Remedial Cooking
August 29, 2010 7:01 PM   Subscribe

How can I learn to cook, starting from nearly perfect ignorance?

Recently someone made a comment making fun of someone who didn't know you were supposed to peel the onion before you chop it. That's pretty much me. I would like to learn to cook sufficiently well to be able to cook most of my meals for myself, from scratch. All of the available classes I have found in Chicago seem to be geared toward making specific (and complicated) dishes and to assume a vastly greater existing level of skill than I in fact possess.

I'm not a foodie at all; I just want to be able to make very simple meals for my own sole consumption reliably (i.e., without having to throw out every other attempt like I do now).

How do I do this — are there better classes that I don't know about? Books? Videos?
posted by enn to Food & Drink (41 answers total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If you get either Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone or Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian (or the non-vegetarian version of Bittman's book), it'll teach you from the ground up. They tell you what equipment to have in your kitchen, how to do all the main cooking techniques (even as basic as "boiling" and "simmering"). They go through each vegetable and tell you exactly what to do with it (how to pick it out in the store, keep it in your house, chop it up, cook it, use it in recipes). There are complex recipes, but also super simple ones. Deborah Madison tells you how to make scrambled eggs, grilled cheese sandwiches, etc. Bittman is really good at giving a basic template and then a list of 10 or 20 variations.

And yes, Bittman explicitly show you how to peel an onion before chopping it -- see page 328.
posted by John Cohen at 7:14 PM on August 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

Read the older version of The Joy of Cooking. Read the beginnings of the chapters, the ingredients section. I was given a copy of it when I was in college, and it helped me tremendously. To me understanding about ingredients, and how foods work scientifically helped me to be a good cook.
Best of luck!
posted by littleflowers at 7:15 PM on August 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

When I was in high school, my uncle gave me Cooking for Dummies. I felt sort of offended, since I thought I knew a decent amount about cooking. It's a pretty solid book for absolute beginners. Once you work through that a little bit, well, the Joy of Cooking has always been my bible, but I've also picked up Bittman's How to Cook Everything. The Joy of Cooking is more about recipes, and Bittman is more about how to cook certain things (a cut of meat, a kind of vegetable), then offers ideas to alter the recipe. In that way, I think maybe the Joy might be better, since Bittman is saying 'Here's basic, and then you can follow your own ideas.' The problem is that, at the absolute beginner, it's hard to know where to go.

One of the best things about the Joy of Cooking, I think, is the beginning of each section, where it discusses the ideas behind each thing, and basic ideas for it. For example, while the book has recipes for stew, every stew I make actually comes from the couple of paragraphs describing the basic construction of a stew.

All of that said, the key is to cook what you want to eat. It's how I've learned to cook. Decide what you like eating and set out to make it (definitely go from simple stuff early on), and don't worry about mistakes.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:15 PM on August 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

on preview- little flowers is right. I have the older edition of the Joy, and it's fantastic. I've heard less charitable things about the new one.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:16 PM on August 29, 2010

Best answer: Since John Cohen beat me to Bittman, StartCooking has some pretty thorough photo- and video-illustrated step-by-steps both for recipes and for basic kitchen skills.
posted by dorque at 7:17 PM on August 29, 2010

The Time-Life series is a marvelous resource. Step by step pictures of how to do everything. You can find them often on eBay. They are in volumes, i.e. "Vegetables," "Lamb," "Poultry," "Salads."

Get a couple for the type of food you like to eat and read them. Then pick a recipe that seems easy and has good pictures and is something you like to eat. Make that same dish several times until you are confident you can do it whenever you want to. Then go on and learn another dish. Keep this up until you know how to cook what you like.

You can always buy another of the books or pick a different recipe in the books you have when you want to expand your menu.
posted by Anitanola at 7:17 PM on August 29, 2010

Best answer: This was me! Until I turned 24 the only thing I knew how to make was spaghetti noodles! (Not even the sauce.) I learned from books and copious calls to my mom.

Probably the single best thing, if you have a friend who's a good cook, is to say, "Can you think of one or two very easy meals you could teach me? Starting from, 'Here's how to boil water.' And including the shopping." If I were your friend I'd teach you a basic roast chicken and rice pilaf. (In fact, I will memail you my roast chicken and rice pilaf recipes, they're easy and versatile.)

So, the books I found most helpful and why:
1) The Seventeen Magazine Cookbook, from the 60s or so. It literally starts with "how to boil water." It assumes you are incompetent but want to bake cookies to impress that cute boy who carries your books! The anachronistic tone kept me amused.

2) On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee. This explains the SCIENCE of the kitchen, which for me was INVALUABLE. I need to know the WHY behind things, and this explained the why of why you do all this stuff. It's not a cookbook, but I loved reading it, it was so fascinating, and it made me a much better cook.

3) How to Cook Without a Book. The premise of this cookbook is that you should be able to stand at your pantry and go, "hmm ... I've got these things ... what can I make with them?" and make something good for a weeknight dinner. She includes what to stock your pantry with, and teaches you basic recipe TECHNIQUES, like what *sorts of ingredients* go into soup, so you can experiment with different things. This isn't a super-awesome book, but it helped me understand what I was trying to do and gave me the courage to experiment and go off-recipe. (People often mention the book "Ratio" as a similar sort of idea; I've heard it's very good but I haven't read it.)

4) The More with Less Cookbook and the Extending the Table Cookbook, Doris Janzen Longacre. Simple, hearty, nutritious, everyday food. I cooked almost exclusively out of these two cookbooks the first four years or so that I knew how to cook. They are still probably my highest-use cookbooks. You rarely need to know anything more than how to boil, saute, and cut things up.

5) How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. Daunting as a cookbook, perhaps, but explains EVERYTHING and is my go-to reference work for stuff like, "Wait, how long and how hot do I cook whole chicken again?" And tons and tons of great recipes, and lots of technique explanations.

6) Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child. Okay, so, I don't actually cook that many things out of this. BUT actually reading it from cover to cover was very enlightening on more intermediate and advanced techniques. It's not really a COOKBOOK; it's a textbook of cooking techniques. I came away from it knowing things like how to make my mushrooms super-tasty, for example, even if I'm unlikely to ever make one of her mushroom recipes, because now I understand what's going on when I saute them.

I like to read, so I enjoyed learning from books, and those were the ones most helpful in making a reasonably competent cook out of me. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:19 PM on August 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

No Alton Brown love yet? You may find his Good Eats shows helpful.

Another option is to ask a friend who is a good cook to teach you; I've learned a lot of cooking techniques from cooking with friends or asking them how they made particular dishes.
posted by gingerbeer at 7:21 PM on August 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

That was me, with the onion-peeling comment. I apologize; I wasn't meaning to make fun, but her lack of knowledge about what I saw as basic was pretty amazing to me when I was 18. Anyway, I'm sorry.

I learned most of what I know by cooking with my mom, and with friends (and later, in professional kitchens). If you've got friends who are good cooks, ask them if you can hang around the kitchen and help when they're cooking a meal. Offer to buy ingredients, or wine/beer, do the dishes, etc. I helped a friend learn basic cooking stuff (how to chop vegetables, how to saute, etc.) in this way, and it was really fun for both of us.

The (older) Joy of Cooking and the Madsen/Bittman books are really good as well.
posted by rtha at 7:23 PM on August 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: It didn't bother me, rtha, it just stuck in my mind because it gave me a little laugh of recognition.

All of these answers are great so far, by the way — thank you all.
posted by enn at 7:25 PM on August 29, 2010

Who does community ed in your area? They must have some "cooking for beginners" classes, surely; that's just the sort of thing people go to community ed FOR.
posted by galadriel at 7:28 PM on August 29, 2010

I will second gingerbeer in saying that Good Eats is great for this. The host gives very clear instructions about what you should do, but more importantly he tells you why. This is much more helpful (for me, at least) than a straight recipe, because once you understand why certain ingredients do certain things, or how one way of cooking will affect food over another way, you can use that knowledge and apply it to whatever you wish to cook.

It's also a just plain entertaining show. I'll gladly sit through an episode even if the subject is a food I will never ever want to eat.
posted by Nedroid at 7:35 PM on August 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

What I didn't learn from my mom, I learned from watching the Food Network. It's a great learning tool to watch someone cook and then copy what they do.
posted by cecic at 7:36 PM on August 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

I was in this same exact spot earlier this summer!!! Then my friend recommended How to Cook Everything. It's great because it gives you the bare bones of a meal then has other suggestions you can go from. So far, I've gone from starting a fire while cooking pasta (I think this is worse than not knowing to peel an onion before chopping!) to making pot roast and roast chicken!!
posted by astapasta24 at 7:45 PM on August 29, 2010

Agreed with galadriel, take a class. Not sure where you are, not that clear in your profile, but you can take "home cook" classes at the major culinary institutes: johnson and wales, the CIA, and the cordon bleu.
posted by TheBones at 7:48 PM on August 29, 2010

Best answer: Also, if you aren't near any of these, and classes aren't available where you are, the BEST COOKBOOK IN THE WORLD is the cooking 101 book from the CIA- and it looks like they have a "home cook" book as well.

It will teach you everything you really need to know about the different cooking techniques and what proteins, starches, and veg will work with each cooking technique. Once you learn these basics, you can do anything you want.
posted by TheBones at 7:52 PM on August 29, 2010

Sorry, I glazed over the "chicago" part. It looks like there is a cordon bleu campus there.
posted by TheBones at 7:55 PM on August 29, 2010

Nthing Gingerbeer and Nedroid. I came here to suggest Good Eats as well.

I was like you, or maybe worse. Terrified I would burn myself or cut myself.. to set something on fire. Figured I'd just have to marry a person who was a master in the kitchen since it wasn't my forte.

I don't remember why I first started watching Good Eats. But I feel in love with it almost immediately.

I've grown from not having any confidence in the kitchen at all.. to being able to make simple meals for myself.
posted by royalsong at 7:56 PM on August 29, 2010

Best answer: Rouxbe has good videos. Great in the kitchen if you have a laptop or iPad.
posted by dobbs at 8:04 PM on August 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nthing How to Cook Everything. I went from setting boiling water on fire (no, really) to being able to cook meals 5 days a week, and that book helped a lot. It was a long process, though. Before I got that book, I started by buying a crockpot. Once I had mastered a few crockpot recipes, I moved on to using the oven. From there, pan frying. I haven't figured out the deep fryer yet, and I don't expect to ever be able to grill, but on the other hand, I've made sauce from tomatoes picked from my garden and can bake an excellent loaf of bread from scratch.
posted by Ruki at 8:19 PM on August 29, 2010

Watch cooking shows! You can pick up a lot through observation.

Start really small. Learn the basics. How to boil/fry an egg. How to boil noodles. How to make rice. Then build up.

Youtube has lotttttts of cooking videos. Googling phrases like "How to boil water" will bring up a lot of how-tos, written or video.

As someone mentioned, Rouxbe is way cool, but kind of expensive.

Good luck! Cooking isn't that hard. I went from injuring myself every time I fried (more like burnt) an egg to making orange-caramel chocolate mille crepes! It just takes some time (and bandaids ^_~)
posted by joyeuxamelie at 8:23 PM on August 29, 2010

Mark Bittman also does weekly columns called "The Minimalist" for the New York Times with a short (3 minute), entertaining video demonstrating each recipe. You can search them out through the NYT website, but they're also available (with recipe links) on his YouTube channel for easy viewing.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:29 PM on August 29, 2010

When I was in your situation, I started out with Cooking For Engineers. Lots of pictures (including photos of raw materials, which will help you figure out how large minced garlic pieces are when compared to chopped onion, and so on), lots of details on what exactly to do, and when. Very systematic, as one would expect from an engineer. This gave me the courage to go on to the less detailed Joy of Cooking, and now I'm perfectly happy trying random recipes off of the internet and improvising as I go along.
posted by ubersturm at 8:34 PM on August 29, 2010

You can also sign up at the chowhound forums and ask as many questions as you want (no 1 question a week restrictions). There are some really great folks over there that will help you out with any questions you might have.
posted by TheBones at 8:40 PM on August 29, 2010

I just want to be able to make very simple meals for my own sole consumption

The other commenters have given you a lot of great advice. If your main goal is just cooking for yourself, I would steer you back towards the Mark Bittman suggestions. Bittman writes a column for the New York Times called The Minimalist. He also has a couple of cookbooks along those lines (Minimalist Cooks At Home, Minimalist Entertains, etc.). The reason I'm steering you towards Bittman is because his recipes tend to be quick -- a few ingredients and quick prep. As someone in the same boat (cooking for myself six out of seven nights), I really appreciate the simplicity. The challenge with Bittman's "minimalist" stuff is that it really helps if you already know how to cook. So once you know your way around the kitchen, I would encourage you to revisit Bittman.
posted by kovacs at 8:43 PM on August 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you do decide to take a class, look at the Chopping Block. I took a knife skills class at their Lincoln Square location and it might be a place to start for you -- you'll have good knife habits from the very beginning. They also have a week-long bootcamp that might be interesting.
posted by sugarfish at 10:33 PM on August 29, 2010

You should go to a book store and leaf through any of the cookbooks mentioned here, and see which one fits you best. That said, I have Anyone Can Cook, How to Cook Anything, The Joy of Cooking, and The New Best Recipe, and while they are all useful references in their own right, I think Anyone Can Cook is the best to take you from knowing basically nothing to making fairly complicated stuff. It also has appetizing full-color photos on every page, which can make things a little less dry.

Try grouse's Self-taught Complete Cooking Crash Course:
  1. Purchase copy of Anyone Can Cook.
  2. Read "Intro to Cooking" section. Gawk at cookware porn.
  3. Cook the skill level 1 recipes* in any of the sections that interest you. Read all of the "Ask Mom" cross-references at the bottom of the page. (This includes things like the proper way to cut an onion. There are two whole pages devoted to onion prep, chopping, slicing, and wedging, with color photos of these techniques.)
  4. Cook all the skill level 2 recipes in those sections. Continue to refer to "Ask Mom" as necessary.
  5. Cook all the skill level 3 recipes in those sections. Continue to refer to "Ask Mom" as necessary.
Congratulations! You can now have a better-than-average level of cooking skill, and can graduate to using any other general cookbook without that embarrassing bewildered feeling.

* Exception: avoid the recipes that call for industrially precooked meat, like cooked shredded chicken, or cooked pot roast, or (god forbid) frozen precooked meatballs. They are gross. Deli-roasted chickens or things like smoked turkey or ham from a deli are fine.
posted by grouse at 10:59 PM on August 29, 2010

I'm not saying that the other cookbook options are not useful or informative, but your best bet for a cheap, decently informative cookbook for the beginner is the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook. It's up on Amazon for about 2 dollars, used. Fairly simple recipes for someone who isn't necessarily looking to create meals that look or taste all that professional. But the amazing price of free, Youtube is definitely your best bet.
posted by bam at 11:29 PM on August 29, 2010

Anyone Can Cook is made by Better Homes and Gardens and has some of the same recipes.
posted by grouse at 11:30 PM on August 29, 2010

Hey, I live in Chicago and love to cook, and am interested in making friends with people who are interesting and blunt and smart. I'm way down in Pilsen, but if you'd be interested in schlepping down here to watch/help me make dinner some time, I'm so game!
posted by kitarra at 1:17 AM on August 30, 2010

Also, this website completely revolutionized the way I record my own recipes and makes me wonder why everyone doesn't communicate cooking instructions in its format:
posted by kitarra at 1:24 AM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

No one has mentioned Elaine Corn yet. Now You're Cooking is a book that walks you through several basic, standard dinners (like spaghetti with homemade sauce, a roast chicken I think, very mainstream fare). It assumes you know just about nothing. For instance, if you're asked to dice something, there will be an illustration showing what "diced" looks like--what size pieces you're going for. It will say things like, "put the onions on a plate and put the plate by the stove," or, in one of the chicken recipes, "this would be a good time to wash your hands." I found this book really useful when I was learning to cook, and still use her spaghetti sauce recipe regularly.
posted by not that girl at 2:52 AM on August 30, 2010

The newest version you can find of the Betty Crocker Cookbook. The recipes aren't too exciting, but the illustrated sections on cuts of meat, types of fish (all about their fat content), different spices and pastas, etc., are really user friendly.
posted by bardic at 3:08 AM on August 30, 2010

Jamie Oliver's Ministry of Food (there's a book as well as the online stuff) is designed for people who don't know how to cook at all. There's also a nice pay it forward idea incorporated into it so if you have other equally inexperienced friends you can teach them how to cook your new recipes!
posted by Lotto at 3:11 AM on August 30, 2010

I also just want to demystify things. You can learn so much via trial and error, and the worst thing that happens would be that you have to go out for dinner (or eat something frozen). If you didn't peel the onion, your saute would have papery bits, and you'd eat around it and realize, "ok, leave that out next time." Be careful with meat and eggs, which can cause food poisoning if done wrong. But pretty much everything else is fairly forgiving. My boyfriend is always amazed even on days when my formula for the meal was just veggies + heat + one spice or soy sauce. Start with delicious ingredients, combine them, and heat them. Sure, there are details, like adding oil to the pan if they start to stick, or adding water if they start to dry out, or adding the veggies that cook faster later in the process, but mushy carrots are no big deal. :)
posted by salvia at 8:49 AM on August 30, 2010

I'd recommend you watch Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa series on the Food Network. I'm a keen cook and I find her recipes to be a little basic, but she explains everything very well (including the importance of seasoning). Her roast chicken is by far the best chicken I've ever made, and so simple to make - stuff a chicken with a whole head of garlic cut in half across the middle, and a lemon cut across. Butter the skin. Add salt and pepper. Roast it at 350F for 90 minutes. Done.

Her shows can be a little twee in their presentation (they always centre around a meal being prepared for various of her friends and family) but the simplicity of her recipes are their success.

Another example, her brisket recipe. Put chopped up celery, carrots and onions in a big pot. Put a piece of brisket on top. Season. Add a couple of bay leaves and a teaspoon of dried herbs. Pour a can of tomato juice over everything. Put a lid on and then the pot goes in a low oven for 3 hours. Best winter comfort food ever, and the easiest thing ever to make.

Buy some lock & lock tupperwares so you can use or freeze leftovers. Most recipes are geared towards feeding 4-6.
posted by essexjan at 9:48 AM on August 30, 2010

i was like that and then started with easy stuff that was a gradual process from eating at restaurants, to prepared ingredients from grocery store to cooking from scratch.i lived by a cookbook, started watching all kinds of food shows (alton brown to rachel ray) & took notes. and now i'm a pretty great cook.

i had a friend who was 35 and didn't know how to cook anything except spaghetti and store bought sauce. i gave her a cooking class that i bought from a silent auction which opened up her world. he came over and taught her how to make a simple fetucinni alfredo from scratch. most delicious pasta ever. he showed tips & techniques that cooks know.
posted by UltraD at 11:42 AM on August 30, 2010

pick one dish to learn, say: chicken.
eat your mistakes. Learn.

repeat until you're happy with your plain chicken.
cook it again until you can consistently reproduce this dish.

experiment with your known success. change the seasonings, change the oils.
see how your basic dish can be turned into a wide range of dishes (jerk chicken! lemon pepper chicken! garlic basil chicken!)
eat your mistakes. Learn.

add vegetables that you can cook along with your chicken. read about the holy trinity.
eat your mistakes. Learn.

pick one sauce to learn, say: tomato sauce.
eat your mistakes. Learn.

experiment with your known success. what happens when you switch basil for oregano? What happens when you sautee vegetables before adding juices/broths? sugar, or salt?
eat your mistakes. Learn.

pick a new method of cooking, say get a slow cooker, get a wok, cook a roast:
pick a dish... repeat...
eat your mistakes. Learn.

this is a lot easier to do when you're single and don't have spouse or kids who aren't as game to deal with the "eat the mistakes" rule. it'd gotta be pretty awful before your throw it out and order a pizza. maybe start with doing this twice a week or so until your confidence is up. eating your mistakes instead of saying "bah, this is ruined, I can't cook" does two things:
1: you really start to notice how the differences in seasons and preparation will change cooking, and you'll be able to recover from a too bitter dish with salt, or a too sour dish with sugar...
2: you're gonna have to eat this! pay attention, go slow, taste while you go so you don't have to choke down a ruined mess of a meal!
posted by jrishel at 11:52 AM on August 30, 2010

Alton Brown. I could burn a bread-and-butter sandwich before I started watching "Good Eats."

It's a cooking show for people who are uneasy with cooking shows - he explains basic terms and techniques, from chopping an onion to boiling pasta to kneading and rolling dough - and gives the science and history behind the food he's making. Plus, puppets and superheroes!

The goal of the show is to teach you the fundamentals of cooking - yes, he usually has a few specific recipes he makes, but it's almost always part of the process of teaching you how to cook, not how to read and follow a recipe. You'll find yourself improvising and modifying recipes, or even making up new dishes using what you've learned. Some episodes are more advanced, some are very basic (he has an entire episode on how to chop and peel veggies using a chef's knife and paring knife), and others very advanced (he has an entire episode devoted to the french dish "Coq Au Vin") but they're always entertaining and worth a watch.

America's Test Kitchen and back issues of Cook's Illustrated are good for this as well - techniques as well as recipes.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:21 PM on August 30, 2010

Besides all the books that people are recommending, I suggest paying attention to the good food that you eat -- really savour things. My love of cooking was motivated almost entirely by my love of eating.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 2:18 PM on August 30, 2010

YouTube is often pretty good for specific techniques. For instance, you can Google, "how to dice an onion", watch a 3 min video (or two) of someone doing it, and then go try it yourself. Obviously, the quality varies quite a bit, but it is a decent way to get started.
posted by clark at 7:27 PM on August 30, 2010

« Older How to buy a food cart in New York?   |   Should I give this caregiver a bad review? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.