The other day I had the privilege to join in on a wonderful vegetarian cooking class at San Francisco Cooking School. My experience there reminded me that its not always easy to find and get the most from your cooking class experience. Cooking classes can be a pricey investment, but they can also be immensely valuable.
The first step in this process is to be sure you're choosing the right class for you. Read on for my tips!
The class I took at the San Francisco Cooking School was a four-hour, hands-on vegetarian cooking class that ended in a delicious sit-down meal where we got to taste all of the dishes we made. My fellow students were a great representation of the many reasons to take a cooking class. There was a married couple who wanted to improve their kitchen skills, a mother-daughter playing hooky so they could learn more about vegetarian cooking, and two best buddies who chose the class as a part of their afternoon 'fun time.' There was also a woman from out-of-town who was taking the class as part of her vacation, and several other people who were cooking enthusiasts and seemed to enjoy being in a social situation.
Cooking classes can be pricey. Depending on a lot of factors, a class can run anywhere from $30 to $150 or more. Full day, weekend or week-long workshops can run several hundreds of dollars and are a real investment. So it's important to choose wisely and be sure you get the most from a class once you're there. We'll be looking at how to choose your class in this post and we'll explore how to get the most from your class in a future post.
5 Tips to Help You Choose the Right Cooking Class
1. Be sure you want to be there.
It goes without saying that it helps to have some interest in the subject being taught. Be it doughnut making or fish butchering, you really should have a reason to be in the class. Of course, like some of the people in my vegetarian cooking class, a general enthusiasm for cooking and the social aspects of taking a class are fine, too.
That said, if you're so-so on a certain ingredient or style of cuisine, taking a cooking class on the subject is a great way to expand your horizons. Cooking classes are also great if you have a fear of something, such as working with yeast or deep frying, as you will likely walk away with more experience and a new outlook.
2. Be sure it's the right style of class.
Cooking classes fall into three basic categories:
Each experience offers pros and cons. Demonstration classes are when an instructor stands up in from of the class and demonstrates how to cook the dish and there is very little or no hands-on experience.
- Demonstration Class Pros: You will be able to see how every dish on the menu is prepared and get a very thorough breakdown from the instructor. This is also a good style for beginners who aren't quite ready to plunge in.
- Demonstration Class Cons: Some people find demo classes boring — they want to get their hands in there! Watching a demo often doesn't give people the 'muscle memory' needed to thoroughly absorb a technique. Also, we often don't realize if we really understand a technique until we actually try it ourselves.
Hands-on classes are where you are actually cooking the menu or butchering the pig and not just watching it being demonstrated.
- Hands-on Class Pros: Most people learn much more by actually doing instead of just watching something being done. A hands-on class will really show you what you know and don't know so you can ask questions in real time as opposed to imagining theoretical situations.
- Hands-on Class Cons: Hands-on classes can get chaotic and confusing as there are often many people working on different things. It's easy to miss an instruction or to get lost in your task and miss the broader lessons of the class. If it's a menu or cuisine class, you will probably only work on one dish during the class. Also, the instructor can sometimes be spread too thin with a hands-on class, meaning you will have to wait if you need some one-on-one help. Additionally, hands-on classes are usually much smaller than demonstration classes, which means that they are more expensive (the cooking school needs to charge more to recoup their class costs for a smaller class).
Workshops are longer classes, sometimes lasting a whole day, weekend or even week. They are often a combination of demo and hands-on learning.
- Workshop Pros: Really the best way to get an immersive experience.
- Workshop Cons: Often very expensive or you just don't have the time to spare.
3. Be sure it's the right level for you.
There's a big difference between the skills that a beginner needs to know and what will be interesting and challenging to a more experienced cook. Be sure that the class is at the level that is appropriate for you, especially if it is hands-on as you will likely be spending time on your own.
If you're a beginner or even intermediate in the class topic, don't pass on basic courses which sometimes don't sound as interesting but are still very much worth your time. Cooking relies on a foundation of skills and knowledge which you will need to navigate and get the most from before moving on to the more advanced classes. Knife skills, mise-en-place, stocks, etc are all important classes — don't pass them up!
4. Be sure that the classroom is fully equipped.
You can take a great cooking class in someone's home kitchen, so it's not always about the biggest or fanciest place. That said, if it is a dedicated cooking school they should have a large, tilted overhead mirror so even the folks in the back row can see what's going on. Quality equipment and well cared for and sharp knives are necessary. Many cooking schools will have pictures of the classroom online or would welcome you to pop in for a quick look before signing up.
5. Ask these questions:
How big is the class? Too many people, and you won't get as much attention from the instructor. Hands-on classes shouldn't be more than roughly 12 to 14 people, depending on the class size, but demo classes can be larger.
Will you get tastes or a full meal? Some classes promise a sit-down in the end, with a full meal to eat. Others will offer smaller tastes of dishes as they're prepared. Either way, an opportunity to taste the food should always be a part of the experience.
Who is the instructor? Read up on the instructor's bio to be sure that you feel comfortable with her credentials. A good instructor not only has the skills to cook, she also knows how to handle a group of people and keep track of several things at once. Not all good cooks are good teachers. If you find a good instructor, it's often worth it to take their other classes or follow them to other schools.
Those are my main pieces of advice for the first step in your cooking class adventure. Check back next week for part 2!
In the meantime, I'd love to hear about your own cooking class adventures. Do you have other tips to add? What was the best cooking class you ever took, and where was it?
(Image credits: Dana Velden)