Can bad cooks be taught to cook well? (semi-rant)

Yesterday, after making yet another recipe that came out horrible, I had an epiphany: I just can’t cook and never will be able to.

I keep hearing good cooks saying stuff like: “Learning to cook is simple! Just read and follow the recipe!”

But here is what I think:

I am musically gifted. I can make my voice swoop, shimmer, float, slide, caress, and take listeners on an emotional journey through a song so powerfully that when I finish, they sit in silence and wonder, never wanting the moment to end.

But some people have no musical gift at all. They can’t sing a tune for the life of them, never mind even stay on key.

So, if you put the same piece of music in front of me and in front of them, I will sing it beautifully, while they will–even if they can read music–not be able even to sing the right notes, never mind with any éclat.

This is the analogy I wish good cooks would understand. When it comes to cooking, there are those, like me, who are stone cold tone deaf. I could take the same recipe as them, follow it to a T, and theirs would be fit for a king and mine, even a dog wouldn’t eat.

So I think that cooking ability is a knack or talent, like musical talent is for me. I don’t think that can be taught, any more than someone who can’t carry a tune can be taught to sing well.

That’s my opinion–anyone else care to chime in?

With your music analogy, you almost make it sound like an all-or-nothing thing: you either have it or you don’t. But of course that’s not true: There’s a wide range of musical talent, with plenty of folks falling somewhere in the middle; musical ability is to some extent teachable and improvable with training and practice; and musical ability isn’t a single, one-dimensional ability: some people can’t sing worth a damn but can play a mean guitar, or they can perform the heck out of a song but couldn’t write an original tune to save their life. I suspect similar things are true when it comes to cooking.

I’m curious as to where your trouble is in following recipes. Do you have trouble in general when it comes to following directions? Do you have trouble with timing things correctly, or with measurements, or with the motor skills involved? Is there some background knowledge the recipes assume that you don’t possess?

It comes down to caring about developing skills in your chosen craft/hobby and having enough interest in it to pick up on the important cues and nuances.

I think you’re looking for external validation of your refusal to learn to cook.

I don’t know why I’m a bad cook. I just suck at it. I read the recipes before I start, make sure I have everything ready to go, I think I’m doing everything the recipes say, I check on stuff to make sure it’s cooking OK, But I just keep making disaster after disaster.

One thing in particular that gives me a problem is when cookbooks say stuff like: “Taste and correct seasonings.” Well, how the f*ck am I supposed to do that when I can’t figure out what’s wrong, never mind how to fix it? Or, “Cook until done.” That’s the kind of stuff that apparently is intuitive to people who can cook, but to me it’s like they put a calculus equation right there on the page. I’m lost right then and there.

If I really refused to learn, I wouldn’t be writing this post, I’d be on my way to the supermarket hot bar. I’m trying to figure out why I can’t learn to get things to come out good. (not being snarky there, just honest.)

It depends on why you “can’t” cook.
Are you able to tell good food from bad? That is, do you even care what your food tastes like?

Yes, as I said before, if I didn’t care I wouldn’t be asking.

Also, please stop shaming me.

Or, how about this? Do you good cooks know of a basic cookbook that has easy recipes that are clearly written and helpful, and turn out good?

Cooking is part math and part technique, but a lot of is just experience.

I’ll take fresh pasta as an example. The instructions for that are entirely “add enough flour” “knead until ready” “cook until done” and any measurements or times are just estimates.

The first three times I tried were total failures. Tough, chewy, nasty. But then I decided "I’m going to spend all night doing small batches until I get it right. Six more batches, I had it right.

From then on, I just ***know ***how to do it. I know when it’s right. I can’t even teach it. I did it right once and muscle memory or whatever provides what I need to do it right every single time thereafter.

So my advice is to start easy and master one thing at a time. Which is pretty much how you learned music, right?

What kind of food do you want to cook?
And if you aren’t picky about your food, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. I’m just asking if you are the one disliking the food you cook or if it’s other people telling you it’s bad.

I just want to make everyday stuff for supper, like, let’s say, spaghetti with meatballs. Okay, I can cook spaghetti, I’m not that helpless, But I try the meatball part of the recipe and they either fall apart when I try to fry them or seize up into golf ball-like jawbreakers.

It seems like it should be so simple, but I can’t get it right no matter how hard I try. I just don’t know where I go wrong. To me it feels like I’m following the instructions, but something just isn’t going right.

I mean, there are a few things I can make astoundingly well, like macaroni & cheese (from scratch, not a box), rouladen, and chili (again from scratch). It’s like being an idiot savant. There are like five things I can cook, but otherwise I’m clueless.

How to Boil Water

“Taste and correct seasonings”. There’s no right answer for that. The recipe is just saying that this is a good point to stop and make sure there’s enough salt or pepper or other spices. How much is enough? When you taste it and go “Yum!”.

“Cook til done”. This is a stupid instruction. Advanced cooks don’t need to be told that a state of done needs no further cooking and new cooks can’t recognize done to know to stop. Look for recipes that give temp readings or descriptions. “Cook until a thermometer reads 145F in the deepest part of the meat” “Fry until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes” “Bake until the fish turns opaque and flakes with a fork”. Then at least you have a signpost to guide you.

Try this one. I bought it for my daughter and she liked it.

It depends. You may be tone-deaf, but you may just be more clueless in the kitchen than you think. Cooking well is a lot more than following recipes.

My ex-husband was an absolutely horrible cook when I met him. Awful. His mother was a horrible cook, and passed that “gift” on to him. He actually boiled a steak! :eek:

He wanted to learn to be a better cook, so he started reading cookbooks and cooking magazines and learning about how different cooking techniques worked with different foods. He cooked and experimented and learned a lot from me (I’m a good cook from a long line of good cooks). He had some spectacular failures, but very quickly started to cook very well, and eventually became an excellent cook. He’s totally a better cook than I am now. Shhhh.

There is very little I miss about being married to him, but I get a little sad every St. Patrick’s day - his corned beef is to die for.

Okay, so he was motivated and talented. If you’re not, you can still do what most normal people do - learn to cook a few things well

p.s. Buy Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything” immediately.


This one is also good:

Then you really didn’t follow it to a T. Or maybe you did, and the recipe was lacking certain steps. If you’re incapable of determining where you have erred, have an observer watch over you who knows how to cook, who will be able to show you what mistake or mistakes you’re making.

Meatballs need a binder like egg or breadcrumbs to keep from falling apart and the more you handle them, the tougher they get. I like to scoop a pat of meat into my hand and gently roll it into ball form then I place them in a hot skillet and give it a few shakes about every 20-30 seconds. Just enough to keep them rolling around and not stick. Once they’ve got a nice brown on the outside, I put them on a cookie sheet and give 'em 10 minutes in the oven somewhere around 350*. This is just to ensure that the beef is cooked all the way through since they may not sit in the sauce on the stove long enough to finish cooking.

I’m a big fan of Alton Brown’s “Good Eats” books (and the old TV show). He’s one of the types of people that treat cooking as a science where possible–so you tend to get more concrete direction, and when you don’t, he usually explains why he can’t.

“Season to taste” will always be a bit of a problem, simply because tastes are different. Some people really love hot and spicy stuff, some people can barely tolerate a little pepper–so you might adjust some seasonings based on who’s eating it.

I always hated the “taste and correct seasonings” too. If I’m making a dish for the first time I don’t damn well know exactly WHAT it’s supposed to taste like, so it’s not helpful. I only use recipes that have exact amounts listed. It’s especially bad if it’s a recipe where you’re flavoring raw meat and it says “to taste” - next recipe, I’m not going to bother. Using exact amounts for spices means I KNOW I’ll get what the recipe maker intended. If I want to change it after that, more salt or more rosemary or whatever, I can do that knowing what it’s supposed to taste like as a baseline.

I think perhaps your problem is using recipes intended for a more advanced chef. I would try and find recipes that say - exactly a half teaspoon of salt, half a teaspoon rosemary, one teaspoon basil, etc. That way you won’t have problems getting the taste right.

I also find that smell means a lot in cooking or baking. I realized that when you can actively “smell” whatever you’re baking, that means it’s done or very close to done. I always notice the smell within minutes of my timer going off. So use that just as much as your eyes in figuring out if something is “cooked enough”.

Meatballs are actually pretty tricky, even for good cooks. So don’t beat yourself up over that one.

In addition to the books already mentioned, I’m a fan of Alton Brown’s books for beginners, because he really assumes you know nothing. His books aren’t so much collections of recipes (although there are recipes) as teaching concepts.

If you feel like Alton Brown or How to Boil Water are too dummified, then look to Cooks Illustrated. More recipes, but still lots of basics and lots and lots of explanation about what doesn’t work, and why, as well as what does work, and why.

I find the number one deficit “bad” cooks display in the kitchen is that they’re in a rush and anxious. They take shortcuts that don’t work, they turn the heat up high to make things cook faster, and they continually poke and prod at food (especially meat and frying potatoes) that do better left alone. All of those habits can be fixed.

Ooh, I hate that too. I don’t make roasts often enough to know, oh my personal preference for thyme per oz of beef is this much or whatever. I just end up liberally spicing the meat and make a nice gravy in case the meat itself ends up bland.