The easy way to become a skillful chef in only four expensive years.
A confession: I used to have a fear of cooking. After a series of kitchen disasters and disappointed romantic partners, I pretty much swore off the craft. Most recipes I tried to follow online seemed infuriatingly vague. Cooking shows seemed to gloss over important details and make difficult tasks look deceptively simple.
When I got married it forced the issue a bit since my wife—who also had very little cooking experience—really wanted us to cook together. This caused quite a lot of friction because just the thought of meal planning made me anxious, especially since my wife loves variety and branching out to experiment with new recipes.
Eventually, we figured it out. I cannot overemphasize just how much I used to suck at cooking, so if this process worked for me it will probably work for you.
Step 1: Have a partner
I don’t think you need to be married. Perhaps not even romantically involved. But you need someone who will stick with you through a long and frustrating process. You need someone you trust, who will speak freely with you, who you can bounce ideas off of, and who will help shoulder the burden.
You could maybe skip this step entirely, but the process is going to be much harder. Here’s a secret: anyone that tells you that cooking at home is “quick” or “easy” is lying to you. These people are forgetting that cooking at home always involves significantly more effort than not cooking at home. You have to shop for ingredients, chop ingredients, make tricky cooking decisions on-the-fly, and then clean up everything when you’re done. These tasks take time and they are not easy (unless you already know what you’re doing, in which case everything is “easy”).
Learning to cook doesn’t magically remove these time-sinks, it just makes them more enjoyable. Not knowing what ingredient to use starts off nerve-wracking but ends up being a fun opportunity to try something new. Making a mistake in a recipe changes from a disapointment to an opportunity for improvisation.
It’s kinda like exercise. If you want to be buff, you can’t just “become buff” and then never go to the gym again. Buff people are buff because their lifestyle involves spending a lot of time at the gym. If you’re reading this because you thought “I wish I cooked at home more”, know that that only comes with a lifestyle that involves more time spent working with food.
Step 2: Subscribe to a meal prep service
Meal prep services like Blue Apron get a lot of flak. People say they’re overpriced, they waste food by giving you the wrong proportions, the food quality isn’t good, they don’t actually save you much time, etc. Some of these criticisms are probably true but there are benefits that make them worth the price if you are cooking-challenged like I was. I’m not familiar with all the different services, but for our service (Sunbasket) I felt like we got our money’s worth because:
- We didn’t have to think about meal prep anymore. They automatically chose meals for us and sent them regularly unless we told them not to. So it actually took more planning to not cook
- They forced us to fit cooking into our schedule. We already paid for the food, it already showed up, it already started slowly decaying in our fridge: the pressure was on to cook it!
- They cut out the most tedious part of cooking: choosing, gathering, and measuring ingredients. We got to dump out a bag of produce and get right to work.
- They spelled things out for us. These services aren’t designed for accomplished chefs, so the instructions are designed with idiots (like me!) in mind.
- A big part of cooking is just being comfortable in the kitchen. The service forced us to spend more time in the kitchen, so we naturally started feeling more comfortable.
We also chose Sunbasket because they do all of that hippy stuff like using locally-sourced ingredients and recyclable packaging whenever possible, and they also have a good selection of vegetarian meals each week. But probably most meal prep services offer the benefits I mentioned above.
Those are all of the benfits that I expected when we signed up, but there are other, hidden benefits you’ll discover once you start regularly using a meal prep service.
- Prepping with your partner creates regular bonding/teamwork time, which can be hard to schedule if you’re both busy.
- Coordinating the chopping/cooking/cleaning stages to quickly get to the eating stage naturally pressures you to become more efficient at these tasks. I used to hate chopping and cleaning in particular, since they felt like extra tasks that took away from the cooking. Now I find them oddly satisfying.
- You will quickly discover which parts of your kitchen are sub-par and you will start developing strong opinions about your cooking tools. The kinds of tools I choose and the ways I care for them have changed entirely since I started this journey.
- Most importantly, you will start noticing the hidden patterns in cooking. I think that this is the big secret that most chefs forget when trying to teach. After making your 100th pasta dish or your 100th salad, you’ll find you have an almost subconscious sense of what flavors or ingredients are important. You’ll know how a certain ingredient should be prepared or cooked without looking at the recipe. You’ll have a hunch which ingredient can be substituted if one is missing.
Step 3: Watch Food Wishes
Once you start feeling comfortable with your meal prep service (you reliably produce something that tastes good), start watching Chef John’s fantastic cooking show Food Wishes.
This show is in a totally different ball park from the fluff on the Food Network. Chef John never shows you his kitchen, or even his face. He shows you the food in HD close-up, with each step of the process clearly shown. He never says “Here’s one I made earlier”; the dish you see at the end is the one he started off with. He doesn’t edit out his mistakes, in fact there are whole videos of his that are experiments gone wrong. Instead he tells you what he learned from the process and what you should do differently.
One of my favorite catch-phrases of his is “That’s just you cookin’” because he makes it clear where the process is precise and where you need to develop intuition through practice. He knows all of the gotchas and seems to anticipate every possible common mistake you could make.
For a long while it was the only cooking show I would watch. Food Network stuff always made me think “That looks nice… but when am I actually going to do that?” It felt like they were targeting people who were already good cooks.
But Food Wishes was something that I could understand even as a novice and it ended up fundamentally changing how I cook. I “season to taste” differently, I buy ingredients differently, I chop differently, I no longer rely on fixed cooking times. His techniques for French toast and hard-boiled eggs are now the only ones I use. His recipes for shakshuka and lemon bars are staples in our household.
Once you are comfortable with cooking, Chef John will quickly elevate you to a more serious level.
Step 4: Stop using your meal prep service
After doing Sunbasket almost every week for three years (remember I said this was expensive), I noticed a difference in how we talked about our Sunbasket meals. Rather than saying “This isn’t good”, we would say “I would’ve made this differently”. We started noticing certain recipes, or certain steps in recipes, where we would reliably deviate from the instructions because we knew we liked it a different way. We would incorporate techniques we saw on Food Wishes into our Sunbasket meals.
After maybe another year of that going on, I started escalating. After the cooking was done and we were enjoying the fruits of our labor I would ask my wife, “Do you think we could have made this, knowing only the list of the ingredients (no quantities), the name, and a picture of the end result?” In most cases she thought the answer was “yes”. So we took the plunge.
This is our new cooking process. Whenever we’re getting low on food at home, we log into our Sunbasket account and put our future deliveries on hold. Again, I’m not sure how other services work, but Sunbasket lets you skip deliveries up to a month out and they only charge you if you don’t skip. Then we look at the menu for what Sunbasket would have sent us next week and pick a few meals that we like. For each meal, I copy down a list of its ingredients into our shopping list (minus what we already have in stock, of course) and save the link to the recipe for later. Crucially, Sunbasket recipes often come with a sauce or dressing pre-made, but they still tell you the ingredients (without quantities) so we can add those to our shopping list too.
After we go shopping, the process is fairly similar to Sunbasket proper. We pull up the recipe, get out all of the ingredients, and get to work. The main difference is that we use the recipe a lot less. We try to discuss the dish ahead of time and agree on a general approach to take, only using the recipe for help if we’re unsure. There’s no shame in looking up how to do something, but I think by distancing ourselves from instructions we can develop better intutition through trial and error. This has worked out very well for us so far.
The key benefit this retains from using a service is that the meal selection process is very simple. I still get anxious trying to plan out meals with no assistance. Like, which meals from the infinite selection of possible meals do I want to make this week? By looking at our hypothetical Sunbasket delivery, we get three vegetarian meals chosen automatically. If we don’t like how they look, Sunbasket has 2-3 other vegetarian meals to choose from plus a dozen others involving meat that can usually be adapted. Pre-Sunbasket when we tried to cook on our own we often fell into a pattern of making the same meals over and over, but now we still get Sunbasket’s variety.
The differences from Sunbasket are mostly positive:
- Now that we buy our own ingredients, we naturally buy and cook in bulk, which means we get more leftovers
- Since we control which ingredients we buy, we can also take our own
preferences and pantry into account
- Three different recipes call for three different kinds of greens? Screw it. Buy a big thing of spinach and use it for all three
- Got leftover broth from last week? Let’s choose a meal involving rice and turn it into Chef John’s oven fried rice
- Got leftover Asian carrot slaw from those tofu burgers last week? Carrot slaw, meet this week’s salt-and-pepper tofu stir fry.
- We do make mistakes. You can see there’s quite a bit of excess cream sauce for the fettuccine, and I think the spice ratio for the curry was off (too much garam masala, not enough turmeric). But these aren’t deal-breakers and I think we learned from each of them
Because I’m a software engineer, I can’t help but imagine a service similar to Sunbasket that only helps with the planning part. It would give you a limited selection of interesting meals each week to spare you from decision paralysis. Ideally it would understand how to slightly modify a meal to take advantage of what you have in your pantry, or similar ingredients needed by other meals that week. Even better if it had a cloud-based shopping list app so my wife and I can coordinate ingredient acquisition easier.
I think such a service would be fantastic, but also quite difficult to make. So for now I’m perfectly happy doing things manually.