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New cook in the House-- need tips/books

Hi all-- as a new cook in the house who doesnt just want to follow recipes but make his own creations. I just dont know where to start!

I mean, all the different types of vinegars, wines, oils, spices, herbs, different condiments one can make, how to cook different meats a certain way, slice them, flavor them, then how to use the left-over bones, the skin, and render the fat, and how to use the fat for future dishes, etc. *sigh*-- lol. All of this is just SO overwhelming to someone new to the cook-world.

Are there any books one can recommend for getting one started in getting acquainted and having a basic knowledge for certain ingredients, what their uses are for and how exactly to use them in the right way to elevate the flavor of a dish? Because I am thoroughly confounded with all of this stuff?

Thanks alot guys!

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  1. used college textbook store > a professional cookbook
    La Varenne Pratique by Anne Willan
    Joy of Cooking
    Culinary Artistry
    Sauces by James Peterson

    1 Reply
    1. re: Botch

      I second La Varenne Pratique. It's in English, BTW.

      Also from the same author, :Cook It Right". Besides instructions, it has pictures of food that is undercooked, cooked correctly, and overcooked. It also has ways to save stuff that has been messed up. It is available cheap on Amazon.

    2. I'm sure others would have a better idea of textbook-y sorts of things - so I'll leave that to them.

      I'm a big believer in getting your hands dirty, so to speak, in the kitchen - it doesn't sound like you have a lot of experience, so in addition to a textbook, I'd recommend some good basic cookbooks like the Joy of Cooking (already recommended), and How to Cook Everything - these two are comprehensive and are good intros on how to cook lots and lots of different foods different ways. HTCE is more "current" - it's the one I'd choose for a younger person starting out. I think the way it's laid out invites you to riff off of a particular recipe - so once you start to get a feel for ingredients and for what appeals to you, you could try them different ways . . . .

      Have a good time - I applaud your enthusiasm!


      1 Reply
      1. re: gansu girl

        I second the How To Cook Everything rec. Something like the Gourmet or Cook's Illustrated Best Recipe cookbooks might be helpful too, since they write about all the variations they've tried for each recipe and what worked and what didn't. Most important, of course, is practice, practice, practice - the more you do it the better off you'll be, regardless of what book(s) you choose.

        1. I'd recommend getting a subscription to Cooks Illustrated magazine and/or buying their cookbook "The New Best Recipe". CI is really good at explaining what works and why. It's good for building intuition about cooking techniques, ingredients, etc. The recipes are mostly easy and pretty foolproof.

          The downside of CI is that, because they are so precise about things (wrap in two layers of foil, add 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons of water, place in oven preheated for 18 minutes at 340, bake for 23 minutes...I'm exaggerating but not that much), you might develop a tendency to adhere too closely to the recipes rather than trusting your own (growing) intuition in the kitchen. I definitely have this problem -- relying too much on recipes -- it's not CI's fault but I can see it as a potential downside if you learn to cook using their magazine/books.

          I would also suggest not getting too hung up on all the different vinegars, spices, etc. Buy a couple of the basics, figure out what you like, buy additional things as recipes call for it. Don't overwhelm yourself all at once.

          1 Reply
          1. re: lvsnyder

            I strongly concur with the Cook's Illustrated recommendation. It, along with the sister publication, Cook's Country, are the printed form of the America's Test Kitchen show on PBS. They have a couple strong advantages over Food Network, Bon Apetit, Food & Wine, and such:

            1. They accept no advertising, so you can count on objectivity... especially when it comes to their frequent product comparisons and taste tests. (Also cuts down on the annoying page-after-page of ads in the magazine). They're not trying to sell you anything, which is refreshing.

            2. They will make the same recipe repeatedly, tweaking it this way and that, until it is just right. Obsessive might be an accurate term. When they publish the final version, you can be confident. They provide the background and process on how they arrived at the final result, so you can understand (and learn) from their efforts. They often have "sidebars" explaining, in detail, the culinary science behind their breakthroughs.

            I also subscribe to their Web site... something like $15 annually. While I loathe to pay for a culinary Web site subcription when others are free, I find I can't do without it. To me, their word is kitchen Gospel.

            I also share my back issues with coworkers in the office. They have become fans, as well. Fantastic educational and learning resouce!

            Their book, Baking Illustrated is AWESOME!!! Worth several times what I paid for it! I used to "bake" out of a box... now I can confidently state I am a scratch baker. They will often have a sale (like 50% off) on their extensive collection of cookbooks... and you can get previous years' issues bound in one hardcover volume.

            As you can't see... I can't say enough good stuff! :)

          2. I'll tell you what I have told my nieces and nephews: learn technique, not recipes.

            You need to know how to steam, boil, poach, roast, bake, broil, saute, pan fry, deep fry, stir fry, brown and braise. Probably some others, too.

            Of course you are going to use recipes as you learn technique, but once you have mastered a technique, you can use any recipe that employs it. The recipes will act as a primer to what pairs with what. If I'm going to make coq au vin, for example, I might look at three or four recipes from good sources and analyze what they have in common and where they differ. If I'm flummoxed by the disparity between them I might come here and post a question.

            Study your mistakes. When a dish didn't work, figure out why. Maybe you turned the meat before it browned and it tore up or didn't caramelize, so next time you focus on proper browning. It doesn't have to be the same recipe or ingredient to improve your browning skills the next time. You just have to "note to self: practice browning deliberately."

            The best lessons I have learned are things that a lot of people can't stand:
            1) Season to taste
            2) Cook until done

            Season to taste: the recipe may have been made with large grain kosher salt when all you have is a can of fine grained salt. If you use the specified quantity, it may come out way too salty. Maybe the recipe called for 1 tbsp of dried oregano, but your dried oregano is past it's prime or not premium quality - you're going to need more.

            Cook until done: after you cook the fish for seven minutes over medium heat and end up with a fishy doorstop you will realize the value of this lesson. My burners may not put out the same BTUs as the stove in the test kitchen. My cookware may be more conductive, or less or have hot spots compared to the cookware used in the test kitchen. My fish may not be cut to the same thickness as that used in the recipe. My recipe may be vague ("filet of medium thickness") or completely untested (which is why I like to look at more than one recipe for the same thing).

            The rest is just experimentation. It's fun, even when it flops. At my house, we call them "noble failures." We'll sit back and look at each other and say

            HE: Well, that didn't work.
            SHE: No, but it was a noble effort.
            HE: A noble failure.
            SHE: Indeed. What went wrong?

            And then we deconstruct what we did - ingredients, methods, pacing. Cooking is a great adventure. I hope that you enjoy your cooking adventure.

            3 Replies
            1. re: BeaN

              Such good advice! But, if I were starting out as a new cook, I would follow a recipe first, and "make my own creations" later. I still do that with foods I am not familiar with, or with recipes that many people recommend here and on Epicurious. I have been cooking for over 50 years and still rely on recipes a lot, especially the 1st time I make an unfamiliar dish. I think it is funny when I read reviews on Epi, and people write that the recipe turned out awful, and then list all the changes they made to the original! As recommended above, get the Joy of Cooking. If I were starting out, I would like to have this book by Jaques Pepin: http://www.amazon.com/Jacques-Pepins-... I haven't seen it, but I think he is a wonderful teacher.

              1. re: MazDee

                I didn't say not to use recipes, rather to use recipes to focus on technique and as a guide to what goes together:

                "Of course you are going to use recipes as you learn technique . . . The recipes will act as a primer to what pairs with what. If I'm going to make coq au vin, for example, I might look at three or four recipes from good sources and analyze what they have in common and where they differ"

              2. re: BeaN

                >The rest is just experimentation. It's fun, even when it flops.

                Yes, Ma'am! My teenage daughter was razzing me in front of hosts at a cookout we attended Saturday, where I was put to work on the grill. She was saying something about how I had once burned something. My comment was that the only person who doesn't burn something once in a while is someone who doesn't cook.

                Nothing ventured; nothing gained. One learns as much, if not more, from failure as from success!

              3. I agree with what Bea said. It seems to me that, since you're interested in being liberated from recipes, you need to concentrate on learning technique.

                But. If you are really new at this, you do need to gain a basic knowledge of ingredients, just as you yourself said, a little bit about food science, something about equipment, and then a little background on compatible flavor companions.

                Others have mentioned Joy of Cooking, and while it is a recipe book, I think it's helpful for the beginner because it has a couple of good chapters that discuss ingredients. Now, I have an older edition, from the 70s, and I heard some complaints about the newer editions (that they've been dumbed down). I haven't seen them, but I've heard that from some pretty good cooks. So one thing you could do is see if you could pick up an older version (w/Irma Rombauer) off of Amazon, etc. It would be less expensive, too.

                As for learning about compatible flavors, I don't think you could do any better than to get yourself a copies of Culinary Artistry, by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, and The Flavor Bible, by the same authors. These books focus on teaching the reader about flavors, from meats to produce to condiments to herbs and spices, that either are compatible or fight with one another. I go to Culinary Artistry constantly to refer to the easy-to-use lists of happy ingredient companions. I'm like you, I think--I never had much patience for recipes, although of course I have used them when making something unfamiliar or complicated that I enjoyed elsewhere first, and I do use them for baking, baking being a precise undertaking. But, cooking, no, not much. But it's essential that you learn proper technique and equipment; after that, you can experiment and create and come up with masterpieces by interchanging the ingredients.

                For the technique, you might consider getting some DVDs from notable, accomplished chefs, either versus or in addition to books. Something about seeing the demonstration that makes it sticks. Maybe others here could make recommendations.

                2 Replies
                1. re: Normandie

                  Wow! Such wonderful and great comments! Thank you all!

                  Really Great info.

                  Would a book by Julia Child also be of great interest also?

                  1. re: achilles007

                    I gave a copy of The Way To Cook by Julia Child to a beginning cook, and she loved it so much she later bought the "Mastering" books as well. See if there's a copy at your local bookstore... browse through it and see if you like it.

                2. Martha Stewart's "Cooking School" is the book I would give someone new to cooking. It's technique-driven and has many excellent photographs of ingredients, equipment, and techniques.

                  In addition, there's lots of useful info that you don't find in most cookbooks. (for instance, she explains meat labeling -- organic, natural, grass-fed, etc.

                  I have many of the books suggested above, and like them all. Stewart's book, however, is the best for a true beginner, IMO.

                  1. "A New Way to Cook" by Sally Schneider is a nice way to learn to wing it. It has a healthy slant with options (2 Tbs flavorful fat means olive oil or butter or bacon grease). She lays out a technique (roasting poultry) and leaves room for personalization (spice rub - optional and then some suggested rubs). You learn some basic techniques and different methods of adding flavor to dishes.

                    5 Replies
                    1. re: corneygirl

                      I love that cookbook, but I find it so unapplealing to look at - no pics, not colorful, etc. So while I'd say it's more on the utilitarian end of the spectrum looks-wise, I agree w/you on its merits . . . hopefully the OP knows himself well enough to decide if it'd be one he'd use!


                      1. re: gansu girl

                        I agree with the lack of pictures, but then again Joy of cooking is mostly without pictures. It is a great ingredient driven cookbook that I go to when I have (fill in the blank) to use up and have no idea what to do with it.

                        1. re: corneygirl

                          Good point, and you know, on thinking about it, How To Cook Everything hasn't got good pics either. So I guess I should ease up on Sally Schneider . . . .

                          1. re: gansu girl

                            I have how to cook everything but I'm not a fan, so I think this is the perfect example of to each their own. Maybe I should check Bittman out again thou...

                            Side note, I checked out your blog and added it to my favorites.

                            1. re: corneygirl

                              Agreed! I wasn't a fan of HTCE for a long time, and it's grown on me - but almost exclusively as a reference, not as an inspiration tool.

                              And I'm glad you like the blog!


                    2. A good way to learn is to watch someone cook. Be it a parent, friend, instructor or even TV if that's all you have.

                      Watching and reading still doesn't mean you'll get it right the first time, so you'll need to get in there to gain the experience.

                      Before going off on your own and experimenting it's a good idea to get a good basic cookbook, and follow the recipes and enjoy whatever it is you've created.

                      Later on you can switch it up by changing an ingredient or spice and experimenting.. keep going and don't let bumps in the road stop you!

                      1. There were a lot of cookbooks that gives ideas for new recipes of foods and how to cook them, you can try to check the stores for them. If you don't want to have new recipes on your own, you can try to cook foods according to your own recipe.


                        1. try to look for the box set of goodeats season one to three by alton brown. great learning tool and lots of fun for beginners to try the stuff he does. (this item is usually on sale at amazon)

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: epabella

                            I totally agree. I've got this set myself and have gotten so much out of it. A lton is a master at explaining things in an entertaining way.

                          2. A good book to have is Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking by Michael Ruhlman. It's not a stand alone cook book, but if you have it on hand while you're trying things, Ratio will help you see how things go together.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: yayadave

                              Wow!!! Thanks guys! This is GREAT info!

                              this website is the BEST!

                            2. This may seem really random, but there was a thread on 101cookbooks a while ago, that addressed a similar question by an older gentleman who found himself alone in the kitchen for the first time, and didn't even know where to begin. The gracious responses are worth perusing if you need your faith in humanity restored just a bit, but they're also terribly useful for a beginning cook.


                              As far as my own advice, I don't think anyone ever learned to cook well by tackling everything at once. Why not make a list of ten things you love but can't cook, and ten things you think you SHOULD be able to cook? Then take one from each list per month and master them.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: LauraGrace

                                Great!! I was trying to find a way to say "Don't think you're going to be Julia Childs, or even her friend Julie." You said it right and gave a perfect, practical method for beginning. Great!!

                                You probably should post it on http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/653574 to guide that young person.

                              2. Here's a little old-fashioned book that I dearly love: The Seasoning Spoon by Loris Troup (older edition called The Tasting Spoon, publ 1955). Each chapter is about two pages long, and dedicated to a spice or herb-- talks about the flavor and tells what dishes typically incorporate it. Everything's in alphabetical order. Includes wine, vinegar, and olive oil. No illustrations, just text. Includes a "potpourri" of hints at the end. I'm sure you could find a used copy quite cheap at Amazon.