How I Learned to Cook — the Hard Way

published Feb 3, 2018
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(Image credit: Erin Wengrovius)

Up until very recently, I didn’t really know how to cook. It wasn’t because no one in my household cooked when I was growing up — my mother and grandmothers made various Turkish dishes year-round, some of which were incredibly complicated. It also wasn’t for lack of appreciation of good food (I’m thrilled to try any new restaurant in my neighborhood as soon as it opens).

It was because I never really had to figure out how to cook for myself. In grade school I had home-cooked meals every day, and in college I had a dining hall that served up dependably dry chicken and lukewarm carrots.

(Image credit: Christine Han)

As a result, I foolishly overlooked learning the basics that virtually everyone else has pinned down by the time they graduate from college; I’m talking about how to chop an onion, the right water-to-grain ratio for rice, and why it’s so important not to let raw chicken touch anything you don’t intend to set on fire afterwards. It was an embarrassing reality. Coupled with my growing frustration over the potential that I might be forced to eat some truly disgusting culinary concoctions for the rest of my life, it spelled out a fairly gloomy gustatory future.

While I wish I could have spent some quality time with my mother in the kitchen so that she could have taught me all that I needed to know to get by, it was simply too late once I had graduated from college. It was me, an apartment I was subletting for the summer, and a lot of frozen food.

My first course of action was to dive into the world of perfectly curated recipes by food bloggers. For context on my learning style, my first semester of college was a massive trainwreck because I signed up for an advanced Russian literature course filled with seniors and native Russian speakers, having not previously studied any Russian literature. Unsurprisingly, I took on the task of feeding myself in much the same way, setting out to make beautifully colored French macarons as my first stab at baked goods. Some very soggy dough and visible eggshells later, I fled my apartment to regroup at a bakery down the street.

(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

I came to terms with starting from square zero, which meant googling things like “how to make an omelet,” “basic knife skills,” and, yes, “how to make rice.” It was embarrassing to subject myself to the ABC’s of cooking given how obvious these kinds of skills seemed (and how late in the game it felt for me to be trying them), but I knew that I had to fight against my instinct to dive in with the most challenging tasks first.

My Pinterest board and bookmarks were littered with recipes to try; recipes that had failed once, twice, thrice; and recipes that I’d triumphantly pulled off. I had a lot of catching up to do.

My approach was fairly systematic. I took notes on recipes that I’d pulled off successfully (this was a slow, steady, and tremendously rewarding process), building my own version of personalized dishes in a makeshift composition-notebook-turned-cookbook. Tips like, “Actually cook for 25 minutes, not 15,” or, “Don’t preheat oven until step 4 of recipe; steps 1 through 3 take a while,” danced in the margins of the perfect beef stew and my favorite banana bread recipe.

Videos and step-by-step guides from cooking sites like Kitchn, Food52, and Food & Wine were constantly pulled up in tabs on my laptop, which I’d bring with me into the kitchen. Often times, I’d send frantic text messages to my mother when something bubbled over the pot and coated the stovetop with what would have been my dinner. She prescribed an easy fix. Making eggs for dinner is, as a result, my default solution to cooking failures. My Pinterest board and bookmarks were littered with recipes to try; recipes that had failed once, twice, thrice, and recipes that I’d triumphantly pulled off. I had a lot of catching up to do.

(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

It continues to be a humbling process. The biggest downside to learning to cook through the internet is how easy it is to succumb to the allure of beautifully staged photos of final dishes, baked goods, and perfectly set tables. Few Instagrammers will share photos of dough that didn’t rise properly, or a sauce that curdled. Followers (and newbie cooks, like myself) are presented with perfection, which we inadvertently consume along with a side of insecurity about our own skills.

The internet is a place of lofty goals, but it’s also a place of solidarity. Sharing photos of rare successes as well as comical disasters with friends made the experience of learning to cook considerably less embarrassing. Having to pick up the basics on my own from online resources meant the experience could otherwise be fairly lonely and discouraging, but knowing (and seeing the evidence) that many of my friends were also trying to feed themselves for the first time was much-needed reassurance.

Plus, sharing cooking scores and shames was — and continues to be — a great way to stay in touch with friends who moved far away. Absence might make the heart grow fonder, but struggling with company in the kitchen helped my confidence grow stronger.

(Image credit: Maria Siriano)

Over time, I became more comfortable with taking risks in the kitchen again. I’ve never been good at following directions, which means adhering to the exact measurements of a recipe has always been counterintuitive for me. I began to have a better feel for how things were meant to look when baking, boiling, and steaming. And now I’m the kind of person who asks for (and received) a Le Creuset Dutch oven for Christmas. I also find peace in the sale section at Sur La Table.

Cooking is a pastime I’ve adopted out of total necessity, but one that I’m now very pleased to have figured out for myself.