Long before the first chemist ever burned his eyebrows off, there were chefs. No skill lends itself to experimentation quite like cooking (I always wonder about the first person to say “I wonder if I can eat that?“). You’re already eating two or more times per day… why not take advantage of it?
Two weeks ago I made dinner for eight friends, most of them French. I decided to make a vegetable risotto with tiramisu for desert. Not only did I receive plenty of compliments, but almost everybody returned for seconds. The woman who hosted us remarked to me after how strange this was, insisting that the French “food snob” stereotype is entirely true. I was invited back the next night (and cooked the lasagna, to the left).
Am I a trained chef? Hardly. A few years ago, in college, I could not make a decent burrito in the microwave. Recently I took a total of four cooking classes, but that is the extent of my formal education on the subject.
It gets better: I had never made a vegetable risotto before that night. I had helped make a fish risotto once, so I knew the general process, and that is it. I accidentally bought soup stock when shopping and could not find certain spices, so I had to make substitutions. I put this dish together on the fly, not by following an exact recipe, without any assurance that it was going to work. I was not worried, now because I didn’t care, but because I am confident in my ability to experiment. I had tested thousands of dishes on myself, so I was quite sure I could predict the quality.
Cooking your own food is healthier, cheaper and in is a great skill to have for entertaining people. So what are you waiting for?
1. Be Social
Cooking is a skill that has been handed down generation-to-generation since the dawn of humanity. You could start by reading books and recipies… but why would you?
Next time you meet someone who cooks well, ask them about it! Chances are they will be flattered and happy to tell you about what went into the dish. You can start noting the foods you like, the styles of cooking that are interesting to you, and so on. These will provide a good starting point the next time you go to the supermarket and are overwhelmed by the choices. It may be tempting to just watch the Food Network, but this is often overwhelming (and they don’t usually focus on the cooking so much as on the food). Back as a college student I simply started by asking my mom!
2. Learn your Ingredients
The reason I was able to create a vegetable risotto on the fly is that I cook with lots of vegetables normally. Start with a small set of ingredients and learn the different uses for each of them. It is better to be skilled in a small set of foods than bite off more than you can chew and be bad at all foods.
When you start cooking for yourself, try NOT using spices (or using them as little as possible). You’ll end up with some bland tasting dishes but you’ll learn the inherent flavors and texture in each of your ingredients. Try cooking in different ways (stir fry, bake, boil and steam are good places to start) and notice how each changes the texture of your foods.
Most important is to learn what can go with what. Some foods go together and some do not. This may seem like wine-snob talk but over time you will realize that it is very important. Simply choosing ingredients that belong together is a big first step toward making a good dish.
I am a big fan of stir fries because all they require is a pan and a flame (and in my travels I often don’t have an oven or other tools). This is not to say though that my cooking remains simple; I have learned to cook with everything from ray (the fish) to tofu. I change the oil (olive vs. different nut oils) I use to understand the flavors (and some have different chemical properties like the “flash point,” causing them to act better for frying or other purposes). I didn’t learn all this from reading – I just asked people and experimented.
3. Timing is Everything
This is where practice comes in. Cook something too long and it will burn (or become soggy), cook it too short and it will not expose the flavors of the food.
For example, in the risotto I added the tomatoes at the last moment because I wanted them to be fresh and explode when bit into, rather than blending into the rest of the flavors during the cooking process. Experimenting with timing will teach you to respect how each food changes as it is cooked and how to time everything so each food is at it’s best.
4. The Right Cut
After you’ve mastered the essentials of cooking you may decide to take a class to bring your skill to the next level. This is where you’ll learn all sorts of jargon and special skills (like how to make fine cuts). This will make a good dish great – it is the last 20% that makes the dish pop out. Taking even just a couple classes will allow you to understand the fundamentals of this advanced skillset and your cooking will reflect your new understanding.
All this said, I am still no master chef.
Cooking is the sort of skill that you perfect over the course of a lifetime!