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home cook, but how can I up my game?

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I love cooking. I'm pretty good at it (at least it keeps the hubby happy!) yet I would love
to be more than a foodie who can follow a recipe. Without going to school for culinary training,
what steps can I take to become more masterful in my cooking? How did you know when you
went from "your average cook" to a crafted gourmet?

thanks!! Sue in NY

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  1. Start watching all the chow tips and some youtube videos about knife techniques, prep skills, etc. Learn the basics of preparing/using proteins, carbs, and fats on the fundamental level. Pay close attention to what is going on in the pan as far as smells, sounds, textures, appearances, etc. When you read recipes, break them down into their basic steps and learn to incorporate those ingredients that work well together and the techniques involved into cooking other things. When you go shopping, get a few things that you are unfamiliar with and have never prepared before. Practice, practice, practice. No one really needs to go to a "school" for it! Good luck!

    2 Replies
    1. re: Jemon

      Yup - paying close attention is the key. I can tell when something's done now w/o the timer or some recipe telling me so (altho I ALWAYS set the timer).

      I don't consider myself a GREAT cook altho I always get compliments (or family telling me not to make that again). Homemade does make a difference.

      1. re: JerryMe

        This is true, you need to use all 5 senses for sure, but after working in various restaurants (never as a chef ) I have yet to see a single one who doesn't carry around a instant read thermometer and a timer in his pocket / around his wrist.

        In cooking, as in many things in life, consistancy is everything. That chicken might look, smell, feel, and seem done, but theres no way of knowing until you check it with a thermometer.

        Thats honestly the biggest way I've improved, learning how to tell when steaks are 'generally done' by way of feel (the common touch steak test for instance, or wiggling the chicken leg / looking for clear juices etc) but its at that point I check it and I haven't had a over cooked, rubbery, dried out piece of meat in 2 years. You'd be amazed how good of a cook people think you are if they tell you they like 'medium rare' and they deliver, most home cooks grill the thing to well done and call it a day. Ditto for letting the meat rest.

        Also along these lines, PAY ATTENTION. Cooking by Hand by Paul Bertolli is a great place to start reading, as is any of Michael Ruhlmans books - next on my shopping list is "Ratio" ; they both cover the why's and hows of cooking and eschew recipes for the most part, preferring you how to cook and why, for instance we all use tomato paste in sauce, but very few people bother to understand what it is, how its made, or why we even use it. Bertolli tells you things like this so if you're into Italian cooking be sure to check it out, its quite famous and probaly in your local library. Understanding these things will open up so many doors its incredible.

        And the other thing that really improved my cooking you're probably already doing, but always always look for fresh produce and IN SEASON items. Learn to tell whats fresh, whats in season, and go shopping ased on those. I go to the market with a list containing only household items and staples, most of my food purchases are based on what I think looks good that day and I think up dinners immediatly while going through the produce / meats / etc to avoid overspending. If I can't come up with something right there that sounds great for that night or this week I dont buy it cause it'll go bad and be a waste of money. I'll never eat an out of season tomato or piece of corn ever again, its just not worth it - look forward to those treats when available and local, and in the winter go for root vegitables and make soups and stuff, you'll test yourself, expand your cooking skills and come out the better for it.

    2. Learn the basics of cooking techniques -- e.g. how to poach, steaming and shocking veggies, how to deglaze, etc. -- and then just experiment.

      I know I'll get blasted by the majority of folks here, but I would avoid following recipes. Definitely read recipes, but do so with the intent of gleaning the general intent and motif that underlies the recipe, such as was the original author trying to highlight the uses of complementary flavors (chicken and sage) to enhance a particular vegetable? Doing so will not only broaden your cooking horizon, but unlock your own private Pandora's Box that's been hidden underneath all that stuff you are keepin in your pantry.

      Learning to cook, or rather cooking generally, is just that. There is no ultimate end point. Even the best of chefs and the most accomplished homecooks would be foolhardy to proclaim, "there, I've reach the apex, and now I am done". So just enjoy the journey.

      And be intrepid with your cooking and never be afraid to fail. After all, a failed meal is merely the appetizer to a fabulous one.

      3 Replies
      1. re: ipsedixit

        I agree Ipse - I follow recipes especially for baking but for cooking not so much. I get the gist and then go from there. I do try to keep 'true' to the recipe (otherwise how can I know it's a keeper) but you're right - a 'failed meal is the appetizer to a fabulous one'.

        1. re: JerryMe

          In the case of bread at least, once you are experienced, you won't need a recipe for that either, and will judge by the texture and consistency of the dough.

        2. re: ipsedixit

          I wholeheartedly agree with the idea of not following recipes. I don't consider myself a "crafted gourmet" at all, but I've gone from zero cooking skills whatsoever to having a reputation as a damn good home cook, and mostly by trying things, experimenting, and having fun. Don't get me wrong, I love to read cookbooks, and cooking magazines, and websites, and blogs, but I can rarely follow a recipe to a T (not even a recipe for a baked good, which means I'm a pretty crappy baker). Part of it is hubris -- I feel like I know better in many cases, and sometimes I do, and sometimes I don't -- and part of it is just the pure fun of flying by the seat of my pants. I have had some spectacular failures, some fantastic successes, and many, many meals that fall in between. But like you, most of the time either I or my husband or both of us is quite satisfied with the end result.

        3. CH Homecooking board. So many things catch my interest and then I go investigate more, online, classes and cookbooks.

          1. grasp basic technique and learn culinary foundations. what native cooks of regions pair with what and what goes where.

            then...

            let go of your fear. don't be afraid to try new things, without a recipe or cookbook holding your hand. if you've had a successful dish that incorporated certain herbs or flavors, don't be afraid to change that up. like a roast lamb that used lemon and parsley will also be smashing with orange and mint, as long as the lamb is cooked properly.

            my friends now ask me for recipes knowing i don't have one, lol, but i remember what i at least put in the darn dish!

            1. Also to compound my former novel I just wrote, pay attention to what works and why. Like I said pay attention to while things are cooking (5 senses remember?) but also make mental notes of why you did something and how it turned out. Little tricks that worked will start creeping their way into your culinary 'toolbox' and by thinking about each step as you do it (do you saute the onions first , together, or after the other ingredients? were they caramelized or just translucent? why did you choose that way over the other). Thinking about things like this, the basics, will make you a much more educated and knowledgable cook.

              I often view cooking as just a bunch of building blocks, each step or ingredient adding to a finished product , so by making the right steps or adding the right blocks you can learn why its appropriate to do so again in the future, and then at the same time go about removing the weak links. Call it tweaking recipes if you want, but with a knowledge behind why you are doing it, not just saying "perhaps brown sugar would taste better than white in this recipe".

              This is the only way you can actually learn anything, is by understanding your mistakes so you know (or at least think you know) where you went wrong. For example if you made a meatloaf or hamburger and it turned out dry we can probably say with reasonable accuracy why - Did you add too many breadcrumbs, not enough eggs, or just cook it too long? If it was the former two mistakes, do you remember what the consistancy was like as you were forming it and can you avoid it in the future? This is how paying attention to critical steps and watching each set of 'check points' is important. All the little tricks like adding a pat of butter or whatever inside are crutches and won't make up for trouble in the foundation work. Spend a little time before you start the recipe or cooking (and did I mention read and grasp the entire recipe START TO FINISH before you begin? I'm way guilty of failing to do this) and pinpoint where these 'checkpoints' might be and pay extra attention for how things are going in case you need to make changes in the future.

              If doesn't matter if you end up with a fantastic dish or a failed dish because if you can't pinpoint where you went wrong (or right), what did you really learn?

              Nothing, you just got lucky. Or unlucky, but hopefully the former!

              This is just stuff that works for me, but I found once I started to become interested in the hows and whys of cooking I became much better - I hope you can take some or all of this advice and it works for you too!

              1. Since you're in NY, I'll tell you when I started feeling confident. Friends and family considered me the go-to cook, but it wasn't until I took some weekend cooking classes at BOCES that I realized I really did know what I was doing. I actually ended up with a career in the business, which never would have occurred until I saw what goes on in a professional kitchen, and realized how comfortable I felt with it. It's not "culinary training" just a fun thing that you do for 6 or 8 lessons, but totally hands on and you meet some great people that share your interests and talents. After that, it's a lifelong thing, you keep developing skills on your own, and Chowhound is one great place to do just that.

                1. 10 years ago, at the age of 39, I met my soulmate and eventual husband. Back then he used to say that his mom and brother were the best cooks he has ever known. I was just becoming a foodie and while I knew I had lots to learn I was a little put off by his constant statements of how great their food was. But around 5 years into the relationship I became the #1 contender! And while I can't say that I'm a gourmet, that makes me feel pretty special. But hubby has made me promise to never tell his mom that he thinks my cooking is better than hers! LOL

                  1. If you have a netflix account, you can rent america's test kitchen dvd's very cheaply. They are informative and have great recipes to boot. More importantly, they explain why they are using the technique they are using.

                    Get a book on techniques like "Think like a chef" ( http://www.amazon.com/Think-Like-Chef... ) or "How to cook without a book" ( http://www.amazon.com/How-Cook-Withou... ). This kind of book will explain the cooking techniques and how and when to use them. They will also teach you how to improvise when you are cooking.

                    Finally, start experimenting with your favorite recipes. Try to decide how you could make it even better. Look at recipes of your favorite dishes on places like food network. What did they do differently? Should you try it?

                    Use these 3 suggestions and you will become an even better cook.

                    Oh, one other thing. When you travel, if an area has a unique cuisine, there are often cooking classes you can take for a couple of hours. It usually involves cooking your own lunch but you do get exposed to that cuisine and they usually give you some recipes.

                    New Orleans has a cooking class specifically targeted at tourists. I am sure other areas do too.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Hank Hanover

                      Just by the nature of your post you are on the way to becoming a better cook. There are good reasons for learning techniques from talented chefs whether by book or video/TV. For example have you ever had a tomato sauce for pasta where somebody just threw in raw onions and uncooked meats/ veggys in a pot of spaghetti sauce? It comes out overly sweet and unbalanced like school cafeteria food. You need to build layers of flavor by sauteing the onions, garlic and then frying the tomatoes before adding other liquids and meats. This was my first cooking epiphany and it applies to almost all cooking.

                      The second epiphany was after years of making mexican chile sauces and finding them tasting kind of astringent. I was reading a mexican cookbook by Rick Bayless who described taking the chiles after toasting them, soaking, pureeing, straining and then frying that mixture. I had skipped the final frying part before incorporating it in to a sauce, hence the astringent taste. Rookie mistake, but oh what a difference in the final taste.

                      My point is to read good cook books by talented chefs and pay attention to the detail and techniques. Not all chefs explain in detail the overall process. Also learn the master sauces that are part of any cuisine, particularly stocks. Julia Child in The way to cook explains the French master sauces very well and so does Rick Bayless for Mexican cooking.

                      I would also buy one professional learning type cookbook like what would be used in a cooking school. That will help you with sanitary issues, proper care of kitchen utentials, mise in place, and techniques.

                      Finally, learn from your chowhound friends, many of the posters are or have been real chefs.

                    2. I'm in the same boat as you, aspiring to become better. Some things that have helped;

                      1) youtubing "knife skills" and purchasing a good knife skills book. Prep is either a building block or road block to most great dishes.

                      2) Another vote for Think Like a Chef.

                      3) get to know your food sources. I try to get my meats from Olivers Meats, my local meat cutter, instead of whole foods. I try to get my veggies from my farmer's market. Those folks are an invaluable source of information. Few things can make your meals turn out better than having your meat cutter politely steer you away from a cut that is sub-par that day.

                      4) Go seasonal, and build on that. The best recipe I ever created was a salad based on butternut squash. It was december and the squash was the only thing in season. I forced myself to start with that single simple ingredient and that descipline demanded a great deal of creativity.