I feel like I'm absolutely terrible at cooking. How can I become better at it?
April 22, 2009 4:39 PM   Subscribe

I feel like I'm absolutely terrible at cooking. How can I become better at it? I think my lack of recipes/ideas is what's killing me. I just stick to spaghetti and frozen dinners because I'm not sure what else to do. If I had things to make I'm sure I'd eventually become better at it.

I feel like I definitely do not eat enough. I'm always hungry and the problem is I never have anything around my apartment to eat. If I was better at cooking I think I'd eat more/feel better because I'd enjoy making things that I like. I also cannot afford to be eating out every night either (even though I'd love to). It's time to learn to do this by myself.

Do you all know of any websites where I could for recipes or ideas? I'm sick of not having anything good for dinner every night.
posted by decrescendo to Food & Drink (50 answers total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
posted by phunniemee at 4:41 PM on April 22, 2009

I'll throw out a few that my wife and I check up on occasionally:

smitten kitchen
Serious Eats
Cook's Illustrated (Requires paid registration for most recipes. We also subscribe to the print edition).
Cook's Country (Also requires paid registration.)
All Recipes
My Recipes (Recipes from Cooking Light, Health and other magazines.)

Do your local grocery stores have free store magazines, usually at the checkout counter, with recipes? For instance, the Raley's stores in my area have one called Something Extra that often has good stuff.
posted by DakotaPaul at 4:50 PM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Epicurious and Food Network both have extensive sites with well-tested, easy-to-follow recipes. I'd start there.

If you're just learning how to cook, avoid the (admittedly popular) Cooks.com and Allrecipes.com. While they have a lot of recipes, many are posted by plain ol' home cooks like the rest of us. There's nothing wrong with that (at all), but you should learn from reputable recipe testers first, IMO.

Once you find a few recipes you like, make them over and over. When you begin to branch out, you'll discover that you've learned techniques from those recipes that apply to new-found recipes. Over time, you'll discover that you don't need recipes at all, but can whip something up based on what you crave or what you have at hand.
posted by mudpuppie at 4:50 PM on April 22, 2009

Some advice:

Don't be afraid to mess up/burnsomething/make something that tastes like shit. You will, and that's OK. Laugh it off and order takeout.

Learn how to grocery shop. Here's a good thread (from me even!) about that.

Follow recipes if you must, but don't be afraid to deviate from the course. If you're missing an ingredient, try replacing it with something you have in-house rather than making a trip to the store to buy a $5 jar of whatever that you will probably never use again.
posted by nitsuj at 4:50 PM on April 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

You haven't given us too much of an idea of how much you know in how to cook - how much you know how to do, like how to cook meat or vegetables, things etc... Like, have you ever taken cooking/home ec classes, had a job as a short order cook, etc. It takes practice to become a good cook and it doesn't hurt to take a class. However, you have taken the first step to becoming a better cook. If you are really inexperienced at cooking and want to learn some basics, ask someone like a relative or friend to show you their recipes and techniques. They can give you an idea on how to do it correctly so you can do it yourself later.

For great recipes, a good place to go is the Food Network website, they have great recipes. I made a batch of brownies from there and they were to die for
posted by agentsarahjane at 4:50 PM on April 22, 2009

I like epicurious. This is the web presence of the Conde Nast food magazines (Bon Appetit, Gourmet). Although these magazine often feature complex, challenging recipes, the site also has a section for "fast and easy" meals. Another good site for recipes is allrecipes. I like epicurious better because of the features and articles. They have a "How to Cook" section under Articles and Guides that has videos, etc.

You can start by just learning new sauces to pair with your spaghetti. Skip the Prego and learn how to make a quick tomato sauce (even using canned tomatoes, this can be much better than store-bought). Then try different seasonings in the tomato sauce. Try a sage and butter sauce. Try a classic Roman olive oil and garlic sauce. Try a Thai peanut sauce.

Good luck!
posted by jeoc at 4:53 PM on April 22, 2009

Look at sites like chow or Serious Eats. You may not find the perfect recipe there but you'll get ideas. You can track down recipes on epicurious or FN linked above. Assuming you're not eating fast food all the time, try making the dishes you like in restaurants at home. If you're not eating at Alinea you can probably make a lot of those restaurant dishes easier than you think. Get some cookbooks. Ruhlman's new book Ratio isn't a book of recipes (though there are some) but as the name implies is about ratios that pop up all the time in cooking. Get a few of these down and you won't need a recipe.
posted by sanko at 4:55 PM on April 22, 2009

I recommend this book all the time here and all the time in real life: Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything. Seriously. I'm a culinary-school-and-restaurant-trained chef and this book is fantastic for the beginner (and the expert; I love it, too). Bittman tells you what cooking terms like 'braise' mean, he tells you the basics of ingredients, and he walks you through how to start improvising. He even gives you an idea of what you need in a basic, every day pantry. It's really, really good.

If you can't invest in a copy right now, see if your local library has one you can borrow for a while.
posted by cooker girl at 4:56 PM on April 22, 2009 [5 favorites]

America's Test Kitchen has great recipes. They also have a PBS TV show, cookbooks & DVD's.
posted by torquemaniac at 4:58 PM on April 22, 2009

Everyday Food is based in simple techniques and fresh, easily available ingredients. Check out the website; if you find you like it, you can subscribe to the monthly digest, which is handy to take with you to the store, and gives multiple ideas for single ingredients (such as a seasonal fruit or vegetable, how to make chicken breasts five different ways in 30 mins., etc.) as well as suggestions for meal planning, side dishes, etc.
posted by scody at 4:59 PM on April 22, 2009

One of the best recipes sites I've found is Simply Recipes. Every recipe strikes pretty much a perfect balance between sophistication and practicality. Almost every one I've made has been a crowd-pleaser, too.

I'd also suggest watching some cooking shows, not only for the recipes, but for the explanations the chef gives as to why (s)he's doing something. My current favorites are Bobby Flay on the Food Network and Jacques P├ępin on PBS. Wouldn't be a bad idea to try and scrounge up some old Julia Child episodes, too.
posted by Garak at 4:59 PM on April 22, 2009

Another food blog we like is The Pioneer Woman, but she gets crazy with photos of the cooking process. Thirty-seven photos of a quiche recipe, for instance.
posted by DakotaPaul at 5:02 PM on April 22, 2009

nthing Epicurious.

A technique I've used is to concentrate on one or two things at a time and build up a repertoire of recipes that I can replicate consistently well and easily, which then become part of my rotating stable of recipes I'll actually expend the effort to make. For me the key is simplicity. If prep takes more than 10 minutes (not counting marinade sitting), I'm out. If cooking takes longer than 15ish, I'm not going to have time. I'm busy and only have so much time at night between late working and trying to exercise and stuff. I like things that I can eat for a couple or three days reheat style and not get sick of. Cuts down on time spent cooking. Not many things work for me in that regard, but...

I found myself eating out a lot recently so I went to an all-fajita burrito diet to make sure I'd cook and get back into the habit. I kind of can't get enough of fajitas, particularly steak ones. Skirt steak, salted just right to denaturize them proteins, marinated just right for just the right amount of time. Red and yellow bell peppers with onions, sauteed until soft and a bit caramelized. Then it's just dice tomatoes, chop lettuce and cilantro, shred cheese. Maybe sliced avocados. Heat tortilla and eat. All of this stores easily once prepared and lasts. Works great for leftover lunches or dinners. Over and over I eat you, fajita burrito. Somos amigos. Te quiero.

So maybe you could start with a couple of simple things you like, and get good at making them. Once good, experiment with the next thing. I find that having two weeks (of weekdays) worth of things I can make really sets me up well. Don't want the same thing week to week. Three weeks of stuff would be ideal but 2 has worked for me.

Something I used to do to spice up my spaghetti days was sautee or lightly steam some spinach. Same for grilling some portabella or adding grilled squash or zucchini or baked eggplant. Starting from where you are makes it easier to branch out. And if spaghetti then why not tortellini or tagliatelle or whatever. Same concept, but variety.

Sort of not the answer to your question. But there are a zillion recipe sites. So once you find ones you like, maybe try my answer.
posted by Askr at 5:06 PM on April 22, 2009 [5 favorites]

First and foremost, try to replicate foods at home that you already love to eat. You won't cook unless you cook foods you really want to eat. Then go to previously-mentioned websites and look for highly-rated recipes that have accessible ingredients. I mostly use Epicurious and Food Network. Like lasagne? There you go.

If you can follow a recipe, you have nothing to fear. Cooking is easy, and cooking great food is not that hard. Sometimes you make surprisingly delicious food, sometimes it's pretty meh. You're an engineer, so it shouldn't be too difficult for you to follow a recipe - as long as you can follow a recipe, you should be fairly safe. Try watching some old Alton Brown to get yourself inspired.
posted by jabberjaw at 5:06 PM on April 22, 2009

Posting again to say that you don't have to be a great cook to keep from being hungry. Become a kickass sandwich maker. Buy fixins for good sandwiches and heat them up in your toaster over or regular oven to make them warm and delicious. Keep salad mix on hand and make giant salads out of all the things you like (I like this, although I don't bother with the shallot dressing and just use Newman's Own).

Keep fruits and veggies you like to snack on in the house. Greek yogurt with honey is a great, low-fat, high-protein snack.

Also seconding to not be afraid to fuck up a few dishes. You will have disasters along the way, but always make it a learning experience and do better last time. The great thing about cooking is that if you mess up one meal, another one is just a few hours away.

On preview - also seconding Alton Brown's Good Eats. A terrific show for learning about food.
posted by jeoc at 5:15 PM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I want to second cooker girl's suggestion. I was exactly in your shoes a year ago - browsing food blogs and websites can be a little frustrating because the recipes can seem overwrought or too complex, and there's a million of them to choose from. Bittman's book cuts through all of the sundry different things you could be cooking, and instead emphasizes a few recipes using almost any ingredients you could think of. There are simple recipes, there are complex recipes, and there's everything in between. It's a great launching point - I feel a lot more confident with my cooking now, and it's a relief to have real food night after night.
posted by andeles at 5:15 PM on April 22, 2009

There is a difference between lack of recipes and lack of basic cooking skills.

A friend has a bookshelf of recipes, but it turned out he didn't have a clue how to peel and dice an onion.

Rather than collecting a large number of just recipes, consider methods as well. Baking? Crockpot (everyone should have one)? Foreman Grill? Limited number of ingredients? Or are you not afraid to experiment with a 15-ingredient ethnic list and something that takes three different cooking methods?
posted by Ky at 5:15 PM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, you may want to venture to a hands-on cooking class. Around these parts, you can take them as Adult Education courses at one of the universities, or at a Cook's Warehouse. The best part about the hands on classes is you can ask questions and learn techniques up close.

My favorite cookbook is Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian. It's practically an encyclopedia with information on the ingredients and varied techniques to store, prep and cook them. The recipes are all pretty simple, even the ones with lots of ingredients or lots of steps, because they're mostly pretty traditional vegetarian fare.
posted by sadiehawkinstein at 5:26 PM on April 22, 2009

A lot of people have already mentioned cooking resources that I love. Here's a new one I haven't checked out yet, but could be awesome if you used it from the get-go: Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind Everyday Cooking. It might be worth a look at the library at least :)

I also really recommend Alton Brown/Good Eats (many hits on youtube) as a good source for culinary technique. Tons of interesting stuff there, and if that doesn't pique your interest in cooking I don't know what will!!

My story: I have always loved to bake but never really learned to cook until the last 3 years or so. I, too, subsisted on frozen pizzas, chicken strips, dried pasta, and other "college" fare until about my 3rd year of grad school. Then, I just started trying new things. I'm a chemist, so I'm pretty good at following directions in the lab, and I think this helps a little bit.

However, start with simple stuff -- don't expect to make a Bearnaise sauce or a souffle out of the gate. (Heck, I haven't even attempted those things) Simply prepared meats & fresh veggies are all you really need. Sit down on a Sunday afternoon and plan out 3-4 meals for the week and plan out your grocery list (don't go crazy at first, you can have mac'n'cheese one night, and leftovers a few nights) Learn to make one or two simple soups. Get a salad spinner (or just a big plastic bowl with a lid, although the salad spinner lets the lettuce "breathe" a little better), and you can have fresh salad in your fridge for about 5 days, and have it with some soup & bread or a sandwich for a super cheap and easy dinner. (and bring some soup for lunch!)

Seriously, I've come a long way in 3 years, but it takes effort and time. Start simple! Try not to overwhelm yourself, I'm good at that when it comes to recipes :P

Memail me if you want some more specific simple recipe faves.
posted by sararah at 5:41 PM on April 22, 2009

You are me, like, 8 years ago. I had lived alone for so long that I didn't NEED to cook. And it didn't help that I worked for a company which fed me free breakfast, lunch and (if I worked late) dinner.

I needed to learn how to make a few good things. Just a few. Cook books overwhelmed me. Cooking blogs didn't exist back then, but I'm sure that they would have overwhelmed me also.

I started with a few recipes I got good at and built up my confidence. Then I just worked slowly from there. I'm not a chef, by any means, but I can finally roast a chicken without freaking out. That was a big milestone. Here were my three recipes I started with:

-Simple risotto--Sounds so fancy and is pretty easy. Minced onion in butter and olive oil. Toast the arborio rice in the onion/butter/oil mixture. Heat some chicken broth in a saucepan (I cheat and use College Inn broth.) Add it a little bit at a time, while stirring, not adding more broth until the broth in the pan is absorbed by the rice. Over 20 minutes or so, the rice gets creamy. At this point, you could just add parmesean cheese and eat it plain. Sometimes I'll throw some baby peas (frozen kind, defrosted in microwave) and, if I have it, some leftover chicken that I'll shred or dice. This is a cheater's risotto, and gourmands would gag, but it is easy and yummy. Once you've figured out how to do the rice, you can make endless variations of risotto with all sorts of different ingredients.

-Broiled chicken breasts. I bought skinless, boneless chicken breasts and broiled them for 8 minutes on each side after rubbing them with olive oil, sprinkling them with minced garlic from a jar, and sprinkling on some kosher salt. This recipe was a bit bland, so when I had mastered getting the meat tender and juicy (not overdone or underdone...it took a few tries), THEN I experimented with marinades, etc. If you are intimidated by cooking meat (I was), chicken breasts are pretty easy to start with.

-Sauteed veggies. That hardest part of this was trying to figure out how to shop for good veggies and prep them. How do I clean and cut mushrooms? How do I prep zucchini? Luckily, I had a few friends who were very helpful and showed me how to clean and cut. Nowadays, you can rely on videos like these!

-Simple quiche. Once you mastered a recipe like this one, you can make many variations with ingredients you have on hand. My favorite variation is sweet red pepper and leeks that are minced and sauteed in olive oil/butter added to the pie shell before everything else goes on top. Yum. Again, I cheat by using a pre-made pie shell and I know the hard core foodies are going to cry, but if I had to make my own pie crust, I'd never do it.

My favorite brands to stock the pantry with for the above recipes are:

-College Inn Chicken Broth
-Real butter, like Land O'Lakes salted butter
-I do use half-n-half instead of cream
-Pre-made pie shells from the freezer at the local grocery. Usually in the dessert section.
-Arborio rice (superfino if you can find it)
-Minced garlic in a jar (usually looks similar to this)
-I buy my veggies at farmer's markets when I can and meat at a real butcher shop (not a grocery store counter). Higher quality fresh ingredients makes it SO MUCH EASIER to cook. No one ever told me this and I grew up in a family that ate a lot of things out of boxes and cans. Plus, the vendors at those places will be HAPPY to give you tips on how to cook their stuff.

You'll be great. Just give it a try.
posted by jeanmari at 5:42 PM on April 22, 2009 [5 favorites]

Thirding Mark Bittman. I recently got his latest book and I love it. I've recommended it to everyone I know who likes cooking. I'm like a Mark Bittman evangelist now :) His style is perfect for what you're looking for. My next cook book purchase is going to be How to Cook Everything.
posted by diogenes at 5:43 PM on April 22, 2009

Lots of good recommendations already, but another good recipe/how-to website: Fine Cooking. They have photos, videos and articles to teach you knife skills, meat prep, and more. They also have lots of recipes. In addition to the site, they have a magazine as well.

And of course if you have cable, tune in to Food Network! You'll get exposed to all kinds of different ways of cooking and learn a lot along the way. But really, the only way to become good at cooking is to do it. Often. Cooking is a lot of learning by trial and error. Start with one or two recipes, cook them a few times until you're comfortable with them, then move on to one or two new ones. Eventually you'll have a whole bunch of recipes you can make!
posted by geeky at 5:54 PM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

For good recipes, go to http://simplyrecipes.com/ Elise Bauer has great tasting recipes. This presupposes that you have some techniques down, and if you don't, cooking classes or videos will help.

cookingforengineers.com is also excellent~they break things down into simple steps.

Do you shop at Trader Joe's? They have some pre~prepared things, like lentils and carnitas for example, that you can add things to and call your own.

Making chicken soup, or turkey soup, is easy, fun, takes little time, and is delicious and is full of Jewish antibiotics.

The cook's illustrated cookbook is large, full of information (maybe too intimidating?) but gives you a lot of background and "why" you should do certain things, as well as them having tested many versions of recipes (macaroni and cheese!) to find what they consider to be the best one (not necessarily the simplest, however).

Good luck. There is absolutely NOTHING like a good meal, even if you only cook for yourself, but having friends over, potlucks etc, will expand your knowledge and interest. Keep records of what you like so you don't lose track of them.
posted by davoid at 6:20 PM on April 22, 2009

Check out some cookbooks from the library. There are several good suggestions in this thread (I like the Moosewood Low-Fat Favorites and How To Cook Everything). But instead of just skipping ahead to the recipes, really read the book. General cookbooks like these have a lot of information in the introductions and appendices. They usually have some background knowledge on different ingredients, what cooking methods work best with each type of ingredient, how to clean them, etc. I learned a lot this way about different cooking methods and what sorts of foods taste good together.

It filled in a lot of the blanks I had in my thoughts on cooking. Now when I look in the pantry, I can sort of get a feel for what extra stuff (if any) I'll need to buy to make a meal, even if I don't have an exact recipe in mind. I can go to the store and see what looks good, instead of trying to buy whatever fits into the recipe I picked out earlier even if it might not be the best quality.

This is not to say that I don't look at the recipes -- I do! Epicurious is my favorite; it's like open source cooking. Also I've been enjoying 101 Cookbooks. Also, read a recipe over several times before you make it -- it's easier to cook when you know what to expect.
posted by bluefly at 6:23 PM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Go take a class. A lot of "Adult Education" programs at community colleges include cooking classes.

In particular, take a class in Chinese cooking. Chinese food is really easy to prepare and tastes delicious. Stir frying is an easy skill to master. (Even I was able to learn to do it.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:31 PM on April 22, 2009

Seconding bluefly, and don't forget mise en place, which is a fancy way to say organize before you cook; it really makes everything 10x easier.
posted by cestmoi15 at 6:45 PM on April 22, 2009

I think you've fallen into a vicious circle where you don't buy food because you don't know what to do with it -- but you don't know what to do with it because the food's not in the house.

You somehow have to take that leap of faith and trust that if the good food is in the house, you'll eat it -- so just buy it. Forget about needing a recipe for now -- just buy vegetables or fruit. You don't need a recipe for a banana. Or a bunch of grapes. Or salad. You just need to have the banana, grapes, or lettuce/other vegetables in the house. Start there for a while.

From there, it's actually a short step to soup. Soup is pretty easy. Soup is pretty forgiving. It's hard to screw up soup, so you can do all sorts of different experiments with it. you can make up your own recipes for soup -- Cook up some pasta, chop up some vegetables (or, just steam some frozen vegetables), and then heat up some soup broth and throw it all together into a bowl, and you've got soup. If you add some canned beans, then suddenly -- hey, you've got Italian minestrone. If you don't add canned beans, then try using more broth, changing the vegetables, and using Chinese noodles instead of pasta, and -- you've got homemade ramen. Or maybe you want to pick some totally different things that you want to see what they taste like together, and you end up with something that there is no name for, but it still tastes good.

I promise you it really honestly is that easy. Soup is a really good place to start in with cooking because it's hard to screw up soup (you can't burn soup, for one).

Smoothies are another good way to play. The basic smoothie formula is: frozen fruit, a little yogurt, and a little juice. Whiz it in a blender. Ta-da. All you have to do to make a different flavor smoothie is: change the fruit or the juice. Or maybe not use yogurt. I've also made smoothies that use sorbet instead of yogurt -- or use sorbet AND yogurt. Or milk instead of juice. Or even coconut milk. (I have an AMAZING sorbet recipe that is nothing more than chocolate sorbet and coconut milk whizzed together.) But as long as you follow the basic formula you can play around with whatever is fruit/juice/yogurt, and is in the house.

Also, be willing to forgive yourself for a mistake. I know that it can be a kick in the teeth to have to throw away something you tried cooking that didn't end up tasting good, but - you know, that's how you learn, and if you've just used a few ingredients you're only out about $8, and you could do a lot worse.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:24 PM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I started by just browsing through TasteSpotting for something that looked delicious to me, and then going out and buying the ingredients. There are certainly some challenging things on there, but there's also plenty of simple stuff. For most recipes (especially if you're not baking), it's tough to screw it up if you're faithful to the recipe.
posted by you're a kitty! at 7:36 PM on April 22, 2009

I started out with allrecipes, and it worked for me. I'd find a category that I wanted (let's say chicken), find the top ten recipes in that area and/or look for those that look simple enough and are well rated, read a few of the reviews to make necessary revisions - and wo-lah! I'd also refer to my "How to Cook Everything" cookbook if there was a basic technique that I didn't understand. For example, if you've never chopped up a leek before, you won't know what to do without a reference.

I would also recommend keeping all your recipes that were successes in an organized file (and most importantly....keeping notes! how good was it, how time-consuming, good for a quick meal or something great for company, etc). At first I just used a Word document but then upgraded to Mastercook. I would also keep an Excel file with columns for: recipe title, source, my rating, and misc notes. Then would I had company for example, I would refer to that file for my "excellent" and tried-and-true recipes.

And if you're by yourself, don't cook something unless it's something you can cook quickly OR something you can freeze for later. Leftovers get old fast. And to freshen stuff up - grow yourself some basil (super easy) and bean sprouts (using mung beans sprouting on your kitchen counter for mere pennies).....really livens up dishes that would otherwise be meh.
posted by texas_blissful at 7:40 PM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Another good book is called How to Cook Without a Book
posted by FoHockney at 7:51 PM on April 22, 2009

Nthing the America's Test Kitchen recommendation. They really break cooking recipes down and explain why you want to do something THIS way instead of THAT way to get the results you want.

I'd really suggest, just go out and buy the two old standards: The Joy Of Cooking and Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook (with the red plaid cover). If you have both of those in your house, you'll pretty much be able to get recipes ranging from simple drop biscuits to really complex ways to use the last bits of the animal you slaughtered 2 weeks ago. Joy also goes into detail about how cooking works, what the philosophy and technique is for different cooking methods and ingredient usages. BH&G will have rafts of workday meals which work really well, even if it isn't haute cuisine.

(The pre-1980s versions of Joy Of Cooking are full of even more interesting recipes, if you really want an adventure. I call our 1970s edition a Prairie Housewife Handbook.)

Bonus feature -- physical cookbooks don't short out when you spill liquid on them while cooking, and even work when the power goes out. :)
posted by hippybear at 7:53 PM on April 22, 2009

Whatever you do, I recommend not starting with a web site. That is the way to frustration. Spending $20 on a really good cookbook targeted at beginners might be one of the best investments you ever made.

I cannot recommend the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook Anyone Can Cook enough for people in your situation. One of the most frustrating things as an inexperienced cook is that recipes in other sources frequently seem to assume you have knowledge that you don't, such as what the meaning of a particular cooking technique is, or how to wash, cut, and store a particular kind of vegetable. But all that stuff is in this book, with detailed instructions and color pictures. The recipes also all seem well-tested. It also has skill level estimates for each recipe, which makes it easy to set up a progression of increasing difficult as your skills and confidence improve.

I started off cooking very rarely and usually the same old stuff before, and after lots of use of this cookbook now I cook something new every night and get compliments on the food I cook for dinner parties and pot lucks. Plus it has made cooking fun which is not really something it has been before.

The only bad thing I will note is that some of the skill level 1 recipes involve pre-prepared convenience meats which are gross. I have tried several of these recipes and have almost always been disappointed. So avoid the recipes that call for precooked meatballs, pot roast, or shredded beef/chicken.
posted by grouse at 8:14 PM on April 22, 2009

The other nice thing about the book is that most of the recipes come with color photos of the product, which definitely makes it easier to get excited about cooking.
posted by grouse at 8:17 PM on April 22, 2009

The first cookbook I got was the Betty Crocker Cookbook. Sounds cheesy, I know, but it's really great. It has all sorts of tips in it, and in the beginning of each section it has proper handling, storage, cooking, thawing times, etc. It has all sorts of other neat stuff for an amateur chef, too.
posted by InsanePenguin at 9:14 PM on April 22, 2009

If you live in a state that has a Trader Joes, give them a visit. They always have cooking demos going on and they are easy to put together meals. Also, they have the best frozen food selections you could ever imagine- most of them you would never know came from the freezer. My favorite from the freezer is the Mahi Mahi. You can either put it in your oven for 8 to 10 minutes or grill it over the bbq.
posted by Chele66 at 9:29 PM on April 22, 2009

I've been teaching DD#1 to cook and was surprised to find out all the things she didn't know even after following me around the kitchen for years - mostly eating, of course. Like, what exactly it means when the recipe says 'cook until the sauce coats a spoon.' Or that, if she didn't have exactly the thing the recipe called for, she was unable to make a substitution.

With this in mind, I'd recommend Joy of Cooking just for their substitutions section. And, I really like the cooking for engineers site, not so much for the recipes, but for their pics. Nothing like a picture to show you how to do things when you don't have another cook in the kitchen with you. And, for stocking the pantry so you have basic ingredients on hand (old fashioned, add spices!), I like Kay Aitken's Canadian Cookbook. If you're looking for the plain food grandma made (if grandma was a pioneer/British immigrant/farm cook), this is it. For how cooking works, and for just fun, I like the Alton Brown books mentioned on the cooking for engineers site. He has a TV show here in Canada called, I think, Good Eats. He's a bit off the wall, but you'll learn how sugar reacts with water/butter/heat/air. Then there's How Baking Works by Paula Figoni which explains why a type of leavening works with these ingredients and not those. I know these are mostly not books for their recipes, but I'm recommending you have a look at them as I found it much easier for DD#1 to gain confidence when she understood better how cooking/baking worked rather than thinking it was some magical process.

And, if you don't have them, get the basics: a wooden chopping board (wood naturally destroys nasty meat germs better than anything else), a decent knife and sharpener, a pot or three with heavy bottoms and lids, wooden spoons for stirring and some kind of lifter. There's all kinds of lovely gear out there, but that's all you have to have to cook. Once you start having fun and figure out what you want to cook, you can add things. Just don't scrimp on the quality. That doesn't mean buy the most expensive things, just something solid. Oh, yes, and second the "cook what you like to eat!"
posted by x46 at 10:07 PM on April 22, 2009

TV: Alton Brown's "Good Eats" - Excellent basic skills, technique, tools and knowledge. You can get two or three hundred episodes on a master DVD collection for $225 or so.

Book: McGee's "On Food and Cooking" - Irreplaceable knowledge as to why food things are they way they are and why they react the way they do. Builds you're innate knowledge and instincts for cooking. Especially good for gaining improvisational skill.

Book: "The Best Recipe" by publisher of "Cook's Illustrated." Simple basic cooking techniques for a variety of fundamental dishes. Nothing fancy but excellent core recipes with a lot of explanation.
posted by bz at 11:22 PM on April 22, 2009

Nthing Bittman's books. "How to Cook Everything (Vegetarian)" is probably my most used resource, and I have dozens of cookbooks and books about cooking. Also Nthing Alton Brown. His books are also good, particularly "I'm just Here For The Food". The book is exactly like his show, including the humor. But, like his show, its not so much a cookbook (there are recipes inside) as a book about cooking.
posted by elendil71 at 2:54 AM on April 23, 2009

Marco Pierre White once said that "to be a great chef, all you have got to do is alot of little things well." And I think the key to doing "alot of little things well" is common sense, patience and attention to detail. I strongly believe that this applies to the home cook as much as it applies to a professional chef. Learning at least the basic kitchen techniques will allow you to think outside the recipe. Your kitchen, the stove, the ingredients you are working with, all sorts of little things will be unique to you and will have to be adjusted as a result. Following a recipe strictly and without adjustment is a recipe for disaster. A book I recommend, is Jacques Pepin's Complete Techniques.
posted by scarello at 5:02 AM on April 23, 2009

Forgot to suggest this one as well. Expensive, but if you really want to learn cooking, it's a great reference. I notice that How to cook everything has also been suggested already, but I will also go on record stating that it's one of my "bibles". Have fun!
posted by scarello at 5:06 AM on April 23, 2009

I became a better chef simply by watching the Food Network on a semi-regular basis. Watch it enough and you start to gravitate towards the cuisines that appeal to you.
posted by LakesideOrion at 6:03 AM on April 23, 2009

You could take a class. Or do you have friends who like to cook? For me, the best way to learn is to hang out with people who know how to cook, watch them cook, help out, and ask questions.
posted by Ziggy500 at 6:52 AM on April 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

wood naturally destroys nasty meat germs better than anything else

What? This is crazy talk. Wood is not an antibiotic. Wooden cutting boards are great because they don't damage your knife but they have no magical microbe-killing abilities.
posted by sanko at 7:17 AM on April 23, 2009

Yes as ziggy500 hundred asked:
> do you have friends who like to cook?

You should ask a friend to teach you something. Something simple and everyday. Maybe one of the first things they learned how to cook (for me it was baked chicken legs with cornflakes and froz veg).

The ability to ask questions and see and experience is invaluable to me when I'm learning something new.
posted by Gor-ella at 7:43 AM on April 23, 2009

I'd like to take a second to say how I learned how to cook:

Buy a cookbook. Any cookbook.

It's a simple matter - go into a bookstore, find a cookbook that resonates with you, has interesting recipes, and offers at least a few pictures. I was offered a Betty Crocker cookbook once upon a time, which got me started on a whole new level of cooking...

Cooking what you like, however, is also key. You like french fries (for the sake of argument)? OK, you can guess how fries are made - cut up potatoes, fry them, add salt, boom.

For me, cooking was an organic progress - try it, enjoy it, celebrate the triumphs, order takeout for the failures, etc... Best of luck - but DO IT :)
posted by chrisinseoul at 8:14 AM on April 23, 2009

My secret to being a good cook is really simple: write in your cook books. Especially when you're starting out (in my experience, anyway) it's so easy to get caught up in new recipes that by the time you work your way to one you've tried, you will have forgotten what it was actually like.

If you've written yourself a note that this particular recipe could use more red pepper flakes, but less olive oil- you're on your way to having signature, customized recipes.

del.icio.us works beautifully for annotating recipes off the internet.
posted by aint broke at 8:29 AM on April 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

You know... I've never really thought about it but, aint broke, you are absolutely right. Writing margin notes on recipes as to the success or not, the things you'd change to make it better, etc., is something I do as a matter of course and it is a significant archival of learning. I usually include the date I first made the recipe and, if there were guests, who was there to dine.

Very helpful.
posted by bz at 9:03 AM on April 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I maintain that if you really want to cook you do so without recipes. Learn how to cook the base of a recipe, such as risotto, and then learn a bunch of different combinations, what goes well together. Then you can just go to the store and make a pasta sauce, or a risotto, or a chicken dish without having to first flip through a bunch of recipes. All of these responses make me think there's a gap out there... Maybe I should start a website!
posted by xammerboy at 4:46 PM on April 23, 2009

Seconding smitten kitchen. Great recipes and great photography.
posted by pwicks at 1:15 AM on April 24, 2009

Another website - BBC Good Food.

Nthing experimentation, practising recipes that can be played around with when you have got the basics down (like risotto as jeanmari says), and trying not to be fearful. You will make mistakes and come up with some inedible things, but those will be a small and shrinking percentage of your successes.
posted by paduasoy at 12:54 PM on May 15, 2009

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