How do I learn to cook?
June 5, 2005 1:30 PM   Subscribe

I hate cooking--the entire experience. How do I overcome this?

I hate prep work. I hate slicing and mixing and timing and stirring. I also hate how much time it feels like it takes to prepare meals--I could be doing something important or fun instead! And I especially hate doing the dishes. This aversion has been with me my entire adult life, and I'm heading towards 40.

This has, as you might expect, led to my eating frozen meals or eating out entirely too often, which is bad for my health and my wallet. I would prefer to be someone who knows a good foundation of cooking techniques and recipes and has developed a habit of making my own meals and doing the cleanup without frustation.

Part of the issue is that cooking has never been all that interesting to me, but Alton Brown's "Good Eats" has helped change that, and I started the year off by buying his books. But I still haven't read them (I did get as far as buying some of the kitchen supplies he recommended) and I still haven't cooked any meals. I saw a cookbook last week about 3-item meals, which would presumably simplify getting started. Should I maybe try that?

I should emphasize, though, that my resistance of the prep and cleanup aspects of cooking is potentially neurotic in magnitude.

So, what means can you think of for me to systematically dismantle my wall of resistance to the whole cooking experience for myself and learn to enjoy what, apparently, has come naturally to so many of you?
posted by kimota to Food & Drink (29 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Yes on the three-item meals There are cookbooks out there where all the recipes are based on five ingredients or less. You could start with those. There are scores of websites out there, too, when searching with 'five ingredients or less recipes.' (or three... or whatever)

Also, in my grocery store's produce section, veggies come pre-chopped/sliced. They're more expensive than normal produce, but probably cheaper in the end than going out to eat all the time. And they help you get to the cooking part and you spend less time with the prep part and cleanup part.

Get the tools you know you like and that you know you will use. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to have a good, sharp knife. This makes prep work tremendously easier.

Alton Brown is a good source to learn from. He teaches the really basic how's and why's of cooking.
posted by schnee at 2:02 PM on June 5, 2005

Some people just don't like to cook; nothing wrong with that. If you don't like cooking but still want to, just keep it simple. Crockpots are good; you just throw a bunch of ingredients in in the morning and come home to chili/roast beef/stew/etc. Also, you can cook just a simple part of a meal and use frozen or pre-packaged food for the rest, like making a salad to go with a frozen main course, or using an instant rice pilaf mix as a side for steak or chicken.

Also, I can't let a question like this go by without pimping How to Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food, a huge cookbook that's heavily weighted towards simple recipes.
posted by boaz at 2:06 PM on June 5, 2005

Echoing schnee, I hated prep work until I got a really good knife (the Wustof-Trident Grand Prix 6" Chef's knife). It turns out that I was doing way too much work before with my cheap, college knives. I also went ahead and signed up for a knife-skills class at the local cooking school. It was a one shot thing done by one of their students and he gave lots of neat little recipes in between knife lessons.

It's great that you like Alton Brown. I find that most people who like him also like the Cooks Illustrated magazine, which is the most valuable thing I have ever found through MeFi.

Also, in addition to trying out the three-ingredient books (which are a great idea for people starting out), you might also want to try the One Pot type of cookbook that minimizes how many pots and pans you use. I hate doing dishes more than almost anything else, so those cookbooks were instrumental in getting me started. Of course, the other solution is to get a dishwasher which I didn't have the opportunity to have for 11 years. (Finally getting one in August!)
posted by ontic at 2:20 PM on June 5, 2005

I think if I were in your shoes, I might take a cooking class. You'd get to learn the basics in a group, and the atmosphere might help you get over your prep & clean problems.

If lesser inspiration is helpful, what I do is watch Food Network (have you thought about buying the Alton Brown DVDs from them?), and I also buy cookbooks with big, beautiful pictures of the food.
posted by frykitty at 2:25 PM on June 5, 2005

I would second the suggestion to take a class. It may even be that the lacklustre nature of your end product is putting you off the process of making it. Making great food for yourself and others is a different experience to cooking crap! Try and make sure your kitchen is bright and clean, and there is a window open. Also, get a radio or stereo in the kitchen, or even better - some company. Solitary cooking can be as boring and rote as doing anything else alone.
posted by fire&wings at 2:34 PM on June 5, 2005

I'd also check out Sandra Lee's show on Food TV - Semi-Homemade Cooking. Her emphasis is more on combining store-bought ingredients and some fresh to create homey-tasting dishes with little effort. Not much chopping. measuring, etc.

Don't know if you have access to a grill, but that's another cooking method where throwing a chicken breast or some veggies in a bag with Olive Oil and some herbs for 1/2 hour and then tossing on the grill can give you alot of flavor/taste with little effort and virtually zero clean-up. A grill pan under a broiler comes darn close if that's your only option.

As for washing dishes - never do it myself - that's what the dishwasher is for. Load and lock, baby.
posted by garbo at 2:35 PM on June 5, 2005

Give yourself a little creative input over your cooking. Following recipes to the letter is boring; some variation might help make it interesting.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 2:42 PM on June 5, 2005

Either get good knives and practice until you're quick & efficient at cutting, or simply buy a food processor. Unfortunately, you still have to clean the beastie.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:02 PM on June 5, 2005

Maybe hire someone to come over and teach you to make a few things? Once you've cooked a meal that is better than most of the food you can get when you eat out, you might have some more inspiration.

I've never really had any aversion to the prep work, but once I learned to do it correctly, it was faster, better, and cheaper than going out.

Simply put: learn to make one thing correctly, perfect it, and go from there. You'll get faster, and it does become a lot easier with some increased skills.
posted by bh at 3:04 PM on June 5, 2005

Paper plates and plastic cups eliminate the need for cleanup, although it may seem too ghetto to be appealing. There are nicer, thicker plates available as well, which are costly, but cheaper than eating out.
posted by grouse at 3:27 PM on June 5, 2005

Bravo ontic! Cooks Illustrated is what turned me onto cooking after not being in a kitchen for years. I started cooking as a short-order cook in a hash house as a 16 year old kid, and learned to hate cooking.

Cooks Illustrated is GREAT at finding ways to turn easy and ordinary food into easy and extraordinary food. Yes, they've got some complicated recipes, but there are lots of simple ones too. They just published a cookbook called Cover and Bake which looks like it might be a good way to get into some simple casseroles. You might be able to minimize the pain of cooking by doing several casseroles at once.
posted by ensign_ricky at 3:28 PM on June 5, 2005

What gets me is the pre-prep work.. the shopping for ingredients that you will use in advance. That takes more time and effort than cooking itself.

In terms of "neurosis", it seems that cooking for you is something that is "not interesting" and "not fun". But not cooking for yourself, is unhealthy and expensive in the long term.

It strikes me that the Alton books were an attempt on your part to make cooking more interesting. This is definitely the right track. To move forward you have a few possibilities.

One possibility, is to make being healthy and thrifty much more important for you than they are now, to realize that it is very true that if you continue doing what you are doing now you will jeopardize both your health and wealth in the long term and that by cooking for yourself you are taking care of your health and wealth.

An additional possibility is to find what it is about the things that you do find interesting and fun that makes them so. Is it the challenge, the curiosity, the usefulness of the information, the joy of doing it with others,... etc.. whatever it is for you. Once you've identified they key components, you need to reexamine cooking in that context. For example, if for you fun means having a powerful sensory experience, you might notice how in cooking you are using your sense of smell, taste, sight, touch and hearing sometimes, while having the experience of effective movement as you prepare the ingredients.. Again this all depends on what for you interesting and fun mean. If you post some things you find fun and why you think you find them so..then we might be able to figure out some more overlaps for you.

Another important direction is to consider how cooking fits into what is truly important to you as a person. Who is kimota, what is he/she a part of and how does cooking relate to both.

Also, you said that you have had this behavior most of your life. Once you have identified some of these things, notice what it would have been like if you had had these perceptions when you were younger and forming your initial perceptions about cooking, and how that might have impacted them.
posted by blueyellow at 3:46 PM on June 5, 2005

I lived on convenience meals too, and yet now I really love cooking in the evening after work.
Part of this is things that other people have mentioned - for example a really good knife that is a joy to use - straight forward recipes that require only one hob.
Added to that - one day I decided to set myself a rule that I would never use any pre-prepared ingredients. This extra challenge made the whole cooking thing more interesting and fun.
Most importantly though, I combine cooking with watching telly or listening to the radio. I'll set my laptop up on the work surface and watch episodes of whatever US comedies I've downloaded from the night before across the pond, The Daily Show for example. All this means that it feels like I'm actually doing two fun things at once and so the time doesn't feel wasted.
posted by chill at 3:57 PM on June 5, 2005

Don't try to do too much at once. Maybe I've been subscribing too much to the kaizen theory lately (small changes) but if you try to make a full meal and it doesn't go right then you might be more discouraged.

Perhaps try something that's mostly prepackaged but add something yourself? Like Trader Joe's frozen pasta, plus a chicken breast that you cut up and brown and then toss in at the end. Or asparagus that you roast. Etc, etc.

I also like to buy things like pre-cut onions, etc. Or sometimes I get a bunch of vegetables and use my food processor to cut them up and freeze them. Voila, precut veggies for a good long while. Sometimes it's just a matter of reframing the situation -- I do like to cook but there are nights I'd rather gouge out my eyes. I keep things on hand to counteract the tendency to have Chinese delivered.

Also, if you can, try shopping at a farmer's market and use the fresh vegetables. There's a world of difference in what you can get there and what's frozen and even what you can get in a produce department. Perhaps the flavor will be another incentive to cook for yourself.
posted by sugarfish at 4:00 PM on June 5, 2005

Three thoughts:

As others have said, a dishwasher will really help. Washing dishes sucks.

Do you drink? Having a beer or glass of wine while you cook might help you enjoy the process more.

And finally, do you have someone to cook for or with? Needn't be a significant other, just a friend -- someone to talk to while you're working, someone to show you something, someone to pawn the chopping off on.
posted by climalene at 4:11 PM on June 5, 2005

I agree with sugarfish - use and adapt prepackaged stuff when you can - last night we threw some lamb in the oven with some herbs from the spice rack, and ate it with prepackaged salad and cooked frozen roast potatoes. Pasta with sauce from the jar and grilled chicken, beef with those little pre-measured packs of spices for curries, etc. There's no reason for tons of prep except when you have the time at the weekend etc.
posted by dublinemma at 4:55 PM on June 5, 2005

Sugarfish's advice is excellent. There's a huge gap between frozen dinners and home-cooked gourmet meals, and you shouldn't feel the need to jump it in one leap. If you're eating frozen pasta dinners that you toss in the microwave, move to pasta you boil yourself (buy fresh or dried) and add sauce to it from a jar that you cheat with a bit of fresh mushrooms or somesuch. Then, perhaps move up to making your own sauces. It's not likely you'll ever get to making your own pasta, but that shouldn't realistically be your goal.

Also, make it worth your while. Like you, I hate the cleaning part the most. But what I have learned is that one big pot takes the same amount of time to clean as one little pot. So if you're going to make chili, make a vat of it and freeze the leftovers (which puts you back into the convenience of your current lifestyle with the benefits of your new one.) Never make enough of anything for one meal, make enough for several and reheat later.

Another thing I used to do when I had better access to freezer space was devote a single day to cooking every few weeks. I'd cook and cook a bunch of things and freeze them in various combinations, generating pre-made frozen dinners for the month. Again, all the benefits of your old and new lifestyles. Plus, the clean up doesn't seem so bad when it's kind of contained that way.
posted by jacquilynne at 4:59 PM on June 5, 2005

And finally, do you have someone to cook for or with?

I used to think I hated cooking. Turns out I just hated menu planning. Once I started living with (and eventually marrying) someone I could push the planning onto, I discovered that I actually kind of enjoy cooking.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 5:00 PM on June 5, 2005

I agree with those who suggest having other things going on as well, like radio or an episode of tv. Or talking on the phone. Sometimes I'll do all sorts of multitasking, like start the laundry, cut veg for the week, switch laundry, start cooking tonight's meal, read mail while the pan is heating, water plants, load CDs into iTunes, etc. Getting lots of stuff done at once diminishes the tedium of the tasks individually, plus it can be a minorly interesting challenge to see how many things you can get done at once and without backtracking.

If you don't have a dishwasher (or if you do but it doesn't fit cooking stuff well), you can fill a dishpan in the sink with warm soapy water and just dump your rinsed items in there as you finish using them. It keeps them from adding mess to the counter, and when everything's done, you can very nearly just give them a swish or a swipe to get them totally clean.
posted by xo at 5:28 PM on June 5, 2005

I was never taught, never interested in cooking until I fell in love with someone who cooked. I was along for the ride and eventually fell in love with it. Now there are two people for the prep, the dishes (which he does, since I LOATHE THEM). So I would suggest falling in love with someone who cooks so that your love for them rubs off on the food, or, get a dishwasher, a food processor (MY SAVIOR), find some very simple recipies that won't require too many dishes or ingredients or techniques (Jamie Oliver is where I started), and some not too stringent books of cuisines you love. Also, you don't have to cook a 3 course meal; we cook one thing and that's enough for the evening.

However, I don't know that it is necessary to force yourself. I think that if I didn't have someone to share the process--the work, the inspiration, the parts I hate--I'm pretty certain I would stop cooking.
posted by scazza at 6:59 PM on June 5, 2005

Cooking is fun for people who are practiced enough that making a meal isn't difficult, and who have enough recipes down that they can be creative and experiment. I learned to love cooking as it got easier for me. I can now make myself a nice meal in twenty-minutes if I need to.

Start with very simple recipes that don't require much preparation-- I suggest a good italian cookbook. Many Italian recipes are simple variations on a theme, and few authentic dishes are that difficult to make. In rustic cooking you smash garlic, tear herbs and mix simple ingrediants.

There a few books specifically for people like you: 15 Minute Meals and Peg Bracken's classic I Hate To Cook Book. Many of Jamie Oliver's recipes are pretty easy too.

Have you tried cooking with a friend who likes the kitchen? Listening to music or books on tape? Watching cooking shows that aren't Emril Live?
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 7:00 PM on June 5, 2005

I started out with a "few dishes" ideal too, and I think it is a good way to start.

Try some fresh chicken or steak, dump in large ziplock (freezer-style) -- fill with oil-based salad dressing (a good Italian is my fave, especially with flank steak.) Squeeze excess crap from bag into disposal, dump meat right from bag onto grill or in frying pan -- use same fork you will eat with to flip, etc. Cook, put onto plate. If desired, add side dish - frozen veggies, throw in bowl or on plate beforehand, cook in micro, scrape a little butter on them with same fork, salt-pepper.

That is good stuff, easy and quick. Still, the way I got further personally was realizing the biggest difference between myself and good cooks -- I was too damn slow, overly meticulous. If you are like I was at first, you have to stop!

Don't stress if your cup isn't perfectly level, get used to a tsp of salt being a few pinches, learn to eyeball what an ounce of liquid is, etc. After a few minor mishaps (overcooked, too salty, too dry) you start to think things like "hmm, ok, yum, but next time two pinches of salt."

After that, things go quick. You find staples you really enjoy, are fast to make, and don't make you stress about the little shit. YMMV :)
posted by SpookyFish at 7:45 PM on June 5, 2005

Go to a cooking class. There's nothing like learning by doing.

I'd also check out Sandra Lee's show on Food TV - Semi-Homemade Cooking. Her emphasis is more on combining store-bought ingredients and some fresh to create homey-tasting dishes with little effort. Not much chopping. measuring, etc.

I totally disagree. Her stuff is a blight, IMO. You're still spending the unnecessary $$ for prepared food, and the ingredients she tends to choose are fairly unhealthy.

Cooking isn't hard, but you need to figure a few key things out. Most stuff beyond that it experimentation.

- All measurements are approximations, unless you're baking. You're not baking. Estimate. A dish for two needs one onion and one pepper. A teaspon is a dash.

- Most dishes are [key ingredient] + sauce. Chicken Cacciatore is spaghetti with tomato sauce, only with chicken and a few chunky vegetables.

- Most sauces are base + onion + spice. A can of tomatoes or chicken stock is incredibly versatile.

- A great trick for testing sauce seasonings is to scoop out a big spoonful of, say tomato sauce. Add a tiny pinch of whatever (salt, orgegano, basil, whatever) to the spoon and taste that. This lets you try a flavoring without compromising your entire batch.

- Focus on making one dish. Most dinners don't need potatoes/pasta/whatever starch.

- Cook vegetables in very salty water. Non-leafy green vegetables benefit greatly from a simple technique called "shocking", which is submerging them in ice cold water after cooking- running them briefly under cold tap water is fine. It makes them a brighter green and firmer.

- Learn how to cook a breast of chicken in a pan. It's cheap and simple, and goes with everything. Chicken breasts (actually, any meat going into a pan) should be towel-dried and lightly salted. Put a little butter/olive oil into a HOT (and I mean fairly hot, none of this "medium low" shit), and put your meat in. DON'T TOUCH IT. After about 5 minutes, the meat will "release" from the pan, meaning it won't stick when you turn it. Flip it and cook for a few more minutes (2-3) and it'll release from the other side.

- Don't be afraid of high heat. Let the food cook. Don't fiddle with it.

- Cook an extra piece of whatever. Leftovers.
posted by mkultra at 8:21 PM on June 5, 2005

One thing I hate about cooking is looking in gourmet cookbooks at elaborate, beautiful spreads that've been professionally photographed, and knowing mine won't taste as good as theirs looks. I still haven't gotten over it.

- Learn to cook with the random things you have in the fridge. When I grocery shop without a specific menu in mind, I get a lot of veggies because they're versatile enough to be pasta topping, pizza topping, steamed/alone, on sandwiches..
- Find something you like, & cook enough to have a few meals worth of leftovers. That way, there's always something tasty & healthy when you're too tired/lazy to cook. I generally make a lot of brown rice because it's healthy & a complete protein w/ cheese (usually feta) added on top. Throw mushrooms, spices, almonds, carrots, cubed potatoes into the boiling water & you have a pretty decent meal for tomorrow's lunch.
- Practice making the same types of things over and over again. I got on a pasta kick & can make fresh/"from scratch" pasta really well, really quickly. Ingredients: eggs, flour. With some water & yeast, it becomes pizza dough, bread, & maybe a simple pastry. It may sound difficult at first, but after a couple tries, it's simpler & easier to experiment with than a lot of things, & the sense of satisfaction at a successful outcome is a lot higher!
posted by soviet sleepover at 10:24 PM on June 5, 2005

Here are a few random facts in no particular order:

a) Interesting reading makes for motivation. I have enjoyed The Joy of Cooking by the Rombauers, and Cook's Illustrated.

b) Good tools are a must. At the very least you need a high quality chef's knife with a wooden handle, and a wooden cutting board. If you can spare the time to learn how to use a Cuisinart food processor and are cooking for more than just yourself, it definitely cuts down on prep time. Good mixers, bowls, pots and pans are important too.

c) When I learned to cook food that tasted like the lovely things I eat in restaurants, I became hugely dismayed to learn how much butter and bacon I was eating. Healthy food requires some palate adjustment.

d) If you want to develop a good habit, you have to do it a lot. It sounds like you're not that excited about it yet. You need to figure out something that excites you and incorporate cooking into it. For instance, if you have friends over every Friday, decide to cook them dinner. If you love a good book, there are millions of "I love food" books out there - M.F.K. Fisher is a good start. If you like taking classes or watching TV, then sign up for some or buy some cooking DVDs. Etc.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:11 AM on June 6, 2005

Banjo cooks almost exclusively from Cooking Light and from my vantage point, most of the meals are pretty easy, quick, and tasty. They put out yearly round-ups of all the recipes that you can order online, I think.

I've also been bit by the cooking bug thanks in part to Alton Brown. I bought Banjo the complete 9 volume DVD set as a birthday/wedding present, but I find myself wanting to do some of the more geeky (read: cardboard box smoker) stuff myself.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:03 AM on June 6, 2005

Also, don't forget that you don't have to eat meals that resemble restaurant meals, magazine-spread meals, or what your mom made. I make "breakfast" for dinner frequently, because it's easy and satisfying. (Fried egg sandwiches, pancakes, omelette, etc.)
posted by desuetude at 6:16 AM on June 6, 2005

high quality chef's knife with a wooden handle

Do NOT buy a wooden-handled knife. Wood traps bacteria, and you wouldn't ever want to use it on raw meat. A decent knife should be completely non-organic.
posted by mkultra at 9:28 AM on June 6, 2005

mkultra: Wood *kills* bacteria. Study was done comparing wooden and plastic cutting boards that were used to cut meats and then let sit for a few hours. Bacterial load on the wooden board was less than 1% that on the plastic board. I'd expect this to generalize to knife handles too. Further, wood will not become slippery when wet/greased, and its general properties of strength and springiness make it an ergonomic delight.

And, no, you do not want to put your good Solingen blade in the dishwasher, so that shouldn't be an issue.
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:58 PM on June 19, 2005

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