Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Can you learn to cook from a cookbook?

An interesting discussion at Serious Eats about whether you can learn to cook from books... apparently all spawned by an article in the New Yorker back in November claiming you can't. As you can imagine, this produced some reaction among people who write cookbooks for a living... so much so that they're still talking about it three months later.

As someone who has learned most of what he knows about cooking from cookbooks and food blogs, you'd probably assume I'd be 100% on the side of cookbooks... but I can't say that I am. Certainly I think if you buy the right cookbooks... New Best Recipe, Alton Brown, etc... you can be pretty effective in the kitchen, even starting from virtually no knowledge(ME!). However, I do feel like there's only so far you can get that way... that really what I've become is someone who is good at executing recipes, and that there are certain things about flavors and seasoning that I just don't understand... because, well, I just haven't spent my life tasting and thinking about food from a chef's perspective. I don't want to oversell that, but I think there's a reason you don't see self taught home cooks on Top Chef, and it's not a selection bias... it's just that working on a line devoting your entire existence to cooking food imparts something we can't get in a home kitchen with no guidance. Now, presumably most of us don't aspire to that level of cooking... I have no dreams of opening a restaurant... but what I'd like to be able to do someday is to make wonderful food without needing recipes. Can a cookbook teach you that? Maybe, I don't know... certainly a book like Ratio or a show like Good Eats tries to show you more about how cooking works than explicit recipes.

What I think more home cooks should consider doing is taking the occasional cooking class, where you can ask questions and see techniques demonstrated. The knife skills class I took last year was immensely valuable to me, even if it didn't make me much faster. Learning how to use a knife correctly can probably be taught by diagrams and videos, but having someone there to demonstrate and correct you it seems like a big advantage to me. I keep meaning to sign up for more, but they're on the expensive side... somewhere in the $75-150 range, depending on the length of the class. I've got my eyes on a Sourdough and French Bread class, but have yet to pull the trigger.

photo by flickr user chotda used under a Creative Commmon license