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I want to improve my cooking skills and have considered following a number of books that call themselves cookery courses (e.g. Delia's complete cookery course, Ballymaloe cookery course).

Can I really learn to cook from a book or should I consider taking a cookery course?

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15 Answers 15

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Learning through repertoire is a good way to build standard skills in nearly every discipline. If what you want is to be able to create a variety of good meals then cooking out of books will serve you well. That isn't to say that the book you choose doesn't matter, of course it does! A book full of accurate facts and procedures does not a good teacher make. Choose a cookbook that is so engrossing that you don't mind reading it like a novel. That's how I felt reading Bourdain's Les Halles cookbook and I'm sure you can find a similarly inspiring work.

Understand that this makes you one who can produce recipes, nothing more. I mean this earnestly and non-disparagingly, as being one who can replicate a good recipe time and again is one who has a high level of skill. Still, most who delve into cooking and the culinary arts are rarely satisfied by this state of affairs. One desires to substitute ingredients, build on a base, even invent their own cuisine! For that, experimentation is the best teacher. You're going to have to start cooking boldly and failing often to achieve that. There really is no better teacher than making something completely inedible out of $50 worth of pork, then adding insult to injury with a fast food dinner. =/

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I know this is an old post, but I just wanted to say; your last sentence just remotivated me after feeling quite inadequate in the kitchen! –  Max Dec 7 '11 at 7:26
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I have lots of books, and learn a lot from them, but I think cooking shows are important as well. If you don't know what a julliene looks like, or what pan is too hot to sweat onions, or what stiff peaks vs soft peaks in a merengue look like, then all the reading in the world won't help. Just watching the techniques they use can help a lot, and be applied to many of the recipes you'll read about. At some point, you will probably need classes to take it to the next level, but videos and books can make you a pretty decent cook. –  JSM Jul 11 at 0:36

Cookbooks are great for inspiration but most are weak on technique and the "why's". I found that books that focus on technique and give you good illustrations can be immensely helpful for the self-taught cook. This is my go to when I have questions on technique: Jacques Pepin's Complete Techniques (http://amzn.com/B005OL7YH2). It is very thorough, clear, and gives many step by step illustrations.

Bottom line though is you need to practice these skills and learn from your mistakes.

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Cooking is one of the few arts that utilizes all of the senses - for me, a recipe has to be touched, smelt, heard, seen and tasted to get a full understanding of the way ingredients combine to produce something new. Personally, I learned here - http://www.braxtedparkcookery.co.uk/. It was my local, so I didn't have to travel far and they have kind of beginners courses that give you an overview of cookery in general.

However, I'd probably recommend your getting your mum to teach you - no one makes food like your momma.

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I think what you want is a combination of a book and a good friend to call with a question about a technique that may not make sense. In my case I lean on relatives when I get confused. However you really can learn quite a lot from a clear, concise book. I can't say enough about The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook (although I'm wishing I'd known the Healthy version was coming around the corner).

What I learned from the creator of Cooks Illustrated/ATK is that one ought to start by learning 25 recipes until you know them (at least nearly) by heart. A book such as ATK or perhaps another standard for learning would get you there. Find an appetizer or two, a few sides, a few mains, some desserts, some baked goods, and make sure you stretch yourself. As you are working through your recipes, call that friend if you have any technique questions - or perhaps post them here! We're just not as fast as a phone call away.

After that you'll want to start branching out into working on your own. Here books like Ratio (which teaches you the basic ratios in many preparations) and The Flavor Bible can be your guides as you begin to experiment and do your own thing.

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In addition to most that has been said.

Be the sous to your buddies.

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The problem with books is that you're still on an island by yourself, and the ability to critique your own food with your own palette is a critical skill. I find it only comes once you trust your own taste in food. When you can go to a restaurant and find things you love and things you hate at the same place, only then do you understand enough to start turning that reflection in the knife back at yourself.

Everyone is saying the key is to cook, and that's true. But the real important part is a breadth of experience. That's tough to achieve when you're on your own, no matter what the book says.

The problem with cooking classes, is that you'll be in a mix of students with a wide range of experience. As a teacher, the focus is always to get across the concepts and worry about a particular student's aptitude only in the case of abject failure, so long as people are understanding the core pieces of the lesson. In that case, the books include all of the core pieces.

My recommendation is to find a good local restaurant and offer to be a dishwasher one or two nights a week. Treat it like a class that you would take at a University, except all you'll be doing is watching (while having other fun duties). Only then is when you see a place where speed is a big concern, where recipes aren't taught with paper but with "come over here and watch me make this," and where professionals work.

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I learned how to cook from a book, and I could barely make toast when I started. While cooking classes can be very useful, I'd suggest nothing more than supplementing your own journey with them. If you cook out of a good book 7 nights a week, you'll learn quickly. My recomendation would be The Best Recipe.

The advantage of this book is that there is a substantial discussion of why certain techniques are used and how they came out better than other techniques or ingredient combinations. Reading this before making each dish will help you learn WHY you cook a certain way rather than just HOW to follow a recipe. After a while, you'll find that you can cook without the book because you understand why the different steps are important. But if you pick up a lousy book, you'll have a much harder time getting there.

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The problem with learning from media (be it a book, cooking shows, a website, YouTube videos, etc), is that it's pretty much one-way communication.

You can't get immediate responses if you have a question. (wait, let me set this aside, ask on the website, then go back to cooking 3 hrs later once I have an answer), and there's no one there to give you hints that maybe you're doing something in a less-than ideal way.

Yes, you can learn a lot by trial and error, but that means you don't have the collective intelligence of even one single person's years of experience. You can watch for differences in how someone dispatches a bell pepper (I think Rachel Ray has finally switched over to the faster method of taking the sides off, rather than trying to scoop out the inside) or other techniques.

Some books are more informative than others. (eg, Cookwise explains a lot of why the recipe is the way it is ... but then again, it was written by a chemist) and many of the "old classics" cover techniques and such, rather than just be a list of recipes and maybe some cute stories about the author's childhood and pictures of what the dish could look like.

So, in summary : you can learn from a book, but it's less than ideal; your skills will improve faster by cooking with someone else with experience, or even watching videos for techniques.

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I'll just leave you with this quote:

We took a look. We saw a Nook. On his head he had a hook.

On his hook he had a book. On his book was "How to Cook."

We saw him sit and try to cook. He took a look at the book on the hook. But a Nook can't read, so a Nook can't cook.

SO . . .

what good to a Nook is a hook cook book?

~ Dr. Seuss ~

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You can learn techniques from a book - but the most important thing is to actually cook. You'll learn most by doing.

Be sure to ask yourself 'why'; be inquisitive and think about the reasons behind the methodology you're following.

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Get a copy of Joy of Cooking. In each chapter heading it explains some of the tricks to preparing that type of food well. In addition there is a 'know your ingredients' section which includes extensive information about all kinds of things. When I was starting out would fall asleep at night reading this book. The recipes are complete with all the details needed to make good wholesome food, once you get a recipe down, you can add your own variations to please yourself. A very good book for beginners and experts alike.

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I'm going to disagree with Frankey. Joy of Cooking has many good recipes, but almost no nerd-friendly 'whys' or 'wherefores', exactly what's needed to improve your cooking. Instead, I would recommend Ruhlman's "Ratio" as a first cookbook, and buying an Alton Brown book or two that strikes your fancy. These are good amateur-level technical guides, ones that will repay you amply in your quest for technical mastery. Add on a cookbook or two devoted to a cuisine you like, and you'll be on your way. –  Peter V Jul 20 '10 at 20:02
    
Any America's Test Kitchen or Cook's Illustrated book will have plenty of whys and wherefores, as will the TV show. Ratio is good, but I don't think it's a first cookbook. –  justkt Aug 19 '10 at 12:15

With the possible exception of knife technique, I don't think a teacher is necessary. What you need is curiousity and willingness to play around in the kitchen.

Aside from that, the occasional book, internet search or chat with someone more experienced is a great way to learn.

At heart, cooking is something you learn by doing, not by reading or by watching someone else. Go, cook, taste, talk to people. Then repeat.

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'If you can read you can cook' - Anon

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You really don't need a course, the most important thing is to practise and keep cooking.

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Wouldnt it be easier to learn from your teachers experience than discovering everything on your own through experimentation ? –  Surya Jul 20 '10 at 15:26
    
For me I tend to learn this sort of thing better from a book than a teacher. The learning seems to be something where there is a bit of personal preference, but as a skill what cooking does need is practise. Even simple things like working with a knife need a lot of repitition and just going on a course or reading a book doesn't give you that repitition. You have to practise. –  Ian Turner Jul 20 '10 at 15:59

Books can get you a long way, but they can never become a teacher. Cooking is not just something you need to know about, it's a craft that you have to practice.

A teacher can

  • Spot flaws in techniques.
  • Judge the result based on years of experience.
  • Give you the tips and trick that you need.

So while you can learn from a book, getting to a high lever will be a lot easier with a seasoned teacher/master to guide you.

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