On Learning to Cook

In this enlightened day and age, many of us entered adulthood without a ton of experience in one of the most important aspects of home life—cooking!  I had helped my mom plan menus and made our family dinner by myself many times by the time I went off to college, but there were definitely some strange holes in my knowledge.  I had chosen meals at home that didn’t involve cutting up raw meat, a job I found particularly gross.  Unless you’re vegetarian (we’re not), that’s a pretty fundamental skill!  And I could handle making one dish, but timing out having rice, vegetables, and the main dish all ready at the same time was trickier than I’d thought.

So when I got married, I did what any new housewife should do: I sat down with a basic cookbook, and I made a list of every recipe in there that I wanted to learn to cook.  And I spent that first year or two of marriage cooking through my list, learning techniques like making a roux, browning, simmering, and the like.  Like my mom did 30 years ago in her Betty Crocker, I graded the recipes in mine (A! means “make this all the time,” B means “we like it, but it’s not an every-week dish,” C means “blah,” and F means “don’t ever make this again—it was so bad we had to throw it away.”)  I didn’t really expand my veggie horizons until the year we signed up for a CSA farm share.  We got ¾ bushel of fresh fruits and veggies delivered weekly for nine months, and boy, did that teach me about veggies!  I learned to incorporate several vegetables into a meal, and our family discovered we liked a few things that we’d never tried before!

These were the days before pinterest, so besides my few mainstay cookbooks, most of the meals I tried were shared by friends or came from church cookbooks (another tip: figure out the best cook in the church and cook through all her recipes).  I’ve copied down my husband’s favorite recipes from my mother-in-law and her mom (we especially love Nona’s homemade pasta!), and I’ve been known to call my mom at 4 pm with an urgent request to read off the directions for some family favorite recipe that I don’t exactly remember.

cooking with nona

What I did NOT do was to start cooking fancy recipes off the internet without learning the basics!  When friends tell me they hate cooking, it’s usually because they’ve tried this method.  I hate it, too, when I spend an hour on something that’s not yummy in the end!  Proper technique makes your chances of success (and satisfaction) higher, and a tested recipe (as opposed to something someone tried once and posted because she happened to take pictures of it) will have more consistent results when you’re still finding your way around the kitchen.  It’s never too late to start over and learn the basics.  Once you’ve mastered them, you’ll have more confidence with cooking without recipes and tackling those complicated ones you find on pinterest or in magazines.

How did you learn to cook?

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6 Responses to On Learning to Cook

  1. ESD says:

    Will you be posting these much-loved family recipes? 🙂 🙂 🙂
    I struggle to find recipes that are interesting, delicious, and don’t feel like they’re recycling the same ingredients in dull variations (Italian chicken—throw some tomato sauce in there! or Tex-Mex Chicken—throw some cumin and salsa in there! or Vietnamese Chicken–throw some peanut butter and coconut milk! etc.)

  2. Hannah says:

    Ha, I share your disgust at cutting up raw meat, and now that we are dishwasher-less, cleaning up is even more gross! My this-winter goal is learning several awesome slow-cooker meat roasts – no raw mess. Any suggestions?

    My own cooking is highly informed by my mom’s cooking – a strong belief in from-scratch, and with wholesome ingredients. Added is my own dichotomy – I love to putz around with “fancy” stuff but mainly want cheap fast AND from-scratch. I love pantry cooking and using up things, as well as trying new foods. Eventually it will be more systematic, but it’s (mostly) fun adjusting by season – in food, and in schedule.

    • Emily says:

      Oh, I’m totally over the cutting up raw meat thing now. We rarely have big hunks of meat (except in crockpot roasts!), so I’ve just had to get used to cutting up chicken breasts. I probably only gagged for the first couple dozen times. I do admit that when I clean out a whole chicken or turkey, I still put my hand in a plastic bag to pull the guts out. Gizzards still gross me out!

      One thing I’m trying to work on is putting together planned leftover meals after I roast a chicken. Pulling apart cooked chicken doesn’t gross me out at all.

  3. Elsa says:

    I think that cooking is one of the few skills that, regardless of your typical learning style, you just have to DO until you figure out what works for you.

    I learned plenty of recipes and techniques from my mom, but everything I know about kitchen problem solving and meal planning is from my (seven-year) summer job in a camp kitchen. Planning ahead, having everything ready at once, creating a balanced meal; those are skills that you really must have when you are feeding 200 people three times a day!

    The other thing I learned there is that having really sharp knives makes life way easier. A lot of people are trying to use their wedding-present knife set that has never been sharpened.

  4. Pingback: Guest Post: The Family Table | Everything to Someone

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