Help a geek out in the kitchen!
August 19, 2012 4:42 PM   Subscribe

Please help me figure out how to select good recipes for day-to-day cooking, as a functional cook with plenty of cookbooks and reasonable cooking abilities, but limited instincts/experience!

So, I'm a late-20s guy, and I'm admittedly not a very kitchen-y sort of dude. I have about 5 things I cook really well, mostly based on recipes my friends and family gave me that I've refined over the years. I can follow recipes, so that's not a problem (although I'm not going to complain about nifty trick ponies like Cooking for Engineers). I'm just not very good at tracking down new recipes, from the sea of info that's out there.

I recently started cohabitating with my beautiful, amazing girlfriend, who loves food and cooking. Our kitchen relationship so far has basically seen me serving as the sous chef, and/or doing all the dishes/cleaning, except for the rare occasions I do one of my specialty things (which she has no complaint with, but she does like variety). Before we started dating, I was pretty much in "Grad student eat ramen!" mode 9 days out of 10, and I've been eating so much better, and I appreciate all the exposure/delicious food. She isn't asking me to cook more, but I'm starting to feel guilty about the imbalance, and I'd like to contribute more in terms of recipe ideas and elbow-grease.

She has a mind that can instantaneously summon up the contents of our fridge and pantry, and potential delicious things to do with it, about the same way my brain knows the APIs to a variety of programming languages and the details of several metal and wood fabrication processes, and the contents of my shop. This is frustratingly daunting to me, on top my lack of instinctive knowledge of recipes and food. I don't need to train myself to her level of awareness, but I need to get myself in a better place mentally for cooking, I think.

So, how do you go about cultivating that kind of grasp? I've got a few cookbooks (most notably America's Best Recipe, from the America's Test Kitchen folks), but I'm totally daunted by the scale of the book (almost 1000 pages). My brain just doesn't have enough cooking in it to say "well, why don't we _____ tonight, I'll go get the ingredients," even after flipping through the thing. It's partially being overwhelmed with options (and not having a good metric for discriminating time/effort vs. outcome) and partially feeling like I have no idea what's in the kitchen already (because I honestly don't, no matter if I bought most of it last week or not)!

I am almost certain that some of what I need to do is just decide that I'm going to like cooking, and seek out information about recipes/cooking theory the same way I do my other hobbies. I don't think I'm ever going to get as excited about the stove as I do the soldering iron, but I'd like to get into it at least enough to contribute more. Any tips on how to make that happen better? Any resources I should be reading?
posted by Alterscape to Home & Garden (21 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
The book I love, and recently gave to a friend with the same angst about cooking as you, is Lynn Rosetto Kasper's How to Eat Supper.

It's comfortable, small, and the recipes are all pretty easy and fabulous. More importantly, she chats in her friendly way about why things work, and how to modify them, and offers lots of simple variations. It's really fabulous

She also does the Splendid Table radio show you may have heard on public radio.
posted by purenitrous at 5:03 PM on August 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

The three words most relevant to you here are Alton Fucking Brown.

Seriously, Alton Brown has this kind of "kitchen is workshop" mentality that you might be really into. He tells you not just how to cook but how cooking works. His book (the third link above) does a fantastic job of breaking down the cooking thing so that you can understand how to improvise a meal.
posted by Jon_Evil at 5:06 PM on August 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would recommend that you learn, instead of how to make specific dishes, how to make a basic dish that can be easily varied. Focus on basic cooking principles and then you can improvise or fall back on a favorite on demand.

You really ought to learn how to make a basic soup stock, basic yeast bread (from which can come pizza, flat breads, pretzels, foccacia, and um bread), basic roux and several basic sauces, how to braise meat (from which you can turn a cheap cut of meat into a feast with low heat and patience), how to roast vegetables, make basic doughs (biscuit, pastry, cookie). You get the idea. Learn techniques and principles you are equipped with the tools to do way more than recreate specific recipes.

One really great resource is the Flavor Bible, which gives you a quick way to match flavors that go together. It's a great resource for finding out what would go with the stuff you have on hand.

And one favorite is Cook's Illustrated. It's a publication that devotes itself to learning techniques and innovating, but it has great recipes as well. I learn a lot from every issue and I've been cooking for a couple of decades now.

Needless to say, Alton Brown is my personal hero.

But you certainly have the most important things you need -- motivation and curiosity. Bon Apetit.
posted by cross_impact at 5:16 PM on August 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Following on from cross_impact's excellent comment:

Cooking is less bewildering if you think in terms of classes rather than recipes.

For example, once you've learned how rice, pasta, and potatoes behave (and later, dough), you'll find you can work almost any constellation of ingredients into one (and sometimes any) of the following classes of dishes, particularly if you've got fresh vegetables at hand:


This way, you don't have to deal with the frustration of recipes not turning out quite the way they'd promised. You can just focus on what kind of heat you feel like working with (i.e., none/wet/greasy/dry), and how soon you want to eat. Good luck!
posted by thisclickableme at 5:26 PM on August 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

When it comes to picking out recipes, it helps to artificially limit your options. Decide ahead of time what you're going to base your meal around -- a cut of meat that you have in the freezer, a vegetable that was in season at the market, a bottle of wine that you need to use up. Then just flip to the index of whatever cookbook you're using (I spend a lot of time with the Epicurious app, personally) and pick out something that looks tasty and which requires a minimum of additional shopping.

As for the "intuitive cooking" part: Make as wide a variety of dishes as you can, and taste frequently while you cook. And smell. Smell CONSTANTLY, particularly when seasoning raw meat or other foods that you can't taste right away. Smell and/or taste ingredients before you add them, and pay attention to how the smell and/or flavor of the dish changes. Pay attention to patterns in recipes -- what flavors or ingredients tend to be paired with each other? What non-intuitive combinations have yielded results that you enjoyed?

Learning to be an intuitive cook is a lot like learning a language -- at first you pick up stock phrases, then you learn to combine those phrases to express more complex ideas, over time you learn the underlying grammar that informs how sentences are structured, and eventually you acquire a larger vocabulary that allows you to directly translate your thoughts into words with all of their nuance intact. The key really is to pay attention to all of the details and understand how they're working together.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 5:26 PM on August 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Surprised that no one has mentioned How to Cook Everything yet. That will really help with the intuitive part of cooking. Bittman includes a lot of tables of variations in the book, and each recipe has a few variations printed with it as well.

When you see something that looks good, you can buy it and know that you'll find something to do with it in How to Cook Everything. I particularly like the iPhone app for this reason: I can pick something up in the store, decide that I want to nom it, and then look up relevant recipes on my phone to make sure that I have everything I need at home (if not, I'm still at the store, and I can decide if I want to get other stuff to go along with it).
posted by k8lin at 5:47 PM on August 19, 2012

yeah, I was going into this thread to pitch How To Cook Everything. That book, moreso than any other cookbook that I've owned, taught me how to improvise. Basically, Bittman will lay out a basic recipe for, say, sauteed chicken cutlets and then will follow it up with different ways to tweak it by just adjusting the recipe at this step or substituting an ingredient at another step. He also has multiple cross-references to show you how to build a meal menu from different recipes. It's a very modular approach to cooking and taught me how to do more than just follow recipes.
posted by bl1nk at 6:25 PM on August 19, 2012

Let me speak to your software sense.

Most recipes are like design patterns. My favorite example is salad dressing. The basic dressing is simple: oil, vinegar, salt, mustard, pepper. This is the design pattern for vinaigrette. Ah, but now you have a playfield of variations on that basic design pattern. Which vinegar? Cider, red wine, white wine, champagne - heck lemon juice. If you're using red wine vinegar, try rosemary. Or thyme. Serving with poultry, try sage. Add a smashed clove of garlic. How to do this is not unlike knowing when you're going to use an abstract base class, versus an interface, vs a set of replaceable method pointers. You learned all those things by writing a lot of code. You learn the sensibilities of cooking by cooking more, trying things and making mistakes and having successes. Cooking isn't about the recipe in front of you. It's about understanding how the recipe works - how it all hangs together.

Given a recipe for soup, I can make it, but the real fun is looking at what you have and deciding what kind of soup you're going to make tonight.

By the way - try this (speaking of soup): 1 28 oz can of whole tomatoes packed in tomato juice - pout the whole thing in a blender and puree until smooth. Strain out the seeds. The rest goes in a pot with a little masala powder (maybe 1t or more depending on how spicy it is). Heat up until warm, serve with a little cream poured in last minute or a pat of butter. This works because the tomatoes are already cooked and ready to go. No salt needed - the canning process took care of that. Masala complements tomato well. The dairy (you could use sour cream too), cuts the acid and the spice.
posted by plinth at 6:27 PM on August 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have to disagree with the idea that you should start with learning how to make bread dough, stock, etc., because while those things are important to a deeper understanding of cooking, even the people who already know how to do them don't generally do them at 6:00 on a weeknight after getting home from work. Instead, try focusing on how to do the absolutely most delicious things possible with the ingredients you already base most of your meals around. Main ingredients that are quick to cook include pasta, fish, eggs, chicken parts like thighs and breasts, canned beans, and pan-cookable red meats like lamb chops and sausages; at least while you're learning, leave the larger cuts of meat to the weekend, when you have time to braise, roast, etc. for an hour or more.

Second, one of my favorite ways to assess a new recipe or make one up is to focus on contrast of flavor, either within a recipe or between two things you're serving together. The most important contrast to me is between rich/fatty and sharp/acidic. So if I'm making chicken milanese, which is rich/fatty from all those fried breadcrumbs, I'll make a quick tomato-basil-red onion salad, which is sharp/acidic, to serve with it. Or when I was making an improvised pasta dish with little bits of sauteed asparagus, I figured I might want something rich/fatty to balance out that springy, "green" flavor of the asparagus, so I added some toasted walnuts and crumbled blue cheese. (And it was really good, I make it all the time now.) To me, most meats and fish fall on the rich spectrum of taste, even if they don't actually contain much oil, so one thing I often do with fish is just saute them and make some kind of moderately sharp-tasting vegetable relish or sauce to put on top. Once you know something like that works for you, you can look around for recipes along those lines to inspire you as far as ingredients; this looks really good, for example. A lot of traditional recipes (like this one, which puts the richness of the fish and butter against the sharpness of lemon juice and capers) also work by these principles.

So going from there, you can start by coming up with one reliable, adaptable way to cook each main ingredient (Pasta: quick stovetop vegetable sauce. Fish: sauteed with a pan sauce or relish. Beans: bean salad. (I like this one, it's like a caprese with protein.) Etc. etc.) and then looking for recipes that use combinations of vegetables that sound good to you. Or just use what looks especially good at the market. It often works best to buy some beautiful vegetables first and then decide what main ingredient would go, since most main ingredients keep longer than vegetables do.

Food blogs are a great source for recipes, since they're curated; you just have to find a blogger whose taste agrees with yours, and then you can go right through the archives bookmarking things. Smitten Kitchen is my favorite.
posted by ostro at 6:27 PM on August 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have two specific suggestions for you, in addition to the big-picture advice you're getting above. I am also a competent--but not great--cook with a somewhat limited repertoire. I own How to Cook Everything but find it immensely overwhelming, as I suspect you would.

First suggestion: ask your family cook* for their treasured recipes. In my case, that's my mom and I sat down with her and asked her to write out all of my favorites from when I was a kid. I ended up initially with over 20 recipes and from time to time we think of more to add (I've got the recipes altogether in a Google doc so when I want to cook, I pull up the doc on my laptop and refer to it as needed). This gives you a limited but still broader list of recipes to master. Think of them, to use the language metaphor above, as vocab words to help you master your new language.

*If you don't have a family tradition of treasured meals and recipes, I suggest asking your girlfriend's family cook (mom, grandma, favorite uncle, whomever headed Thanksgiving dinner for the family) for their recipes, which is also a nice way to bond with her family. If neither of you have family that you're comfortable asking, MeMail me and I will send you my mom's awesome list.

Second suggestion: if you are at *all* a visual person, learn to use Tastespotting; if not, use another recipe generator. Dive into that broader pool of recipes and expand your 'vocab' pretty quickly. I use Tastespotting in an RSS feed and when I see a photo of a recipe I want to try, I click on the recipe and see if it's something I'm competent in, or interested in learning more about. If it passes both the visual and the practical test, then I flag it in my reader (I use Google Reader) and add a couple of key words to tag it (so, Chicken Fettucine would be tagged 'chicken, pasta, fettucine, easy').

Over time, techniques and concepts and flavors sink in through repetition. Reading's not as good as trying it all yourself, but think of it like a textbook; sometimes the textbook is handy and sometimes you need to try it out yourself. It also has the advantage of coming at you one at a time, instead of all at once in the form of a cookbook.
posted by librarylis at 7:05 PM on August 19, 2012

Get a crockpot.. when you dont feel like cooking. Dump edible stuff into it.. 8 hrs later deliciousness. Also get practicing on using your knife to cut vegetables
posted by radsqd at 7:57 PM on August 19, 2012

You don't mention which recipes are the ones that already make up your rotation of specialties, or what you want to add. Once you know what you want to be cooking, you will collect the staples needed to start most meals. If you like mediterrannean, you'll keep canned chickpeas

If roast chicken is not on the list, learn one. If you already have roast chicken done one particular way, add in new ways. Tonight I roasted chicken leg quarters. What did I do to them? I washed and dried 3, rubbed about 2 tablespoons of butter on the skins, sprinkled a mix of Herbs de Provence, salt, and pepper over the them. Put them on a foil covered baking sheet with potato quarters and baked for 40 minutes, finished under the broiler until crispy. Roasting a whole chicken isn't that different. As for chicken pieces, I find that thighs are more forgiving than breasts. If you don't have a meat thermometer already, get one. I have one with a cord.

Lamb chops are really easy and pretty impressive, if you need to add special occasion meal.

Learn to make gravy. Then learn to make other gravies. Once you have a few gravy recipes you can put together one from whatever you have around.

Learn to make rice in a stovetop pot, unless you really like a rice cooker. Then learn to add stuff to rice, learn what meats you like with rice.

Salads. I like salads, and I keep things on hand for them if I can. I keep a bag of hearts of Romaine in the fridge. Roasted red peppers and feta cheese and a tomato makes a pretty good "greek salad," add onion and cucumber and olives and you've got a real one. Next salad, throw in a few shrimp, or a chopped chicken breast, and add whatever else you like in a salad. As was said above, salad dressing is a great skill. If you want a fruity salad, you can make a fruity dressing. If you are in the mood for greek salad but don't have greek dressing, you might have oregano and the other herbs for it. Save yourself some room in the fridge (who wants to keep half a dozen kinds of dressing bottles?) Being able to throw together a salad helps stall company while you think of what to actually cook, or stave off starvation after a long day.

I make The Pioneer Woman's Lasagna because it is the closest thing to my "throw it all together in proportions that look right" lasagne that makes it the same every time. I like it so much that I tripled the meat sauce recipe last time and put two portions in the freezer. So tonight I made a lasagne with practically no effort (mixing the cheeses is very easy.) Since we have our dinners for the week planned out, most of the lasagne went into the freezer for the future.

The Best Recipe from Cook's Illustrated is an awesome cookbook. I just put a batch of muffins into the oven from that book. Their recipe is super customizable- savory or sweet! And delicious. You can make other sweet things that you like. Cookies are easy.

So. Um. I guess the take away from my rambling is, what kinds of cuisine do you really love? Find the salads, chickens, and appetizers that go together in that cuisine and you will be able to make a meal that "goes together."
posted by bilabial at 8:52 PM on August 19, 2012

Like several posters in this thread and many other MeFites, I love Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, and in large part learned to cook from it. But it is large and overwhelming. What I found much less overwhelming are Mark Bittman's smaller, here's-an-idea-for-a-meal volumes like The Minimalist Cooks Dinner. He'll give you a basic recipe, some thoughts about what would go with it to make a meal, and in the course of doing so, introduce you to cooking and improvising in a way that should lead you to be able to take advantage of How to Cook Everything.
posted by willbaude at 9:23 PM on August 19, 2012

Think subroutines of conditional complexity based on load balancing. In other words, start with a basic routine and then expand the basic routine if time and skill and planning permit. Generally I mix simple and complex. An awesome steak I'll pair with grilled corn (butter + salt + pepper in a tinfoil wrap - start 10 minutes before the steaks, rotate frequently). Grilled yellow squash + Zucchini (Slice lengthwise, salt + pepper + light olive oil, rub and flip and repeat)

Here's an iterative attempt at planning an awesome steak, or even a semi-awesome, or a palatable steak - dependent on how much time and manpower resource I can put into it..

#1. As a home cook, you can improve your adaptability by having some pre-prep around. In a restaurant I wouldn't recommend having containers of chopped onion, and garlic handy, but it does make my life easier when I need to whip up a quick sauteed greens, oven roasted potatoes, or turn a spice mix into a salad dressing or marinade. (Especially with two kids who are tearing apart the next room over every minute I'm not in the room with them)

#2. Bulk mix some spices that you like together for quick seasoning. My default (unconscious) mix is generally: Cumin, Chili Powder, Allspice, Turmeric, Salt, Pepper. I have a very little Rubbermaid container that I get this from. Sometimes I'll add Coriander (though I hate to sift it, so I really have to be motivated). Spice mixes get used as dry rubs, or they get mixed into dressings and marinades.

#3. Mustard is an emulsifier, if you have a 'wand' or a handheld, I'll put in my spice mix, some Worcestershire (or balsamic - with a different spice mix, or soy) then I'll drop in a 1/4 C chopped onion and a heaping Tbsp of chopped garlic. I then put a tsp of mustard (dijon or stone ground) and add oil (from a bottle with a quickpour) while I blend thoroughly my marinade.

#4. Marinades are about time. 8 hours for red meats, 4 for poultry. fish isn't covered in #3.

#5. What's even better than a marinade is a brine. Spice Mix + a little extra salt + bayleaf +(possibly) sugar + water in a pan that the meat will submerge in. Minimum 12 hours. Remove, rinse, pat dry and rack for 5 minutes. Spice mix the outside of the meat. Then oven or grill. If grilling, get marks on one side, then flip and baste with the marinade.
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:59 PM on August 19, 2012

I think this is what you want:
How to Cook Without a Book: Recipes and Techniques Every Cook Should Know by Heart

It explains basic techniques and describes variations. Just use it and practice. You'll get better quickly.
posted by islandeady at 10:35 PM on August 19, 2012

I think we've been sold this idea about recipe books, that we can buy them and instantly jazz up our eating, when a majority of them are no better than coffee-table look-books.
I find older collections of classic, regional dishes a lot better for my cooking education than "101 ways with couscous".

It really helps to find inspiration from some other source than just putting food on the table, to get you excited about your stove. Embrace your geekdom and obsess about something.

At the moment, I have decided we are obsessed with Louisiana, and exploring that cuisine has taught me new things, or refreshed some techniques I hadn't used in ages, eg:
- a new way of thinking about roux, which to me previously was a tablespoonful of pale bechamel sauce thickener. Now I can cheerfully make cups of dangerously dark brown artery-stopper.
- the importance of The Trinity (bell pepper, onion, garlic) and softening your chopped vegetables nicely.
- a new double-meat combo - chicken and smoked sausage! Who'd a thunk.
- the courage to tackle shrimp - what was I afraid of?

When we were obsessing about Austro-Hungarian cooking, I learnt how to crumb a schnitzel so that it sticks, a marinade for venison that goes equally well with beef, a marjoram sauce for lamb, my original double-meat revelation (bacon makes beef taste better!) and so on.

It isn't mastering entire recipes that makes a good cook, it's a slow accumulation of fragments like this, and a bit of passion with practice will do it.

I want to nth the recommendations to get one good book that focuses on techniques over recipes.
This book is my own particular bible, very straightforward, it describes a technique and then gives a specific recipe. If I am confronted by an unexpected gift (Dude, did you really just give me a dead duck?) or inspired by something obscure at the market, it's the first place I turn to find something to do with it.

And watch what your girlfriend does, get her to explain her techniques as she goes. Then you try making the dish yourself, maybe a week later - if a meal is good, it will bear repeating.

Lots of practice, like any other skill. Once you get a rota of techniques and meals under your belt, you will be more familiar with the fridge and pantry, because you will be keeping your favourites in stock.
posted by Catch at 11:50 PM on August 19, 2012

I'd highly recommend Ruhlman's Ratios for someone who wants to cook more and learn to cook more intuitively.

The book is centered around the idea that the same basic ingredients are used for lots of recipes just with varying ratios between them and differing techniques. Once you've got a handle on those, you've got a solid foundation to build from and experiment with as well as a far more intuitive sense of what you're doing and what you could expect to happen when you combine things together.

For example, pretty much all dough related recipes are a combination of flour, water, fat, sugar and eggs. Basic bread dough is 10/6-7 flour to water. Pie crust is 3/2/1 flour, fat, water. Pate au Choux is 2/1/1/2 water, flour, fat, eggs and depending on how you cook the dough (and what extra ingredients you add) you can get eclairs or cheese puffs, or parisian gnocchi.
posted by MrBear at 3:47 AM on August 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

A hearty second to Ruhlman's Ratios. For each one of those ratios you memorize you have a whole class of dishes you can create pretty much at whim.

As for making stocks, breads, and braising meats -- sure, nobody expects to come home at 6:00 and start making a soup base or start proofing bread dough. Those things are what you make when you have time. A good stock, bread, or braised meat can take hours, but they are a great "background" activity that takes a relatively small amount of attention over the better part of a day. I make a great "football" stock. I get it going before kickoff and then nudge it if needed during timeouts. By the end of second game I've got enough stock to last me all week. Same thing for baking bread or braising a cut of meat.

The key is that, when you have time to do it, make a lot. So many recipes start with a good stock. So many different dishes rest upon a good bread. And one roast pork loin and chicken can be your base proteins all week. It takes a lot of time to build up incredible flavor, but once you have it you are at a jumping off point to so many great dishes.

Then at 6:00 after work you can whip up a sauce, create a salad, roast some vegetables, etc, to go with what you have prepared. You can do what I think of as the "fun part" of cooking -- bringing flavors together in a unique combination -- once you've gotten the heavy lifting of the base ingredients done ahead of time.
posted by cross_impact at 6:09 AM on August 20, 2012

Over the last couple of months, Mark Bittman's cooking column in the NY Times Sunday Magazine has not been about recipes, but variations on themes. Yesterday, he said he rarely uses recipes any more, but knows from long experience what will work and what won't.

I got the feel for what works by reading lots of recipes and making lots of mistakes. You only need to dip a tea bag into a cup of coffee, or try sauteed radishes in an omelet, to learn that some things don't work. You learn about what does work by remembering what recipes do.

Begin with something like Recipes 1-2-3 and ring the variations.

Remember that with good ingredients, simpler is better. The best way to roast a whole chicken is to put it in a big frying pan, stuff a big sprig of rosemary inside, pour 1/4 cup of melted butter over it and roast it at 400 degrees until the skin is dark-golden. I usually add a couple of unpeeled onions and maybe a roasting potato to the pan.
posted by KRS at 8:11 AM on August 20, 2012

I recently got into cooking in a big way, and my gateway was What I started doing was looking through all the pretty pictures then bookmarking the ones that look best. Almost all of the recipes have step-by-step photos which makes it so much easier to grasp what you're supposed to be doing.

Cooking and shopping/stocking for ingredients suddenly became incredibly easy, since most of the recipes use the same base ingredients (flour, spices, salt, soy sauce, chicken, onion, canned tomato, blah blah!). Now I can just look in the fridge, and with whatever we have I can whip something up easily (and when I can't, I just search through the recipes with the items I have on hand input into the search).

It's really the step by step photos, combined with the text description and recipe comments that have helped me develop my basic cooking skills. I own many of the "classic" cook books, but I'm tellin' ya, it's the extensive cooking blog photos that make things easier.
posted by french films about trains at 8:29 PM on August 20, 2012

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