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I'd like to learn to cook. At the moment I can make scrambled eggs, and that's pretty much it (I'm exaggerating, but just a little).

My question is, what is the best way to get started? I've thought of picking specific recipes of things I'd like to make, but I usually don't understand half the steps involved. I also usually don't know all the ingredients (doesn't help that I'm not in an English-speaking country).

Thanks a lot!

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Besides a good cookbook and other such resources, which I'll allow the more experienced to provide, I suggest developing a passion for cooking. Not necessarily as much passion as a chef requires, but enough to make you pay close attention to what you're doing, pay attention to flavors and to scrutinize the results. In other words, embrace the notion that anything worth doing is worth doing right. –  George Marian Aug 5 '10 at 1:25
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closed as too broad by SAJ14SAJ, Laura, sourd'oh, Aaronut Dec 26 '13 at 15:38

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20 Answers

You really need to start with the basics, until you understand how and why things work, following recipes will not improve your situation.

When I first started taking cooking seriously, (this was prior to the great resources available on the Internet) I went out and bought books about basic cooking, the sort or thing any potential chef might read before taking a place at a culinary school.

Once I understood the basics I could progress to more interesting recipes. Moreover, I was able to make corrections if things went wrong.

There are a lot of books available along the lines mentioned above and there are some subscription web sites available, such as Online Video Cooking School

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Your best bet is to get some information, a little equipment and then some practice.

I currently recommend Michael Ruhlman's Ratio Cookbook to beginners -- it's focused on the whys and wherefores of a good portion of American / European cooking. If you read it, and try out his recipes, you'll have a really solid understanding of how much of cooking works.

So, I would recommend you buy that book. Also, I would recommend you buy a 'classic' cookbook catering to a cuisine you are interested in, and work your way through as much of it as you can.

Once you've bought and read one of these, go shop for some cooking gear. You don't need a lot, and it's better to buy a small amount of quality than a bunch of cheap crap.

Then, get to it! Enjoy. Yum.

Also, read http://cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/396/what-cook-books-do-you-always-come-back-to for an inspiring list of cookbooks to check out.

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I would recommend getting the Better Homes and Garden cookbook. Its been out forever and that is the book that both my mom and I keep coming back to. Each section starts of helping you so the meat section tells you what each section of each animal is called, the canning section tells you how to can, etc. So it tells you what to do and has awesome recipes.

In addition to this I would just use the internet. I use google to definitions, substitutions or anything, even if I kindof know what it is already the internet is good just to be 100% sure. I also love internet blogs that tell you their favorite recipes and how to make it. For tons of recipes from something easy like macaroni and cheese to something harder like cheesemaking I recommend http://www.food.com/.

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There a several types of cooking. I recommend picking one type to start learning, then branching out as you get more comfortable. This is especially helpful if you don't have access to a kitchen full of every conceivable piece cooking equipment.

Types: Baking (breads, many desserts, casseroles, pizza), Roasting/Broiling (chickens, turkeys, pot roasts, steaks), Stove-top Frying/Sauteing (stir-fry, pancakes, eggs, many italian dishes), Boiling (pasta, sauces, soups, stews), Grilling (meats, kabobs, vegetables), Smoking (fish, ham), Deep-frying (fried chicken, fish, doughnuts, corn dogs), Brining/Culturing (pickles, saurkraut, cheese).

I'd consider smoking, deep-frying, and brining/culturing to be more difficult for someone new to cooking. Grilling, Stove-top Frying, and Sauteing are fun for interactivity and flexibility. Baking is easy IF you can measure and follow directions exactly. Boiling pasta is easy, but I recommend getting some familiarity with how to spice dishes before starting soups and stews.

Depending on the type of cooking you pick, emphasis on different skill sets will be required. Skills: Cutting things up (slicing, chopping, paring), measuring ingredients (by volume, by weight, by estimate), temperature management (especially on stove top and grill), spicing/flavoring (what spices to use, in what quantities, in what combinations, at what time during cooking), evaluation (recognizing when a cooking step is complete, proper consistencies and textures for each dish), cleaning (how to wash knives, non-stick pans, clean stains), timing/serving (making sure each dish is ready for the table at nearly the same time, or that it is kept warm, cold, fresh until then), storage (keeping ingredients at their more fresh and flavorful, how to store leftovers, handling foods that can contaminate/be contaminated), shopping (creating appropriate grocery lists, maintaining a food budget, locating items in the store), and more skills I can't even think of right now.

It's a lot to learn, so don't get in over your head and try to home cook a gourmet dish for every single meal from now on.

Look to start on dishes/recipes that: That you want to eat, Don't use too many types of cooking (like braising), Don't require much more equipment than you have, Are slow paced (so you have plenty of time to figure out and prepare for the next step), Are forgiving of variation and mistakes (some dishes require precision or they fail completely), Have online video tutorials, Don't demand too much cutting (you'll speed up with practice, but no point in boring yourself).

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I disagree somewhat with the advice that you 'start with the basics' in terms of technical knowledge, or consult particular books or references.

The only way to become a good cook is by cooking as much as you can, and doing it 'mindfully'. Look, feel, listen, smell, and above all taste - your ingredients before you purchase them, as you prep them, and while they are on the fire.

Work as slowly as you need to to be comfortable. That might be pretty slowly at first, so it's probably a good idea not to get too ambitious in terms of timing or number of dishes, but if you want to make something 'fancy' or complicated, go ahead and give it a try. I cooked all kinds of far out stuff when I was a college student just getting started with doing a lot of cooking on my own, and it was great. Some things didn't come out quite right, but the results were usually delicious, and I learned a lot and had a lot of fun.

If you are someone who likes to learn things from books, then by all means get some cookbooks, but if you are more a "play it by ear" type, then just think of something you want to eat and give it a go. Enjoyment, practice and taste are more important than doing things the "right way".

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+1 especially for the second paragraph. –  stephennmcdonald Aug 5 '10 at 14:59
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Ultimately, it rather depends on what you like to eat. Pick a few things you like, and ask how they are made. I remember asking my mother for some of her recipes when I was starting out. Ask family and friends what they do, and see if you can make it work. Remember to start with simple things. People who know you will know your level and what you can be trusted with. As you develop, you'll gain confidence and start trying new things. Mostly, you just need to practice, and not be afraid to fail. Sometimes things don't work out.

As for a place to start... Considering where you are, I'd say Italian style. The ingredients are easy to come by, and even the simple stuff tastes really good.

Regarding ingredient names, you can always ask around, even around here. I've become pretty good at translating the names of herbs and spices.

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The best dish that I can think of to start out with is soup. You get a whole realm of ideas from this and cooking soup opens the doors to other dishes that involve reductions. Your knife skills will improved because your chopping all the vegetables and learning basic techniques. You also will get different shapes and sizes to test your skills on.

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I like this idea, as I love eating soups. Do you have a recommendation for a good place to learn how to make them? –  Edan Maor Jul 25 '10 at 21:13
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I think of the best beginning recipes for soup you should look at is chicken noodle soup. foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/chicken-noodle-soup-recipe/… I like this recipe because as you can see its simple and gives you knife practice on three veggies including garlic which is going to be in a ton of recipes you encounter. From this beginning you can start to look at thicker soups maybe even something like fish soup which will get you into cooking fish. The possibilities are endless. –  crtjer Jul 26 '10 at 4:12
    
The Soup Bible is a great resource - it has really basic, 4-ingredient soups up to more complicated stews / one-pot meals. Something for every season, occasion, and taste preferences. amazon.com/Soup-Bible-Debra-Mayhew/dp/075480240X –  Laura Jul 26 '11 at 14:27
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In addition to the other sources people have offered, I'd recommend watching Good Eats. You can find it on Food Network, Hulu, and YouTube.

Update: Hulu appears to now offer full shows, even if only a few at a time.

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I second this suggestion. Alton Brown teaches you more than just how to follow a recipe, he'll teach the origins of the dish as well as the purpose of what you are doing as you cook. Alton Brown is the Bill Nye of cooking. –  Covar Jul 23 '10 at 15:51
    
Thirding this. I've gotten my wife to start watching this with me and it's definitely taught her a lot and got her very interested in learning more. –  stephennmcdonald Aug 5 '10 at 14:58
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Alton Brown goes well with a small portion of Harold McGee (specifically On Food and Cooking), who provides greater detail and information density than video can. Alton brown gets most of his food science information from McGee. –  BobMcGee Jul 26 '11 at 15:46
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Stir-fry. One pan, a little oil. Any ingredients you want. Put the hard ones in first, the soft ones in last, except for onions which always go first. Add salt and spices until it tastes good.

Chefs almost never use recipes. Just look around, see what you food you have, think about how to put it together, and try it out. Watch TV shows and read cooking books for ideas but not for formulas. Learn how to taste, and smell food, to match what you want it to be.

Get fresh ingredients. Don't overcook them. Don't undersalt them.

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-1: because this answer isn't very helpful. I work in a professional kitchen, and chefs most definitely DO use recipes, they're just looser recipes and used differently. A professional recipe often has less precise measures (handfuls and pinches are common measures), salt and pepper often done to taste, and cooking times are often done by finished texture of the dish, not time. You still have a list of ingredients and rough amounts, but more is left to the judgement of the cook or chef. The finished results still end up with consistent amounts, because pros are consistent at eyeballing. –  BobMcGee Jul 26 '11 at 15:55
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As Paperjam has suggested, get to know Alton Brown. If you happen to get the Food Network in Israel, start watching it! His show is called Good Eats. If you cannot, or you prefer a book to a video, then I suggest getting Alton Brown's books:

  • I'm Just Here for the Food: Version 2.0 - This is a great introduction to cooking. It takes a unique approach to organization by organizing the contents by cooking method, e.g. roasting, frying, sauces, brining He goes into amazing detail explaining exactly the why behind cooking which many cookbooks ignore.

  • I'm Just Here for More Food: Food x Mixing + Heat = Baking - If you're interested in baking then this is a great resource. This is the baking equivalent of "I'm Just Here for the Food" noted above. It is organized by mixing method, which is rather unique and clever. He goes into a lot of neat details explaining the roles each ingredient plays in baking and the science of what goes on in your oven.

  • Good Eats: The Early Years - This is the Good Eats show in book form. This is great if you aren't able to watch the show, or prefer reading. The format is a little weird though, it's organized in the same order as the episodes aired. As a reference you'll find yourself using the index extensively because things can be scattered all over compared to other cookbooks. That said, it preserves all the exquisite detail he goes into with each show and also teaches you the why behind things. As the title suggests, this book covers the early years of the show. Coming soon is a second volume covering the middle years of the show: Good Eats 2: The Middle Years.

Other Food Network chefs that are accessible to beginners:

  • Giada De Laurentiis - She specializes in simple Italian 'modern classics'. I own both Everyday Italian: 125 Simple and Delicious Recipes and Giada's Family Dinners which are both great resources for simple yet delicious Italian dishes. She doesn't go into near as much detail as Alton Brown does, but you can still learn a lot about Italian cooking from her book.

  • Rachel Ray - Her thing is "30 Minute Meals". She has a show as well as several cookbooks on this topic. Her cuisine can be all over the place, but it's primarily American & Italian. Due to the time constraints her dishes tend to be simpler and thus more accessible to a beginner. I do not own any of her cookbooks.

  • Paula Deen - She specializes in Southern U.S. cuisine. Her recipes tend to be simple, delicious, and not particularly healthy (southern) :). I don't own any of her cookbooks, but enjoy watching her shows when I can catch them. She does a fair amount of baking as well.

  • Mario Batali - Mario is much less "beginner" accessible than the others. However, since I believe he is hands-down the best chef on the Food Network, I wanted to mention him. He specializes in authentic Italian cuisine. He has a vast amount of knowledge regarding the various regional differences and specialties of Italian food and is very willing to share it. However, unlike Giada, he will use some more obscure and difficult to obtain ingredients. I've never seen him use any particularly difficult or complex cooking methods though, which is a boon for a beginner. I haven't read his cookbooks yet, but some claim to be "easy".

Clearly, I am a big watcher of the Food Network. If you can get it in your country, watch it. Their target audience is beginner/amateur cooks. You can learn a ton just by watching this. However, they lately have a bunch of crap reality shows on their schedule that are less than helpful. You'll probably want to change the channel for these. Their website I find less than useful. Many of their recipes have errors that have gone uncorrected for years. The recipes on the website don't often contain any why just a list of ingredients and some instructions.

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My friend Heather runs a site called Home Ec 101 that covers a lot of the home economics skills that people missed out on learning earlier in life. Her info on cooking is really good, especially if you're really just starting out and focuses on the practical stuff everyone should learn.

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I guess everyone has an opinion on this. I hope mine helps.

I learned to cook by experimenting with ingredients and carefully watching out for results. Start with what you know and add things you know you like. Make good scrambled eggs? What happens when you add ginger to them? Should there be a bit less? How about brie? If you add ginger and brie will it be a great discovery or trash? Maybe it should be a little brie and garlic scapes? (Scapes are the shoots that come out of the bulb when its growing.)

Recipes are great for getting into new ingredient terrain. Have no idea what to do with kale? Use a website like epicurious and reverse look-up a recipe using the ingredient as a search term. Baking is a lot like chemistry. Just follow recipes, and you'll avoid wasting a bunch of time.

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Use the BBC Good Food website. Loads of great recipes, with lots of ways of sorting and searching them.

http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/content/recipes/

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The best thing you can do in my opinion is to just start cooking. With that I mean make some food, experiment. Don't be afraid to fail in the begining, you learn by failing just as much as you learn by doing.

Remember to always smell and taste your food while you'r cooking.

A cookbook might help you on the way, but remember that you don't have to follow the steps 100%. Play around and see what goes together and not.

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Several approaches, all complimentary:

Cook. Start with your favorite dishes. Play with them.

Eat. Go to new restaurants, read menus closely, explore different cuisines.

Learn about food. Go shopping. Read labels. Take a tour of the entire market and see what's there. Go to a farmer's market. Smell the food. Find out what makes ingredients ripe or fresh.

Read. Get one good cookbook. It doesn't have to be comprehensive, just pick your favorite cuisine or whatever looks nice. You could even just read a website online. The key is to pick, say, 5 recipes and follow them start to finish. Get a feel for the flow of a dish, what ingredients are required, how to prepare them, how long it takes, how the dish is presented.

Watch. Cooking on TV is often unrealistic but it can still be educational. Don't be dazzled by their recipes or knife-skills, just ask yourself, "what are they doing and why?", "could I make that?", "what might I do to that dish differently?"

Fill in holes. No one is completely ignorant about food. Everyone has been eating it for years. Start with the things you don't know and tackle them one by one. Boiling water? Google it. Pasta? Google it. Same for steak, rice, salad, salsa, bread, cookies, stir-fry. There are a million versions of all of these, but once you know how to make one, you know about 75% of the whole deal. The rest is just variation. Do each one as an experiment in learning about food. It won't take long to cover the majority of basics. Maybe half a year if you did one every night.

Build up an arsenal. Cooking is practical. Find one dish you can make for each meal. Omelets for breakfast, check. Pasta with red sauce for lunch, check. Hamburgers for dinner. Cookies for dessert... Branch out from there to a few more staples (oatmeal, pancakes, french toast; potato salad, grilled cheese, cobb salad; steak, chicken, salmon; brownies, custard, cupcakes).

Learn about leftovers. Many great and common dishes are actually just last night's scraps turned into today's lunch. Soups, casseroles, stir-fry, sandwiches, and salads are all ideal receptacles for, basically, whatever is lying around. Knowing how to incorporate random ingredients into a delicious dish is half the fun and often all that is required.

Learn about cuisines. Different cultures have evolved their food practices differently, and yet they share basic components. They all employ starches and breads, vegetables, spices, dairy, proteins... Once you realize that the immense variety of food practices share common characteristics, it will seem much less overwhelming. Specifically, finding out which spices are traditionally grouped in a particular culture will give you a centuries-old guide for foolproof flavor combining. You can still innovate, but the historical flavor clusters and food combinations are time-tested.

Learn how to taste. Good cooks are good at identifying flavor. They can spot sweetness, acid, grease, bitterness, and salt amongst a slough of ingredients. They can pick out individual spices from a complex mix. Once you have this power, your cooking will dramatically change, because you'll be able to steer food where you want it to go. This is essential, because it frees you from recipes and gives you access to the infinite possibilities of the kitchen.

Learn something about science. Ingredients are just biology. Flavor is chemistry. Cooking is physics. Rather than agonizing about cooking times, try to identify the common traits of "done" food. What do they look like when they are first heated, then when they are over-heated. Are they drier, tougher, less colorful? When a cake is ready, it will tell you with its scent, color, texture, and (if you can sneak a bite) taste. Being a food-scientist doesn't mean reading textbooks, but using your own observations and a little general knowledge to make great food consistently.

Learn about nutrition. Food is fuel. It is health. It is medicine. Find out what our bodies seek from food, how taste is connected to nutrition, how cuisines supply needed ingredients, and how different preparations enhance (or damage) nutrition.

Whatever you do, don't be intimidated. Cooking is playing with food. It should be fun, even if it doesn't come out right. Good cooks are constantly learning and adjusting. Great cooks know how to cover-up almost all of their mistakes, and you can learn many of their tips. If something doesn't work, toss it and start over. Or do everything in your power to fix it; you'll see what works and what doesn't.

Realize that very few people actually know anything about cooking. It's about 90% hearsay, imitation, experimentation, custom, habit, and personal preference. But that's enough. There's almost always a "right" answer somewhere, but your cooking repertoire will probably evolve just fine despite it.

A cook is equal parts nurturer, mad-scientist, technician, artist, and however briefly, god. Take steel, earth, heat, and water. Make something delicious.

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Great advice, with a well-written and thought-out answer. –  Jay Sep 14 '10 at 4:56
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Three tips:

  1. Ignore most TV chef cookbooks. They're more "lifestyle" books than cookery books. Find books by good writers, or the likes of Good Housekeeping. I have a GH book which actually talks about techniques, Make use of wikipedia for things like names, techniques etc.

  2. Learn about combining flavours (a bit of reading and a bit of practise). You can take something as simple as scrambled eggs and add dijon mustard or smoked salmon to it.

  3. Practise, practise, practise. You can get all the theory you like, but learning about how say, a sauce is cooked, when to apply heat and so forth takes some trial and error.

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Get yourself a subscription to Cooks Illustrated.

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You have been given a lot of good advice! I have one more simple piece to add, as a new cook ALWAYS read a recipe in it's entirety before purchasing your ingredients and setting up shop in the kitchen. Reading ahead helps you to prepare your food and your cooking space effectivly. It will help you to know what ingredients to prepare ahead of time, when you need to learn a technique before starting the dish rather than during and help you to adjust your timeline if you are taking on ingredients,tools and techniques you are not familiar with. I also suggest going on eBay or amazon and purchasing some old or new copies of cooking light magazines. The recipes are diverse in favor, ingredients and difficulty but provide insight in healthy cooking, techniques and nutrition. I have never had a bad meal or a meal that tastes low fat. Hope this is helpful to you.

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I always recommend Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. In addition to providing good recipes that are easy to comprehend, Bittman has pages in every section devoted to technique. Everything from how to properly chop an onion to diagrams showing where the different cuts of meat come from on an animal. The recipes do, in fact, encompass a little bit of everything: soups, desserts, meats, vegetarian dishes, baked goods. Sometimes I just flip to a random page and make whatever recipe I land on if I'm having trouble deciding what I want to eat or if I'm looking to try a new technique.

As far as not knowing the names of ingredients, you should be able to find books or online sources to help with translation.

For Hebrew <-> English: this spice and herb dictionary

For Arabic <-> English:

I'm sure there are other good resources for translating other cooking terminology (vegetable and fruit names, cooking technique names); if you tell me which language you prefer, I can probably help you find some more. In the meantime, I hope this helps. Happy cooking!

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As a self-proclaimed newbie chef that just wanted to jump into the art of cooking, I highly recommend perusing, if not outright buying a subscription to, http://allrecipes.com.

Suggesting yet another cooking website seems trite amongst several like suggestions, but here's what matters the most about it: its rating and search systems, including searches for special dietary needs, work. Its wide selection of recipes to fit all needs certainly doesn't hurt, and if you're into using technology to augment your practice, there are apps for it, too.

As a newbie, the biggest problem I have isn't preparing meals -- which I do ponderously slowly, in serial, as I learn how everything is prepared before the inevitable combinatorial step. Rather, it's identifying good meals quickly with the ingredients and skills that I have on hand. And in my experience, AllRecipes fills that niche.

Corollary to the above: buy a slow cooker. No, seriously, do this right now, using the power of http://www.amazon.com if you have to.* I can wait.

Most usable recipes based around a slow cooker are easy to prepare, exceptionally flavorful, and allow you to have a hot meal prepared and ready the moment you return from school/work/add-your-own-daily-social-requirement-here. It's a brilliant device, and most importantly, it'll get you into the habit of cooking for yourself cheaply while you train on other recipes.

As for my process: I have done consistently well by selecting 4.5 star recipes from http://allrecipes.com, catering to my special dietary needs as a pre-diabetic (low sodium and sugar) and whatever cheap ingredients happen to be on sale in a given week (consulting the weekly advertisements for our local grocers). This has proven highly effective, exposing me to recipes I otherwise would not have cooked as a nerd while helping me build juicy, juicy experience as a chef.

So, that's what I'd recommend. When paired with any given cooking periodical and http://cooking.stackexchange.com, which you're clearly already familiar with, the results should be surprisingly effective.


.* Or the equivalent for your locality. Either way, while the right now part is hyperbole, you should avail yourself of one as soon as feasibly possible.

Note also: some features of the site are limited to paying customers. Nutrition search, for example, requires a subscription.

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