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Would like to finally learn how to cook

I am a 25 year old NYC law student currently in San Francisco for the summer for work. I have gone by life not have ever learned to really cook, surviving primarily off of my family, dorm food, and now free food that I get at the law school supplemented by buying food somewhere in the city that is prepared one way or another (microwavable to take out, etc.) Having hit this point in life, I would like to learn how to actually cook, esp now that have some time that won't have when go back to school and when eventually start working as a lawyer. This is in hopes of garnering long terms savings, healthier eating, and making myself a better person. I have some basic ability to microwave and boil pasta, but that is the most i have really done, plus make a basic tuna sandwich. Now that I have some down time on a relatively regular basis compared to my first year, I would like to go forward and start learning to cook rather than spend a whole summer eating some form of prepared food from the Safeway across the street,. Thus, I am hoping for some advice about how to proceed. I tend to learn best through a structured method (have spent my whole life as a student), so looking for either some sort of schooling/course or a highly recommended site/books that teach how to cook from step one onward. I am less interested in what tools should get, since can learn that from the books as well as classmates who cook regularly, and I am a very flexible eater, hoping to get a good variety of food in my diet, having traveled and lived both outside and around the US. I appreciate any advice and thank you for your responses.

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  1. To get started on your own, check out Mark Bittman's cookbook, "How to Cook Everything" and Irma Rombauer's "The Joy of Cooking." Those are good, pretty comprehensive guides to basic techniques, recipes, and variations. Similarly, there are lots of good websites and blogs with information, such as http://culinaryarts.about.com/b/, http://simplyrecipes.com/, and http://www.reluctantgourmet.com/.

    A quick google search turns up these cooking classes at a community college in San Francisco: http://www.ccsf.edu/Departments/Culin...

    Good luck! Please report back on how it's going. Once you get started cooking, you'll be hooked...and you'll save a lot of money.

    1. Find a classmate or friend whose food you like to eat. Learn from them. That way, you will start off with basic dishes that you like. At least initially, you won't need to learn skills that you don't need in the short term. Eventually, you will learn enough that you will be able to come up with your own ideas or be able to cook from a recipe.

      2 Replies
      1. re: raytamsgv

        +1. You will learn way faster from someone who knows how to cook and can show you, than from a book. Plus it's more fun.

        1. re: raytamsgv

          Cooking with a buddy makes it all more fun. But basically, if you want to learn how to cook, then cook! Get a book that speaks to you, and make some recipes in there. Fail occasionally. Have a few stupendous successes. Learn from that. Read on the internets. Buy another book. But really, the best way to learn how to cook is by doing it over and over and over, and critically evaluating your work.

        2. There are many cooking classes available in SF. First, sign up for a basic knife skills class, then one on making stocks/sauces. Various technique classes, e.g., sauteing, braising. You'll learn a lot by watching proficient chefs (and cooking classes are a great way to meet like-minded folks).

          1. all the suggestions are good but why not just try and either fail or succeed. For example, start with chopping a small onion, fry in a little olive oil, add a clove of garlic, some chopped celery and green pepper, then add a can of tomatoes and cook on a low heat for about an hour stirring now and again. Add some salt and pepper, boil up some pasta separately, strain pasta and serve yourself pasta and sauce. If you want to add some ground beef do so about the same time as the canned tomatoes.

            Then another day, get a chicken from the supermarket, wash and make sure there are no giblets inside, put into a roasting tin (buy a foil one if you don't have any), add salt and pepper, cut an onion in quarters and put half inside the chicken the rest around the chicken, squeeze a lemon over the chix, put the rest inside, cook at 350 in the oven for about an hour and a half. If you want to roast some potatoes, peel 2, cut into roast size chunks, pour about half an inch of vegetable oil into another roasting pan and cook the spuds at the same time as the chicken on a higher shelf in the oven.

            A lot of cooking is trial and error, more or less seasoning, some disasters that go in the trash. Watch the cooking shows.

            1 Reply
            1. re: smartie

              don't forget to rub the chicken with oil-- remember this is a beginner and may not know this stuff, nor how to properly secure the wings and legs-- that's a technique which is easier taught by observation. and what size/type of chicken?

              a chicken is done roasting and cooked all the way through when you can grasp (protected by thick towel) the end of its drumstick and move it easily in a circular motion around in its socket. raw chicken, of course, may be dangerous to eat.

              i personally in this case might rec that "the egg comes first (before the chicken ;-P)." buy a doz supermarket eggs. cook one at a time in a small fry pan-- see if you can do a simple flipped fried egg, a sunny side up. . . a decent scramble, hard & soft. also with the eggs, you can do a french toast, which is a satisfying and economical dish for a single person, for dinner as well as breakfast. these simple egg preparations are quick and just take a little practice to master. if you don't get it right, it's okay, you're just practicing, with a small investment. crack another egg. if you have leftover eggs, you can attempt hardboiling (peel and eat them or make egg salad). next week you can move to omelets and poached eggs, and the week after, to quiches.

              ask to help one of your friends (who likes to cook) prepare a regular meal, once or twice a week. show up with a share of the groceries, or go to the store together and help to pay for the food. your friend can help demonstrate food prep and knife work and you'll learn through observation, and have a nice meal together. no two cooks are the same, so learn from others as well, after you've gotten ahold of some basic techniques.

              i agree that watching some cooking shows can be helpful. some of the older pbs-type shows will show more actual prep work. i don't have cable so i don't have a clue about food network etc.

            2. I agree with everyone and also want to add that i started learning to cook by watching cooking shows. Watching helps you pick up technique and efficiencies and gives you ideas about what can go with what. Find a cooking show you like, watch it regularly and you will absorb a lot. Most shows these days have websites so you can get recipes and re-watch clips if you want to recreate something.

              Not my favourite but Jamie Oliver does really simple food, emphasis on ingredients and cooking well rather than fancy seasoning, sauces or techniques. Try him for starters.

              Here in Australia we have Women's Weekly cookbooks. In some of their books, all recipes have a photo, and in all of their books every recipe is triple tested. I trust them. Find a cookbook you trust and like.

              And have fun.

              3 Replies
              1. re: hillsbilly

                I still have my Women's Weekly birthday cake books which I got in England about 20 years ago. I made all my kids' birthday cakes from there which were a real hit.

                1. re: hillsbilly

                  Jamie Oliver is the person who got me into cooking. What's so great about his show/books is that they have such a great range of dishes from easy to difficult, but even those are explained perfectly. I've made quite a few things from his book that came out perfect. What I love about his show (the Naked Chef) was that he showed you, if you can make rubs and sauces, you can cook anything. But the main thing is....COOK!

                  1. re: hillsbilly

                    If you're more of a visual learner (learn by watching rather than reading), I second the watching cooking shows. Many of the food network chefs are derided by foodies, but they are good to watch for beginners. Rachel Ray is good for learning basics and how to throw dinner together quick - if you can handle her personality for 30 minutes a day.

                    I have learned a lot by watching Alton Brown (Good Eats), Mario Batali (Molto Mario) and Giada de Laurentis (Everyday Italian). Don't try to cook along - just watch and absorb.

                    I recommend the Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook - its a good resource for the basics. If you're interested in learning fundamental techniques and how to expand on them, I recommend Ratio by Michael Ruhlman.

                  2. this is a earn by doing sort of thing.

                    don;t worry so much about recipes as getting a feel for how food works in the kitchen.

                    watch cooking shows.

                    another good book is: Timing is everything

                    but mostly. just get in there and do it

                    1. Of the methods discussed, find a friend that cooks, take a course, watch TV, and learn by doing, I'd say that the most effective for a flat out beginner is to find a friend that cooks. There's a lot to cover before turning on the burner - you don't have to know everything about cooking methods and techniques, but you do need to know about buying basic equipment and how to handle meats vs.vegetables.

                      A friend may not be the most structured method, but you can ask questions - why did they do something a certain way? What kind of equipment do they have? Ask for a basic meal - one that isn't full of fancy steps and ingredients - a roast, a simple pasta dish.

                      Then, try his/her recipe on your own, and try some others. Then, find the more structured course - it will have more meaning if you have that background, even if it's just a couple of attempts.

                      Some basic recommendations:

                      1) Don't over-buy. Don't buy full sets of knives and pots and pans, etc. Buy just what you need as you need it - start with a couple of knives (paring and chef's) and a non-stick pan and a pot.

                      2) I say this to a lawyer, especially: Remember that while there are well accepted cooking methods and techniques, most homecooks didn't learn formally, so may do things simply because their mom did. As you go long, there may be some unlearning to do - that's ok - it's just part of cooking. Don't expect that everybody follows or even has a strict understanding of the whys and wherefores of food.

                      Lastly, if you are interested in the whys and wherefores, some level of analysis about how and why food works, and in a basic text that will become a reference for life in dealing with all things food, I highly recommend that you get a copy of Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen ( http://www.amazon.com/Food-Cooking-Sc... ) . This may seem a little ahead as far as a beginner is concerned, but it answers a lot of questions you'll have along the way. And besides - you're used to reading!

                      Applehome http://applegigo.blogspot.com

                      1. you already have skills: sandwiches, pasta, and exceptional ability to read and utilize information. you can start building on those skills on your own. grilled sandwiches, then saute meat, fish, veggies, develop a pan sauce after saute. pasta or noodles cross into lots of different cuisines. it's a small step to branch out from pasta to asian noodle dishes, and cold salads for the warm weather. noodles move easily into soup for cool weather.

                        start a list of flavors that go well together that work for you so you have a framework. garlic, soy and ginger. tomato, peppers, onions. cabbage, caraway, apple. you get the idea.

                        cook with friends when you can and augment with written info and video. as mentioned already jamie oliver has great intro stuff. alton brown and tyler florence, ditto. tape shows so you can dissect skills and important points.

                        1. Thanks for the helpful tips, and appreciate any continued advice anyone has. I enjoyed the vote of confidence that being a law student gets here. One question I have in addition to those from the original post concerns food selection. One possible demotivater was concern about ending up only able to cook a limited selection of food, leading quickly to a food rut that could get tiresome, as well as some laziness in figuring out what I would like to eat at a certain time, rarely ever planning ahead. So my question is how do you determine what to eat at any particular time (free from any strict diet plans) and attempt to have a diverse assortment of meals. As mentioned, I am very flexible eater and enjoy eating as many different types of food and meals as can if possible. Much of this was inspired by living in Singapore, which had an extremely diverse selection even in my dorm. Much appreciated.

                          5 Replies
                          1. re: gfunk01

                            this is why you need to learn techniques, not recipes. If you know how to braise, for example, you can braise chicken or beef or lamb, you can make a fricasse or a stew, etc.

                            1. re: gfunk01

                              If you have lots of time, learn techniques. But if you want eat soon, learn recipes first. You will pick up techniques along the way, although not as quickly.

                              One of the things you should learn is how to identify and choose fresh ingredients. That is the most important aspect of cooking. Produce is available year round, but most produce and many fishes are seasonal. Buy things in season. If you start with bad ingredients, you will end up with bad dishes regardless of how good your cooking skills may be.

                              1. re: gfunk01

                                I think that’s where the cookbooks come in. Thumb through them and mark the recipes that sound good, buy ingredients as you need them, and start cooking one dish at a time.

                                I doubt I have to say this but it’s my two cents - but timing will be important too. “30 minute meals” are great, but you need to have all the ingredients at your finger tips, and know exactly what you’re doing to make it happen. The average meal will take at least an hour, by the time you’ve chopped veggies, boiled water, rested the meat, yada yada yada.

                                Point is, when you get home after a day of meetings and appointments you might be too tired to prepare a complex meal. Start simple and as you gain experience, your repertoire will grow with your skills.

                                1. re: gfunk01

                                  I almost never cooked until five years ago. Recently, I've returned to the rut which you speak of. I'm cooking for one usually, so it is sometimes easier and many times even cheaper to grab a bite out or get take out. When I do cook, I try to cook at least two meals. Other than beef, I find that almost everything can be reheated and still tastes good. Another little trick (at least it works for me) is to undercook the second batch, especially when making chicken dishes. This way, when you reheat the leftovers, you're not eating dried out chicken.

                                  I agree with people's assessment of learning techniques, but I must say, there is something about opening a cookbook, following a recipe, then throwing in a little of your own ideas and tasting the results. I absolutely ruined pork chops for years and hated them because of that.. One time I made them perfectly and now I love pork chops. The feeling was quite grand too.

                                  1. re: gfunk01

                                    GFunk - I determine what we're going to eat that week according to what's on sale. For instance a few weeks back, lamb chops were on a spectacular sale. I found a recipe from Mario that accommodated them on the grill. I'd never made lamb prior to that.

                                    I usually utilize what's on sale and then find a recipe.

                                  2. Second try: I lost the first one by hitting the TAB key which erased everything.

                                    Since you are in San Francisco for the summer, google "Mary Risley" founder of Tante Marie's Cooking School. The school offers many different programs - six month courses to participation classes for home cooks. I'll bet my good knives that Mary Risley will be able to offer something helpful to you.

                                    As a former cooking teacher/chef, I come down strongly on the side of those suggesting learning techniques (VS recipes). Once you master the basics, you can pretty much cook anything. Breaking down cooking into two main categories is a start: WET and DRY.

                                    WET = techniques like braising and frying. Braising generally uses a water-based liquid such as broth or wine while frying uses fat or oil. The wet cooking technique can be used for many different foods -- vegetables, meat, seafood, etc. We'll combine the wet cooking techniques with the following experiment.

                                    Pre-heat a saute pan to medium. Add some fat - olive oil or butter or combination of the two is fine. Using the following list, choose something from column A. Dry it thoroughly and add to preheated pan. Do not move this until it has a chance to brown on the first side, usually about five minutes. Peek by lifting a side to check the color, don't move the whole piece. Cook until golden brown, turn over and cook the second side. Remove the food from the pan. Choose your liquid, add to pan and scrape up the browned pieces from the bottom of the pan. This is called "deglazing" and builds flavor. Add your flavoring and condiment from C & D. Lower heat to a bare simmer and cook until done.

                                    Make a chart of possible combinations and you have meals for many months using this simple technique alone. An Example follows (I hope):
                                    MAIN LIQUID SEASONING CONDIMENT

                                    chicken chicken broth onion mustard
                                    beef red wine tomatoes basil
                                    pork apple juice apples thyme
                                    lamb beer fennel dill

                                    You get the idea. Simply make a long list of possibilities then choose one from colum A, one from colum B, etc. Use your taste buds as guide at the beginning because you can make a very odd-tasting combination by choosing willy-nilly.

                                    But you can see that simply changing the liquid and flavorings, you've created new dishes. Chicken with red wine, beef with beer, pork with apples are basically the same dish using different ingredients.

                                    Good luck and let us know how you're doing.

                                    EDIT #3 -- the categories have run together and look confusing to me. I cannot seem to fix it by spacing them; I'm sorry if makes no sense to you. Look at each item separately and mentally space them so the meats are aligned, the liquids are separated, etc. When I went back to proofread, it looked crazy -- chicken chicken broth onion mustard instead of thes four ingredients being in individual columns.............

                                    1. Everyone has wonderful suggestions. On top of books, tv and websites and just cooking regularly, I would say to have someone who cooks show you how to make some dishes in a home kitchen. They can give you the subtle stuff throughout the process you can really only learn in the moment and from cooking often. And you'll get to see how most people actually cook vs. professionals on tv. Also have them show you around their pantry so you'll know what basics to actually stock up on vs. those usually overly long lists of items most cookbooks suggest.

                                      I watched my father and grandfather cook my entire childhood so I essentially learned the basics through osmosis. Which I think is important as much of cooking is about picking up on the cues from sight, sound and smell.

                                      1. The discussion of pedagogy regarding cooking is an interesting one. There are parallels in music where the "old school" teachers of well accepted, one step at a time technique methodology were shocked in the1960's when the Suzuki system came about. It encouraged playing songs rather than scales - get the kids playing - almost like the think system in Music Man. Years since it began, it's an accepted school of teaching - clearly getting beginners excited about playing makes a lot of sense. The issue is that there has yet to come one real world class player out of that system, even given that as they go on, some certainly learn great technique.

                                        Nevertheless, I say cook, cook for the fun of it. The technique will come with knowledge over time. But if you lose the thrill of creation and accomplishment, you'll end up a technical master of creating nothing - perhaps even a critic. If you always love to cook, you'll learn more and more just to keep yourself entertained! I'm not saying don't take formal courses, just that those courses can come later and be interspersed between jags of cooking gone wild.

                                        What was the old line about golf and sex being two things you can enjoy doing even without expertise? I totally disagree about the golf, btw, but there are things where just a bit of understanding is enough to kick off your pursuit. I think cooking can be one of them.