This whole idea of learning to cook from the Fannie Farmer, Betty Crocker, and Julia Childs of the world at your own convenience, at home, without going to cooking school sounds fantastic, but how exactly does one pull it off?
When you are in school, you use textbooks. Granted, they are usually quite boring, and that is why I am not sending you off to find a 900 page guide on how to cook everything. Because no one wants to read a picture-less, two and a half inch thick tome on anything, let alone cooking (unless you are a big dork like me). So find yourself a photographically enticing, appetite inspiring cookbook for this exercise:
- grab a cookbook and take a seat
- flip through until you find a recipe that interests you
- read it through three times (1. for overview; 2. in-depth, play-by-play; 3. to bring it all together)
- repeat as time allows
2. Compare and Contrast
I’ve heard that you can’t compare apples and oranges, but what about when you are making fruit compote? Sometimes the best way to understand how to make a dish is to look at many different approaches with different levels of complexity and ingredient substitutions.
- pick an dish that interests you
- pull up five to ten recipes for it
- what ingredients are common throughout?
- what steps are present in each recipe?
- think about which steps or ingredients may have been left out to simplify
- jot down your own composite recipe with the best (or just your favorite) elements
They say practice makes perfect, but what the saying really means is: senseless repetition makes for sameness. Perhaps this works for actions that rely on muscle memory, like shooting a perfect free throw, but cooking needs more creativity. To really practice cooking, you have to train yourself not to rely on repetition and rote because that’s what causes lazy mistakes and bland meals.
- pick out a recipe that you can easily make a few times this month
- try it out in different settings: weeknight vs. weekend, for yourself, your significant other and for guests
- pay attention to how the final result is different each time
- each subsequent occasion, fix anything that went wrong before by paying closer attention to the recipe
Once you start seeing what works and what falls flat in your own cooking, you can start to adjust others. A recipe is really just a recommendation. In Italy, recipes usually don’t have amounts because it is expected that the cook will just do what she wants or feels is best. So give someone else’s recipe a healthy shake-up and see what happens when you try to make chicken soup vegetarian or add some meat to your fruit salad.
- pick a recipe
- decide on one thing about it to change
- read the recipe carefully to check for trickle down effect and adjust accordingly
- give it a shot and evaluate the results. did it work?