How to Learn to Cook

The following post is from Jessica of GoodCheapEats and LifeasMOM:

photo source: Good Cheap Eats

Learning to cook good food is a science as well as an art. There’s an element of food science and chemical reactions to consider. Some mixtures work. Others don’t. But there’s also a creative side to cooking: combining flavors, textures, and colors that are both visually and gustatorily pleasing.

While some people seem to be genetically geared toward creating great things in the kitchen, no one is born “knowing how to cook.” Yet, there are many ways to acquire good cooking skills and to grow into a great cook.

Here are just a few:

Learn from family and friends.

Many people are blessed with a grandmother or parent who is or was a good cook. My Gramma John raised eight kids on a very limited budget in the farmlands of Minnesota. She knew how to stretch a buck, feed a crowd, and make a mean apple pie. I loved standing by her side watching and “helping.” And I learned a lot from her.

If you didn’t grow up with good cooks, find a friend who shares the same tastes in food and learn from him or her. In college I lived with a family who loved food. The mom had owned her own catering business for a time, so great meals were to be had every night of the week. By poking around in Kathi’s cupboards and watching her wield her spatula, I learned a ton about pulling together a great meal.

Get a job.

Believe it or not, you don’t have to have culinary training to get a job in a kitchen, bakery, or restaurant. It obviously won’t be a top job, but ground-level jobs are designed for the unskilled and you can learn a tremendous amount during on-the-job training.

In my younger years, I worked at a grocery store, in a university kitchen, in a bakery, and in a restaurant. All those jobs provided me with information and skills that I use in everyday life today. Asking lots of questions along the way helped build a base of food knowledge in my head that I regularly draw from.

photo source: Life as MOM

Read good cookbooks, magazines, and food blogs.

As a literature major, I love books, novels in particular, but cookbooks and cooking magazines are a close second. One of my past careers was as a high school English teacher. My department head introduced me one day, saying, “She reads cookbooks like they’re romance novels.”

It’s true that I’ve learned a lot about love — food love, that is — from great cooking literature. My favorite magazines for teaching great cooking chops are Fine Cooking and Cook’s Country. Another great one is Cook’s Illustrated. All three of these resources offer instruction, shopping tips, and delicious recipes. Even if I don’t cook the featured item, I still learn a ton to add to that base of knowledge.

And it goes without saying that blogs are a great source of food knowledge.

1. Simple Bites is my go-to source when I need a quick answer about something food related.

2. Good Life Eats inspires me with her beautiful table scapes.

3. Food for My Family encourages me to think outside the box with different ingredients and traditional recipes.

4. Lynn’s Kitchen Adventures offers a wealth of ideas for making “normal food” extra good.

Watch food television.

I’m not a huge TV fan, but I do like me some food network. Alton Brown’s Good Eats is a great example of a show that teaches. Humorous and light-hearted, yet still informative, the program offers a lot to someone really wanting to grow as a cook.

photo source: Good Cheap Eats

Cook, cook, and cook.

They say that experience is the best teacher. And I would have to agree. I’ve learned the most through trial and error, tasting, testing, and going back to the kitchen and trying again.

My family has tasted some horrific flops. Personally, I’ve blocked them out. But, I bet my kids could name a number of train wrecks that will live on in infamy.

But, we’ve also had shared some wonderful meals. Salsa Verde Beef was an experiment that gets gobbled up every time I make it. My family adores these Whole Grain Shortcakes with Berries and Cream and my Mediterranean Steak Salad is always a hit. These family favorites were just a result of experimenting, tasting and refining.

Give up your fears.

You have to be willing to try something new. Be willing to risk a little grocery money to experiment — just have PB and J’s waiting in the wings if it’s a train wreck.

Good food is waiting — at YOUR fingertips. You just have to try.

How did you learn to cook? How are you currently growing in your knowledge of food?

A foodie at heart, Jessica Fisher has learned to reconcile a tight budget with her love for great food. As a busy mom of six voracious eaters, she regularly shares healthy, delicious and budget-friendly recipes at GoodCheapEats. She also writes at her parenting blog, LifeasMOM.
  • http://lifeyourway.net/ Mandi @ Life Your Way

    Love this, Jessica! I’m learning as I go. For me, not wanting to waste food has been the biggest deterrent of trying new things, but I’m learning that that’s part of the process and that I won’t get any better if I don’t stretch my (limited) skills. I’ve found that food blogs not only teach me new things but also inspire me to want to try new things!

  • http://homeschoolblogger.com/martha Martha

     I read cookbooks like novels too!! I love them! I was about 7 when I cooked my first full meal, I loved to experiment and my mom had lots of little ones so she was happy to have help in the kitchen! 

  • http://somewhataloof.wordpress.com Sarah

     Very true. I might add “Have a husband who is intolerant many things, including dairy & soy!” However, that is a bit extreme. The one blessing of his many intolerances is that I finally learned to cook most things from scratch and my confidence in my cooking ability is 1,000 times higher than it was even 2 years ago. I actually really enjoy cooking (but I still don’t enjoy the clean up).

    I only wish he would learn how to cook too. I think it would help him a lot (and occasionally give me a break).

    • http://twitter.com/CheapskateCook Steph J.

      You’re absolutely right - there’s no telling how far food allergies will take your culinary knowledge. When my brother developed an allergy to wheat and dairy our whole family was plunged into years of experimental cooking and reasearch into health. I think I have a lot to be thankful for in those years because they spurred me in that whole-foods-budget-friendly direction that has been extremely helpful now that I’m raising my own family.
      Cheers to you for rolling up your sleeves!

  • http://efamily.brevis.me EleanorEwoldt

     What a great post!  With three little kids and a fourth on the way, I can’t believe I’ve never read “Food for my Family” – thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  • Nova 147

    I have to recommend Cooking Know How by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough. It’s a fabulous book for learning to cook! The recipes are for basics – Chicken with a pan sauce, for example. And in the recipe text, the authors provide a wealth of cooking technique information that I have applied to so many other recipes! I actually read it cover to cover, though I know I’ll never make some of the dishes, because there was so much knowledge to be gained from it.

  • Frances

    I learned more about cooking the year we went vegetarian than ever because I had to find creative ways to add flavor and protein. After that I had to learn how to cook game meat! I learned a lot about this from my MIL. I agree that practice is the best teacher but no one wants to mess up prize meat. One thing I’ve always done is to look up more than one recipe/technique for the same thing to get a consensus on it. That’s really how I learned. Then I just adapted things to fit our tastes (I’m always taste testing as I cook- even dough). I’m really a visual learner when it comes to techniques too. For this YouTube is a God-send. For instance: We love Indian food and Manjula has a video archive of all our favorite recipes. Artisan bread in 5 minutes a day also has a video!

  • Samantha

    Youtube is great for times when I want to watch a demonstration of something specific.

  • http://www.tracerscouponaffair.com/ Tracers Coupon Affair

    I love your page I was doing a blog hop and found your site from another blog! LOVE IT! 

  • Kiasa

    The first time I cooked for my husband (he was my boyfriend at the time) the food turned out awful! It must have been true love since he’s Italian and still was willing to marry me. ;0). He and his family have taught me to cook. I feel like I still have a lot to learn, but my husband rejoices now that I can cook better than him. I really enjoy it, when the kids aren’t hanging on me. And I love teaching my 4 yr old. My 2 yr old even helps a lot of the time. (he did our salad dressing tonight). I dream of having a kitchen bigger than a closet, but for now I’m pretty impressed with what we create in our tiny NYC kitchen.