Help me learn how to cook!
December 28, 2010 4:02 PM   Subscribe

Couch To 5K, but with cooking instead of running. I need help with even the most basic aspects of cooking because I know absolutely nothing. Where and how do I begin?

I eat too much chinese take out and frozen food. Using the same amount I'd spend on that junk, I'd like to cook instead and, thus, eat better. I never learned to cook. At all. The produce isle is an absolute mystery to me.

I'm a man in my late 30s. I'm very fit and active, but I'm sure that, eventually, unhealthy eating will catch up with me, so I'd like to change bad habits before they become a problem.

I struggle with even the simplest recipes because they always assume knowledge I don't have. "1 chopped onion" for example. Er... I don't know how to chop an onion. What parts do I use or not use? Even something as simple as fresh green beans. Do I tear off the bits at the ends or something? I cannot express strongly enough that I am starting at square one here.

I do much better when I have step by step instructions that clearly explain the individual steps. Again, "1 chopped onion." I'm going to need something as simple as that explained. If something calls for a greased pan... how do I grease a pan? What does that even mean?

I am absolutely lost here and have no idea where or how to begin, but I'd really like to make an effort with this in 2011.

HELP!!! Where and how do I begin?
posted by Mr Ected to Food & Drink (60 answers total) 92 users marked this as a favorite
Here. I haven't used it but I have a friend who is an instructor at a leading (IRL) cookery school who says the tuition on there is as good as you will find. You can view a sample and see how you find it.
posted by fire&wings at 4:06 PM on December 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Joy of Cooking is categorized mainly by ingredient and provides a brief introduction to each one. The appendices also include weight and measure conversions, critical temperatures, and a whole glossary of kitchen consumables and techniques. So, for example, you can look up onions and it will tell you how to chop them, give you some basic information on storage and seasonal availability, and maybe a recipe for french onion soup and some other stuff. The appendix will tell you what "chop" means versus "slice", "chiffonade", or whatever else. It's a great resource.

Another book I really like (especially if you eat meat) is Alton Brown's I'm Just Here For The Food. This one breaks down cooking by heating method - stewing, searing, baking, etc. It'll tell you how these work, what food is best suited to each, plus a few recipes. Very understandable for the home cook.

Cooking classes may also be good; we have an adult education center in town that does community courses on cooking among other things. A local community college or extension school might also offer similar.
posted by backseatpilot at 4:12 PM on December 28, 2010

Have any friends who would cook with you? As good as Joy of Cooking is, a lot of the basics are much easier to learn face to face. Also, cooking and eating together is fun.
posted by mbrubeck at 4:14 PM on December 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Step 1: Get How To Cook Everything. It's got very basic recipes and instructions on the simplest of things like how to properly cut a tomato (or an onion). The chapters are broken up by food type and it explains the basics of working with that food type at the beginning. Try one new recipe a week.

Step 2: Start watching Alton Brown. Seriously he has a whole episode just on how to use knives.

Step 3: Try some things. You will backslide and get take out again for a week, but then you'll get sick of that and want to try a new thing and remember that you can open How To Cook Everything to any page and find something neat.

I've heard good things about The Science of Cooking as well, but haven't had the time to get into it.

Also something that's going to be really daunting is the spices. You aren't going to have any spices and you may have to google image around for what the stranger vegetables look like. But after about 3-6 mos, it'll get less hard.

Using this method you too can make your very own I-invented-my-own-stir-fry-thing that you make and then eat. It's awesome!
posted by edbles at 4:16 PM on December 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

I don't remember what they are called, but there are some kind of cooking clubs, where you pay a fee, show up, and they show you how to cook complete dishes/meals. My wife went to one and the results were tasty.
posted by ducktape at 4:18 PM on December 28, 2010

Response by poster: Sadly, no. I don't have anyone who can help me. That's why I finally decided to post here. What I'd like is to be able to start with a few really really really simple dishes to get myself past the silly thought of "I don't know how" and grow from there.
posted by Mr Ected at 4:21 PM on December 28, 2010

Response by poster: "Also something that's going to be really daunting is the spices. You aren't going to have any spices and you may have to google image around for what the stranger vegetables look like. But after about 3-6 mos, it'll get less hard."

Can I cheat for now and buy one or two of those Mrs Dash things? Are those any good? If I become good at cooking, I'd eventually buy a bunch of spices, but I just want to get started here. And, yeah, I'm very intimidated by spices I know nothing about.
posted by Mr Ected at 4:23 PM on December 28, 2010

Just another book recommendation: How to Boil Water. It sounds very similar to How to Cook Everything that edbles suggested. It's probably a bit more limited in scope than that title though. I have it, love it and have worn out the spine of the book, it still gets used weekly a couple years after buying.
posted by goHermGO at 4:25 PM on December 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would tag team Bittman's How to Cook Everything with his Kitchen Express. The latter includes a few pages devoted to stuff--from freezer to pantry to counter--that you should have in your kitchen. The recipes are pretty easy and take hardly any time. You can easily cross-reference techniques like searing or chopping with How to Cook Everything. I'm no kind of cook whatsoever, but even I made stuff out of Kitchen Express that went over well, and its casual style really helps melt the intimidation I usually feel when forced to cook a meal.
posted by fiery.hogue at 4:25 PM on December 28, 2010

God, no, don't buy Mrs Dash. Take things one spice/herb/vegetable at a time. Like maybe broccoli, soy sauce, rice, meat -- you've got yourself one dish that's similar to Chinese takeout.

What are some foods that you like?
posted by shiny blue object at 4:29 PM on December 28, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the book recommendations! They're now on hold at the library :)
posted by Mr Ected at 4:30 PM on December 28, 2010

Seconding How to Cook Everything (although I only have the vegetarian version). It will teach you everything you need to know about ingredients, preparation and actual cooking. If money is an issue, definitely check out your library's cookbook selection. I've seen cooking DVDs and even computer games at my library.

I highly recommend buying a cheap pre-filled spice rack. You won't become good at cooking unless you have spices.
posted by shoreline at 4:30 PM on December 28, 2010

Advance hypocrite alert: I’ve only cooked a few meals in my entire life, and this was only because friends explained the whole process (as to how to make a meal or 2 in its entirety), and I was handed a few simple books. I still don’t cook much but I will take a stab, nonetheless.

I just saw this book today, and it looks fascinating because it explains basic things (how to pull the actual spice part that you consume and not the rest, or how to break an egg) along with why. The why seems to be a very important component, I would think, and perhaps it can be extrapolated to cooking other foods. If you have a kindle ap, you can dowload quite a bit of this book first to check it out and see if you think it will help or not.

Also, I was given this book because it has 1) several simple recipes with 2) minimal mess (WHY would someone want to have 10 pots and pans messed up for 1 meal?). So in essence, a recipe that takes 1 baking pan and minimal ingredients.

Also, at one point, I found a really simple book in the library that explained how to do stir fry. The great thing about the book, though, was that you had to learn one basic technique and…they gave you 50 different combinations, so you just had to try a few things and voila, variety in the things you eat. So if you like stir fry, get a book on it, can't remember the title unfortunately. If you put the ingredients in, it will be healthier than what you order.
posted by Wolfster at 4:36 PM on December 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you're a visual learner, you might love The Illustrated Kitchen Bible. Every recipe has pictures, including several steps, and there's a good general reference section in the front.

In general, give yourself permission to have fun, take risks, and maybe mess things up every once in a while. You don't have to follow recipes, and if you choose to, it's not as if the writer is watching you.

The only hard and fast rules are safety related: learn how to cook your meat thoroughly and store it safely, sanitize your work surfaces and equipment, and use good knives (and carefully) to avoid cutting yourself.
posted by charmcityblues at 4:47 PM on December 28, 2010

I'd say Cooking for Dummies (I have it) and some YouTube videos on knife skills, which are very important.
posted by jgirl at 4:50 PM on December 28, 2010

I really think your best route here is to watch someone else cook and cook next to them, and since you don't have friends that cook, take a class, or even better, hire a professional chef for a few in-home lessons. It would be a very good use of your money as long as you don't enroll in Advanced Pastry at the Cordon Bleu. Any cooking class geared at fundamentals for busy, novice home cooks is what you want.

You really just need to start fiddling in the kitchen ASAP, hopefully with someone there to gently correct you when you forget to peel the onion before chopping it, for example. You don't want to acquire bad habits, but this is alot like swimming- you just need to get in the water for now and dog paddle, and worry about the finer points of technique later. Some people get this opportunity when they're young, watching their moms cook, or they figure it out through desperate trial and error when they finally realize how expensive it is to eat out all the time.

If taking a class is out, at least watch alot of YouTube videos of people cooking, like this one, How to Chop an Onion. Don't watch stuff that is heavily edited, Food Network style, because that will leave out everything that's important to you.
posted by slow graffiti at 4:52 PM on December 28, 2010

The Seventeen Magazine Cookbook from the 1960s! It literally starts with "boiling water." You can learn how to make cookies for the boy who carries your books! As long as you don't mind the jaunty 60s teenaged tone (which I find charming), it goes through VERY basics.

"I don't know how to chop an onion."

Youtube, youtube, youtube. I wish I had known this when I started learning to cook, but if you google "how to chop an onion" there will certainly be a youtube video showing you how!

Personally I would probably start with pasta. You can start by making pasta and heating jarred sauce. Then you can saute a chopped onion and add it to the jarred sauce. Then you can make a pasta primavera with vegetables. Then you can make a simple sauce from scratch. And so on. You can learn a lot of things just on pasta that aren't too intimidating, and you'll use the same few Italian spices over and over so you won't have to buy a TON of spices at first.

Also, a chef friend of mine, when cooking for one or two, often buys vegetables off the salad bar at the grocery store. He'll never go through an entire head of cauliflower on his own, so he gets six florets from the salad bar for his recipe that calls for cauliflower. Or whatever. Also a good way to try out veggies you're not sure if you'll like.

I also love Mark Bittman. (And while you wouldn't COOK from it straight off, I found Mastering the Art of French Cooking a sort of revelation in terms of techniques -- "OH! So THAT'S the right way to do that thing I've been doing badly for 10 years!" A lot of it isn't stuff you would ever bother with, but some of it was very useful to learn, and she explains very clearly and thoroughly.) I also found "On Food and Cooking" by Harold McGee INVALUABLE. It's a science book, not a cookbook, but he explains WHY your food is doing what it does when you're cooking it. I'm the sort of person who needs to know the why in order to master the how. If that's you, read "On Food and Cooking."

The only way to learn it is to do it, though ... as I learned when I started from ground zero 10 years ago. You won't really poison yourself if you mess up as long as you make sure the meat is cooked through. You just may waste some food.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:55 PM on December 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Two good cookbooks with a lot of explanation are this WilliamsSonoma Tools and Techniques handbook, and the main cooks illustrated cookbook.
posted by mercredi at 5:07 PM on December 28, 2010

Her demographic is largely female, but The Pioneer Woman's cooking section is tremendous for this kind of thing--she breaks her recipes down to ridiculous levels, posting a picture of every. single. step. And half-step. Including how to chop an onion. She has a cookbook, too.
posted by litnerd at 5:08 PM on December 28, 2010 [5 favorites]

seconding Alton Brown - watch his show "Good Eats" You don't have to make the stuff he makes, just look at how he does things. He explains *everything* even how to chop an onion.
posted by patheral at 5:14 PM on December 28, 2010

Response by poster: Holy moly, litnerd! That site looks great! Step by step! I love it!
posted by Mr Ected at 5:17 PM on December 28, 2010

Get the Jacques Pepin picture books. Even if you're not a visual learner, the photos really show you how to do it correctly, which is harder to figure out from text instructions alone.
But also--use your common sense. You know what chopped means--and you can get pre-chopped onions, or use a food processor or buy a fancy French knife and learn knife skills.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:20 PM on December 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yes to all of the above, especially Bittman.

Now here's the thing about spices, and I'm opinionated about this so just sit back. You can spend a million dollars on glass jars from McCormick only to find out that you don't really even LIKE tarragon. (And IMO, tarragon is one herb that can easily overwhelm a dish. Dill is another.) Usually, however, I routinely double or triple the amount of herbs called for in a recipe. I mean a quarter-teaspoon of thyme? Who can even taste that?

But back to those glass jars, they are overpriced and will be stale long before you use half of them. So go to any decent grocery store and look for bulk spices and buy a little bit of things, let's say, um, about a quarter-cup to start with, in little plastic bags. Whole leaves and seeds are generally better than crushed or ground, and that's easy to do yourself.

Let's say to start with: oregano, thyme, cumin seed, fennel seed, rosemary. And some peppers and cinnamon, ground is fine for those. A lot of "mixes" are mostly salt, beware.

Also if you're not on a desert island I'll bet there's a meetup group or some folks on craigslist or barter groups who'd be delighted to help you learn.

Good luck!
posted by cyndigo at 5:26 PM on December 28, 2010

I didn't start cooking seriously until I was an adult. What helped me, and still helps me, is to find a recipe and then just look up anything online that I'm not sure about. Like... how do I pick out a good avocado at the grocery store? I googled that once. Another time I had to look up how to wash kale, since my method seemed kind of silly. This might not be the most efficient way of learning how to cook, but I've found it easy to retain what I learn when cooking when I just learn things as needed, as opposed to trying to cram a bunch of stuff in at once.

So once you find an easy looking cookbook at the library, pick a recipe that sounds good and doesn't have a ton of ingredients, and just google or youtube anything you aren't sure about.

Also, clean as you go. CLEAN AS YOU GO. This is to prevent you from having to deal with the disappointment of facing a mound of dishes and ingredients all over the counter, when all you want to do is relax after eating a delicious home-cooked meal.

And also try to prepare all your ingredients (i.e. vegetables that need chopping) before you start the cooking process. Otherwise you'll be stressed out about sauteing the garlic for only two minutes while it's taking you 5 minutes to wash and slice a pack of mushrooms. Read the recipe steps in full before you get started so there are no surprises.
posted by wondermouse at 5:31 PM on December 28, 2010

Craig Claiborne's "Kitchen Primer" is perfect for this. Craig is one of the best chef/writers around. He used to be the food editor for the NYT and has quite a few wonderful cookbooks. This one gets down to basics but assumes you want to eat well prepared food.
posted by caddis at 5:42 PM on December 28, 2010

I began to learn how to cook at age 23. No worries, most all of us learn sometime and there's no shame in starting now.

When I was younger, my mom got me a book called Clueless in the Kitchen: a cookbook for teens and other beginners. Don't buy it off Amazon; those sellers are ridic high and you should be able to get it from a library anyway. But do take a look at it. You asked for basics, and this book very definitely has the basics covered. It even goes over what you need to buy at the grocery store and other foundational absolute basics.

Please don't be offended that I'm recommending a book written primarily for teens. It happens to be the simplest beginner's cookbook I know of, and while I have the Bittman How to Cook Everything as well as a few others recommended here, I would recommend starting with Clueless in the Kitchen or another similar book.
posted by librarylis at 5:49 PM on December 28, 2010

Chopping an onion: You peel off the papery layers on the outside with a paring knife, and dig in a bit to cut out the hard top and bottom where the stem and root were. Then, just slice it crosswise with a chef's knife (you're going to need some good knives--invest in a decent paring knife, chef's knife, and something serrated for cutting tomatoes and such). Then chop with the chef's knife until you have small squares of onion.

Same for garlic.

It's not really too hard, once you get to know the veggies a little bit. Carrots should be peeled; celery needs nothing except for leaves and brown ends to be cut off before you chop it.

Don't know if you have any interest in Italian, but Marcella Hazan's Essentials has lots of basic recipes and step-by-step instructions. It's not American-Italian, but just classic rustic Italian cooking with really simple ingredients.

Most of all, don't be scared! Whatever you make is likely to be edible, and it will get better as you get to know the ingredients.
posted by torticat at 6:01 PM on December 28, 2010

celery needs nothing except for leaves and brown ends to be cut off before you chop it.

Not to get all Rachael Ray about it, but the leaves on celery stalks have a good bit of flavor--go ahead and use them!
posted by litnerd at 6:04 PM on December 28, 2010

Love all the cookbook and website suggestions. But, one of the great things about cooking is eating. To really get into cookings you really have to get into eating and develop a palate. Ever have a glass of wine and it tastes like... wine? And yet a winehead can take a sip of the same wine and taste cardamon, lemon peel, and grass. The difference is in the developed palate. If you can taste what you eat you can get an idea how to cook it.

Which leads me to my next suggestion: throw that Chinese food menu away. You and I live in a fabulous city with a ton of great food with an obscene amount of happy hour menus. That means expanding your tastes for pennies. And, if you absolutely need Chinese go to Zien Hong.

More than just food you can have a different beer every night for a year in Portland. There is so much great food you can learn to appreciate and replicate.

Enjoy your tasty adventure!
posted by munchingzombie at 6:46 PM on December 28, 2010

The horrible thing about cooking is that, the more you cook, the less you can stand most restaurant food. Ugh.

The great thing about cooking is that for $10 you can make a meal that beats out everything you can buy at a $20/entree chain restaurant, and feed your whole family with it.

I recommend the Bittman book as well as The Joy of Cooking, but nothing has changed my view of food as much as my adoption of the rule that I will always try everything twice. Not once; that gives you the option of gutting through it. No, you need to chew the tripe or swallow the mussel or whatever bugs you, and then think about it, and do it again. Surprisingly often, these foods become things you love against all logic.

If you're an NPR type, you might also enjoy listening to The Splendid Table, which is a little twee (generally speaking) in their recipe selection but otherwise fun and educational.
posted by sonic meat machine at 6:59 PM on December 28, 2010

Donna Hay's The New Cook is a great beginner cookbook, aimed precisely at folks starting at square one. I'm also a fan of Bittman, as above.
posted by judith at 7:15 PM on December 28, 2010

Start Cooking is a great site for this. I also recommend "How to Cook Everything". Joy of Cooking is good, but can be a little esoteric sometimes.
posted by schroedinger at 7:20 PM on December 28, 2010

Response by poster: Boy, the wine reference above by munchingzombie sure is a good one. I wish I were a foodie, but I'm not. Not yet anyway. I wasn't a wine guy ten years ago either. Now I love it I'm developing my palette as much as one can on a budget!
posted by Mr Ected at 7:47 PM on December 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Cooking is like any other deep skill: it's not something you learn to do, it's something you just keep getting better at with practice. So, just start.

You'll need some equipment. First thing is a few decent knives. I like these Victorinox tomato knives and use them for damn near everything; they're cheap, sharp as hell, and strong and thin enough to tackle a tough Ironbark pumpkin.

When you're sick of accidentally slicing pieces out of your fingers into the pan, you'll want a cutting board. Get one made from one piece of plain old wood, not a fancy laminated bamboo thing or a butcher's block or a plastic or glass board. Slather it in safflower or sunflower or canola oil and leave it in the sun for a day. Then do that again. Then wipe it off with paper towel and it's ready to go. As soon as whatever you've been chopping on it is tossed into the pan, give it a bit of a scrub with a dishes brush under a stream of cold water, shake it off and it's ready for the next thing. Stand it on its edge to dry at the end of a session.

Wooden boards may look kind of ordinary but they are inherently antibacterial, they're kinder to your knives than anything else, and they don't fall to bits when you abuse them with your dishwasher (it would be kind to re-oil it after succumbing to this temptation).

As a beginner, the only cooking pot you need is a three litre cast iron covered saucepan. Get a cheap Chinese one with a wooden handle you can easily unscrew to make it double as a casserole. Season the hell out of it before first use, then only ever use hot water and scrubbing to keep it clean; you want a little grease to stay stuck to it to keep it seasoned, so detergent is counterproductive.

So equipped, you're ready to start practicing with ingredients. This is not rocket science. Use your knife and cutting board to remove the parts you don't feel like putting in your mouth and cut the rest up. Trust yourself to get better and more artistic at this with practice.

On your first try, cut up three or four ingredients, then put your cast iron pot on the stove, crank the heat to maximum, pour in 20ml of olive oil and toss in the cut-up stuff the instant the oil starts to smoke. Once you start to smell browning, stir it all around a bit with a wooden spoon. When it smells like food, dump it in a bowl and take the pot off the heat. Congratulations! you just cooked your first stir fry.

Tomorrow, do it again but add a bit of soy sauce, a small schlurk of vinegar and a handful of sesame seeds to see what that does to the flavour. Or maybe get the thing started with a handful of cashew nuts thrown in a couple minutes before the wet ingredients.

Get a rice cooker and follow the instructions. Set it going before starting the cutting-up for a stir fry; then, when your stir fry is done, you will have stir fry and rice!

Cook too much rice, and leave the leftover rice in the fridge overnight. Next day, chuck a couple of handfuls of that in with the rest of the stir fry. Bing! Fried rice!

Cooking is not "easy when you know how" - it's easier the longer you've been doing it. So start doing it, and enjoy!
posted by flabdablet at 7:54 PM on December 28, 2010

Response by poster: "Don't know if you have any interest in Italian"

To be honest, I enjoy just about any kind of food. I probably prefer foreign to American cuisine. Italian is delicious. Chinese is excellent. Thai! Indian!

I'm a slender man who loves to eat and has enough metabolism for three people. I'm open to learning to cook anything. I'm really hoping that learning a few basics, regardless of what they are, will open the door to more learning.
posted by Mr Ected at 8:17 PM on December 28, 2010

YouTube is actually a great resource for cooking basics. You can literally type in "how to chop an onion", and find any number of videos that show exactly how to do it. (And it's a very good thing to know—once you know the trick, you can chop an onion much more quickly, easily, and evenly. The same is true for many common tasks: learning the little tricks will save a lot of time and effort.)

Get a chef's knife. It doesn't have to be fancy or expensive, but you do need to have one. I see so many people struggling to prep ingredients with shitty little knives from Target, and it's so much more work than it needs to be. The chef's knife is the most essential tool in a kitchen. You'll use it for every meal you make. Find a couple of videos on YouTube on basic knife technique. A big sharp blade might be scary at first—and please do be careful—but you're actually less likely to hurt yourself with a razor-sharp knife than with one of those dull (or, God forbid, serrated) pieces of shit. Why? Because you can actually control the damn thing. You don't have to force it through the food (and risk slipping and cutting an artery instead); it just glides through.

Other than that, the only knives you need are a paring knife (for more precise work, like trimming the inedible bits out of apples and bell peppers) and a serrated bread knife (because non-serrated blades don't work well on bread). That's it. Chef's knife, paring knife, bread knife—in order of importance. Do not get one of those knife sets that contains 12 different knives in a wooden knife block; they are completely unnecessary.

You'll also want a decently large cutting board—I prefer wood or bamboo, but anything will work.

Most recipes require some kind of fat or oil. Olive oil is probably the most versatile type of oil, and among the healthiest. You should always have some on hand.

Here's a huge trick for adding more flavor to home-cooked meals: whenever you would ordinarily cook something in water, consider cooking it in broth or stock instead. This will turn boring rice into something scrumptious. I use this stuff; you'll find it in the soup aisle at most supermarkets, with the canned broth and the bouillon cubes. It's a thick paste—just add water, and voilà!

As with any learning effort: don't be afraid to screw up. (You will screw up, but that's okay: it's an essential part of the learning process.) Don't be intimidated by unfamiliar spices and ingredients: if you never take those first bold steps, how will you ever learn to become comfortable with them? As your confidence and experience grows, you'll learn to love trying new flavors and ingredients.

The Mrs. Dash spice blends aren't going to win you much in the way of foodie cred, but I don't think you're after foodie cred. So: try them; if you like them, use them. They are certainly an easy way to punch up the flavor of a simple home-cooked meal.

Note: there's a difference between herbs and spices. Spices are made from ground-up seeds (or sometimes bark or root); herbs are the green leafy parts of a plant. It's fine to get spices in a little jar (usually found in the flour/sugar/baking aisle), but it's almost always better to get herbs fresh. That doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't buy dried herbs—I use them sometimes, and some things (like oregano) aren't half-bad dried. But experiment with fresh herbs as soon as you feel ready. They are manna from Heaven.

You can buy small amounts of fresh herbs fairly cheaply in the produce section at the grocery store; they come in little clear plastic trays. Basil is easy to work with, and goes wonderfully with pasta—just chop it up and sprinkle it raw on top of your pasta and sauce.

Try soups and stir-fries. They're idiot-proof and delicious. They'll build your skills and your confidence, and you'll get some satisfying meals to boot.

But, yeah, cooking is an awful lot like screwing—there's a lot of hot oil involved, and sometimes you accidentally cut yourself on the knives. No, wait—that's not why it's like screwing. It's like screwing because of this: if you want to learn how to do it well, you just have to dive in there with gusto, really be there with your partners (another person, or utensils and ingredients), and have a good time doing it. Rinse and repeat.
posted by ixohoxi at 8:22 PM on December 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the knives info! I own a block with steak knives and a bunch of other knives but I never knew what the others were for. Your descriptions were quite helpful! I also own a cutting board. Two, actually. One large, one small.
posted by Mr Ected at 8:47 PM on December 28, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the herbs / spices info too. VERY helpful!
posted by Mr Ected at 8:54 PM on December 28, 2010

To be honest, I enjoy just about any kind of food. I probably prefer foreign to American cuisine. Italian is delicious. Chinese is excellent. Thai! Indian!

Alright then. If I had to live with only three cookbooks, they would be the Marcella Hazan one I mentioned above, Madhur Jaffrey for Indian, and Joy of Cooking.

A lot of people swear by Bittman, and I have "How to Cook Everything," but honestly I always prefer the recipes in Joy of Cooking.

Indian and Thai are not nearly as intimidating to cook as they seem at first. You will need to find an Asian supermarket, and you'll have to get accustomed to a few basic spices (such as cumin, cardamom, mustard seed, turmeric, cayenne), plus learn how to chop onions, garlic, and ginger root. Ideally you should have a coffee bean grinder you can devote to grinding spices.

The recipes may be a bit time-consuming but they are not hard, and the food you make will be more fantastic than anything you eat in a restaurant.

If you want the recipe for the best fried spring rolls EVER, memail me. We've been making these things for years and never get tired of them.

Good luck!
posted by torticat at 10:02 PM on December 28, 2010

The Kitchen Survival Guide. Best investment I ever made. Includes chapter sections such as "How to Wash Lettuce," "How to Read a Recipe," and "Can I Put This in the Freezer?", as well as stuff we don't often think of, or couldn't possibly know, when we start out, such as "Read the Whole Recipe Before You Start," "How to Measure," and "Do not Keep Brown Paper Bags Under the Sink."

It also goes through each food category and the main elements of that category in terms of what to look for when you shop, how to store it, when it's in season (for fruit et al), and includes 130 recipes at the end. PLUS, it's not intimidating - it's a relatively small book.
posted by tzikeh at 11:04 PM on December 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I haven't actually cooked anything from it yet, but someone just gave me Alice Waters' In The Green Kitchen. It's a combination cookbook and kitchen primer, full of very simple recipes and lots of instructions about how to stock a pantry, shop for produce, choose kitchen tools, as well as very detailed explanation of techniques (how to wash lettuce properly, how to use a mortar and pestle, how to roast a chicken). It's got lots of lovely photos of beautiful food, too. It would make a great First Cookbook, in my opinion.

If you're after more detailed explanations of how to accomplish various cooking techniques, Julia Child's Mastering The Art Of French Cooking is incredible. As in, several pages on how to properly make an omelet, incredible.
posted by Sara C. at 11:08 PM on December 28, 2010

Also, watch cooking shows! Pay attention to what the chefs do. You don't need to get their technique down perfectly, but you will see them chop vegetables, add oil to the pan, roll out dough, and the like. Obviously the more modern style of cooking show where we actually see the ingredients being processed and cooked is the best. I love any of Lidia Bastianich's shows for this - she'll generally throw out tips that inexperienced cooks might not know, like how to know if the oil in the pan is hot enough.
posted by Sara C. at 11:12 PM on December 28, 2010

Can I cheat for now and buy one or two of those Mrs Dash things? Are those any good?

Good god, NO! Avoid! They're typically full of stale herbs and spices and loaded with sodium.

Herbs and spices aren't that hard. You can usually google anything that isn't familiar. And of course your supermarket will have a spice aisle with labeled packages of each item. It's as simple as "see spice in list of ingredients", "go to spice aisle", "find canister with name of ingredient printed on label", "insert per recipe".

If what mainly worries you is technique, herbs and spices are going to be the no-brainer part you don't have to worry about.
posted by Sara C. at 11:17 PM on December 28, 2010

Response by poster: Oh! Oops! I thought the Mrs Dash stuff was sodium free. (The one I have is salt and MSG free... whatever that means)
posted by Mr Ected at 11:56 PM on December 28, 2010

Response by poster: No offense, Sara C, but aren't those spice packages over $5 each? Name ten spices and that's like $50 to $75 right there, without having purchased any food.
posted by Mr Ected at 11:59 PM on December 28, 2010

Your average recipe is not going to require ten spices to make. I cook a lot, and I'm not sure I have ten different spices in my kitchen.

Also, your average jar of spices costs a buck or three. If you buy them as needed it shouldn't add a significant cost to your grocery bills. Food costs money, and there's no real way of getting around that.

(by the way, if you're worried about buying spices and not using them enough before they go stale, keep them in the freezer.)
posted by Sara C. at 1:07 AM on December 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Outfitting yourself with spices will cost money - they're usually between $3-$5 bucks a jar. The benefit is, each will last for several months as you only need a bit at a time. So buy as you need them -- think of something you like to eat, check out a few recipes for that thing, and buy the spices it calls for. There's a lot of overlap.

One thing --- you've already got a ton of cookbook suggestions, so I won't add there --- but I will say this: I learned to drive when I was in my 20s, and before I did the idea of doing it was fairly intimidating to me; so much potential for serious fuckups, so much shit I didn't understand about how cars worked, how to get places. Now that I have, the process of learning to drive reminded me most of learning to cook----it's all about learning and repeating a bunch of very simple steps until you get them down and can easily put them together in their proper order. I'm still a better cook then I am a driver, but I get where I need to go and you will too.

Second, you will find as you go along that while each recipe is unique, there are only a few common patterns of procedure; pretty much every soup or stew and most sauces runs like this: heat some kind of fat in a saucepan, tossed in chopped aromatic vegetables and let them soften up for ten minutes or so; add spices and dried herbs, if any; add the main liquid and and starches, let simmer for a while; add fresh herbs or other super-tender ingredients.
Learn that and you can make goulash, curry, gumbo, chili, French onion soup...

Or even marinara sauce. Here's a super simple recipe, a good first to try:

1 onion, chopped as per pioneer woman
1 large (28 oz.) can crushed tomatoes
1 small spoonful minced garlic (you can mince your own, but they sell it in jars in the grocery store)
12 leaves fresh basil (basil leaves vary in size; if bigger than small spoon bowl, rip into smaller chunks)
Salt and pepper
Olive oil

Put a saucepan on the stove over medium heat. Add two large spoonfuls of olive oil and let heat up for about 30 seconds. Add the chopped onions and garlic. (if onions start to turn brown less than a minute after hitting the pan, it's too hot, turn it down). Stir every minute or so for seven minutes or until onions turn from opaque white to slightly clear (Aka translucent). Add crushed tomatoes, about 1tsp of salt, and several grinds of pepper. Turn the heat down and let it bubble (small bubbles, not super fast: a simmer) for about 15 minutes. Taste it; if it seems a little bland add a bit more salt and pepper. Add basil leaves, stir them in. Congratulations, you've made marinate sauce. Six ingredients, about 25 minute or so give or take. While the sauce is simmering you can cook some pasta to go with; toss the sauce on top and sprinkle some parmesean and you're good to go.
posted by Diablevert at 1:51 AM on December 29, 2010

after a quick look at your profile, it looks as though you're in portland - there are two penzey's spices locations in portland (one on 82nd and one in the pearl district). penzey's is a great place to get to know spices - they have jars of everything that you can smell (so you can get a feel for how it might pair with foods), the labels on the jars give suggestions on what pairs well with that spice, and they also have free recipe cards that use whatever spice the display is above.

they have small jars of everything, and also, the people that work there are very knowledgeable and helpful, and if you sign up for their catalog/email list they usually give a coupon for a free small jar of whatever spice they're hawking that time. it's a good way to experiment with something without a whole lot of commitment.
posted by koroshiya at 2:20 AM on December 29, 2010

"No offense, Sara C, but aren't those spice packages over $5 each?"

Yes and no; McCormick (your basic supermarket spice brand) sells tiny little half or 1/3-sized jars of herbs and spices that are cheaper than the full-sized ones, and you're more likely to finish them before they get stale. They also take up less space in your kitchen. The ones you notice you run through really quickly you can replace with the full-size jars. They can be a little hard to find -- only one supermarket near me carries them -- but it's worth it, to me. Just walk past the spice section in a few different supermarkets and get an idea for what they have. Some supermarkets carry high-end spice brands, some have a cheap store brand; some have a broad selection, some have just the basics.

Second, the major national brands for spices have coupons -- good coupons -- ALL THE TIME. Online, in the paper inserts, whatever. $1 off. $2 off. 50 cents off. I almost never have to buy herbs & spices without a coupon. (And, yes, some spices are ass-expensive -- saffron would be at the high end of the list, but dried oregano, say, at the low end.)

Finally, particular cuisines have a library of spices. This list shows some examples; if you cook Italian, it suggests Anchovies, Basil, Bay Leaves, Fennel Seeds, Garlic, Marjoram, Onions, Oregano, Parsley, Pine Nuts, Red Pepper, Rosemary. I cook a fair amount of Italian and I keep Basil, Oregano, Parsley, Red Pepper, and Rosemary on hand. (As well as Garlic and Onions.) That's only five spices that will take you through most of Italian cooking, and you could probably get through a LOT of it with just three, especially when starting out.

Just see what the recipe wants you to have, buy that herb or spice when you buy other ingredients, and save the extra on your nascent spice rack for the next time you need it. Spread out over time, it's not that expensive.

(And personally, I wouldn't worry about fresh herbs -- you're trying to learn to cook, not to be Mr. Super-Foodie. Fresh herbs are expensive and, yes, they do add a lot of flavor, but dried herbs will be cheaper to learn with and FINE, especially in sauces and soups. In main dishes the fresh herbs will matter more. And if you do get all foodie about it, you might as well find a sunny windowsill and grow your own -- it's cheaper, fresher, and not hard at all.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:06 AM on December 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

nthing Alton Brown, both his show and books. One of his books (I think "I'm just here for the Food") has a diagram for how to chop an onion.
posted by I am the Walrus at 7:42 AM on December 29, 2010

So you've got plenty of great answers here and don't really need any more. Still, if you can find American editions--and I'm pretty sure that's what I'm linking to--you may want to check out these two books by (respectively) the grande dame and young prince of cookery writers in the UK: 1, 2. Each sets out to do exactly what you're after. Delia is famously reliable; Jamie writes badly but--according to a friend in whose kitchen I was just looking at this book--explains the actual procedures of cooking extremely well. Once you know one end of a paring knife from the other, Nigel Slater is right at the sweet spot of delicious but unfussy recipes and beautiful, mouth-watering food writing.

However, what I really came in here to offer was this extract from an article by Julian Barnes about Elizabeth David. I think it'll strike a chord:
Half-competent amateurs quickly learn not to cook from volumes with full-page gastroporn pix, because their own culinary products can never attain such lustre. Fortunately, Elizabeth David's books were illustrated with mere black-and-white drawings; but her prose nevertheless predicts a similar gap between her fragrant concoction and your burnt offering.

It is the touch of unthinking imprecision that is so unnerving. Some time ago, for instance, I had a go at something that looks pretty unmuffable. Page 47, Minestra di Pomidoro from her Italian Food (chosen by Waugh as his Book of the Year in 1954). The recipe consists of three sentences of instruction, followed by three of commentary. Its underlying premise is that you must cook the soup for no longer than 10 minutes to ensure that all the initial freshness of the tomatoes is retained. With a confidence verging on the fullish [sic] I assembled the necessaries, including homemade chicken stock and fresh basil from the greenhouse.

ED's first sentence reads like this: "Melt 1 1/2lbs (675g) chopped and skinned tomatoes in olive oil; add a clove of garlic and some fresh parsley or basil or marjoram.'' Simple? Listen: nothing is simple to the Anxious Pedant. The restaurateur Prue Leith once watched a wretched cookery-school pupil (male, of course) deconstruct the following first line of a recipe: "Separate the eggs.'' For a thoughtful while he pondered the two eggs placed in front of him, before carefully moving one a few inches to his left and the other a few inches to his right. Satisfied, he went on to the second line of instruction. I feel for this bonehead. And if he is reading this I'm sure he will sympathise with the glosso-logical fever that the first line of Minestra di Pomidoro provoked. The initial problem areas were: (1) "Chopped": no indication of size of desired dice. (2) "Skinned": does this naturally imply "deseeded" or did the recipe date from pre-deseeding days? (3) "Olive oil": how much exactly; or even approximately? (4) "A clove of garlic": three possible interpretations: (a) popped in whole (unlikely); (b) crushed juicily with the garlic crusher (but would she approve of such an instrument – lots of them don't, do they?); (c) finely chopped. (5) "Parsley or basil or marjoram"; well, which is best, and what difference does it make? She can't be expecting us to exercise our free will, can she?

All this is a normal, indeed ritual, part of cooking, it seems to me. I duly argued myself to various conclusions. (Recipes that blandly lay down probable timings for preparation and cooking should also, if they are being honest, add extra minutes for paralysing fits of indecision.) The tomatoes were chopped, and the oil sizzling, when my understanding thumped belatedly against the first word of the recipe: "Melt." How could I have missed it until now? Melt? Melt a tomato? Even a chopped one? The implausibility of the verb froze me. Perhaps if you're south of Naples, and beneath the intense noonday sun your fingers have just that moment eased from the plant something that is less a tomato than a warm scarlet deliquescence waiting to happen; then, perhaps, the thing might melt under your spatula. But would these muscular cubettes I was now easing into the oil ever do such a thing? I found myself, as the Anxious Pedant frequently does, caught between two incompatibilities. On the one hand, I believed, or wanted to believe, that with a few encouraging prods the tomatoes would, by a culinary process hitherto unknown to me but promised by my trustworthy tutress, suddenly melt; at the same time, I was pursued by the sane fear that cooking the surly chunks any longer in the oil and thus adding to the overall 10-minute time limit would make them lose their freshness and vitiate the whole point of the recipe. For several fretful minutes I waited for the miracle "melt". Then, with a cookish oath, I seized the potato masher and mashed the shit out of them.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 10:44 AM on December 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

I am a mid-30s female who is similarly clueless about such things. I was just given (after requesting) Martha Stewart's Cooking School for Christmas. It looks perfect!
posted by getawaysticks at 10:49 AM on December 29, 2010

In re lapsangsouchong:

That sort of thing was my main roadblock in cooking, for years. Then I lived with a couple of French guys. And they just, y'know, cooked. They didn't follow recipes or agonize over the exact quantity of oil to put in the pot. And their food was pretty much always good.

Nowadays that's pretty much my approach: just cook. The worst that could happen is that we have to throw away a ruined meal and order pizza.
posted by Sara C. at 11:00 AM on December 29, 2010

Per Sara C. and others, the right thing to do is take some ingredients that taste good together, cut off the parts that you don't want to eat, and prepare the rest. Add salt and spices as needed. Keep doing this several times a week, periodically looking for new ideas when you get bored. Techniques are more useful than recipes. If you learn techniques and combinations of foods that taste good together, then you don't have to worry much about recipes. My most tattered cookbook is James Peterson's Cooking, a modern presentation of mostly classical techniques, with handy guides for what herbs and spices go with which foods, and so forth. If your library has a copy, consider borrowing it. Mostly because of the copious photographs.

It has great photos and hundreds of "How to do XYZ" passages, illustrated step-by-step, in between the relevant recipes. So you flop open the book and see a picture of something tasty, and typically there will either be a step-by-step guide to the tricky bits or a reference to where in the book one can be found. Some of the "How to do XYZ" bits involve simple stuff like mincing a garlic clove to paste (you smash it with the side of your knife, chop it, add some Kosher salt, smash it with the knife again, chop it again, and scrape it off the board into the dish). Some of the "How to do XYZ" passages are things like boning out a saddle of lamb, making a sauce from lobster shells, or filleting a large flatfish. The common theme is that they're techniques to learn, and most people learn visually, so there are pictures of everything.

Anyways, a technique-oriented cookbook with lots of appealing photos works for most people. If you are married or dating, it's a lot more fun to cook with at least one other person. (It's even more fun to cook with a large group of moderately tipsy friends, but this leads to logistical difficulties that are best avoided in the beginning... at least on most evenings.) There are lots of others -- Joy of Cooking, How to Cook Everything, etc. -- just pick one and use it as a reference when you need new skills or have run out of ideas of your own.

Another good thing to do is to go to the fish market or farmer's market, buy some stuff that looks good, and figure out how to prepare it when you get home. That way you don't have much of an excuse not to try... it sounds like putting the cart before the horse but it works. You will slowly grow disenchanted with grocery stores after a few rounds of this, which is also a good thing... they're full of processed garbage that isn't good for your body.
posted by apathy at 1:28 PM on December 29, 2010

Nowadays that's pretty much my approach: just cook

Absolutely. Bread apart, I don't follow recipes very often. What I would like to do, though, is broaden the range of techniques I know, so that when I'm looking at whatever's in the fridge and wondering how it can be dinner inside 40 minutes I have a wider range of options. I'm a bit tired of my own cooking at the moment, and some of the suggestions in this thread look like they'll be helpful for me, too.

Which reminds me that I picked up a copy of this at my sister's a while ago--from the first couple of chapters it looked really good (and might be useful for the OP, as it pierces some of the mystifying fog that creeps into many cookbooks). The author has a blog here.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 4:29 PM on December 29, 2010

lapsansouchong -- there's a book called "How to Cook Without a Book" which covers basically this idea: look in the fridge, know a bunch of techniques to create dinner from what's there without needing recipes. Maybe not a buy-at-full-price book, but definitely a good used purchase. Was very helpful for me as I began to gain skills and not be so slavishly devoted to recipes.

For kitchen pros it's nothing special, but for n00bs like I was it's very helpful.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:38 PM on December 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ratios is supposed to be similar to that, I think it focuses more on baking though.
posted by edbles at 10:31 AM on December 30, 2010

I suggest learning a couple of really easy store cupboard things first. Hopefully this will make it easier to avoid takeout on nights when you really can't face onion chopping, and this might help you maintain momentum and enthusiasm for the whole project.

Here are a couple:

Omelette, or fried egg. Find a video tutorial on the internet.

Baked potato. Heat the oven to 180C, shove in a potato (optionally wipe it with butter and sprinkle it with salt) and cook for 1 to 1.5 hours. To test whether it's done stick a knife in it. If it seems soft and fluffy in there it's done.
Add butter and grated cheese or baked beans or a tin of fish. Or have to accompany some rotisserie chicken from a shop. You can use a sweet potato instead of a regular potato too, or have goat's cheese or blue cheese with it.

Soup. Purchase a stick blender. Buy some parsnips or carrots or swede. Peel the veg, slice off both ends and throw away, chop into bits (doesn't matter how big the bits are, but the smaller the bits the quicker this will be). Put them in a pan, cover with water, boil until ridiculously soft. (Boil means: Heat it on high until it's bubbling. Then turn down the heat so it stays bubbling gently). Then use the stick blender to turn it to mush. Add some salt and butter to taste (which means, taste the soup, add a little bit of salt, stir it in, taste the result. Repeat until tasty). Optionally also add powdered cumin and coriander to taste, starting with about half a teaspoon of each. If the soup is too thick, add water (and heat up again).

Don't buy spices at the supermarket. Buy them at an ethnic shop. You will get twice as much for half the price.
Don't use a blunt knife.
Before you chop anything check that your fingers are well out of the way.
Read up on food hygiene, particularly if you're going to be cooking meat.
If you can't afford to buy good quality chicken or prawns, don't buy those things at all. The cheap stuff is tasteless and full of water.
Make friends with a good butcher. Then you can ask for things like "Some beef for a stew" and not worry about what kind of beef should go in stew.
Taste sauces as you go along. Experiment with adding things like herbs, spices, salt and pepper, lemon juice, chilli, a tiny bit of sugar. Add, stir, taste and learn.

Learn how to make the following (one at a time!):

Pasta with sauce from a jar.
Pasta and your own really good tomato sauce
Porridge, if you like it
Sausages and mashed potatoes.
A boiled egg.
A fried egg.
Chili and rice. If there is leftover rice, make egg fried rice the next day.
A steak.
A stew.
A curry.
A stir fry.
A roast chicken. There will be leftovers. When they are cold, put them in the fridge and use for curry, sandwiches, egg fried rice or stir fry.
Fried fish.

Once you've learnt these you will have a good wide repertoire and you'll be able to start thinking about mixing things up and making up your own meals out of things you have in the cupboard.
posted by emilyw at 8:02 AM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

My version of emilyw's baked potato recipe: Turn the oven up to "bloody hot". Score a shallow slit around some washed but not peeled potatoes' equators with the tip of a paring knife, to ensure they won't explode in the oven. Dump them straight on the oven rack (no baking tray required) and slam the door; if doing enough to occupy several racks, put bigger ones higher. When the kitchen smells like baked potatoes, take them out, bust them open, add butter and pepper and eat. Yum!
posted by flabdablet at 6:05 PM on January 2, 2011

Keys to Good Cooking by Harold McGee just came out and is perfect for what' you're trying to accomplish. He wrote the definitive food science book "On Food and Cooking" which goes way way more in depth into the science piece, but Keys to Good Cooking is a solid primer and reference. I really wish this was out when I started learning about food and cooking.
posted by skechada at 3:05 PM on January 4, 2011

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