Don't know where to 'start'?

Joined Feb 1, 2011
Hi folks, I'm 22, a new wife, and pretty new to the cooking world - though I do have quite a passion for it!

So I've been cooking consistently for about two years now...but not once, and I mean not once, have I ever not followed a recipe. I do vary from recipes a little sometimes, I make my own chicken stock and freeze it - I'm very very money conscious - but the thing is, to save even more money, I've been trying to figure out ways to pair up what I can find in coupons with what I cook....

....And I have a hinting suspicion this can be done without recipes? I'm an English major and a writer, so creativity does not lack within my soul, but for some reason I'm terrified of screwing up food in the kitchen. I watch Chef Irvine and Chef Burrell and Chef Ramsey and Iron Chef and Good Eats, and I realize there is a way to just know what you have and make things out of it, but for some reason I'm not quite understanding the method to this. I don't know why. I just don't know where to start. 

ANYWAY, so I guess my question is...should I be working on technique, taste, style or weaning myself off of recipes...or...what? It's a little overwhelming. I absolutely adore the kitchen and would like to expand my knowledge, but I'm trying to make sure I take it one step at a time.

So what do you wonderful people (I have been lurking) think should happen? I know I read one post about getting a decent chef's knife, which I do not have, but other than that I'm still sort of lost.

Can anyone point me in the right direction?

Thanks y'all. 
Joined Jan 21, 2011
From what you are saying, you're already a cook. There is no magic wand that the Chef Fairy waves to turn you into a cook.

What makes feel comfortable with calling you a cook already is the fact that you DON'T follow recipes to the letter.

Don't try and compare your ability to a Ramsey or Irvine or Patrick O'Connel or any other professional chef. Those chef's are on TV, but they are just like any of the experienced chef's on this board - They have been cooking for a long time in a real-world, high-volume kitchen.

What a lot of home cooks don't see - what really makes a good cook a good chef - is the other non-cooking stuff that they don't show.

A Qualified Chef is one who has a very well-rounded grasp of product knowledge, ordering, inventory, composing balanced elements in a dish, presentation, employee and facilities management, marketing, standard finance and business operations... the list goes on and on. You are not expected to know all that stuff - It is OK if you don't.

I go to thrift stores and buy old cook books. (Old means there is no bar-code on the back cover) - Books that were written before microwaves, consumer mixing stands and roto-prep machines. Books that start from raw ingredients - Your garden, flour, Sugar, Whole cuts of fish, chicken and the like...

And just read what grabs your attention - not page for page - just read what tickles your fancy. You will build on that passion in the most natural way, and enjoy it, and not get stressed-out trying to perfectly execute a menu that you would never want to eat in the first place. That's what Chefs do - let them do it. You just enjoy cooking.

Nobody on this forum will judge you or make fun of you. In fact - everyine here will be happy to help you. I suggest you try searching for old posts first - because there may be some good information already written - and you want to have that. But go ahead and start a new post also - no worries.

A recipe to a cook is usually just a framework. That's why there are more cooks than bakers. You have to be intelligent to be a baker. (flames on the way, lol...)

Cooks like to create and never/rarely follow exact instructions. Bakers are obligated to follow a formula most times, and can only express their creativity in the final design/use of the ingredients. Cooks have a lot more latitude in the whole process.

Here is a suggestion for you: Take a recipe - any one you want - go ahead and cook it; But experiment with plating it differently. Or maybe make some cookies, and instead of the old, tired, boring round cookie shape - cut them into perfect squares, or wrap the dough around a cannoli form, or make little balls of dough and try cutting a flower pattern in each one.... whatever you want.... but look at what you can really do with the ingredients as a finished product - and that will guide your creativity in what to do with the ingredients in the process... I hope that helps. 

It is very cool that you are here. I am excited to see, learn and benefit from what you will add to this little place on the web. Welcome!  
Joined Jan 31, 2011
I'm not a chef, but will try to answer anyway, since I seldom follow recipes, but make a lot of my own.

The first thing you need to know is how the various ingredients work in a recipe. For instance, you know that butter adds flavor, but did you know you can add it to a sauce at the end and it will make the texture more silky, as well as thicken it slightly? Most basic ingredients have numerous uses, depending on when they're added and how you incorporate them.

While you're learning that, get a good cookbook and learn basic cooking techniques. When I was teaching my kids, we used "How to Cook Without a Book", by Mark Bittman, The Absolute Beginner's Cookbook (Or How Long Do I Cook a 3-Minute Egg?), by Jack Eddy and Eleanor Clark,  and "Betty Crocker's Cooking Basics". All are good, basic resources for beginners.


Staff member
Joined Mar 29, 2002
What you're speaking of comes from experience mostly. There are ways to accelerate this, but it's mostly about increasing your experience quickly.

First. Taste your food often as you cook. There's quite a bit to this simple concept.

Taste before you add something and again a little later to see how the addition has changed the food.  Bear in mind food safety of course so you don't make yourself sick. Also, it's best to do this with a cuisine or type of food you're most passionate about. This helps you understand how you build flavor. Many ingredients taste different as they cook for different periods of time. For this reason, you'll often season food with the same seaoning multiple times during the dish. Paul Prudhomme does this in many of his recipes with his seasoning mixes.  (Look for older editions of his books that give the spice mix recipes not just call out his Poultry Magic blend or whatever). Observe the ratios. How much of this seasong to how much protien? Leavening to how much flour? You'll start to develop a sense of the recipe and learn to spot flaws and mistakes.

1.5, taste food at restaurants critically. What flavors do you detect. Often the menu will guide you, but look for how those flavors come out in the food and work with what else is served.

Second, books. Read a lot of different books on the subject of your passion. At some point you'll find a book that really resonates with you about the HOW of the food. For me, my passion was barbecue and Paul Kirk's book Championship Barbecue Sauces captured the concepts I was figuring out at the time. He talks about how to balance spice rubs and sauces; about how much of this and that flavor the base will work with. This wasn't the guiding principle of what he was doing, but it was there. I wouldn't have recognized it without the experience I'd had cooking, but with the experience, this book became illuminating.  Not that I think it's the best book in the world on the topic, but it was the right book at the right time.   Ratio by Michael Ruhlman is a book written specifically in this style. It too is a good book, but won't make much sense if you don't have some experience to reference against in the book. Also his Making of a Chef is insightful about cooking if not specifically about food.

Third, learn what is going on in the food, why it works the way it does. The best sources for this knowledge are books again. The core books for this are On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the  Kitchen by Harold McGee. Bakewise and Cookwise by Shirley Coriher. Cook's Illustrated often discusses the hows and whys in their books and magazine and TV programs (America's Test Kitchen, Cook's Country).

Fourth, revisit things. It's worth looking at books and dishes and recipes again a few months after  and years after you first did them. You'll bring new understanding and experience to it that will help you understand the recipe better.
Joined Feb 1, 2007
First off, DragonChaser, welcome to Cheftalk. That seems to have gotten lost in everyone's rush to respond.

Second, the whole secret of good cooking is to apply good techniques to good ingredients, coupled with an understanding of how flavors work together. The last part of that comes with experience. When you follow a recipe, try and figure why those particular ingredients are paired. And ask youself, "what would happen if I left out X, or subbed it with Y? Like I say, this aspect comes with time in grade.

It's the other part that's important. Technique is everything. If you follow a recipe for, say, pan-fried chicken cutlets, you'll be able to make one great meal. But if you learn all the nuances of pan-frying, you'll be able to make hundreds of great meals. And not have to follow a recipe.

Above all, absorb St. Julia's sage advice: Do not be afraid.
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