learning to cook

February 22, 2011

I’ve spent the past couple of years making a concerted effort to learn how to cook.  Sure, I’ve always been able to boil pasta and heat up fish sticks.  But I didn’t know anything about how to get meat to turn out right, what spices and herbs to mix with what other spices and herbs, how sauces work, or what to do with a fridge full of ingredients and no real recipe.  I’d watch friends whip up amazing dishes with seemingly little effort, but when I tried the same thing at home, it came out like mush.  In the modern world, between pre-packaged meals and the microwave, you can get by without knowing how to really cook.  But I was getting sick of pre-packaged.  Fresh and home cooked just tastes better.

It takes effort to learn how to cook.  Many recipes and cookbooks aren’t even helpful if you’re starting from a level of real ignorance.  A recipe will say, “Saute chicken breast until done,” and if the only thing you know about chicken is that if you don’t cook it well enough you’ll kill your friends, by God you’ll saute that chicken breast for thirty minutes.  Then you wonder why it comes out like rubber, and you decide you can’t cook and go three years before trying again.

It gets even harder when people tell you, “But cooking’s easy, everyone knows how to cook.”  No, it isn’t, and they don’t.  Cooking is its own language, and if you never learned to speak it, you can get in real trouble.

Two things finally helped me overcome my conviction that I couldn’t cook.  First, my mom gave me a cookbook that speaks my language (this one — it’s fabulous).  It says things like, “Saute chicken breast for three minutes on each side.”  Oh God, thank you!  Specific instructions!  I can do this!  The book is also comprehensive — instead of trying to pick something that sounds good out of limited offerings, like I’d been doing with other cookbooks, this book has everything.  Do I feel like fried rice?  It’s got it.  Mac and cheese?  It’s got two!  Fried chicken?  Steak?  Taco salad?  Pasta alfredo?  Yup.  Pomegranate mojitos?  Yum.

Second, for the last couple of years I’ve invited friends over on Monday night to eat dinner and watch “Castle.”  I make an effort to cook something different every week.  Having the external motivation has really helped.

Here’s what I made this week:

The reason I know I’m getting better, and am actually starting to feel like I can cook, is that this isn’t from a recipe.  That is, the original recipe called for spaghetti and brocolli.  I went for tortellini and green beans.  I’m improvising. (And no, the tortellini was not handmade.  Baby steps, grasshopper.)

What’s more, the longer I do this, the more I’m able to tell how long to cook the veggies, how much oil a chicken breast needs, how big a tablespoon really is.  Practice and experience are starting to pay off.  Those people who think cooking is easy have been doing it their whole lives, and a lot of them don’t understand how much knowledge they’ve internalized.  I’ve had to learn it, and I really appreciate it.

So, as I get a little older, there’s something I wish I’d figured out a long time ago.  Well, it’s something I knew.  I just didn’t know it applied to everything.  See, I knew that if I wanted to be a writer I had to practice, do a ton of writing, and just keep practicing.  But I didn’t apply that to anything else.  These days, there’s a lot of things I wasn’t good at ten or fifteen years ago that I’m feeling much better about practicing now. Like cooking.  And knitting.  And putting on eyeliner….


14 Responses to “learning to cook”

  1. sef Says:

    Also, if you can, try to catch some older Good Eats episodes. (Alton Brown is also a very nice person, at least when doing a public performance.)

    I’ve always had a limited, but reasonable, set of things I could cook; I spent a couple of years working at learning how to do stuff with chocolates, as well. And yesterday, I made my very first batch of pancakes, ever.

  2. Andrew Says:

    Try this one out. http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Easy-Indian-Butter-Chicken/Detail.aspx
    It was so tasty I did a blog post on it.

  3. Re WIlliams Says:

    Having taught several college roommates how to cook, I appreciate what you’re doing. It’s not easy. Although I’ve cooked my whole life, when I moved overseas suddenly all my knowledge was useless and I had to start again. Looking back it was very funny the first time I made ‘Schnitzel with noodles’.

  4. Michael Ash Says:

    This web site is great for recipes http://www.ehow.co.uk/ehow-food/

    Just look up what you want in the search box at the top.

  5. Also, for the meat problem, you’ll find a probe digital thermometer to be absolutely invaluable to avoid killing your friends. You look up what temperature you need the meat for say “medium”, and then you set it to bing when it hits that temperature. It’s simple, it’s easy, and it takes a lot of guesswork out of making something in an oven.

    Which leads to less oil used and all the other things of stovetop frying, which are delicious, but sometimes not as healthy as plain roasting of food. =)

  6. America’s Test Kitchen shows and books are al really good. My wife and I have used both Good Eats and ATK to dramaticaly improve out cooking, and have even gotten tot he point where we can experiment a bit without disasater.

    The pan roasted bone in split chicken breast from ATK is one of our staples, but pretty much all their vegetable and baking recipes are awesome too.

  7. carriev Says:

    Alton Brown is like unto a god…

    I’ve also seen the ATK books. True story: for a couple of weeks I had a temp job grading essay answers for a high-school standardized test. It was reading comprehension, and the reading piece they used was a ATK article on making clam chowder. I’ll never forget it…

  8. Kristian Says:

    BTW, Chocolate Muffins #7 FTW.

  9. Dawn Says:

    I have learned so much from ATK and AB. Still can’t manage eyeliner, though.

  10. David Rains Says:

    Let me second (third? Fifth?) the Aloton Brown shows. Being a Texan, it depresses me that I didn’t really know how to cook a steak until I watched his show. He’s cleared up eggs, potatoes, pasta, etc. and even made me think I could bake. Not that I ever would. Too much work. You can pick up whole season DVD’s of the show for cheap at Target.

  11. Mom Says:

    Looks good! Thanksgiving next year?

  12. Miss Bliss Says:

    I am so with you on this. A friend and I have talked at great length about how and why we didn’t learn to cook and how easy it is to sort of avoid it and then just sort of feel bad about it all the time. I have had great luck with Mark Bittman’s cookbook “How To Cook Everything” mostly because he is also pretty good at the details like how long to cook things and also about substituting stuff. What I really appreciate is that his recipes do not require me to go to five stores to find ingredients or worse specialty stores, because I just won’t do it and then we’re back to Van de Kamps fish sticks. Your Mom cracked me up with her Thanksgiving comment. The first BIG meal I ever cooked was Thanksgiving…and I’ve done it every year since. But cooking on a regular basis is still a big challenge. So…my hats off to you and you are not alone, there are a few of us out here trying to educate ourselves in the same area.

  13. jessica Says:

    I know exactly what you mean–and just because you know how to roast something doesn’t mean you know how to grill/panfry/etc. that same item.

    Which is exactly why I decided to start cooking through The Joy of Cooking a few years ago (and blog about it). I’ve learned an incredible amount and been forced to make things that terrify me (homemade mayo, baklava, etc.).

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