View Full Version : Learning to cook: Where to start?

10-20-2013, 03:14 PM
I have recently bought a new house and have been living with the in laws for a few months since we sold our old house.
So I am looking forward to getting into our new kitchen to cook some food and play with some new, sharp, shiney things I have aquired.
I want to learn how to cook. Where should I start? What books are worth getting for a beginner?
I mean, I can cook an omelette, and stir fry type things, but I just throw everything in and give it a go. Even if it doesn't turn out great, I'll eat it anyway because I'm really not a fussy eater. I think this makes me sound like a much worse cook than I am. My best dish is chicken wrapped in bacon with a tarragon cream sauce (with or without white wine). I just don't know how to use herbs and spices. What goes with what? I know tarragon goes with chicken, and corriander goes with carrot, but thats about it.
I quite like spicy food and think I might like to start learning Chinese cuisine. Is this a good place to start?
I come from an Irish family and my staple foods growing up would have been, beef stew, roast beef, gammon steaks, fired pork chops and some smoked haddock on a Friday, all served with spuds obviously and usually peas and/or carrots.
Looking forward to cooking up some delicious meals for the family on our new one of these http://www.rangemaster.co.uk/range-cooking/professionalplus/

10-20-2013, 03:48 PM
Congrats on your new house and your exciting journey in cooking. Taking a few night classes from a professional cooking school is a good way to get a handle on the basics.

Of course there is no shortage of YouTube videos out there. Perhaps someone who knows the good ones will chime in here.

Great books for beginners include Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything (which I consider to be this generation's Joy of Cooking) and The Flavor Bible by Page and Dornenburg will give you some idea of how to use herbs and spices in your cooking (it's not really a beginner book, but since you mentioned concerns in this area I'm recommending it anyways).

If you are interested in Chinese cooking in particular, you can't do much better than Grace Young's The Breath of a Wok. It has a ton of information on woks and technique, but the ingredients and recipes sections are just as good. If you want to learn spicy Sichuan cooking, there is Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty.

What other spicy cuisines are you interested in? Let me know and I can recommend other cookbooks.

10-20-2013, 04:08 PM
I just wanted to add that Madhur Jaffrey's From Curries to Kebabs is an excellent book on Indian cooking and it's influence around the world. Being that you're from Manchester, I'm making an educated guess that you just might be interested in curry.

10-20-2013, 04:16 PM
+1 On the Flavor Bible. Great book. I'd also highly recommend The French Laundry. The recipes are daunting to the un-initiated, but the technique and procedures are explained in depth, and apply to all things culinary.

10-20-2013, 04:42 PM
I can second "How to cook everything". I would also suggest "The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" by Marcella Hazan. It is very self explanatory and technique driven. But the most important thing you can do is eat. Eat things that you like, and ask yourself why you like it. You like tarragon with chicken and white wine. Think about tarragon. Now put it in mayonaise with capers and serve it with a pork pâté. You just made the leap from one classic to another. Your other example, coriander, has a much greater global range than tarragon, it shows up everywhere from South Asia to Latin America paired differently in each place. Ask yourself why each combination is delicious to you. Then look up a recipe or two on the Internet and cook something you like. Taste it. Learn the technique to make it have a nice flavor and texture, then taste it and think about your observations of things like it that you have eaten. What does it need to make it taste better to you? That is to me the essence of cooking for yourself. Repeat this and you will build a repertoire of flavored and techniques that will make this effortless. Until you decide to learn something new, then back to work. That is the best part, you never stop learning how to cook.

10-20-2013, 04:58 PM
television? heck even youtube has some kickarse recipes.

i think a good cookbook is a nice tool, but seeing it done on video is immensely better. even the lowly omelette. watch a pro do one and you realize what you just made was just scrambled eggs with stuff scattered throughout. (<---okay, i was talking about myself). now my omelette rock!! my wife loves a nice tomato omelette served next to a fresh green salad. easy!

i think the Americas Test Kitchen cookbooks are great for beginners. they always have sections on the side that explain the "Science" of the process, or a sidebar showing how to do a technique..like bone a chicken. you get that thomas keller book and it will assume you already know the basics.

10-20-2013, 06:36 PM
I disagree regarding the Keller book. Every step is delineated in great detail, and the relevance of each component of the dish/technique is made very clear. It's a very educational book. Not trying to start an argument, just trying to stay true to the OP requests.

JJ Lui
10-20-2013, 06:59 PM
When buying cook books, please remember that books written by professional restaurant chefs are normal aimed at that market and the recipes are often not fool proof or written in a hurry. Also many of the ingredients used by professionals such as Keller you would never be able to purchase unless you went to his suppliers in the US; ingredients do matter.

As you are based in the UK ‘Roast Chicken And Other Stories’ by Simon Hopkinson has been repeatedly voted the most useful cookbook in multiple surveys by people who would just like to learn to cook at home. I personally started with Delia Smiths complete cookery course when I was 10 years old, when a family friend gave me an old battered copy, and it has travelled the world with me. It is great for those fool proof recipes. These books are written by people who have the time to test every recipe multiple times with ingredients from UK supermarkets which you can purchase.

Alternatively apply to Trafford College in Manchester who have a great reputation.

Happy cooking


10-20-2013, 07:28 PM
Good point about the OP being from the UK.

Having seen the highly entertaining biographical film Toast about food writer Nigel Slater and having him on the brain, I would highly recommend his The Kitchen Diaries series of cookbooks. They are definitely by and for home cooks.

10-20-2013, 08:40 PM
I usually just point people who aren't that big into cooking and food toward the food network to tell you the truth, Ina Garten is good. I started there years ago, when it had mostly cooking shows. That said just alot of practice and messing up enough food and you'll have it! I like serious eats and Michael Ruhlman's blog for online souces.

The books mentioned above are good, but I wouldn't try the french laundry cookbook unless you had at least one helper lol. I also like Ratio or Ruhlman's 21. Those would also get you by.

10-20-2013, 09:26 PM
I don't think you guys understood the point I was trying to get across. To me a good cook book is all about learning new techniques and flavor combinations. Not buying an encyclopedia of recipes that you copy word for word. A recipe should be inspiration, a rough outline. Not a mandate. Just my two cents.

labor of love
10-20-2013, 09:39 PM
the professional chef is worth looking into. whatever current edition theyre own.

10-20-2013, 09:47 PM
Someone earlier recommended the America's Test Kitchen cookbooks, and I agree.
I would also add any of the Cooks Illustrated "Best" cookbooks. Cooks Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen are run by the same people I think. I have "Best Light Recipes" and "Best International Recipes". They not only give you great recipes, they explain the "Why" of all the steps and ingredients in each one. It's almost like a textbook, but very easy to follow.

What I like about their recipes is that they take a very methodical approach to each dish. They test every possible variation of the recipe and refine it to the best possible recipe, which is what goes into their cookbooks. They've already done all the trial and error for you, but they explain their process of arriving at the final recipe, so you can learn from their experimenting, and they also tell what didn't work.

sachem allison
10-20-2013, 09:52 PM
the unplugged kitchen. simple easy and tasty

10-20-2013, 10:01 PM
Learning to cook? How about 'First you take a leek'. Sorry, couldn't resist! But it is an easy to follow book nonetheless.

I agree with Brainy that technique and flavour combination is much more important than slavishly following a recipe. As has been mentioned by Rahim, I've also learned much from Ruhlman's 'Twenty' and 'Ratio'.

For ideas and inspiration I'm enjoying 'Jerusalem' by Ottolenghi and Tamimi at the moment. A great approach to 'real' food with great photographs.

10-20-2013, 10:11 PM
I think the biggest difference is knowing the basics behind each part of the process... once you know that most things will fall in place.

when example: it helps to know the reasons why you roast certain meats low and slow or why you fry other meats on high and finish in oven. Most of the time, those basics are just that; basic concepts that many people simply dont know/never consider, but make major difference in the final product.

labor of love
10-20-2013, 10:52 PM
+1 on jerusalem. i heard an interview with the authors on NPR and i promptly checked it out. honest cooking. great writing too.

10-20-2013, 11:27 PM
i have jerusalem, ottolenghi, and plenty, great books. As for something that kind of teaches, I would suggest On Food and Cooking, I haven't seen it suggested yet, and not a cookbook, but explains a lot the why's of cooking and food. As for asian food with flavour, anything by Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford is pretty good. For the how to's of cooking, you need to get yourself Jacques Pepin La Technique, pictures that show the process of doing most kitchen tasks like the master, that's all I got, but I think the Technique book is great, was always a good resource.

10-20-2013, 11:31 PM
That was my point as well. It's not the book or the recipe, it is learning how to taste, and to think about what you are tasting. Choosing the book or recipe is more important in it being something that you want to eat. If it excites you, you will cook it. If you cook it often, you will get better at it as long as you maintain an attention to what you are doing with your hands, and how you experience it with your senses. Then you apply what you have learned to something else that sounds delicious.

labor of love
10-20-2013, 11:35 PM
many good suggestions here. write them all down and head to borders/barnes and nobles and just flip through the pages of each. then you decide.

10-21-2013, 12:04 AM
The Flavor Bible is truly amazing and I highly recommend it too. Probably the most inspirational "cookbook" I own.

For Italian cooking - take a look at The Silver Spoon.

The Bi-Rite Market's Eat Good Food is excellent too. Not so much a cookook but a nice shopping guide.

10-21-2013, 12:52 AM
If you have a good public library, you can take a list of recommended books, get a better look at them, and decide which works for you. Or you can learn a few bits of wisdom and apply them to your cooking style, and check out the next book.

I really like Julia Child's "The Way to Cook". It covers a lot of fundamental techniques.

10-21-2013, 01:02 AM
I really like the River Cottage Meat Book. He does a good job of explaining how to judge if the food is cooking properly based on sensory input rather than strict times and temps.

I also like Breakfast, Lunch, Tea. It is by Phaidon about Rose Bakery, a Brit that is crushing it in Paris.

Oh, and the Zuni Cafe cookbook is a stellar place to start.

10-21-2013, 03:03 AM
Congrats on the house.

Delia's complete cookery is a good book of all the basics, simple and un fussy. Similarly the good housekeeping's big book is also great for straight forward home food.

River cafe books are great for Italian
Madhur Jaffrey Indian cookery is a good intro, and is the book I use for basic curries.

Simon Hopkinson is a good read, don't think I've made anything from it but is interesting nonetheless (similarly Heston's in search of perfection books). Gordon Ramsay's earlier books are also very good for simple focus on flavour but need quality ingredients to shine.

I would definitely go the Library, saved me buying scores of books.

Salty dog
10-21-2013, 06:59 AM
Read recipes through several times and try to visualize the process.

Use ALL of your senses when cooking.

10-21-2013, 07:40 AM
And don't forget to check for the used copies on Amazon.

10-21-2013, 10:21 AM
+1 on the library. My wife brings me home magazines, Ad Hoc, etc... great way to see if you want to purchase on a kindle or paper version.

10-21-2013, 05:49 PM
Whoooaaaa! I know you guys know your stuff, but I never expected as much input as this after 24hrs! Thanks everyone.
Some great suggestions, and I will check them all out.
All of the posts are very helpful and I think a few you have got the point I was trying to make in the OP, however ineloquently. I mean, I am no stranger to the kitchen, and if left to my own devices I would neither starve nor resort to frozen, convenience food, but I want to know why some things work. I want to learn the basics of food combinations. What are the classic dishes, and why? What are the best ways to cook different cuts of meat, and why? So I think the Laundry Cookbook may be on my list although it looks much to involved to follow every day. The Bittman and Delia Smith books look like they also fit into this category, and the Fuscia Dunlop book looks promising for a touch of spice along with Madhur Jaffrey Indian cookery.
Thanks for all the helpful info.
I've just had an epiphany. What I am looking for is cookery books/sites/videos more so than recipe books. Does that make sense?

10-21-2013, 06:28 PM
Move fast and you can snag TFL for Ł15 shipped from amazon right now

labor of love
10-21-2013, 07:32 PM
And don't forget to check for the used copies on Amazon.

1+ to this. ive bought many cookbooks with $40-50 sticker prices for $10-15 second hand from amazon. usually the very good condition grade is the best bargain. often enough many books appear to be hardly used at all.

10-22-2013, 01:20 AM
Cooking is about confidence and not being afraid to make a mistake. Cooking is not like baking where you make a mistake or use to much and it'll be ruined, with cooking you can always adjust, too
Land add salt/ seasonings. Too spicy add some Vinegar or sugar.

Most spices herbs can go without proteins, it's always better to use less than more to begin with. A great combo is ginger, curry and cumin.

Most new cooks are scared of heat, when cooking heat control is necessary, but high heat is a good tool for searing/browning. To avoid burning yourself, heat the pan dry add oil right before what your cooking and always place away from yourself that way any splashing will not be towards you.

If your cooking a spicy protein you may want a sauce that is sweet or creamy. In other words don't make the dish to one dimensional.

Use all your senses and have fun with it.

10-22-2013, 01:53 AM
Most spices herbs can go without proteins, it's always better to use less than more to begin with. A great combo is ginger, curry and cumin.

When you say curry, what exactly are you referring to?

Brad Gibson
10-22-2013, 02:21 AM
get marco pierre whites books. they are super british and super delicious recipes. I feel that in any cookbook, the author leaves out a little bit of the finesse and techniques as to not give away all of their secrets. eleven madison park has an amazing cookbook.

10-23-2013, 04:44 PM
This tread just caused me to go get the French Laundry at the library.

10-29-2013, 09:48 AM
Sinc you're in the UK, I'd go for this, Professional Chef: S/NVQ Level 2. (http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1844805050/ref=oh_details_o03_s00_i00?ie=UTF8&psc=1) It is basically the textbook for the college course, but even if you don't go it's a great book. It goes over a lot of basic things and covers a huge range of ingredients, and also gets pretty complex, I highly recommend it

mr drinky
10-29-2013, 10:44 AM
I have to second brainsausage's rec on the French Laundry Cookbook. I think his chicken dumpling soup has been the most instructive dish I have ever done. You learn how to make a parchment lid and why, how to do quenelles, make dumpling dough, cut vegetables to size, preserve color in veggies, make stock, make a roux etc. etc. BUT it does take time and produces a boat load of dishes -- best done over two days if doing alone.

I love a lot of the suggestions in this thread, and I am going to ask for a couple of these for christmas.

The other thing I would recommend is just being diligent with cooking different things that demand you to learn something new or cook something different -- at least a few times a week. I did that for a few years and learned a lot. I used to go through my cookbooks and write the pages with recipes I wanted to try on the inside cover and would often just randomly choose a number and make it. It forced me out of my box a bit.


10-29-2013, 12:22 PM
One of the good things about trying the library first--everyone seems to adore "The French Laundry". I found it too annoying to finish. So if you can check out the books first, it's a great try before you buy way to see which books you really like.

mr drinky
10-29-2013, 12:49 PM
One of the good things about trying the library first--everyone seems to adore "The French Laundry". I found it too annoying to finish. So if you can check out the books first, it's a great try before you buy way to see which books you really like.

Just make sure to leave your mark with some good food stains.


10-29-2013, 04:18 PM
Or put some plastic wrap on top of the book and avoid the food stains.

10-29-2013, 06:05 PM
Sinc you're in the UK, I'd go for this, Professional Chef: S/NVQ Level 2. (http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1844805050/ref=oh_details_o03_s00_i00?ie=UTF8&psc=1) It is basically the textbook for the college course, but even if you don't go it's a great book. It goes over a lot of basic things and covers a huge range of ingredients, and also gets pretty complex, I highly recommend it

Is this, Professional Chef Level 2 (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Professional-Chef-Level-Gary-Hunter/dp/1408039095/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1383083197&sr=1-2&keywords=professional+chef) a new edition of the same book? I'm not sure because it says Level 2 Diploma, whereas the one you linked to says Level 2 S/NVQ.
Also, why do you recommend the level 2 book? Is the level 1 book very basic?
The Professional Chef book from the Culinary Institute of America also seems to be highly praised, but I worry that it may be too US centric. Would you also recommend it, or would your suggestion be more suitable for someone from this side of the pond?
I have made a wishlist on Amazon to keep track of all the great suggestions in this thread, and I also picked up a copy Leiths How to Cook from Costco at the weekend.
Thanks for all the suggestions.
Oh, and the cling film over the cookbook is a great idea! Thanks for that one Lucretia.

10-29-2013, 07:37 PM
It could be a newer version I guess yes. I haven't looked at any Level 1 books but to be honest the Level 2 I linked to starts off pretty basic anyways. I don't think it really matters where you get books from. Just things like measurements and that might be a little different and some ingredients have different names

11-04-2013, 04:19 PM
Ironically, the two chefs that really influenced the way I cook and taught me about herbs and spices were Nigella Lawson and Antony Worall Thompson. We lived in England for 5 years and although I knew how to cook, I only really knew traditional southern food. They really broadened my culinary outlook and I've just taken it from there.

11-04-2013, 09:39 PM
Keller's books are great, and his techniques generally are as well. If I had a complaint, and I do, it would be that he falls deep into the "hokey pokey syndrome." What I mean by that is that in his zeal to differentiate French Laundry techniques from classic techniques, something he seems to have an almost compulsive need to do, he focuses so much on the minor technical changes he has made that the new reader could end up putting the emphasis on what is unimportant rather than what is important. I call it the "hokey pokey syndrome" because I could imagine him giving directions as to how the cut an onion at the French Laundry, and what he would say is something like "unlike at many restaurants, at the French Laundry we believe that to cut an onion, a very important technique in our kitchen, one must make several vertical cuts, then a few horizontal cuts and then cut the onion crosswise into dice. We then do the hokey pokey and spin ourselves about, and we find that, as a kitchen, we prefer to do this with a 3/4 rhythm and to spin clockwise when doing mise en place for lunch but counter clockwise when we are doing mise en place for dinner. When we are cutting onions for family meal, we dispense with the hokey pokey and we do the limbo three times. At the French Laundry, dancing is an integral part of onion cutting."