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Help Me Become A Better Cook

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I am somewhere in between a beginner and an amateur cook. I learnt basically nothing from my parents, a little from school, and a decent amount from the internet and books. What I really want to do is to fill in the gaps (at least the basic ones) so I can move on and be a confident cook.
Cooking for my dad was to buy the cheapest cut of meat, fry it, and have it with a side of boiled potatoes. As for my mother, well her cooking was eating deli goods such as dips etc and then going out for a coffee.
Even with a lot of research on the internet I find that I just lack basic knowledge and confidence.

For instance;
I know how to make an excellent lasagne (which takes about 5 hours)
I velvet the chicken when making sweet n’ sour chicken
I know how to test an egg for freshness

But I have never and would have no idea how to:
Poach an egg
Deglaze a pan
Roast a chicken or lamb without using a Glad Oven Bag
Make bread crumbs

I’ve got my eye on three books that I’m hoping will cover the very basics of cooking, food safety, techniques, buying food etc
- How to Cook Everything
- Where's Mom Now That I Need Her?: Surviving Away from Home
- Joy of Cooking

Can anyone recommend any additional reading texts? Also as an Australian I’m used to terms such as minced meat not ground meat, Kilograms instead of pounds, and “throw another prawn on the barbi” so I hope the books are still going to be beneficial to me.

Thanks in advance

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  1. Joy of Cooking is a good tome for both beginners and more advanced cooks, but you might also want to look around for a general cookbook that focuses on technique, not recipes, and has plenty of photos (e.g. Cooking Know-How, by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarborough). You could also consider youtube videos for specific instructions (though to be fair, I really dislike using youtube videos and therefore that is an absolute last resort for me--I find them too long and too annoying, so I'd rather use text).

    Also, snax, NEVER underestimate the power of trial and (some) error! Mistakes actually do help you become a better cook--you try to figure out what went wrong (and sometimes it isn't your technique, sometimes it's the ingredients or your equipment). I say this also as a self-taught cook--I didn't learn from my mother, as she truly disliked cooking. But practice is your best bet. So, read about egg poaching, try to poach one, and if it works, fine. If not, try again!

    1. It sounds to me like you are a better cook than you are giving yourself credit for...the things on your "know how to do list" are harder than on your "don't know" list. Deglazing, for example, just means using a liquid to remove the carmelized bits of food left after cooking meat. Add the liquid (eg wine) to the pan, return to heat, scrape up the bits and you have jus. You have probably done this without knowing this is what you are doing.
      You might enjoy taking a cooking class. I think half the battle is feeling comfortable with the vocabulary. Also agree with nofunlatte that trial and error is a great approach. Remember, for those of us who are not professionals, this should be about having fun and sharing your efforts with people you care about.

      1. By the way, since it sounds like you are interested in technique, you might like Cooks Illustrated. Also, Bon Appetit always has a cooking school part in the back that discusses technique.

        3 Replies
        1. re: mountaincachers

          I was going to suggest Cook Illustrated as well. They give clear and detailed instructions which will help to define terms and techniques. I think after learning a bit there you would have built up more confidence to go out and try, well basically anything that interests you. Since it does indeed sound like you know perhaps more than you realize, maybe you just need that little confidence boost and some good references to turn to.

          1. re: cookie44

            I love CI. I've read the magazines in the past, but I really enjoy watching Cooks Country and America's Test Kitchen. Even though I haven't made tons of the recipes, I've learned a lot in the way of technique.

            Martha Stewart's Cooking School is a nice cookbook too. She gives basic techniques- say roasting a chicken- and then lots of variations. Her cooking and prep times are pretty accurate and there are lots of pictures. I took it out of the library recently and made several dishes.

          2. re: mountaincachers

            Yes, indeed, Cook's Illustrated would no doubt be helpful to the OP. Their website gives a good taste (pun intended) of what they are all about. Also, their "The Best Recipe" (recently re-born as "The New Best Recipe") is a wonderful cookbook whose recipes always work and that provides explanations for why their recipes work as well as which techniques work best when making them.

          3. My advice to novice cooks is almost always the same: make a list of ten or twenty things you would love to learn how to make really well. Then do research, go to youtube and watch videos, ask friends who are good cooks for help, and get in the kitchen and figure it out. I learned how to poach an egg, for instance, by a little research (a bit of vinegar in the water, a gentle simmer, never iodized salt were what I learned) and a lot of trial and error. Now I would defy the very ghost of Julia Child with my egg-poaching skills! ;)

            Making a list of ten or twenty dishes you'd love to learn to make beautifully would help you with finding cookery books that fit your needs.

            Have you looked at the Cooking for Engineers website? I'd recommend it just for clarity's sake! The recipes are wonderfully clear and precise with none of the cooking jargon that can confuse newbies.

            1. I vote for Where's Mom Now That I Need Her?; because it walked me through many situations not just cooking, honestly pre-internet that book was my go to resource and if I hadn't lost mine in a move It still might be. I too come from a domestically challenged family and that book can help you figure it all out including what is that rash or how in the world will I get this stain out, or how to care for cookware. It also had a great index that made things easy to look up when your in the middle of an OMG what now moment.

              I do have a Joy of Cooking and while its fine the index is not so intuitive, at least the edition that I have and it seems to miss some basics like how to cook a prime rib.

              I would recommend besides the sites already mentioned to check books out from your library before purchase. I checked out How to Cook Everything and while I don't remember if it had basics (I would think it would) I do know I would like to add it to my collection. Also I collect old cookbooks usually from thrift or used book stores as they seem to really walk you through so many things.

              1. Look for the Cook's book, that's a pretty good resource as well.

                Learn the odd fundamentals that few people really write up in books anymore like tying your roasts properly using a slipknot. Trussing a chicken, salting from a height and knowing *when to salt. (still would constitute a considerable debate on the timing of salting proteins and vegetables).

                Probably make a list of fundamental techniques too and make sure you have every building block done. for example:

                Braising - Salting/marinating; proper browning, chopping the appropriate size of vegetables, deglazing using the right heat and right liquid (sometimes it's even just the liquid from the aromatics, and heat and evaporation control.)

                Then there's roasting, grilling/searing, steaming, poaching and boiling/blanching.

                One book that's pretty good as well is Think Like a Chef by tom Colicchio. I'm sincerely excited for you, cooking is a very engrossing undertaking and getting a good sigh of deliciousness after learning to braise is priceless. Enjoy!

                1. I am very partial to Madelein Kamman's New Making of a Cook. But I think the most important thing of all is to use your senses and trust your intuitions. Books really help to explain techniques and ingredients, but eventually nothing replaces your immediate rapport with your ingredients. They have to teach you. Then as you gain confidence with one thing, just extend your skills. If you can, work alongside another cook from time to time. It's amazing what you pick up that way.

                  1. Also, for roasting a chicken, I love Marcella Hazen's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. Agree that you could probably find some of these used or from a library to try them out.

                    1. The Joy of Cooking is my bible. It's good you have a copy.

                      Some things are learned immediately and can be done well thereafter. Some things, however (like poaching an egg properly) require practice, practice, practice.

                      The science of what makes foods do what they do is very important to grasp (at least it was for me). The more I learn about food science -- how foods heat, break down, combine -- the better I am for the knowledge.

                      Finally, confidence is important. Overcome your fear of failure and just dive in!

                      1. Pioneer Woman is straight from the "throw another cow on the barbi" school of cooking. Lots of pictures and corn ball writing. Her blog has turned into a cookbook.

                        http://thepioneerwoman.com/cooking/

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: yayadave

                          I love her blog! She has great photos and good recipes. On the on-line theme, there is a blog called The Hungry Mouse that is a visual guide to cooking - there are great photos that accompany step-by-step instructions . . . so you can see what yours is supposed to look like. (http://www.thehungrymouse.com/home/pa...) I think it'd be great for a beginner. Good luck!

                          GG
                          http://www.semisweetonline.com

                        2. I learned to cook before VCRs, much less Youtube and other online videos. Cookbooks didn't necessarily teach technique, but there were Julia Child and other PBS cooking show pioneers plus Graham Kerr on commercial TV. Those moving pictures are worth many-thousand-words. For example, although to this day I have never made a poached egg, I have seen it done enough times that I know I could do it competently.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: greygarious

                            I grew up watching Julia Child on PBS. I've never poached an egg either.. but I'm with you in that I can do it if I wanted to.

                            Have you seen Avec Eric? Not sure if it's new or not, but I watched it for the first time the other day. The food looked so simple and so GOOD.