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What is missing in your culinary education and why?

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Please name up two things that are missing in your culinary education and explain why.

For me, the most important thing for which I have no education is knife skills. After forty years of cooking, I'm still pretty deliberate in the way I cut things and nothing is chopped exactly the same size. I blame this on the fact that where I lived for the first thirty years of my life, there was no possibility of any culinary instruction. (Also, there was no Food Network, few instructional books of which I was aware, etc.) I see now that there is a cookware store near my house that offers a specific course in knife skills. I'm going! (I'm also reading Jacques Pepin's book on technique, which i discovered recently.)

Second, I can't bake bread worth a darn. Of course, I was using all purpose flour and the "Better Homes and Gardens" or "Betty Crocker" cookbook. (I can't remember.) I could never understand why my bread came out so tough and dry. (It had a nice crust, though, somewhat akin to the armor plating on a tank.) I tried variations on the basic recipe, but never used anything but AP flour. When I complained about the results to a bread-baking friend, her first question was what kind of flour was I using? At that point, I didn't know there were other kinds of flour, except whole wheat, which in the Midwest was considered a little weird. However, why would anyone publish such a terrible recipe and specifically call for AP flour? Anyway with the new 21st century enlightenment about bread and a new cookbook, I am going to try again.

Okay, I'm not confessing to anything else. I still think I'm a pretty good cook. What about you?

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  1. My missing link is making sauce of any kind (except spaghetti sauce!). Although I remember watching my mother cook, she didn't teach me to cook and I didn't study what she was doing. I've taught myself to cook relatively well - husband and I are pretty satisfied, anyway - but sauces scare me. Honestly, I can't even make gravy, and husband and I agree that the next element I should tackle to take my cooking to a next level is sauces. I can't think of a lot of things I cook that seem to require saucing, but something on that delicious-but-dry tuna steak would probably elevate it - and give it variety, allowing us to have it more often. /confession

    4 Replies
    1. re: occula

      I'm 63 y.o., born and raised in Atlanta and until the last six months or so was gravy-phobic. Not sauces from recipes with totally clear instructions. Then I extracted something from a Bon Appetit Y'all recipe:

      2T fat (leftover from cooking usually but I've used bacon drippings and other things)
      2T flour
      stir them together til nice and brown and not floury
      add 2 cups broth
      simmer and whisk
      IT'S WORKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      I can now make gravy

      There are so many things that I'm missing I'll have to think about that one and get back to you :)

      ETA: Forgot the why. I think it's because I'm a recipe type person and all those generations of Southerners in my just MADE it. No recipe. Freak out :)

      1. re: c oliver

        First of all, thanks! Secondly, that's a good point - once I've learned something, I play free and loose with the recipe, but I like to see one to start with, and ... I grew up in rural southern Missouri eating midwestern-southern food, and gravy always seemed genetic, not learned.
        I was also gravy-impeded by being a vegetarian for ten years, so no meat drippings to work with - but I've converted back to 'flexitarian', so I ought to be able to come up with something. (it beats iron shots every 6 weeks. ow!)

        1. re: c oliver

          c.oliver, Notice the ratio -- 2:2:2 (2T fat, 2T flour, 2C liquid). You can make this 1:1:1 or any other number and it will work. Promise. Also, the fat can be butter, olive oil, bacon fat or bear grease in addition to the pan drippings you mentioned. Instead of broth, think about other liquids ........... the world of sauces and gravy is opening at your feet!

          1. re: Sherri

            I did 1:1:1 a couple of nights ago. 1 of lamb fat lifted off the liquid from the slow cooker, 1 of flour and 1 of that same lamb liquid. I was like "hot damn, now that's lamb gravy." Why did I think this was hard?????

            I made Chinese dumplings (XLB) some months ago and blew my mind at how easy that was. But still yeast-phobic. But, hey, 2011 is just around the corner. New conquests :)

      2. I'm a bit of a doughophobe. Thus, when it comes to baking bread, I'm right out. And fugeddabout attempting filled pastas such as ravioli or tortellini! That sort of cooking intimidates me, I'm ashamed to say.

        4 Replies
        1. re: Perilagu Khan

          +1 re doughphobia. Now I use the excuse of living at 6200' elevation.

          Re ravioli, if you're interested, do a search for jfood's goat cheese ravioli. It's a snap and one of the best things I've ever cooked.

          1. re: c oliver

            just in case PK is feeling adventurous:
            http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/671774

            1. re: goodhealthgourmet

              Pasta machines? Pricking with needles?! Crimping!! Contents leaking during boiling!! EXPLODING RAVIOLI!

              **PK totters away from the keyboard with a queazy feeling in his gizzard**

              1. re: Perilagu Khan

                ha! i said you'd have to be feeling "adventurous" ;)

        2. Always wanted to work in a real bakery, had the oportunity, just never did, always stayed on the cooking side.

          1. Fish. It terrifies me. So I signed up for a fish course at the CT Culinary Inst., and when the time came, the famous lady who was supposed to teach it got sick and they canceled the class. DW especially will order it in restaurants. I do ok with shellfish, shrimp, scalloops and lobster, and used to do fish in foil. But not outright simply cooking fish.

            I think it must go back to when we were kids and every Friday night we had that awful stuff that came in a frozen rectangle and that stunk. Friday night date night everybody knew who the Catholic kids were by the way they stunk of fish...or Jean Nate and fish for the girls.

            I can't say that I can bake either beyond adding blueberries to a muffin mix, but we've never much cared for dessert and my better half makes killer pies on the holidays anyway. I used to make all of our bread. Now I can barely get anything to rise....

            1. Cleaning, scaling, filleting a whole fish
              Shucking oysters and clams

              1. Carving poultry. I usually wind up doing something akin to a slasher flick. Granted, I don't cook whole birds very often, as I'm usually cooking for one or two. But I did a beer can chicken yesterday and did an awful job on carving. I gave up in short order basically pulled it apart with my hands.

                1 Reply
                1. re: nofunlatte

                  BBQ/Grilling. just wasn't part of my family for the most part. i'm getting better, doing a lot this year, but well..... there it is

                  didn't grow up in a kosher household, but eastern european jewish parents didnt have much pork and certainly no ham on their experience, so we rarely had it. never cooked mnay hams, though i do cook every other sort of pork

                2. Frying. I'm embarrassed to say this, but I cannot fry anything properly. Shallow, deep, you name it, I'm bad at it.

                  1. I know this sounds stupid, but: proper freezing technique. I never freeze leftovers because I always screw it up, ice crystals, etc. If anyone has links for me I'm all eyes.

                    Opening a beer bottle with my teeth.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: tatamagouche

                      tata...The only way to freeze anything successfully is to have a FoodSaver. Yes, they can be expensive, but it stretches the food budget, and no ice crystals or freezer burn.

                      Look at Tuesday Morning, Home Goods or Big Lots for one. Worth every penney.

                      1. re: The 1st and only KSyrahSyrah

                        Thanks!

                    2. I'm a baker, I find it easy, it just fits me. I make the pizza doughs, puff pastries, breads and cakes in the house. I'm also good with fresh made pastas and such. I can pull of great meals, make great sauces but I have two weak points.

                      1. Seafood - preparing anything other than fish. I grew up with a mother who was allergic to shellfish, and a father that hated all seafood except fish. I know my way around fish, but stuff like mussels, lobster, oysters, and even crab I've never cooked by myself.

                      - We just did a tasting party for calamari but it was my husband who cleaned and cut the squid and his ideas on recipes. We tried 4 different recipes and then from that we picked the winner.

                      - Second thing I'm weak on is smoking meat, and grilling outdoors. I can make a hamburger indoors but I'm not to good with outdoor grill or meat smoker.

                      When my husband is out of town. My diet is less meaty

                      Things I'm terrified of:
                      Cooking the Thanksgiving turkey - I'm now a year and a half married with no kids, So I have some time, but last thanksgiving my husband was out of the country and I would be terrified cooking it alone.

                      Live lobsters - I feel like such a hypocrite, I love lobster and veal, and the likes, but actually killing them. I don't know. I can't even kill a spider. I'd be afraid I'd give the lobsters names and then end up buying some sort of tank.

                      26 Replies
                      1. re: Sandwich_Sister

                        I can relate. I had to kill a lobster in cooking school by driving the knife into its skull and, naturally, I messed up, so it took a few tries. I was traumatized (never mind the poor lobster). Same with softshell crabs, which we had to kill by snipping off their little faces. Awful.

                        1. re: tatamagouche

                          oh man, that is horrifying. I don't know that I can do that. Probably a reason that I'm not a chef. I'd get too attached to the animals. but man are they tasty. --- such a hypocrite I am.

                          1. re: Sandwich_Sister

                            i agree with you. could never kill what i eat. totally hypocritical, i know!

                            i have no knife skills to speak of.
                            and i CANNOT MAKE AIOLI. it's killing me.

                            1. re: mariacarmen

                              hehehe. yeah get me a good butcher and seafood purveyor I don't want to do those things myself

                              knife skills you can learn. Get a nice set of knives, if you have them make sure they are sharpened and look up the chow videos on knife skills. I used those videos to perfect anything I was doing wrong.

                              1. re: Sandwich_Sister

                                Now that he's gone from suicide, it still breaks my heart to read this sentence from my beloved David Foster Wallace's controversial Gourmet essay "Consider the Lobster":

                                "Still, after all the abstract intellection, there remain the facts of the frantically clanking lid, the pathetic clinging to the edge of the pot. Standing at the stove, it is hard to deny in any meaningful way that this is a living creature experiencing pain and wishing to avoid/escape the painful experience."

                                Edit: A link to the article:

                                http://www.gourmet.com/magazine/2000s...

                                1. re: tatamagouche

                                  This essay was one of the most moving and thoughtful pieces of food-related writing I have ever read.

                                  1. re: nofunlatte

                                    Dito. I saved it, and made - nay, forced my man to read it. Not that he murders lobsters on a regular basis. I just thought it was an amazing piece.

                                    RIP, DFW.

                                    1. re: linguafood

                                      OT, but Infinite Jest changed my life, like few other novels, and I'm a writer.

                                      On topic, my feeling is, at some point one just has to cut one's losses. I just don't do lobster at home; the rare times I actually want one, it becomes a splurge.

                                      But most other shellfish, the atavistic nitpicker in me enjoys prepping—deveining shrimp, debearding mussels, shucking...all that stuff's fun to me.

                                      http://www.denveater.com

                          2. re: tatamagouche

                            Oh my, so glad I didn't go to cooking school. Of course if I had, I'd be able to fry stuff well. And yeah, I'm a hypocrite, too. Love certain meats, seafood and fish, but I don't want to have to do the dirty deed.

                            1. re: Isolda

                              Oh, frying. Shit, I forgot about frying :) Again, a true Southerner but I've never fried chicken and it freaks me out thinking about it. I have done beer battered fish several times in the last year or so but that's hard to screw up. Another item for the 2011 to-do list. Eek.

                              1. re: c oliver

                                My parents are Southern, (transplanted to Santa Cruz, CA then Seattle,) and my mother hates fried food. She never taught me how to fry anything. On the rare occasions she'd make catfish and hush puppies (at my dad's request), she'd fry them in an electric skillet outside on the deck. The neighborhood dogs would howl like crazy.

                                But she did teach me how to make a roux, so I can still do hideously fattening food in my own home.

                          3. re: Sandwich_Sister

                            We're the opposite, sandwich sister. An early bread baking experiment me spooked for life. Imagine an attractive baguette-style loaf, with the texture of Play Doh. Add that to me not caring for desserts and I never had an incentive to learn baking.

                            Compared to baking, the turkey is really foolproof, don't be scared! Just buy a simple meat thermometer, calibrate it in boiling water, pre-salt the turkey for 24 hours and it's really hard to go wrong.

                            1. re: RealMenJulienne

                              thanks for the advice, I'll remember it when it is my turn to make the turkey. :)

                            2. re: Sandwich_Sister

                              This is why I've never tasted lobster. I have to look away during cooking shows when they're cooking the half-slaughtered shellfish. I just can't *stand* it. I can't believe the only way to prepare these things is to torture them to death.

                              I'll never forget seeing Emeril (on tv) take some dismembered lobster parts out of the oven. They were STILL moving. I've never gotten over it. *shriek*

                              1. re: occula

                                Ever been to a sushi bar where they're serving live lobster? On the plate, waving its extremities around. Eye-opening to say the least.

                                1. re: tatamagouche

                                  love it. sadly the guy who did it best in my 'hood moved away

                                  1. re: tatamagouche

                                    dear lord, no.

                                  2. re: occula

                                    FWIW, the 'dismembered lobster parts' that were still moving were most likely acting on a nerve reflex. Ya know, like a chicken with its head cut off -- it'll still keep running.

                                    That said, I'm embarrassed to admit that when we recently bought lobsters at Wegmans (they'll do the dirty work i mean steam them for ya), watching the fish dude take two lobsters out of the tank made me feel horrible, and I had to walk away. I mean, I personally was ordering their execution.

                                    It's pathetic, I know. Plenty animals die for my dining pleasure all the time, yet being directly involved makes me uncomfortable.

                                    1. re: linguafood

                                      I hear ya'. But to me HOW they die is where the hangup lies. If a creature is killed quickly, relatively painlessly, and thus humanely, I have no problem. But boiling a sentient being alive is something I want no part of.

                                      1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                        Well, steaming's supposed to be one of the more humane methods, as is (supposedly) putting them in the freezer for 15 min. beforehand.

                                        Mammals, of course, suffer a helluvalot more in terms of pain and actual conscience. Ugh. A quick death after a dignified life. I guess if we wish that for ourselves, we should hope the ones we eat receive a similar treatment.

                                        That's why I try to buy free-range meat and eggs whenever possible, but I am not religious about it.

                                        1. re: linguafood

                                          As is just slicing through the head—IF you do it right the first time, which for me turned out to be a big if.

                                      2. re: linguafood

                                        I'm the same way. I was half-committed to eating a cicada (people do eat them), but my research turned up some unsettling information, namely that the best way to cook them is to pluck off their wings and drop them into hot oil, and that they scream when you do it.

                                        I don't know how I imagined I was going to catch and cook them without *killing* them, but that demonstrated to me how willfully I remove myself from that particular step in any meat-based recipe. It was pretty eye-opening, how easily I over-looked it the fact that *I* would have to kill them, and then how quickly I backed off at the thought of hearing (causing) those screams.

                                        I resolved *not* to eat a cicada, and then I had chicken for dinner.

                                        1. re: onceadaylily

                                          really they scream?! I couldn't do it. I realize unless you are a vegetarian we have to kill our food, but I couldn't be there to watch it suffer, but I'll eat it after.

                                          1. re: Sandwich_Sister

                                            They scream. I am haunted by that. And I've been doing a lot of thinking about cutting my meat consumption way back so that I can afford what my hippie friends call 'happy' meat and dairy products. It's a tough choice when I'm surrounded by small ethnic markets that offer whole chicken breasts for a buck each, or two pounds of chorizo for under three dollars.

                                            1. re: onceadaylily

                                              It's not really screaming, of course, it has something to do with the air releasing from the joints, right? Still, it's a terrible sound.

                                        2. re: linguafood

                                          That is a - somewhat - reassuring thought. When I was a kid on the farm, I used to stand up in the bed of a pickup truck on chicken killing day - the thought of a bloody headless chicken flopping my way was horrifying. Zombie chickens! I loved them fried, though.

                                          Man, this whole tangent (sorry!) is making me re-think my new flexitarianism and reminding me why I was ovo-lacto-veg for so long. *shiver* While being aware, of course, that all these choices are luxuries.

                                    2. Weird, but I always screw up stir-fry and plain rice. Stir fry is either woefully over-sauced or the veggies get mushy or the protein gets dry. Plain rice always gets burned or is way too sticky. I do pasta really well and can do a mean pilaf. Somehow these are the only two (pretty basic) things that I literally can't do to save my life.

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: jdinsf

                                        Oh, me too! I can make pasta well, even from scratch, but I can't get rice right unless I do it in a cooker.

                                        1. re: jdinsf

                                          A fool proof way to do rice is to cook it like pasta. Lots of boiling salted water. Boil uncovered for twenty minutes. Drain in colander.

                                        2. Count me in on the 'no-baking-front'. I'm not a big measurer in the kitchen, which works out just fine if you're NOT baking. I do want to learn, tho, when I get back home.... bread's really expensive (especially at our favorite local bakery - one loaf, regardless of its size, is $5), and it would be a neat skill to have.

                                          I want to learn how to pickle cukes, too, as I can't find commercial pickles in the US that are to my liking. Too sweet, too dill-y.... thankfully, I think I know _just_ the thread on chow to get my started on that :-D

                                          Multi-course elaborate meals. I've got the attitude of a line-cook, where everything will be done at one - main, sides, etc. I mean, I can do an app, main, and dessert, but anything beyond that I find challenging.

                                          1. What's missing in my culinary education is consistancy. I will rarely make the same dish exactly the same each time. The why is because If and when I use a recipe I use it as a guide and do not follow them to the letter. More often than not I don't use recipes at all. Most all my cooking is off the cuff with what's in my fridge and pantry at the moment.

                                            2 Replies
                                            1. re: scubadoo97

                                              I personally like that lack of consistency. I think it shows great versatility to be able to work with whatever's in the fridge and pantry, and to be able to work around what's missing. I love that every pesto tastes slightly different. Every batch of tuna or egg salad is different. My vinaigrettes are hugely variable and based on whatever I have handy.

                                              My nemesis is aioli. I'm also afraid of deep frying. I've never done it, but would love a little fried calamari now and again. I'm also afraid of cooking turkeys. I like just cooked, juicy white meat, but that always results in totally underdone dark meat, which has to go back in the oven until cooked. It always looks like a massacre after I've removed the breast meat.

                                              1. re: 1sweetpea

                                                Unless you are going for The Thanksgiving Presentation Bird, remove the breast before roasting. Cook the dark meat longer than the breast and everyone is happy.
                                                NB: for TTPB, cook two small turkeys. Cut one and roast accordingly, cook the second bird as the "Ta-Da" centerpiece but eat the first one.

                                            2. Besides my lack of slaughtering skills, I cannot bake bread products. I make damn good cookies and pies, and can usually handle a cake, I have accepted that when I make bread, I am really making something destined for croutons and breadcrumbs. I was *thrilled* when I found a pre-made pizza dough that I liked, because I can't do it. I either knead too much or too little; I can't recognize that sweet spot for the life of me.

                                              1. I feel like my knife skills are adequate but I'd really like to learn how to sharpen them with a sharpening stone. I just find myself too chicken to try this out on my knives.