Cooking at home is, in my experience, one of the most enjoyable and romantic activities you can engage in. There’s something especially rewarding about watching your partner’s eyes widen at that first bite, lips barely containing a grin, as they experience a mouthful of pleasure at the hands of your culinary skills. Even in the absence of your partner’s validation, however, there are universal benefits to cooking at home, including greater financial savings, ability to control quality of ingredients, and cognitive improvement associated with skill-based learning. Unfortunately, as new generations replace older generations, it seems this once endemic activity has become far less common. More and more, individuals and families are outsourcing the workload to dining establishments. Not that I have anything wrong with this. I too enjoy a night out (or in) here and there. But if I had to guess, I’d say most of the reason for this trend is a combination of the need for convenience in an ever-busy world and the lack of basic culinary education when we’re young. Fortunately, cooking need not be inconvenient, nor difficult. With a bit of commitment and a touch of creativity, you can transform yourself from someone whose idea of cooking is heating TV dinners in the microwave to someone who can whip up a tasty meal with single digit ingredients.
We all start from somewhere. My foray into cooking better began at the start of 2018. I was 27 years old and couldn’t make anything more complicated than pasta topped with store bought sauce. Unless you don’t know how to boil water, I can’t imagine your starting point being any worse than this. Although, when I was a child, my older brothers thought you added the sauce into the boiling water as the pasta cooked. I suppose that places them somewhere behind me but significantly ahead of “unable to heat water.” In any case, my assumption is that you are brand new to cooking and, having read this far, somewhat interested in improving your skills in the kitchen. The program I designed for myself can be followed by anyone. There are roughly three stages: building an intuitive sense of cook time, developing flavor combinations, and finally honing the science of cooking to develop a personal style and artistic touch. This is by no means the only way to learn, just the way it worked for me. Give it a try and see if the process works for you. At the end, I’ve offered some alternative routes the cook-in-training can pursue.
The first step I took was to perfect the art of cooking individual ingredients. It seems logical that for you to make a more complicated, multi-ingredient dish on your own, you’d need to learn how to prepare individual ingredients. People sometimes think its as easy as googling “how long does it take to cook [insert food item]” but I find it to be much more nuanced than that. Sure, it’s a good starting point, but too many variables can affect the outcome if you blindly follow instructions. Imagine you’re cooking a steak. What heating method will you use? What temperature do you prefer? Is the cut grass or grain fed? Are you starting from room temperature or straight out of the fridge? These are all variables that will affect how your food cooks. Once you establish your favorite methods of preparing individual ingredients, you are ready to make a simple plate. For example, you may find that you like a reverse sear ribeye, steamed green beans, and buttered corn on the cob. Add salt to taste and there you have a very simple yet effective dinner (and an old favorite of mine as a child). One thing I do when I’m practicing with something I have little experience with is to buy enough to repeat the dish a few times in a short period. This will give you a good understanding of how best to prepare that ingredient and what the margin of error is in the event you make a mistake in the future.
Once you understand how long individual ingredients take to prepare to your liking, you can advance to more complicated flavor combinations. I chose to do this by developing a strong understanding of one of my favorite culinary arts – French food. I did this for a few reasons. Typically, culinary arts specific to one region use a lot of the same ingredients in different ways. This helps you develop a robust arsenal of cooking methods and flavor combinations without needing a ton of space in the fridge or multiple trips to the supermarket. Moreover, the depth with which you learn how to cook various dishes imbues the home cook with several skills they can then apply when making non-traditional dishes. I purchased Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child and progressed recipe by recipe (skipping those I wasn’t interested in learning how to make) until I had mastered a substantial number of dishes that could then be altered in minor ways to my liking. It’s worth noting that understanding how to make various sauces revolutionized my cooking. Quality ingredients and correct cooking are necessary for a good dish, but nothing elevates a dish quite like a sauce. By mastering a handful of sauces, you can optionally tweak them with subtle flavor variations, thus unlocking an infinite number of potential dishes. Once you mastered the fundamentals of your favorite cuisine, you can move on to mastering other culinary arts. I recently bought a book on Japanese cooking and plan to test some fusion ideas I’ve had. This is where the last step comes into play.
The final step is to take a deep dive into the science of cooking. Whereas the second step focused on learning the art of flavor combinations, this step is all about drilling down the science so you can tighten up your cooking and develop completely unique dishes on your own. Some people would argue this is the first step one should take to learn how to cook, but I disagree. You can not learn to cook well by simply reading a book just like you can’t learn how to shoot a basketball by reading about it. Cooking is a skill that requires active participation, repeatedly, until you can do it without much thought. I found the book The Science of Cooking by Dr. Stuart Farrimond on Amazon. This book covers everything from perfecting the Maillard reaction to fermenting foods at home to learning how to use ingredients that have aged past their prime. Books like this help the home cook understand things that are rarely, if ever, discussed in recipes.
And there you have it. This three-step process, taking place over roughly two years, is how I learned to cook. Depending on your commitment and ability, you may find it takes much shorter or longer to become skilled in the kitchen. Alternatively, you may be someone who prefers to build a compendium of recipes out of what you found online or through a food delivery service, with little interest in developing your own style. Or you may opt for a more visual approach, such as online tutorials, cooking shows, or in person instruction. For a true challenge, try to recreate dishes you’ve encountered dining out. This is a harder method, but you can reduce the difficulty dramatically if you’re able to get the chef or cook to reveal their process. In any case, I encourage everyone to learn at least rudimentary cooking skills, lest you find yourself opting for McDonalds when you could have whipped up a simple home cooked meal.