Salvation for Bad Cooks


It's the secret shame they agonize over everyday.

If they cook vermicelli, the strands fuse together in gluey hanks of starch. If they make salad from unpackaged greens, grit clings to the leaves. The bottoms of their cookies blacken, and unmixed clumps of baking soda leave little bursts of salt-and-aluminum flavor in their muffins.

They're just plain bad cooks. Most of us know someone like them; some of us are someone like them.

"I'm just not a good cook. I put things together and they turn to dust," confesses one women. "My poor children," she adds sadly. "They really are spindly, and for good reason."

To avoid bringing disgrace to her family--especially because she lives in food-worshiping Berkeley--the woman will admit to suffering from culinary impairment only if she isn't identified.

She recently tried a recipe for Thai sesame chicken salad, which she got from a friend who'd bowled over guests at a buffet luncheon with the dish. "When I made it, it was just utterly stodgy," she recalls. "It was like English boarding-school food."

She has bad luck with baking, too. Not long ago, she and her two school-age daughters made Swedish spice cookies from a magazine recipe. "We spent hours trying to cut them into little shapes. When they came out of the oven, they were like plaster. We had a massive ant invasion at the time, and the ants were eating everything in sight, but they literally would not touch those cookies."

Can this woman's cooking be saved?

Expert chefs say there's hope. It's true that some cooks can blithely improvise recipes, casually estimate quantities and trust to instinct. Those suffering from culinary impairment need to face the fact that they can't cook that way. But if they give extra attention to their cuisine, they can escape the mortification of watching hungry dinner guests pick at the entree.

"There are two major ways people can improve their cooking," says Harvey Steiman, a San Francisco food writer and broadcaster. "One is to find good recipes and follow them slavishly. The other is to learn the basics thoroughly, and then you can improvise." But the first option is much more practical for impaired cooks, who may not be eager to spend time studying a subject they've never had much luck with.

Bad cooks often share similar kitchen foibles: They tend to be busy and distracted. They may be oblivious to some of the techniques and ingredients that skilled cooks swear by--probably because they don't pay enough attention to either cooking or shopping. And often they've picked up habits that are part of the mythology of "efficient" homemaking: Do all your marketing in one weekly trip. Never throw anything away. Buy cheap ingredients. Waste not, want not.

The family intimidating lore about Grandma, who back in '43 could turn a cut of horse meat and the last of the month's lard ration into a family feast, looms over every meal they turn out.

But bad cooks can learn new habits. Here are eight tips that can help them avoid kitchen humiliation.

1. Be scrupulous about cooking times and temperatures. Don't rely on instinct. Get a good timer you can clip to your clothing and an oven thermometer; home oven thermostats are often way off.

Timing is something the woman who's a self-confessed bad cook despairs of getting right. "You can miss that magic moment, and the food just gets utterly wrecked," she says with a sigh. But paying closer attention and remembering to set the timer can solve that problem.

As for temperature problems, "Much of the time the pot is too hot and the food burns," says Herve Le Biazant, executive sous-chef at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. Making sure the flame isn't too high and letting the pot heat only briefly can head off that disaster.

Le Biazant finds poultry more forgiving of bad timing than beef, veal or fish. It can be cooked a few extra minutes without much damage, though it's unsafe undercooked, he notes.

2. Give your cooking your full attention. If you're too busy that day, stick a Boboli in the oven and save the new recipe for a day when you have time.

And don't let distractions wreck dinner. "It's better to turn off the stove or move your pot off the burner than to answer the phone, try to carry on a conversation and cook at the same time," advises Judith Ets-Hokin, owner of the HomeChef cooking schools and gourmet stores in the San Francisco Bay area.

3. Clean out the pantry regularly and toss out the old stuff: dusty spices, rancid oil and peanut butter, rock-hard brown sugar, buggy flour, stale grains. Whole grains like brown rice and whole-wheat flour have much shorter shelf lives than white rice or flour; keeping them in the refrigerator makes a big difference.

Many cooks have trouble allowing themselves to throw things away. Nobody recommends needless waste, but it helps to remember that if the ingredient wrecks the recipe, it's wasted anyway. So are the time, effort and other ingredients that went into it.

4. Do as the Europeans do and shop for produce and bread every day whenever possible. Fresh fruit, vegetables and bread can make a meal. This is where the quaint advice to do the whole week's shopping at once falls apart, because it was aimed at the '50s homemaker who served such products as frozen vegetables and preservative-laden bread.

5. Splurge on quality ingredients if you can afford to. "You don't save any money by using cheap ingredients, because you're going to make something nobody's going to want to eat," says Steiman.

The most inept cook can whisk extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar, perhaps with a touch of Dijon mustard, into a fine salad dressing.

Parmigiano-Reggiano--the best Parmesan, sold in chunks in the cheese section--may cost a lot more than the gritty stuff in the shiny green can, but it'll transform pasta. Real butter and genuine vanilla vastly improve baked goods. Many cooks swear by unsalted butter and some go to gourmet stores for European-style butter.

Quality accompaniments help a lot, too. Fine wine, good hearth breads if you can get them, gourmet ice cream or sorbet turn a meal into a feast. If you can take the time to stop at a first-rate produce shop, at least for special meals, it'll pay off. But the local supermarket offers helpful options too, such as bagged pre-washed spinach and mixed baby salad greens.

6. Keep your kitchen clean and follow rules for food safety. "Keep it hot or keep it cold," says Ets-Hokin. "Do not leave food on the counter to cool off. Refrigerate it as soon as possible." And, she adds, "don't try to save moldy food by removing the mold and using the rest. Throw it out."

Veteran cooks sometimes need to be updated on the handling of meat, poultry and eggs, because contamination with salmonella and other organisms has become much more common in recent years. It causes illness that's miserable for anyone and can be deadly for the elderly, the very young and people with compromised immune systems. Follow the instructions on the meat packaging: Thoroughly wash anything that comes in contact with the raw meat or its juice. And make sure meat and poultry are cooked all the way through.

The increased contamination of eggs has required cooks to change other habits, too. It's no longer safe to let eggs sit out to warm up to room temperature, as was the standard advice 20 years ago. Any consumption of raw eggs--including eggnog and those protein blender drinks popular in the '70s--is risky.

7. Work up a few good recipes you can prepare well. "Learn to do one simple but good dish," recommends Le Biazant of the California Culinary Academy. Ideally, "do it two or three times with somebody next to you."

"The first step is to scope out good recipes," adds Steiman. "Not all recipes are created equal. Before you go through the process of following every step in the recipe, you want to scope out which ones are good. Look for directions that tell you how the food should look and feel at every stage. And taste, taste, taste as you cook."

Then follow the recipe. Don't substitute or improvise--at least until you're very familiar with the dish.

8. Keep it simple. Plan meals around only one dish that requires a recipe. A salad, a fresh vegetable, excellent bread and good ice cream with fruit slices will round out a meal and keep the cook from getting frantic trying to focus on several complicated things at once. An electric rice cooker makes life much easier if the entree is the "serve over rice" variety.

Especially for company meals, try to prepare a dish that doesn't demand last-minute attention. No guest has ever been impressed by a frenzied hostess who's trying to concentrate on measuring or thickening. And no guest will fault a hostess whose sole last-minute responsibility consists of serenely removing dinner from the oven and putting it on the table.

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