So I Want to Become a Better Cook

I have this interest in becoming a fantabulous cook. I don’t want to open up my own restaurant or anything like that – I just want to be a better cook at home.

Right now I’m in a place where I can follow a recipe with the best of 'em, although there are a few cooking terms that I run across from time to time that I don’t understand. What I want to be ablt to do is this:

[li]Learn how to peel & chop fruits & vegetables quickly & efficiently.[/li][li]Learn how to de-fat, de-bone, de-vein, and do whatever else is necessary to meats & seafood.[/li][li]Learn how to make a handful of dishes from memory (rather than having to follow a recipe to the letter).[/li][li]Learn to make side dishes and which side dishes go well with which main dishes.[/li][li]Gain a sufficient knowledge of cuisine that I can have a gameplan in mind when I make supper, rather than scouring recipe books for something that looks good.[/li][li]Learn the relationships of different flavors and make my own dishes.[/li][/ul]

Every cookbook I’ve ever seen is a collection of recipes; nothing tells me anything about the mechanics or theories of cooking.

Can someone reccomend a book that teaches someone how to cook? I’d prefer something that’s written for the person who already knows their way around a kitchen somewhat.


Get “The Joy of Cooking,” by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker (there’s also The New Joy of Cooking by Rombauer Becker, but as I’ve not seen it I don’t know if it is as good).

Besides recipes, there is a lot of stuff in it about produce, meat, poultry and fish - how to select the freshest ingredients, what the different cuts of meat and poultry are, what is unique about each and what to use them for. There’s even some info about wild game as well.

You can read the description on Amazon here:

That explains it better than I can. Whenever I’m presented with a food I’ve not cooked before or plan to use a method I’m not familiar with, that’s the book I go to and I’ve always found the information I’m looking for.

The Joy of Cooking is an excellent reference book. Every kitchen should have it. I think it’s what you’re looking for.

As a supplement, I think you would also enjoy Jill Prescott’s Ecole de Cuisine cookbook. It’s a perfect introduction to high-class cooking in the average American kitchen. She goes into careful detail explaining how to use vegetables, herbs and spices, meats, etc. She has very strong opinions on the quality of food available at the supermarket, and she tells you what to look out for when buying basic staples of cooking. (For example, cream should be at least 40% butterfat, and should not contain carageenen or any other thickeners.) These little tips make a huge difference in taste.

I learned a lot of stuff on that list by watching cooking shows on TV. I don’t know if you can really learn how to cook and omlet or debone a leg of lamb or how to julienne carrots by reading it from a book without actually being able to see someone do it. It’s a little frustrating, because these people are obviously professionals and your efforts will not look as good as theirs, but once you have seen the basic technique demonstrated, go slow (especially where knives are involved!) and practice a lot.

Good Eats with Alton Brown, in particular, focuses on mechanics and theory rather than just rushing through recipes. Alton has a pretty good book called I’m Just Here for the Food, which is light on the recipes and heavy on the theory. Its basically organized around different ways of applying heat to food: boiling, roasting, grilling, etc. and how to use these methods on different types of food (meat and veggies.)

For Basic Cooking Knowledge, I refer most often to my Betty Crocker Cookbook. It’s got definitions of different cooking terms, oven temperatures and cooking times for different types of meat, how long to boil an egg, etc.

And, I hate to say it, most of the things on your list are only going to come with practice. I know how to make my favorite dishes from memory because I’ve made them dozens of times. I started making my “own” dishes by substituting new ingredients into recipes I knew well, and branching out from there. I can coordinate side dishes with main dishes because I’ve made bunches of both, and have a mental index of good combos.

But if you can find cookbooks that suggest side dishes, that’s a great way to pick up some tips on harmonizing your meals. The Moosewood cookbooks are excellent for this (if you’re at all interested in vegetarian cuisine). All the recipes list other recipes that would be good with it, like “Pair this hearty stew with a light green salad with Raspberry Vinagrette Dressing (p. 68), or Sauted Spring Vegetables (p. 198).”

For me, visualization is key. I have sit down and imagine that I’m eating, the main course, say, grilled salmon. Really think about the taste and the texture. Okay, I’ve had a delicious mouthful of salmon. Now, what do I want? Mashed potatoes? Uh, no. I want someting cool and juicy . . . Hmm . . . Mango? Oh, yeah! Mango and cucumber salad? But that was a little too spicy last time. What if I skip the minced chili pepper and coconut and add some mint instead? That could be good . . . Mmmm, a bite of minty mango and cucumber, then a bite of salmon . . . That’s perfect! Whether it turns out perfect in practice, well . . . you can’t learn without making some mistakes. :slight_smile:

I seem to recall Dr.J saying that Alton Brown spends a lot of time explaining the science of cooking on his show, so his tapes and books might be a good starting point. For the more technical stuff, we’ve got a good one (somewhere, I didn’t see it on the shelf) called something like Complete Kitchen Techniques. I think it might be by Jacques Pepin.

As for the memory-recipes and dish combinations, that’s as much a matter of trial and error and personal preference as anything else. I’ve got a handful of stuff that I just eyeball: if the consistency or texture doesn’t look right, or it doesn’t taste quite right, I adjust it, but I never measure. The eyeball method is something I don’t use a whole lot, but I’ve never measured ingredients for biscuits, pancakes, or chicken pot pie outside of home ec. Hell, who am I kidding? I only measure for cheesecakes and new recipes. That doesn’t work for everybody, though. We all have our own comfort levels with that sort of thing. We all have our own preferences for side dishes and dish combinations. For example, I don’t care how much steamed asparagus complements something, I ain’t serving them together, because imo the only thing asparagus compliments is somebody else’s dinner. Preferably somebody else’s dinner a couple of towns over.

The more you cook, the more you’ll learn about what you like, and what you like together. That will make it easier for you to plan meals. I also find it helpful to have something of a perpetual pantry, where at any given time you have the stuff on hand to make certain meals. It also helps to grocery shop for a week at a time, buying stuff for complete meals. Really, given the choice between opening the cabinets and deciding if you want this or that and leafing through three cookbooks waiting for something to strike your fancy, 80% of the time the cabinets will win.

Julia Child’s The Way to Cook has some very good sections on how to master and build on basics (basic stocks, basic pastry, etc.) It also give some really thorough instructions on preparing meats and fish, with unusually helpful pictures.

The new Joy of Cooking is also excellent. It has all the basic stuff that the old one has, plus many, many updated recipes (vegetarian, ethnic, etc.) I was sceptical about it being an improvement on the original, but it reall is.

Videos that show specific techniques are available on’s site:

That way you can watch over and over 'til you ‘get it.’ Some things do take a lot of practice though - I still suck at chopping vegetables and probably always will. My food processor is a close friend :).

I second Joy of Cooking and Alton Brown’s show Good Eats . I would imagine his book would be great too. Actually, I’ve found most of the shows on the Food Network are great for learning. The only shows I detest are Martha and Emeril. It seems with them, it’s more about who they are than the food they prepare. But I digress…

My go-to book is The Best of Southern Living . At the beginning of each section it has a primer on all of the basics of handling poultry, seafood, etc., from selection to cooking to storage. Also, their yearly cookbooks are organized into menus, so you can get an idea of how to pair foods.

Don’t forget to check your local library. I recently checked out a culinary textbook that covered many of the basics you mentioned in your post.

Brutal honesty here: A couple of things. Cooking is not (IMHO) a learned skill so much as it is an intuitive talent. To be sure, a lot of practice will make you an excellent technician, but the “spark” (again IMHO) is something that you are either called to or you are not.

Cooking, to me, is a kind of religion. When I take the raw ingredients of the earth and combine them to nourish the people that I love I have Satori. I don’t know that this is something that is just a skill that you can learn. One thing that may help, in all honesty, is to go work in a restaurant for a while.

This may just be my personal style here, but I liken it to learning a language. Sure you can get your Joy of Cooking books and the like and learn to the vocabulary and how to conjugate verbs, but if you want to communicate you have to immerse yourself in a culture that speaks the language you seek to acquire. Again, just me speaking from my experience.

My recipe standbys are the 2nd and 3rd editions of the Joy of Cooking. I had Alton Brown’s book, but gave it away. I highly recommend Shirley Corriher’s Cookwise. An EXCELLENT book on the science and theory of cooking. Worth the Beard award it got.

To be a better cook, IMHO you need to have a better tongue. When you eat food, taste it and analyze it. You need to be able to break down what you’re eating. Do you think that they added enough cilantro. Is that cinnamon? Good cooks like eating and know what they are cooking should taste like. Getting there involves experience and practice, but you need to be able to picture the taste of the final product.

I’ll add another plug for The Joy of Cooking - I got this at my bridal shower a few weeks ago, and it’s fantastic. I really love it - and it’s teaching me the mechanics of cooking. I’ll never be my brother (the head chef of a gourmet restaurant), but I can fix better meals now.

One show that I swear has helped me on the Food Network is 30 Minute Meals by Rachael Ray. I’ve been able to come away from an episode and fix an entire meal just like hers - the recipes are easy, and actually rather fun. And thanks to her, we no longer eat pre-made sausage - I make fresh sausage from fresh pork (mostly for mr. avabeth - I’m not a big pork eater) with different ingredients. I know she has some cookbooks out there, and I’m hoping to splurge. What I like about her is that she says what she’s doing and why - so I know why I’m doing something.


A couple of pieces of advice:

  • if there’s a cooking school in your area, check into some basic classes. I took a couple classes in French Cuisine after thinking I was already a pretty good amateur cook. They expanded my horizons and taught me stuff I’d have never learned on my own. Some things - like basic knife techniques - are very easy to learn with someone there in person teaching you, and quite hard to learn from a book or watching TV.

  • Pick a cuisine that you like and start to learn about it. Most types of food have a history and a methodology about them, and if you learn the methods then you’ll know how to improvise. For example, if you like pasta, start learning about the great Italian pasta standards. Once you know how to make a cream sauce, for example, it’s not hard to turn out Fettucinne with Basic and Sun Dried Tomato cream sauce.

  • Learn about the herbs and spices of different cuisines. Want to add a Mexican flare to almost anything? Lime juice and cumin. Fish sauce and lemongrass turns anything into insta-Thai. Tarragon always smells French Countryside to me, but can also be Italian. Pay attention to what spices go in what types of dish. When you open a bottle, SMELL it and pay attention to it. When you eat in a restaurant, try to indentify what’s in your dinner.

  • Subscribe to Cook’s Illustrated magazine. There ain’t nothin’ like reading about how they make 52 roast chickens in order to find the BEST roast chicken, or how they tasted 24 different brands of supermarket olive oil only to determine that the cheapest no-name brand was the best.

Julia Child’s book The Way to Cook also has a video series with the same name. Very good for the beginning cook, as she shows lots of basic recipes with variations, as well as how to chop onions efficiently, julienne vegetables, make bread dough, and so on. I learned to cook from watching Julia on TV and video, and experimentation.

Many of the physical skills are a matter of practice. If you want to debone a chicken, the first three or four are hard, the next five are doable, and the rest are child’s play. Once you have made one recipe three or four times, you can feel free to abandon it and start putting in or taking out.

Just do it. See what you like.