Couch to 5k...for cooking?
April 9, 2016 1:23 PM   Subscribe

My experience in the kitchen is limited to pouring a bowl of cereal. But I'd like to become a decent cook. Are there any books or website guides that go from zero to chef? Something that would have me cooking basics one by one and build my way to actually making some dishes and knowing what I'm doing in the kitchen. Thanks!
posted by rastapasta to Food & Drink (30 answers total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything is a commonly recommended cookbook for folks just like yourself. It contains both recipes and discussions of the food therein (for example, the beef section will talk about cuts, or mention of a type of vegetable or fruit will also be accompanied by a bit about selecting appropriately ripe specimens). I'm a decent cook and still find myself returning to it every now and again when I want to try something new.
posted by axiom at 1:31 PM on April 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'd recommend Julia Child's The Way to Cook for this. She starts out with the basic-basics, and takes you through foundational cooking skills (making a stock or a white sauce, cutting up a chicken, boiling an egg, etc.), and then expands on those skills to make a variety of different dishes. So rather than just learning how to make specific recipes, she shows you how those recipes are put together, so you learn to improvise and adapt and troubleshoot your cooking.

And she's Julia Child. She practically invented instructional cooking as we know it.
posted by ernielundquist at 1:47 PM on April 9, 2016 [5 favorites]

a 2nd for Mark Bittman- I gave this to Mr Bluesky and I think he made every recipe. and the pie crust recipe is sooooo easy and so good, foolproof!
posted by bluesky43 at 1:50 PM on April 9, 2016

3rd for the Bittman
posted by Skipjack at 1:53 PM on April 9, 2016

It isn't quite as Day 1, Day 2 as you're looking for, but Jamie Oliver's cookbooks -- particularly the earlier ones -- are somewhat like that.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:00 PM on April 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Children's cookbooks might be useful. They usually have lots of pictures and break recipes down into simple steps. I liked the Ella's Kitchen Cookbook, which we got from the library a few times.
posted by chocotaco at 2:15 PM on April 9, 2016

The Pioneer Woman's recipes almost always include a photo for each step. There are assumptions about knowing how to do some things, such as browning beef, etc., but I'd think that many of them should be accessible with just a little bit of research on steps that aren't clear.

Chef John, on his YouTube channel Food Wishes, films entire recipes from start to finish. He also has a Tips and Techniques playlist.

Mario Batali does How-To Tuesdays on his YouTube channel. Also check out some of the "Related Chanels" on his YT page, as well Chef John's.

One big tip for a newbie chef is the concept of mise en place, which is fancy for "have every ingredient measured, cleaned, cut, etc. and sitting in front of you when you start cooking". This may seem like a pain at first, but is incredibly helpful.
posted by dave*p at 2:55 PM on April 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

Bittman also has an iPad app for "How to Cook Everything" that includes video clips, photos etc. I highly highly recommend. I think the first recipe is literally "how to boil an egg", all the way up to seared scallops and some pretty impressive (for me) stuff.
posted by ista at 3:10 PM on April 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Pick up Professional Cooking for American Chefs by Gisslen. Standard culinary school textbook that walks through every single basic thing there is, with photos. The CIA (no, not that CIA) also has a series of cookbooks ranging from beginner to advanced.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 3:10 PM on April 9, 2016

Seventeen Magazine's 1964 cookbook starts with "how to boil water" and moves on from there, and it's charmingly retro (and you'll learn how to cook a spread for a prom and how to make cookies for the boy who carries your books, if that sort of thing amuses you with its retroness -- imagine catering your own school dances!). It's a very legit beginner's guide, though. It's in three parts -- Basics, Everyday Cooking, and Parties. Basics seriously includes boiling water and opening cans and very, very, very beginner cooking stuff. Everyday Cooking starts to walk you through making simple meals and sides.

Some of the stuff is TOO 50s-casserole-retro, if you know what I mean, but there are actually several recipes from it that I still make frequently because they're really good!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:27 PM on April 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've watched a lot of Food Wishes, although it took me a while to get used to his voice.

I also highly recommend Blue Apron, or another service like it. It takes out a lot of the hassle/food waste that comes with learning to balance your perishables, while getting you up to speed on some basic cooking techniques.

Most importantly, though: have fun, and don't be hard on yourself. You will make many, many unappetizing mistakes, even if you follow all your recipes down to the milligram. Don't stress over it.

Good luck!
posted by miniraptor at 3:32 PM on April 9, 2016

Turns out I conflated two titles in my head. This is the book from the CIA, it's really good, walks you through everything.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 3:36 PM on April 9, 2016

Or this, but I think the CIA book has the edge.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 3:37 PM on April 9, 2016

Mark Bittman also has an illustrated version of How to Cook Everything subtitled "the Basics" that I got for my brother on first moving out. It really assumes nothing about skill level.
posted by chiquitita at 3:40 PM on April 9, 2016

I think a lot of the recommendations are good for general recipe collections and Bittman does have some tutorial style elements in it like how to quarter a chicken and such but if you really want couch to 5k style learning I suggest you look for cookbooks that are targeted at bachelors or college students. They typically assume you are starting at zero and need to know every little thing. There are lots of them on amazon.
posted by srboisvert at 3:44 PM on April 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

Read Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking before you do anything. It will save you a lot of hardship in the future. Then, with what you learned in the book in mind, start by cooking the dishes that you like to eat.

Knowing what you are doing in the kitchen is more powerful than having a large repitoire of recipes. In fact I don't even think cooking from recipes is that helpful. You need to get a sense of how to cook things. There is only one way to do that in my opinion: practice + knowledge. Cook every day and be a curious cook, you'll be cooking in no time.
posted by Infernarl at 4:40 PM on April 9, 2016

I know this isn't exactly what you're asking for but, having self taught how to cook as an adult, perhaps it might be useful.

I did two things that really helped. First, I watched cooking shows. Not goofy BATTLE KITCHEN! type shows, but legit walk you through the steps of making a dish and explaining why you're doing stuff types of shows. Tastes vary but I enjoy watching Good Eats and old episodes of The French Chef. Really though, whatever appeals to you is good. I rarely made anything from those shows, what I got out of them was examples of technique, explanations of why we do things in certain ways while cooking, and so on. Just general knowledge.

Second, I got a few general purpose cookbooks and just started making stuff. I wasn't rigorous about it, and I didn't even try to proceed in some logical order, I just made whatever appealed. I started with simple stuff but then gradually got fancier. I don't think you have to cook a huge amount before you've got enough basic skills to tackle whatever. The trick is to just start doing it and then, just like learning to work on a car, you get confidence and things don't really frighten you anymore. Even complex recipes transition from seeming impossible to just a lot of work.

Starting is the main thing. Recognize that the first few things you make will be expensive because you don't have a well stocked pantry yet, and will seem to take forever. Keep after it though and you'll get the knack. Mistakes are no big deal, it's just cooking. You can always order out some pizza.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 4:51 PM on April 9, 2016

Cooking for Dummies was helpful for me.

I suggest going to a physical bookstore and looking at several of the cookbooks named in this thread. See which ones appeal to you, which have recipes (at least 5) that you find interesting and think you would enjoy eating, and which make you think "oh, I could do that."
posted by bunderful at 5:17 PM on April 9, 2016

I took a cooking class with Elaine Corn last year, and she's great. She has a book out for beginner cooks, with easy recipes with less than 10 ingredients and they come out delicious. I was terrified of risotto until I learned how to make it in her class, and now I make it like a rock star (and it's truly so easy!) One of the things I love about her book is this: it tells you not just what to do, but specifically when to do it. This is a subtle thing that's one of the hardest things to learn while learning how to cook because you don't see the big picture. For example, while the sauce is simmering for 20 minutes, you can use that time to clean up the mess from the prep work and set out the cutting board for chopping veggies. She gives a glossary, tells you exactly how to cut things, what not to do, and she manages to give a lot of information in a brief way right inside the recipe, so you don't have to read a novel before you actually start cooking. Also, she's quite funny and reading her recipes can be pretty entertaining.

One tip: read the entire recipe first.
Another tip: Do you have a local co-op or community kitchen where professionals teach classes for beginners? Take advantage of that, if you can - it's worth the cost and you'll learn much faster than trying to learn from a book.

And I'd second (third?) watching Youtube videos. And Mark Bittman's books. Simple but really great. He has been our go-to, for a couple of years now, and my spouse and I know how to cook. His recipes are simple and sometimes he doesn't even give measurements, which I love - it teaches you to taste things and often saves a trip to the store.
posted by onecircleaday at 5:22 PM on April 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

How To Cook Everything is a great book - it's also a huge book. Don't let the size intimidate you; it's pretty easy to break in to chunks and handle bit by bit. One of the best things about it is that a lot of the recipes are more templates then recipe: you'll get one recipe, then a bunch of variations on that basic recipe that go from slightly different to an entire new dish. Learning how to think about new dishes as they relate to other dishes you've made before is a vital skill for a cook, and Bittman teaches it well.

Once you're comfortable with the basics, the New York Times does a great Learn To Cook series of recipes and videos. Despite the name it doesn't make a very good square one, but it's great for some "intermediate beginner"-type techniques and tricks.
posted by Itaxpica at 5:29 PM on April 9, 2016

I learned from a classic, much older than most of these newfangled recommendations you're getting: James Beard's Theory and Practice of Good Cooking.
posted by jon1270 at 5:53 PM on April 9, 2016

+1 for Blue Apron - don't think of it as "overpackaged food shipped to you via slave labor" but "cooking class in a box" and you'll be fine. They do assume minimal competence & basics, e.g. pots & pans, olive oil, salt & pepper and some knives, but otherwise they guide you through it step by step. Many of the recipes are great.
posted by soylent00FF00 at 6:02 PM on April 9, 2016

You don't happen to have a Nintendo DS do you? If so, definitely pick up a copy of 'America's Test Kitchen - Let's Get Cooking' It should be super cheap at this point. This isn't a game, it's an interactive cookbook. Since the DS has a mike it allows you to use voice commands so you don't have to get chickeny-fingers on your ds.

The 'game' walks you very carefully through each step, and if you say 'More Detail' it will explain what 'julienne-ing a carrot' means, or show a video on how to dice an onion, or how to know when the pan is hot enough.

And the gamification helps with the motivation. I had to try lots of new recipes so I could get my character's chef hat bigger!
posted by Caravantea at 7:40 PM on April 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

if you are more visually oriented, or need an audio guide, then is an online cooking school that also covers the basics up to more complex dishes. They have a free trial if you want to gauge your interest.

as others have mentioned, I can only recommend 2 things to always have in mind: mise en place, and clean as you go. Mastering those 2 basic kitchen skills will help you go far.

don't rely too much on recipes, other than learning techniques when starting out. Look at what techniques you need to learn: how to hold a knife, how to cut, how to work with varying levels of heat and its effect on your ingredients, how to work with salt (its not about things being salty, its about the effect salt has on the dish), etc.etc..


good luck, don't get frustrated, learn from your mistakes, and have fun!
posted by alchemist at 7:25 AM on April 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Once you get the basics down, Sally Schneider's "the improvisational cook" is a terrific guide that will help you learn how to move away from being reliant solely on recipes.

It's one of my all-time favorites.
posted by chefscotticus at 7:34 AM on April 10, 2016

It's not really a "zero to chef" type cookbook, but I do think that How to Cook Without a Book, by Pam Anderson, might be great for you.

I also recommend her cookbook The Perfect Recipe for Losing Weight and Eating Great.
posted by merejane at 9:03 AM on April 10, 2016

When Food Network started they had a show called "How to Boil Water," and produced a book with the same title. I would start with something like that, the Julia Child, or Bittman's "The Basics" book, and not with the full "How to Cook Everything." I've never used ATK's "Cooking School" book but I rely heavily on them for instruction on new techniques so I'd be willing to believe it's also good.

My Big Three for regular use are indeed the full HTCE, the America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, and the Flavor Bible. As for the "Flavor Bible" it's not really a beginner's book, but it has done wonders for my understanding of how to combine ingredients, both when improvising and when inspired by a recipe for which I lack an ingredient. So if I need to make (or fake) something I look at Bittman for the simple, direct method; ATK and the Cook's Illustrated web site (where I have a subscription) for the fussy-but-foolproof method; and the "Flavor Bible" for improvements and/or emergency substitutions, and then I go from there.
posted by fedward at 9:40 AM on April 11, 2016

I'd definitely second LastOfHisKind with the advice that cooking shows and videos that show the actual process and help you know what to look for are really helpful when first learning how to cook. Recipe books can be very detailed and have lots of pictures (but usually don't), but it's really hard for them to show how to do things in as much detail as a video can. I personally like Good Eats for this, but pretty much any cooking demonstration show will likely be useful.
posted by Aleyn at 5:47 PM on April 12, 2016

In the 1970s there was a series of like twenty hardcover cookbooks by Time-Life Book called "The Good Cook" which were pretty fantastic. If you can find them at a used book store, grab them.

Always read the whole recipe through before you start, and then collect all your utensils & ingredients on the counter before you start, to ensure you are REALLY ready to do this. This mirrors a technique (that I learned here on MeFi?) in which the driver would not depart for a concert or other event until all present have pressed their tickets to their forehead in unison. :7)

Read a few different recipes for the same thing and compare them against each other. When ingredients or technique differ, do they explain why? Do they suggest substitutions? Does one sound more like the version of the thing you have had before?

Try a recipe on a night when you don't have guests due, Just In Case.

Good luck and have fun!!
posted by wenestvedt at 6:28 AM on July 29, 2016

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