Having only taken a few, highly specific ethnic cooking courses, reading recipes is actually the main way that I have learned how to cook. In a recipe for lasagna, you can learn how to prepare a layered baked dish, cook pasta, and make a béchamel or cheese sauce. A fancy cake recipe will teach you how to make ganache, the cake itself, and frosting, perhaps even with some exciting caramelized fruit thrown in for good measure. All in five or ten minutes of reading.
Let’s look at this from a pure efficiency stand point. You can take a cooking class at your local Center for Adult Education (useful, but largely slow and boring – I’ve tried) or watch a cooking show on the Food Network, and learn how to make maybe three dishes in an hour or two. Or you can hunker down with a cookbook and read how to make twenty dishes – still getting all of the background and special tips. What sounds like a faster, easier way to learn to cook to you?
When you have a free hour (or even a few minutes), grab a cookbook and make yourself comfortable. Don’t have any? Stop by the cooking section of your local bookstore and leaf through one that catches your eye for this exercise. First, just flip through. Gorge yourself on the beautiful photograph and let yourself be transported by the recipes. But find one that really interests you and take a closer look at it.
First, read through the recipe in whatever fashion you normally would. Maybe you check out the ingredients and quickly skim the methods to get an idea of how much work is involved. Now, read it again, in detail. Pretend there is a test at the end. In fact, there is: once you have read a few recipes, comment below and tell me what you learned. If nothing, feel free to tell me I suck if you don’t think your got anything out of it.
While you read, pay attention to the intro or story that accompanies the recipe. Does it give you any specific tips either on how to prepare the dish, what the finished product should be like, or where to find ingredients? Also check for any additional notes or tips at the end of the recipe, in a side bar, or hidden in the ingredient list.
When you make it to the actual steps of the recipe, slow down and take your time. Imagine yourself actually completing each step of the recipe. What questions would you have? Are they in the recipe? Sometimes when you just read quickly and dive into a dish, you don’t notice how long the onions need to cook to reach that translucent color or how much stirring it takes to get perfect pan-toasted almonds. Often the information you need is somewhere – in the recipe itself or in the accompanying notes, but it might not jump out at you immediately.
After your slow motion play-by-play, read the recipe one more time to cement the order of the cooking process and how everything fits together. Hopefully you have the time and inspiration to wade through a few more when you have finished.
Don’t forget to add a comment with what you learned!