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How can I learn to become a good cook?

I would love to learn how to cook- from scratch.. I would love to learn how to make delicious, nutritious, healthy , homecooked foods. I love to eat!! As an african-american lady, I love jamaican and other caribbean foods. Over the years, I have bought literally dozens of cookbooks- some basic, others caribbean. Alot of the cookbooks, however, assume prior knowledge and experience in cooking. I have no experince at all..

Can anyone offer any cooking tips, secrets, advice for the novice or beginner cook? Can anyone recommend any BASIC, ILLUSTRATED, COLORFUL INSTRUCTIVE cookbook that can guide me in the rudiments of basic cooking. A cook book that will explain what to do and the rationale or reasoning behind doing it. Is there any basic or/ and caribbean cooking dvd/video? Any suggestions and advice will be greatly appreciated.

Thank You, Dee

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  1. Your request for a cookbook leads me to suggest "The Joy of Cooking", which is basic, but it won't have many caribbean recipes. By asking your question, I think you have taken a most important step. READ AND SEARCH THESE BOARDS, and when you feel like asking a question, do so. I have learned so much from this site! And when you see a recipe you like, DO IT. That should keep you busy until you are a terriffic cook. GOOD HUNTING.

    1. "America's Best Recipe" from Cook's Illustrated.

      1. watch the food channel. Mario, good eats are both great for beginners.

        1 Reply
        1. re: chrisinroch

          I think Mario would be daunting for a beginner. Giada is more accessible (Everyday Italian) even if she is snarly on Next Food Network Star. Her dishes are much simpler to put together, and those that I've tried are great.

        2. If you have absolutely no experience and already have invested in so many books, probably best to look around for a hands-on class at the community level. Most towns, cities have adult classes for just about anything and I'm sure you could find a very basic class in simple cooking. At this point, books of themselves are probably just frustrating you. You really can't substitute getting help from a real person.

          Once you've worked with someone with some skill either one-on-one or with a group of others at your level led by someone with skills, you'll get an idea of the simple techniques to get started and can quickly progress onto more complicated recipes and techniques.

          Whatever you do, don't give up and don't be afraid to be a complete mess for at least a little while, it won't take long at all to get better. Cooking is really not as hard as it may seem, more so once you've gotten started.

          Good luck and please pester :-) us with as many questions as you like.

          2 Replies
          1. re: kevine

            I'd second the class recommendation. Or if you know someone who cooks the way you'd like to cook, ask that person to show you how to make a few things--maybe you buy the ingredients in exchange for the lessons! There's nothing to build your confidence and make you more comfortable with the basics than learning hands-on from a real person.

            Once you have a little confidence and experience under your belt, you'll find the cookbook recipes much easier to deal with.

            I also agree with the person who said watch Food TV. Or at least check their website. I just did a search there and found a lot of Caribbean recipes. You may even find upcoming episodes that you can watch or tape (not sure if videos are available online). Watching someone cook, even on tv, can be very helpful. And using the internet can save you a bit of money on cookbooks till you're more comfortable in the kitchen. My experience has taught me that the cookbooks that impressed me before I became a good cook are not the same cookbooks I'd want to use now!

            1. re: Kagey

              Dee~ Do not disregard or look down on this method. When professional chefs do it, it's called "staging." Even experienced chefs will work for week in a kitchen along side of another chef for free, just to see what they can see and learn what they can learn.

          2. Nobody does recipes like Ree. http://thepioneerwomancooks.com/ She has pictures of the ingredients and each step. Her site is a fun read. No, it's not Caribbean, but it's stuff that you can make and it's good. It's a good place to start. I'm sure she'll be the next blogger with a cookbook out.

            There are videos of just about anything cooking. Just do a Google search for what you want. Don't forget to say "video." Ex. Butterfly chicken video, make vinaigrette video, make bread video. Just to make sure, all three of these searches worked fine.

            And then you try. Do not expect perfection of yourself the first time you try a technique or a recipe. If you can eat it, you did fine. Then think about what you might have done better and make a few notes for yourself on the recipe.

            1 Reply
            1. re: yayadave

              For step-by-step, basic recipes, thepioneerwomancooks.com is very instructional. her pics are especially helpful if you are a visual learner. Her recipes use too much butter and sugar, for me, but I have found cutting back a little on these ingredients don't hurt the outcome.

            2. from one amateur cook to another... actually, i may have somewhere graduated to intermediate (just realized the thanksgiving menu this year is far more ambitious and advanced than previous years!)... cookbooks were never for me, personally... rather, if you're the creative type i would recommend you go to the produce shop, buy some very basic stuff you like, and just start experimenting.

              i LOVE tomatoes, and they're easy to work with - so i concentrate mostly on tomatoes - rare is the dish that doesn't contain them in my house. first i made a marinara sauce. then a vodka sauce. then a fresh salsa. then halved some tomatoes, sprinkled with sea salt and parmesan, and broiled for a snack. sliced different colored tomatoes up with fresh moz + basil + balsamic for a simple summer salad on a skewer. made various tomato-based chilis (i'm vegetarian). sun-dried tomatoes. copied a tomato, caper, green olive stew i recently had at a mexican restaurant. alternate layers of tomatoes and eggplants in a lasagne. made a minestrone (turned mexistrone from the spices of choice!) soup. none of that was from any written recipes... it was a bit of trial and error, and some things worked better than others, but i think i know my way pretty well around any tomato you can throw at me. i keep an eye out for tomato-centric recipes and television cooking programs, but mostly i prefer to wing it. since i love the base ingredient, it's pretty difficult to make anything totally inedible. so that's my advice. may your ingredient of choice be as inexpensive as mine. :)

              1 Reply
              1. re: rabidog

                This is a nice idea. Take an ingredient and work with it. Another good one for this approach is pasta, home made, and all the ways you can dress it that are NOT red sauce.

                Then there's soup. Soup has: 1=a liquid 2=a protein 3=a starch 4=a green 5=seasoning. Not every soup has all five of these and some soups have more than one ingredient from some of the categories, but if you just use stuff you like, you'll get soup. And you can go from there.

              2. Skip the cooking channel. The shows that are simple enough to follow (for a beginner) are not cooking. They're essentially re-heating packaged food (think Rachael Ray).

                Go out and get the Joy of Cooking (2nd edition) at a used bookstore or on alibris (not the new version, the version that has 2 authors. It assumes you don't know anything, and describes things in great detail.

                That said, the food in that book is often a little bland, but it'll give you the basics for starting out.

                Focus on one particular style of cooking or type of dish. When you start to feel comfortable with that, branch out. For example, focus on beef. Or chili. Or soups. Or jerk chicken (as you seem to like caribbean food).

                Buy the rest of your recipe books after reading them in a bookstore. Make sure that you actually think you can make the recipes in them.

                Have people over often to taste your cooking. Invite people who you feel will tell you when you've done well (but will also tell you when you've screwed up).

                Drink wine while cooking.

                Have fun!

                18 Replies
                1. re: greglor

                  You think that the old Molto Mario and Good eats shows focus on reheating packaged foods?!? Are you sure that you're not confusing Batali with Sandra Lee? Mario is the one with the clogs and the slightly smaller breasts.

                  1. re: greglor

                    I also disagree ... FoodTV is fine to get tips and ideas, and you get to watch people cutting, slicing, dicing. Sandra Lee is the only one I can think of on there who uses prepackaged stuff, and she tells you about it right up front. Rachael Ray, love her or hate her, she is actually cooking food.

                    1. re: k_d

                      Yes about RR. She's making good food that people can eat. The idea that it's getting done in 30 minutes is a problem. It gets inexperienced people to want to try this cooking stuff, which is good. On the other hand, it defeats people who think this stuff really only takes 30 minutes. There's a lot of prep and behind the scenes work that happens so RR can put it together in 30 minutes.

                      1. re: yayadave

                        Meh, in my opinion, anyone who uses as many ingredients as Rachel Ray does that require a can opener to get at, is reheating food.

                        The fact that she opens three cans and mixes them a bit of parsley before reheating doesn't change that it's reheating.

                        Rachel Ray is not a cook. I'll agree that she's not quite as bad as Sandra Lee, but I'll have to disagree with the rest of you as to Rachel Ray.

                        1. re: greglor

                          The woman advocates using pre-chopped onion. 'Nuff said.

                          1. re: alanbarnes

                            yaya, greg, alan...

                            Now...I could be wrong about the following...and I'll certainly apologize if I am...but I get the feeling maybe the discussion above is not taking into account what Rachel Ray's 30-minute show is intended to do or to whom it's targeted.

                            From what I can see, Rachel Ray is talking to people who *have* to cook, but whose time is squeezed past the limits of sanity (i.e., mostly women with kids/career women who work long hours).

                            I think it was conceived for (primarily) women who may or may not be experienced; who may not actually love to cook; who consider cooking an important family-maintenance task that they feel a responsibility to do well, rather than, as many of us here do, a religion, an artform or way of life; mothers and wives who work long hours outside or in the home; maybe have young and teenaged children, who, after all, as I remember, generally need lots of attention (homework help, transpo to and from afterschool activities, bathing, organizing for the next day, plus hopefully, a little "quality time") RIGHT at the very time one would be prepping, cooking and cleaning up after the nightly meal.

                            Rachel Ray seems to me to be perhaps the Electronic Age equivalent of a monthly feature that I think Good Housekeeping magazine used to have (and maybe it still does, I don't know)--a calendar for the upcoming month with a menu suggestion for every night, and corresponding recipes right in the issue.

                            She is not a chef, but she is a cook. She may not cook on 30-minute meals the way some of us would choose to cook, or have the luxury to cook, and she may utilize some prepped or pre-packaged ingredients that some of us would choose not to use. But it's cooking, and it's certainly at least a few steps above Hamburger Helper.

                            However...I don't think that program is *about* cooking. I think it's about meal planning.

                            True, Rachel Ray shouldn't be confused with Robert Irvine, Jean-Georges Vongerichten or Daniel Boulud, but I don't think that either she or the network present what she does in that light. I don't have a problem with what she does. That, in addition to raking in bazillions, is providing some encouragement to harried American mothers and wives, along with some relatively healthful ideas, unlike The Queen of Sodium, Hydrogenation, and Cool Whip, Sandra Lee, who is appealing and creative, but whom the American Heart Association should declare Public Enemy Number One. (Well...maybe *that* would be Paula Deen, god love her.)


                            But I also get an underlying point I think you're all making, which is...if you want to learn how to get some grub on the table quickly, watch Rachel Ray. If you want to learn how to cook like James Beard, read James Beard. Or something like that, right?

                            1. re: MaggieRSN

                              Yep, I think you and I agree (more or less), though perhaps I haven't expressed myself clearly. When referring to Rachel Ray as a food reheater, I should have included the Seinfeld quote "not that there's anything wrong with that". I almost never cook during the week. I only cook on weekends. During the week I reheat leftovers from the weekends, or various frozen items. ;)

                              That said, I got some good cooking in this TurkeyDay weekend. Yum!

                              1. re: greglor

                                :-) re Seinfeld. I can hear him saying it now.

                                I don't know...I love to cook, but it can be exhausting. It's a pleasure, but it can also be work. "Not that there's anything wrong with that." :-) Some of my most satisfying accomplishments in life have been the result of work. ;-)

                              2. re: MaggieRSN

                                No disagreement here, but the OP was not asking how to keep body and soul together, or how to squeeze the preparation and serving of a meal into a thirty-minute window. She was asking how to become a good cook. Seems to me that Rachel Ray isn't a particularly good source of information if that's your goal.

                                1. re: alanbarnes

                                  Yes, I think we do agree on that point per my last remark re James Beard. I think you're absolutely right about that.

                                2. re: MaggieRSN

                                  All that stuff. RR makes it look so easy to put something on the table that she may be encouraging non-cookers into giving it a try. The hoped for result of that is that they are pleasured by the experience and continue and grow as cookers. It's like the little old lady down the street who gave piano lessons to all the kids in the neighborhood for a couple of years. They all benefited from the experience and maybe someone ended up at Curtis Institute.

                                  And I'm glad you mentioned James Beard, because you certainly could learn cookin' from studying his books.

                              3. re: greglor

                                You obviously haven't watched RR very often....she rarely opens cans (other than broth) and as for onions (the poster below you), that girl dices a whole onion EVERY show.

                                1. re: JaneRI

                                  Rachel and the onion, Paula and the stick of butter, eh, Jane? ;-)

                                  When I've watched her, she's generally used fresh ingredients, fresh herbs (unless dried are really called for, which they are in some recipes). I've seen her open a few cans, now and then, or maybe cheese that was crumbled at the supermarket, but I think it's reasonable. I really don't know too many cooks, even the best, who don't at some point or another use a prepared ingredient that an absolute purist could and would make him-/herself. It might be a preserve, or a mustard, or a package of Boursin, instead of herbing the cheese oneself at home, or, in my case, I like to use phyllo in savory dishes and desserts. Sorry, but I'm not making the phyllo myself. ;-)

                                  The reason I think Rachel in 30 Minute Meals wouldn't be the one to watch to learn classical principles of cooking is that, often, she's not making the classic dish. She's making something that's reminiscent of it. One can't make a traditional beef Stroganoff in a half hour, but one can make an entree that's perfectly filling and nutritious that shares beef Stroganoff's flavors and textures and is based upon it. What's wrong with that, for a busy family that may also have budgetary constraints? Better than it coming out of box that lists the primary ingredient as salt. On the other hand, she makes other things that are pretty much the "classic version"--e.g., one *can* make a Croque Monsieur in thirty minutes.

                                  I think there are any number of people on the Food Network who are good to watch, to learn technique, who feature food somewhere in between Sandra Lee's (sorry to keep picking on her, but she is the one I think most uses processed food) and the tripe mousse you might see on Iron Chef.

                                  I agree with the previous poster who mentioned Giada DeLaurentiis. I don't make much of the kind of food she makes, but I do watch her to learn about cooking. I've noticed that Emeril, for all the showbiz in his show, takes the time to explain the why and wherefore about what one does to the food. And one of the very best, I find, is Sara Moulton. Unfortunately, she's usually just on on weekday mornings, I think, so folks out working may not see her. There are others, but these are three, of the top of my head, whom I think are not only accomplished chefs, but also effective communicators who teach without condescending.

                                  But I still love all the old PBS standbys--Jacques Pepin, Julia Child, Lidia, etc., and just don't get to see them anymore, if any of them are still on.

                                  1. re: MaggieRSN

                                    Maggie, I completely agree w/you on why RR isn't a good example for the original poster. I just really felt the need to clarify that she does not simply reheat food. Her style and her food certainly aren't to everyone's liking, but to say she doesn't cook is simply wrong.

                                    I like Sara Moulton also - she used to be on weeknights, but I guess she isn't flashy enough to stand up to the likes of RR, Emeril, etc?

                                    I think Alton Brown is also great for learning the "whys" of cooking.

                                    1. re: JaneRI

                                      I know one shouldn't assume things about people, but sometimes...logic and experience lead to certain conclusions. And, JMO, but I can only conclude that Rachel Ray first learned how to cook in a...I don't know what words to use...more traditional, less speedy, less streamlined ?? way. Because I really don't think one can do what she does, using primarily non-processed foods, and cooking a wide variety of balanced, quick meals, unless one knows more complex cooking well enough to deconstruct it.

                                      We're agreed re Alton Brown & Sara Moulton. I read some time ago that she had left FN because she's not showbizzy enough for their production values, and is in plans to do a new show on PBS... I don't know if that ever happened, or if it will...but I'd love to see her do something again. She's very, very good at uplifting quality ingredients through proper technique and explaining to us how to do it.

                                      1. re: MaggieRSN

                                        SL's autobiography is entitled Made From Scratch (wa ha ha ha ha)-- apparently it's a rags-to-riches tale of how she "grew up on food stamps" and then became a "celebrity chef" (her words, not mine). Apparently, first and foremost, she considers refers herself as a "lifestyle expert." Hmmm. Which lifestyle? ;) A big part of her lifestyle must involve cocktails, as she seems to always be sloshing booze into some concoction or other.

                                        Of course, she didn't write the book *from scratch* -- she hired a ghost writer. Amazon reviews indicate that the text is riddled with grammatical errors.

                                        She creeps me out.

                                        1. re: foxy fairy

                                          LOL re the cocktails, foxy. I forgot about all the booze. I swear that woman conjure a glow-in-the-dark, slushy, salt- or colored-sugar-rimmed alcoholic beverage from a pair of pliers, lint from my dryer, and a hatrack.

                                          I think she really did have a tough childhood, and I always have to tip my cap to anyone who sets goals for him-/herself and works hard towards them, instead of letting hard times drag him/her down. One just worries a little bit about the message she's disseminating, given the diabetes and other dietary related epidemics.

                                          I was kind of surprised about the "celebrity chef" bit. Oooooh, that's not a good thing, when cooks refer to themselves as chefs. I'm not sure she's the one who called herself that. So, I went to look up her bio, something *not* from the publicists at FN. Check out the quote from Anthony Bourdain, near the bottom. To relate some of these posts back to peddle's original title, I'd urge her to pay more attention to Ellie Krieger, Mario, Cat Cora and Amy What's-Her-Name (the new one, who won the program contest) more than SL. ;-)


                                          1. re: MaggieRSN

                                            That "celebrity chef" line is actually from the inside flap of her book:
                                            "The true story of how celebrity chef Sandra Lee went from being raised on food stamps to starring in her own TV show, Semi-Homemade Cooking, on the Food Network."

                                            I couldn't find the AB quote on that link, but I've read that he says something about she cooks as if she's been on crack for a long time, right?

                                            **peddle** Why don't you let your friends know what you're up to, and ask them to each give you a copy of their top five recipes. For the hard ones, invite them over and ask if they'll help guide you in the preparations. Try the simpler ones on your own and call them if you get stuck. That way it's a recipe that's loved already by someone important to you... so it probably won't end up a total disaster, and if it does, someone is right there to remedy it.

                        2. Cook. Cook foods that you love with ingredients that move you, and once you read the recipe over carefully a few times for technique, put the book down, and know that there is no book that will make you a good cook. Get your hands in the food every chance you have. Get up close and personal with how it feels and how it smells and how it tastes. Think about it from the inside out, the way you want to know someone you have just fallen in love with. The more you cook, the more you will be able to trust yourself to add just enough of whatever it needs. Think of textures and colors, acid tastes, smooth tastes, and warm and cool flavors. Make dishes over and over that you know and love until they couldn't be better.
                          Remember to use salt to bring out the best of a flavor, not to overpower it. Use acid to brighten things, (vinegar, lemon, orange, lime, etc). Use fat to connect flavors and to smooth them. Then there is everything in between. fayefood.com

                          1. I agree with the suggestions people have offered. Fifteen years ago, I was a complete disaster in the kitchen and had no idea what I was doing (I once put spaghetti into a pot of cold water and tried to bring it to a boil to cook it! It did not turn out well). Once I made up my mind to become a better cook, I found a number of things helped me:

                            1) Watching peoples' techniques when they cook, whether at an open kitchen in a restaurant, a friend making dinner, a cooking class or demonstration or even the Food Network (if the 'chef' is actually preparing the food, as opposed to just assembling pre-packaged food)

                            2) Getting some good basic books such as How To Cook Everything by Mark Bittman and The Joy of Cooking. I also learned a lot from Cooking School Secrets for Real World Cooks by Linda Carucci

                            3) I enjoy Fine Cooking magazine because it often talks about techniques and a bit of the science behind some of the dishes, for example why my quiches are much better when I use cream vs. milk

                            4) Practice and have fun! I love cooking now and am considered a pretty decent home chef. If I can do it, so can you. Good luck!

                            1. Taste, taste, taste. Cooking comes with experience. Most is learned through repetition. If you've made thousands of steaks the same way you will learn to hear and smell if it's ready. Not the type of experience that us home cooks have but the more you do the more you will know. So explore, read, taste and cook and do it often. Caribbean and Jamaican food use wonderful spices and tropical fruits which are loaded with flavors.

                              Try to learn good knife skills. They will aide you in your ability to cook well. One does not need to know the science behind cooking but it can help you understand why something happens the way it does. If you are one that likes to know the why, consider Harold McGee's book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. When learning a new cuisine, read about the typical ingredients. Look at recipes and follow them correctly in the beginning but don't be afraid to improvise after you know the basics.

                              1. The Joy of Cooking was the best book for me. In there ar cooking techniques, temperatures, and the preparation of food. and classic recipes.
                                It is not a beautiful,colored glossy pages, nor a coffee table book, but it is certainly a good book to begin with and then later on a great tool to refer and use as a resource once your skills and confidence improve. I use mine all the time. I would go to the library, every week I would check out books on a certain ethnic cuisine, and I would attempt at least one item. I studied the glossary, the spices and herbs they use, and the tools. It all looked so foreign but then I would go to an ethnic market and buy the ingredients and while there, look at all the products and if there is anyone that could converse, talk and ask questions. Oakland Chinatown was terrific! I find that people are more than eager to help us learn about their food and traditions.

                                Try not to think, "I would never try that!" It is like putting up a wall, you then won't have the opportunity to perhaps learn even more about food.
                                When looking at those strange clouds ears, tiger lily buds 15 years ago I was really skeptical, but my Chinese cooking teacher Mrs Wu would tell us, "Be like an empty tea cup, be filled!" And we would be rewarded with then, the tastiest Moo Shoo Pork and handmade pancakes! That was 15 years ago, and a class will be priceless later.
                                If you can shop at a store that sells spices by the ounce (not in bottles or packaged already) where you can get your nose in there and smell the dried herbs and spices. Identifying those before hand is a huge help. Buy ethnic condiments and try them, and use different vegetables even if they look funny to you.
                                And lastly, pour yourself a glass of champagne or whatever your beverage, light a candle, relax and have some serious cooking fun!

                                1. When I was starting out, I made a vow to make five new dishes a week - which was easy since I didn't cook at all! Those dishes needn't be entrees. Any main dish, side dish, veggie, dessert qualified. It took a bit of planning but I did it. In fact, lo these many years later, I still strive for a few new things a week. That's what makes cooking fun for me. If I was just doing the same-old I'd certainly be bored by now. My love is more eating than cooking! But I do enjoy trying new things.

                                  Get a few magazine subscriptions, post-it those cookbooks, make lists in Word documents, and get going.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: mirage

                                    I haven't read all the posts and someone may have said this already, but, back when Julia was a bride, she had no clue whatsoever in the kitchen. She was a cryptologist during WWII and met her husband in England, I guess. Benchley Park and all that.

                                    No one in America knew or cared a fig about the French and their food and Julia was in Europe and started learning. What a fabulous woman she was and what an original thinker. She made us Americans learn about food. Incredible.

                                    My favorite moment is still when she dropped the duck on the floor and said (to paraphrase) "the only one in the kitchen is you. Clean it up and go on."

                                    Nothing pretentious, but she certainly understood the basics.

                                    She got cranky with Sara Molton over a bearnaise "more butter, more butter. eat less, cook well."

                                    1. re: dutchdot

                                      :-) What a fun post, dutch. You made me smile, thinking about her. My mother, who was a good cook, was bored by television and never watched it, except when an old movie she treasured was on, or when PBS showed Julia Child's program. Mom used to sit, rapt, taking extensive notes without looking down at the paper. Then she'd run right out to the kitchen, bent on interpreting and transcribing the chicken scratch before she forgot what Julia had said.

                                      Wasn't Julia Child included in one of those publicized Millenium surveys of the 100 most influential people of the 20th Century? I think many homecooks just like my mother must have been starved for what Julia Child and James Beard brought to our collective table. As did millions of women across the country, my mother lived in a large metro area where fine restaurants were plentiful and my parents liked to explore them. Mom *knew* high-quality French, Continental and classical food; she just didn't know to *make it*. She wanted to know, and Julia Child was the first to make it widely accessible to American housewives. So every Sunday we looked forward to Mom's practice dishes.

                                      Btw, re the cryptology stint, I have a copy of a cookbook that CIA--the one in Langley, and not Hyde, Park ;-)--families who served all over the world put together. Mostly anonymously, they recount stories of their most adventurous meals, and provide typical recipes from wherever they were stationed. Some are put together with some pretty resourceful ingredients, from those who were out in the boonies or fourth world stations. They are very proud of Julia Child's early association with the OSS. A conversation with her is featured in the introduction and every chapter begins with another excerpt from it.

                                  2. 1. Identify the foods you really, really like and know exactly how they should taste.
                                    2. From the above list, select the ones you really, really want to be able to cook.
                                    3. Find someone close to you who knows how to make the dishes in 2. above.
                                    4. Work with him/her preparing those dishes until you can easily do them yourself.
                                    5. Lean to pre-prep and put in place your ingredients for whatever dish.

                                    As you proceed, pay attention to: a) selecting meats, vegetables, and basic ingredients, b) washing, peeling, slicing, dicing, cubing, chopping, grating,; c) boiling, sauteeing, frying, stir frying, poaching, steaming, breading or flouring; d) roasting, baking, grilling; e) uncooked sauces and dressings, reduction sauces, "real" sauces; f) de-boning chickens, cleaning and filleting fish...[the list goes on].

                                    Set up some milestone preparations. For example: a) sandwiches, b) salads, c) boiled, poached, scrambled eggs, omelettes; d) baked/mashed/fried/roasted potatoes, rice, couscous, e) pastas and sauces; f) burgers and backyard BBQ; g) casseroles, muffins, pancakes; h) roasted chicken/turkey; i) ...[the list goes on].

                                    1. The most imortant and subtle cooking lesson I've ever learned is to season as you go. When you're sauteeing the onions, sprinkle with a little kosher salt. Add celery? Sprinkle with a litle kosher salt. Salt everything as you go, a little bit. If you wait until the end of cooking to season, you'll add a lot of salt, and way less flavor.

                                      1. I started out with "The Joy of Cooking", but I didn't really learn to cook until I got hooked on "Cook's Illustrated". Now I've learned enough proper technique that I can move away from my CI cookbooks (though I don't, usually) and make things that taste really good.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: lwarwick

                                          I would second the recommendation to subscribe to CI and/or buy one of their cookbooks. They explain everything in simple terms, and I've yet to have one of their recipes be a total failure (some might need a bit of a tweak to taste). You'll also learn technique and get some really good equipment recommendations. The CI show on PBS is also educational.

                                          As other posters have stated, Alton Brown on FN is also good for learning the "whys" of cooking. If FN is still running "Sarah's Secrets" in some obscure time slot, I'd say TIVO or record that, she is also good about patient explanation of technique.

                                          Best hint for cooking: mise en place--have all your ingredients measured, and equipment ready, when you start a recipe.

                                        2. My favorite is Julia Child's "The Way to Cook." It's really a COOKbook (as opposed to a collection of recipes); it focuses on techniques first, and their application later, with lots of pictures to clarify things. It's organized in a novice-friendly way; each section starts with a simple master recipe (for example, braised chicken) followed by more complex variations of the dish (for example, coq au vin) and an explanation of how the technique can be applied to other ingredients (for example, rabbit ragout).

                                          The Joy of Cooking, mentioned above, is also an outstanding reference. It has recipes for a huge variety of dishes (possum, anyone?), and the instructions assume minimal prior knowledge.

                                          Finally, Alton Brown has a cookbook I really enjoy called "I'm Just Here for the Food." It focuses on the science of cooking--why things work the way they do. If you like his nerdy, quirky style it is a fun read. My favorite is his explanation of why it takes longer to cook food in a 500-degree oven than in 350-degree oil. He compares the energy transfer in the two cooking environments to the energy transfer of being hit by each of two individuals. The oven is an ex-football player who is currently sleepy from beer consumption, while the deep-fryer is a laid-off dot.com geek who's tanked up on black coffee, mad about losing his job, and hiding a lead pipe behind his back. Silly, but it makes the point.

                                          Anyway, good luck with your new endeavor. You'll avoid frustration if you master the basics before moving on to more complex stuff. Buy quality ingredients, pay attention to what you're doing, taste everything all the time, don't be afraid to experiment, and you'll be cranking out masterpieces before you know it.

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: alanbarnes

                                            If you like Alton Brown, you have to check out his episode about scallops. Its done in a Jaws theme. Informative and hilarious.

                                            1. re: alanbarnes

                                              I loved The Way To Cook. But the book that really started me off learning techniques and processes was Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The illustrations are wonderful, the directions are clear and complete, and many women of my generation learned to cook from it. The techniques it teaches apply to many cuisines - saute is saute, roast is roast... whether you're seasoning with chiles or lemons or whatever.

                                              Good luck. Cooking well is one of life's great joys and comforts.

                                            2. I learned to cook really well from my future MIL. Is there a friend, or neighbor, or family member, that is a good cook? I have tons of cookbooks, but getting comfortable in the kitchen, wasn't happening. My MIL, was a great cook, and what she showed me, was a few simple dishes, to get me started. I learned lots of things, by doing, rather than reading. I have since taken cooking classes, experiemented, and watched tons of food network shows, and I kept adding to my confidence. I agree with the poster, who recommended the pioneer woman, she has the step by step pictures, (even pictures of ingredients), that help beginners.
                                              Good luck, and heck I started with adding extra stuff to a tuna sandwich!

                                              1. Play with your food! Really - think of something you really like to eat and make it!
                                                Figure out what the obvious ingredients are and go get 'em.
                                                Use a recipe if need be or let your intuition take over.
                                                Keep in mind you can always rename things - my first attempt at muffins was ghastly! So I called it bread pudding!

                                                Make it fun - give yourself a day when you are not super hungry and just play 'test - kitchen' perhaps with a friend and a little wine.

                                                Also, have the right tools and have your work space organized and clean as you go. Get a good knife and learn to keep it sharp. It is a process. Every great cook has made painfully bad meals - but that's how you learn! Keep it light and never cook when you are angry - bring love into the kitchen and it will all be delicious - watch 'Like water for chocolate' Have fun!

                                                1. I would start selfishly. What do you enjoy eating? What are your favorite dishes? I would start there, and make the simplest ones. You know how it should taste if it's one of your favorites, so you can learn how to make it properly.

                                                  You can also start on basics, like delicious scrambled eggs. Just scramble an egg, and figure out what you like in it... dill, or thyme, plus milk or cream or sour cream. I like these simple basics, you can really learn the subtle tastes in contrast to the egg.

                                                  Like someone mentioned, its good to learn which herbs and spices you enjoy, and which you will need to tone down in recipes.

                                                  Mostly, you need to learn what you like. This will help you choose recipes, and understand how the ingredients work together.

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: in_wonderment

                                                    Nothing like experience, and nothing like working with something you like. No, I wouldn't start with a REAL Black Forest Cake, nor a cheesecake. But in_wonderment's comments are right on. Find ONE item, like scrambled eggs, look it up, and you KNOW you're going to find about a hundred different methods. Choose one to start, and use it. If you don't like the results, write down what you didn't like about, what you DID like about it, and try another. I know that what works for me doesn't work for the next person. (I know I don't like a certain herb, so no matter how good the recipe looks, I don't use it in the prep, unless I'm feeling adventurous. No point in wasting a good recipe, nor a good method, through using something undesirable)

                                                    When I was a kid, I learned to make cookies with my mother. I watched her make bread. I watched her cook, and I certainly tasted the results. I knew what I didn't care for, and what I liked, in those results. As a teen, I watched the only cooking shows that were on tv, mostly Graham Kerr's Galloping Gourmet. When I started cooking and baking for myself, I took what I knew from experience, took what I liked from what I'd seen on tv, and started playing. Now I'm a much better cook and baker than my mother. The first and only caution for myself was that cakes are fiddly, but I already KNEW that. Cookies and bars and pies are a little more flexible. Pastry can be a challenge. Stews and soups are very flexible. Times and temps are different for everyone.

                                                    I could quote different ingredients, appliances, and tools, making the difference, but it all comes down to personal experience, and how you hold your mouth. Just GO FOR IT!


                                                  2. The Joy of Cooking is one of the greatest books ever. Just practice and keep practicing. I myself am still learning. In the past few years I have found out I'm a decent cook. I'm no Julia Child but the more I try, the better I become.

                                                    Oh and I am not above using a glossary/dictionary for terms I am unfamiliar with.

                                                    1. Hi - I'm in your shoes exactly, and about a month ago I was posting on here looking for online resources to guide me. Since then, I bought a great book - it's called "Basic Cooking: All You Need to Cook Well Quickly" by Newens and Dickhaut.

                                                      What I like about the book is that it has a decent array of ethnic recipes along with classic American comfort food basics like chicken stock, meatloaf, etc. I started with the chicken stock recipe (boiling a whole chicken with some vegetables and seasonings) and feel like this book is going to be very helpful for me. There's not a ton of recipes but there are good explanations for what you are doing. Really, it gave me a lot of confidence just to read the book and go for it. It's a little annoying in that it is clearly written for a younger audience than me, and has a more "hipster" vibe in some of the prose, but that's just my old fogeyness coming through (I'm 37). :)

                                                      I also read on here a lot, because I love how I can be thinking about making a pecan pie, and then find a really useful thread on....pecan pies! Just about anything specific I have been thinking about making, I can find a reference thread on here to help me.

                                                      1. I learned to cook using the Betty Crocker Cookbook *school edition*. It is well-illustrated, straight forward, offers many cooking tips and shortcuts and comes in a three-ring binder format. It shows all the shapes and names of pastas, various cuts of beef, pork and chicken, and offers many how-to instructions, such as how to cut up a chicken, butterfly a large shrimp, crimp a pie crust, etc. I still refer to it frequently for one of the best biscuit recipes I've ever found, the shrimp creole dish I first learned to make my senior year of high school and a fail-proof make-from-scratch pie crust that does what it says! And I agree with the cooking class suggestions. You can tell me something 10 times, but you only have to show me once, being the visual creature that I am. Good luck and good cooking!!

                                                        1. You have a wealth of cookbooks in your possession now. I'm not going to suggest that you go out and purchase another one. I suspect a lack of confidence in your skill and techniques are really the culprit. If classes are not your forte, you might enjoy the following resources:

                                                          1. The Complete Pepin: Techniques and Recipes by Jacques Pepin.

                                                          You can purchase the book and dvd from Amazon. Check your local library, they probably have both. Please note, the book is in black and white and the video covers a lot.


                                                          He features a few techniques on his website as well.

                                                          2. Essentials of Cooking by James Peterson.

                                                          I recommend this one due to the wonderful color photographs. I find that having this book along with Pepin's provides all that a beginner will need technique wise. You can add more as you go along. Check the clearance section at Borders. I have spotted it there on numerous occasions. Your local library may have a copy as well.


                                                          3. The New Food Lover's Companion by Sharon Tyler Herbst

                                                          This covers a variety of food terms that may be unfamiliar. You'll find information regarding ingredients, measurements, and a variety of other food-related topics with an easy to understand explanation. This is very handy when you're learning new recipes and need additional information on the required ingredients or instructions given. Please note, an earlier edition exists, but the one I've referenced is the latest one.


                                                          1. jfood's first cookbook was Joy of Cooking and he adds his vote to the list of good starts. Jfood also agrees with many who state that the Food Network is a good start to watch people in action actually cooking. On the beginning end is a show "How to Boil Water" and jfood has seen this a couple of times and it's a good start. Jfood is not a big fan of Rachel Ray but she does get some pretty good techniques into the kitchen for the beginner as well. If a beginner can do her 30-minute meals in a 60-minute time frame that should be the goal, 30-minutes would be too stress-inducing.

                                                            Likewise epicurious.com has some vieos to check out as well.

                                                            Best advice is to practice and be both easy and harsh on yourself. Enjoy the meal you make, then sit back and write what you liked and what you would like to improve. Then keep notes in the border of the cookbooks.

                                                            Good luck and happy cooking.

                                                            1 Reply
                                                            1. re: jfood

                                                              I strongly agree with keeping notes in your cookbooks. You can note what works well, what doesn't work out so well and as you become more confident in the kitchen you can note what changes you've made to recipes. All of my cookbooks are spattered and marked up - mine aren't meant to be pretty picture books for the coffee table!

                                                            2. Everyone has really good suggestions here, and I wanted to add (as I did in other posts) James Peterson's _Cooking_. I think it was recently published since I don't see many references to it.

                                                              It's a solid book with the basics, and something like 1500 photos to visually guide you along as well. The author does a good job of explaining why one should or should not do certain things (ie crowd beef when browning in pan bc it will steam vs brown) that the novice may not necessarily know. The narrative is very down-to-earth, and I appreciate the author's candor, especially regarding traditional French methods and budget restrictions (very reassuring).

                                                              The recipes are all over the place; not great if you are looking for variants of a specific method, dish, or cuisine, but fantastic if you like variety.

                                                              1 Reply
                                                              1. re: link_930

                                                                The book is a wonderful addition to anyone's library that is looking to learn French cooking and great techniques. I believe it is a serious undertaking that would require some dedication and willingness to work through the massive book. On other hand, the OP may wish to consider the Le Cordon Bleu books for at home cooks. They are very well done and each technique includes step-by-step instructions, photographs, and a corresponding recipe. Many of the Williams-Sonoma books offer the same and are often on clearance at Borders.

                                                              2. Hi, peddle.

                                                                I think you're already on your way to learning how to cook, because you have the desire to do so and you said it aloud (well, cyber-aloud).

                                                                First, since you asked, about nutrition:

                                                                In nearly all of the well-known, general cookbooks (e.g., Joy of Cooking, or one I got as a bride, The Doubleday Cookbook), you will find important chapters on ingredients, how to identify high-quality goods when you purchase them; the good and sometimes not-so-good elements they contribute to our diets; ingredient storage and sanitation. So don't skip those sections. With experimentation after you're more comfortable with cooking, and feel more free to veer from the ingredients list, you'll get to learn when you're just as satisfied with substituting a more healthful oil for the melted butter in a muffin recipe, or yogurt for part of it, for example, or a mashed banana or some balsamic vinegar for *some* of the sugar.

                                                                Until then, the easiest and most important nutritional tip I can give you is:

                                                                Fruits and vegetables, fruits and vegetables, fruits and vegetables.

                                                                Whole grains, too, legumes, and the most healthful nuts (if allergies aren't an issue for you or those you are feeding).
                                                                Even if they aren't listed in the recipe, look for every opportunity when you can appropriately add more of these into your menus in general, plus individual dishes you make. It will make your food more nutritious, and more interesting.

                                                                For example, if you're making a meatloaf, in addition to the ubiquitous onion, toss in a handful of oatmeal or a cup of cooked brown rice; grate in a carrot and a small zucchini. Put diced mushrooms, or maybe some chopped spinach, in your ground beef when you mix it up for burgers. Chop up an apple and add it to that blueberry muffin recipe you got from Auntie Whomever. After you cook rice or wild rice or couscous, squeeze the juice from an orange and grate the rind into it, for a little Vitamin C, then add the curry and a touch of butter. If you serve pasta, every third time, make it a whole wheat version instead of semolina. Even if you're making a simple cold chicken salad sandwich, look around the fridge and the pantry and brainstorm about ways to make it more nutritious and interesting using fruits and veggies and varying your spices and herbs. Yes, diced celery and onion, but also, sometimes, some combination of diced tart apples, dried apricots, cherries or raisins, chopped cranberries, sweet peppers, pickled eggplant, bean sprouts, almonds or pecans, and serve it on a whole or multigrain bread with alfafa sprouts or baby greens. Look for savory recipes that feature roasting or braising meats with fruits, for a change from the usual aromatic or root veggies. Apples, cherries, blueberries, apricots are just a few of the classic fruit ingredients in entrees, and you'll find plenty of recipes in some of the books people have recommended here.

                                                                In addition to the nutritional benefits of including these healthful ingredients in your cooking, they also help to provide moisture, color, flavor, aroma and an interesting variety of texture to so many dishes.

                                                                Re flavor and seasonings, remember that many, if not most things, benefit from even a small touch of contrast. It makes the flavors more dimensional. So...when I make something really spicy, I usually put just a pinch of something sweet into it...with hot red Thai curry paste, for example, maybe a teaspoon of honey or a pinch of brown sugar. Or I've read of bakers who put a pinch of pepper into every sweet they bake.

                                                                About cooking in general, I'd say...looking back on my four-decades-long journey through cooking...if I had to prioritize the aspects of the *process* of cooking, I'd list them in the following order of importance:

                                                                1) technique;
                                                                2) equipment;
                                                                3) ingredients;
                                                                4) recipes.

                                                                For years, I thought recipes were the most important. I thought if I could just find the perfect recipe, and I added in the things it said in the order it gave, presto! I'd have a dish Julia Child would be proud to serve. But I had so many disappointments, and I finally realized, it was because I didn't have an adequate foundation in HOW to cook. Recipes are really about WHAT to cook.

                                                                As I made a concerted effort to become more proficient in technique, I felt more confident and adventuresome about varying the ingredients.

                                                                So...it was important to learn that you can't dump proteins (beaten eggs) into hot mixtures, but have to mix a tiny portion of the hot mixture into the protein, first (unless you like curdling).

                                                                It was important be patient enough to heat the pan properly and identify the appropriate way to know it was at the proper temp (e.g., drops of water sizzling, oil just smoking, or not smoking or whatever was right for what I was cooking). It was important to learn to leave the meat alone in the pan until it was seared adequately to come easily off the pan. While I was learning, I had to be willing to make mistakes. It's only by going through that process of accidentally ripping the not yet seared meat off the surface too soon, or going too long and burning it a little bit, that I developed almost a sixth sense about when the sear was just right on MY burners and in MY pans. As people have said, practice makes a good cook, peddle, just like with so many things in life.

                                                                As to *how* to learn the technique, I agree with all of the methods folks have noted...good, instructional cookbooks, television cooks/chefs, videos, classes. Try what you can and you'll find the methods that you naturally learn best from. I do better seeing someone do it, so I like watching classical chefs on television.

                                                                I've never taken a culinary cooking class, but I did take a basic, semester-long FOOD SCIENCE course at a local university. That helped me a lot. It was a requirement for their registered nutritionist degree program, but they accepted non-degree students into it. That course taught me *so much* about what happens to various ingredients when you expose them to heat or acidic foods, for instance. Even simple things, such as how molasses will burn at lower temperatures than some other sugars, or how to turn out a lumpless gravy every time.

                                                                But, see? Like a cooking class, or doing it at home, the key to learning is the same...hands-on practice.

                                                                As for equipment, you'll save yourself a lot of frustration if you have the proper equipment. I'm NOT talking about running out and spending hundreds of dollars on the grandest set of the latest cookware that's in fashion.

                                                                I'm talking about having a few reliable knives, the best your budget will accommodate, learning how to sharpen and store them, and keeping them in good condition. I'm talking about having a heavy pot that doesn't react to acids--an enameled dutch oven, for example--if you like to slow cook down in the oven tomatoes for a sauce. Having at least one decent saucepan or saucier with sides deep enough that you won't be burned by spattering mixtures, etc. As you learn more about cooking, you'll *know* what you'd like to have, to make what you do easier, and what you need to have, to accomplish your recipes.

                                                                And don't forget *mise en place*. No matter how large or small your kitchen, have an empty, sanitary counter or table space ready as your work place. Prepare and measure out all your ingredients and set them out on that space before you begin. Then, get the ingredient list and double-check that they're all there, in the right amounts. Very important to confidence and relaxation, not to have to run suddenly and measure and sift the flour at the exact moment you're supposed to be whisking the egg and milk mixture on the stove. ;-)

                                                                Best wishes, don't be afraid to try things; figure out what you could have done differently when something's not right, then laugh off the failure; and have someone who loves you but also loves to cook be your guinea pig. I find they're the best sorts to tell me *gently* when something's too salty or disgustingly slimy. ;-)

                                                                5 Replies
                                                                1. re: MaggieRSN

                                                                  "you said it aloud (well, cyber-aloud)."

                                                                  "Cybe-aloud" is very loud, indeed. I think there have been some very knowledgeable responses on this thread.

                                                                  And "cyber-aloud" is a very nice invention.

                                                                  1. re: yayadave

                                                                    I think it takes "guts" for someone to come onto any special interest board and say, in essence, I really don't know how to do what you all do, I feel like I'm not good at it, but I'd like to learn. Especially these days when it comes to food. There can be a lot of status, snobbery and insecurity attached to what we eat, where we buy it, where we eat it, how we make it, and what we make it in. I remember once trying one board where I admitted I made my coffee in a...gasp...plug-in percolator. Nobody talked to me. :-) I didn't stick around.

                                                                    So that's why I think peddle sounds very motivated and sincere in her interest and objective and why I predict we'll all be begging her to invite us to dinner one day. :-D

                                                                    1. re: MaggieRSN

                                                                      Hey, I agree on all counts. I think saying it cyber-loud was a great choice and got her question to a lot of people who could and would help. More than asking around at work or at the Church Ladies Meeting.

                                                                      And I chuckle when I write "cyber-loud."

                                                                      1. re: yayadave

                                                                        Gosh, yes, yaya. Had peddle asked at my Grandmother's church ladies' meeting, she would have learned how to make that godawful frozen maraschino cherry juice-Miracle Whip thing. >;-p Thank heavens she found Chowhound, instead!

                                                                  2. re: MaggieRSN

                                                                    Thanks Maggie for your good cooking advice.

                                                                  3. I too recommend the Joy of Cooking (I have the 1998 version). I have it on my kitchen counter at all times and mainly use it as a reference when I want to learn how to cook a certain vegetable, or learn a new method of cooking. I don't use the actual recipes much (I usually use Epicurious or Food Network for those), but I find JOC very helpful. I am moving overseas soon and this is my only cookbook that I will bring with me.

                                                                    1. cook, learn the basics, ingredients, and techniques

                                                                      read alot of cookbooks.

                                                                      Go out to eat as often as possible and try different cuisines, and cooking styles.

                                                                      repeat all of the above often

                                                                      1. In addition to all your books and the advice given in this thread, I would suggest....... perhaps you have a friend or relative that is a really good cook. Volunteer to help in the kitchen where you can be put to work to perhaps do just one operation, such as chopping. In helping out you will be in a good position to observe and also get instructions from others.

                                                                        Volunteer two or three hours a week for kitchen work at one of the charitable organizations. This is what my son has done, and today he is an excellent cook! He has volunteered in the kitchen of a group that provides meals for the elderly and HIV patients. He has been doing this for a few years now, and has learned a great deal about cooking.

                                                                        1 Reply
                                                                        1. re: Lisbet

                                                                          As a result of this website, I signed up for Cook's Illustrated on line. They have 30 second videos on all sorts of things that answer so many questions.

                                                                          I could not recommend it more highly and you don't have to do all the fluff of a cooking show.

                                                                        2. eat out - read - cook - repeat