I’m going to step out of my normal nerd comfort zone and move onto something more decidedly analog than digital – cooking. Over on my recipe blog, I write down the recipe for everything I’ve ever cooked. I’m a few hundred behind but all the current stuff I cook every single week is there. What isn’t there however is the meta layer like how to do X or in this case how to become a better cook. And while I think I’m an ok cook, I do get rave reviews from the people who matter most to me – my wife, kids and friends. So here’s how I got there:
You Must Cook
This one is adapted from Heinlein’s famous advice to writers: You Must Write. Cooking is one of those things which you must do to improve. This means that you get better in proportion to how much you do it. What to be a better cook? Well then my comment to you is cook more. Don’t have people around to eat what you make? Take it to a neighbor or a sick friend. Make cookies for the office. Whatever. You must cook. Its about that simple. When my wife was diagnosed with celiac disease about 6 years ago we effectively lost the ability to eat out. That pushed the volume of my cooking up. You can always stop dining out if nothing else.
As with everything else I do, I read voraciously. And I highly recommend it as a learning tool to improve your cooking. I have a simple rule for cookbooks and I call it the Rule of 1. All a cookbook needs to be worthwhile for me is one good recipe. And that’s my expectation. Most cookbooks I find can supply one good recipe. Sadly many can only only supply one. And sadly sometimes what you get isn’t even a “recipe”. I make a delicious asian rice bowl which I got from an author who just had a passing description of how rice is served on trains in china. There weren’t ingredients, steps or anything other than three sentences but that justified that whole book. Now you don’t have to read print – there’s an infinite supply of cooking information online. There’s twitter, reddit, food network, etc. If you do read print then I’d highly recommend you check out your local library. Most libraries turn over inventory regularly and you can get cookbooks at the $1 to $2 per generally. Here are the details for mine.
Understand the Cookbook Authors You Read
One of the things to understand is that cook book authors are people and they have limitations. Some of the most lauded authors, people fantastic at explaining things, don’t actually produce great recipes so there are people you learn from and people you imitate. For example I made a clam chowder the other day from someone who intellectually I respect at a deep level but, honestly, it was no better than the clam chowder I’ve made a dozen times from various and sundry google results. Now, that said, this person’s technique was spot on and I did learn a valuable trick from him or her. What I have found generally is the better the explainer the worse the recipe. One happy exception to this is Ruhlman and his Ratio book is just outstanding.
Its All Just Cooking
I hear things from other people I speak with like “I can grill but I can’t bake” or “I can do vegetables but not meats”. This is particularly common with restaurant cooks where people often specialize. Honestly that’s just plain crap. Its all just cooking and if you’re going to be any good then you need to cook across the spectrum whether its protein on a grill to cookies to pavlova to creme brûlée to eggs to salads to rolling your own sushi. And, yes, I can say that with confidence because I can do all of that. Yes we all have things we prefer to make and we can all have specialities but are you really going to tell your child you can’t make them cookies because you can’t bake? Really?
Note: There’s only one thing that I’ve never mastered and it is making my own cheese (largely a product of UHT milk can’t make cheese and that’s all they sell in Indiana)
You Must Experiment
One of the worst things you can do if you cook seriously is to get stale. You have to experiment. Getting bored with making dinner for the family? And the easiest way to do this is to dive into other cultures:
- Learn how to make Arepas
- Learn how to make Sushi (too many results to pick one)
- Learn how to make Norwegian School Bread
- Learn how to make Tortillas (They’re mostly right but add salt to the batter and use parchment paper not plastic between the tortilla press)
While cookbooks aren’t free, google is free and every culture in the world has recipes. Interested in Peru? Google “Peruvian Recipes” and you’ll end up perhaps here. Then make something, anything.
Learn What Makes a Recipe Good for You and Your Context
One of the most valuable skills I’ve picked up is the ability to read a recipe and, unerringly, know if its right for my context – generally me, my wife and my kids. There are signs like:
- effort; A croquembouche almost never works when you have small children in the house because it takes too long
- flavors; my wife has certain flavors that she just hates so anything with an organ meat for example is out before it starts
- tools; if you don’t have the tools then, well, it may be irrelevant
Learning to read a recipe and know whether or not its going to work for your context is a valuable skill and something to very much strive for.
Question Your Assumptions
As cooks we all develop habits and assumptions. One of mine was, until recently, “there shall be no other oils than corn, vegetable and olive.” For years now I followed that with near religious devotion. However I just discovered grapeseed oil and it was like a revelation – a light oil. What??? How can this be? And now I use it with abandon. Keep in mind that questioning your assumptions is really, really important.
Salt and Butter Amp Up Flavor
Yep. Add salt to everything. And butter. We’ve all heard about the dangers of salt and butter for so many years that I suspect most of us are way too conservative on this one. I know I am. Adding more salt really does help food. And you can always add some butter when you’re cooking almost anything to improve the flavor.
You Must Taste
If you’ve ever watched a professional chef, one thing you’ll notice is that they taste things constantly. Some home cooks do this and some don’t but I’d argue that the ones that do will produce better food so you may want to do this more if you don’t. I know that until recently I didn’t.
Note: The one exception to this is gluten free baking. Gluten free flours, until cooked, taste horrible so do not taste gluten free batters.
You Must Cook
I’m going to close as I opened because its really the single most important things so I’m going to re-phrase it:
- You get better in proportion to how much you cook.
- If you want to be a better cook then cook more.
Really that’s the best thing here.