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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 skinnytaste.com, 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.

              1. I get home from work at 2pm. There were a couple of years where my husband didn't get home until 9pm or later due to the location of a project he was supervising. That left me with lots of time to fill so I would pick a couple of recipes and try them each week.

                These days he gets home between 6 and 7 usually so I still have plenty of time to cook, experiment, etc.

                1. I had a few things working in my favor - I grew up in a house where cooking from scratch was common, and I had an interest in and some aptitude for chemistry.

                  But mainly this: I enjoy learning about cooking, and as such it's been easy for me.

                  I'm much slower to pick up on things that I don't particularly enjoy.

                  1. Ingesting thread. Thanks.

                    Factors leading to becoming a cook
                    Encouragement-please try, and positive feedback!
                    Freedom to fail-mistakes happen but you learn from them.
                    Following a recipe- the whole recipe, not just the ingredients gives you insight into standard practice that can be applied later.
                    Friends-taking food risks with friends is a must! You can share your triumphs and failures!
                    Well presented information-I have learned a lot from Food Network teachers like Alton Brown!
                    The right attitude..."don't be afraid', but maybe don't try something new when guests are coming. LOL
                    Don't apologize!

                    1. Easy for me but I've been doing it for most of my life (52 years so far). My parents cooked meals from scratch and, as they both worked, my sister and I had dinner prep, assistance, and cleanup duties from an early age. When I was about 12, we started preparing dinners at least 1 night a week, mostly from recipes my mom picked and then increasingly from recipes we chose ourselves.

                      As I teen, I worked on a ranch and then lived on a kibbutz where I gravitated to the kitchen and got used to cooking for crowds. In college I lived in cooperative housing where we had to plan meals and cook 1 night a week. I've always found it fun and not terribly difficult to work with food and produce attractive and delicious meals.

                      These days, I really enjoy using online videos to expand my cooking abilities as I find it much easier to watch, rather than read about, a new ingredient, technique, etc.

                      1. Learning to cook wasn't easy when I started but has gotten much easier as I've gotten older. I'm jealous of all of you who grew up with moms and grandmothers who were great cooks! I didn't have that, so I had to learn a lot of basic things as an adult and am totally self-taught.

                        I've hit two major obstacles. The first was gaining a sense of fearlessness in the kitchen. I started out being terrified about what would happen if I over/under cooked something, or didn't season it just perfectly, or curdled a sauce. Fear, fear, fear. I'm over that now. Fuchsia Dunlop's memoir and DH finding a perfectly usable wok next to the dumpster were my springboards to stepping out of my (then very small) comfort zone and experimenting with new ingredients and techniques. Now I'm very rarely intimidated by a new element. Bring it on!

                        The other major obstacle was learning how to let go of recipes and just cook. Tamar Adler's book "An Everlasting Meal" was a huge help to me in learning how to re-imagine leftovers and see ingredients where I used to see just trash scraps.

                        I'm still learning! I get ideas from other hounds, good restaurant meals, cookbooks. All the same kinds of sources listed by others here. Becoming a better cook is an ongoing process. :)

                        1. The kitchen was the social center in our house growing up and my parents learned that from it being true in both sets of grandparents houses, too. Everyone was welcome in the kitchen, meals were a group event. I have great memories of my parents drinking wine and laughing and dancing in the kitchen while making dinner.

                          We were always allowed to "play" in the kitchen which turned into making simple recipes at the knee of either parent (they are both excellent cooks but have totally different styles so we were exposed to a pretty wide array of items.) The rice cooker I still have, 25 years later, was something I asked for as a 16th birthday present, my immersion blender (still in use,) came along not too much later. We learned the vocabulary by listening, the technique by asking if we could help. My Dad taught us to be fearless (that there is no reason not to try unusual ingredients, new recipes, a technique you've never tried before,) my Mom taught us to be resourceful (the woman can make an amazing dinner out of what looks like nothing... and how to repurpose what we were fearless enough to try but didn't work out so well!)

                          1. The easy answer comes down to a person's interest level.

                            Some people are very interested. For example, I would read as many different types of books and try out different recipes.

                            There are people who is not interested where they just doesn't put the time into trying different recipes or even following recipes. They wonder why their dishes don't turn out so they give up.

                            My recommendation to new cooks is to try recipes you're interested in and spend the time perfecting, to your liking, a small set of recipes before you moving on.

                            1. Cooking has always been easy for me, but I think the keys are that I set my ego aside, and also realize that you REALLY have to screw up to make food inedible. It may not taste good, but I can eat just about anything. Eating a failure now and then helps inform the process for the next time.

                              I also tend to take an empirical approach to cooking, so I pay attention to cause and effect in the kitchen. I'm not terribly scientific about it - I don't measure much - but I like to try and keep track of how techniques, seasonings, temperatures, etc change the outcome of the finished dish.

                              1. Cooking was always easy for me, probably because I like to eat well. My Mom has never liked to cook so as a self preservation from fast food, I taught myself how. For some people it's a matter of interest, like my Mom, she likes good food but has no desire to make it herself. I have 5 nieces and 2 of them are incredibly picky eaters and have no desire to cook, 2 more don't care about cooking but at least will eat most of what you put in front of them and the youngest is interested in it and is already trying to learn everything she can.

                                My husband does like to cook too, but the difference between us is that he will always follow recipes exactly and I tend to use them as a guideline and make my own twists and changes as I go.

                                1. Learning to cook was fairly easy for me. I grew up with a family of cooks and so it was always just something that we did. I find that now I learn best by researching well and trial and error. Also, my appetite seems to drive me in the right direction and some how I've learned how to pair flavor combinations fairly quickly and also seem to have picked up on cooking to proper temperatures pretty much after a few trials with a cut of meat. Sometimes I think it's because I'm a scientist, but of course there are those that pick up on the skills quickly who aren't but I think that has helped.

                                  1. Cooking has always been hard for me. I didn't grow up with parents who knew how to cook. My mother married young and had a mother who took care of everything. My father comes from a poor background where eating the same meal every night was a normal occurrence. I'm a 'picky eater' who has food texture issues. Its been hard to know what I like and how to get around my own food hang-ups. I come from a poorer family where mistakes (wasted food, disliked food) were feared.

                                    I've always been able to follow a recipe, but I rarely liked how anything turned out. I became a good baker. I enjoy the exactness.

                                    I would say what helped me was:

                                    *having an interest
                                    *reading cookbooks for ideas more than recipes/ comparing recipes for the same dish
                                    *finding cookbooks which cover dead simple basics or techniques (Alice Waters The Art of Simple Cooking, Bittman's The Minimalist Cooks at Home) or who talk about how to make variations so I could see how things worked
                                    *marrying a man who is very creative and free in the kitchen (learning no fear)
                                    *meal scheduling/having a simple Plan B meal for mistakes
                                    *sitting down and listing what I like to eat

                                    Don't underestimate the need for a good plan when you're overwhelmed. It gives you the freedom to try things when you have time, and do what's easy when you don't. It creates an archive of what works and what doesn't. It keeps track of what people like to eat.

                                    I'm not sure I'd call myself a cook yet, but I'm starting Bittman's 3rd stage of cooking and I feel so much closer than I did a few years ago.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: Tam38

                                      Your comments about a plan are so true. I think I get enjoyment out of cooking because I plan ahead. I think about what I'm making for dinner all day long, so I get excited about it. If I had to open up the fridge every night and try to come up with something for dinner, I don't think I'd enjoy cooking as much. I know others are the polar opposite though.

                                    2. It was easy for me because I worked at the family restaurant. Learning proper knife handling technique is easier when you see it in person versus watching it on a video. I learned a number of cooking techniques simply be watching the dishes being prepared.

                                      1. Hard because i grew up with a mother who hates to cook. We didnt have much money and she had a limited rotation.

                                        Then easy because i met a greek family while very young. Shocking to me to see the men interested in cooking, and everyone was so passionate about it.

                                        Not to mention an odd early penchant for reading cookbooks. Any cookbook. Trial and error didnt scare me because even my fails were better than eating SOS twice a week.

                                        The positive reinforcement was a bonus and my desire (no, need) to try learn about other cultures even if just vicariously.

                                        I also liked the science experienc element of learning