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.