My Secret to Becoming a More Confident Cook

(Image credit: Kristin Teig)

I have a confession to make: I am not a confident cook. I know my cooking knowledge could be deeper, my skills better, and despite the fact that I consider myself a professional learner in the kitchen and should just roll with the punches, I have cried more than once over a failed recipe.

Yes, I second-guess my cooking all the time, with one exception: my granola recipe. I am immensely proud of my homemade granola, and would put it up against any other granola out there. So what, you might ask, is so special about my granola that inspires this (rare) burst of cooking confidence? I’ll tell you.

(Image credit: Kimberley Hasselbrink)

Nothing … only that I’ve made it dozens and dozens of times.

I started making granola three years ago after falling in love with Early Bird’s olive oil granola. The New York Times published their own version of that recipe, and that’s when I quit store-bought granola forever.

The first dozen times I made that granola recipe, it was just okay. Some batches were overcooked, some undercooked. There was the time (well, multiple times) the pistachios burned, which resulted in a few very unpleasant, almost inedible bites. There was the time I forgot to add the olive oil (um, KEY INGREDIENT).

Gradually I began to alter the Times’ recipe. I dropped the pistachios because of the cooking problems, and added walnuts. I cut out the cardamom. I reduced the amount of maple syrup, and started using coconut palm sugar in place of regular brown sugar (game changer). I found I loved the granola best with dried currants and cherries instead of apricots. I added nutmeg.

By the time I hit upon the recipe I use now, I’d made granola more times than I can count. I didn’t do it because I was recipe testing. I didn’t tell myself I was going to be Master Of All The Granola. I didn’t make granola dozens of times to become more confident in my cooking, and yet that’s exactly what happened. I kept making granola because I love granola, and one day I realized that I had become very good at it.

My secret to being more confident in the kitchen is this: repetition, repetition, repetition (see what I just did there?), which is really no secret at all. Put more poetically, it’s ritual.

Dana wrote a lovely Weekend Meditation on ritual and repetition a few years ago. Here’s a section from her post that rings particularly true:

The path to freedom often means chaining yourself to the monotonous activity of practice and repetition. Repetition, endless repetition, is the only way to learn how to chop an onion or diaper a baby or play the violin. It’s the only way to mastery, to a state of being that’s calm yet bright and focused. It’s the only way the body learns.

It’s the only way a cook learns, too.

In a 2010 radio interview with Evan Kleiman on KCRW, Thomas Keller said the reason he became a good cook is because of repetition.

So many of the things that I learned as a dishwasher you do as a cook. The idea of being efficient, being organized, the rituals of being a cook, the repetition … and of course the more you do something, the better you become. That’s why I became a good cook, because I enjoy the repetition. I wasn’t always trying to seek something new.

I try to remember this now when I make a new recipe and it doesn’t turn out. I try to remember this when I’ve made that recipe three times and it’s still not great. I try to remember this when I’ve made that recipe 10 times, and it’s okay. I try to remember this when I’ve made that recipe 15 times, when it starts to really feel good, feel comfortable. And I remember this when I’ve made that recipe 20 times, 25 times, when I can make it by heart, when it has settled deeply into my cooking repertoire and I feel great about it — confident about it — at last.