Epicurious changed my friend’s marriage. One day, she started cooking almost exclusively using their recipes, and her husband was so delighted by the amazing things coming out of their kitchen, that he started coming home from work earlier to spend more time with her.
Am I saying that Epicurious is the answer to every aspiring home chef’s prayers? Not always. But having a good recipe and knowing how to use it is the best possible place to start.
Even “real” chefs use recipes
“Am I really supposed to put a whole pound of daikon in this?” said an employee at one of favorite lunch locals to the chef as she followed his recipe for miso soup. I was totally struck. No, not by the amount of daikon. But at watching someone use a recipe in a professional food prep environment.
Later that week, I saw a TV drama where one of the main characters walks some local celebrities through his recipes as they guest chef for a charity event. The guest chefs make endless changes to the head chef’s recipes, much to his (an each other’s) annoyance. Is this use of recipes in restaurant settings limited to newbies? Shuna fish Lydon, who has worked as a pastry chef at The French Laundry and Bouchon in Napa, recently said on Twitter: “I’ve worked at a restaurant where the recipes were copyrighted.”
Though I spend a significant part of my week pouring over, cooking, creating or writing recipes, I have never really considered the roll of recipes in “professional” cooking. I guess I was always under the impression that “real chefs don’t use recipes”… or at least that is what my food industry friends had always told me.
What does it mean “to cook”?
Let’s start at the beginning. If we want to learn how to cook, we have to know what that means. In Italian, there are actually two words that, loosely translated, mean “to cook.” “Cucinare,” from which also comes “cucina,” the word for kitchen, is the word typically used for cooking, however, “cuocere,” really only refers to heating up food. Though, arguably, these is what many people mean these days when they say they “cook,” it is a completely separate idea from that elusive concept of creating a dish from a set of raw ingredients and transforming them in the process.
As Michael Pollen discovered in an interview with Harry Balzer, a food-marketing researcher, in the U.S. the term “cooking” has become so broadly and loosely used that they had to establish a tighter definition. But in this case, ‘strict’ might not be the best description, because
“…to cook from scratch, they decreed, means to prepare a main dish that requires some degree of “assembly of elements.” So microwaving a pizza doesn’t count as cooking, though washing a head of lettuce and pouring bottled dressing over it does. Under this dispensation, you’re also cooking when you spread mayonnaise on a slice of bread and pile on some cold cuts or a hamburger patty.”
Apparently there is no point in tracking “real” from scratch cooking, because it has become so incredibly rare as not to be worth asking about. He sees it as the natural course of evolution:
“…people call things ‘cooking’ today that would roll their grandmother in her grave — heating up a can of soup or microwaving a frozen pizza…Here’s an analogy,” Balzer said. “A hundred years ago, chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking and gutting a chicken. Do you know anybody who still does that? It would be considered crazy! Well, that’s exactly how cooking will seem to your grandchildren: something people used to do when they had no other choice.”
So where can we turn to learn how to cook (from scratch)?
I’m assuming that, since you are here, you want to learn how to cook in that old-fashioned, “cucinare” way. There are options beyond cooking school. Not only could most not afford the time or financial investment of taking that much time off work, but that is really not necessary. You can learn generations of cooking knowledge at home, at your own pace. The older generations can teach you to cook. Not necessarily those who butchered their own chickens, but the post war women who still cooked for their families every night.
Please don’t go harass your mother or grandmother into giving you cooking lessons. Just get a solid cookbook. There is a reason that the Joy of Cooking, Fanny Farmer, and Betty Crocker cookbooks are as useful today as ever. An understandable, unintimidating recipe that yields excellent results is timeless. Julia Child has recently returned to the public eye in the form of Meryl Streep, but it was those clear, replicable recipes that brought her into the spotlight in the first place. She spent years in France working on her first cookbook trying to make sure that anyone could follow her recipes and end up with incredible foreign food.
But how can a recipe teach you how to cook in general, as opposed to how to cook a particular dish? One recipe can’t, but many recipes can. When you read a cookbook – really read, not just skim for ideas or to look at the pictures – there is a wealth of knowledge. A single cookbook on a topic like seasonal lunch foods can teach you how to make bread, salad dressings, sear tuna, braise lamb, julienne vegetables, and reduce a glaze.
Stay tuned for the rest of the From Zero to Chef: How to cook well at home series for tips on how to read and follow recipes, 25 inspiring cookbooks, and the best free recipe resources to start your journey to being a rock-star chef.