out the dough on the kitchen table, and used a drinking glass to cut each side of the ravioli. She used a fork to crimp the edges, and I didn't know what a dissappearing art form she was creating.

                                      Now, after 40 years of cooking, I have a great wealth of knowledge, and recipes. I still love to cook, even now that the kids are grown and gone. It's like therapy for me, to get into the kitchen on the weekends, and create.

                                      Oh, I don't bake, I like to throw caution to the wind!

                                    2. My mother is a pretty good cook, but she found kids in the kitchen an unwelcome distraction. My father has a good palate so tasting new dishes & trying to figure out the seasonings was a big dinner game for us. So I didn't know how to make much more than cinnamon toast when I moved out. Consequently, once I started to cook I generally just thought about the flavors I wanted and initially consulted Joy of Cooking (purchased in 2 part paperback on lay-away) and Michael Fields (found at Goodwill) for info on technique, temperatures & time. Amazingly there weren't too many failures, although fried chicken and donut (separate) attempts were pretty horrendous!
                                      One book I have found that I wish I had back then is "Timing is everything" by Jack Piccolo. An amazingly comprehensive list of the cooking times for almost any ingredient & technique. Joy of Cooking is still an excellent reference. Sniff your spices & taste after each is added so you know exactly what they add to the dish. Keep a notebook & record what you did, what worked, what didn't and ideas for future attempts. Sign up for a cooking class - there are often good, inexpensive ones at the local Adult evening programs at public schools. Sometimes seeing helps you establish more reference points than just reading and trying on your own. Develop an understanding of techniques (braise, roast) and then it is much easier to branch off in new directions. Have fun, ask questions & happy eatting!

                                      1. My Mom was a very good cook, but growing up in the era that I did (I'm in my 40's), my Mom cooked mostly meat & potatoes...pot roast with veggies, steak, stuffed cabbage, etc. I eat much differently, not much red meat, more veggies, etc. I just taught myself by experimenting (some hits, some misses!) and by buying numerous cookbooks.

                                        1. I learned to cook from my mother, who is a very good cook and if she knew of this thing called the internet, would probably be a chowhounder.

                                          She, however, grew up thinking that the only cheese that exists is Velveeta, and that its not dinner without cream of mushroom soup poured over something. My grandmother is a terrible, terrible cook.

                                          My mom was a schoolteacher, and so the first summer she had off after she got married, she sat down and read Joy of Cooking cover to cover. It is an incredible resource! It explains what you are doing, why you are doing it, what you can fiddle with, and what you can'.

                                          Now, as a second generation "JoC'er" .. My partner keeps asking me how I learned to do things in the kitchen. I just give her a blank look.. how can you *not* know?

                                          1. Bringing this very old thread to the top, so that newer hounds can, if they want to, share how they taught themselves to cook.

                                            I think this is an interesting topic.

                                            1. I'll play:

                                              My mother was a wonderful home cook. This was the 80s in Philadelphia, and she cooked a lot of stereotypical American food, but she had been raised by her adoptive Portugese immigrant grandparents, and just had a very different sense of how to flavor things than my friends' parents did. Spice, acid, charring, freshness, etc. So a lot of the food I ate growing up tasted pretty good. She never really taught me anything outright though - she just made tasty food.

                                              When my parents split, my dad had to learn how to cook. In retrospect, this was equally formative, because we had to figure out why his food didn't taste so good. He eventually learned enough to be a respectable cook himself.

                                              When I left for college, I was turned off by dorm food and set about learning to make a few things, making the occasional call to my mom for a recipe. At the time, it seemed like I was learning to cook from square one, but just having been exposed to good cooking meant that I already understood a lot of things about cooking that my friends had never learned. I was pretty lucky in that way, and I could soon cook well enough to impress fellow college students (which isn't saying all that much, really).

                                              A few years after college, inspired by cable TV, I started holding cooking competitions with a friend of mine who was . To anyone who wants to motivate themselves to kick their cooking into high gear, I strongly recommend cooking competitions. We beat each other back and forth, lording any win, hitting the books hard after any defeat. In a short time, my cooking progressed by leaps and bounds just because I had researched and tried so many techniques hoping to smash my friend in the next competition.

                                              Finally, a few years ago I moved to a small town (my wife is getting her graduate degree nearby) where there's little to do but cook, and almost nowhere in the vicinity to get a half-decent restaurant meal. This is also fine motivation to study cooking, but I don't recommend it as much.

                                              I should add that my cooking owes no small debt to Alton Brown (from whom I've learned so many techniques, even though I dislike his recipes as often as not) and later Harold McGee and especially Heston Blumenthal. It is a fine time to be an analytically minded person who is interested in cooking.

                                              So anyway, I guess I can't say I'm completely self-taught like some of you other CHs can. I have a little baby son now, and hopefully one day he'll say that he picked up a thing or two from me early on.

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: cowboyardee

                                                Thanks for sharing your story. I liked reading it. I think you are pretty much self taught, and I imagine your meals are memorable.

                                              2. I could always cook a little. I was a boy scout but I really didn't need to learn until fairly late in life.

                                                My wife hurt her back and couldn't stand for very long so I took over the cooking. I started by cooking the family favorites with my wifes help and direction.

                                                I undertook a concentrated effort to learn how to cook by the same way any other engineer would learn. I researched it. I watched Food Network and America's Test Kitchen and rented DVD's. I started researching on the web and discovered there were only 10 - 20 cooking techniques that would cover 80% of all cooking. I read articles on those techniques until I was comfortable with them. If I decided I needed to learn something like knife skills or fileting, I would pull up utube videos and watch them and practice. Yes, I can pan flip because an article told me to practice with uncooked rice so I practiced until I didn't get rice all over the patio.

                                                I developed 20 "go to" dishes that I could cook and my family liked. I worked with them until I could make them without a recipe. By then I had discovered that I could change ingredients around so i really had a repertoire of 60 - 70 dishes.

                                                I found the following books helpful but only after I had researched the basics on the web.
                                                Cooking Know-How by Bruce Weinstein, Mark Scarbrough
                                                How to Cook Without a Book by Pam Anderson
                                                The New Best Recipes by Cook’s Illustrated
                                                The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook

                                                9 Replies
                                                1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                  You have a lucky family. Isn't it great to have learned a skill that makes day to day life easier and more flavorful?

                                                  1. re: sueatmo

                                                    A necessary skill and this economy is forcing a lot of people that didn't think they needed to know to learn how.

                                                  2. re: Hank Hanover

                                                    What were the 10 - 20 techniques IIMA?

                                                    1. re: Joebob

                                                      Wet Techniques


                                                      Dry Techniques

                                                      Roasting oven and pan
                                                      Stir Frying

                                                      1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                        Thanks Hank. I asked because my situation is somewhat similar to yours. Excellent cook wife who, in my case, became disabled so I had to learn fast. Thanks again!

                                                        1. re: Joebob


                                                          Research those terms on the web and study them. Once you know them....You will know as much as anybody. If you have trouble finding the info, email me. I'll send you what I have.


                                                          1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                            One thing not on your list:baking, a whole discipline in itself.

                                                            1. re: Joebob

                                                              Yes and I am studying it but it doesn't seem necessary for survival. As you said, it is a discipline...not a technique. For that, there is a wealth of info on Baking911.com.

                                                              With baking being more of a science, cookbooks are more important. The following ones are very good.

                                                              Professional Baking by Wayne Gisslen 4th edition college book with CD. The cd has all the recipes which is worth it's weight in gold. Lots of hows and whys.

                                                              Bakewise by Shirley Corriher even more hows and whys

                                                              Desserts by the Yard and Secrets of Baking by Sherry Yard She is Wolfgang pucks pastry chef. enough said

                                                              Perfect Baking by Flo Braker

                                                              The Dessert Bible by Christopher Kimball of America's Test Kitchen fame

                                                              Studying and learning about ratios is critical in baking especially if you someday wish to create or modify recipes. In cooking, you can use a handful of this a pinch of that. That much looks about right.... Not so with baking.

                                                              1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                                I'd say baking has its own techniques, like folding and kneading ...

                                                                I haven't read Bakewise ... I got Cookwise and found its baking info lacking, so stopped there.

                                                                To me the secret of baking is 1) A really good recipe (I think Maida Heatter writes the very best) and 2) Following the recipe, as well as baking best practices.

                                                                My specialty was cookies of all types, and for some things, there didn't really seem to be instructions out there (this was before blogs). There's no teacher like experience ... something I also did was collect old baking cookbooks, so that if I bought a cookie mold and got some info about what the filling was supposed to be like but not a recipe, I could find a recipe in my cookbooks.

                                                  3. As children, my mother was loathe to let us help in the kitchen. She was always worried about making a mess. I learned a little from girl scouts but mostly outdoor cooking. I have loved cookbooks since I was able to read, although primarily focused on the ingredients lists. My parents both cook well but my mother taught herself as a young bride. When my grandfather fell I'll when I was 9 and had to retire from tile setting, he developed a great love of the early Food Network. I would spend hours with him watching Emeril and some of th early chefs. By the time I went to college my mother had mainly let us learn to make pasta and scrambled eggs. I believe I had made stuffed shells and a few casseroles for community service projects as well. In college, we didn't really have kitchen access until senior year and I tried my hand at a few things like turkey chili. I had an older boyfriend who was a line cook at a local bar/grille but he kept his own kitchen so filthy, we ate out or at the college. I first lived on my own at 22 and would cook for my roommate sometimes. Once I met my current boyfriend, I started cooking for him almost every night. After we started dating we became unseparable and I became obsessed with cooking for him. He suffered through my learning to time chicken, to deep fry, to braise, to roast vegetables, etc. He learned to man a grill a year after we met when I bought my first house. Each Christmas U would as for a new kitchen gadget. I learned how to stir fry in my wok through reading and trial and error. For the first four year of our relationship, I basically cooked a new dish every night, except for the weekends when he would take me out. I still consider myself to be learning. Growing up Italian American, food was a big part of growing up. I understood quality even if I didn't know how to make things myself. I cook a lot by instinct and although I generally use a recipe as a springboard, I rarely follow it to a tee. I am a novice baker, but have sought out the skills of my boufriend's family for teaching me pie crust among the traditional PA Dutch foods from this area.

                                                    My advice to anyone learning is to use whatever resources you have. People, books, tv, Internet have all played a huge role in my becoming what my friends say is the best cook out of all of us. Ask questions, practice and try as much food as you can. I don't have a specific book to use, don't limit youself. Check books out of the library.

                                                    1 Reply
                                                    1. re: melpy

                                                      That's how I learned to stir fry all those years ago. I bought a carbon steel wok and a cookbook, both now gone.

                                                      Mr. Sueatmo has suffered through my learning curve too. But he seldom complains, and now says I am a great cook. I liked reading your story. Thanks for sharing.

                                                    2. I mostly taught myself to cook using Mother's copy of "The Joy of Cooking". by Irma Rombauer. We were living in South America 65 years ago. I longed for American pastry. Mother's interest in anything domestic was uncertain and the maid didn't know what I was talking about. A teacher at school told me how much local yeast to use for "a cake of yeast" in American cookbooks (you had to buy it bulk from a baker). The first thing I ever baked, at age 15, was yeast coffeecake. It came out fine and I was hooked. That summer every afternoon during siesta Mrs Rombauer and I rendezvoused in the kitchen. I haven't stopped baking since.

                                                      1 Reply
                                                      1. re: Querencia

                                                        Love this! I learned to bake young too, but not with yeast. It is addictive.

                                                      2. I learned in college, or started learning, I should say. My mom gave me a copy of the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook and I just started experimenting. It never occurred to me that I couldn't cook something I had a recipe for, and I think that helped.

                                                        Later I started cooking recipes out of Sunset magazine (my dad subscribed, so I did, too). As I cooked more I started looking online for recipes similar to foods I ate in restaurants. I watched every cooking show I could find on PBS. Friends threw "recipe parties" where everyone would bring several copies of a recipe and a batch of the finished dish to taste. Those were so fun, even if half the recipes did rely on cream-of-whatever. I later revised a couple of those recipes and they are now favorites. A nursery in town used to have seminars with local chefs who demonstrated cooking from the garden, and I actually cried when they stopped having those! I once invited myself to a friend's house when her mom was in town to learn to make pie crust. Basically, I learned from anyone who would teach me.

                                                        I rely on the America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook now for recipes I know will work, read several food blogs for recipes to try, and just pick up cookbooks at the library or book store. I pay attention to the cookbooks I hear about on this site, especially. I have a long way to go before I can perform culinary fireworks :), but I love to cook and I think it shows in the meals and treats I create.

                                                        1 Reply
                                                        1. re: SAHCook

                                                          I'm a huge fan of America's Test Kitchen. I learned so much from them - well- Kenji Alt now with Serious Eats. It's about technique and the science of cooking, and why certain things happen while cooking. I never brined chicken before, and couldn't figure out why it was dry. I always thought my mother was a good cook, but really, she wasn't. Not terrible, just pedestrian and unimaginative. Used a lot of soup. Etc.

                                                        2. As a kid, the most I would do was scramble eggs for my parents. In my pre-teens, during my summer break, I would make Pasta-Roni for lunch. Later, my mom would ask me to brown ground beef. I think this sums up my "childhood cooking experience." I didn't really learn anything else.

                                                          When I moved out for college, I liked to try a few new recipes--not a lot, just a few here and there--from AllRecipes.com (I liked the large number of user ratings and comments). I became a fan of the Food Network. I got to try new food that I never really explored before--my parents only took me and my siblings to cheap Chinese restaurants.

                                                          After moving back home after graduating, I realized how much I dislike my parents' cooking. There's a complete lack of variety--a LOT of our food is cooked with soy sauce or vinegar, or fried. Fish is cooked dry. My cheapo parents by cheap cuts of meat and cook it until there's no color left. We'll go months without olive oil. The only herb we have is bay leaves, and the only spice is black pepper. All sauces come from packets.

                                                          In hopes of a better tasting and healthier future, I began reading about food. I visit food blogs and Chowhound daily. I checked out How to Boil Water from the library because it's aimed at complete beginners like me. I also received a book on how to shop at and cook from the farmers' market. I've watched far too many YouTube videos on how to cook a steak.

                                                          And so I'm not like most Chowhounders--I don't really have much cooking experience at all. But I love combing through the forums to learn as much as possible and I look forward to putting this knowledge to use one day. (If you're wondering why I don't just buy my own food, I'm trying to take advantage of the fact that I have free food available while I save like crazy to move out. The few times I cooked for my family, my parents didn't seem to enjoy it. They're not the try-new-things type.)

                                                          2 Replies
                                                          1. re: erichalias

                                                            When you do move out, you'll be fired up and ready to go. And there is all this advice here about types of pans to buy! I do recommend you asking parents or other relatives for their old cast iron or an old pressure cooker though. Save that stuff for when you have your own kitchen. May that be soon.

                                                            Many of us here, of all ages, have expressed frustration with the way our families ate, and that was a big part of our wanting to learn to cook. I understand how you feel.

                                                            Oh, also ask for old cookbooks, if there are any in the family. Maybe grandma has an old copy of Joy of Cooking--you never know.

                                                            1. re: erichalias


                                                              Have them buy some chicken leg quarters and cook those for them. They don't need a lot of spices. Salt, pepper and some oil will be fine. Put them on a rack or a broiler pan. Put them in a 375° F oven for 30 minutes then turn the oven down to 350 for the last 30 minutes. That's it. Some side dishes would be nice. Fix whatever they like. If it's canned green beans, it's canned green beans. Very few people can turn their noses up on roast leg quarters.

                                                              Some other time, have em get some round steak and make Swiss Steak. It's a braise, your supposed to cook it to death.

                                                              Keep trying.. You will eventually impress your parents and you will learn about cooking. Just go with stuff they like and make it better. If it is a little different than they make....well your just learning. Dad can go.. pretty good...not as good as your mothers but pretty good and you say.. yeah it will never be as good as Moms. wink wink nudge nudge

                                                            2. I love my parents dearly, but I grew up in a house where food was a nuisance. It was viewed as a chore at the tail end of the day. Growing up, we had a rotation of food that consisted primarily of Shake & Bake and "packets". Seldom anything fresh. Never anything new. We had about 7 meals that we cycled through on a regular basis. The emphasis was on food temperature - if it was hot when it came out of the oven or off the stove, it was considered sufficient.

                                                              I never complained. I was thankful that I had food to eat because I knew kids who didn't.

                                                              I'm a minimalist at heart, so I was always suspect of additives in food. I was reading labels on foods long, long before it became commonplace. My standing policy was that I would refuse to eat anything I couldn't pronounce or that I recognized from chemistry class.

                                                              The eliminated just about everything except Cheerios and Raisin Bran. And pasta.

                                                              Eventually, I settled into a rotation of my own. I moved to a city that had a Whole Foods and that opened up a whole new world to me. Finally, I didn't have to read labels anymore. Of course, cities also have a plethora of ethnic restaurants. Those, too, led me to try new things.

                                                              Most instrumental in my development, however, was the Food Network. I don't remember what prompted me to start watching it - boredom with the rest of cable programming, most likely. The personalities on the Food Network always made it look easy. Like it was second nature. They seldom measured anything. It was all ad hoc. A little of this, a little of that. Then, out of nowhere, this amazing meal.

                                                              How hard could it be?

                                                              I went online and started downloading recipes. I subscribed to some food magazines and cut out recipes. I started buying cookbooks. Eventually, I just started trying things. I screwed up a lot when first beginning. I tried melting chocolate over medium heat, directly in a saucepan. I tried making my own potato chips by putting a massive quantity of oil in a cast iron dutch oven, putting the lid on and turning the heat up to high, then came back, took the lid off and WHOOSH! Massive flames shoot out of the pot and nearly catch my head on fire.

                                                              Over time, you learn what not to do. Cooks Illustrated has been helpful in that regard.

                                                              Now, I visit farmer's markets on a regular basis, shop at ethnic grocery stores, and try new things whenever possible.

                                                              Cooking is a giant time suck. There never is enough time (or money) to do everything I want to do.

                                                              I'm no wizard, but I sure am thankful I'm not in the ranks of 30-somethings who have no idea how to cook anything. The number of people in that age group that eat out of a box for all their meals amazes me.

                                                              Life is so much better when you have good food!

                                                              2 Replies
                                                              1. re: NotJuliaChild

                                                                "Life is so much better when you have good food!" That says it all.

                                                                1. re: NotJuliaChild

                                                                  Life is so much better when you have good food!

                                                                  Agree totally.

                                                                2. Like many post-war brides, my mom was convinced that food that came from cans, boxes, jars and pouches was superior to anything she could make by "slaving away" in the kitchen. College cafeteria food was actually an improvement!

                                                                  I started to learn how to cook after I graduated and had an apartment of my own. Joy of Cooking's 1975 edition was my guide. Ironically, I chose it because my mom said that she "hated" it, as the recipes were too complicated.

                                                                  I got married two years later, and somebody gave me Julia Child's first book as a wedding present. I worked my way through that, much to the delight of my new husband.

                                                                  But I really learned to cook during a life-changing opportunity to live in Paris for two years in my late 20s. What I learned first was the way good food, properly prepared, is supposed to taste. Now I finally knew what I was shooting for. Then I had the chance to take some classes at the Cordon Bleu, back in the day before it was taken over by a huge corporation. This was in the day before the food network, and cooking shows on PBS were scarce. I discovered how much more beyond the written recipe it is possible to learn by watching a real professional chef in action. I also learned that a pro can keep his cool even after he accidentally set the kitchen on fire, which actually happened.

                                                                  Back in the US, I was lucky to be given a subscription for Gourmet back in the day when it had recipes you could actually find the ingredients for and were elegant enough to serve to guests at dinner parties not involving nachos.

                                                                  So now, more than 35 years after moving into my first place after college, I'm still learning, but I've mainly got the hang of it.

                                                                  1 Reply
                                                                  1. re: bitchincook

                                                                    We're about the same age/era, bc, but what a difference between our mothers! Mine revered her 1953 Joy of Cooking, and I grew up watching and "helping" in the kitchen, including many hours spent reading Irma and Marion's recipes and information. She cooked simple but delicious meals (using for four months of the year vegetables from my father's big garden). As the years went by she became a better and better cook, and then a more adventurous one [Julia, followed up with local French cooking classes, then a Chinese period...]

                                                                    What I've wondered about in recent years is what she used to cook from in the ten or so years before she got 'the bible'. She grew up in a household where the cook was an underpaid and overworked employee who quite naturally was not eager to have children spend time in the kitchen, so she was starting from nothing. For a few of those pre-Joy years the U.S. Marine Corps provided her meals, but for most of them she was presumably cooking for (and maybe with) my father.

                                                                    Just today, in looking through a shelf of her cookbooks, I discovered at least part of the answer, in the form of a faded and brittle late 1930s-early 1940s community cookbook from our little town, a giveaway co-sponsored by General Foods and the local newspaper. Evidence of my mother's active use is all through it: notes on how to cut down the waffle recipe, adjustments in amounts of sugar or salt, comments, and a few recipes in others' handwriting, ad hoc additions to the collection. [The names of the contributors also bring back my early childhood, when they were leading lights of the community. The recipes evoke wedding receptions and cocktail parties of those years: cheese straws, tomato aspic, beaten biscuits with country ham... ]

                                                                    I'm so happy to have found this little window to our shared and unshared past. I don't remember her ever using the community cookbook. It wasn't really printed for the ages, and would have been getting flaky by the mid-sixties (though I notice the glossy-paged General Foods ads are holding up much better ;>). By the late sixties she'd moved way beyond it, and may not have even remembered it existed; it was sandwiched between some 1950s recipe leaflets inside a larger cookbook.

                                                                  2. I would have to credit my mother, she was/is a great cook, large italian spreads every weekend. But oone thing she couldn't do was bake.so as a kid if I wanted cake/cookies had to learn to bake it myself. Was baking cakes from scratch at like 10 yrs old. And no internet to look it up either.
                                                                    Just tried different things till found one that works

                                                                    For anyone starting to cook. Just keep cooking, will get better and better.

                                                                    1 Reply
                                                                    1. re: terasec

                                                                      Yes. It sure is easier with the Internet. Anything you want to know, you can just google it.

                                                                    2. I have to admit, Rachael Ray taught me the basics. I'd be living on ramen and scrambled eggs if it weren't for her.

                                                                      2 Replies
                                                                      1. re: jvanderh

                                                                        I learned a lot from watching Alton Brown several years ago. Seeing a technique as it is done, makes the learning curve less steep.

                                                                        1. re: sueatmo

                                                                          But Alton's much less embarrassing!! :-P

                                                                      2. Perseverance and determination. No cookbook can teach the most basic lessons you have to learn. E.g., is this pan too hot to put butter in?

                                                                        1 Reply
                                                                        1. re: AlkieGourmand

                                                                          Your post reminded me of one of the most helpful (cooking) things I've ever seen, I think in Saveur magazine. It was a picture of various types of nuts (I remember pine I think), before, perfectly toasted, and burned. That was really helpful, and prevented my having to learn from experience ...

                                                                        2. I'm from Vietnam, and it wasn't until I went to a university in Australia that I discovered my love for cooking. My mother is an average cook. Most of her dishes were not bad, but she lacked an analytic mind, an attention to details and a good sense of balancing the flavors to make them stand out. I never felt the need to learn decent cooking, since my mom saw cooking as a chore and kids in the kitchen as distraction.

                                                                          Living in Australia for 4 years have opened my eyes to the magical world of cuisine and I always think that's the best decision of my life. They have a plethora of ethnic restaurants. However, I was inspired to take cooking seriously after watching Masterchef Australia. Previously, I had never known Italian cuisine is so much more than pasta and pizza and Lebanese and Greek cuisine have so much to offer. Then I started learning from various cooking sites, such as allrecipes, epicurious and taste.com.au, since I couldn't afford a beginner cookbook at that time.

                                                                          Now back in Vietnam, there is so much pain and frustration in being determined to cook international cuisine. There are so many common ingredients I couldn't find: various types of cream, baking soda, rye flour, lemon etc. Like many Vietnamese people, my parents are very conservative when it comes to eating. I haven't learned much since I left Australia, but I still keep going. It's tons of fun.

                                                                          1. I learned to cook mostly by watching shows on PBS (pre-food channel) also, by cooking with friends or roomates.

                                                                            When I got out of college I was pretty broke - my roomates and I would have a pasta sauce cooking comp. several nights of the week.

                                                                            My favorites chefs that I learn the most from: Jaque Pepin, Anne Burrel, bobby flay

                                                                            1 Reply
                                                                            1. re: sparky403

                                                                              Many folks here are so lucky to have roomates who're decent cooks. My roomates were very nice, but they either didn't appreciate good food and ethnic cuisine or preferred dining out. Cooking for one person is so frustrating and discouraging sometimes that I often turn to Chowhound for inspiration. I don't have much access to Western ingredients, so I often cook Japanese, Thai and Chinese food.

                                                                              I learn from as many resources as possible, but my go-to chefs and cooks are: Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Alton Brown, Stephanie Alexander, joyofbaking.com, Cooking with Dogs and Elizabeth Andoh. The internet and library sure make learning so much more accessible. I like cookbooks but I just got out of college and couldn't afford many cookbooks.

                                                                            2. Gosh, there is a big learning curve between boiling water & culinary fireworks. I started out by picking a food I really liked & looked at dozens of recipes & hints on line & of course here on Chowhound. For instance, fried chicken. To brine or not to brine? To double dip in flour or not? Just study until you are completely familiar with the processes. Print out several recipes & compare the ingredients. See which spices you like. What sort of pan are most folks frying the chicken in, what type of oil is used? Do you want extra crispy or lightly breaded?

                                                                              When you do attempt a recipe, you will be pretty knowledgeable about what to expect.

                                                                              Try a French dish to reconnect with your roots. Ask questions, visit youtube. And most of all, enjoy the journey.

                                                                              1. I've never taken a cooking class but I've always been extremely interested in cooking, so I read a lot of books and just jumped in and played in the kitchen. Experiment. That is the key word. As the years go by, you'll discover new foods, new methods, new cuisines, and so on and you'll be quiet good before you know it. I'm also a kitchen gadget hoarder because good tools make the job easier and more reliable.

                                                                                1. I saw a very nice article about cooking methods and techniques. They even had a chart that could be copied and printed. For anyone interested, here is a link.


                                                                                  1 Reply
                                                                                  1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                                                    Wow, I'm in awe. I'm perusing it right now. thanks so much.

                                                                                  2. It was Cook's Illustrated that did it for me, Until I found the magazine, I assumed all recipes worked, and if they didn't work for me, it was my fault. That was revelatory, and it encouraged me to keep cooking even when I made disappointing dish after disapointing dish. It also helped me learn the science behind a lot of dishes.

                                                                                    The microwaved onion made me gag a little.

                                                                                    1. Alton Brown, Harold McGee, Modernist Cuisine. Learning the science behind the technique was a godsend for a nerd like me.

                                                                                      2 Replies
                                                                                      1. re: lamb_da_calculus

                                                                                        Have you also read Cookwise? It's pretty interesting, but I found the information in my area of greatest expertise imperfect. I haven't read Bakewise, but probably should ...

                                                                                        PS I see these books have already been discussed on this thread ... including by me. If only I knew all the things I've forgotten :)

                                                                                        1. re: foiegras

                                                                                          Of all the things I have lost I miss my mind the most. - Ozzy Osbourne

                                                                                      2. I just have to post on this thread.
                                                                                        My mother was an excellent (and unpretentious) cook. I don't remember beginning to learn to cook; it was just part of growing up to "help" and learn.

                                                                                        All that said, my mother herself was always looking for the opportunity to learn something new with regard to cooking.

                                                                                        It is a wonderful heritage, and I miss her a lot.