I've seen a lot of statistics lately from studies that claim to find an increasing number of people who say they can't cook. A recent survey conducted by appliance-maker Bosch put the figure at twenty-eight percent. As alarming as this seems, I'm not sure I buy it. It's long been my experience and my oft-published philosophy that anybody can cook. There are a great number of inexperienced people who cook badly and there are those misguided individuals who proudly proclaim the fact that they don't cook. But I don't believe in the existence of a class of people who can't cook.
When you are born, you can't walk, right? But are you still crawling on all fours twenty years later? I should hope not. Just as nobody is born knowing how to walk, nobody is born knowing how to cook. It's an acquired skill that requires motivation to learn and a desire to improve.
I made my first foray into the kitchen when I was about seven years old. My culinary education began at the hands of my grandmother and my mother who taught me how to not cut off my fingers or burn down the kitchen. My grandfather and a couple of my uncles were the literal chefs in the family, but my mother and grandmother both had the skills to hold their own in the professional kitchens of family-owned restaurants back in the 1940s and '50s. Unfortunately, by the time my cooking education began in the early '60s, both of these fine, experienced cooks had succumbed to the “convenience food” craze that swept the nation. It wasn't that they couldn't cook “real” food, but they had been successfully brainwashed by the ad men of the day into thinking that they didn't have to. The Madison Avenue hucksters convinced them – and a whole generation of homemakers – that the packaged, processed, chemically dyed and artificially preserved crap they were pushing was not only easier than “real” cooking, but was equally as good for their busy, modern families. As a result, a lot of my early accomplishments came out of boxes, cans, and frozen packages. But at least it was a foundation upon which I could build. As my education broadened and my skills increased, I abandoned the boxes and cans and learned how to cook real, fresh, delicious food from scratch. And so can you.
Now, I don't cook with duck tongues or sheep brains or yak testicles. More power to the people who do. Let them amaze and impress on TV as they sit and count their Michelin stars. I'll content myself with turning out exceptional food from the ordinary ingredients I buy at my local butcher shop, produce market, and grocery store. And you can, too. You don't need an expensive formal culinary education to be a world-class cook in your own kitchen preparing amazing meals for your family and friends. Here's how to become the cook you never dreamed you could be.
1. Ya Gotta Wanna
If you don't have a desire to learn how to cook, you're not going to be successful doing it. That's pretty much a common statement for anything. You'll be a mediocre golfer, guitarist, or gongoozler if you don't really want to do it. Focus on the benefits of being able to cook for yourself and for others. Nutrition, weight management, economy, bragging rights – whatever it takes to get you motivated.
2. Hide and Watch
You know somebody who cooks. Even if you're among the alleged twenty-eight percent, that still leaves seventy-two percent of the population for you to observe. Grandmother, grandfather, father, mother, aunt, uncle, sister, brother, girlfriend, boyfriend, neighbor, roommate – somebody you know knows how to cook. Watch them. Ask questions. Watch them some more. Take notes.
3. Hit the Books
Once you've figured out that you want to cook and have spent a little time watching somebody else do it, it's time to hit the books. Not just cookbooks, although that's certainly going to be the mainstay of your culinary curriculum. Look for books about cooking, too. There are lots of basic guidebooks for terms and techniques out there. Like many hobbies and occupations, cooking has its own vocabulary and its own set of basic rules. If you don't know what “sauté” means or how to do it, you'll be completely lost when you see something like “sauté the vegetables” written in a cookbook.
Like college textbooks, cookbooks are expensive. It's not uncommon to pay thirty, forty, fifty dollars or more for a cookbook. But if you don't want to bust the budget, you have some alternatives. One alternative is the public library. Check out a couple of general interest cookbooks for starters. You can move on to specific cuisines once you get familiar with the basics. Other cheap cookbook sources include yard sales, flea markets, antique stores, or the bargain bins at your local bookstore. I have about a hundred cookbooks in my kitchen library. Most of them came from these places.
Cooking magazines are often a good way to get your feet wet. Many combine techniques and recipes to give you a comprehensive package for just a few bucks. Word of caution, though; some of these publications fly a little higher than others. As a novice cook, you may not be ready for Bon Appétit. You might want to start out with Taste of Home. Cook's Illustrated is one of my “go to” magazines.
The Internet is a huge resource. There are hundreds of cooking and recipe sites available online. But here, too, you might want to get a little more experience regarding what to look for before you start looking for it. I just Googled “fried egg” and got more than thirty thousand results. The web can be a little overwhelming for newbies.
Go through your new acquisitions and try to find recipes for things with which you are already familiar. Starting out with an ambitious dish comprised of twenty ingredients and a long list of specialized techniques and equipment when you can barely boil water is a sure route to failure and disappointment. Go easy on yourself. Boil an egg. Make macaroni and cheese. Once you get good at the easy stuff, the harder stuff will get easier.
The ability to read, interpret, and follow a recipe is the key to learning how to cook. You'll often hear things like, “recipes are just guidelines,” and “chefs don't need recipes.” And that's true. I can make a boatload of dishes in my sleep while dreaming of a white Christmas. And once you've been at it for fifty years, you'll be able to do so as well. But in the beginning, follow the recipe. The ability to tweak and improvise comes with experience.
4. Practice, Practice, Practice.
You know the old joke; “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!” In the previous paragraph I alluded to cooking in my sleep. Well, not quite, obviously. But close. After you've done any task long enough, muscle memory kicks in and you kind of go on auto pilot. The first thing I learned to cook was bacon. I can now cook bacon in a round pan, a square pan, on a griddle, in an oven, in the microwave, on an electric stove, on a gas stove, over an open campfire......heck, I could probably cook it with a stick and a blowtorch. Why? Practice, practice, practice. You like your bacon crispy? I can do that. You want it limp? I can do that, too. You want it crispy in the middle and limp on the ends. No problem. Practice, practice, practice. It builds confidence and encourages experimentation. And that results in growth. You say you can't cook because you tried it once and failed? Try it again. And again. And again. Until you get it right. I can't play the piano. I know what one looks like and how it works. I even know what keys match up with which notes. But I can't play because I didn't practice, practice, practice.
5. Movin' On Up
Okay. You've decided you really want to cook. You've watched some people do it, you've gotten some cookbooks and you've practiced a few recipes. Now what? Where do you go next? Time to move up. Once you've gotten to the point where you can make a few dishes confidently and well, you've established that you can cook. Now it's time to be a cook.
Go back to step 2; Hide and Watch. Back then you were a little tentative. A little unsure. Now you're more confident, so it's time to watch and learn. You can go back to those same sources and get more involved. Look for things you didn't know how to look for before. Pick up some tips and tricks and instead of just watching the big holiday meal being prepared, jump in there with a dish of your own. Maybe you're not up to roasting the turkey yet, but you can make some mean mashed potatoes. It's a start.
Want more? You should. A formal culinary education is outrageously, ridiculously, almost obscenely expensive. And unless you're planning to apply for a chef de cuisine position at a five-star restaurant, you don't need it. But you can still be a five-star cook by taking advantage of the knowledge of others. You can do this in a number of ways. One of the easiest is by turning on your TV. Don't laugh.
When I was a kid in the kitchen, there were “educational channel” shows featuring Julia Child and later, Graham Kerr. Now cooking shows dominate the regular network schedules with entire cable networks devoted to cooking. There are basically two kinds of cooking shows: competitions like Food Network's Chopped, ABC's The Taste, or Master Chef on Fox, and the good old “dump and stir” – or “stand and stir,” if you prefer – programs that are all over Food Network, Cooking Channel, and PBS. These, students, are your new instructors. Even with many, many years of cooking experience under my apron strings, Mario Batali, Giada De Laurentiis, Michael Chiarello, Lidia Bastianich, Mary Ann Esposito and a host of others continue to teach me nearly every day. Oftentimes, it's just reinforcement of “old” knowledge; things I've been doing for years. And that's good. It means I've been doing things right for years. But these culinary experts – people who do have expensive educations and/or vast amounts of real world experience – also teach me a lot of new things. You know, a great many high-dollar chefs learned much of what they know from working in kitchens with these people. You can garner a lot of that same knowledge by simply turning on your TV. Even the competition shows have some educational value. You won't learn much about the basics there, but if you can already cook a little, you'll find some great inspirations and ideas.
Another way to improve your burgeoning skills is to take some classes. As I said, full-on formal training is not an option for most people who just want to learn to cook. But locally offered cooking classes are. If there's a university, college, or community college in your town, chances are they offer some form of cooking instruction for the general public. Oftentimes, libraries and community centers have cooking classes. Culinary stores like Williams-Sonoma and Sur la Table frequently hold seminars and classes. You can even find restaurants that conduct specialized courses.
Go back to the Net. Now that you know what to look for, you can find lots of online cooking resources that will help you hone and improve your new skills. Be wary of “online cooking schools” that charge you an arm and a leg for some kind of “degree” or “diploma.” They're not all scams, but many are. For your purposes, you'll do just as well with any of a number of free online “schools” or “classes.” Chef Jacob Burton does a marvelous job at Stella Culinary (https://www.stellaculinary.com) and Escoffier Online has some great free instruction available at http://learntocook.com. Are you going to come away from any of these ready to step into the kitchen at Le Cirque? No. But you'll be more than able to hold your own in your home kitchen. And that's really what you're after, isn't it?
If you feel you truly “can't” cook, it's time for a little self-examination. I can't play the piano – but I posses the intelligence and the ability to learn. I have the physical, mechanical ability it takes and I am able to read and follow instructions, so I could play the piano if I chose to do so. If I got some books and sought some instruction and dedicated some time to practice and improvement, I could play the piano. I may never achieve concert hall virtuosity, but I bet I could pound out a few tunes for my own entertainment. If I wanted to. Do you really want to cook?
You have to be open to learning new skills and, if you've got a few decades behind you, you have to be willing to break some bad habits. As with many disciplines, in cooking some things are tried and true and some things change with the times. Maybe you can't cook because you won't change. My mother and grandmother taught me a lot of wonderful things. But I had to unlearn a lot of things they taught me, too. Like putting oil in pasta water. That was standard practice in American kitchens for many, many years. Subsequent education has taught me better and now I'm a better cook because of it. Do you really want to learn?
Finally, you've got to take the time to make the time to practice and improve. “I can't cook because I just don't have the time.” Specious and spurious. You make all kinds of time for all kinds of other activities. How important is it that you learn to cook wholesome, healthy, delicious food for yourself and for those you love?
You can cook. You can learn. You can improve. And with motivation and dedication you can become the cook you never dreamed you could be.