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Resources for a beginner learning to cook

So, I really want to improve my talent in the kitchen. I think I should start with the basics though. I've always concentrated on following recipes, or trying to emulate what I see on television, but I feel like without a good foundation on the basic skills in the kitchen, I will never truly improve.

One example I can give is to the television show "Worst Cooks in America" on the Food Network. They basically bring those guys in, tell them how to cut correctly, which knives they should be using - then they move on and go over the proper way to sear meats, what heat to keep your pans at, how to season different things correctly, how much oil to use, the proper way to fry/saute - everything like that.

I kind of just do everything my "own" way, and when I'm following a recipe I get off line or something, I just pretend I know what I'm doing, and that if I follow the steps, it will come out exactly as theirs did, which has been pretty false for the most part.

How can I start to improve my basic cooking skills? Is there any books or anything I should pick up? Maybe any links online that go through how to get better and where to start?

I eventually want to be able to just see what food is on sale in the grocery store, and be able to picture how I can create a meal with it, how I would season it, what would go great together, etc - as opposed to only buying things that match up with whatever recipe sounds good to me that night :)

Thanks guys.

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marked as duplicate by Aaronut Jul 21 '11 at 18:34

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

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This is essentially duplicating several other questions into a vague poll. How can I safely improve my cutting technique?; Ways to learn to season food correctly?; Resources for a beginner learning to cook; What's a good resource for knowing what spices are, and what to use them on? etc. Check the [basics] and [learning] tags. The clear writing is appreciated but please search for existing topics first. –  Aaronut Jul 21 '11 at 18:34
    
Makes sense. I should have done more searching. Sorry :( –  slandau Jul 21 '11 at 21:22

3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

I'm sure there are a million ways to do this, so my answer isn't "right", it's just how I've learned.

Get a good cookbook and follow recipes from it. Ideally, you want a cookbook that discusses the "why" as well as the "how". I highly recommend The Best Recipe for this. They have detailed explanations of how they created the recipe and why certain things work. Having a good understanding of why will allow you to really understand the steps of a recipe, making it easier to improvise.

Look for some courses. If you live near a major metro area, there is almost certainly somewhere to take some cooking courses for the home chef. Look for some 101 level courses. Our local cooking school / gadget shop / place I spend too much money is Cooks Warehouse. They have classes like Knife Skills, Pasta 101, Summer Veggies, Intro to Cheese Making, BBQ, etc. Take a class or two.

Ask and research questions here. If you want to know "how to..." there's a good chance that there's already a good question on this site. Reading about steak for instance, you'll learn a TON, or look for Beginner Cooks. Do your research. If you don't find your question, ask away. There's no question at all that I've become a better cook because of this site.

Find someone to cook with. My wife could cook pretty well, and I learned a lot from her. Later we made some friends and gained a neighbor who were professional chefs. Cooking in a kitchen with them, even if it's just helping, can be very helpful. You'll learn a ton. Don't be afraid to ask questions.

Cook the same dish over and over. Find a dish you like and make it a couple of times from the same recipe. Then look it up online and look for some recipes that are different. Try those. Figure out what you like / didn't like about the recipes and identify what was different. Then start to try and make some changes off the top of your head (this is particularly common if you don't have something in the recipe, leave it out? substitute?).

Cook lots of different dishes. Branch out a little and try some different things. Stew, pastry, cake, stir fry, etc. Trying a bunch of different things will give you an idea of what happens when you cook something low and slow vs hot and fast, dry heat / wet heat, etc.

What you are really looking for is a trusted source followed by experience, both in depth and in breadth. The trusted source is important to make sure you are getting experience doing the right thing. Ideally, maybe you should start with just depth and nail one dish / technique after another, but that's boring, and if you're doing it at home, you have to eat the results. So breadth helps the home cook, even if that isn't what you'd do in culinary school.

Practice and learn and you'll get there eventually. Fortunately, you need to eat every day, so there's plenty of opportunity.

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Thanks for this, this is awesome! –  slandau Jul 21 '11 at 21:22

That's a very general question and difficult to answer in short.

  1. Knife skills. Jaimie on Youtube. Some others as well. The left hand is most important as you cannot easily cut your right hand (you can always try).

  2. Sauté technique. Put a pan on medium heat and leave it there. If you put it on high it might burn. After some minutes, splash a drop of water in the pan (one drop). You should hear it evaporate. Put the heat on high. Put a dash of fat in the pan (oil, butter, grease, you name it). Swirl the pan around a bit. When you see 'waves' on the oil, it's hot. Go and sauté.

  3. If your product is too big or thick for sautéing, go ahead and sauté anyway. Once it's nice on the outside, put some cold liquid in (water, wine, brandy, whatever). Put the heat on low. Put a lid on. Wait.

With these three lessons learned, you can do most basic cooking.

Edit Boil, Simmer & Poach.

  1. Rolling Boil. Used for cooking spaghetti and other pasta, and almost nothing else.

  2. Simmer. Just under a boil (94ºC) used for cooking. Rice, meat, whatnot. It's what you do in step 3 of the above list.

  3. Poach. Very delicate items like eggs can be poached.

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Already watched one of his videos, they are awesome! –  slandau Jul 21 '11 at 21:23

I learned a great deal from rouxbe.com, which is an online cooking school. It starts from the beginning and teaches you why as well as what. It's not free, but the quality is very high.

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I'll check that out :) –  slandau Jul 21 '11 at 21:23

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