How does one learn to cook? In the past, such skills were handed down from grandmother, to mother, to daughter. And the skills were based on cooking limited, traditional, and highly local ingredients. Of course, there weren’t a lot of us dudes cooking back then and the highfaluting probably didn’t even know where the kitchen was.
Fast forward about two or three hundred years, and we arrive in the post-war baby boom. In America, at least, this means frozen foods, fast food, cake mixes, Jell-O, and microwave ovens. By this time, no one knows how to cook real food. Fast forward another twenty or thirty years and the Food Network arrives on the scene, with gastronomic gladiatorial contests like Iron Chef America, Chopped, and Cutthroat Kitchen. And so it seems that everyone in America is cooking again. But are they really? Everyone seems more interested in food, and folks seem to be reading more foodie magazines, going out to eat, and buying cookbooks (I own 33 myself), but are people cooking more? I’m not so sure.
Cooking is more than following a recipe, though there’s nothing wrong with that. I try new recipes from cookbooks all the time. After all, I don’t walk around with the recipe to Lobster Thermidor in my head. Same with baking, which is more like science and requires precise adherence to the dictates of a recipe. But for every day, run-of-the-mill faire, you really don’t need a recipe. In fact, it simply gets in the way. All you need are some basic skills and common sense. And besides, just because you’re cooking “everyday faire” doesn’t mean it can’t be good, so long as you follow a few basic “rules.”
Rule #1: Salt (especially) and pepper are your friends. Ask any chef and he or she will tell you that if they had only one “spice” to take with them to a deserted island, it would be salt.
Rule #2: More mistakes are made by trying to cook things too quickly than anything else. Take your time. Cranking the oven up to 450 degrees so you can shave a few minutes off the pot roast may shave a few minutes off the cooking time, but it’s not going to make a better pot roast.
Rule #3: Know how to make a salad dressing and throw away any bottled salad dressings you have in your fridge. Vinaigrette is so simple and easy to make, and goes so well over a bowl of simple greens, why would you waste $3.59 on something made in a factory in Toledo, Ohio?
Rule #4: Make soup. It freezes well, and is a great way to clean out the fridge.
Rule #5: Learn how to scramble eggs or make an omelet—there’s a reason Julia Child did a whole episode on this: Julia's Scrambled Eggs
Rule #6: Learn how to roast a chicken. It’s inexpensive; it’s good; and you can use what's left for stock (see rule #4). Here’s how Julia does it:Julia Roasts a Chicken
Rule #6: Learn how to make pan sauces, but keep in mind that everyone makes ‘em different. Nevertheless, here’s a video that covers the various ways to make one: Aussie Makes a Pan Sauce
Rule #7: Don’t be afraid to use butter. Americans have been brainwashed into thinking that butter is bad.
Rule #8: Have one good, simple desert recipe that you can make in a pinch.
Rule #9: Everyone likes good bread. Everyone.
Rule #10: Never apologize.
That’s it folks. All you need to know in order to be a cook, rather than a heater-of-frozen-stuff.