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Aug 7, 2013 11:46 AM

Why has learning to cook been hard (or easy) for you?

Learning to cook seems to be really hard for some people and really easy for others.

3 years ago Jamie Oliver made a wish at TED that we would teach every child in the world about food. Seems like not much progress has been made, and I'd like to dissect why.

So help me out! Why has learning to cook been hard (or easy) for you?

I know it might be hard to think back to when you learned, but what things have helped you along the way? Specific books, techniques, doing mise en place, etc. would all be helpful. What stopping points did you hit, and possibly overcome?

Thanks in advance!

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  1. Learning to cook was pretty easy for me. I grew up baking, so I'm used to using a recipe. I will say, I'm not very good at coming up with things on the fly with no recipe at all. I can tweak something, but I need a base recipe to start with. Maybe that will change someday. I started learning to cook in 2005 but I've only been having to cook daily since last year. Before that it was just the occasional Sunday night dinner when I had the time.

    For me, watching someone else (people on FoodNetwork in my case) was how I learned. I'm also a details person, so never had issues following recipes. I have friends who are not details people, and they're not good at cooking at all, because they miss things in the instructions but don't have enough food knowledge to just throw something together. So, they don't cook.

    I'm 31. I think my generation in general weren't really taught to cook much at home. Growing up, my folks worked, and so did my friends folks. This means dinners were often thrown together meals, often using convenience foods. My mom is actually a great cook, but she didn't have the time because she worked full time. So, nobody teaching kids how to cook at home has resulted in adults who don't know how to cook, and then that gets passed on to their kids too. Also, people these days are way busier than they used to be it seems, so lots of people rely on convenience foods like frozen meals, pre-made sauces etc, so they never need to learn how to make something themselves from scratch, nor do they have the time. So, in turn, their kids never learn either, and the cycle continues.

    4 Replies
    1. re: juliejulez

      Great points about cooking being a generational thing. I fully agree that this is what's happening, and it's easy for it to worsen over time.

      What do you think your non-detail-oriented are missing? Is it that things move too fast when they're watching recipes, or that they gloss over the finer points of recipes? Or something else entirely?

      1. re: joshsmith

        I think a lot of it is is that they miss parts of the instructions because they don't read carefully. Things like what heat level the burner should be at, or reading tbsp instead of tsp. Stuff like that.

        I also think some of them try to sub things because they don't have a particular ingredient on hand, and don't have the experience to know it won't work. It can work sometimes, but often it doesn't work at all.

        If you read some basic food blogs (like, which attracts the weight watchers crowd, many of whom are not good cooks), and read the questions a lot of people have in the comment section, you'll see what I mean, especially about the substitution part. Stuff like "can I sub cream cheese for the goat cheese?". Or even worse, they make wacky substitutions then complain on the site that the recipe wasn't good.

        1. re: juliejulez

          All really good insights. Thanks for sharing.

          I'd read on here recently that "season to taste" simply means "salt to your liking", which was news to me. I'd just go in and add random extra spices and then get confused as to why it wasn't working.

          1. re: joshsmith

            Yup, I can see how that could be really confusing! As much as people talk crap about the Food Network, that's really how I learned to cook, and the lingo that goes with it. They still have instructional shows on during the day and on Saturday mornings. I even learned from shows like Paula Deen, even though that's not really the type of food I make.

    2. I had just started to learn to cook during college. My friend and I were "foodies" and we liked to eat out so we tried to replicate a lot of things we tried. So it was easy to learn how to cook as I had a friend to try new things out with me. We helped each other with new techniques and ideas.

      I can see it being hard for some people who have nobody to teach them. Though Youtube makes that an almost inarguable point now. However, messing up and being afraid to fail - burning expensive ingredients, these are all things that can make people afraid to learn. Also, not having the right investments (just due to a lack of knowledge of what's necessary) in kitchen tools will make it tougher for some people.

      1 Reply
      1. re: darrentran87

        Was feeling comfortable about making mistakes with someone what alleviated some of the pain of starting out?

        Do you think that maybe YouTube is still too overwhelming? Sure, there are a ton of videos. But then how do you know which ones are worth watching, where to start, and where to go next?

        I personally think encouraging a culture where failure is a stepping stone to learning is important. Messing up is okay. But I'm also interested in where and why and how people mess up when learning and how to mitigate that.

      2. It was relatively easy for me - but then I'm a chemist, and you need to have a thorough mental grasp of the concepts of recipes/mix-and-heat/accurate weighing/etc (even mise en place!). There's a saying that goes round the department "never trust a chemist who can't cook!".

        In more practical terms, I learnt the old way - at my mother's apron strings! She taught it (well, Home Economics as it was called then) before my parents got married, but chose then to be a housewife so had lots of time, both to cook and to teach us. Many of the day-to-day recipes I cook come from the cookbook that her department wrote for their pupils!

        Key things that I picked up on the way (some of which ended up helping the chemistry):

        Initially it would just have been basic "can you stir this for me"/"weigh this for me", but we rapidly moved on. First to easy baking (great for keeping a child's attention, since it's both messy and tasty), then prep. work as it became a reasonable idea that I could use a (blunt-ish) knife, then things sped up. I remember "hosting a dinner party" (i.e. taking over and doing all the cooking one Sunday, I even chose the recipes) for my grandparents (and since both on one side were there I was younger than 13 at the time).

        I then sat at about the same level until university (can feed self or a small group, not that big or complex a repertoire) - as well as sticking pretty much to traditional western European dishes (with the odd stirfry or easy curry thrown in). I think I went up to university with a better grasp of classical techniques than my peers, but a smaller repertoire (many of them being from London or similar and much more cosmopolitan than a country lad from the shires!)

        First few years of university taught me inventiveness - we only had 2 hobs, a microwave and a kettle (no freezer or oven), then once I moved into privately-rented accommodation as a PhD student I started to move on up again, and branch out as well. Running the student climbing club helped with working in bulk - being able to prepare a menu for a week for 20 hungry people in a hut in the middle of nowhere at low-ish cost is a useful skill...

        The other thing that's helped to push me, actually, is watching TV cookery programmes (not "this is how to cook" ones, but ones exploring regions/cuisines, or higher-end competitions like Masterchef) and copying down the recipes immediately (before I forget about the idea it gave me) - sets new challenges/techniques and gives recipe ideas that I hadn't even thought of before.

        That said, no recipe seems to end up being cooked exactly as described in the recipe book, I'm constantly tweaking things!

        5 Replies
        1. re: DavidPonting

          Interesting that the generational thing seems to apply to you as well. Mark Bittman talks about four stages of learning how to cook, and your experience seems to have gone through those stages pretty much exactly.

          The dinner party idea is amazing and I'm sure you felt super confident afterwards. Were you nervous leading up to it?

          Do you remember any really challenging parts as you were learning?

          Do you avoid the "how to cook" TV shows then?

          1. re: joshsmith

            By "generational thing", do you mean learning from parents or the mainly age-based split into those who learnt from parents and (mostly) can cook and those who didn't and, unless they've taught themselves, can't? Because I'm 26, so my mother stopping working when she married is a statistical outlier (i.e. I've learnt in the way older generations did, despite belonging to a younger one).

            I can't remember whether I was nervous, but it was only my parents, sister and grandparents, so not a particularly intimidating audience - and if I'd got stuck I could have called for help... I'd recommend encouraging/allowing it when children get to an appropriate age - get them into choosing a menu and cooking dishes right through (even if you do need to supervise). It was certainly a distinct stage in my learning (hence why I can remember it 14 years later) - to be confident that you can choose, cook and serve a meal to entertain guests opens a lot of windows, as does cooking from a recipe that you haven't seen your mother cook before!

            In terms of "really challenging parts", I think that learning the really messy bits (gutting a fish, etc) came a bit early - great for a teenage boy who's lost their squeamishness about blood/organs thanks to dissections in biology, less so a few years younger when I did them. The other big one is learning to use spices correctly and similar palate tasks - perhaps since I grew up with few curries - I'm still not very good at getting a well-balanced spice mix from scratch.

            I avoid the "how to cook" ones because they don't keep my attention - I already know the techniques/simple recipes demonstrated so I get bored and switch channel... Generally I want to learn something from anything I watch!

          2. re: DavidPonting

            Interesting you mentioned chemistry. When I was taking organic chem I noted the similarity to cooking and that's when my interest began

            1. re: scubadoo97

              In which? Did studying chemistry make you interested in cooking, or did you have to take a chemistry module and found it more interesting than you thought it would be because it was similar to cooking?

              1. re: DavidPonting

                In cooking but both I think. I had been around a few very good cooks in my youth so was drawn to food and cooking in general. After organic I saw recipes as formulas which were not as exacting as in say quantitative analysis. I'm still interested in the science of food and the chemistry of cooking.

          3. I agree with darrentran87 above that messing up is a big part of learning, and your attitude toward that is all important.

            I'm 50 (for those keeping track of the interesting generational question).

            I started learning to cook mainly on my own when I hit college age and wanted to eat well but cheaply. One of the the things I remember very well about that initial period is that pretty much every time I cooked something--especially something new--I would do something "wrong," which is to say I learned something not to do next time. That's learning, and it's cumulative.

            Now all these years later, I do something wrong much less often; but it still happens, so I'm still learning.

            1. My mother cooked daily, so my three sisters and I were raised helping out in the kitchen. In junior high school, Home Ec was a requirement for girls, and that's where I learned a lot of the terminology and techniques of cooking and baking. By the time I was in High School, my mother was working full time, and we 4 girls took turns cooking dinner on weeknights. (Mother did the dishes, so it was a pretty fair tradeoff as far as we were concerned!) I got my own apartment at 18, married at 19, and being frugal and on a tight budget, I cooked every day. If we wanted good food, I had to cook it. Going to restaurants for dinner wasn't an option.
              I think I learned the most early in my marriage. I liked to try recipes I'd heard of, but never had tasted. I cried over the french onion soup when the bread wouldn't float and sunk to the bottom of the bowl. I had a heck of a time timing bacon and eggs with toast. But it was fun, and my husband was game to try anything I made. I followed recipes to the letter then, and I think that helped me learn what flavors go together. It really does take years of practice to be confident and creative in the kitchen.