How to Become a Better Cook

It's never too late to learn.

happy woman cooking in her kitchen

@hellomikee via Twenty20 

Lately, I've been thinking about what I would do if my mother had not taught me to cook from a young age. I was fortunate to grow up watching and helping her in the kitchen, so almost by osmosis I picked up the ability to make anything from scratch. But what if that hadn't happened? How would I go about teaching myself to cook, as so many other people have to do? 

Learning to cook is strange. It's a necessary life skill, not to mention a source of tremendous pleasure for oneself and one's family; but unless you learn while growing up, it can feel daunting to acquire those skills. People don't tend to sign up for cooking classes in the same way that they would, say, a regular language or exercise class, or have a tutor peering over their shoulder to say whether something has been done correctly or not. When it comes to cooking there's a sense that a person is on their own, left to teach themselves unless, of course, they choose to stick with a lifetime of mediocre meals. (How sad!)

So I compiled a list of thoughts and ideas on how to go about teaching oneself to cook. If you want to improve your cooking skills, this is what you should do.

1. Narrow It Down

Figure out what you like to eat and focus on learning how to make that well. Don't stretch yourself too thin or keep trying new recipes until you've become comfortable with a few basics. You can also choose five to eight recipes and practice those repeatedly to build a culinary repertoire.

2. Watch YouTube Videos 

YouTube is a wealth of visual knowledge that goes a long way toward improving cooking skills. My husband loves watching Gordon Ramsay videos and will recreate entire meals from what he sees. I use it when I need specialized knowledge, such as how to cut up a whole chicken into eight parts (yes, that's one thing I should've learned years ago). Trent Hamm wrote for The Simple Dollar that "the most helpful thing in the world for getting better at cooking, in my opinion, is YouTube. I really, really wish I had YouTube as an aid when I was first learning to cook." Don't underestimate it.

3. Read the Whole Recipe

It's crucial to read an entire recipe from start to finish before you start cooking. This eliminates any potential surprises that could derail your success and provides you a chance to review the ingredients you have and what could be substituted. It also gives you a better sense of the "underlying mechanics of what is happening" (via The Kitchn), which improves your overall cooking skills. 

4. Give Yourself Time 

Few things can ruin a recipe faster than feeling rushed. Block off a chunk of time to make a meal each day (or several times a week), and treat it as sacred learning time, much as you would an hour designated for working out or attending a meeting. Use part of that time to tidy your counters; it makes the cooking process far more pleasurable. Faith Durand writes for The Kitchn, "It’s better to put dinner on the table a little late, so you can start cooking with a clean work space."

Another aspect of timing that's worth thinking about is how long the individual components of your meal will take to prepare, and starting them in order of longest to shortest. That way, the entire meal will be ready at the same time. Nobody wants their bowl of chickpea curry to get cold while they're waiting for the rice to cook! 

5. Learn Some Basic Rules

Season with confidence and season early. Brown meat and vegetables boldly in the pan and do not crowd the pieces. Add a splash of acid at the end before serving. Use lots and lots of fresh herbs. Start with high-quality ingredients. Use a sharp chef's knife and cut ingredients to the same size so they cook evenly. Bake pie crusts longer than you think they need (Fine Cooking says, "You’re going for brown, not pale blond") and pull your cookies out when they look barely done (chewy is good). Handle quick breads lightly. Make homemade stock.

6. Develop and Trust Your Senses

Recommended cooking times are just estimates, so rely on your own tests to confirm if a dish is finished. Stick a fork or a toothpick into a cake to make sure it's not doughy inside. Listen for the crackle of a bread crust. Taste and smell food to see if it's cooked to your liking, or if it needs longer. Learn how to use all five of your senses to tell if food is ready.

7. Ask for Advice

Talk to people you know who are good at cooking. Ask them which recipes you should try, and if they can give you recipes. Keep these organized so you don't lose track of them. Ask if you can watch them prepare a certain dish, then go home and try to recreate it. 

8. Treat Cookbooks Like Workbooks

I wrote a whole post on this, but I'll reiterate it here – that you should mark up your cookbooks as if they're a workbook. You're studying and learning, after all, and need to track your progress in some way. Make notes of what you liked or changed, and what you'd do differently the next time around. This is enormously helpful down the road, because you will not be able to remember those details within a few weeks.

And while we're on the topic of cookbooks, realize that not all cookbooks or recipe sites are created equally. Look for respected authors and publishers whose recipes are reliably good. I'm a fan of all cookbooks by America's Test Kitchen; they're pretty much bullet-proof. Mark Bittman's "How To Cook Everything" is a great resource, as is Fine Cooking and Canadian Living. Take a look at online reviews before picking a recipe, and if it's not highly ranked, find another.

9. Practice, Practice, Practice

Why do you think grandmothers tend to be such great cooks? Because they've been practicing for decades! They have thousands and thousands of meals under their belts. The more you do it, the better you'll get, so just keep cooking. Failures are part of the journey, so don't beat yourself up over it; just clean up, make some notes, and keep going.