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How to become a better cook?

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Emilie. Apr 19, 2008 12:48 PM

Hi everyone,
I started cooking about 3 years ago and now I can cook a good number of dishes, ranging from yummy homestyle Indian dishes (my husband is Indian), to subtle flavored recipes, including a number of classic French desserts (I am French). I would like to expand my repertoire and become "a better cook". Mostly I would like to have more variation in what we eat every day. I have tried cooking vegetables that we don't usually eat, or trying recipes from cookbooks such as "The art of Indian vegetarian cooking" by Yamuna Devi and "Pure Dessert" by Alice Medrich. They correspond to the style of dishes we like to eat but only a small proportion of recipes really stuck and made it into our list of regularly made recipes. The best source of recipes so far has been food blogs. I wonder if I'm just picky or overly accustomed to what you are used to eating, and therefore conservative, or just expecting to much from cookbooks. Anyway, I turn to you for advice on how to improve. Also I would love to hear your personal story of how you became a good cook. Thank you.

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  1. Candy Apr 19, 2008 01:42 PM

    Just keep trying and practicing. You might pick one new recipe a week, from a book or cuisine you have not read or tried before. I have been cooking and trying new things for about 40 years. Your public library is a good source to try out cookbooks you might like to own and explore more in depth. This past winter I began to learn more about Middle Eastern cooking. I had not had much experience with it until some trips to London. It turned out that two of my friends were adept at Lebanese cooking. The first weekend in December we made about 22-23 dishes over a Friday and Saturday for a dinner for 11 people. I did a lot of the kitchen clean up but learned a lot too.

    BTW, I had that Very Raspberry Tart from the Medrich book a week ago. Oh my! That was beautiful and very delicious. Give it a try.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Candy
      mirage Apr 30, 2008 12:40 PM

      Did you make that tart with fresh or frozen raspberries? I was thinking about making this for guests on Friday, with frozen.

      1. re: mirage
        Candy Apr 30, 2008 01:16 PM

        Use fresh. Frozen will not work well. I think it would change the texture of the filling completely and of course you have got to have fresh to pie on top.

        1. re: Candy
          mirage Apr 30, 2008 01:51 PM

          Oh, well. I was hoping! Guess it's a change of plans - fresh not available here this time of year!

    2. LulusMom Apr 19, 2008 01:55 PM

      Practice, practice, practice. I agree with everything Candy said, but would also like to recommend trying Epicurious. You can read reviews, and some people give some pretty thoughtful ideas about making a recipe better, or easier. I like Candy's idea of trying one new recipe a week - that way you don't start to feel discouraged if, for some reason, that recipe doesn't work out well for you. Best of luck.

      1. sarah galvin Apr 19, 2008 01:55 PM

        I grew up on the farm and our food was very basic. My mother loved to bake, but her cooking wasn't so hot. We also had a lot of wild game and fish. And I was very health conscious so I 'ate to live'. I took home ec at university but was more interested in clothing. Still, my food tastes were basic but I studied nutrition and food science and that helped with technique.

        My first job was teaching high school h.ec. in an affluent school. My students knew way more than I did about exotic foods because they had travelled so much. So I learned a lot from them because I had to.

        Then I started a dinner club with 4 other couples and the rule was 'we could experiment as much as we liked and didn't have to practice the meal before serving it'. That is when I really started to love cooking. The fear factor was lower because I was with like minded friends. We continued that dinner club for more than 15 years. It really is responsible for leading me more into cooking.

        I have taken a lot of little classes over the years. I pay attention when I eat out and make note of flavour combinations. I like to try local specialties when I travel. I always visit food stores when I travel and I often buy things to bring home.

        So, somehow over the years my 'eat to live' attitude has changed to 'live to cook'.

        1. ipsedixit Apr 19, 2008 10:41 PM

          Stop being a slave to recipes.

          Trust your instincts and cook by them.

          2 Replies
          1. re: ipsedixit
            d
            diva360 Apr 20, 2008 12:11 AM

            Taste as you go--see how adding each component changes the flavor of the dish you are creating. Smell everything before you add it. Eventually you will be able to transfer the knowledge you gain from using all your senses when cooking to begin improvising yourself. Above all else, cook with love for those your food will both please and nourish.

            1. re: ipsedixit
              MMRuth Apr 20, 2008 04:55 AM

              FWIW, for me, being able to trust my instincts has come from years of cooking from recipes. Only over the past few years have I become comfortable with playing around more with recipes, altering things, and "winging it". I agree with the poster who says to taste that you go - particularly with respect to adding salt.

            2. beelzebozo Apr 20, 2008 01:09 AM

              watching food television has made me five times the cook i once was. it's inspired me to try tons of different cuisine and has essentially served as free basic cooking school over the years.

              i also recommend jamie oliver's new cookbook, which has the main convenient main conceit of trying to make the reader a better cook. it also helps that it's a finely crafted cookbook that's a fun read.

              1. coll Apr 20, 2008 04:09 AM

                You're just starting out, in 20 or 30 years you will have a recipe collection for every day of the year. My oldest ones were all given to me by friends, so anytime you taste something you like, ask for the recipe or at least a few hints. Even if I haven't seen these people in years, I think of them every time I make the dish, which makes it twice as pleasurable.

                1. Tsar_Pushka Apr 20, 2008 05:11 AM

                  Studying classic dishes helps alot. Not only do they always taste awesome (they're classic for a reason) and utilise common ingredients, they often demonstrate important cooking fundamentals -- basic methods, principles of flavour combinations, etc -- that you can apply as you become more experienced. I always think of classic dishes as like jazz standards ...And any jazz musician worth his or her salt will tell you there's much to be learnt from them, and later as you get better you can start to riff on them. They also can serve as a great introduction to a new cuisine you perhaps are not familiar with.

                  Besides, who doesn't love a cook whom at the drop of a hat can whip up a pate de foie or a proper spaghetti carbonara or a mung dal. There is no shortage of classic dishes in existence either, as every nation has many.

                  1. jodymaryk Apr 20, 2008 08:28 AM

                    Great ideas for you that everyone has written.

                    I remember when I first started cooking (and I use the term lightly) for my first husband at 19! all I could do was Hamburger Helper and steamed broccoli. At one point he said "can we have something besides Hamburger Helper". As time went on, I would have something at a restaurant then try and find a recipe which was similar. I have alway been one of those people who can't stick to a recipe and tweak it to my liking, even with baking. After I met my second husband and he exposed me to many different cuisines of the world, I really started expanding my cooking skills. I agree that cooking shows on TV have taught me a lot, especially technique but the internet is what really opened up my world. I love being able to google any type of food or recipe and having a bunch of recipes pop up like magic. I now have a big filing box with all of my internet recipes filed by type. If I ever get to cook everything I have printed off, I will be a happy girl!

                    Don't be afraid to try new things, if it doesn't work you can always throw it out and go out to dinner!

                    1. iluvcookies Apr 20, 2008 09:47 AM

                      I started reading Cook's Illustrated magazine. Because there was a fair amount of food science and all their hits and misses were explained in the accompanying articles, it helped me understand mistakes I may have been making and took the "fear" out of dishes I would not have ordinarily tried. After that... I bought every cookbook I could and applied what I had learned. Now I rarely need a recipe. Mind you, this took 12 years.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: iluvcookies
                        a
                        adventuresinbaking May 16, 2008 12:32 PM

                        I subscribed to Cook's Illustraited for about two years. I learned a lot about basic techniques, food science, and how to substitute ingredients.

                        I also would suggest make friends with people who can give you advice and challenge to to try new techniques and recipes. I became friends with my local cheese monger who used to be a pastry chef. Now he answers a lot of questions for me about pastry and cheese of course. Another former professional chef friend and I also chat often about food and preparation.

                        Friends like these can really inspire confidence and make you take on new challenges.

                      2. p
                        Pigloader Apr 20, 2008 10:42 AM

                        You've gotten some really great advice so far. I will echo the common thread of "practice vincit omnia." Always taste-- at the beginning, in the middle, at the end... and you will eventually figure out how to tweak without oversteering, so to speak. Cook's Illustrated is a great magazine. For a book, there are a couple that really taught me a lot. One is "Think Like a Chef", by Tom Colicchio. The early part of the book is devoted to a few essential techniques, then ingredients that best showcase those techniques, then combinations of flavors, all the while getting more complex and sophisticated. By the end, there are some pretty serious recipes that bring all the concepts of the book together. When you decide to start grilling (or maybe you already have), I'd recommend any and all books by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby. They not only have an encylopedic knowledge of live fire cooking, but are both capable of transmitting techniques and know-how in a way that makes it very un-scary.
                        As far as TV goes, I don't love most of what is on the food channel, but there are three guys from whom I have learned a great deal.
                        - Mario Batali is the best pure cook on the channel, period, IMHO. The only drawback to watching his show is that some of the techniques that he makes look really easy are things that require a lot of practice (there's that buzzword again) to learn. That said, his food is deceptively simple and elegant, and when you DO learn those techniques, you'll be way ahead of the game.
                        - Tyler Florence's "Ultimate" series. I was a skeptic until I sat down and watched, and this guy can really cook. All of his stuff is fairly easy to execute, and the end results are generally pretty delicious.
                        - Jamie Oliver's new show "At Home". This is how I like to cook--from garden to table with fairly minimal interference. He concentrates each episode on an ingredient, and riffs a few times. Generally no more than 5 or 6 ingredients in any one dish, but really well executed. It also makes me want a woodburning oven in my back yard.

                        A couple of things that are absolutely essential to good food--
                        --olive oil. even cheap olive oil is better than vegetable oil, unless you're frying.
                        -kosher, not iodized salt. Morton's makes my favorite kind. Sea salt is even better. Medium coarse grain.
                        -A sturdy pepper grinder. Preground pepper from the store is worthless as a spice.
                        You will be amazed at how much flavor just the above three seasonings can impart to a whole host of ingredients.
                        -A large plastic cutting board--the white, industrial looking kind. It's easier on your knives (more on those in a moment), and easier to clean thoroughly than wooden boards.
                        -At least one good, heavy skillet, stainless steel, or cast iron if you have no other pans. -At least one chef's knife (8 inch blade is pretty standard) that you keep razor sharp. Sharp knives are less dangerous than dull ones. You can find a sturdy, utiliarian knife (that doesn't have those silly ginsu serrated edges) at any decent kitchen supply store. You can also spend more money-- $100 will get you a top of the line wusthof or global. -A steel for said knife, which you have learned to use. Youtube is a great source for how-to videos.
                        You should be able to get ALL of this equipment for $150 or less, and I promise, it will all help you.

                        On a general practice note-- Food is convivial. Cook for your friends, and invite their criticism. Cook for someone who is a much better cook than you are. Ask them what they might have done differently, and be open to what they might say. Above all, ENJOY yourself. For many of the folks who populate this board, cooking is therapy, art, joy, and challenge--it should never be a chore.

                        1. The Dairy Queen Apr 20, 2008 11:35 AM

                          You have a lot of great suggestions so far --and here are a couple other threads you might find helpful "How can I learn to become a good cook" http://www.chowhound.com/topics/462542 and "How do I become a better cook?" http://www.chowhound.com/topics/428133#2815529

                          I don't consider myself a good cook, but one of my 2008 New Years Resolution was to get better. Thankfully, and in part due to the terrific suggestions from my fellow 'hounds, I think I am getting better. :)

                          To echo and supplement what people have said already, some strategies that have worked for me:

                          ~Learn the basics. Boring, but true. You can do this by taking a class or using a cook basic cookbook or learning from a friend.
                          ~Use the best, freshest, in-season ingredients you can.
                          ~Reading cookbooks and magazines and Chowhound and watching cooking shows is hugely helpful, but, ultimately, the only way to advance your skills is to get out there and cook. I like the "one new recipe a week" kind of approach or "one new cookbook a month" kind of approach (this latter approach is especially effective when whatever cuisine you're cooking from requires a lot of specialty ingredients). Acquaint yourself with your local library (and used bookstore)...
                          ~If you have someone you can learn from, ask them to spend an afternoon showing you a favorite technique or two.
                          ~Take notes and do a mini-debriefing after each recipe to figure out what worked, what didn't, and what you might do differently next time.
                          ~If you have a recipe disaster and aren't sure what went wrong, ask on Chowhound!
                          ~I've only been participating for a couple of months, but I do recommend trying Cookbook of the Month (COTM) here on Chowhound. It's helpful to learn a new cuisine alongside other, better, experienced cooks in "real time" so you can learn from the adjustments, questions and (occasional) mistakes they make, as well as get guidance for your own questions. And you can start at any time--we're in the middle of Simon Hopkinson's Roast Chicken and Other recipes right now, but it's not too late to join in. Some of the past cookbooks were great, too, and you can cook from those, and ask questions and post your reports to those at any time. http://www.chowhound.com/topics/507198#3574901
                          ~For a long time, I thought I was a bad cook, but I realized my cookbook collection was filled with not-so-great cookbooks. I think it helps to use really well-edited recipes. There are lots of posts on chowhound about good cookbooks. http://www.chowhound.com/topics/508604#3586891
                          http://www.chowhound.com/topics/476363 Also, you already mentioned it, but Epicurious (and allrecipes.com and Eatingwell.com and food.com) ranks recipes by user rating. This isn't foolproof, but the recipes that other people like are bound to be successful for you, too. The user notes to those recipes are very helpful, too.
                          ~Pay attention when you eat out--take notes, even. Notice the flavor combinations, ask questions.

                          Good luck!

                          ~TDQ

                          1. s
                            Sherri Apr 20, 2008 12:03 PM

                            Master the nine BASIC TECHNIQUES; recipes will come later. Once you know how to perform each of these functions well, you'll have the "recipe" for success and this will pave the way for marketing success as well. Instead of heading out with a shopping list, knowing these techniques will give you the ability to make best use of what is best at market today. Shopping with a set recipe in mind is backward, you'll never learn to trust yourself if the list says "peppers" and you pass up the perfect peas.
                            (Also, there are an awful lot of really bad recipes out there, written by lazy authors, who still insist that pork be cooked to 170 - 180 degrees and chicken breasts roast for one hour or more.)

                            Each of these specific techniques will work for a variety of food products: eggs, meats, poultry, fish/seafood, vegetables.

                            1. Saute/Pan Fry
                            2. Fry/Deep Fry
                            3. Poach
                            4. Braise/Stew/Ragout/Fricassee
                            5. Steam
                            6. Simmer/Boil/Blanch
                            7. Roast
                            8. Bake
                            9. Broil/Grill

                            #1 & #2 are WET methods of cooking, utilizing fats/oils instead of water. Oils break down (smokepoint) at 350-400 degrees.
                            Water only reaches 212 degrees.

                            #3, #4, #5 & #6 are WET methods generally using a water-based liquid. Examples include: wine, broth, cream & juice.

                            #7, #8 & #9 are DRY methods. They are virtually identical. All use dry, direct heat sources.
                            Bakery products are BAKED.
                            Meats, poultry, vegetables, etc. are ROASTED or GRILLED.
                            For whatever reason, this US culture bakes cakes and roasts meat; it could be roasted cakes and baked meat just as correctly. 350 degrees is 350 degrees – the oven does not know what is being cooked.

                            A simple example of the first technique would be to master sauteeing a boneless chicken breast. Listen to the sounds the chicken in the pan makes, look at how the meat turns golden, smell what happens during the cooking process - engage all your senses. Now, make use of the residue in the pan. It's full of flavor. Learn what happens when you deglaze with different liquids - cream VS tomato sauce VS vermouth VS orange juice. Seasoning flavors come next. Before you know it, you have the basis for thousands of dishes.

                            The second part of your lifelong learning will be to identify flavors of particular geographic regions. Now you'll be able to adapt your basic saute skill to food from Morocco, Thailand, Ireland, Austria or anywhere else you choose. Learning regional specialities will be easier with your basic skills firmly mastered. In your post, you mention that your husband is Indian and you are French. Both these countries have a fabulous culinary history with extremely varied regional specialties; think Alsace VS Normandy VS Provence. The climates are different, therefore the food products are different. This would be a perfect place for you to begin your exploration.

                            You also ask for personal stories ....... my love of cooking was born at table, traveling and eating out extensively as a youngster. By age 17, I was completely clueless about the actual cooking process and burned a significant portion of our family kitchen when I made my first attempt at cooking. Any ninny except yours truly would know that one does not cook bacon in a stick of butter, but my thought was "butter makes things taste better". Lots of sirens and friendly firefighters .....fast forward a couple of months, now I'm living in Paris, attending school and finding the 4 hour Sunday lunch to be a fascinating experience. I want to know how this all happens. Using sheer bravado, I talked my way into a French kitchen and spend an informal apprenticeship learning lots of gutter slang and even more trucs. This was quite a feat for an American girl in the 60s. I was hauled home ("we aren't cooks in this family") attended college and married a Naval officer. The financial realities of Navy poverty pay made me creative in my kitchen pursuits. I couldn't bear to eat poorly just because we were stoney broke. I've never looked back and continue to travel and learn as much as I can. I've held jobs in many different facets of the F & B business but my first love is teaching. Asking questions got me in a lot of trouble at Catholic school ("Isn't being a slumloard a worse sin than having a hotdog on Friday?" was expulsion-worthy) but questions have continued to be my hallmark and I don't plan to stop any time soon.

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: Sherri
                              The Dairy Queen Apr 20, 2008 06:20 PM

                              I notice Cooking Light Magazine is having a Monthly Fundamental "Techniques" clinic each month in 2008, including online videos and related recipes. So far, they've done sautéing, boiling and simmering, and braising. http://www.cookinglight.com/cooking/c...

                              ~TDQ

                              1. re: Sherri
                                thew May 16, 2008 11:47 AM

                                2 minor quibbles/points

                                1) oil isn't really wet. that's why oil and water don't mix.

                                2) as i've always understood it baked is a lower temperature than roasted - thus you can have baked chicken at say 350 and roasted chicken at 450. i just plucked those numbers out of the air, but you know what i mean

                                other than that i agree completely - cooking is technique. recipes and specific applications of technique

                              2. Frommtron Apr 20, 2008 03:48 PM

                                I'l try not to echo the good advice already written.

                                I learned how to cook by cooking, as others have stated. I think recipes are fantastic and more often than not I'll follow them closely if it's a new dish I'm trying. There is nothing wrong with that and you are never going to learn the basics properly if you just start throwing stuff in a pot.

                                But I learned how to improvise by eating out. Often, I have a dish that just blows me away with it's flavor but it's also a dish I think I can reverse engineer. By trying to re-create a dish that you don't have a recipe for and that you only know through tasting teaches you so much. Primarily, because you don't have a recipe to use as a crutch, you must trust your instincts. Improvisation is really instincts plus experience. Second, it develops your palate. Your palate gave you your 'recipe' and you are forced to trust it in the cooking process when trying to recreate that dish. Invariably, your rendition will be different and discerning the difference will halp that palate development and enjoying the end result will help you gain confidence in cooking without a recipe.

                                I find this approach works best when you are familiar with general techniques and ingredients in a cuisine. I can operate in European baseed cuisine to some degree but I'm not nearly as good at Southeast Asian food. I tend to rely on recipes more for SE Asian food because of that.

                                Hope that inspires you in some way.

                                1. SilverlakeGirl Apr 20, 2008 03:56 PM

                                  I was reading Kitchen Confidential a few months ago and Anthony Bourdain recommended things that make you a better cook.

                                  One was using shallots instead of onions, stock instead of broth ...

                                  There's more in this article:

                                  http://www.bordersstores.com/features...
                                  '

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: SilverlakeGirl
                                    Chowpatty Apr 30, 2008 01:55 PM

                                    In the same vein as Bourdain, but even more helpful, I think, is David Leibovitz's article 10 Easy Ways to Improve Your Cooking.
                                    http://www.davidlebovitz.com/archives...

                                  2. Ruth Lafler Apr 20, 2008 04:14 PM

                                    You've had lots of good suggestions, so I'll just address the "am I expecting too much from cookbooks" issue. The answer is "yes" -- I read somewhere that if five recipes from a particular cookbook make it into your regular repertoire then that's a success. Cookbooks are mostly for inspiration and for trying out new techniques or using unfamiliar ingredients. I, too, mostly use the web -- I get an idea for the type of dish I want (the style of dish, the main ingredients I want to use) and then search and read a bunch of recipes until I find one that looks "just right" or, sometimes, combine several (the proportions from one, the techniques from another, maybe some additional seasoning from others).

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: Ruth Lafler
                                      sarah galvin Apr 20, 2008 04:35 PM

                                      Exactly! I spend evenings reading my cookbooks. Even some of my favourite books have only a handful of recipes I actually use. But they provide inspiration to search further or think.

                                    2. g
                                      GrillMaster Apr 21, 2008 07:56 AM

                                      Someone mentioned not being a slave to recipes and I would agree to a point. When I get a hankering for something I generally find between 5-10 recipes for said food and then come up with my own. When I get on a kick I'll cook something over and over again for a few weeks until I've gotten it down to how I like it. I'm blessed to be from a foodie family so I've also got lots of refined taste testers to give me their opinions. I share your frustrations with most cookbooks though. I would compare buying cookbooks to buying a box-set from some band only to like 2-3 songs. It just seems like a waste. Food blogs are the way to go in my book.
                                      Good luck.

                                      1. d
                                        Diane in Bexley Apr 21, 2008 10:36 AM

                                        Several posters here have mentioned ideas I agree with: to become a better cook, you must practice, practice.

                                        I have a huge bookcase of cookbooks collected over 25 years of marriage that I love to consult on a pretty regular basis. Also love to explore bookstores for new books, sometimes can easily spend a rainy Sunday afternoon drinking coffee and persuing new material.
                                        You also need some tasters (family, friends, neighbors) who will provide you with critique and have an open mind on new food, new cuisine. I always try to cook new recipes as written the first time thinking about what flavor notes I want to punch up in the future or variations on a theme.
                                        Frequent farmer's market, local area stores and make friends with your purveyors. Find out what is unique to your area (fish, beef, corn, etc) so you can try to cook as local and as fresh as possible.
                                        Take cooking classes - I find these loads of fun and they needn't be expensive, can be taught at local community center or speciality store. Also a good way to meet other Foodies in your neighborhood/area.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: Diane in Bexley
                                          Megiac Apr 21, 2008 11:28 AM

                                          If the OP is going to take one class, I'd highly recommend a knife skills class. It used to take me so long to prep even a basic meal because I was terrible with a knife. Once I learned some decent knife skills, prep went so much faster, and I became more and more willing to try out complicated recipes because I found them less intimidating.

                                          Also, I usually try out at least one new recipe a week. In addition to keeping cookbooks, I also keep a three ring binder in my kitchen. Any recipe that I've found online that is good enough to be made again is put in there (grouped by topic--appetizers, pasta, poultry, meat, fish, vegetables, etc.). I've had my current 3 inch binder for about 3 years, and it is now overfolowing, so I'm getting ready to start a new one.

                                        2. e
                                          Emilie. Apr 21, 2008 11:54 AM

                                          Thanks for all the advice, the links and the wishes of good luck. It definitely helps. I will practice and practice. One new recipe a week sounds like a great idea. I will also look into the basics. I realized that I lacked knowledge in that domain when cooking eggplant: somehow the texture never comes out as I want it to be.

                                          1. v
                                            valerie Apr 21, 2008 12:23 PM

                                            Read Chowhound. I can't even tell you how many good tips I have picked up over the many years that I have been reading. Chowhound has, undoubtedly, made me a better cook.

                                            A quick thanks to all the Chowhound cooks out there!

                                            1. yayadave Apr 21, 2008 03:22 PM

                                              When you have trouble doing something or just don't know how, find a video. For example, I just googled "how to cook egg plant video" and I was surprised how many videos there are.

                                              1. cassoulady Apr 30, 2008 01:11 PM

                                                For cooking meat, I would invest in a good, digital meat thermometer. When something reaches the right temp according to the thermometer, look at it, touch it, move it around a little pick it up etc. Eventually you will be able to touch a steak and say this is medium rare etc. It just takes practice! And while you are learning the thermometer will give you the confidence that the meat is cooked correctly without having to slice it and let the juices out.

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