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Aug 13, 2013 02:00 AM

Bittman's 4 Stages of Learning to Cook

I saw a mention of this in another thread, looked it up, and found no chowhound discussion on the matter. Figured it might get some interesting responses.

The four stages:

"- First, you slavishly follow recipes; this is useful.
- In Stage two, you synthesize some of the recipes you've learned. You compare, for example, Marcella Hazan's pasta all’amatriciana with someone else's, and you pick and choose a bit. … You learn your preferences. You might, if you're dedicated, consult two, three, four cookbooks before you tackle anything.
- The third stage incorporates what you've learned with the preferences you've developed, what's become your repertoire, your style, and leads you to search out new things. What are the antecedents of pasta all’amatriciana? What's similar? … This is the stage at which many people bring cookbooks to bed, looking for links and inspiration; they don’t follow recipes quite as much, but sometimes begin pull ideas from a variety of sources and simply start cooking.
- Stage four is that of the mature cook, a person who consults cookbooks for fun or novelty but for the most part has both a fully developed repertoire and - far, far more importantly - the ability to start cooking with only an idea of what the final dish will look like. There's a pantry, there's a refrigerator, and there is a mind capable of combining ingredients from both to Make Dinner."

From his essay in “Man with a Pan: Culinary Adventures of Fathers who Cook for their Families.”

So... thoughts?
Where are you on the continuum? Are there some big jumps in between some of these stages? Does this accurately describe how you learned to cook? Is there a better way to progress?

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  1. I love to cook, cook all the time, have cooked seriously for 25+ years, wander the farmer's market to buy interesting stuff, read, watch, etc..... but alas, feel that I am only somewhere in stage 2! If I haven't made a dish before, I at least want to glance at a recipe (or two or three) to see the typical ingredients. Then I do it myself. I don't often just make stuff up, though I certainly feel comfortable going off script.

    2 Replies
    1. re: DGresh

      I like Mark Bittman, but that looks a little too pat to me.

      Like DCresh, I've been cooking since the beginning of time. I fall into each of the four categories at different times.

      If i am trying something totally new (like baking bread, for example) I pretty slavishly follow a recipe. Most of the time I rely on what looks good or is in season that I can throw together - like last night's pea shoot, squash blossom and grilled artichoke salad. Or I might check a recipe to check the recommended proportions that go into something or the time and temperature that something needs to bake. And I love to browse new cookbooks for ideas and inspiration.

      1. re: chicgail

        I agree. It also depends on the source. There are two chefs I read more than any others -- Ina Garten and Rick Bayless. Ina I tend to follow to the letter, since her recipes are nearly always perfection. Bayless's are too, but I've cooked Mexican food enough that I know my own tastes and what works for me.

        Once my mom gave me a recipe for spaghetti sauce that she said was just horrible, and she asked me if I could figure out why it was so bad. I looked it over and immediately knew. One of the ingredients was beef broth. I made it using water instead of beef broth and it was light and delicious. At some point you can look at a recipe and just know what you would change in it.

        I've posted this before, but sometimes I'll assemble my own "Chopped" basket out of stuff from the pantry, fridge and freezer and force myself to make a dish using them all. Some have been pretty good, although I haven't come up with anything I'd cook for company. It's a good exercise, not just in being creative, but in understanding how certain ingredients affect a dish.

        I think Bittman is right, although it's a learning process, and you use and build on things you've already learned before. Just because you're taking algebra doesn't mean that you don't need basic addition and subtraction to balance your checkbook.

    2. I have been cooking since I was about 8, almost (ahem) half a century ago.

      Initially, I learned to cook from my mother (a great cook). I basically made things exactly the same way she did, either from a recipe or from her head. Things like spaghetti with meat sauce, meat loaf, chili, pan fried pork chops and gravy, salads, casseroles, etc. She had favorite recipes on index cards, some were just memorized from her own childhood.

      Then, we started watching Julia Child on PBS and got Mastering the Art of French Cooking. No cultural ties to this food, we explored this cooking together, slavishly following Julia's recipes. Of course, we continued to make the standard family favorites. When I graduated from college I lived in France for a year, and started cooking from memory and tweaking recipes in the French manner.

      Once out of college, I had the good fortune to work with a crew of Mexican women who brought ingredients and made a communal lunch every day. I got to learn to cook Mexican just as I did American with my mom. Then I bought Diana Kennedy and learned more formal recipes.

      When I got interested in Chinese cooking I learned the basics from Ken Hom's Easy Chinese, then started experimenting.

      Now I do a lot of things from memory, and find new ideas on ChowHound, Cook's Illustrated, and Epicurious. But most weeknight meals come from my memory (or recipes I have entered in my own database) and are based on things like I have 2 zucchini, 2 tomatoes, and 2 cucumbers from the garden that need to be used. What can I do that will be tasty? Recipes are mostly used for weekends or company.

      1. I guess I would probably be somewhere between 2 and 3. I don't know if I'd ever get to 4 on a regular basis. I can sometimes come up with meals on the fly but for the most part I like to use recipes and maybe change a few things in them, but still follow for the most part.

        I also think I'm pretty good at picking good recipes just by reading them.

        1. I'm at the stage where I come up with ideas for things I want to cook, use the internet to see if anyone else has made something similar, and occasionally find out that my idea appears to be unique.

          3 Replies
          1. re: FoodPopulist

            I'd say that makes you stage 4 for the most part.

            1. re: FoodPopulist

              If I google a combination and find it's unique, I figure I better not make it! :)

              1. re: FoodPopulist

                I'm like this.

                Sometimes I realize aftewards that my brilliant-unique-idea might very well have been a brilliant-unique-idea hundreds of times before but it tastes like crap so nobody wrote it down.

                (I made a chicken dish like this for Mother in law and kids a few weeks ago. Got home and everyone gave me stink eye...)