A friend asked me at lunch today: “How do I learn to cook?” Since this question seems to come up a lot in my life, I figured I would write a post on the topic so I could easily answer the next person.
I am passionate about cooking. I learned to cook from my mother at a very young age. She would always encourage me to help cut the vegetables, or stir the soup. Some of my earliest memories are of helping out in the kitchen (the others are of taking things, usually expensive, apart). For me, cooking developed naturally as I absorbed what my mother taught me. When I hit college, I started collecting cookbooks trying to improve on my skills in earnest. However, I quickly became disappointed in what the average cookbook had to teach.
You see, the problem with most cookbooks is that they are just recipe collections. Sure, some good ones will give you a few brief pointers on how to knead bread, or broil a steak, but most are just a list of recipes that throw terms at the reader that they might not be familiar with. “Saute one cup of chicken, diced into one inch cubes”. What’s a saute? What’s a dice? What temperature? What pan? Do I cover it?
Most folks think that they know the vocab, and throw the recipe together in a way that makes sense to them. This usually results in an edible meal that roughly approximates the recipe, so most people leave it at that. Presto! We’re cooking now! Never mind the fact that our ragu is now more of a vegetable stew and our bread is completely crumbly without any of that nice chewy texture we were looking for… Cooking not only throws an entirely new vocabulary at you, it also throws you a new grammar and syntax, which most books don’t even touch on. By following the average cookbook, we are merely parroting back what we are reading and failing to understand why we’re doing any of it. This isn’t how you learn.
So how would I recommend you learn to cook? Learn the vocab, learn the grammar, and learn the syntax.
The vocab is basic, and fairly easy. It’s not like you are becoming a doctor and need to learn latin. To take our earlier example, sauteing involves cooking meat in a pan with oil while braising uses some other water based liquid. Most folks at home braise meats unintentionally when they cover their frying pans. The Professional Chef and Jacques Pépin’s Complete Techniques do a great job of going over the vocabulary of cooking, while illustrating it with both recipes and pictures.
Grammar is a bit more tricky. The rules are hinted at, and even discussed in a high level, in The Professional Chef. However, pick up a copy of Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking and you will really get a feeling for the power of culinary grammar. For a full review of Ratio, see this article I wrote a while back. To summarize it, though, imagine knowing the base ratio for a cake and then being able to make any cake you can imagine. Then imagine changing the ratio of the exact same ingredients and coming out with a scone instead. This is the power of culinary ratios. They free you from recipes and let your imagination take flight.
Finally come syntax, and this is one of the harder things to learn. Syntax, in the cooking world, is the fingerprint of a particular cuisine. More accurately, it is the flavorprint of a particular cuisine. What makes American BBQ unique when compared to, say, Vietnamese BBQ? If you look at the recipes, you will notice that it is all in the specific ingredients and flavoring agents that are available to each culture. Unfortunately though, no-one, to my knowledge, has written a good book on the flavor prints of the world. The only way to learn syntax is by reviewing recipe collections on specific cuisines, looking at the ingredients in ethnic markets, and analysing the flavors when you eat out at a restaurant that specializes in that type of cuisine. It may not be easy to learn syntax, but it can be fun and filling!
Since this is an article on learning to cook, I want to share my favorite cooking show as well. Good Eats is a fantastic show by the mad scientist of the culinary world, Alton Brown. It gives great examples of all of the above material and does so in a fascinating, highly entertaining way. Truth be told, Good Eats was one of the reasons I started looking in to the whys and wherefores of the cooking world. You can pick up the DVDs of the show on Amazon, and I’m sure you can find episodes streaming online if you look on the search engine of your choice.
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Edited to add: Turns out there are a few cheatsheets floating around on flavor profiles. Have a look.