How do I level up in Cooking?
October 11, 2013 2:13 PM   Subscribe

I am a moderately skilled cook, I rarely make mistakes or destroy meals and there are few dishes I do really well ( mostly roast related). I know my around around knives, understand the basic chemistry and flavor profiles going on, and can keep a large amount of things going at different speeds and heat until everything is ready. Since I've come into some free time, I'd like to up my game, go from moderate to skilled home-cooking of weekday staples to more difficult, labor intense, fussy, and visually appealing cooking. How do I go from " Beef daub served with fresh bread" to "slices of brandy soaked pears and quince elegantly arranged around applewood smoked tenderloin in a lavender sauce."? What should I be looking at, reading, listening to, and practicing?

Caveat: not a fan of seafood in general, and with the exception of Yorkshire Pudding, I don't really bake nor do I have any real desire to learn. Assume I have access to everything.
posted by The Whelk to Food & Drink (25 answers total) 94 users marked this as a favorite
like you want to work on your presentation skills? More cheffy saucing?

If you want to get more cheffy go up to Kitchen Arts and Letters on the UES and tell them what you want to do. They'll hook you up with the best books to focus on making the leap.

I mean I was jokingly going to try to cook a meal out of the Mugaritz cookbook - I gave up after about twenty minutes. Some of those Cheffy Euro cookbooks are pretty insane on the "difficult, labor intense, fussy, and visually appealing cooking." axis.

Maybe the Passard Vegetable cookbook is a good place to start - everything looks simple but beautiful, takes 7 hours to make, and tastes fucking amazing.
posted by JPD at 2:24 PM on October 11, 2013

Have you looked into culinary schools in your area? Many of them have recreational classes, not just professional career programs. You might find some inspiration in a catalog, even. (Full disclosure: I work at a culinary school).

Beyond that, I think probably plating is the next step up-the "elegant arranging" and things of that nature. Maybe find some books on food styling and fancy garnishing? Japanese food carving is crazy intricate and beautiful.

Or one of those super cheffy modernist cookbooks- Modernist Cuisine, Alinea at Home, etc.
posted by hungrybruno at 2:29 PM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

The internet abounds with DIY sous vide machines. I've been having a lot of fun with mine. It's not labour intense (to cook with), but it is fussy and you have to plan quite a bit ahead. A few months ago I made this deep fried sous vide pork belly which was pretty fussy and labour intense. and delicious.
posted by duckstab at 2:31 PM on October 11, 2013

Master the Five Mother Sauces.
posted by Rock Steady at 2:34 PM on October 11, 2013 [8 favorites]

French. Laundry. Cookbook.
posted by purpleclover at 2:36 PM on October 11, 2013

You should absolutely work your way through the French Laundry cookbook and also I volunteer to taste things.
posted by elizardbits at 2:44 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

French Laundry At Home. (Her other blog, Alinea at home, is great but terrifying in a beautiful way. I find this more inspiring and with more relatable techniques.)
posted by jetlagaddict at 2:56 PM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Develop your palette. Make the same thing a dozen times, but varying it slightly each time. Take notes about what works and what doesn't. Learn how to taste your dish as you're cooking and how to tweak accordingly. You can buy the molecular books to embrace the current trendiness and impress your dinner guests with gimmicks, but being a good cook is understanding your food and knowing how to improve it without looking at a book.

However, definitely learn your sauces. Having a good vocabulary for making reductions, aiolis, dressings and salsas will not only jazz up your cooking, but will also give you the flexibility to serve the same roast in many different ways.

beyond that, what your example alludes to (brandy-soaked pears and quince around a roast tenderloin with lavender sauce) is about coming up with a good, deep reserve shelf of condiments and food projects that you can use for whatever. Again, look to sauces and condiments.

Get yourself in the habit of making herb butters and infused simple syrups (ie. dissolve 1 cup sugar in 1 cup boiling water, then drop in mint or rosemary or lavender and let steep) and just keep these in the fridge.

Always be making stock and demi-glace. Keep frozen cubes of demi-glace in the fridge and have these to call upon for boosting a reduction or adding to a stew or braise.

Take mediocre/cheap liquor and get in the habit of soaking fruit in these to give yourself that brandy soaked fruit and fruit scented liquor.

also counterintuitively, try to do more with less and rather than make a dish out of five crazy pieces (brandied fruit and smoked meat and lavender sauce?), make it a harmony between two or three items of good quality balanced well against each other
posted by bl1nk at 2:58 PM on October 11, 2013 [11 favorites]

I went through a time in my 30's when cooking was stress relief for me. I cooked an elaborate meal almost every Saturday night, spending my entire day shopping, prepping and cooking. To me, that's the onlyway to step it up, by actually investing major amounts of time in your kitchen. I picked out a recipe earlier in the week. I sourced and obtained any unusual equipment needed. Then I sourced the ingredients and spices. After about a year, I had a great selection of all those things and found myself pretty competent. Somewhere along the way, you'll figure out what you enjoy the most. It's like any other hobby, there's no substitute for experience.
posted by raisingsand at 3:11 PM on October 11, 2013

The Elements of Taste. There's a lot of insight into how a dish gets thought of and put together.
posted by O9scar at 3:15 PM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Find a pro whose instructions work for you. I hate to say it, but Martha Stewart, if she's your thing, really does do a good job of technique instruction; she was the source of a lot of my early tricks when I stepped up my game years ago and I still use her recipes for no-fail dinner parties -- I generally prefer her videos. She's also taught me how to do things I already knew how to do to a new level (ex. make a perfect omelet).
posted by skermunkil at 3:50 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is what has been working for me:

1) Fancy gourmet cookbooks, starting with Ad Hoc At Home (this was the kindest on the learning curve for high-end cooking) and expanding into recipes from Momofuku, French Laundry, Alinea, The Fat Duck, and onwards. These are cookbooks from among the best chefs in the world, with recipes that are clear, exact, delicious, and very complicated - but always worth it. Lots of recipes in them for making ingredients (like pie crusts, and jams, and herb butters) are in these too.

2) I picked up a culinary textbook - The Professional Chef - and started going through it chapter by chapter, making every single thing it in. It's taught me all kinds of things about the consistency and taste of food, how to fix problems in your recipes, why specific ingredients or methods are used, etc. The first chapters are on stocks and sauces, and my stocks and sauces are unparalleled now.

The hardest part is just setting aside time. Many of these recipes are all-day or multi-day events requiring a lot of time and energy put into them, plus the costs of unusual ingredients and equipment.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 4:02 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

French. Laundry. Cookbook.

I have a copy on the shelf and very rarely look at it, mainly because while it is beautifully shot, it is nearly completely useless as a practical cookbook, IMO. Most of the ingredients are not obtainable as listed, and some recipes require massive amounts of prep work, for which you'd need a dedicated kitchen team working full-time — like you'd find in a restaurant like The French Laundry. I suspect this ends up being a coffee table book for 99% of the people who buy it.

If you want it to be easier to ramp up the cooking, one decent suggestion I can make is to take a knife skills class. Knowing how to efficiently prepare ingredients will save you a lot of prep time in the kitchen and get your time focused on making delicious food. Knowing how to chop up veggies in different ways can also amp up presentation like you wouldn't believe. Knowing how to bone a fish and quarter a chicken will let you get fresher product from the market, which makes for tastier food.

Second, have sharp knives. A dull knife is not only dangerous, but it will frustrate you and make your food look like it got mugged. Spend the money on a really good 8-9" chef's knife, keep it sharp and keep it clean. If you eat fish, consider getting a dedicated boning knife. Not a fan of Global. I like the feel of a Japanese MAC in my hand, but shop around until you get one that feels balanced and right — you'll know when you pick it up.

One really good chef's knife will do 95% of your work quickly and cleanly, so it's worth focusing some money there. Depending on your diet, specialized knives are okay investments, if you plan to make dishes that will use them.

As a reference, I find The Flavor Bible to be handy. You can look up the ingredients you are using and see what has been found to work best with them. This lets you tweak go-to recipes.

Irma Rombauer's Joy of Cooking and Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything are go-to guides for the basic skeleton of recipes, which you can then tweak.

Taste as you go along. Cookbooks are okay as points of departure — before you buy them, you want to read reviews and see if the recipes are tested. Too many damn cookbooks are dodgy in this regard. You'll spend a few hours slaving over the stove only to find out that the proportions are wrong, or the overall quantities are too large or small, because the author cut-and-paste one recipe into another with some slight editing to the text. Tasting will help you adjust seasoning.

Don't be afraid to write out notes in your cookbooks, where you adjusted things successfully.

Test out recipes on the bf before you use them to feed a larger dinner party. This is both romantic and will help familiarize you with a recipe's overall process, before you have to scale up.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:14 PM on October 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

I can recommend "Working The Plate" if you want an actual book about plating technique.

Don't over-romanticize the laborious cooking techniques of days gone by. There's a reason people don't cook like that any more. It sounds like you are a reasonably well-accomplished home chef already, so just keep cooking the way you do and refine your tastes and skills, as several others have already suggested.
posted by briank at 4:48 PM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

You're in luck! Most of this will involve eating. Also dinner parties.

Before that, two books you should invest in and pore over: The Flavor Bible and Sauces. The Flavor Bible will help you learn how to combine ingredients and fancy up familiar dishes. Sauces will give you templates to improvise with. Really simple dishes can be phenomenal, of course, but building a truly bulletproof pantry so you can throw stuff in on the fly and know exactly how it will work will be elaborate and essential for finesse.

What are your favorite types of cuisine? Look up a few specialty pantry lists for that type of cuisine and go get it all in one fell swoop. Now you have building blocks to put together and give your cooking totally new dimensions of flavor. It's awesome when you taste things side by side and learn how substituting a fairly common ingredient with something just a little more nuanced -- fresh tamarind instead of lime juice... or lavender instead of rosemary, for that matter -- often changes the flavor in a profound and beautiful way that gives a great "wow" factor.

Get comfortable enough with your go-to flavors that you can comfortably make things up as you go along. Make some of your tried and true favorite recipes and then dress them up using the new flavors and cooking methods you have learned -- you'd be surprised at how readily some standard recipes can be made spectacular with just a few new ingredients. Taste everything constantly and closely observe exactly how the flavor changes with each thing you add (balsamic vinegar vs. lemon juice to brighten up lentil soup? 1/8 vs. 1/4 tsp baking soda to reduce the acidity in tomato sauce?). Bring a few finishing techniques into your daily repertoire -- deglaze with all kinds of booze and stock, do a quick flambe on any stir fry or saute, or give your plated dish a few dashes of some nice fruity olive oil.

On that note, having a bunch of different varieties of each of these things will give you a lot of bandwidth for experimentation while cooking and finishing: wine, olive oil, vinegar, salt, pepper.

Test your dishes out on people who will be brutally honest with you. If you have friends who cook professionally, ask them to critique your knife skills to see if there's any pro tips you're inadvertently missing out on.

Buy a Victorinox Fibrox chef's knife. And as always, use way more fat and salt than you think you should. Have fun!
posted by divined by radio at 4:57 PM on October 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

Grow some herbs wherever you have the space and light, on windowsills or balconies for example. A supply of fresh herbs always at hand is a great resource for flavoring, garnishing and even inspiring your culinary masterpieces. Thyme, rosemary, basil, chives and Italian parsley would be a good start and wouldn't take up too much space.
posted by islander at 6:43 PM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I rarely make mistakes or destroy meals and there are few dishes I do really well ( mostly roast related).

This is the line that I would tackle. Make friggin mistakes. If you aren't working on something outside of your ability and repertoire, then take something in your repertoire and break it. Deconstruct everything, pull out the spice, sear early, sear late, change the order, omit ingredients, add more of something - do something to make it wrong to learn how to make it better - or more to the point why you are doing what it is that you are doing. It calls for 1/8" brunoise? Why not try 1/16" brunoisette, it calls for 2 minute sear for high heat? could you braise it instead? It calls for butter, can you change to safflower oil or a fortified butter, or triple butter, or whatever. You want to understand what you know, make what you know foreign. Heck, omit ingredients just to find out whether the ingredient was actually necessary - guests routinely mistake a bunch of herbs thrown in something for a mark of quality (when instead it may just be a WTF?!?!? to someone trained)

I know my around around knives, understand the basic chemistry and flavor profiles going on, and can keep a large amount of things going at different speeds and heat until everything is ready.

Dissecting this sentence:
-I'll ignore knife skills - if your competent, only practical use will make you better. All I'd say is, if you can cut it, check to see how long you take, and the next time you make it try to do it faster, 20 minutes last time? Shoot for doing it in 18 next time, or double your output in the allotted 20 minutes.
-On chemistry - oh really, you know what's going on? Find out what the chemical reaction that is going on in what you know - then look it up, find the next chemical reaction in a text book and as long as it isn't poisonous, figure out how to include that chemical process in your cooking. Alternatively, figure out new ways to start the original chemical process.
-Flavor profiles... see that first paragraph.... work it, and you'll get there.
-It isn't a question as to how many things you can make - its a question of how well you make the things you make. Here's the challenge I'd extend here. If you do dinner parties with say, 7 courses, do a dinner party with 3. You've got less to distract you and more time to focus on each dish. Don't be the Cheesecake Factory. Their menu is too busy. I used to go with a lot of courses to impress guests. I cut it back to 3 or 4 dishes and wow, you really hang it out there - there's less room for error.
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:46 PM on October 11, 2013

You might enjoy this HarvardX class that I'm also registered for: Science & Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science. Instructors include Harold McGee, José Andrés, Ferran Adria, and a whole bunch more cool folks. Let me know if you register; I'm already forgetting to do the homework so maybe we could have study group. (That goes for anyone reading this!)
posted by librarina at 8:44 PM on October 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

I find my skills increased when I tried recipes and cuisines from outside my normal range. This will most likely be different for you, but for me it involved making French classics, a wander through Thai cuisine, a detour via India and a long stay in Japan. Each cuisine has their own techniques (spice pastes, dashi stock, tadka seasoning) that can inform and improve your everyday skills. Videos are excellent for this sort of thing and YouTube is the gold mine. Watching someone demonstrating a technique is worth a thousand diagrams.

Also, knifework - your knife skills might be competent but how's your sharpening? With a truly razor-sharp knife, I can take a reasonably-good chiffonnade and turn it into something spectacular - your garnishes will love you. I seriously cannot recommend buying your own sharpening kit enough - two basic Japanese water stones (400 and 1000 grit) should set you back $80-100 and the payoff is immediate.
posted by ninazer0 at 11:12 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

This blog (which seems to have petered out) has a lot of really gorgeous ultra-high concept / "molecular" recipes that look totally plausible at home, looks like they would be fun to practise with
posted by runincircles at 12:05 AM on October 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm a big fan of Youtube chefs. They have taken me through all my stages of cooking proficiency, from complete newb to where it looks like you want to be. Watching videos of someone make food is super helpful, plus most of these chefs make an attempt to plate the food as well, something I am also particularly interested in.

Some ones that I recommend:
Foodwishes (my personal favorite)
Steve's Cooking
Serious Eats
Cooking with Dog
Laura in the Kitchen

A book I also recommend Cook's Illustrated: The Science of Good Cooking. This book is great as they explain the science behind many of the classic cooking techniques along with some recipes incorporating those techniques. Not only are the recipes great, learning the science behind the recipes really helped me start to develop my own style an recipes. Good luck!
posted by Geppp at 7:36 AM on October 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

Forgot to mention: if you don't want to spend hundreds of dollars on a Big Green Egg, you can smoke stuff at home in a store-bought stovetop smoker, or make your own out of a wok, rack, and aluminum foil (indoor) or terra cotta flower pots and a hot plate (outdoor).

Here is a great instructional video that shows you how to use/make a stovetop smoker.
posted by divined by radio at 11:50 AM on October 12, 2013

I like Iron Chef. Perhaps not the most practical show, but you see a lot of interesting techniques that you could later explore. Also, Michael Symon's "Cook Like an Iron Chef" is more for the everyday kitchen, though most of it is above my skill level :)
posted by kathrynm at 5:53 PM on October 12, 2013

Study the history, just as you would with any other topic. The 'Larousse Gastronomique' is a nice thing to have, but if you can hunt one down, Hering's Dictionary of Classical and Modern Cookery, an old and incredibly densely packed volume, is a fabulous thing to have. It doesn't tell you how to do anything, it just tells you what has been done and what it's called. Look up any foodstuff, find twenty-five things to do with it, a la this and a la that, all sorts of things that were things and still are things in some places but which you haven't heard of. It's like any other art; learn the rules before you break them and all that. Cannot recommend the Hering's volume highly enough.
posted by kmennie at 6:22 AM on October 13, 2013

Not yet mentioned, Sally Schneider's The Improvisational Cook, to give you the freedom to take well-informed flights of fancy.
posted by mumkin at 12:20 AM on October 14, 2013

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