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Where should an aspiring cook begin?

I've always been a terrible (really terrible) cook, but for the past year or so I've been slowly trying new things and trying to teach myself how to cook well. Problem is, I'm really unorganized in my learning and I can't seem to figure out what things I NEED to know before moving on to other things.

Can anyone share their thoughts as to what might be the dishes or concepts I *must* master in order to move on to bigger and better things? I tend to try things that are too complicated and I end up ruining them. I'd like to have a better idea of what basic things I need to have down pat before I can move on to more complicated and complex recipes.

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  1. Trite as it may sound, you need first to learn how to boil water and the difference between a simmer, slow boil, and rapid boil. Then, how to heat/boil other liquids. Then how to add various ingredients to liquids (hot or cold) and when and how to add them to hot liquids and vise versa. How much seasoning to use and, when in doubt, to avoid seasonings (herbs and spices) that may conflict with one another.
    Study how certain ingredients react to oils and liquids and develop an understanding about why certain reactions occur. For example: A slice of potato dropped into hot oil will either sink to the bottom with no reaction or float and produce a flurry of bubbles. The potato in "hot" oil that is not hot enough to immediately boil off the liquid water in the potato is too cold - the flurry of bubbles produced by the potato in very hot oil indicates that the oil is hot enough to boil off the water in the potato, producing steam which generates the bubbles which in turn provide buoyancy. Too many potatoes in very hot oil produces a lot of steam, a lot of bubbles, and a good possibility for oil boiling over onto the stove - a potential serious risk of fire.
    For the moment, forget about cookbooks. You can get more recipes than you need from Internet searches.
    Buy this book:
    http://www.amazon.com/On-Food-Cooking...
    and read it cover to cover.
    If you've still got a few bucks left, this one:
    http://www.amazon.com/What-Einstein-T...
    it too will help you understand food science.
    The source for any failure in food preparation can be identified in either one or both of these books.
    Remember - every failure provides an opportunity to learn. Now, go burn some toast.

    1. I have to disagree. If my first "cook book" was Harold McGee (it is part of my cookbook collection) I think I would never have started cooking seriously. I would say you might start with a book that covers the kind of cooking you want to do and also gives you the basics. There are many choices: How to Cook is a good one, Tom Collechio's gives you a lot of techniques, the Internet/Youtube has many great videos on how to do all sorts of things. If you picked scrambled eggs, for instance, you would find lots of ways to do it and that would be a big lesson in itself. If you went to French omelet you would be amazed at the number of French cooks who make one in exactly the same way. So I say pick what you want to learn and then find the resources....and if you have the chance to take some classes all the better.

      1. You need to learn the basic cooking techniques. These techniques are the building blocks of cooking. Once you know them, you can follow any recipe.

        They are the following:

        Wet Techniques

        Braising
        Boiling
        Steaming
        Poaching
        Blanching

        Dry Techniques

        Frying
        Roasting oven and pan
        Sauteing
        Grilling
        Stir Frying
        Sweating
        Searing

        Here are some links to articles about these techniques and one is for cooking at altitude.

        http://www.reluctantgourmet.com/techn...
        http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article...
        http://culinaryarts.about.com/od/dryh...
        http://culinaryarts.about.com/od/culi...
        http://culinaryarts.about.com/od/mois...
        http://culinaryarts.about.com/od/culi...
        http://culinaryarts.about.com/od/cook...

        Big impressive cookbooks are too intimidating for at this stage. There are two that I would recommend.
        Cooking Basics for Dummies and How to Cook Without a Book by Pam Anderson. The dummies book is the only one I know of that actually has articles on those cooking techniques I mentioned earlier. Pam Anderson's book teaches how to throw things together to make a meal.. a very valuable skill.

        I Recommend you watch the following programs on TV.
        America's Test Kitchen You can, also, rent their dvds on netflix
        Good Eats with Alton Brown
        30 minute meals with Rachel Ray
        The Barefoot Contessa
        How to cook like a Rockstar with Anne Burelle

        Start with those articles at those links I have provided. Read them 2 or 3 times until you know them. Once you know those techniques, you can get all the recipes you need online and you will be able to follow them.

        One caveat: If you won't read, most of my advice will be useless. Trust me... about half the population hates to read so much that if they have to read something to learn it, they will choose not to learn it. If you fit into that category, the long agonizing path of self discovery will be your only option.

        To those familiar with my posts, I know this is almost word for word what I told another aspiring cook. The question comes up often enough, I have saved the basic response in a Word document so I can just modify it to meet the requirements and then copy and paste.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Hank Hanover

          Ruhlman has a new book out called "Ruhlman's Twenty" that sounds exactly like what you're looking for. It is 20 basic techniques, well illustrated, on how to cook. As a more expensive approach you could look in your local area for cooking schools that offer a basics set of instruction to amateurs (an example in the Bay Area is http://www.kitchenonfire.com/) or an online cooking school like Rouxbe.

          1. re: Mikemac

            Youtube has some great videos. My grocery store has a sale right now on whole salmon so before I went out and got one, I reviewed a few videos on breaking down a whole salmon. I wanted to make sure I remembered how to do it. Ok, so it's been a while.

        2. Get "The Elements of Cooking" by Michael Ruhlman. Not recipes, but principles.

          1. the most important thing i think a budding cook can learn is how to combine flavors correctly. if you can boil, braise, roast, stir fry, grill, and steam, but dont know that chocolate probably shouldnt go on fish, then you will still probably not like anything you cook.

            for a beginner, i advise learning flavor combos by ethnicity. cumin, chili powder, onion, garlic, oregano, paprika, etc for tex-mex/mexican, onion, garlic, basil, thyme, rosemary, etc for italian, soy, ginger, garlic, scallion, etc for asian....

            and then build from there.

            good knife skills, or at least a proficiency with a knife, also makes cooking much more enjoyable and therapeutic i think

            1. Don't eat out. Only eat what you cook. If you like good food, then you should learn pretty quickly! ha!
              I watched Julia Child... along the lines of what Hank is saying, basic techniques, wet and dry.
              And knife skills, using lots and lots of potatoes and carrots, cube, dice, julienne, mince.
              Watch people cook. In person, or video.

              1. Start with something you want to eat. It really doesn't matter what it is.

                Scramble an egg. Or make an omelet. Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking describes the process/technique in a really fun way.

                And don't worry about "ruining" things. It's all training and development. I've destroyed lots of dishes - sometimes even after I make them successfully - but each failure is a learning. More salt. Less heat. More time. Don't drop the meat loaf on the floor.

                Watch a few food shows. There are so many of them. You'll learn all kinds of simple techniques to try and you'll get inspired.

                And then have fun.

                2 Replies
                1. re: chicgail

                  LOL!!! "Don't drop the meat loaf on the floor" reminds me of a wonderful cook I know who learned that raising a pumpkin pie high enough to see through the bottom of a pyrex baking dish to determine if the crust is sufficiently browned on the underside is a good way to get a hot foot. Second and third degree burns on the feet .... OUCH!!! Of course, it wasn't funny at the time. But now that she's survived we do hear her giggle a bit when she tells the story.

                  1. re: todao

                    I never liked meatloaf especially anyway.

                2. properly sauteeing onions and garlic, searing off meat, and tasting food while it's cooking. But most importantly - don't be scared of trying something new and messing up! What's the worst that can happen if you mess up - you throw out the dish? the only way to learn to cook is to try, try, try, and not be scared to experiment.

                  1. I'm a visual learner, so if it were me (and it was), I'd start out with videos. The French Chef DVD collection (Julia Child) from PBS, and the Good Eats (Alton Brown) collection from Food Network are both wonderful. And neither assumes you know much at all. Cook along with them: when you find an episode with food you like (whether it's braised, microwaved, frozen or just sliced into bits and served)... watch it a few times, consult the recipe, and try making it yourself. Then watch it again, and make it again. And then make it AGAIN!

                    If you get through those two, another series I like (though it is too fussy for some, and assumes, I think, a broader knowledge of cooking than you might be ready for right now) is America's Test Kitchen. And that will keep you going for a GOOD long time. They are into their 12th season, now!

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: linengirl

                      I spent two weeks making nothing but Pad Thai :p

                    2. I agree that you don't need a bunch of cookbooks, but one of the few suggested above can't hurt. As a beginning cook, I was happy to have been given a copy of Joy of Cooking - I've never even really used it that much, but it's a good resource.

                      I think food blogs are a better source for recipes if you're learning, because if you encounter a problem, you can actually go back and post questions and get direct help. (On some of the really big popular blogs, the author might not respond to many comments - but other commenters will usually help, and in most cases the author her/himself will chat with you.)

                      Of course, any chance you can get to have someone you know actually show you, that's even better!

                      I don't think you need to learn anything complicated yet. Start with frugal, adaptable things that you will really be able to use and eat every day. Learn how to make a good pot of beans, work on things that are simple and make use of ingredients you might have too much of or are about to go bad - feel comfortable making a couple of basic soups and quickbreads, and suddenly you'll never throw out produce again. Make homemade apple sauce.

                      These are the sorts of things that are not complcated, that will teach you some fundamentals, and that offer a return all out of proportion with the relatively small effort that goes into them. Once you have some successes and start to feel the rewards of being able to transform ingredients and make something great out of relatively little, you're going to have SO much more confidence to try out those more complicated things. And all along the way, you'll get some practice with basics like knife skills and judging doneness and tasting/seasoning as you go.

                      1. I really liked Bittman's article on this:
                        http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/02/wee...

                        I think you should pick few simple meals to master, based on what you like to eat the best. For example, a salad, a omelet, a pasta, a stirfry, and a soup. Pick whichever variety of that thing you like the best and learn the skills necessary to do it.

                        Example: Pasta with Kale and Chickpeas
                        Learn how to boil pasta, chop and saute kale and garlic, and get the timing of making two components down. Then you can substitute different types of pasta, vegetables, and protein including chicken, sausage, shrimp, etc.

                        1. This post For those Who have to Teach Themselves to Cook might help. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/452033

                          1. Can you give an example of the kind of 'complicated' stuff that you try and fail at? That will be helpful for calibrating. And what kind of dishes you want to learn, so we can suggest an easy to hard chain of dishes.

                            One option is to pick a basic dish you like to eat - something like spaghetti, or beef stew, or a casserole. Read some recipes on blogs, watch a few videos, then make it yourself. Make a not of what didn't work. Make it again a week later, and try to fix that problem, make notes. Make it again, a week later. Repeat until you're happy with it. Then you can move to something in the same style, but more complicated. Say, spaghetti sauce -> chili con carne -> beef stew -> Indian curry.

                            Say for spaghetti sauce - the first time, you have the heat too high and the onions burn. The next time you fix that, but the sauce was too chunky. The next time, you get the sauce nice and smooth, but it's too watery. Then, you get the sauce right, but want to adjust the seasonings.

                            For basic tips - patience is important, particularly for things like sauteeing, or cooking milk based dishes. It's easy to start browning onions, or heating milk, and get impatient because it's taking too long, turn up the heat, and then have it burn.

                            Learning to saute onions well is probably good practice. It takes patience and timing to get nicely carmelized but not burnt onions. As you do it, pay attention to the different stages the onions go through as they cook.

                            1. Good ingredients ---> Good cooking.

                              Don't read recipes while you're cooking. You should focus on your senses. Sight, smell, and feel are very important. You can tell when things are properly sauteed by sight and smell. You can tell when chicken or fish is done by feeling with a spoon or poking it with a fork. Cooking times and ingredient quantities in recipes should be taken with a grain of salt.

                              Google. Youtube. It's amazing how much you can learn by searching and watching.

                              Buy the very best reviewed cookbooks. The best cookbook authors don't just provide recipes; they provide explanations and sensory descriptions.

                              1. Learn to make eggs to order. Eggs are deceptively tricky, and it takes pretty good chops to do them properly scrambled, over, poached and sunny side up.

                                1. i definitely love the advice of dont be afraid to mess something up!

                                  also, i think food blogs are a better source of learning than cookbooks. especially if you can find some good blogs that show pictures of most/key steps in a recipe. most good/experienced cooks i know will cook by the look/smell/feel of the dish over a cooking time or measurement. learning what a particular step should LOOK like at the transition i believe is much more important than "sear on side 1 for 3 minutes, flip, sear for 3 more minutes" what if your steak need four?? what if it only needs 2??

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: mattstolz

                                    This is good advice. The Pioneer Woman is one example of a food blog that shows step by step what the food looks like, through prep and the different cooking stages. For example, http://thepioneerwoman.com/cooking/20....

                                    Another one is Cooking For Engineers, which is extremely precise. The goal is to get you past the point where you need instructions so detailed, but that will come with practice!

                                  2. I'm kind of self-teaching myself how to cook, so I feel your pain!

                                    I think the most helpful thing I've found so far is to find some food bloggers that you like, and follow their recipes. There are so many out there, and many of them focus on simple, straightforward recipes that are realistic for cooking newbies like me.

                                    Here are some favorites:

                                    http://smittenkitchen.com/
                                    http://www.the-girl-who-ate-everythin...
                                    http://www.budgetsavvydiva.com/
                                    http://thepioneerwoman.com/

                                    I have a few more, but those are some of the ones that I visit pretty regularly. Smitten Kitchen has a good range of simple to moderately difficult recipes.