How to Improve Your Cooking Skills and Knowledge

I originally posted this in response to a question on Quora: How can someone who enjoys cooking improve their skills and knowledge? I am a self-taught cook, and these are the practices that best helped me.

First, focus. Food is a very broad area, but it’s hard to be very good and very broad at the same time. Stick to ingredients that you like and want to eat. The same idea applies to cuisines. At home, I primarily cook Italian, French and American cuisines. The ingredients are familiar to me, the dishes are both classic and delicious, and my family enjoys them. When we want authentic Mexican or Japanese or Thai, we go out to eat. However, if you really enjoy one of these cuisines, specialize in that. Any of them will be an enjoyable challenge.

Next, identify dishes that you like and then cook them over and over. I like to pick a recipe — spaghetti carbonara, for instance — and try its variations from different cookbooks. Over time, I get to know what I like and what techniques are most effective. I also gradually memorize the recipe as I cook it over and over. Once the recipe is ingrained, you can start to play with variations.

As you are cooking, practice using your senses of taste, touch, smell and sight for seasoning food and determining when it’s done. Seasoning is the most critical way to build flavor, especially salting appropriately, but it’s difficult to learn how to season from recipes. Most recipes simply advise to salt to taste. I follow Alice Waters‘s advice and taste my food frequently, both before adding any seasoning and afterward, to see how the flavors change and deepen. Over time, you learn when a dish requires more seasoning and what seasoning to use to best augment the flavors of the dish. Whenever a new component is added to the dish, it’s time to taste again to see how the flavors have changed and if additional seasoning is required. This is really only something you can learn through practice. (I use my son’s old baby spoons for tasting spoons; they work very well.)

Another thing to practice is looking at, smelling and, in some cases, touching your food to determine when it’s done or when it’s time to add other ingredients. Don’t rely on recipe cooking times, as they aren’t calibrated to your stove, ingredients or tastes. The best recipes tell you what the food should look like when it’s ready. Should the onions be translucent, golden or deeply browned, for instance? What does the steak feel like when it’s cooked to your liking? After doing this for a while, you will only need the oven timer as a backup for your own sensory input.

Finally, keep notes. I keep a notebook of my favorite recipes, important techniques and basics I want to remember, and variations I like. I also use a website (Cookbooker) to note which recipes I’ve tried from my cookbooks and what I thought of them. I like the website for this purpose because I can easily search it, but a notebook or card file would also work.

And remember, when it comes to cooking, there’s always something new you can learn. If you find yourself getting bored or getting into a rut, stretch yourself by learning a new dish or technique.

One last tip: I benefited immensely from taking a knife skills class and investing in some good knives.

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7 thoughts on “How to Improve Your Cooking Skills and Knowledge

  1. Kate 14 August 2011 at 12:35 pm

    Very nice article. I had no idea that one could find a knife skills class! I’ll be looking for something within a reasonable distance of this tiny berg. And thanks for the link to Cookbooker: just what I’ve been wanting.

  2. Shannon 15 August 2011 at 9:55 am

    Our local gourmet food store offers classes and that was one of them. It’s very popular. The other classes are mainly of the watch someone make fabulous food that they will then feed you with a glass of wine variety.

  3. randelyn webster 10 September 2011 at 11:56 am

    Thank you for your tips on saving greens, there’s a lot you can do with then rather than throw them out. Sometimes I even put some in soups, chopped fine and added towards the end of the cooking. That way they maintain some semblance of their former selves, but still take on the flavor characteristics of the soup.

    You’re right about cooking what you know and love. And it’s a good idea to learn variations on these things….that helps “keep the love alive.” Experiment! Have fun! Cooking is a circus for the senses! Thanks for writing your blog. I enjoy it!

  4. Shannon 10 September 2011 at 12:04 pm

    That’s a great tip about adding greens to soup. I love how I post one tip and end up with several more from the comments. And I totally agree with you about cooking being fun, if you relax and let it be that way. Thanks for commenting!

  5. [...] is a short post on my cooking blog: How to Improve Your Cooking Skills and Knowledge. It started out life as an answer to a question on Quora. I hope you might find some useful advice [...]

  6. cooking recipes 8 October 2011 at 6:59 am

    Thanks for motivating me for cooking unique recipes. I am so much impressed that I share few of my cooking experiences with friends and they are surprised to see my cooking skills. All credit goes to you. Please check the website and advise me……

  7. cooking recipes 8 October 2011 at 7:01 am

    Hi Shannon I just put the wrong gmail id its makerecipecook@gmail.com instead of makerecipecook@gail.com.

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