Recipes don’t help you become a better cook!
Long post but if you want to become a better cook, you need to read this!
Right now there are more than 45 million home cooks online each month browsing recipe sites in search of culinary enlightenment (US alone). Nielsen reported that as much as 1/3rd of the total Internet population are searching recipes online. For some it’s just to find a new recipe or to get some culinary inspiration for their next meal, but for so many others, they turn to recipe sites and cookbooks for genuine cooking help.
This article is for the latter group – those that are motivated to become better cooks but just can’t seem to find the right path. You may be relatively new to cooking, one that continually burns the toast, or you might just want to learn more to move yourself to the next level. Bottom line…you’re “motivated” and if you are, spend ten minutes to read through this post and take action.
I’ve been cooking professional since 1983. I feel compelled to write this post, and a few that will follow under the tag (Recipe to Better Cooking), to help you find this path to better cooking. I just can’t continue to watch so many millions of people be mislead into believing that cookbooks and recipes alone are going to actually teach people to become better cooks. True recipes can be helpful, particularly for inspiration and for providing a general guide, but recipes are extremely poor tools for learning how to cook..
Why are recipes NOT a solution to becoming a better cook?
For decades in professional cooking schools around the world, budding professional cooks have been taught skills and techniques, not recipes. Recipes are used simply to practice skills and techniques. In fact, a recipe is really just a step-by-step set of techniques, stacked one on top of the other. For example, cut this, mix this, pan fry this, then braise this and voila…you are supposed to end up with something delicious to eat.
The challenge with recipes!
The challenge, however, is that each of these small steps requires skill and technique knowledge. You need to know how to handle the knife, how to mix properly, how to use a fry pan, etc. And most importantly, you need to understand “why” you do what you do when cooking and how it affects everything else moving forward. Recipes simply provide the do this, do this, do this… step-by-step direction but they don’t, and in most cases can’t, help you execute the technical parts in a recipe. Recipe methods are littered with culinary terms that provide little help to an at-home cook who doesn’t possess basic culinary knowledge (sweat, simmer, brown, sear, deglaze, sauté, etc). And the tough thing about cooking is that it’s not very forgiving. If you don’t know how to sweat for example, one small error here in the beginning of a recipe and the whole dish could easily be ruined.
Place a pan over the lowest heat and add ½ tablespoon of oil. Sweat one finely chopped garlic clove, being sure not to brown it at all. Once softened, add ½ cup of water, bring to a simmer for 30 seconds and then strain into a container. Repeat this process with a second clove of finely chopped garlic. This time, turn the heat up a bit and brown the garlic before adding ½ cup of water. Simmer for 30 seconds and then strain into a separate container. Notice the color difference and then taste each liquid. Share your results below by clicking on the “Comment” link.
The goal of online recipe and user-generated content sites to own the largest collection of recipes with the prettiest pictures and the most popular celebrity chefs is shear madness to me when many home cooks don’t even understand cooking basics.
It simply doesn’t matter how great the chef author is or how great the recipe is, if you don’t know the basics, you are, and will always be plagued with hit and miss recipe success.
Fortunately, in recent months, many online sites have started to embrace this fundamental need by integrating skill and technique video content into their collections, but even this is not enough in my opinion. I can show you how to sear meat (brown or caramelize it) but the real value is in telling you why to brown it (form a nice crust, start the creation of sucs for a pan sauce, to add color to the eventual braise and sauce). Because cooking is the end product of a series of techniques, to learn how to become a better cook, you need to better understand cooking in general. You need to know how things impact one another. And most importantly, you need to understand the all important “why”. Learn it, understand it, then, and only then, can you be free in the kitchen.
Check out the free lesson in the Rouxbe Cooking School on Wheat & Gluten. It’s a bit ‘sciency’ I know, but the next time you make a pancake batter, a cake or pizza dough, you’ll at least know when and why to add what kind of flour and why or why not to work it (to develop gluten).
The good news
The good news is that most culinary techniques are stupidly simple. Also, there are not a lot of basics you need to know. For example, you might think there are 1,000’s of different types of sauces out there but in fact, you only need to learn five basic sauces and then how to vary them. As for the techniques, most 5 year olds can do many of the basic techniques to cooking success. .. and I’m not trying to make chefs look less talented than they actually are (as I’m a professional chef too).
Example: a lot of cooking starts in a pan (e.g. brown the chicken). If you don’t know how to test the pan for the right pan temperature, your food is likely going to stick or burn. Has this every happened to you? Watch this two-minute video on the “water test” and it will never happen again:
Want to take control in the kitchen?
So many times, I hear people blaming cookbooks and recipes for their failures when in fact, often it’s the user’s lack of knowledge that leads to failure (acknowledging of course that there are thousands of recipes out there that don’t work or that are just plain bad recipes).
Rouxbe will expand your skill and technique knowledge and help you become a better cook. This is what we do. This is where we bet $2.5 million dollars – on content development and a learning platform that will change the way you cook forever. It has worked for decades in every professional cooking school in the world and it WILL work for you
Rouxbe is the premium online instructional cooking destination, not because we have the best recipes (although our recipes do have a 96% success rate), but because we have the best learning platform for those that want to become better cooks (the Rouxbe Cooking School is currently serving members in over 145 countries). I have yet to see another site focused on this single most important element of cooking. The funny thing is that once you learn the skill and technique behind cooking, you won’t even need recipes any more other than for inspiration and ideas. Maybe that’s why the commercial recipe-production-world is so fixated on delivering more and more content. They want to keep you believing that you need them, so they can continue to bring you back, drive pageviews and ultimately ad revenue on their sites (note, no ads on Rouxbe).
My challenge to you:
- Spend 20 minutes a week at Rouxbe, pick one lesson in Rouxbe’s Cooking School per week, watch it, do the 5 minute quiz and then pick one of the practice recipes and cook that meal during the following week. That’s it. We are not asking you to leave your favorite cookbook or favorite recipe site for Rouxbe, just compliment it with some technique training at Rouxbe. You have to cook anyway so you might as well cook something that is going to work and teach you something at the same time.
- Invite your friends. If you know anyone else out there that is interested in cooking, please pass along this post. We’d love to help steer them onto the right path as well.
Happy Cooking from Rouxbe – the Recipe to Better Cooking
CEO & CoFounder of Rouxbe
* In partnership with Northwest Culinary Academy of Vancouver.
** Hear a recent radio interview regarding Rouxbe and The Rouxbe Cooking School here on KCRW’s Good Food with Evan Kleiman.
*** Read what others are saying about the Cooking School here.