Sunday, January 13, 2002

This could be year you become a better cook

        Just guessing, but let's say you've already given up on that resolution to lose weight this year. How about making a commitment to become a better cook? Who knows, if you cook and eat better, you might lose a few pounds.

        Here are nine steps to improve your cooking skills.

        Find time to cook. Despite what purists preach, it's not realistic to prepare a meal from scratch every night. But if you want to learn to cook, you have to find a couple of hours — on a Saturday night or Sunday afternoon — to spend in the kitchen. In the beginning, at least, it will be easier if there are no distractions, i.e., children or spouses.

        Embrace “fresh is best.” The moment you accept the fact fresh ingredients make the best food, you will become a better cook. This does not mean you will never take a shortcut or use a convenience ingredient again. But you will know the difference. And from then on, you'll turn your nose up at garlic powder, bottled lemon juice and other inferior substitutes. Before you know it, it will be second nature for you to chop fresh garlic and squeeze a lemon.

        Buy a chef's knife. The most essential tool of the kitchen, this knife's wide blade allows you to mince herbs, chop celery, slice chicken and smash garlic. If you've never used a chef's knife, buy one relatively small (6 to 8 inches long) and inexpensive ($40-$60). Grip the knife on the upper portion of the handle and practice chopping by placing the tip on the cutting board and bringing the knife's edge down, into celery or another vegetable. Maintain the edge with a sharpening steel and don't put it in the dishwasher. (For more knife care and handling tips, see “Knife Essentials Guide” at

        Take a cooking class. Several schools (Jungle Jim's Market, Fairfield; Cooks' Wares; Symmes Township; Culinary Sol, Norwood; and Dorothy Lane Market, Dayton) offer classes that teach basics on using knives and other techniques. If you can't find a basics class, take another one that looks interesting. Watch the instructor closely during demonstrations, and ask questions after the session. (If you can't take a class, there's much to be learned from television cooking shows on PBS or the Food Network.)

        Buy a cookbook. There are many to choose from, but a great cookbook for beginners is How to Cook Without a Book (Broadway; $25), in which author Pam Anderson teaches searing, sauteing, sauce-making and other techniques. An old favorite is The New York Times 60-Minute Gourmet (Times Books; $17), which introduces beginners to classic dishes requiring reasonable cooking time and modicum of ingredients.

        Use your senses in the kitchen. Unlike baking, cooking is not a science but should be a creative process. Smell, taste and watch the food closely while cooking. Make adjustments as necessary. You're in charge.

        The recipe is your guide, not your master. Read recipes carefully before you begin cooking, checking for necessary ingredients and equipment. But don't be deterred if you're missing one or two minor ingredients. (This applies to cooking, not baking.) As your confidence grows, you'll become more comfortable improvising by substituting or even omitting ingredients. Soon, you'll be able to cook some dishes without recipes.

        Taste food critically. Enjoy the meals you and others (this includes restaurant chefs) prepare, but try to learn something from the experience. Did it need longer or shorter cooking time? More or less salt? What herbs or spices might have enhanced its flavor?

        Cook for someone and revel in it. Once you see that look of pleasure and hear their words of gratitude, you will be hooked. Suddenly, finding time to cook will be less of a problem.



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