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Jan 27, 2014 01:34 PM

Learning to cook - techniques rule!


Accidentally started this discussion on another thread and hijacked in the process. It deserves its own.

Some here seem to think that ever slavish following recipes is learning to cook. I disagree. Cooking is a skill that trends into an art. It is a matter of learning techniques, then using those techniques to advantage under any circumstances

Paint by numbers does not teach art, and following recipes is cooking by numbers. One does need to learn about cuisines, and recipes have a role in teaching cuisine, but then one must move on. Some may say that there are alternative ways of learning, and this is true to a point. I don't want an airline pilot or surgeon who can't improvise based on developed skills, nor one stuck looking at a book while trying to land or operate.

  1. You raise lots of issues but I don't see a specific question to respond to so, I think the following:

    - I agree that learning techniques is a good thing and, using those skills, you can improvise with more success.

    - I do not agree that recipes are analogous to paint by numbers. I use recipes for fresh ideas, things I've never made before, to make sure I get an old favorite right.

    - The topic of improvising versus following a structured set of procedures is a fascinating one that is outside the scope of this board. I really enjoyed Atul Gawande's take on the subject in The Checklist Manifesto (


    - Cooking is a skill, an art, and sometimes just a routine chore. I don't have a problem bringing out the old meatloaf recipe I've made hundreds of times so I can produce a family dinner.

    1 Reply
    1. re: tcamp

      Yep, but do you get out the recipe book for the meatloaf you have made hundreds of times? Or have you got that recipe now so ingrained that you can improvise ingredients where necessary?
      I think that is what the OP is trying to get at.

      IMO, recipe books etc are essential when learning a new dish, but once you have made it many times, your skills can develop the dish. Likewise your abilities in a kitchen.

    2. There are too many great cuisines to cook and dishes to behold to eschew recipes.
      Maybe I'm just an average home cook, but I will always need recipes to expand my base.
      I can't imagine not learning anymore.
      Sure, I can improvise, but I'm not so self assured that I can claim to whip up all sorts of dishes without guidance.
      Wouldn't even want to.
      I adore my cookbooks. They are my inspiration, and they most certainly do teach one how to cook.

      2 Replies
      1. re: monavano

        Well said. When I taste a dish that holds all sorts of subtle flavors, I, an amateur, could never hope to recreate that without recipe(s). Well, I could but it would likely be woefully inadequate. Why do that when we have so much knowledge that others have shared? One of my life mottos is 'don't re-invent the wheel.'

        And I'll say again, those that say they never use recipes may not be quite as great cooks as they think they are :)

      2. You're equating preparing food with piloting an airplane or performing surgery?

        Everyone learns in their own way. For some it's by following recipes. For others, it's by winging it. You can get stuck too long in one phase.

        8 Replies
        1. re: 512window

          It's an analogy use rhetorically to make a point..

          Actually not all ways of learning are equivalent, nor useful.

          If someone buys an expensive set of cookware, doesn't understand it, finds in that person's hands it yields poor results, but continues to use it for 25 years before disposing it, that is "learning" but pretty poor learning. Don't you think?

          1. re: law_doc89

            That site is truly ironic. It is called no recipes, yet directly under the title is a link to.... Wait for it.... Recipes!

            1. re: nat8199

              Not only is it chock-full of recipes, but contradictions, too.

              There's this:
              I'm Marc, and I want to teach you some basic techniques and give you the confidence and inspiration so that you can cook without recipes too!"

              And then there's this:
              "I’m a freelance food photographer, recipe developer, and marketing consultant who’s loved cooking since before I could see over the kitchen counter."

              So Marc wants us to cook without recipes, yet he develops recipes for us? What the hell?

              1. re: DuffyH

                It's as ironic as this lady, who said "Real cooks don't use recipes" (on national tv), writing a cookbook, with guess what? Recipes!


            2. re: law_doc89

              You don't seem to see value in the middle ground, which most cooks, and some damn fine ones at that, inhabit. Why must it be all or nothing? After learning a technique, why must one then never use a recipe again?

              Example having mastered the technique of stir fry, must one then never use a recipe for stir fry again? If one does, are they then NOT a "true cook"?

              Where does this all or nothing attitude come from? One presumes from reading your other posts that you consider yourself a "true cook". Do you NEVER use a recipe? Not even for a complicated dish that you haven't prepared in several years? Seriously?

              1. re: law_doc89

                Hi, law_doc:

                As learning goes, slow progress beats sliding backward by assuming one knows it all.

                You seem to assume that this hypothetical person was: (a) not skilled to start with; (b) not learning more over time, despite crappy cookware; (c) *only* following recipes; (d) not understanding something as simple cast iron; and (e) bereft of technique.

                These are dangerous assumptions, and I know one such person for whom ALL of them would be wrong. But you *are* consistent, I'll give you that.


            3. I dunno. I followed many recipes for beef stews over the years, and now I have a 'method' for making beef stew without a recipe.

              6 Replies
              1. re: julesrules

                But doesn't your version then become a recipe? And didn't it come from a compilation of other recipes?

                1. re: c oliver

                  It is all about method.. I think Julia...

                  Learn the basic... then you can be for me...

                  Baking vrs. cooking....

                  1. re: c oliver

                    That's exactly how my BBQ sauce recipe came about. I began with 2-3 recipes, made small batches of them, tested them on family/friends, then began tweaking. Each tweak was recorded until I had my own recipe that is entirely unique, at least as far as I know.

                    1. re: DuffyH

                      This is how many of my recipes get developed-- most recently, banana muffins.

                  2. re: julesrules

                    Yes, now you have YOUR recipe that you use to make beef stew. Even if it's just in your head, it's still a recipe.

                    My contention is that if you are a jaz band and you have a jam session, everyone is improvizing, it can sound great or maybe not so great, but either way they can't repeat the performance because it was all improvization. You can do the same thing with cooking, but if you have a winner, wouldn't you like to be able to make that same dish again with the same results?

                    1. re: mikie

                      But when you try to explain the beef stew recipe to someone else, what happens? How do you get the nuances to transfer without a common understanding of technique?

                  3. I don't think the comparison is apt. "Paint by numbers" does not even come close to approximating the way that a painting is made by a real artist. It is more than ultra-simplified, it is something else altogether.

                    In cooking, however, a recipe might be ultra-simplified, but could also be quite sophisticated and intended to produce a result comparable to what an experienced and expert cook would make. The latter might explain the reason for a way of doing things, and might suggest optional ingredients or ways of proceeding, intending to educate the user of the recipe in the art of cooking. A good example can be found in Julia Child, who contrasted her recipe for coq au vin with simplistic recipes going by that name.

                    I don't think many cooks aspiring to expert status could get to a decent coq au vin entirely on their own by studying only principles and techniques of cooking. Not easily, anyway. Most would start with a serious recipe, then try other recipes, and perhaps sample some restaurant versions, before developing their own variation.

                    5 Replies
                    1. re: GH1618

                      I love French Onion soup, and Mrs. mikie tried to make it for me many many times, none were up to what I have had in good restaurants. Then I discovered Julia Child and her recipe for French Onion soup. I made it myself following the recipe as closely as possible. This was several years ago and trust me, back then I had no, nada, nill cooking technique or skills. The difference between my success and my wife's failures was a good recipe not cooking skill or technique. And yes, I continue to make it following the recipe, because I like it and want it to be jsut as good the next time I make it.

                        1. re: mikie

                          “Once you have mastered a technique, you barely have to look at a recipe again”
                          ― Julia Child, Julia's Kitchen Wisdom: Essential Techniques and Recipes from a Lifetime of Cooking

                          “Maybe the cat has fallen into the stew, or the lettuce has frozen, or the cake has collapsed. Eh bien, tant pis. Usually one's cooking is better than one thinks it is. And if the food is truly vile, then the cook must simply grit her teeth and bear it with a smile, and learn from her mistakes.”
                          ― Julia Child, My Life in France

                          “One of the secrets, and pleasures, of cooking is to learn to correct something if it goes awry; and one of the lessons is to grin and bear it if it cannot be fixed.”
                          ― Julia Child, My Life in France

                          “To be a good cook you have to have a love of the good, a love of hard work, and a love of creating.”
                          ― Julia Child, Particular Passions: Talks With Women Who Have Shaped Our Times

                          “The more you know, the more you can create. There's no end to imagination in the kitchen.”
                          ― Julia Child, Particular Passions: Talks With Women Who Have Shaped Our Times

                          1. re: law_doc89

                            Julia Child's method for educating Americans who desired to coom in the French manner was, of course, to collect French recipes and adapt them for the American kitchen.

                            1. re: GH1618

                              And then emphasize techniques. Recipes were only the hook, you know.