In a word, "No!"
I think this is an important question because it seems to be what stops a lot of people from cooking. "Oh, I'm not any good at cooking!"
Well, I'm not any good at carpentry either. Why not? Because I've never had an opportunity to do it seriously, never learned the basic principles, don't know the tools, and never had any practice at it. If my Dad had been a contractor instead of a chemist, it's 99.9% certain that I'd be what most people consider a "good carpenter," because I would have had the opportunities and the practice.
It's the same with cooking. Not everyone who picks up a hammer and a saw will become a master cabinetmaker, and not everyone who picks up a ladle will become Julia Child. However, virtually everyone who spends some time in a kitchen, takes it seriously, works at learning, and pays attention to what happens and why will become what most people think of as a "good cook."
A lot of it just comes from repitition — the most overlooked aspect of human learning. I made a pork dish the other day, and my wife noticed that the degree of browning on the chops was absolutely perfect for the dish. Why did I do it that way? Well, the truth was, I hadn't consciously thought about it. But when asked to explain, I said that I'd browned a lot of pork chops for various recipes, made them with various toppings and sauces, and thought that a strong, heavy browned taste would clash with the aromatic breading, so I did a fairly light browning.
I didn't know how to do it that way because I'm a culinary genius. I knew because I've spent a lot of time in the kitchen and payed attention — and browned a heck of a lot of meat. You do have to think and analyze: what was right about this dish? what could have been better? what would you like to try next time you make it?
If you've never cooked at all (or at least never cooked anything that didn't come out of a can), a great starting point is Elaine Corn's "Now You're Cooking" (see list of books below). Go for it!
Parts of this website are 15 years old, which is ancient for the web, but now and then I get an email or two so I know at least some people read it. My WELL email address is mcdee. When I wrote most of this page, I'd been a home cook for about 10 years. Now it's been over 20 years. Here are a few things I've learned in the last few years...
I have a friend who can open the fridge, look at what she's got, and come up with a delicious meal on the spot. She is an improviser. I couldn't do that to save my life. I am a recipe-follower (but not quite so much as I used to be - more in a minute).
At the other extreme are bakers. Baking is like doing a chemistry experiment. The ingredients must be highly uniform, precisely measured, and subjected to precisely monitored steps, and the aim is a complex result which will always turn out exactly the same. God bless bakers, but while I can do that up to a point, it just seems like drudgery to me. I'm not a baker at heart.
I always used to feel inferior to both bakers and improvisers, until I realized that everyone's different and the joy you (and your fellow eaters) take out of cooking really must come from your own talents and interests. As an experienced recipe fan, I have an almost freakish ability to flip through a cookbook with 200 recipes and find the 3 best ones - and then figure out how to improve them.
I now know why family heirloom recipes are so often disappointing. "This is OK, but it just doesn't taste like it did when grandma made it."
Here's the reason: because an experienced cook does dozens of small things that make the difference between good and great which they probably won't write down in a recipe because they don't even think about them, and also because it would make the recipe 5 pages long.
Here's some free advice: If you really want to know how to make Aunt Hildy's potato salad and she's still living, make it with her shoulder to shoulder a few times and figure out what she's *really* doing. She's done it so many times she doesn't even think about all the little adjustments and special tricks she uses to make it so great.
Here's how I'm not quite so much of a follower as I used to be. First, I can look at a recipe with potential and realize that a certain step or the proportions of a particular ingredient, are just wrong - or a huge waste of time. Also, you come to realize that recipes are just templates. For example, for years I tried to replicate a family heirloom chicken casserole - sherry, sour cream, and the famous Campbell's cream of mushroom soup - only with fresh ingredients. I finally concluded that without the, er, unusual chemicals they put in condensed Campbell's soup, it was just never going to work. The result was going to be pretty good tasting chicken in an ugly looking "broken" (curdled) sauce.
A couple of years ago, I came across a fairly bizarre-sounding recipe for making chicken with a pesto-cream sauce on the stovetop. Brown the chicken, soften up some vegetables, add chicken broth, cream, and (blech) pesto. I love pesto on pasta, but the idea of creamy green basil-flavored chicken sounded like a St. Patrick's Day joke. But then I thought: brown chicken, set aside, brown mushrooms, add broth, sherry, and cream, reduce the sauce, and add the chicken back to warm it up. That's Aunt Peg's casserole on the stove top in 30 minutes! And indeed it was. In fact (sorry, Aunt Peg) it's actually better than hers was.
You cannot make good food without good ingredients. But unless you have a champagne budget and all the time in the world, it's good to think about which ingredients are most critical in a particular recipe. For example, if I'm making chicken soup, I will use homemade chicken broth, because the broth is really the star of the dish. A spicy Asian sauce? Broth out of a box - with all those spices you could use water instead of broth and nobody would know the difference.
I enjoy trying out new ingredients, and don't mind paying top-dollar when I have to - if you like to cook, a new ingredient is like opening a present. Among the things I have found consistently useful and important:
Like most Americans born in the 1950s, I grew up in something of a culinary desert. Ethnic food was pizza, or maybe hideous imitation Chinese food out of a can. Parmesan cheese came out of a round green foil cannister and tasted mainly of salt. People who ate things like whole grains were "health food nuts." Really - that's what we called them.
My grandmother was a good midwestern farm-style cook, but did not invite kitchen collaboration. My mother was of the era. She was (and still is) capable of making wonderful food, including the best fudge I've ever eaten, but did not enjoy cooking and pretty much went along with the convenience food zeitgeist of the late 50s and early 60s. I remember complaining bitterly about mashed potatoes out of a box — to no avail.
My first sense of something different came from TV cooking shows, especially Julia Child and Graham Kerr, "The Galloping Gourmet." I briefly became enthusiastic about cooking, learned a few recipes, and even once spent 12 hours making about the best French bread one could make with all-purpose flour, lining the oven with quarry tiles.
Then I hit adolescence and depression, and any thoughts I had of culinary adventures slipped away. By the time I got to college, I had so little confidence in my kitchen abilities than when I lived in a shared rental, I offered to wash dishes every night (a chore I still don't mind) rather than face the anxiety of cooking for others.
What really revived my interest in food was living in San Francisco from 1977 to 1980. I had little money (imagine living in San Francisco today with little money!) and lived a somewhat chaotic existence, but at that time, at least, the cuisines of the world could be had for next to nothing in a wide variety of ethnic restaurants -- this was way before the dotcom boom, and a lot of San Francisco was still shabby and downscale.
I went nuts, and can still remember my favorite restaurants well. A little Vietnamese place on California that served incredible chicken, various dives in Chinatown, and a lamented place, long out of business, called "A Bit of Indonesia," which served the best dry coconut curried beef this side of paradise and was always mysteriously empty. I also remember the Buffalo natural food store across from Cala Market (still in business when I last visited a few years ago), where I made my first cautious forays into buying food to actually cook for myself — mostly weird improvished dishes like whole wheat spaghetti and tomato sauce topped with sunflower seeds sauteed in olive oil (not bad, believe it or not, at least by bachelor standards).
Then another long period of culinary slumber followed after I left San Francisco, although somewhere in there I actually made up my first recipe (for refried beans — still use it) and discovered that I had a knack for recognizing good recipes and working with food. The next time I lived in a shared rental, I was interested enough to volunteer to do all the shopping and came up with one or two dinner recipes that were much praised by housemates. I liked that.
But I remained a bachelor, mostly living alone or in situations without shared cooking.
When I got married, the first dish I made for my wife was one of my hideous (but not bad, really) bachelor concotions. She was absolutely apalled. It dawned on me that she expected me to cook something palatable to normal humans, not just bachelors. "Oh, I can do that," I assured her. She didn't believe a word of it, nor would I have in her place.
In the early years of our marriage, I cooked quite a bit, beginning with an absolutely wonderful book called "Now You're Cooking" by Elaine Corn. The book assumes you're a complete idiot in the kitchen — maybe you can recognize an egg, but that's about it. But it takes a friendly and helpful tone, and tells you everything you need to do, right down to listing the equipment and utensils required for each recipe and what to have ready when .
I now realize that one of the reasons the book worked so well is that Corn had serious training, and everything in it is based on real culinary techniques, including the all-important skill of mies en place — having things properly prepared and well-organized and laid out as opposed to "Oh no, now I have to dice 4 onions and the bacon is smoking!"
Anyway, Corn gave me some marriage-saving breathing room, since I was instantly able to produce high-quality meals, which both surprised and pleased my wife. I branched out to a few more cookbooks with more advanced recipes, and started thinking rather highly of my skills, although in truth I was still a blunderer.
Food was pretty good, though. I could still pick a good recipe and follow it. And to return to my theme above -- that's all you really need to be able to do to meet most people's definition of "a pretty good cook."
Then a friend of mine, now deceased -- and thank you Andy, wherever you are -- gave me a gift subscription to Cook's Illustrated. I now sometimes laugh at CI for its Yankee stodginess, but thank God for CI. Not only do their recipes always work, period, but they almost shame an intermediate cook into trying new techniques: "We tried 47 different ways of making this recipe, and here's what worked best!"
Who can say no to that?
Their offshoot empires America's Test Kitchen and Cook's Country follow the same approach and are equally reliable. Cook's country is especially good for “Americana” stuff.
All three branches of the empire tend to sell you the same (or similar) recipes over and over in different formats. The magazines are fun to read, but your best buy is to get their giant cookbooks, which compile recipes from the magazines.
The next big change came when my daughter went to school and my wife went back to work full-time. I'd sort of been making "gourmet" meals on the weekend as a half-fast hobby, which seemed like a good deal to a stay-at-home mom. But suddenly, putting food on the table M-F was the challenge and while a wonderful woman, my wife is not a planner in the kitchen. It would be exaggerating to say every weeknight meal involved a crisis (and my wife would smack me if I did). Let's just say peace and tranquility did not always reign in the kitchen. If a dish had n ingredients, the actual number present was often n -1.
To help out, I started making bigger recipes on the weekends to give us good leftovers during the week. Better. I even made some things to freeze. That worked
Then a few years ago, a friend with a bit more dinero that I have hired a personal chef who came in once every 2 weeks and made a huge batch of food all at once, freezing everything in dinner-sized batches. Great idea, but we couldn't dream of affording it. So I thought of hiring that chef to give me lessons. I nixed that idea when I heard from my daughter that actually, the chef's food wasn't really all that good. I tried some. She was right. It was ok, but not as good as mine. I guess that built up my confidence and I decided just to bull ahead and figure out how to do it myself.
Nothing to it, really. Most stuff freezes ok, and if it doesn't you scratch it off your freezer recipe list. Recipes with lots of dairy are not good candidates. You need a good-sized freezer and it has to be cold if you want to store things for more than a month or two (I keep mine at -10 F). Chest freezers are more energy efficient, but I shudder to think about what it's like to have 2 months worth of frozen food in a chest and try to find anything, so I use an upright freezer. You need lots and lots and lots of glass containers in a few standard sizes so they nest when empty and don't take over the kitchen. And you need to label everything, always. I use masking tape and a Sharpie. You think you're going to remember that thing you just spent 3 hours cooking. But when you go into the freezer a couple months from now, trust me, you won't. It'll be "what's this red stuff?"
And you also have to shop carefully, from a list, ideally with the recipes you're going to make written at the top of the list ("Now let's see, what did I buy these leeks for?"). And you have to take great care with mise en place because as long as you're cooking to freeze, you might as well cook 2 or 3 things at once (I've tried 4 a few times, but that gets a little annoying). It's not quite like being a professional cook, but having 2 or 3 things going at the same time is not exactly like being a home cook either. You're not working at a leisurely pace, occasionally pausing for a sip of wine or to stare out the window. You're working! The more organized and professional you get, the better it will go. And yes, while my car trunk looks like a rolling trash bin, as a matter of fact, all the labels on my pantry shelving do face front! That way I can see at a glance exactly what I've got in stock.
Cooking this way is hard, hot work, sometimes for 6 or 8 hours at a stretch, and you start to pick up a "lite" version of the habits and hazards of a professional cook. You get a bit testy with unfocused helpers, you start to see the value of some fairly specialized equipment (do not believe anyone who says you should skim stock with a slotted spoon — go get a stock skimmer!)... and people who look at your hands closely will notice that you always seem to have a few healing cuts and burns. You will probably pick up an oven-proof sautee pan that just came out of the oven with your bare hands — once. You will learn every strength and weakness of the local grocery stores, find a good butcher (they do exist in supermarkets, and often enjoy talking to people who want something interesting and want to learn), and hunt down ethnic stores and mail-order places for exotic ingredients. You will buy strange items in bulk.
You will learn to clean-up as you go (my strong preference), find someone to help you clean up, or you'll lose your mind. You really really really do not want to cook for 6 hours and then face 2 hours of cleaning up — trust me on this. And besides, all that mess in the kitchen will make it hard to work and hard to think.
I am really fanatical about this. My aim is that when the last container goes in the freezer, the kitchen should look as if it hasn't been used. As I tell my daughter when she helps me out, "if you're not doing anything, look for something to clean."
You'll also find yourself buying a lot of pots and pans and wish you had one of those commercial cooktops like all the rich folks who never use them. Quit whining.
And if you're like me, you'll start to get drawn into the lore of cooking. You aren't a chef, but your no longer quite a civilian either. A word about that. I love to read books by and about chefs. I always learn things. But I do not have the aggressiveness, competitiveness, love of action, or the youth and stamina required to go pro. If you do, this kind of cooking would be a good springboard (but you should really get yourself into a professional kitchen ASAP). If going pro does not sound like you, smile politely and say "thanks" when people tell you that you really should open a restaurant. What they mean is that your cooking is now so good they would gladly pay for it in a restaurant. Congrats. But don't let it go to your head. Keep pushing.
Learning to cook is like studying the history of WW II. It's so vast a subject that every step you climb up opens whole new vistas of things you don't know. And in fact, that's one of the things I like best about it. You'll never get bored, and it both stokes your ego and builds your humility. I love cooking and in my way I take great pride in the quality of my food, but there's always so much more to learn. It's a boundless sphere of knowledge, and you get to eat as you learn. Not bad.
Since I wrote the passage above, I've realized that you don't have to eat exclusively out of a freezer to make this approach work (although actually, we are having something from the freezer tonight). Many dishes can be made ahead and simply left in the fridge until later in the week. It's a little like picking things for freezing -- not everything works as an instant leftover. Most soups and stews do, though. A lot of Indian dishes work very well. Some are even better a day or two after they're made. And I've also developed a list of recipes that can be easily "pre-made." For example, there's a chicken stir-fry from Charmaine Solomon's cookbook (see below) for which I measure out the spices, mix the coating, and prepare the sauce. When it comes time to cook it, all I have to do is cut up the chicken, drag it in the coating, and go.
Ok, enough of this philosophizing — how about some useful tips?
One of the best teachers I ever had gave me a saying I have been driving people crazy with for years:
“An amateur sometimes remembers, but a professional writes it down!”
My kitchen notebook is the most important book in the house. It contains a list of favorite recipes (only things the family really loves as “classics” make the list), notes on how particular recipes turned out, some recipes copied out to I can read them more easily as I cook, and other things like a list of spices I need the next time I go to the Penzey's store. I use my notebook all the time. Every Friday when I plan menus, the list of “classics” is my first stop. Sometimes after doing something new or interesting, I'll write a two or three pages of notes and thoughts. Other times I'll just scrawl a quick note about a favorite recipe or jot down a list of recipes I want to make in the future.
Get a kitchen notebook. And get a decent one -- a nice bound book. That's a lesson I learned long ago as a database administrator -- if you buy a nice bound book, you will take what you put in it a little more seriously. Which ain't to say that you have to spend big bux on it, though if bux you have, go ahead. My notebook came from a great place called Lee Valley and cost about $10. It's plain looking, but sturdy, nice, and bound very well.
There are a lot of companies that make decent cookware, but I'm partial to All-Clad. All-Clad pans are incredibly sturdy, easy to clean, and distribute heat extremely well due to their metal "sandwich" construction. All-Clad is expensive, but it does go on sale. If you're willing to wait and pick up pieces over time, you can get a good set at a reasonable (though still substantial) price. Don't get non-stick, the stainless steel surface of the regular line cleans up great (more on that in a minute).
All-Clad was playing around with a cheap line made in China that you sometimes see in outlet stores -- don't get that stuff, get their regular stuff. If it looks big and massive and rugged, it's the regular stuff.
They have a bunch of different lines. I hear from a friend with more bucks than I that the kind with the copper layer in the middle works great, but I just have their cheaper "Master Chef" line, now re-named the MC2. If you have money for only one pan, the one to start with is one of their saute pans - like a frying pan, but with high straight sides. You can fry in it, you can make sauces in it, you can even make reasonable sized batches of soups and stews in it. I have a pretty big collection of pans and use them all, but I probably use a saute pan for 75% of my cookng.
And to clean up those stainless steel interiors shiny and new-looking, what you want is Barkeepers Friend - their slogan is “Once Tried, Always Used” and they're right.
The one thing All-Clad doesn't make, strangely enough, is a real stockpot. You should buy their so-called stockpot, because it's a very nice Dutch oven, but real stockpots are tall and narrow and have much higher capacity. I have their medium-sized stockpot and their big stockpot and filled both to the brim when trying to make a very modest batch of stock. In truth, stock is just a soup cooked at very low temperatures and a cheap lobster pot would probably be fine. My "stockpot" was originally one of those "deep fat fry a turkey" pots (nope, never tried that).
If you do serious cooking, non-stick is probably not going to be your everyday cookware. Serious cooking is all about building flavor. Non-stick cookware doesn't brown food well and browning is a key to building flavor. However, I still use non-stick for extra-sticky things like eggs and pancakes (I might use cast iron instead, but I can't because I have a ceramic cooktop). I gotta say that my experience with All-Clad non-stick has not been that great, nor am I convinced that you need to spend All-Clad money to fry an egg. Get something cheap but good. T-Fal's line which is made in France - not the Chinese stuff - is my current favorite. Cuisinart also makes some nice stuff. Look for construction quality - sturdy handles, tight-fitting lids, and flat bottoms. There's a lot of junk out there, and the good stuff doesn't necessarily cost much more than the junk.
I'm not a knife expert, but after a few years of playing with sharp objects, I'm at the point where I can give you some pretty good general advice.
First, unless you just love to burn money, do not go out and buy one of those giant knife sets. You'll get a bunch of knives you rarely use, and way too many knives to keep sharp. I would start with a chef's knife (aka a cook's knife) and get an absolutely top-quality knife. Make sure it fits your hand properly and that it just feels right. Different people like different knives, depending on strength, the size of their hands, and just, well, taste. I use a 6" chef's knife for small tasks (I sorta stole it from my wife, who has small hands). I go for an 8" for bigger tasks. Most kitchens should probably have both. If you have really big hands, you may find a 6-inch knife puny, in which case go for an 8" and a 10". You will also want a small paring knife.
Believe it or not, unless you're doing something really weird, like boning sturgeon, you can probably get by with an 8" chef's and a paring knife for quite a while. And because you will always wash, dry, and put away your knives after using them, you won't need 3 or 4 of each size, right?
Good knives cost a bundle (you can expect to pay at least $80 to $100 for a good chef's knife, and you can spend a lot more), but most cheap knives are just worthless and dangerous. Which sort of circles back to my comment about those big knife sets. You would always be better off buying one really good chef's knife and one really good paring knife than one of those big sets, which often feature middling-quality knives even when they carry a famous name - Heinkel is particularly notorious.
If you're starting out on the budget, Forschner/Victorinox knives (same company, they can't quite seem to decide about the brand) are a great place to begin - they make a pretty darn good chef's knife for about $30. Really - no kidding.
You can spend a lot more, but it's worth taking some time to figure out what you like before splashing out the big bucks. For what it's worth, I use Wusthoff knives for stuff requiring serious blade strength (for example: cutting parmesan cheese) and Japanese Shun brand knives for most other stuff (say, dicing an onion). My go-to paring knife is also Japanese, made by Global. Japanese knives are made with harder steel and have a sharper, longer-lasting edge, but the downside is when you need to have them sharpened, you need someone who knows how to sharpen Japanese knives. Speaking of which...
As for keeping the suckers sharp, which is very important, I've tried several things. I got a knife sharpening kit from a place called the Razor's Edge which actually works really well, but I find knife sharpening really tedious. I'd rather cook than mess around with sharpening stones. I next tried having my knives sharpened at the kitchen store Sur La Table. I like Sur La Table just fine as a cooking store, but I was not so impressed with their sharpening. They use a Chef's Choice machine, which gives an ok (but not great) edge, but takes off way more metal than I'd like. Plus why take it there when I could just buy a machine? A monkey could use a Chef's Choice. More recently, I had a friend sharpen my knives on a Tormek wet grinding wheel. I was extremely impressed. There was a bit of a knack to using it, but for the first time I was really satisfied with the edge on my knives.
But do I really want to learn to sharpen like a pro? No. It's one of those craft activities you either enjoy or you don't. I found a local cooking store that does a great job with knives and now and then I stop by and leave my knives with them.
I do get a lot of extra mileage out of a sharpening by not abusing knives. I use a sharpening steel to straight out the edge (anyplace that sells them will be happy to show you how.) Knives get cleaned, dried and put away immediately. They don't get stuck in the dish drainer or the sink. And yes, you must train your entire household to do the same, and they'll whine and complain about it, and they will always insist that they were just about to clean that knife and put it away. Don't believe them! They're lying!
More seriously, if you're in a situation like a shared rental where you really can't control what other people do with the kitchen equipment, buy a knife case and put your knives somewhere hard-to-find when you're not using them. Others may think you odd, but it will prevent more hard feelings than it causes. Sharp knives are not optional, they are mandatory.
For what it's worth, the old saying about a dull knife being more dangerous than a sharp one is true. A dull knife is much more likely to make you press too hard or saw at your cut and make mistakes. This can make your blade jump off (or suddenly go through) what you're cutting and into something you don't want it to cut, like your fingers. But don't kid yourself -- sharp knives are plenty dangerous too. If you cook, you will cut yourself. But if you learn how to use a knife well, you will probably not remove any major appendages.
For safety and efficiency, it is worth learning how to cut stuff the right way. I'm not a neat freak who must have absolutely uniform diced carrots, so my learning has been sort of hit and miss. The smart thing to do would be to take a course, or at least a class, but I'm busy and don't have a lot of money to throw around. However, thanks to my friend Ned "Nedly" Wall, I recently found a really nice book called "Knife Skills Illustrated" by Peter Hertzmann. Very well organized, great illustrations, comprehensive without being insane, and it (amazingly) features complete directions and illustrations for left-handers as well as righties. Whenever I find myself thinking "what's the correct way to do this?" I grab the book and look at the illustrations and slowly I'm learning more. Learning the correct way to peel an onion was very handy with red onions, which don't give up their skins very easily. That tip alone was worth the price of the book, and I feel very chefly standing there and doing it the right way.
If cut you must and your skills are a little shakey, just ask yourself the eternal question: "If this blade slips, where is it going to go?" If the answer is "Into my hand!" change your method.
Oh, and as an extra little bonus, here's the correct way to carry your knife when you have to walk around the kitchen with it. Extend your arm fully down and slightly out from your side, hold the knife with the flat side facing your thigh, and grip the handle so the edge of the blade is facing back (this is a lot more natural to do than it is to describe). That way if the knife falls, it will hit the floor instead of your foot, and distracted people running around the kitchen won't impale themselves.
And while it's usually great to try to catch falling things in a kitchen, do not try to catch a falling knife!
As noted above, you gotta use good spices. In fact, good ingredients are one of the secrets to good cooking generally. But if you do a lot of non-European cooking, especially, your food will really suffer if you're using spices that weren't very good to begin with and have been sitting around for a couple of years. I actually find McCormick brand spices are often pretty good as long as they aren't years old, but mostly I buy stuff from Penzeys. Their prices are reasonable (for a lot of stuff much less than you'd pay in a supermarket) and you can really count on their quality. If you make a lot of true exotica, there are other spice vendors who have much bigger selections, but Penzeys is getting better about that, and like I said, you can really count on their quality. Since pepper is far and away the most commonly used spice in most kitchens, treat yourself to their top grade.
Ok, I'm not sure I really need to write a section on pepper, but since it took me a while to figure out how to get entirely happy with my pepper circumstances, let me give you the benefit of my vast learning. You want a Magnum Peppermill. You can spend a lot more money, but you can't get a better peppermill.
You know how every peppermill you've ever used has an adjustment for fine or coarse grind and it never ever works? The adjustment on this one does. And it's easy to fill and grinds pepper very fast. If size matters to you, knock yourself out and get the "Magnum Plus" — same mechanism, even bigger storage.
And while the Magnum is easy to fill compared to those horrible ones where you have to unscrew the handle and pour the pepper in through the top, what you really want is a nice wide-mouth funnel that fits perfectly into the Magnum's loading gate like the yellow one in this set of three. The wonderful folks at the Baker's Catalogue know what they're doing -- the website copy mentions filling a peppermill. OK, I'll calm down, but after spending several years spilling peppercorns on the floor I'm thrilled. You'll also like the Baker's Catalogue, which is first-rate. OK, so what do you grind in your fancy peppermill? Why Penzeys Special Extra Bold Whole Black Pepper, of course!
Ok, you're now the king of pepper.
Like pepper, Parmesan Cheese is a kitchen staple. When I was a kid, it came in those green foil tubes. Ick. There is no substitute for the real deal. You need to buy Parmigiano-Reggiano from Italy, even though it costs a fortune (and the way the dollar is going, will soon cost a fortune and a half). I've tried some well-intentioned American attempts to make a good substitute, and while the price is right, the cheese is not.
I use a decent extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO, as they now say) for anything that needs a good flavorful oil and is not going to be heated to a very high temperature. EVOO breaks down and smokes at a relatively low temperature, forming bad-tasting and potentially not very good for you chemicals, so you don't want to use it to brown pork chops. I'm perfectly happy with Whole Foods' excellent "365" brand oil for an everyday EVOO. I get it in cans, because EVOO goes rancid pretty fast when exposed to light. I let my wife buy the ultra-fancy stuff we use for dipping bread, and she always finds something wonderful (and absurdly expensive).
As lovely as EVOO is, you don't want to cook with it - although many otherwise fine cookbooks for some reason insist that you should. All those lovely flavor compounds in EVOO just break down and burn if you cook at high temperature. And a lot of the “healthy oils” also form really nasty chemicals (as discussed above) if you use them for high-temperature cooking.
When you're going to push the temperature, my vote is for “pure” olive oil (Filipo Berrio is a nice brand) or if you are lucky enough to have a source, un-hydrogenated lard.
Buy "Muir Glen" canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, and tomato paste. Fabulously tasty, perfectly consistent, and organic. Whole Foods' store brand also seems really good (maybe it's Muir Glen with Whole Foods labels on it), but I'm sort of a Muir Glen loyalist. Really makes a big difference. With one caveat. For some reason, Americans like their tomatoes to never get really soft with cooking. Nearly all American brands add calcium chloride to their tomatoes so that the diced bits of diced tomatoes will not start to fall apart when cooked in a sauce. This seems completely nonsensical to me, so when I'm making an Italian sauce with tomatoes, I get a good Italian brand.
There are many kinds of stock, but making a good chicken stock will make a huge difference in your cooking, especially if you like to make soups. The whole subject of stock has been much mystified, and yes there are stock preparations that are fairly insane and involve broiling ox shinbones and such. But even the crazy hard stocks are just simple soups cooked at a low temperature for a long time. Hard stocks tend to be hard only because they involve large volumes of stuff (and believe me, water is heavy) and because the ingredients are hard to find (I don't think my local Safeway is going to have calf hooves).
The real challenge of making stock is just getting organized and getting the right equipment (technically speaking, it's a stock if made only with bones, and broth if made with meat or a combination of meat or bones). Make chicken broth. You'll love it. Every cook or cookbook has their own recipe, and yup, I've got mine. What makes mine a little different is that it gives you the whole procedure, smooth and easy. At the moment, it's about 5 pages of handwritten notes. Maybe this weekend.
And if you're not going to make your own just yet, go for Swanson's Natural or Organic — experts agree.
Those high-zoot "commercial" stoves are swell if you've got the bread (and the space), but I do cooking that knocks peoples' sox off with a very ordinary upper-middle quality GE electric range. Yup, no gas in our neighborhood, and I am sure not going to pay to run the pipeline. It is important to have a stove with working burners, an oven that heats evenly (electric is actually better for that), and a broiler that works, but you do not need a Viking or other super-expensive stove in order to cook well. In fact, most of those stoves are bought by rich nitwits who barely use them.
The fetish for owning a "commercial" stove is also foolish in other ways. For example, many true commercial stoves do not have a broiler. Or do not have any heat insulation. Or weigh half a ton. Or... If you are starting a restaurant, by all means get commercial equipment (which does not include Viking, by the way -- it's faux pro). If you're a home cook, save your money (unless you've got full access to Scrooge McDuck's vault). Surprisingly, as long as you've got a decent stove, this is one area where expensive equipment is a "nice to have" not a "must have."
One thing you need that doesn't cost a lot of money is lots of little stuff. Especially bowls to set stuff out in as you're preparing ingredients. This stuff should be sturdy, but it doesn't have to be expensive. I have a bunch of little Pyrex cups for spices, herbs, etc., perhaps a dozen small Pyrex bowls, half a dozen small pottery bowls, and a set of Mason Cash bowls for larger stuff — nicer than I really need, but they were a much-appreciated Christmas present. For the really cheap stuff like measuring spoons and measuring cups, my rule is to keep buying them until you never find yourself looking for one. I don't favor getting insanely expensive versions of such items. I have 6 or 8 sets of plastic measuring spoons which I got for $1.29 each at a local grocery store. If I got those "lifetime" stainless measuring spoons they sell for $12.95 a set in the culinary stores, I'd have $100 tied up in measuring spoons. Forget it! Some folks believe good cooks don't measure, and there are some things I don't measure, but I like reproducible results. Even when I deviate from the recipe, I'd like to know by how much. Helps me know what to do next time.
And while I'm not the biggest Rachel Ray fan, she's right about one thing -- it is handy to have a bowl to throw scraps in so you don't have to keep walking over to the garbage can or compost bucket every two minutes.
Another thing I'm really fanatical about is sanitation. Poisoning yourself and your whole family — not good. Takes the fun right out of cooking. You can get a culinary textbook in any library that will have a good chapter on this subject. Read it and do exactly what they say. And remember the first rule of sanitation: when in doubt, throw it out.
I strongly encourage you to read the advice of the pros, but I'll mention one common home cook's problem -- sticking a big tightly sealed container of something really hot into the fridge and figuring "ok, job done." Many hours later, the soup or whatever in the middle of that container may still be plenty warm enough to grow nasty bugs. My solution to this is to save some space in the freezer and stick my hot stuff uncovered in the freezer for a few minutes before putting it away (set a timer so you don't forget).
I also date everything, even leftovers, before it goes in the fridge. "Did I make this stuff on Monday or two weeks ago?" is not a good question to be asking yourself just before dinner. Like I said, I'm a little fanatical, but it's not a bad thing to be fanatical about.
On the other hand, don't take the joy out of food. I still make recipes with raw and under-cooked eggs (and I still sneak a few spoonfulls of raw cookie dough when I make chocolate chip cookies). My daughter and I did some internet research on the issue and calculated that if you ate a raw egg every day, you'd on average get salmonella once every 70 years. I'll chance it.
There are literally 10s of thousands of cookbooks on the market these days, so I'm not going to try for a comprehensive list of good cookbooks. But here are a few I've really enjoyed and used a lot over the last couple of years: good, reliable, tasty recipes and clear instructions.