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What makes a GOOD home cook?


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I've now been cooking for roughly one and a half years. Over this period of time, I've gone from cooking extremely simple things, found in the Good Food Magazine to cooking *slighty* more ambitious dishes.

I have a fair amount of free time at the moment, so I can enjoy a day or two of cooking all day each week. I love this and usually invite people round in the evening. I take all day preparing and while (obviously) people say it's good, I can't help but feel like a fraud.

I imagine, because I've been able to follow recipes, people sort of forget that and assume I've just come up with it all myself. Increasingly, this is leading to a sense of inner disatisfaction, almost to the point of frustration at times.

My reason for this is that, without referring to the recipes time and again, I would actually be pretty lost. No matter how many times I make something, I always feel I need the recipe when I come to do it again. This is because I seem to commit VERY little to memory.

I could make a sauce that may be reasonably simple but within a week, I'll have forgotten how to make it; the order in which things are added, how long they're cooked for etc.

Most annoyingly is that, I don't seem to have much perception for quantities. 2g flour to 1g suet is a nice simple formula and one easy to commit to memory but something more complicated, say for herb scones involving a mix of milk, self-raising flour, thyme, rosemary, egg and salt it becomes rather more difficult.

I test myself whenever I'm watching MASTER CHEF, during the first round when contestants must cook something with a set of ingredients. Frequently, I think 'I'd be lost'.

I've tried reading around the basics; cuts of meat, ways of cooking vegetables, what goes with what etc yet I feel, alone, with only my brain and without the benefit of having someone elses recipe, I'd be almost as lost as I was 1 1/5 years ago.

How do you become a good cook?

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By teaching myself new experiences whether by eating out, cooking in my own kitchen or other methods. When I was growing up, one of my favorite things to do (and it still is) was to go to the library or local bookstore and read cookbooks for a few hours. It helped instill a curiosity (and I daresay, a desire) to learn how to cook better.

I'm not really sure how to answer your question. I find this process varies according to the individual.

FYI, I don't follow recipes much, unless it's something I've never made before....and then I only refer to it for guidance.

I think if you cook often enough, you'll eventually develop a well-honed instinct. These things take time, a little self-confidence and some education.

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. . .

My reason for this is that, without referring to the recipes time and again, I would actually be pretty lost. No matter how many times I make something, I always feel I need the recipe when I come to do it again. This is because I seem to commit VERY little to memory.

. . .

I don't think a good cook equates to a good memory! If you are turning out meals that your guests enjoy than I would say you are already a good cook. To memorize recipes, esp. baking recipes, you would have to repeat them over and over and over again which is where professionals differ from home cooks. They do repeat recipes over and over again.

One of the advantages of being a home cook is that you can tweak a recipe to your taste and eventually veer away from a set recipe -something that would be frowned upon in a professional setting where consistency is important.

I once knew someone who twenty years after interviewing someone for a job could remember exactly what the interviewee was wearing! I learned fairly soon that this person had a fabulous memory but not much else. It was then I decided I would use my brain to process information and a file cabinet to store it!

There are certain dishes I have been making for 40+ years and I STILL go back to the recipe each time I make them.

Don't judge your cooking on your ability to memorize, judge it on the results you get.

Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Cooking is about doing the best with what you have . . . and succeeding." John Thorne

Our 2012 (Kerry Beal and me) Blog

My 2004 eG Blog

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This is something that I have asked myself many times.

If you have a repertoire of good recipes that everyone loves and you can make consistently, are you a good cook?

Or, do you have to be able to create new, delicious dishes?

What about technique? Do you have to be a great baker as well as cook?

What about improvisation? I used to really appreciate how my mom can take odds and ends out of the fridge and make something really tasty.

In the end, I think a good cook can be any of these things but the more skills you have, the higher you rise in my estimation.

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I know that one thing that has helped me when I've used cookbooks is to mark them up. What worked, what didn't. My most well-used cookbooks are littered with little notes to myself -- more broth, lower temp, never repeat, etc.

I figure that if I can make the five of us and any guests happy, I'm a good cook. After all, food = love.

Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"
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practice, love of cooking, sense of adventure, willingness to trash a kitchen ...and most of all (my biggest reward) just getting to the point where when they are done eating your labor of love everyone curls up goes fetal sucking thumbs and twirls hair.

when I had accomplished that I knew I had arrived as a great home cook

Edited by hummingbirdkiss (log)
why am I always at the bottom and why is everything so high? 

why must there be so little me and so much sky?

Piglet 

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I think Anna hit it on the head.

Your granny was likely a great cook (everybody's was) and she had a drawerful of recipe cards for a good reason. She needed to refer to them too.

Don't beat yourself up.

If people like your food.....you are a good cook.

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I learned to cook fairly late in life. Making and experimenting with recipes from Cook's Illustrated magazine helped me become a better cook. The standard format for their articles includes an explanation of what makes a recipe work. They often demonstrate the effect of varying different ingredients using pictures. For example, I liked their lemon tart but wanted it to be less sweet. Over a series of attempts I increased the lemon zest and/or decreased the sugar until I got a tart that was a) sour but also b) set up well and c) didn't have the mouth feel of an omelet. Such experimentation, based on their examples, gave me a feel for how much I could decrease the sugar and increase the acidity in similar types of desserts. If I just followed the recipe every time I would have nice lemon tarts, but wouldn't have learned much about making tarts.

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My daughter Jeanie says a good cook is someone who is cooking with love. I think she may have something.

I think it's important to shop with your eyes open for good, quality ingredients. You don't have to buy the most expensive ingredients but when you do, you can buy them in a smaller quantity. You can save money by keeping away from processed foods, buying in season, and favor local foods, farmers markets and so forth.

When you start with good ingredients and you have learned just the basics of cooking (leave restaurant food to the chefs for the most part) and you pay attention to what you are cooking, I think you end up with dishes that are true to the food itself. Then learn to add a few seasonings, spices and create your style of cooking.

I know people are rushed during the day so it's best to make a simple meal if you don't have the time. The process of cooking should be as enjoyable as that of eating.

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SaladFingers,

Congratulations! You are already a good cook! Many people never even get there. You are able to make delicious food, and other people like to eat it. That's no small accomplishment, and not everyone can achieve it -- no matter how hard they try, it eludes them.

As for myself, I learned to cook young, and had natural ability, and yet I've spent half a lifetime learning to be a good cook, and look forward to spending the rest of my life learning to be an even better cook. The only thing that will teach you is to cook meal after meal after meal...simple ones, complex ones, hurried ones, relaxed ones...it doesn't matter.

Anna, as she so often does, went right to the heart of the matter: cooking is not about memorizing. Over time and repetition you will learn what is important to remember. It won't be formulas: those you can write down. If you look around eGullet you'll notice that all of us have lots and lots of cookbooks and recipes and magazines...filled with stuff we could never remember. I've been making the exact same pizza dough for 10 years, and I still have to look up the quantities every time.

What you need to "internalize" are techniques and patterns of cooking: how to saute, how to braise, what onions look and smell like when they're soft, or when they're carmelized. All these things come with experience.

My personal advice for a few books to learn from: Pierre Franey's 60 Minute Gourment (my first exposure WAY back when to cooking from a pattern); anything written by Julia Child; Molly Stevens' The Art of Braising, and any of the basic books by Marcella Hazan.

But please get rid of the idea that you're some kind of fraud. Enjoy cooking and feeding people...it's a wonderful, precious gift that unites all of here, and given a chance, I'm sure it will move into the very core of your being. Then you'll look back and wonder how you could have ever thought of yourself as anything other than a "good cook"

Best wishes,

- L

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Some lovely replies, thanks.

What spurred me to write my question was watching a cooking competition on TV (Master Chef to any Brits here) featuring amateur cooks. Some people stand out as really good home cooks because they just seem to know their way around ingredients. While others (possibly like me) look far less assured, despite probably cooking quite a bit.

It concerned me that maybe they were people who followed recipes, so that when asked to improvise they faired less well than those who had more of an instinct.

I understand making food people love and that enjoying making it is what 'really' counts but I'd much rather be one of those who look like they know what they're doing!

I will look into those books Lapin. Admitedly, I may be low on books. I have a recipe book by Rosemary Shrager (School for Cooks) which I love following because her recipes are more complex than the average magazine style recipe and they seem to always guarantee good flavour (must be all that butter and cream!). But I'm slightly concerned that by following this book, I may be slightly disabling my ability to become more intimately accustomed to how 'food works'.

Besides my concerns, I do love cooking, almost obsessively at times and I'm glad I've found something which truly inspires me to learn for personal gain.

Edited by SaladFingers (log)
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How do you become a good cook?

By cooking -- for yourself, your family, your friends. The more you do it, the better you get. I was useless in the kitchen when I first left home for university. I didn't really start cooking until I had my own place and a decent job, it was out of necessity.

If I could send a message to my useless former self from 20 years ago, my advice on becoming a good home cook would be:

- Educate yourself: read the books, watch the shows, flip through the magazines, surf the sites.

- Experiment: embrace new ingredients, new techniques, new cultures.

- Record your progress: take notes and pictures.

It's the EER approach! Just what the world needs -- another lame acronym. :biggrin:

Peter Gamble aka "Peter the eater"

I just made a cornish game hen with chestnut stuffing. . .

Would you believe a pigeon stuffed with spam? . . .

Would you believe a rat filled with cough drops?

Moe Sizlack

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Experience is everything.

My mother taught me how to make a great pie crust when I was twelve. After that lesson, I was in charge of the Sunday dinner pie.

When I was a newlywed I was the original Maggie/Julia. I cooked through "Mastering the Art" when I was a twenty-year- old newlywed. Every night, a different dinner.

Great Home Cook is a medal won through walking the walk, cooking dinner day after day with love and curiosity-- for your entire life. Cookbooks and classes and places like eGullet are great resources, but the Great Home Cook medallion is won like any other honor: never, ever give up.

Experience.

Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

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I think Anna hit it on the head.

If people like your food.....you are a good cook.

May I beg to differ? :wub:

If you're having fun, it makes you happy, and you're not poisoning anyone....anything goes. Don't judge yourself.

Jeez, honey, there are days I'd forget my name if my kids weren't screaming it constantly.

"Hi, I'm Mama!...er...Celia."

Edited by pax (log)
“Don't kid yourself, Jimmy. If a cow ever got the chance, he'd eat you and everyone you care about!”
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FWIW, I think you are confusing a "GOOD CHEF" with a "GOOD HOME COOK".

I am a damn outrageously excellent home cook. I have the techniques down, I know the difference between chop/dice/mince/concasse ('tho I don't know how to, erm...spell that !), I can make a roux with the best natural-born Cajun, I comprende sofrito, and trinity and mire poix, my proteins are done to a "T", my starches are fine, my veg is al dente, and never gray and mushy. I've taught myself to make excellent bread, my biscuits are more than acceptable, and I'm workin' on cakes. Cookies ? Been there, conquered that.

Everyone I cook for loves my food. Everyone I cook for thinks I should a) open a restaurant, b) go on Top Chef, c) go on Next Food Network Star, d) write a cookbook.

I could do none of the above.

I can read a recipe and know if the people I cook for, and I (important point that…) will like it. I can read a recipe and know if the flavor profile will appeal to me and the people I cook for. I can read a recipe and think…….”hmmmmmmmmm…….I’d like more fill-in-the-blank in this”. I can read a recipe and KNOW if I can make it, and if it’s within my skill set.

Can I look at olive juice and methylcellulose and make “olives” like Ferran Adria? Heck no. That’s just not in my skills. Do I respect that Ferran Adria can do that? YOU BETCHA ! But me……. I am not an inherently talented person, in any field. No art skills, can’t carry a tune in a bucket as my Dad used to say, can’t play an instrument, can’t match tastes/essences/aromas/textures and create something that makes people go “WOW, day-um, *I* sure never thought of that !”

What I am is an aficionado. I can look at a Monet and appreciate it. I can hear a Beethoven symphony, or a Miles Davis groove and get it, and need to hear it over and over. I can read a Jacques Pepin, or a Julia Child, or a James Beard, or a Jose Andres recipe and say, yeah, that sounds good, and I can DO that. And I am a skilled technician in the kitchen. I can, within reason, replicate what someone else has created. And as someone who works in science, good technicians are a valuable commodity.

But I am a great, a GREAT home cook. I put love, and passion, and myself into everything I make. There is a piece of me in every dish I serve, even if the only other audience for it than myself is the dogs. Even if I’m only cooking FOR ME, I put me into the dish. And that makes me a damn outrageously excellent home cook. And you too.

--Roberta--

"Let's slip out of these wet clothes, and into a dry Martini" - Robert Benchley

Pierogi's eG Foodblog

My *outside* blog, "A Pound Of Yeast"

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SaladFingers,

You've been cooking for a mere year and a half? If you've done a tenth of what you refer to, I suspect you're well on your way to being a very - very - good home cook.

I have been sole cook for a household of two for about a decade, and been cooking for myself for the most part of 20 or more years before that. At first, I just wanted to be able to cook "instinctively" - to do the basics with little guidance. I had no ambition to be able to do more ornate cookery at that time. In time, I have accumulated a decent base of what you do with what, so that I can walk into a kitchen and come out with basic meals with no outside guidance, and now, as I have become more ambitious, more not so basic meals. It's taken that long for me to get the basic interrelationships between many techniques and ingredients. Give yourself time. You've just barely begun.

Professional chefs can go to cooking school, and be instructed for two or three years by chef / instructors, eight hours a day, with tons of food to practice on, and in an atmosphere that is a hothouse for a cooking mindset. Just the volume of what they cook in a couple of years at school is more than a lifetime's cooking for the rest of us, and the instruction is irreplaceable. And then, they follow that by going to work at restaurant after restaurant, to go from being instructed, to being deeply proficient.

If you tend to judge yourself by the professional accomplishments of others, it can be discouraging. I watch Iron Chef America, and see people make broiled monkfish icecream cake and seven other monkfish courses with no recipe, in a kitchen that's not their own, under cameras, with Alton Brown watching, in an hour, and I get it that they are doing things I'll never be ready for. It is largely irrelevant to my - or your - level of accomlishment as a home cook though. Other than illustrating the general idea that most foods can be the subject of massive creativity. Creativity takes time and practice. As amateurs we only get so much time and practice.

Don't judge yourself by breads and cakes. Please. Baked goods, such as breads and, most especially, like cakes, are a separate category entirely. They tend to reward exacting, repeatable preparation, and they tend punish wontonly haphazard fiddling. I have worked up a couple of very solid bread recipes through careful, and moderate incremental tweaking, and through absolute rock solid record keeping. I am not quite yet able to just toss off a new and untried sourdough formula off the top of my head. I can do a simple pizza dough with no recipe, but it's easier and faster to start with a basic recipe even if now I do modify it. Practice.

As you cook more, you will note that the vast majority of recipes depent upon a certain basic constellation of fundamental items and techniques - onion/carrot/celery - fast cook for sear / slow cook for tender and moist - slow cooking items early - delicate quick cooking items at last moment.... As time goes on, those things become second nature.

I do have one suggestion. Think about trying to NOT use recipes all the time. Develop your inner cook by doing some of the most basic meals from your head and your accumulated knowledge. It will gradually become more and more as time goes by. Soup is a great place to start. Soup is forgiving. Ditto, basic meat and potatos and basic veggies. Learn how they respond to what you do to them. You will find some things don't work. And that some things work like a charm. Failures stop being failures when you use them to tune your "inner chef". I've learned a good portion of what I know about food from just trying things out in the kitchen. Lots of odd meals and tough meat and so on, but they have been wonderfully instructive. You can't let a bad meal make you feel like a loser though.

Learning some of the basics by trial and error has finally got me to the point where I usually understand what's going on inside a recipe. Now, I am using more and more recipes, understanding them, and learning to expand upon the basics. Now, I know by the feel of dough, when it's ready to rise, when it's ready to go into the oven etc...

Best,

C

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the recipes are NOT the food themselves, it's the conversion of the written words, the ideas, into real edible food that is cooking. And it's this that's the real skill. Give 100 people a recipe and you'll likely get 100 different versions of the "same" dish.

improvising (in any field) can only come after plenty of experience, there is not a single person who was able to improvise a dish the first time they stepped into a kitchen - we are not born able to do this stuff.

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One and a half years is not a long time! I think I started to get pretty good after fifteen years or so.

99 cookbooks out of a hundred are worse than useless-but cook every recipe that's practical from Richard Olney's Simple French Food, then repeat the ones you love. Pretty soon you will understand the principles of cooking and know how to cook most things. Extravagant praise for a book, but richly deserved.

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FWIW, I think you are confusing a "GOOD CHEF" with a "GOOD HOME COOK".

Do you think somebody can be a GOOD CHEF but not a GOOD HOME COOK?

Edited by Peter the eater (log)

Peter Gamble aka "Peter the eater"

I just made a cornish game hen with chestnut stuffing. . .

Would you believe a pigeon stuffed with spam? . . .

Would you believe a rat filled with cough drops?

Moe Sizlack

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FWIW, I think you are confusing a "GOOD CHEF" with a "GOOD HOME COOK".

Do you think somebody can be a GOOD CHEF but not a GOOD HOME COOK?

Speaking off the top of my head and with nothing to back me up I would say a resounding YES. As in most fields of endeavour you can often do things in a professional setting and then be lost when faced with less than professional equipment. But I stand ready to be disabused of my assumption. :biggrin:

Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Cooking is about doing the best with what you have . . . and succeeding." John Thorne

Our 2012 (Kerry Beal and me) Blog

My 2004 eG Blog

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FWIW, I think you are confusing a "GOOD CHEF" with a "GOOD HOME COOK".

Do you think somebody can be a GOOD CHEF but not a GOOD HOME COOK?

Speaking off the top of my head and with nothing to back me up I would say a resounding YES. As in most fields of endeavour you can often do things in a professional setting and then be lost when faced with less than professional equipment. But I stand ready to be disabused of my assumption. :biggrin:

Anna N, I think your instincts are spot on. Of course the answer is YES, just like there are lawyers in prisons and psychiatrists with screwed-up personal lives. Good chefs have to do it good every night, inspire the staff, please the diners, balance the books, whatever it takes to stay in the game.

Peter Gamble aka "Peter the eater"

I just made a cornish game hen with chestnut stuffing. . .

Would you believe a pigeon stuffed with spam? . . .

Would you believe a rat filled with cough drops?

Moe Sizlack

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FWIW, I think you are confusing a "GOOD CHEF" with a "GOOD HOME COOK".

Do you think somebody can be a GOOD CHEF but not a GOOD HOME COOK?

Absolutely !

Sometimes you need the adrenaline rush of the "performance" to really excel.

And as Anna mentioned, just the difference in equipment and quality of ingredients can sink the best talents.

I would imagine just the difference in scale is daunting to adapt to. In the pro kitchen you're cooking for what...usually 100-plus people per night? At least ? I'd think it would be difficult sometimes to bring that down to the significant other and the 2.5 kids in the breakfast nook.

--Roberta--

"Let's slip out of these wet clothes, and into a dry Martini" - Robert Benchley

Pierogi's eG Foodblog

My *outside* blog, "A Pound Of Yeast"

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Saladfingers, if you are not a good cook now, with your approach, nothing on earth is going to stop you being one very soon.

Home cooking is a real passion with me - it's a totally different scene from restaurant cooking. I totally agree with Pierogi.

And as maggiethecat says too, learning to cook from the book is just the start...learning to keep on cooking when you have no time, you're feeling sick (or your "clients" are busy, grumpy, or sick!), you've got no money, you haven't shopped recently...putting together something that looks good and tastes good for family from 8 months to 80 years, under any circumstances - now THAT's the exciting part of home cooking.

As for the memory thing, when I was expecting my first child, I decided to calculate and memorize proportions to save myself time while my children were small. It was incredibly freeing! I can't think of anything that is more likely to generate innovation in your cooking.

Second up, I made a habit of thinking about what various ingredients were really doing in each dish. I know it's obvious, but when I started thinking about texture as well as flavor, I found my innovations were more successful.

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Hey SaladFingers, I wonder about the same kind of things sometimes.

I reckon the answers so far have been great, so I don't know if I have much to add but I will anyway :)

For me, in the last year or so I have found that I am starting to be much more instinctual when I cook - I am able to taste things and identify more and more what is missing, what would take it to the next level, etc. This is after many years of cooking (for pleasure) and I don't think anything "happened", it's just part of the progression I guess. Time... not always the answer we want, but hey, it's going to be a lifelong skill/hobby!

With pastry/baking, I totally rely on recipes for quantities as well. Baking has its own unique challenges, and when things don't work they REALLY don't work!

And like others have said, when you are just cooking as a hobby, you don't get nearly the exposure of a chef or professional... I only bake a few times a week at most, and when I'm doing that it's mostly to relax so i'm not TRYING to 'learn' stuff and memorising, that's just no fun!

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