I’m not the world’s finest chef. I’d never last on a Food Network cooking challenge (although my oh-so-complimentary husband would have you believe otherwise), but my skills have improved over the past decade – a lot. Here are some of the ways that I’ve been able to go from barely being able to successfully follow a recipe, to giving my own tips and tricks to people far above my skill level.
In no particular order:
-Enroll in culinary arts courses
-Attend cultural events and festivals
-Ask tons of questions
-Try new recipes
-Buy a new cookbook
-Take a cooking class
-Watch cooking shows
-Cook with a friend
-Ask your husband or kids for ideas
-Exposure, exposure, exposure
-Try a new ethnic restaurant
-Learn a new language
Enroll in culinary arts courses
I grew up in a large family and my mom cooked all our meals. Unfortunately, she was so busy feeding 13 hungry mouths that there wasn’t much room for us to “help” in the kitchen. We learned more through observation than anything else. When I moved out of the house for my freshman year at Brigham Young University, I was excited to start cooking for myself. But I quickly realized I knew very little about cooking. I lived off a steady diet of hamburger helper and frozen pizza.
My sophomore year I switched to Boise State University and decided to hold weekly dinners with friends. I learned that I was pretty good at following a recipe – so much so, that I was gaining quite the reputation among my friends of being a “good cook.” During this time I was dating a guy who planted the idea in my head that I should consider switching my major to culinary arts, and I did. I broke up with the guy, but the culinary classes opened my eyes to how vast the world of cooking was. We spent an entire unit discussing spices and herbs, and were tested on those spices and herbs buy sight and smell.
While taking classes, I had a lot of failures. A LOT. I was definitely a novice compared to most of my classmates. But more than anything else, taking culinary classes helped me figure out how to take a recipe and make it my own and gave me confidence in my ability. I didn’t have to add bleu cheese to my salad, I could add pepper jack instead.
My teachers were wonderful. It’s both intimidating and exciting to cook alongside someone who has trained with foreign chefs and worked in high-end restaurants. In the end, I decided that chefs were more serious about food and concerned with perfection than I was. So I switched from culinary arts to business, but I deeply value the skills I learned there and the confidence it gave me in my own cooking ability.
You can check with your local university or community college, or sign up with an online program. Here’s a good resource to get you started: http://www.onlinecoursesreview.org/culinary_arts
Attend cultural events and festivals
I think it probably goes without saying that you don’t have to have a Greek grandfather to attend a Greek festival. And your last name doesn’t have to be Asian if you want admittance into the Chinese cultural event. Just go. See what they have to offer. My husband still talks about a maple festival we just happened upon while living in southern Virginia. It was in this tiny town just over the border to West Virginia and it was not only loads of fun, it was mind-blowing how many different ways people used maple. Maple donuts, maple fudge, maple ice cream. We tried everything. Even maple bbq. The longest line, however, had to be at a fish and chips stand. Best fried trout I’ve ever had. Lots of those foods we’ve recreated ourselves since then (but not the maple cookies – they weren’t very good).
So give it a try. Everfest.com has a master list of most festivals. But don’t just check out what’s near you – make a trip of it. Ask friends or family or neighbors or even strangers about events they’ve attended in the past. Basque festivals are way cooler than they may sound on paper.
Ask tons of questions
This is a big one for me. I’ve never really been shy about asking questions, and that is especially true with food. A friend will invite us over for dinner and if I like something, I ask for the recipe. Or if their pot roast is the most tender I’ve ever had, I must know the secret. Without asking my friend Randy, I never would’ve thought to put a teaspoon of sugar in homemade mac and cheese, but it really does kick it up a notch.
But this isn’t just true for someone with whom you already have confidence. Ask waiters what makes their bacon so good. The worst they could say is “I don’t know.” But maybe instead they’ll say, “We smoke it ourselves.” Now you have the answer to out-of-this-world bacon. Or go to a killer food truck where you can talk to the actual chef. He may tell you “It’s a secret.” But he might let you see that he uses roasted poblano chiles on his mini pizzas instead of green peppers. Such a difference.
Try new recipes
This one seems kind of obvious, but it’s worth mentioning. There are SO many recipe sites out there (including my own) so you have no excuse to keep making your mediocre shepherd’s pie when there are so many recipes out there that could teach you ways to make it better. My husband hates red chili, and I love it. So I looked for a compromise: white chili. I looked at lots of recipes – unsure whether or not my husband would like them. Then we had some at my sisters house and he RAVED about it. Luckily my sister is a recipe-follower like myself, so she could tell me exactly what she did. I added a few ingredients to make it my own and it won first place at a chili cook-off.
Along with trying new recipes, don’t be afraid to combine parts of different recipes. When I make chicken pot pie – or any common American staple – I look up three or four recipes before I make my final product. Unless it’s something I’ve never made before, I rarely stick to one person’s method. I’ve made so many different versions of chicken pot pie, I’m sure to come up with the world’s best anytime now.
Buy a new cookbook
I love cookbooks. Especially ones with LOTS of colorful, appetizing pictures. I appreciate a good food blog, but there’s something to be said for recipe collections in paperback form. The tactile sensation of thumbing through the pages makes me want to cook for some reason.
Take a cooking class
It’s a no-brainer that a class can improve your skills, but where do you find classes? The short answer is, it takes some digging sometimes. Google is an option, but I prefer groupon. You can find great deals on couples classes, or wine pairing classes, or cupcake making classes, or Christmas dinner classes. If you can’t find any near you, plan a trip to a larger city and make a weekend of it.
Lots of community centers also offer classes or courses. Some colleges will offer night cooking classes open to the public for a fee. Like I said, it may take some digging, but these classes are a lot of fun and often introduce you to like-minded people who share your love of food.
Watch cooking shows
Most people who have even a mild interest in cooking have seen their fair share of cooking shows. Competitions like Iron Chef or Chopped appeal to some, while others prefer travelling critics like on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives or Bizarre Foods. Still others would rather simply watch someone make a recipe. I fit into all of those categories depending on my mood. My go-to show, however, is America’s Test Kitchen. I like how real it feels. They aren’t trying to re-invent the wheel; just find the recipe that works the best on a consistent basis. And I like that they explain why it works. It revolutionized how I cook chicken. Seriously it comes out moist every time. A guaranteed crowd-pleaser. There are so many tips or tricks that can be learned from watching cooking shows, not to mention actual recipes!
Also, I just want to mention that you don’t need a cable subscription or even a Netflix account to watch cooking shows. Food Network has hundreds of free videos, tutorials, and even episodes on their website. So does the Cooking Channel and America’s Test Kitchen. Or check out cooking channels on YouTube.
Cook with a friend
It really doesn’t matter if you consider your friends better or worse cooks than yourself, there’s always something to be gained from cooking together. My husband and I lived in Ecuador for several months with a host family. They ate out most of their meals and none of them really excelled in the cooking department, and yet I learned some valuable lessons. Like making a sauce from hot dogs makes for an awful pasta dish. And making yogurt from scratch is way too much work. But I also gained a new-found appreciation for chocolate after holding my first cocoa bean, and I got over my aversion to humitas (similar to tamales) after we made them fresh from start to finish.
Ask your husband or kids for ideas
My mother-in-law likes to tell the story about my husband that when he was young, he would watch cooking shows and print off the recipes that looked good. Then he would take them to her and ask if she would make it for dinner. She would say no, but my husband has never lost that desire to try new things that look good on TV. I’m glad he married me. I love it. Except now he’ll just turn to me when he sees something good and say, “We should try to make that.” Or when we’re at a restaurant, he’ll have me taste something and ask if I think I could re-create it. We typically meal-plan together since he often can recall things we’ve made that I’ve completely forgotten about. He’s a great resource when it comes to helping me stretch my cooking abilities.
Exposure, exposure, exposure
I don’t know if you grew up like I did, but the meals in my home were on about a 17-item rotation. One of my sisters made a cookbook of our family’s recipes and you’d be surprised how thin it is. We rarely ate out, so I just assumed that my mom’s cooking was the best in the world. It was good – don’t get me wrong, my mom is a wonderful cook – but there was little variation in it. Once I moved out of the house and was more exposed to different types of foods and tastes, I started to tweak my mom’s recipes. I add curry to her chicken divan. I use buttermilk instead of powder in her bran muffins. Little changes that bring about a different result. Don’t be afraid of change. Just because something is tried and true doesn’t mean it can’t be improved upon.
Here are a few simple ideas on how to increase your culinary exposure:
When I was 20 I had never left the country. I had lived in 3 different states – none of them particularly culturally-diverse. My father had lived in Argentina as a Mormon missionary and raved about the food, though he hadn’t eaten it since returning in 1965. There aren’t a plethora of Argentine restaurants in Boise, so one day I decided I would find a recipe and try my hand at the food he raved most about: canelones con salsa blanca. I found a recipe online (one of the few that was actually in English) and was so proud of myself when I finished because they looked so much like the picture. I was so excited for my dad to try them and travel back in his mind to his beloved Argentina. The dish was barely edible. The canelones were chewy and thick and so was the sauce. They were disgusting. My honest dad tried to put me down gently, but they certainly didn’t taste like authentic Argentine cuisine.
Fast forward two years: I decided to go on my own Mormon mission and where did I get assigned? Argentina. My dad couldn’t have been more proud. I grew to love canelones and learned from the natives how to make them properly. I also added milanesa, and bombas de papa, and empanadas, and pastel de papas to my repertoire. Argentina opened my palate to a world that ate very little sweets and used very few spices – a world much different than my own. I learned that good quality beef just needs a little salt for seasoning, and slow roasted on a grill for the most most spectacular asado of your life. I since have traveled to Ecuador and Mexico with my husband and one of our favorite things to do is research beforehand the top ten restaurants to try while we’re there.
But it doesn’t take a plane ticket to awaken your sense of taste or smell. Go to Lousiana and taste pure creole etouffe. Or Maryland has arguably the best seafood in the country. Go on a culinary road trip with roadfood.com. Go see what other cultures have come up with!
Try a new ethnic restaurant
Have you been too nervous to try Ethiopian food? How about Albanian? Do you wonder whether or not you’ll like Guatemalan food? Why not just stick to the country diner that sells the best chicken fried steak? I’ll tell you why: your dulling the senses on your tongue. In reading “The Physiology of Taste” (which is a mind-opening book), the author discusses how children of wealthy parents have a superior ability to taste than those of poorer parents because of the variety of food they are exposed to. The taste sensors on your tongue are underdeveloped if you stick to only one type of cuisine. So do your tongue a favor and give that classy new French place a try.
If you’re nervous, I have a suggestion: make restaurant reviews your best friend. Before my husband and I try out a new place, we have usually already asked friends what the best thing is to order, or looked up pictures and reviews on tripadvisor or yelp. That way, you can decide on something tried and true to get you started. Or ask the waiter what is most popular or what they recommend. I have tried amazing creations I never would have picked from the menu myself, based on a waiter’s recommendation.
Learn a new language
This sounds ridiculous, but I’m being 100% serious. The very best Mexican recipes are in Spanish. If you want to learn to make authentic ethnic cuisine, the very best way is to speak their language. Google translate can only do so much. My very favorite sauce to use on chicken enchiladas is one I found while searching for an espagueti verde recipe. I’ve never been so grateful that I spoke Spanish.