Everybody, even people who say they have no interest in food, wants to learn how to cook. Knowing how to cook–especially from scratch and particularly from memory–is an impressive skill and one that many of us wish we could show off. The problem is that, for most of us, when we decide that we want to learn how to cook, we get bogged down in the data of it. We focus on finding easy recipes and taking classes and learning the mechanics of cooking. These things are all important, of course, but the aren’t the best way to learn how to cook.
The best way to learn to cook isn’t to crack open the nearest cookbook and follow the recipes contained within. Nope. The best way to learn how to cook is to eat. That’s where the first hints of cooking inspiration come from: eating foods you love and wanting to make them for yourself! You want to be able to have that pasta you love so much without being forced to get dressed up and going out to the fancy restaurant that serves it.
Julia Child knew this. After all, she credits her love of eating French food with her decision to start taking cooking classes at Le Cordon Bleu.
Let’s start with beverages. For example, if you want to start making lattes at home, it’s a good idea to know what a good latte is supposed to taste like. Spend some time in your favorite local indie cafes sampling the different types of coffees and espressos. If you want to impress your friends with your bartending abilities, first you need to find out the cocktail recipes of the drinks served at your favorite local haunts. Beverages are a great place to start because, unlike the chefs at your favorite local restaurants, who usually prefer to keep their exact recipes a secret, bartenders and baristas love sharing their knowledge with customers and will happily tell you exactly how to make your favorite drink.
If You Can See It, You Can Make It
From here, move on to simple foods that are easy, for lack of better term, to dissect. Sandwich places, diner food–these are all great basic foods to master at home and you can usually figure out your favorite recipes simply by looking at the product in front of you. Obviously, it’ll take you some time to get the recipe right when you try making your own version, but if you keep trying, you’ll be able to either replicate what you’ve paid for or you’ll happen upon a formula that you like even better!
What’s that Taste?
Next, move on to more complicated meals and teach yourself how to identify the different flavors you’re eating. Most menus will have at least a basic description of what you’ll get: cream sauce, garlic, the type of meat, etc. Learn how to match those descriptors with what you taste.
The best way to do this, in addition to simply eating food regularly, is to try different foods on your own. A great way to do this is to head to your local farmer’s market and ask to just sample a piece of whatever produce they’re offering (sampling is harder to do with meat for obvious reasons). Learn what basil tastes like on its own. Taste a piece of the different types of onions to know why you would need red instead of yellow or white. Tasting things will help you identify them when you go out to eat, which will make recreating your favorite dishes much easier.
Mastering the Mechanics
Once you’ve mastered the basics of simple foods, now it’s time to start working with the data. Dinner, even simple recipes, usually requires a fair amount of prep or mise en place and knowing how to do that prep work correctly will speed up your prep time quite a lot.
You won’t need to take tons of classes. For now, start out with a basic knife skills class and a general cooking class. If you can only afford one, go with knife skills. Trust us: nothing will make you feel more like a rockstar than being able to chop an onion into a hundred tiny identical little pieces in under a minute. Plus, knowing how to properly wield your knives will drastically reduce the number of times you’ll accidentally cut yourself during your prep work.
Is it possible to start cooking simply by following a recipe? Sure. But how will you know if your recipe turned out well if you’ve never tasted the dish you’re making–especially if you haven’t yet learned anything about food? Trust us: eat now. Eating is where everything starts.