Julie & Julia & Matt
April 19, 2010 3:03 PM   Subscribe

My wife has a new job and I'd like to start making nice dinners for her when she comes home from work. Unfortunately, I only know how to make one dish. Please help me become a better cook!

My cooking skills and my repertoire are sorely lacking. I can follow a basic recipe and I've perfected my own pasta sauce, so I'm somewhat familiar with the basics. I was all set to buy copies of The French Chef Cookbook and Mastering The Art of French Cooking and go to town, but after looking through them in the bookstore, I realized what I really need is a Cooking 101 class.

Please recommend some cooking classes in or near Berkeley, California!

I'd prefer not to go into San Francisco, and I'm not interested in the Alice Waters recommendations--my wife and I ate at Chez Panisse once. Once.
posted by mattdidthat to Food & Drink (35 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Don't know about any cooking classes (not anywhere near there) but usually community colleges have some adult learning classes for this kind of thing.

I would strongly recommend Alton Browns Book, I am just here for the Food http://www.amazon.com/Im-Just-Here-Food-Version/dp/158479559X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1271714794&sr=8-1
(my work settings don't allow the post a link to work right)

It is a lot of starting information on cooking, basics, cookware and all the different methods. Lots of easy recipes and some challenging ones. His show on food network is also really good, called Good Eats

He explains the science behind what is going on in the pan, has all kind of easy shortcuts and work arounds to hard techniques and is honest about stuff that just takes time and effort to get right. Most of what he offers could be termed american mainstream food but mostly healthy stuff.
posted by bartonlong at 3:10 PM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

While you're waiting for that cooking class to start, forget about Julia and get yourself a copy of How to Cook Everything.
posted by Daily Alice at 3:11 PM on April 19, 2010 [5 favorites]

I'm also going to suggest a non-Julia book: The New Basics is a great... well... basic cookbook. It will teach you very simple meals while emphasizing the techniques and standards that you're going to want to start paying attention to.

I assure you that in order to be an accomplished home cook you do not need to learn to julienne. You just need some very basic rules that you can then grow with. And this book is a great way to get those rules down.
posted by greekphilosophy at 3:15 PM on April 19, 2010

Seconding How to Cook Everything by Mark Bitman. I have yet to find a better, more comprehensive introduction to cooking.
posted by nestor_makhno at 3:17 PM on April 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Seconding How To Cook Everything and Alton Brown. I didn't find Brown's book all that helpful though. His shows are much better.
posted by Night_owl at 3:17 PM on April 19, 2010

I used to be a one or two dish cook as well.... I was saved by the internet (specifically allrecipies.com).

I discovered that it was nowhere near as hard as I thought it was to make great meals....

I don't know that you need to worry so much about taking a class as you do taking a chance (little joke there :) .

I browse the site or search for specific topics (ie: beef stew or chicken with pasta or whatever), and I use the reviews a lot, there is some good feedback there...

Have fun... Once you step out you'll really enjoy it...
posted by HuronBob at 3:21 PM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Look up Bitman's 10 in meals online!
posted by xammerboy at 3:23 PM on April 19, 2010

I have heard good things about these guys. Looks like you can sign up for the whole 12-course series, or try and get into individual courses on standby--as far as must-have skills, I'd suggest the knife skills class, the sautee/stir fry, and the roasting/broiling as being the most key, if you end up picking and choosing. I have never taken a class here, so my information is not firsthand, but this might provide you with an asking-around data point as you're looking for good classes.

You didn't ask for more book suggestions but for a novice cook, these are what I would suggest you have as the backbone of your cooking library, before you start branching into fancyland:

Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything

and possibly also How To Cook Everything Vegetarian
The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook

These are good sources for simple, classic recipes and unlike some of the other frequently suggested cookbooks in the same wheelhouse (your Joy of Cookings, your Fannie Farmers) they tend to include good explanations of process and the whys and wherefores of technique and ingredient choice.
posted by padraigin at 3:24 PM on April 19, 2010

Subscribe to Cooks Illustrated. They are fantastic, and their New Best Recipe book is also amazing. Also seconding Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything.

Get these books, subscribe to the magazine, and you will have a huge array of recipes to cook. What's more, both cookbooks are interesting reading on their own; Cooks Illustrated, in particular, goes into a lot of the back story of why a certain recipe is how it is.
posted by kdar at 3:32 PM on April 19, 2010

Yes, Bittman.
posted by R. Mutt at 3:35 PM on April 19, 2010

You have a Sur la Table in Berkeley. But it appears it's not one that has cooking classes. However, there are some others nearby that do.

I took some of their classes in Seattle and they were pretty good for beginners. Real chef's from real restaurants teach them, you get to ask questions, etc. They also use it to try to sell you things like Chef's knifes and such, but it's a pretty soft sell and easily ignored (unless you need a Chef's knife, in which case go find that askme thread :) ).
posted by jeffamaphone at 3:40 PM on April 19, 2010

Also consider just watching Food Network, finding some shows you like (e.g. 5 Ingredient Fix) then just go get the recipes on-line. They have some videos on-line as well, though not very many. I suspect you can find them in places like youtube though.
posted by jeffamaphone at 3:44 PM on April 19, 2010

The Cooking Light recipe books are also pretty good for beginners. They have more elaborate meals and less elaborate ones for nights of varying energy and time.
posted by emkelley at 3:48 PM on April 19, 2010

Try Kitchen on Fire and Paulding & Co. for classes. I agree with recommendations for Bittman and The New Best Recipe (try the 30 minute one too). Just focus on the basics--how to chop safely and fast (sharp knives! proper crosshatch technique for fast & easy mincing!), and simple preparations with good ingredients. Now that we both are working longer hours, I do some combination of protein + starch + vegetable a few times a week using quick to cook chops and breast cutlets, a variety of spices and herbs for seasoning, and simple saute techniques for cooking of meat and vegetables. A little butter and salt go a long way to making things delicious, and a bamboo steamer cooks things fast but crisp (and also steams fish fillets with a little more than thai bird chilies, soy sauce, and thai basil leaves), and then you can toss veggies with salt and butter and herbs. On weekends I make things that take longer to cook but can be reheated in portions throughout the week, like soups, stews, and casseroles. But when you're both working, quickness is key--I make a lot of meat/starch/veggie, risottos, linguini with canned clams, tuna and white bean salad on top of greens, etc.
posted by dhn at 3:51 PM on April 19, 2010

Don't ignore the knowledge of your parents. You're obviously alive, and assuming you weren't force-fed, the culinary was to your liking, and thus, potentially to the liking of your lady friend. In other words, give mom a call.

n'thing How to Cook Everything and The Joy of Cooking.

Start easy. 1/3 meat, 1/3 potatoes, 1/3 veggies. For example fry-up some pork cutlets, steam or boil some potatoes cut into chunks, steam or boil some broccoli.

Really easy, if you have a steamer, or a large pot with a colander, or even a frypan with a lid and a pie tin with some holes poked in it, put the potatoes in, forget about them, no problem, add fish fillets, forget about them, wander back eventually and add some veggies. Easy and nutrisous.

Something different? A box of Tuna Helper and a can of tuna (and water and milk).

Yes, I'm a bachelor.

Spaghetti sauce can really be livened by adding chopped onion, tomatoes, celery, ...whatever... basil, oragano, green onions, chives... Serve over rotini, fusilli, or spaghetti. Again, easy and quick.

Large frypan, chopped potatoes, wait, add green peppers, onions, tomatoes, whatever you have on hand that looks good. Cook. Season with salt and ground pepper.

All you have to do is learn the basics of what goes good together, then improvise. Who would have thought peanut butter and chocolate, or ketchup/mayo/mustard/lettuce/pickles/hamburger/bun.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 3:54 PM on April 19, 2010

I made Red Dinner (tomato-based pasta sauce) or White Dinner (cream-based pasta sauce) and rotated them ad nauseam until I discovered How to Cook Everything.

Risottos are quick and easy and can contain varied meats or vegetables according to your preferences.
posted by vickyverky at 4:25 PM on April 19, 2010

Ok, so this is one of those moments where I know that my suggestion isn't going to go over well. I'm going to suggest watching Rachel Ray's 30 minute meals. I find her relatively painful to watch too, but her show is extremely accessible for a beginning cook and she does set out to help you make dinner.

I agree with the Bitman suggestion as well.

An idea: do you have friends who have that one dish that they make well? Ask them to teach you. I learned a lot of cooking in college from roommates and then later when a friend who was a chef decided to test out her teaching skills.
posted by sciencegeek at 4:27 PM on April 19, 2010

My husband started watching a bazillion cooking reality TV shows and a few months later he magically turned into a much better cook. So if you can't find a nearby class that meets your schedule, it seems like watching those cooking shows really does help.
posted by Jacqueline at 4:27 PM on April 19, 2010

The Julia Child book you want isn't necessarily The French Chef or Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In the 80s she made a much more basic and comprehensive book called The Way To Cook. At the time there was also a set of videos that went along with it, and those have now been re-released in a DVD set.

I think the key is to learn about basic techniques, and to learn "master recipes" that you can start making your own variations with. Julia writes her books that way, and so does Mark Bittman - (I'm nth-ing "How to Cook Everything" as well).
posted by dnash at 4:36 PM on April 19, 2010

I can't recommend local cooking classes, but I can second The New Best Recipe cookbook as being a good book to learn to cook from. Good and detailed instructions, descriptions of cooking techniques, a description of why they made the choices they did in designing each recipe, and well-tested recipes that always seem to turn out tasty.
posted by JiBB at 4:50 PM on April 19, 2010

Alton Brown covers knives and knife skill in this episode. That's a pretty good start.
A lot of times when people tell me they don't know how to cook it's just that they aren't sure when meat is safe and delicious to eat. You could get a nice meat thermometer for a while until you get a feel for how long things cook for. Use it on everything from grilling and roasting to frying. You'll most likely be able to stop using it for grilling after a while, but it will always come in handy for large holiday roasts of different sorts.
For steaks I usually just sear both sides with some salt, pepper, and maybe some red pepper flakes. You don't need to cook them that much.
A lot of shrimp is already cooked so you're really just heating it up. This means you can do fun things to it without having to worry about parasites. Shrimp takes well to marinating; I like white whine, pepper, smoked paprika and let it sit half an hour to an hour (I usually just let them defrost in this). Throw them in to a pan with some butter, green onions, and red pepper flakes cook until they just start to curl up on their own but before they get chewy. Reduce more white whine in the pan with more butter for an hour if you have the time. Serve over pasta with a side of blanched spinach with a poached egg on top.
Chicken can be tricky for me some times. I just sear it on one side in a pan with olive oil salt and pepper and allow it to cook what looks like half way up the chicken. I then turn it over and sear the other side until the cooked sides just about touch, then I reduce the heat and let it cook the rest of the way through with a top on. It's never come out raw for me this way and if you're working with smaller chicken parts they'll usually cook all the way through just from the searing and will be quite tender and juicy.
Dark green vegetables (broccoli green beans) are great steamed until they turn and even darker sort of green with some lemon zest in the water. Then snatch them out and finish them up in a pan. This can be great for helping make sure everything gets done at the same time too, because the steaming can happen an hour before hand and it will still turn out great when you get a little caramelization going on the pan later.
Recently when a friend asked me to teach him how to cook I told him that no matter how simple the thing is that you're trying to cook, if you google it's name with recipe at the end you'll get at least a hundred different ways to make it. So if you're ever in doubt about vegetables, simple meat dishes, or any other basics that you are maybe using in a larger dish, go ahead and google it, cook it that way, then add it to whatever it was you were doing.
Also just try to figure out what you think a nice dinner is and then go for it. I used to make a lot of Italian based dishes, but now have tried to branch out towards Indian, Vietnamese, Thai, and Japanese but I still have all those old wonderful simple Italian standbys that I can pull from if that's all I have on hand. Where are the places you like to eat out at? What about them makes them your favorites and what can you do to make food in a way that reminds you of that while you're eating at home? If you need inspiration one of my favorite websites is Foodgawker there are so many meals that run the gamut from simple to intense that it should keep you busy for a great while as you work your way through how you want to cook.
Most of all don't worry so much, usually people are so happy that you tried that even if it falls a little flat in places it's still well appreciated.
posted by JackarypQQ at 4:54 PM on April 19, 2010

Sorry I don't know of any cooking classes in Berkeley... but there are some listed here on Yelp. If your wife knows how to cook, you can cook with her for weekend meals and learn that way. If not, you can still cook together on weekends, when you can show off a few things you've learned.

I'd recommend you check out the Pioneer Woman Cooks website. She includes step-by-step photos that are incredibly helpful. I just made the Springy Shells the other day - it was delicious and the instructions were easy to follow.

The best teacher, in my opinion, is experience. Plus, having someone in your life that you love to cook for is wonderful. Don't forget to add a small votive candle at the table to add a little romance, and don't be afraid to order chinese if something you make turns out all wrong.
posted by belau at 4:57 PM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm currently learning how to cook.

I am madly in love with Cheap Healthy Good, which has some fantastic recipes, and is very accessible for a newbie. I started with the 1 chicken, 17 meals, $26 article and went from there.

Get a good sharp knife and learn how to use it.

And experience is very very good.
posted by kellygrape at 5:18 PM on April 19, 2010

I got to be a better cook when I realized that cooking isn't scary. In fact, it's fun. Learn some basics, definitely. I did, mainly via the Food Network like most. But I found it better and more personal to experiment, experiment, experiment— and laugh at myself when I screwed up.

Speaking of when you screw up, who cares? You could turn it into a game with your lady. Stand there with your flaming pot of tuna-oatmeal stew (don't make that for real) with a sheepish grin and say,

"I love you so much that I cooked you this dinner but I think the cat might have dragged in something that looks slightly more appetizing but I'm learning and want to try again next week. Tune in?"

Then take her out for fried chicken.

Your SO will think you are adorable for trying, and get excited that you're reading books, experimenting, getting better, and actually enjoying cooking.
posted by functionequalsform at 5:19 PM on April 19, 2010

Mark Bittman's Podcast.
posted by ColdChef at 6:05 PM on April 19, 2010

If possible, get a grill. Gas grills are convenient, but adherents of charcoal fired grills praise the taste contribution that charcoal and/or wood fires offer (I'm agnostic in this religious debate, and have both kinds). Obviously, if you live in an apartment, or have other housing restrictions against grills, that's a problem, although you could get an indoor electric "grill" even then.

The thing about grilling is that you can quickly learn to cook a lot of varied, tasty meals from a simple technique of directly watching cut up foodstuffs cook to desired levels, over a direct source of heat. It's the original Cooking 101. You gather some food, you cut it into pieces no thicker than 1 inch (if you need to), skewer or wrap it seems like doing so will make it easier to handle, and if you like, you can season, spray, drip, marinate, or rub it with various flavorings, before, during and after you are cooking it. The tastes you produce by grilling generally contain primal flavorings of smoke, and produce wonderful smells as a by-product, lending credence to your efforts, even before she will taste them, through your wife's olfactory system.

Grilling works, directly or in modified form, for meats, fish, vegetables, breads, desserts, and even pet food. And what experience you build learning to grill well, can transfer, pretty directly, to less direct kitchen methods.
posted by paulsc at 6:07 PM on April 19, 2010

I basically learned how to cook via How To Cook Everything. It's cooking 101.
posted by The Whelk at 6:12 PM on April 19, 2010

I really, really rate Delia Smith, whose recipes even include descriptions of what the food should look like at each stage of cooking (e.g. "Now place the tin on the highest shelf of the oven for 30-40 minutes or until the vegetables are toasted brown at the edges"). Delia is the best-selling nonfiction author in the UK. Her adopting a new ingredient or kitchen tool causes them to sell out.
You can see a whole lot of Delia Smith's recipes on her website or the BBC food website. Of her books, my favorite is the original Complete Cookery Course. This starts from basics and is a lot less work to understand than Bittman's How To Cook Everything, IMHO.
I have never cooked a duff meal using Delia Smith's recipe books. There are not many cookbooks you can say that about!
posted by Susurration at 6:18 PM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you like Indian food try www.ManjulasKitchen.com.
posted by holloway at 6:34 PM on April 19, 2010

Seconding The Way to Cook. Even if you don't use the recipes, read it as a book to learn about cooking technique.

For regular inspiration, Everyday Food magazine is Reader's Digest sized, and has good not-too-hard recipes. On the website, they also have things like "Dinner Tonight," quick recipes that you can have emailed to you daily, and "Grocery Bag" which gives you recipes for five dinners and a shopping list for the week.

And since you're cooking for just the two of you, you should also take a look at some of the good one and two person cookbooks. Toodle around Amazon and look for the ones with good reviews. Cooking for just two servings helps you keep from wasting food and money.
posted by ocherdraco at 6:56 PM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm also learning how to cook and put together a good repertoire of dinners. One of my favorite sites right now is Our Best Bites. I have yet to find a cookbook that doesn't intimidate me (though I'll check the suggestions above), but this site's recipes are very approachable for a novice. The two ladies who write it give very clear step-by-step instructions with lots of pictures. Click on the Recipe Index button at the top of the site to get a full archive of their recipes, and click the Tips & Tutorials button to get some Cooking 101 articles.

Thanks to this site, I've made bread for the first time, teriyaki and alfredo sauces from scratch, ridiculously rich chocolate molten lava cakes, and chicken pot pie with homemade pie crust. They update every Monday/Wednesday/Friday.

Start slowly so you don't overwhelm yourself. The approach that worked well for me was to plan only one or two new dinners a week, and fill in the rest with easy stuff I already knew. (Spaghetti, those skillet meals in the freezer section, etc.-- not great stuff, but you'll soon work your way up to better meals.)

Also, don't forget to keep some kind of record of the dinners you make and whether you and your wife like them. I didn't do this at first and kept forgetting what meals I wanted to try, which ones we ruled out, and which ones had joined the list of regular meals.
posted by scarnato at 8:18 PM on April 19, 2010

I went to listen to the podcast at ColdChef's link and ended up buying the How to Cook Everything iPhone app. It's only $1.99 for apparently the whole recipe book!
posted by nelvana at 9:26 PM on April 19, 2010

I found startcooking.com very helpful (and I was pretty clueless).
posted by mirileh at 3:31 AM on April 20, 2010

I'm not in your area so I can't suggest any cooking classes, sorry. But I've never taken one in my life and I'm a decent cook, just learning by trial and error. (The errors can be fun too! If nothing else, they're good for a lifetime of jokes - just ask my mom, who never ceases to remind me of my kiddie experiments.)

There are tons of really good foods that take really little effort or knowledge to make. Things that will serve you well are knowing how to make a roux (which is basically browning flour in butter, so it sounds more complicated than it really is -- get a silicone-covered whisk and you're good to go even if all your cookware is nonstick), knowing how to chop and brown onions, chopping fresh garlic, and just familiarity with the terminology.

My favorite recipe site is probably Epicurious, but just googling until I find a recipe that sounds like something I could do often works out well (bloggers obsessed with photographing their food are my new best friends). For cooking shows, I really like America's Test Kitchen on PBS. They show me how to make things delicious! OTOH, I have a shelf of cookbooks that are going to get donated next time I make a run, because they just sit there gathering dust.

You don't need to learn how to deal with a lot of equipment and fancy-pants accessories. My fanciest-pantsiest accessory is a cheap mandoline which makes it ridiculously easy to slice up cucumbers (dressed with rice vinegar and ginger with a little sugar, makes a super yummy salad in about 45 seconds), but usually I just stick with a chef's knife and a paring knife. With a skillet of whatever size, a pot of some sort, and a big spoon (well, and that magical silicone whisk), you can pretty much conquer the world.

And if you want to be really impressive, try baking fresh bread. No kneading required!
posted by sldownard at 7:53 AM on April 20, 2010

Mr WayOut West has had good results from Jamie Oliver's Ministry of Food cookbook. There's plenty of step by step action with photos in his book.
posted by WayOutWest at 10:02 PM on April 20, 2010

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