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Ok, big question...How do you cook? :)

I've been reading here for awhile and thought I'd jump in with my first post.

I 'm one of those cooks who see a recipe and make it but it doesn't go any further for me and even those recipes tend to be pretty basic.

I grew up in one of those homes where both parents worked. As kids we'd come home and brown the meat and throw it in a pot and my mother would make alittle stove top or mashed potatoes and canned corn. My desire is to be alittle more creative than that and just "know", ok, maybe not just know, but minimally be more comfortable.

To narrow down my question; because of what I had read here, I picked up my first Le Creusent 5.5 qt Dutch oven. (pretty cheaply at Marshalls) I cooked french onion soup last week, so now what? Is there a great book you could recommend?

I don't know about meats and what and how to cook them best. What works well in the oven vs the stove. I really haven't cooked many roasts, pork or beef and I'm feeling alittle lost.

I know this is a very broad request, but just where do I start?


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  1. I first started cooking right after I graduated from college. I was a big fan of the Food Network (back when it was still a credable source), and I just watched a lot of it. I may get some flack for this, but I got a lot of ideas from Rachel Ray's 30 Minute Meals. You have to admit, she is pretty creative some times. From there, I went to the Internet. I cooked a lot of recipes before I started creating my own. I learned what worked well together, and what didn't. I learned how to make a cream sauce for casseroles from scratch, instead of using canned soup. I learned how to roast a chicken properly, things like that. And if I had different vegetables than called for for a recipe, I used those instead. After a while, you'll get the hang of it. I have not read this book, but I hear from a lot of people who reccommend "The Joy of Cooking". I have the "Fannie Farmer Cookbook" for some more traditional recipes like bread and Shepard's Pie. Oh, and for baking, I ALWAYS need a recipe. Good Luck!

    2 Replies
    1. re: Oboegal

      I just bought the Joy of Cooking to have a general purpose cookbook containing all the basics and for all those recipes that you seldom make but that will come up once in awhile. (My focus is on Asian cooking, so the majority of my cookbook collection reflects that, but I do need to make cookies or stuffing or what have you once in awhile, which is where the Joy of Cooking comes in.)

      Having tried about 10-15 recipes from it, I must say that it is excellent: not only are the results great, but the way that the recipes are written, with ingredients written in bold and intermingled with steps, make them incredibly easy to follow and greatly reduces any risk of accidents like omitting an ingredient by mistake. I used to use Betty Crocker for this purpose in the past, but found that most of the recipes were sub-par and disappointing; it is such a pleasure to replace the Crocker cookbook of culinary catastrophes with this book instead. I can't recommend it highly enough.

      1. re: vorpal

        I agree with owning the Joy of Cooking. So much knowledge in just one book!

    2. I really think getting a good basic cookbook would be your first step. We use Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything and the original Joy of Cooking. Both are really great-- I'm guessing Bittman is better on meat. Try out a beef stew in your new pot :)

      1 Reply
      1. re: Procrastibaker

        Agree with both of your cookbook recs. They will show you basics, step by step, and if you want a little fancy, they can do that too.

        And you couldn't have bought a better dutch oven, I've had mine for almost 15 years and love them. Stews, soups, braises, roast chickens, chilis, all kinds of things can be made in them. Really really versatile. And you have some thing we did not, while cutting our teeth - the internet! Now all you have to do is type in a magazine's name, or food network, or some other show, or .... recipe, and the whole world opens up for you. Take advantage of that, you will learn so much. And reading here has helped me become a better cook, even after cooking for 30+ years. Best of luck, and enjoy yourself, it's really a great hobby!!

      2. With that new dutch oven, and this time of year (Howling N'Easter outside) learning stews, soups and braising would be ideal.

        I like classic cookbooks, so would say, Julia, Jacques and Beard are can't go wrong authors, they have great basic techniques books.

        1. Kathy, I think you've gotten good advice here.

          First, re the cookbooks--I think if you're first learning, it's really important to get a good, proven, general American cookbooks (um, I'm presuming from your S/N that you are here in the U.S.?). The first book I would recommend to you would be The Joy of Cooking. If you prefer not to spend a lot of money on cookbooks that you haven't seen, then be aware that you can used editions that are in pretty good shape (e.g., some of them were library books and fairly well maintained) via Amazon. I have bought a few by that means, and have been pleased with their condition, for a fraction of the retail cost.

          Anyway, a book like Joy of Cooking is great because it gives you chapters describing the qualities and use of fundamental ingredients, how they behave, information like cuts of meat and the methods that work for each time, info on the proper cookware and equipment to use, cooking time charts, and things like how to select, store and preserve food. Plus, a book like Joy of Cooking will show you one key recipe and then all sorts of easy variations, so you expand your repertoire quickly and not get bored. I personally do not have Bittman's book, which Procastibaker recommended, but so many people here have commended it that it is on my wish list.

          I liked Oboegal's idea re watching the Food Network and in particular, since you're first starting out, I think that Rachel Ray, Giada de Laurentiis, Robin Miller and Ina Garten might be especially helpful to watch. They tend to cook recipes that aren't too complex, but that emphasize fresh ingredients (or frozen produce, when that's necessary, and that's perfectly healthful when the fresh stuff is out of season, too expensive, etc.). The camera work on those shows is good, and you'll be able to see close-up scenes of how the ladies slice and dice, bread things, place things in pans, etc., so that will help you with technique. They also tend to repeat basic information regarding ingredients from show to show, so that will help the information "sink-in", until you've had a chance to work with some of these things mulitiple times.

          With no ill will toward *anybody*, I would recommend that if you're watching Paula Deen or Sandra Lee for general interest, that's fine, but their choice of ingredients are NOT as healthful as some of the other ladies--too much saturated fat, sodium, processed food stuffs. Those things are fine once in a while, but it's not the way to learn how to cook fresh, healthful, interesting, varied food.

          Also, if you don't happen to be home when their shows are broadcast, but you do have cable, you can find some of the shows "on demand" to play at a time when it's convenient for you. And my cable system also has a set of shorter cooking instructional videos I can play at any time--not big-name chefs, but professional chefs. Look for that on your cable system if you have a menu heading that says something like, "Life and Home".

          I fully concur with Quine, that if you want something beyond a basic home cookbook, then I would go to Julia Child, Jacques Pepin and James Beard (their books and DVDs) to learn about food the right way.

          Get to know your produce and meats managers at the store you shop at. Ask the produce manager when you see him/her to help you pick out the best produce, and ask your meats manager what the best way to cook a particular cut is. Often, these folks will have good info to share with you, too.

          You just have to practice and don't be afraid to make mistakes or have "disasters". You may not have any at all (though most of us do, even after decades of cooking), but if you do, they will lessen with time the more you cook.

          Do you have friends that cook that might agree to teach you how to make one of their special dishes? (I have a friend who makes killer pies, so she gives our little group of friends dough and fillings "clinics" once a year.) Does your municipality or county offer low-cost cooking classes in the evening through its adult education program? Anything "hands on" will help you. And you can always come here to ask for advice or help. I can't tell you how many people have helped me here, and expanded my knowledge, and I was an experienced cook when I found this site.

          To start, look for recipes that don't have too many ingredients to prep, so that you can feel "in control". And for a while, try to introduce new recipes at a reasonable pace--e.g., one new recipe per meal, that sort of thing, rather than taking on five challenging things you've never cooked before, for one dinner.

          I'm excited for you, that you have this goal, and I know you'll be successful at it if you're patient with yourself and remain interested in new dishes and new ingredients. Good luck.

          1. I second "the Joy of Cooking" and "How to Cook Everything", as well as keep watching the Food Channel, ESPECIALLY "Good Eats", since Alton Brown tells you not only How but Why.
            Also subscribe to the internet "Cooks Illustrated" for 3.95/yr. That way if you have any questions, no matter how basic, you can get them answered.
            And, of course, you can ask us Chowhounds! We're always happy to share food info :)!

            4 Replies
            1. re: Michelly

              I love both books, but when my daughter moved out, I bought her Bittman's "How to Cook Everything." She loves it, still uses it often, and has become a weekly farmer's market shopper, making everything she eats from scratch. Since then, I've bought her other books, by Alice Waters, Julia Childs, but she's never stopped loving to cook from Bittman.

              In addition, I really recommend The Barefoot Contessa on the food network, Ina Garten. She is very soothing, takes the fuss and itimidation out of everything, and I love the recipes of hers that I've used.

              1. re: mcf

                I love Ina Garten, too, and she has some wonderful recipes!

                1. re: Phurstluv

                  I also love How to Cook Everything. Three or so years ago, I bought it because I started subscribing to a produce box from a local farm. At the time, I didn't know how to cook much of anything, and I was unfamiliar with a lot of the produce I got. How to Cook Everything was a lifesaver. It taught me how to wash a leek, how to core a cabbage, and how to make stock. The recipes are simple and use good ingredients that you should have on hand - olive oil, garlic, onions, salt, pepper, etc. The recipes for the most part aren't time consuming and there is a good mix of meat, almost-meat free, and vegetarian. Three years after I bought it, I am so much more comfortable cooking and I still consult it weekly for recipes.

              2. re: Michelly

                Great advice! You can't go wrong with those suggestions, and like Michelly said: ask us.

              3. I've found that I take great satisfaction in being able to make a meal or a dish from whatever I can scrounge up, or cruise through the grocery store and see what's cheap or interesting and invent something from that. This is what I call being a COOK. I got that way from trying recipes and making mistakes and cutting and burning myself; from painting myself into a culinary corner and learning how to paint myself back out; from discovering that as long as you use only edible ingredients and don't incinerate them or otherwise screw up TOO badly, the result will be edible if not necessarily "Yum-o!!" (shut UP, Rachael!). Fannie and "Joy", Mr. Beard and Julia, John Thorne and Paula Wolfert and a whole lot of other serious food-heads helped me to get here, but I did it just by doing it really. And of whatever accomplishments I've attained in 60-(h'rumph, mumble) years, this is the one I'm proudest of and happiest about. Welcome to the journey, kid.

                10 Replies
                  1. re: Will Owen

                    Absolutely. There is no substitute for just DOING it.

                    To add to Mr. Owen's words of wisdom, if I may, I think mindful eating is a good step to becoming a more independent cook. When you taste something really delicious, take a second to ask, "What makes that so good?" If you can't pinpoint something, ask the chef. I remember being a young teenager and eating the most delicious black bean and chicken quesadillas at a cafe, and wanting to have them again and again. That was the first recipe I replicated successfully at home. My dad STILL asks me to make them, more than 15 years later.

                    I kind of think that's the key. Identify flavors you love. Figure them out through trial and error at home. Side effects may include cuts and burns, grating your knuckles along with the cheese, and priceless experience. Oh, and eventually, deliciousness! :)

                    Best wishes to the OP and happy eating! :)

                    1. re: Will Owen

                      I agree that doing is the best way to learn. Like most arts, cooking is about technique, not formulas (except baking).
                      There are a number of cookbooks that are technique or information oriented, not recipe oriented:
                      The Professional Chef, published by the Culinary Institute of America. It might be intended for first year culinary students, but there is no better guide for a home cook to learn the fundamentals of food and cooking.
                      Think Like a Chef, by Tom Colicchio, is all about learning to cook without recipes by mastering fundamentals and understanding flavor.
                      The River Cottage Meat Book, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, has everything you need to know about meat of all types and cuts, and how to cook it.
                      Vegetables From Amaranth to Zucchini, by Elizabeth Schneider, has a wealth of information about hundreds of different vegetables, how to select them, and how to cook them.
                      Herbs & Spices: The Cook's Reference, by Jill Norman, is a great guide to a wide range of, well, herbs and spices.
                      Also, I'd recommend tasting as much as possible. When you eat out, order something you've never had before. At home, don't just blindly put things together because a recipe said so, when you don't even know what they taste like. I'm continually amazed by how many people don't know simple things like what thyme tastes like. Buy some thyme. Eat a bit of it fresh. Saute it and taste the oil. Steep it in boiling water and taste the water. Knowing what something really tastes like is the best way to be able to use its flavor.

                      1. re: danieljdwyer

                        That last paragraph may be the best piece of cooking advice I've ever read.

                        1. re: danieljdwyer

                          I think another way to gain insight and wisdom is to read some books ABOUT food and cooking, a category into which some of the better cookbooks also fall. I read Bill Bryson's "Heat" and Tony Bourdain's "Les Halles Cookbook" at more or less the same time; both went out of their way to delineate the differences between restaurant and home cooking, and yet both had excellent advice for home cooks based on restaurant practice. James Beard's "Theory and Practice", "American Cookery" and "Delights and Prejudices" (that last an autobiography) are wonderfully informative, as is Evan Jones's "American Food", and Julia Child's "The Way to Cook".

                          1. re: Will Owen

                            I love Julia Child's The Way to Cook. I think I read it cover to cover, back when it came out.

                            1. re: Phurstluv

                              Just to brag a little bit. We have that book personally inscribed to us and signed by her. I LOVE that!!!

                          2. re: danieljdwyer

                            Well Mr Dwyer, I just ordered all the books you mentioned along with a Julia Childs book and I'm bidding on The Joy of Cooking 1975 on ebay. I figure thats old enough to not be the new and improved version but either way, it's all new to me. :)

                            Thanks for all the help and suggestions.


                            1. re: jerseydoodles

                              I got my Mom's original MOFC and my WTC both signed by Julia back in '90. Both are very good sources, you'll be lucky to have them! ;)

                              1. re: jerseydoodles

                                Enjoy. You've got a lot of wonderful reading ahead of you. I hope these books provide you with as many delicious meals as they have me.

                          3. I have been watching TV Food Network since it's very beginnings. Too bad it's more entertainment than education now. The original Essence of Emeril was one of the most informative shows ever (Good Eats is right up there too).

                            As far as cookbooks I'm surprised nobody has mentioned the good old Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook. Food has been my hobby for 30+ years, and I still find myself referring back to it from time to time. It has very good basic instructions at the beginning of each section.

                            Lastly, I don't think anybody has mentioned magazines. I have been subscribing to Food & Wine for probably 20 years (it's where I learned about this website) and have found it to be a great resource.

                            1. To be redundantly repetitive, YES on Joy of Cooking (esp. if you can find an older one before they "improved" it) The New Basics by Ross & Lukins, MTAOFC by Julia Child, and Martha Stewart has a great website as well as her Cooking for newbies book whose name escapes me. Also recommend allrecipes.com, epicurious.com, recipezaar.com. Have fun and don't be afraid to experiment a little, except for baking; that's more of a science where you have to know ratios and stick to recipes. adam

                              1. I am older than you, but I watched the Frugal Gourmet, and bought his cookbooks to make the things that appealed to me off of his show. My husband has learned to cook from watching the Food Network. If he sees something he likes (he like Guy Fieri's show a lot), he prints out the recipe and figures out how to make it. He doesn't use a cookbook - he has a fat file folder of recipes he's made. He says he can't tell by reading a recipe if it will be any good, but if he sees it on TV, he knows if he'd like to eat it! My point, maybe don't be in a hurry to buy a cookbook......

                                1. Yeah, go check out some cookbooks from the library. The books you like, buy.

                                  1. All great suggestions. I'll add a strong rec for The Best Recipes cookbook by the America's Test Kitchen and Cooks Illustrated people. It walks you through every step and always explains the whys not just the hows.

                                    1. Another vote for "How To Cook Everything." Nothing against the others mentioned but it really gets into simple techniques. And start with simple dishes as well.

                                      1. I learned to cook all those years ago by reading cookbooks. If you spend a little time in a bookstore, you can probably find a cookbook that has the sort of recipes and techniques you'd like to learn. Also, do watch the old Alton Brown shows on the Food Network. Those programs demonstrate techniques and do a lot of basic teaching about cooking. If there are cooking classes near you, you could take one or two of those. And, just try to cook stuff! Don't be afraid of failure.

                                        Alice Waters',The Art of Simple Food is a very good basic cookbook, IMHO.

                                        1. Kathy, welcome!

                                          I don't know if you've noticed the threads that are "stuck" to the top of the Home Cooking forum, but there are a couple labled "COTM" or "Cookbook of the Month". In a nutshell, a bunch of us home cooking 'hounds choose a cookbook (or books) to cook from for the following month. Nov and Dec are a little different than usual because instead of choosing a book for Nov and a book for Dec, we've chosen two "FORMER" COTM's to cook from throughout November and December. They are:

                                          All About Braising http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/330177 and

                                          Simon Hopkinson's "Roast Chicken and Other Stories". http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/505153

                                          Why not come join us? It's a blast and I've learned a ton in the almost two years I've been participating.

                                          Also, since you already own a Dutch oven, I think "All About Braising" would be a fantastic book for you. If you're unsure, see if you can't check it out of the library. (I do that with lots of the COTM's so I don't have to spend a fortune on cookbooks...


                                          Here's a link to the COTM archive that explains how it all works and lists all the former books.


                                          1 Reply
                                          1. Jerseydoodles,

                                            Hi! For basic, beginner cookbooks, I would recommend any of the following, which are not necessarily listed in order of preference:

                                            1. The Betty Crocker Cookbook
                                            2. The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook
                                            3. The Joy of Cooking

                                            The above cookbooks are all basic tomes that tell you how to roast meat, make sauces, and get something on the table in a reasonable amount of time. The recipes have all been well-tested and the terminology of words such as "fold in" and a "scant" quarter cup are explained.

                                            For an overview of each of the methods of applying heat to foods, roasting, braising, steaming, boiling, frying, sauteing, etc., I recommend strongly Alton Brown's "I'm Just Here for the Food." It has some excellent recipes, but more importantly, it tells you why you are doing what your are doing. And it is written with humor and clarity.

                                            For more advanced cooking, I would recommend Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." I would not start out with this book, but if you are still having fun cooking from the other books, in a year, I'd get this one, too. Although her recipes are more involved and time-consuming, Julia Child's recipes are also more fun to do than the basic recipes and, trust me on this, the woman NEVER put a bad recipe in her cookbook! Everything is delicious. Good luck!

                                            1. You have received some great advice here and I wholeheartedly agree with the cookbook recs. My biggest piece of advice to a just-starting out home cook would be this: Don't be afraid of failure. I was a more timid cook for years, not straying far from a recipe, fearing it would be inedible. Finally I got confident enough to branch out. In hindsight, what was the worst that would happen? Maybe I'd have to order pizza or Chinese if an attempt went awry. My advice would be to use the cookbooks mentioned in this thread (go to your local library - books to look at for free! My small town has a huge selection!). Cook for a while, be confident. When you feel like you have some confidence in what works, why recipes have you do certain steps, etc. then branch out. Be creative. Have fun!

                                              1. Hi, Kathy! My mom was a pretty so-so cook, but she had ten kids to deal with, so let's cut her some slack. I had four of my own, and I tried really hard to give them nutrition, but when you have so much input, it's just hard to enjoy. I was also a Costco food demonstrator, and I was pretty good at it.

                                                But the cooking bug never really hit me till I watched Jacques Pepin's More Fast Food My Way on a public station and Lidia's Italy. My mind caught fire.

                                                Here's the thing, Kathy: you learn by trial and error. I just read Julia Child's My Life In France, and it was an okay book, but the one thing she said was, it's okay to make mistakes. Just keep going.

                                                So, start with a small thing. Find a recipe that intrigues you and work with it. Also, do it for yourself, not for anybody else. Make it your passion. And never apologize (another Julia lesson.). That just makes people uncomfortable. Truth is, people are lucky to have food on the table in front of them. Period.

                                                Good luck, and let us know how it's going!


                                                1. I can’t tell you how thankful I am for the time, information and care extended to me as I pursue this latest endeavor of mine. I started compiling a list for Amazon, and I just couldn’t resist the 3.5 qt dutch oven and the 5 qt covered braiser I found at Marshalls today. Whoopee!

                                                  I’m not young in age but very much in experience. I’m over 40 and actually just made my very first roast, which I must say was not bad at all. Between school and work I never really took the time to learn how to enjoy cooking. Now, I work at home and have the time…but something is up with this developing interest/obsession; a few weeks back I was considering weight watchers to lose a few.

                                                  With thanks,

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: jerseydoodles

                                                    My theory, Kathy, is that the better food tastes, the less you're going to need of it. (That's my theory and I'm sticking to i! lol) Jacques Pepin does put out several cooking light cookbooks; he is extremely conscious of eating healthy. You'll often find his books in the French cooking section, btw. He's lived in the U.S. forty years, he says, but people still insist on calling his cooking "French."

                                                  2. The best way to learn to cook is to cook, and keep cooking. :-)

                                                    As a general cookbook, I also like Joy of Cooking. Read the "About" sections for each type of food for useful advice for things like how long to cook meat, or other basic techniques, and why you do certain things. If you're of a scientific turn of mind, Howard McGee's "On food and cooking" is fascinating, but a bit heavy on the science end for a cookbook.

                                                    One piece of advice I would give is to try what I think of as "theme and variations". Cook a dish according to a recipe - say a spaghetti sauce. The next time you cook it, do something different; Use chicken instead of beef, vary the herbs, add some different vegetables. Also look at the recipes, and compare them. The cooking methods for stew, chili, vegetable soup and spaghetti all follow the same basic steps with very different outcomes; once you learn one, the next will be much easier.

                                                    For meat - a good rule of thumb is to use cheap meat in stews, curries, soups or other slow cooking techniques, because they tend to be flavourful but tough, and need to be cooked slowly to be made tender. Big chunks go well with roasting or braising. Expensive meat, like steak, can handle quick cooking techniques.

                                                    And don't take the Food Channel shows too seriously. Some of them give good useful information, but they can be intimidating to a novice cook, the way everything goes perfectly, and without apparent effort. I can guarantee you that when these people cook at home, they spill stuff and screw up on occasion.

                                                    3 Replies
                                                    1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                                                      I would recommend getting the Culinary Institute of america The Professional Chef. This is a pretty serious book that is given to culinary students but has a lot of the fundamentals you need to cook. It is pretty gigantic like 1000 pages or more but has everything you need. I have to disagree with some of the people above telling you to watch Food Network shows. I mean you can learn stuff on there but some of the people teach bad habits and too many short cuts. For foodnetwork I like Iron Chef, Good Eats and Throwdown with bobby flay. Once you learn a technique you will be able to throw different spins on it. One of my favorite methods of cooking and perhaps one of the easiest ones yet time consuming is braising which is perfect for your new dutch oven. Have fun with it!

                                                      1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                                                        It's why I prefer the public channel cooking shows over the Food Channel, entertainment though it is. I figure if Julia Child can make mistakes, then I'm allowed to. : )

                                                        1. re: miki

                                                          Oh ya PBS is where it's at for food. My current favorite is Ming Tsai although I usually always find a way to mess up asian food I should stick with what I know lol. I'm always pumped whenever I can catch some Julia re-runs.