Friday, November 13, 2009

How to become a home cook

I've been thinking, reading and writing a great deal about food  lately.  It ramped up after I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  I meant to post something about Michael Pollan's screed, Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch, but there was plenty of ink and pixels spilled across the internet without my contribution.

It's easy to judge people for watching others cook, rather than getting into the kitchen and cooking themselves.  But, what if someone doesn't know how to cook?  Where do they start?   How does someone who doesn't know a clove of garlic from a head of garlic* get started?

Cookbooks by celebrity chefs that are familiar from TV may not be the best place to start.  Professional chefs cook on restaurant scale on professional equipment (50,000 BTUs?  No problem!) with rare ingredients.  Years ago, a NYT article claimed that ~20% of cookbook recipes don't even work when tested in a home kitchen.  Recipes from celebrity restaurant chefs were heavily over-represented in the bad recipes .

I am a huge fan of Marion Cunningham because she tests each recipe in a home kitchen, using basic home equipment.  Then she has others test the recipes in their home kitchens.  I respect that attention to detail.

Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham is the best book I have ever seen for learning how to cook. She assumes no prior knowledge, explains every term and shows every step.  She developed the book while teaching rank beginners how to cook.  If you want to learn how to become a home cook, this is the place to start.

I've compiled a list of my most useful cookbooks (plus one example of the type of cookbook I hate). 

A bilingual compilation of Taiwanese recipes doesn't have an ISBN # and doesn't show up on that list.  But it's also highly recommended. It was put together by the Northern California Chapter of the North America Taiwanese Women's Association.  My mom might still have more.  Email me if you want a copy.

* Don't laugh, but I once had a housemate who borrowed one of my cookbooks and made a garlic pasta with three heads of garlic.  He thought that was a lot of garlic, but the recipe said 3 cloves of garlic.  He didn't know what a clove was, but he assumed it was a unit of garlic.  The entire garlic bulb looked like the basic unit of garlic to that novice.  So do not assume prior knowledge.  Newbies are not necessarily dumb, but they don't know the jargon yet.


  1. I credit my ability to cook to two things--the women in my family letting me help them cook and girl scouts. My sister-in-law can't cook at all. I'd never known this because we'd always eaten out with them or just had cold cuts, but she attempted to make BLT wraps one time and she was cooking bacon. Normally, she told me, she bought pre-cooked bacon. She managed to burn the bacon. She had put it all on a cookie sheet and put it on broil in the oven. Not an entirely bad idea, but she didn't know how long it should cook. When I mentioned that I often cook bacon in the microwave, she quipped, oh I didn't know you could do that. On that same visit, she also burnt oatmeal, again something that could have been microwaved. Her biggest problem seemed to be not really getting that food needs to be paid attention to while it's cooking. It kind of weirded me out.

  2. I love the Fannie Farmer books, too.

    Our "go to" sources for good and fast recipes are Cooking Light and The Minimalist Cooks at Home by Mark Bittman. We're all about fast since we both work and we want dinner on the table before 6:30 so that we can keep our toddler's night time schedule reasonable.

  3. @Laura

    I watched someone cook a whole rasher of bacon in the broiler once. I was awestruck. Our family never ate that much bacon at one time.

    We fried 2-3 slices at a time to flavor vegetable soups. As an occasional treat, we microwave a couple of strips per person for breakfast.

    We lay the bacon down on a double layer of paper towels, and then top with one more paper towel. Zap in the microwave until they attain the desired crispness. Blot and eat.

  4. Since everyone cooks in my family it's like I always knew how to cook - I absorbed it by osmosis. My kids watched and learned too. But if you didn't learn at home, Mrs. Cunningham is a great place to start

  5. Rosa10:46

    I made that exact same error with garlic when I was learning to cook! My mom only ever used powdered garlic.

    I have a friend in her forties who spent her pre-teen and teen years "cooking" for her younger siblings with no adult help - mac n cheese and canned things, mostly. She's just now learning to cook.

    Thank you for the list, I may get her a Christmas present.


Comments are open for recent posts, but require moderation for posts older than 14 days.