One of the few positive aspects of this eternal lockdown is that I had the chance to learn new recipes and techniques. Usually, I am too busy trying to respect deadlines, juggling cooking classes and assignments, so I just play it safe.
Week after week, I cook those old reliable recipes that are part of my cooking repertoire: the same soups, or the trustworthy tuna sauce for pasta. I bake the same sourdough loaf, which sometimes has a perfect open crumb, while others is denser, but flavourful. I cook seasonal vegetables with the same approach: a pan, a clove of garlic and a generous drizzle of olive oil.
Comfort comes from repeating a ritual, a set of flavours.
But where is the excitement of learning a new dish? Of discovering a new technique? I missed those early years when the desire to eat new delicious food brought me into the kitchen to experiment, to learn from cookbooks, from mum and grandma, from experience and repetition.
This feeling of excitement and adventure probably is not shared by everyone who is approaching cooking for the first time.
If you have to learn to cook as an adult, because your family was not very much into cooking, or because you discovered this curiosity towards food just at a later stage, you might have the same question in mind: and now, how do I learn to cook? Being also a cooking class teacher, I’m often asked to share my tips on how one learns to cook. This was the theme of a recent podcast episode which stirred a very interesting conversation, so I thought to transcript it to share it here, too.
Once I was a novice in the kitchen, just like everyone else. I didn’t attend a proper culinary school. I inherited my grandma’s passion for cooking and her curiosity towards new recipes. From my mum, her practical approach. So how did I learn to cook? How did I become a curious home cook? As this is what I am, a proud home cook, who cooks for the joy of sharing, and eating, good food.
My first piece of advice is start small.
When you approach cooking for the first time, or a new cuisine which has a set of rules and ingredients that are completely different from your native cuisine, start from simple tasks and recipes.
When you attempt baking for the very first time, choose something simple and immediate as a pound cake, as my citrusy mascarpone pound cake, not a layered cake, or something that requires hours of preparation and multiple steps. You’ll get there eventually.
Same can be said for cooking. A bowl of spaghetti, cooked al dente, with a perfectly executed garlicky tomato sauce is basic, but extremely rewarding, and a recipe that can help you gain confidence in the kitchen.
Don’t be scared by recipes that require a long cooking, though, as they are often the most forgiving.
It is so much easier to cook a beef stew, a spezzatino, or a peposo, a pepper and wine beef stew from Florence, than, for example, searing to perfection a beef fillet. A properly made ragù, which will require hours of cooking, is more forgiving than a carbonara. There you need an exact comprehension of heat and timing, as to stir the eggs with the pecorino and the pasta cooking water, long enough to create a velvety cream that will hug your pasta, but not too long as to have scrambled eggs with your spaghetti.
My second tip, when it comes to cooking following a recipe, is to read it from start to finish.
Tackle it as you would do with an engineering project: before building your house, you need the foundations. Understand which are all the required ingredients. Do you have everything you need? or can you make substitutions and adjustments? Understand the steps to reach the final dish, and how long each of these steps will take.
Ask yourself if you will have enough time. Is it a recipe that requires a long resting? Just half an hour at room temperature, as for the fresh pasta dough, or an overnight proofing to make a focaccia? Don’t skip these steps, preheat your oven when required, or at least wait until it reaches the required temperature.
Be sure to understand the techniques required, if the recipe mentions blanching, searing, or deglazing. If a recipe is written professionally, there should be an explanation of these techniques, otherwise google it or search a video on YouTube to understand what you have to do.
As a consequence, before you start cooking, measure your ingredients.
Have them ready into bowls or plates. Cut, peel, chop, slice or toast as required. A little prep work will make the cooking process smoother.
Having a scale is handy, especially if you approach baking. There are on line tools to easily convert grams to cups, tablespoons and teaspoons, but they will never be as precise as using a scale. So, consider doing this little investment.
Then, probably the most important advice: practice, practice, practice
If you want to be a better writer, you have to write consistently, every day. Sit at your desk, open your notebook or your computer, jot down words, read, edit, repeat. Every day. This is also the most important piece of advice given by Stephen King in his book On writing to aspiring writers.
There are talented people who do not need exercise: the geniuses of music, art, cooking. I’m not one of them, I’ve always needed hours of practice, study, homework, trials and errors, to get better at something, being it English at high school, writing, photography or cooking now.
This is why I’m telling you practice, practice, practice. If you want to learn to cook, or get better at something like sourdough baking, or if you want to know better a certain cuisine, say the Italian one, you have to be patient, do your homework, practice. After all it is fun, it means that you’ll get to cook many new dishes, experiment with new flavour pairings, and deal with leftovers, or mistakes. That’s another way of learning.
Think about Julia Child. In her first cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she shares also tips to avoid mistakes when cooking, or how to correct them, when they happen, as in the case of making mayonnaise at home.
So, in your case, if you are a beginner cook, or if you are approaching a new cuisine for the first time, cook something every day, even a small side dish or an omelette, compose a salad, balancing the dressing, explore the use of a spice or of a seasonal vegetable.
The importance of practice should not be an excuse when it comes to cooking: I do not cook as I do not have the skills.
Here, let me quote two women I admire, Diana Henry and Nigella Lawson.
You don’t need to chop like any kind of chef. My knife skills are shocking. And I am slow. It doesn’t matter. You just need to end up with small pieces and get them in the pan. – Diana Henry
Sometimes people see me on television and say you have no knife skills. I feel it’s very important to say that I know I have no knife skills. It hasn’t stopped me from cooking. – Nigella Lawson
Get in contact with your senses
Cooking is a sensorial activity, and a mindful practice, so use all your senses. Taste, learn to understand what you prefer and what you do not like, balance the salt, the acid, the crunchiness in your dishes. Pay attention to textures.
Don’t forget to smell, not only to avoid burning your food. After a while, you will detect if a dish is missing salt just by the smell of it.
I like to knead bread by hand, as to feel the texture of the dough, to toss the salad by hand, as this distributes the seasoning more evenly. When you make meatballs, there’s a huge difference if you mix the ingredients with a fork or with your hands: try and you’ll get soft, moist meatballs as a result.
Build your cooking repertoire
Once I discovered the concept of having a cooking repertoire, I fell in love with the idea.
How do you learn to cook? How do you approach a new cuisine? Usually there is a number of basic ingredients that keep coming back in the recipes you’re going to make. Have them at hand, know how to use them, when and in which proportions, learn to combine them and you’ll handle brilliantly this new cuisine.
My cooking repertoire is made of recipes chosen not to impress, but to nurture, recipes that can express my true identity as a home chef. I’m gradually adding recipes to my cooking repertoire, testing and sharing them on the blog, building a collection of recipes that can tell a lot about who I am, about my sensibility, my preferences and the place where I live. You can read it more about it here.
Helping you to create a cooking repertoire is one of the reasons why we launched our virtual Tuscan cooking class on Udemy, an online learning platform.
With this course you will join me in my kitchen, attending step-by-step cooking demonstrations to show you exactly how to prepare each recipe. We’re going to use simple, affordable ingredients. Stock up your pantry and be ready to start cooking like an Italian and Tuscan home cook. You enrol once, and you’ll have a lifetime access to the course, where we will upload new videos every other week. In the next days, for example, we will add a lesson on pasta frolla, the Italian shortcrust pastry. You can join our virtual Tuscan cooking class here.
A last word on ingredients.
When learning to cook, you will realize that a good ingredient makes a dish. So, buy the best ingredients you can afford, don’t compromise on quality. You’ll notice it with extra virgin olive oil. When you prepare the simplest tomato sauce with garlic and olive oil, if those three ingredients are excellent, the result will be outstanding. The same can be said for butter in a shortcrust pastry, or in a pie dough. You taste the good butter.
Two books to read
Before calling this a post, I would love to mention two books that for me have been important in learning how to cook, or in refining my skills.
The first one is Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, by Samin Nosrat. There’s a whole podcast episode, the 30th, dedicated to this book, because I think this is the perfect manual for those who want to learn to cook. Samin’s idea is that we can cook consistently well if we learn to master these four cornerstones: salt, fat, acid and heat. You understand why certain things happen in the kitchen, which is the role of the four basic elements and how they interact to create a great dish. The recipes are also brilliant, perfect explanation of the theory chapters.
The second book is The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit. This is not a cookbook, but a book to examine what goes with what, pair by pair. If you want to improvise, this is a book to follow to have some inspiration. You’ll discover that coffee and goat cheese are great together, as lamb and rosemary, or apple and blackberry. Actually, thanks to this book, I made my apple and blackberry jam, convinced by this paragraph:
Like Simon and Garfunkel: perfectly respectable solo careers, can sell out Central Park together. Simon is the apple, by the way, the dominant partner. Blackberry does the high notes. Blackberries have a spicy character, although not a specific spice.
The responsibility as a food writer and recipe developer
I feel a responsibility as a food writer and recipe developer when we talk about how we learn to cook, using recipes found on line or on cookbooks as a starting point. Because this is when I become the source of your inspiration, when I ask you to invest your time and money, buying the ingredients to make a recipe. And I know, from my experience, that there is nothing more disappointing than a recipe that doesn’t work.
I noticed that it takes me so much longer to share a new post on the blog now than in the past. In the first few years of blogging I would try a recipe, and if I liked it I would share it, adjusting it on the go, while I was writing it. Mind you, I was sharing very simple recipes, so they were also forgiving.
Now it takes me days to go from the idea of a recipe to the actual post, with hours spent testing the recipe, the ingredients, taking the photos, writing the introduction.
There’s a ruler in my kitchen to measure the size of moulds and trays, a timer to check how long it takes to sear, roast or stew, and a scale, always. These are instruments of my job as a notebook, or my camera.
With a book, things get even more complicated, and satisfying. If I can correct a recipe on the blog for a mistake I have made in a few seconds when there’s a feedback about the ingredients, or the timing, it is different with a book. Often more than a year passes from when the recipe is written and when it is printed and shared. If there’s a mistake, it stays there, in the book, unless there is a second edition where you can correct it. And it stings, every time you open that book.
Pasta al pesto di rucola – Pasta with arugula pesto
This arugula pesto is an extremely simple recipe that teaches a lot about the right approach to cooking.
You need a bunch of peppery arugula – call it rocket, rucola, or arugula, but choose a fresh bunch -, some excellent extra virgin olive oil, better if delicately peppery (do you know that some Italian olive oil has a distinct arugula flavour?), walnuts and grated Parmigiano Reggiano. As you can see, this is a very short list of ingredients, but make sure to choose good quality ones.
Read the recipe before you make it. While you can blend extra virgin olive oil, walnuts and arugula together in a food processor, make sure to add the grated Parmigiano Reggiano only after, when you have already scraped your pesto in a bowl, as to avoid to overheat the cheese, which would otherwise change texture and flavour.
Before adding the salt, taste: first you’ll get the real fresh, bitter, peppery taste of rucola, then the saltiness given by the grated Parmigiano Reggiano. You’ll be able to add just the right amount of salt to match your taste.
And again, if you have to start somewhere, start with something simple and essential like this pesto, which will reward you with a fresh, summery bowl of pasta. Add some halved cherry tomatoes for colour.
You can use this arugula pesto also to dress boiled vegetables, or to spread on bread, topping it with a hard boiled egg and an anchovy for a mouthwatering appetiser or for the simplest frugal meal.
- 100 g (3 1/2 oz) fresh arugula
- 50 g (1/2 cup ) walnuts
- 100 g (1/2 cup) extra virgin olive oil
- 50 g (1/2 cup) Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 200 g (7 oz) cherry tomatoes
- 320 g (11 1/2 oz) whole wheat pasta
- Rinse the arugula under running water and dry it thoroughly, either with a kitchen towel or in a salad spinner.
- In a food processor, start by adding walnuts and olive oil, blend until the walnuts are roughly chopped, then add the arugula. Blend into a creamy pesto.
- Scrape the arugula pesto into a bowl, then add the grated Parmigiano Reggiano and the salt. Cover with a film of extra virgin olive oil and keep in the fridge for 2 days, or use it immediately to dress the pasta.
- Cook the pasta in boiling salted water, then drain when al dente. Keep a few tablespoons of the pasta cooking water aside to dilute the pesto, should it be too thick.
- Dress the pasta with the arugula pesto, add the chopped cherry tomatoes and finish with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
- Serve the pasta immediately.
- Nigella Lawson: Home Cooking Can Be a Feminist Act. t used to be denigrated as “women’s work,” but it is creative and full of aesthetic pleasures.
- Nigella Lawson Insists She’s Not a Chef. Here’s Why That’s Important. Don’t know how to use a chef’s knife? Don’t worry. Neither does Lawson. And that’s okay. “I haven’t got a knife skill to my name, but I cook often and gladly,” she admits. “For home cooking is not technique-driven but taste-led.”
- Top 10 Ways to Improve Your Cooking. You don’t have to go to cooking school to become a better cook. There are lots of easy, small things you can do every time you cook to get better, more professional results.
- The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit. Former marketing executive Niki Segnit has taken 99 flavours (from potato and cucumber to black pudding and washed-rind cheese) and grouped them into hundreds of pairings, each accompanied by an elegant, and often highly witty, mini-essay.