Monday, September 5, 2016

How to Learn to Cook (or, Cooking Lessons with Uncle Google)

I was in charge of dinner this night in 2010 while WWOOFing on a farm in Washington. I had never put that many veggies on a pizza before!

When I was a kid, my mom taught me how to follow a recipe. However, I never learned more than the basics because I didn’t have much interest in it. My sister was an eager baking and cooking student, always trotting out homemade goods whenever we had guests, especially as we progressed into our teenaged years. Meanwhile, I subsisted on lunchmeat sandwiches and burned every complex dish I touched. I’d just say, “I’m a terrible cook.”

Berry tarts, made with my friend Emily B.
When I was about 21, I realized that not only did this labeling really mean, “I haven’t practiced cooking,” but that I actually wanted to get better at it. Six years later, I’m amazed at how far I’ve come— not only can I make several excellent meals, but I understand the science and art of cooking much better than I did when I started out. It was a long journey here, but a fun one. If you’re looking to embark on a similar journey, here’s what I would recommend.

1. Follow a recipe. My mom taught me this: if you learn to follow a recipe, you can’t go wrong. She taught us how to measure carefully, how to make sure we had all the ingredients before beginning, how to look over the whole recipe to be sure it made sense to us. If you don’t know where to get a recipe, try searching, “Simple [fill in the blank] recipe” and go with the first search result— it’s usually a good one. I also love the recipes on The Stone Soup and 100 Days of Real Food.

My first kale salad, with almonds, cranberries, and vinaigrette
2. Cook one thing at a time. I burned everything— mostly because I’d try to make more than one dish at a time, making me lose track of what I was doing. If you’re focusing on just one food, you’re less likely to leave it on the burner too long.

3. Start with the basic techniques. If you’re reading a recipe and it tells you to “separate an egg” or “blanch the green beans,” or “knead until you form a springy dough” and you don’t know how to do that, ask the ever-helpful Uncle Google. Just type, “How do you separate an egg?” into a search bar, and there will be articles and videos galore to help you learn the technique.

4. Learn how to cook something simple you love to eat. I started with chocolate chip cookies and my mom’s favorite pizza dough— I loved sharing these recipes in my travels and with guests. The more I made them, the better I got.

Homemade cheesecake for Zach a few years ago
5. Read cookbooks. Modern cookbooks are super pretty! I love browsing through the library’s selections and picking out the ones with the most beautiful pictures. Granted, I rarely make the recipes in these aesthetic volumes (fresh figs and goat cheese with prosciutto and a balsamic reduction is just a bit too fancy for a weeknight meal— besides, where can you buy fresh figs in Missouri?), but they give me a sense of what kinds of tastes go together. Plus, it’s helpful to read about the more sophisticated techniques. Recently, I’ve been checking out cookbooks based on certain ingredients (such as the excellent resources Egg by Michael Rulhman and Bean by Bean by Crescent Dragonwagon, who also happens to have the best name in the history of mankind) to help me hone my skills in those areas.

Thai-inspired chickpea patties
6. Start experimenting. Once you feel comfortable following recipes, branch out! You’ll get a sense of what kinds of tastes and textures work well together. I would’ve never discovered the joy of quinoa, sweet potatoes and peas if I hadn’t just thrown stuff together.

7. Practice, practice, practice. The more you cook, the better you’ll get at it— so much of cooking is timing, intuition, and focus, all of which are learned traits. I feel pretty confident in my skills right now, but I still have a lot to learn... and that’s a good thing!


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