A snapshot of three periods of my life:
- The summer before I turned 21, I lived with five of my best friends in D.C. I couldn’t cook at all. I don’t think we were allowed a meal plan in the summer, so I ate out all the time. I must have burned through so much of my parents’ money. (Just set in that I’m an entitled piece of shit.) One time that summer, I wanted to make some pasta we had in the fridge. I didn’t know the first step. Peter Hamby, a roommate of mine at the time/good friend (now CNN employee), told me that it begins with boiling water. I was 20.7 years old, had seen my parents make food, and wasn’t sure exactly how the process of boiling water would begin. He taught me.
- The spring of me being 28, I used to basically run my checking account down (most on going out and eating) to near $100 or so, then go to the store and buy mostly prepared shit. Hardly very healthy. I remember periodically doing my grocery shopping at a Duane Reade in Queens, New York. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that to anyone else. That same spring, this happened. Rough times.
- I’m 34 and a few months now. I cook six-seven nights a week.
How did A become B become C? Here we go now.
Let’s start with a couple of important notes, especially for guys:
If you don’t know how to cook, people will try and get you on the bandwagon; it won’t happen until you’re ready
By my count, my mom bought me six-seven books with titles like “An Idiot’s Guide To Cooking” or “Insanely Easy Recipes Anyone Could Master In Less Than 20 Seconds.” I still have a few; I sold the others on Amazon. When I received those books, I tried here and there — but I wasn’t ready to really embrace the idea. Everything in life, give or take, is about an idea and when you’re ready to embrace that idea (a job, a relationship, fitness, kids, etc.) Here’s a story from that period: my mom gives me this book and at the time, I’m living with a gay guy and his tiny dog (don’t ask) in Queens. I decided to try a relatively simple pasta recipe. I was probably 27-28. At the time, I owned no pans or pots or anything. So, one night while my roommate (such as he was) is out, I use one of his stainless steel pans. I scoffed the bottom of it — and the pasta sucked. Huge fucking issue because for a while he wanted me to pay for it, and as you can see above, I was dead broke and running down my checking account to buy Cheetos. It was a bit of a mess. (Ultimately I didn’t have to pay, but I still feel guilty.)
My transformative moment was pretty simple
My wife is actually a really good cook; she went to cooking school for a while in her early 20s. Thing is, she’s also insanely lazy about day-to-day meal prep and planning. Phrased another way, she can out-cook me on anything, but … day-to-day, she’s fine with a tomato and olive oil/vinegar or whatever. We started living together in October 2010. My birthday (30, actually) was November 7, 2010. I would say by about a week after I turned 30, I decided I needed to learn to cook. It was that simple. Here’s an interesting concept that my therapist told me once: when you stop using the word “try,” you can much more easily start doing something. For years I said I would “try to learn to cook.” In November 2010, I said, “I’m going to learn to cook.” I just started.
Start with a book with pictures
This is a decent list, although some of the ones on here are a little bit above a novice level. I had a green, hard-cover book with pictures in it (since sold). The advantage of pictures is fairly obvious: humans are mostly visual creatures, and you can see at every step if you’re fucking something up. I learned maybe my first 10-12 recipes out of this book. I then moved onto a few other pictures (accumulated by my wife and generous family members) that also had pictures. After about 1.5 months, I felt I was ready to graduate to just-text descriptions of what to do. I still fucked that up for about another month.
Don’t worry as much about the terminology
A lot of people I’ve met who tried to learn to cook later in life got super caught-up with the terminology (stuff like “julienne”). First of all, there’s Google. Use it. Second of all, there’s YouTube. Use it. (YouTube is actually an excellent cooking resource.) The terminology is less important, in my mind, because you can always figure out what something means with the help of your technology/phone/etc. (even while cooking). Some people get worried about measurements. Just make sure you buy sets of things that indicate out measurements. You’ll be fine. I’ve been dealing with the same little red spoons (tablespoon, teaspoon, 1/2 tablespoon, etc.) for five years now. They’re long-lasting and dependable.
Do worry about timing
This is maybe the hardest individual part of learning to cook, especially later in life (when everything is slightly harder to learn). The whole idea of eating food is based off timing; if you make a steak and a baked potato and green beans and all three of them are done at different points, well, that means 2 of them are probably cold when you go to eat it. There goes the neighborhood of great experiences, you know? In my mind, timing is the most important thing to learn in the first six months of learning to cook. You basically look at how long everything will take — prep to cook time — and then back-time it from the most-time-consuming to the least-time-consuming. Go for some mise-en-place in the early going; it’s easier. I’d say “Tier 1” of learning to cook is “Learning to time different processes.”
Do worry about flavor, but later on
Tier 2, IMHO, is learning how different flavors go together — and what things you encounter in cooking can be too much (ginger when abused) or too little (personally I don’t think you can over-use paprika, but some would differ). You need to master basic prep/cooking/timing before you start worrying about flavor combination — which means the first 30+ things you cook will be a mix of “not half-bad” and “utterly bland” — but flavor combination is the second major step. I think it’s impossible to do a chili well until you’ve figured this out, but if you get to the “flavor mixing” stage in the winter months, try chili 3-4 times. There is almost nothing better to cook (not bake) in terms of testing your ability to meld different flavors together.
Shop in advance. But how?
It gets fucking tiring to go to the store every single day for 3-4 ingredients (although admittedly I did that when I lived in Minneapolis, but at the time I also didn’t have a job day-to-day), and it gets fucking annoying to start cooking something and realize you have to have parsley and you don’t, but things are already in motion. So here’s what I started doing: on Saturday or Sunday morning, go and find 4-5 recipes you want to try during the upcoming week. Think about your work commitments and think about the weather forecast (making a cold-weather dish if it’s supposed to be 87 is terrible). Spend about 35 minutes on researching the recipes, then once you have 5 that you like, print them out. Take a separate sheet of paper and write down all the things you need from those five recipes. Then go through your refrigerator and cabinets and list all the staples you might run out of.
Bang. In 1 hour, you have a shopping list. Now go execute it, come back, unpack it. In 1.5-2 hours, you’re set for the entire week. It’s really much easier than you think. I used to go day-by-day for a long time. It gets stressful and after a while you come to resent the supermarket. You never should. The supermarket can be a wonderful place if you treat it right.
For tips on some types of food to consider buying, check this out.
There are times it will be easier to eat at a restaurant/bar, and that’s completely fine. But as you learn to cook, definitely aim to cook 3-4, or 4-5, nights per week. The reps will make you better and help you understand the things you still need to master, be it timing or flavor or instructions or planning or even basic knife work. It’s just like learning a sport or any new skill. Cue Malcolm Gladwell discussion here.
What About You?
If you weren’t born into a family with a deep love of cooking and had to learn later in life, what tips do you use? Leave them in the comments.