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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