Improve My Cooking
August 2, 2008 9:04 AM   Subscribe

What resources will help me move from a proficient to a (one day, hopefully) great cook?

I love food and cooking, and think that for a 23 year old guy I'm pretty good at it. I worked as a line cook for a while in high school and learned a lot of basic skills, and I've cooked pretty regularly since.

I can make some good things, and I can follow recipes with a pretty good success rate. What I'm looking for, now, is how to learn the more advanced skills, and gain the more advanced food and flavor knowledge, that will take my cooking to the next level.

Mostly I'm looking for cookbooks and the like, I suppose, but I'm not interested as much in getting books of recipes as learning techniques and basic skills that can be altered and reused in many ways. For example, one of my Mexican cookbooks taught me how to make sauce out of dried peppers, and while I've never followed that recipe exactly I use the skill fairly often. I want more things like this.

For a bit of further guidance on my food interests, I am most interested in more traditional European / Mediterranean / American (especially Southwest and Latin) cooking. While I love many Asian foods, cooking it holds less interest for me. I also don't particularly love Italian food, mostly because I'm not big on pasta (other parts of Italian food I do like).
posted by ecab to Food & Drink (20 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything tells you how to do exactly that. There are tons of recipes for basic dishes from around the world, but he also includes cooking techniques in there as well, from preparing a whole fish (scaling, gutting, boning, etc) to carving a turkey to making a lattice-top pie.
posted by pised at 9:36 AM on August 2, 2008

Rick Bayless's cookbooks -- particularly Authentic Mexican -- are very good if you're into Mexican. It has recipes but also cooking techniques, etc.

More generally, The All New All Purpose Joy of Cooking and On Food and Cooking have just tons of techniques, details on cuts of meat, etc. Also, Cooks Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen: recipes, techniques, what variety of potato works best for mashed potatoes, equipment reviews, etc.
posted by cog_nate at 9:43 AM on August 2, 2008

I would say try Julia Child, maybe start with her book "Julia's Kitchen Wisdom: Essential Techniques and Recipes from a Lifetime of Cooking."
Seconding Cooks Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen recommendations.
If you are in NYC, try some of the recreational classes at ICE.
posted by gudrun at 10:05 AM on August 2, 2008

Response by poster: gudrun - I do live in NYC so I appreciate the ICE recommendation. However, I'm a student, so don't have a huge amount of disposable income to spend on cooking classes, so I wouldn't want to do that without knowing that they are actually pretty worthwhile. Have you (or anyone else) actually tried them? Has your experience been good?
posted by ecab at 10:54 AM on August 2, 2008

Seconding Julia Child. Watching old episodes of The French Chef taught me a great deal. She can also be very funny. Intentionally and non.
posted by cmoj at 11:00 AM on August 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

i'm in a similar boat, though i have very little cooking experience. I'd also be interested in hearing some feedback about ICE.
posted by condorman at 11:15 AM on August 2, 2008

I second Julia Child. Some great cooks without professional training (such as Ina Garten) have worked their way through an entire cookbook. Gaarten made every recipe in one of Julia's cookbooks and others. The more you cook, the better cook you will become. You don't have to work your way through a Julia cookbook, any well-rounded cookbook will do. I love Julia but some of her recipes are outdated. Work your way through the Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything or some other book you are interested in. You'll get some great techniques and practice under your belt.

Also, you may want to check out Pam Anderson's How to Cook Without a Book.
posted by LoriFLA at 11:43 AM on August 2, 2008

If you're thinking of buying Bittman's book (and I am), you may want to wait for the 10th anniversary edition; it's going to be a major revision/expansion. Out in October.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 12:08 PM on August 2, 2008

Response by poster: le morte de bea arthur: thanks, that's really good advice. I've seen that book recommended so many times I was actually about to order it, but I'll wait until October.
posted by ecab at 12:16 PM on August 2, 2008

You could subscribe to a magazine like Cook's Illustrated. They often devote articles to specific techniques, although I have to admit that I stopped subscribing because the recipes themselves were a bit boring. I switched to Saveur, which is less technique focused but has good in-depth articles on particular ingredients and classic dishes.
posted by Morpeth at 12:19 PM on August 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Julia Child TV series with Jacques Pepin is fantastic. What's great is when the ydisagree on how to do something, so you get a feel for the range of creative options.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:19 PM on August 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Re ICE, my brother-in-law got his culinary arts degree there via their work study program. I was very impressed with the quality of his training, and he worked at some good restaurants after he graduated (and his food is great). However, that was a few years ago and his schooling was on the professional side, not the recreational side.

This thread about ICE and New York cooking classes on yelp may be of interest.
posted by gudrun at 12:25 PM on August 2, 2008

I'd also recommend Cook's Illustrated. Not so much for recipes (though I always have great success with them) but because they explain *why* the recipes work. They explain the science behind the techniques, which I find incredibly useful and informs all the rest of my cooking.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 12:39 PM on August 2, 2008

Best answer: You may find it helpful to keep a cooking logbook, like a lab notebook. You could write down notes on recipes you try. Make note of techniques, problems, flavors. You don't have to write a lot. If you do the same recipe again, refer to your notes and try to make it better. If you make, say, a mole and it sucks, try to figure out why it sucks so hard. If you make an awesome risotto, what exactly was so awesome about it? Cooking well is about learning and practice.
posted by classa at 12:41 PM on August 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

I can't remember how I found it, but Rouxbe is a great resource for improving your cooking. They show you how to make great recipes, on video, step by detailed step. They focus on the actual techniques you need to learn and the production is very good. I believe they've even started some sort of online cooking school.

I've just gone back to take a fresh look and, yeah, it's awesome. Highly recommended.
posted by Cobalt at 3:06 PM on August 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Get immersed. You just have to cook a lot, record or otherwise remember your thoughts, so you can elaborate or tweak the next time. Great cooks have a lot of context for everything they do - they can make a great dinner out of random odds and ends in the fridge because they understand how best to combine flavor profiles, how to treat different ingredients (how should I cook a lamb shank, vs. a lamb chop? How a bout a rib chop vs. a shoulder chop?), how to combine and build techniques for a great result. You don't need a recipe or a specific style if you understand that those thin paillards of pork will brown nicely, that you can deglaze the pan with white wine, that the garlic and lemon (or ancho and onion, or whatever) will be a nice compliment, that a whole sage leaf will fry crisp in oil and butter and make a gorgeous garnish.

How to Cook Everything and Cooks Illustrated are both good resources for this kind of skill-building, particularly since both provide plenty of this kind of context for every recipe. Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking is good for understanding basic techniques and how to combine flavors (it's pretty dated, but still). Rick Bayless is good for Nuevo Latino cookery, specifically. But mostly, reading most any cookbook or magazine will add to your store of knowledge. Surf egullet, particularly the home cooking boards, read Bittman's Minimalist column in the NYT (great for understanding the intrinsic value of ingredients), check out Savuer and Gourment and Bon Appetit. And cook, a lot. Happy eating!
posted by peachfuzz at 9:11 PM on August 2, 2008 [3 favorites]

I think my cooking has improved alot since I started surfing and taking recipes from there. Through epicurious I've tried gingerbread cookies (then graduated to houses), various potato and pasta salads, naan, really great brussel sprouts, scones, and veggie lasagne. I've taken alot of good advice from the reviewer comments -- sometimes there are a few hundred reviews of a recipe and often they give really good advice for how to do the recipe more quickly or effectively or what other flavors to include.

Also, it's free. And unlike many recipe books which often include some clunkers, you can generally tell right away from the user reviews whether the recipe will be a winner for you or not.
posted by onlyconnect at 12:09 PM on August 3, 2008

Have you checked out Sally Schneider's improvisational Cook? I think the secret to moving up from sufficient to unusually expert concerns being able to take the set of things on hand and doing the mental work of coming up with how to easily and elegantly transform them into a unique dish. Her book focuses on this. Many chefs agree (Tony Bourdain is one of them). The day you don't need to look at a cookbook at all because you understand in an ingrained way the properties of your materials (ingredients, energy source, space, time, objective or target audience), you've become good at planning, and you have a wide range of techniques down to work with is worth celebrating.
posted by ifjuly at 12:22 PM on August 3, 2008

Response by poster: It's my own question, but this article from the New York Times is pretty relevant. It talks about what cookbooks various chefs recommend.
posted by ecab at 4:34 PM on August 4, 2008

Work your way through The French Laundry Cookbook.
posted by AceRock at 7:35 PM on August 4, 2008

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