There's a natural progression that has to take place.
Mark Bittman has written 23 cookbooks, so when he gives advice on how to become a better cook, you'd be crazy not to listen. In a blog post, he responds to a reader who wonders "how to develop nonna skills."
This particular reader describes him or herself as "feeling fairly skilled overall, but always like something is missing, or like there are many intuitive gaps I'm not filling." S/he still feels a need to look up recipes and doesn't get things like rice-to-water ratios right all the time, like their parent does. What's the secret? "Should I pick a cuisine and focus on it for a while? Should I work through particular techniques in some kind of systematic way? Pick one cookbook? Help!"Bittman responds first, before passing the question on to three colleagues. He says it's important to remain critical of one's own cooking. When you set a delicious dinner on the table, everyone will compliment you; and while you should accept those compliments graciously, "you know what mistakes you made, and you know how to learn from them."
He describes a natural progression to learning how to cook well.
Level 1: Learning to cook either from parents, cookbooks, or both. Some people stay at this level forever, cooking the same things uncritically.
Level 2: Learning how to make the dishes you know and love in alternative ways. Realizing that the version you know may not be its best iteration.
Level 3: Combining those alternatives and making a version that's truly your own. "Maybe you have an 'aha' moment at a restaurant, or at a friend’s house. You integrate that into your existing style, which has suddenly grown a little bit."
Level 4: Recipes become less about guidance, more about inspiration. They give you ideas, which you can then run with independently.
"You know that you can (for example) put cardamom in that basmati, or start it with onions sautéed in butter — or not. No one needs to tell you that: Many options are in your head and at your fingertips, and you can use them at will."
His colleagues offer great suggestions, too.
– If you want 'nonna' skills, pick a grandmother and ask to cook alongside her. You'll always learn from cooking with other people.
– Pick 10 recipes and make them over and over again. (I wrote about this earlier in the year, suggesting that you commit to establishing a culinary repertoire.)
– Pick easy things on weeknights. Try things that make you nervous on weekends. Most of the time the recipes that intimidate you are more time-consuming than actually difficult.
And if I may insert myself into this illustrious list, I'd suggest:
– Learning to cook with what you have on hand. Resisting the urge to buy specific ingredients and learning common swaps.
– Thinking about timing and how long each dish or ingredient will take to cook, so that all end up on the table at the same time.
Finally, just keep going. Cook every day and you'll get better. Last word goes to Daniel, one of Bittman's colleagues:
"To me, 'nonna cooking' is weaving the preparation of food so firmly into the fabric of your daily life that you begin to see (taste, smell, hear) the same things over and over again; you develop muscle memory, instincts borne of repetition, and a tolerance for failure."