Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Home Cooking >
Sep 18, 2009 02:25 PM

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!

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  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: 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!