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Novice cook in search of advice...help! :-)

I have been cooking for a while...really...I have...if you give me a recipe, and it's a good recipe, you'll be in a for a wonderful dinner. Here is the problem...I cannot cook without a recipe. And I cannot tell bad recipes from good recipes. I have no clue. No concept at all. I have the America's Test Kitchen cookbook from 2003 and another test kitchen book and the joy of cooking and from all those I've maybe made 20 recipes with varying success. I have them because I figured little could go wrong with recipes from good books like those. And that's true. Except some of them sucked. And when bf looked at them he said 'of course', obviously sucky!.... (clearly)...

So my question to you all is...I am looking to make simple, healthy, relatively inexpensive food though I try to buy as many local and fresh ingredients as possible - no cans, no processed stuff, etc... WHAT CAN I MAKE???? Dinner is always a toss up - do you want breaded chicken or lemon chicken....do you want chili, burgers, or meatsauce? None of that? Can't help you... Seriously, where can I find simple, healthy recipes for dinner/lunch that don't take forever and are GOOD - maybe if I have a whole selection of good ones and make them repeatedly I'll get the knack of cooking without a book and knowing what a good recipe might have in it's contents....

If you've read this far, thanks :-)

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  1. L
    I think you're on the right track. Cooking is a process of elimination. You try things, and if they work and you like them you do them again. One of my pet peeves is a recipe that has more than 5 ingredients. I will make things that do, but they better be some real important additions. Keep things simple, maybe try new things a couple of times a week. Always remember that unless your baking which needs exact measurements, you're in control and go with what you like.

    1. don't feel bad. you'll find with most cookbooks, regardless of the reputation, that only a handful of recipes will work for/appeal to you.

      i'd suggest a subscription to cook's illustrated (hard copy or web site - you don't need both). it has it's detractors, and for good reason, but they do present recipes that work well & explain why so you'll get a better understanding of what's going on, which you will be able to apply to other recipes. they don't use many convenience foods in the main recipes, but often provide a quick version (for instance, reworking a recipe to use canned beans for a week night).

      1. CI is a great suggestion. and since you said you're looking for healthy recipes as well, i'd suggest "eating well" or "cooking light" magazine. both have consistently good recipes [and yes, the occasional clunker], and they also publish cookbooks...including books that are dedicated to quick & easy meals.

        1. don't focus on recipes, but on techniques. It's the difference between paint by numbers and being a painter. try to generalize from the recipes you do make and like. worry less about the amounts and look at the flavor combination you like. learn how to braise, saute, sear, etc. if you can make one stew you can make any stew. If you can braise some chicken you have a thousand dishes at hand, not only the one in the recipe. Use recipes as guidlines for techniques, not ends in and of themselves.

          2 Replies
            1. re: thew

              This is great advice -- once you know the techniques and you know how to do certain things, you'll start to recognize recipes that are good or not so good. Try to follow recipes exactly a few times, and then if they work, try to alter them a little, and see if your alteratiosn work. Also, the recipes that didn't work, pay attention to them, and then when you see other recipes like them, you'll know not to use them. In order to be a good cook, you have to fail a few times so that you know what not to do.

            2. Cooking with recipes isn't bad, as long as you enjoy cooking. I think you'll find that the more you cook, the more comfortable you'll be come with reading a recipe and being able to judge if you'll like it or not, or even better, what you need to change to make it better. The key is to keep cooking and be ready to have that bf of yours take you out when a new recipe doesn't go quite right :-)

              I 100% agree with Mark that cookbooks only have a handful of recipes you'll want to make again and again. I use my binders full of recipes from web sites and magazines more than most of my cookbooks.

              I have a full-time job and a family, so although I've been cooking for years and enjoy creating my own recipes, most of the time I want a quick path to a healthy dinner and that means following someoneelse's recipe. My current favorite site for easy, healthy recipes is MyRecipes.com. They have recipes from Cooking Light, Coastal Living, Southern Living, and a few other sources. Their interface is easy to use and their recipes are very accessible for new cooks. The readership is also great about leaving comments on the recipes, so before you try a recipe, read the comments to see what others have encountered.

              Regardless of what path you take, don't stop cooking!


              1. I concur with the suggestion to subscribe to Cook's Illustrated (or the website). There are fewer duds with CI than with most other books because the recipes have been tested so thoroughly.

                Additionally, if I were to make one suggestion to a relatively new cook, it would be to get a cookbook on sauces. Once you have down the technique for making, for example, a pan sauce, you can prepare a basic sauteed, poached, etc. meat/poultry/fish dish and then vary the sauces' ingredients a bit and have very different dishes. (Speaking of which, if you look up boneless chicken breast or sauces on the CI webpage, you'll find an article for quick pan sauces, made in a matter of minutes. The article appeared in the magazine within the last year or so, so I assume you could find it on the webpage.)

                There are only five basic sauces, according to the French, and everything else is a variation on those sauces. So learn those five and then just ring the changes on them. Admittedly, a few sauces are pretty complicated, but most aren't. They are mostly designed to be done in a few minutes after the meat/poultry/fish is cooked. Generally, they only take a few minutes to make.

                Williams Sonoma has a good book on sauces, called something like "The Williams Sonoma Sauce Cookbook" (or something). Anyway, it is a standard item created by the Williams Sonoma company and all of their stores have it. It is fairly thin and takes you on a journey from basic sauces forward. That's the book which I would recommend for a beginning to journeyman cook.

                There are many other sauce cookbooks on the market. William Peterson (or Pederson?) has one called, I think, "Sauces." But it is a lot more complicated. Also, there is one called "The Saucier's Apprentice," which I love for the title alone, although the book is excellent, too. Good luck!

                1. The more you cook the better you will become. I often will go to epicurious.com and do an advanced search and enter a few ingredients I want to utilize. Then I chose whether I want to use them in a side or main dish. Do a search and you can peruse the results.

                  Also, both Bon Appetit and Gourmet have simple meal sections (i.e. Everyday Gourmet) that offer recipes for meals that are easy to prepare and require minimal time.

                  1. If following recipes works for you, keep on doing it. I agree with those who say that the more you cook, the better you'll be able to gauge new recipes, realize what flavor profiles work together and create your own dishes in the future. I think Cooks Illustrated is a great series for beginners. It will help to provide you with a strong foundation.

                    1. Even though many people bash Rachael Ray I have found her recipes to be very easy (not quite 30 minutes perhaps but quick nonetheless) and my family enjoys them. You can find many of her recipes on the food network website. She seems to use a lot of fresh vegetables and meats but does use canned tomatoes and beans, which I don't have a problem with. Good luck!

                      1. Practice.. its like playing an instrument - you have to know a song really well before you can begin to improvise. I do find it helpful, though, to seek out live examples - watching Alton Brown roast a fish, or taking a cooking class and watching a mayonnaise get made. With Youtune, things like Cooks Illustrated videos, Food Network, you can see more examples of how things shape up

                        And don't hold the "Top Chef" type of layouts as a main goal - those people are professionally trained with years of experiencing flavors, techniques. etc. On the flip side, experiment....everyone got where they are by practicing. I didn't understand hollandaise sauce until I broke one trying to make it..

                        And for a home chef, plating isnt' that big of a deal...

                        Personally, though, I like Cooks Illustrated, Food and Wine - their recipes aren't too too complex, and their ingredients are fairly accessible..

                        1. My favorite cookbooks are ones that focus on technique rather than simply recite recipes. I'd suggest you get yourself a copy of Julia Child's "The Way To Cook," which is organized by technique, and is a little lighter on the butter than Mastering the Art of French Cooking (which is the book I learned to cook from).

                          Another good resource is the Martha Stewart magazine called "Everyday Food." I've found the recipes to be reliable, and, well, as the title suggests, it focuses on easier, quick recipes. Here's a link to the magazine's webpage, which has some recipes online:


                          As others have noted, you will become a better cook with practice. To help you get there faster, you could take a cooking class. Or, you could keep a cooking journal, so you can make notes on what works in a recipe and what doesn't, which may help you get better at recognizing potential problems with a recipe before you make it. Good luck!

                          1. I was not good with cooking by technique for many years, I always needed a recipe. It's different for different people, of course. In terms of judging a recipe, I always look for flavors I like, ingredients I like. If you want to expand, think about a type of food you like (Italian? Thai?) and start with a cookbook there--it will expand your horizons.

                            I like CI, and subscribe, and I also really like Fine Cooking. a good detailed cookbook is Julia Child's The Way to Cook. Less detailed are two books by Mark Bittman--How to Cook Everything, and a recent large book of recipes from around the world. he uses fresh ingredients, usually simple techniques. It is not as descriptive as some books, though.

                            1. Alton Brown's book "I'm Just Here For The Food" is great at teaching some fundamental techniques, and I use it as a reference again and again.

                              Other than that, just keep doing what you're doing. Experience is the best teacher in the kitchen. And if you occasionally run into a real clunker and have to order pizza or take-out Chinese, that is ok too! Some of our best memories were the meals we never ate, like the Great Cabbage Braising of '04...

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: jnstarla

                                Thank you for all the tips! I actually like the CI magazine very much and hadn't thought of getting a subscription on-line....I guess maybe I'm not such a horrific cook after all, maybe a work-in-progress is more like it :-)

                                1. re: lovessushi

                                  that's the spirit!

                                  it takes practice, but even more importantly, as you learn, and as your palate & skills develop, you have to begin to TRUST yourself. then someday you'll realize you don't always *need* to follow a recipe to the letter, and you just might be able to spot the guaranteed failures yourself, before you try to make them.

                                  oh, and one last important point...have FUN in the kitchen. if it becomes tedious or scary, you'll see it in the food...plus, who wants to spend all that time & energy doing something they don't even enjoy?

                                  as jacques pepin would say, happy cooking!

                              2. I like the recipes on Everyday food (the magazine and online at http://www.pbs.org/everydayfood/). They aren't usually knock your socks off but they are pretty simple, use good technique and fresh ingredients. I plan my dinners ahead, usually the Wednesday before. I write my menu, print out applicable recipes if I am trying something new, write my grocery list, and shop that weekend. I leave some flexibility for sales and what looks fresh but I find that without planning ahead, I can't get dinner on the table in a reasonable amount of time.

                                As for good stand by recipes--everything I've tried from Elise of simplyrecipes (http://www.elise.com/recipes/) has been great. She is a go to for me. I also like Coconut and Lime Blog (coconutlime.blogspot.com/) and smittenkitchen.com.

                                I also use epicurious a lot but usually read the comments to get a sense of how others felt about the recipe. I think that by trying a lot of recipes, you will start to get a sense of what works and be better able to tell what is missing by taste. Good luck!

                                1. Do not buy ANYTHING. GO TO THE LIBRARY.

                                  Your local library has tons of books to look through. Go there and sit and go through a bunch of those recommended here and see if that meets your goal. The take some of them out and give it a whirl.

                                  Likewise do a search on the Cookbook of the Month on the site (COTM). Each month many CHers go to a specific cookbook and you can see real world people's advice on these recipes, what works, what desn;t work.

                                  Lastly do not be afraid. Jfood ruined Jello once. And no recipe scares him now.

                                  As others have stated, learn to sear, braise, saute, bread, fry and get your fingers dirty and your knuckles burnt and cut. Everyone here has been there, done that. You haven;t succeeded until you learn to cut a cucumber for a salad with a paper towel wrapped around your index finger from a stray blade. :-))

                                  1. Another idea that I've found very useful, is to search out the food blogs. Some of them are awesome.
                                    The pioneer woman takes you step by step through wonderful color photography and she makes some killer dishes.
                                    Also, jfood's library idea is great too.

                                    1. I'm a big fan of Epicurious.com or allrecipes.com. My Big Trick is to read the comments. Often readers have tried the recipes and can offer tips on how to make them better. If readers are really negative about a recipe, then, most likely, it's not really working. I'd avoid Rachael Ray because most of her recipes tend to use way too much fat and oil (seriously, there is no need to fry bacon in oil) and she leaves important steps out, such as draining the fat off the meat. Cooks Illustrated is good fun. Also check out Mark Bittman, who writes "minimalist" recipes that only use five ingredients and are easy and healthy. But really, just keep doing what you're doing. Learn to read recipes. You do this by just reading them whenever you have a chance. With some practice, you'll start to notice differences.