A lot of people who know I love to cook will tell me, “I don’t have the patience for that” or “I’m not good at it.” To this I say:
I am not a patient person, and I was not good at it the first time I tried either!
Expecting to be an amazing cook the first time you try is like expecting to be a competition level ice skater the first time you lace up your skates. You’ve gotta fall on your ass a bunch of times to be able to nail those axels.
Cooking is a mixture of skills when you’re first starting out. You have to be able to read a recipe correctly and understand all the terms. You have to learn how to do mise-en-place (getting all of your ingredients together ahead of time so you can just chug along and go step by step. You also need to be able to understand what something is “supposed to look like.” Therein lies the rub. That’s why you need to practice. Understanding what to look for in each step of a recipe is something that can be *helped* by pictures or video, but can only truly be taught when you’ve seen it for yourself.
That’s why you have to just make food. Make any recipes you see that turn you on. Then eat them, and concentrate on what worked, what didn’t, and what you’d do differently next time.
Take the time to do this every single time you make something, ESPECIALLY if you fuck a recipe up. You will grow as a cook by leaps and bounds if you can understand how you fucked something up so you don’t repeat it.
And repeating is what you’ll need to do. Keep making recipes for stuff you love to eat, and you will develop an understanding of technique and an understanding of your own personal taste. Sometimes, I would note that I didn’t like an herb in a recipe, so I substituted out that herb for something else. Now, when I’m reading a recipe, I know exactly whether I’ll like it as is or whether I’ll tweak it.
That kind of literacy only comes with making stuff and eating it. EVEN AND ESPECIALLY the flops.
As for patience, if you’re busy cooking, it shouldn’t be tedious! If you’re noticing everything as it’s being added and looking for changes, tasting as you go, and consulting a recipe all at the same time, you shouldn’t have time to be bored, and how can you be bored anyway when there’s about to be food?
Here are my best tips for getting started as a cook:
- Don’t be in a rush. Allow yourself extra time to cook a recipe until you feel like you have the hang of it. NEVER try a recipe for the first time if you plan on entertaining or cooking for someone. Not even a Michelin starred chef would do this.
- Buy a beginner cookbook. The classic is Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, and I have given that one out to many friends over the years, but I recommend what are called Look n Cook cookbooks: Cookbooks with pictures for each step, so you can understand what to look for. America’s Test Kitchen produce a few of these books. They have a new one called Dinner Illustrated, which is for weeknight cooking.
- Read every recipe through all the way twice before you start it. Read it the first time to make sure you have all the Ingredients and Gear. Read it the second time to get your mise-en-place together and get comfortable with the steps (and look for anything that’s time sensitive, or complicated.)
- Understand how to put together your Mise-en-Place. Measure out everything ahead of time and arrange it in the order you will need it around your cooking station. This will help you get in the habit of organization and will make it obvious whether you’re missing anything.
- Taste as you go. You know what you like, so make sure the think you’re making tastes the way you want it to as you go along. The more you taste, the more you’ll understand how ingredients work.
- Practice a lot on one recipe you really like. Make a recipe you know you like to eat multiple times in a month and keep doing it, adjusting and noticing as you go along. This will help you master a recipe and adjust it to your taste.