Secret Recipe

Many home cooks strive to be “good.” But how do you know when you’ve arrived?

A woman baking in the kitchen with her dog.
Photo by Thinkstock

When I started cooking for real, in the summer of 1998, I was working on a farm with a group of fellow college students. We needed to feed ourselves dinner every night, using the produce we pulled out of the ground that day plus the big bags of bulk staples we chipped in for every week. The experienced cooks partnered with the rookies, and we hoped for the best. My cooking buddy, who had been doing it for years, was patient with me, and I came to love the process. I heard him say things like “Cooks should be able to go into the fridge, pull out what’s in there, and make dinner” or “Recipes are for newbies,” and since I was new myself, it didn’t scare me. Surely one day all of this would become intuitive to me, too. In the meantime, I’d be his sous-chef, and learn.

I came back to school on a cooking high. I could do this! But my artist roommates, who already cooked, were much more free-form than I was—I remember one of them eating a tortilla with mustard spread on it, for a snack, which horrified me—and slowly, my sense that I was not a good cook if I wasn’t improvising grew. I began to berate myself: I spent too much on ingredients. I loved reading recipes. I was scared of trying new things. I was, I decided a few years in, a serviceable cook but not a brilliant one.

Over the intervening years, I’ve come to love cooking more and more. Multiday feast prep became my favorite holiday pastime; there was a five-year stretch where I made jars and jars of jams and preserves every summer; I cooked for our wedding rehearsal dinner and our post-wedding brunch. I was argued out of cooking for the wedding dinner proper, which was the right call.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about the past few years of my life as a cook has been an increased sense of flow: of ingredients, in and out of the freezer and pantry; of time, as the week goes by and the contents of the fridge bloat and deplete; of my motions as I cook, which have grown more and more self-assured, until my hands can do things without me thinking to direct them.

But I never passed the milestone of becoming a freewheeling improviser. Despite all of that joy, it was about 13 years before I could execute recipes I make often without looking at the text. (I’m up to about 10 or 12 of those.) It took me 15 years to be able to go to the farmers market without a list, pick out “what’s good,” and then make up a menu back at the house. I still don’t improvise, unless you count substituting golden raisins for dates when making whole-wheat date bread. When left with an awkward little group of ingredients, I go to Google, not my brain, to find a new recipe to use them up. I can taste for salt, but I’ve never added vinegar, lemon, or a spice or herb that wasn’t in the recipe to a finished dish in my life. Obviously, I know my way around a kitchen—but does this lack of spontaneity mean I’m still subpar? If you never intend to cook professionally, how do you know when you’ve become a “good cook”?

To find out, I asked friends and friends of friends who consider themselves moderately accomplished home cooks to help me define what it means to become “good.” I brainstormed some milestones, and asked the cooks to report when, in their cooking life, they attained them. Examples: “When were you able to shop without a meal plan?” “When did you start doing aggressive inventory management of your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer?” “When did you start being able to taste a dish and adjust for seasonings?” (Here’s the survey I devised, if you’d like to see it.)

Respondents whose families taught them to cook early on were most likely to have passed the intuition-related milestones within a few years of starting. “I learned to cook from women in my family who rarely had recipes and often ‘made it up,’ ” one person replied in response to my “How long until you cooked without a recipe?” question. “From the beginning, it’s the way I learnt,” one person said. The same goes for the question of feeling confident tasting a dish and adjusting for salt and acid. “I learned to do this from my dad, who taught me to make deviled eggs. Finishing the filling was a huge deal in my house,” one person replied. Perhaps this has been part of my problem—I baked as a youngster, and we did plenty of other chores, but my parents always handled the cooking.

Mention of the things I’ve come to pride myself on the most—inventory management and organization—seemed to provoke hilarity in some of my respondents. “Next week,” one replied in response to my question about when they got good at pantry management, while another simply wrote “WOW Nope.” People also argued over whether you need to be a thrifty cook—cleaning out the fridge often, saving scraps and cuttings to make new dishes, never throwing out old lettuce because you forgot it was there—in order to qualify as a good one.

A friend who worked with me on that farm 20 years ago wrote in an email: “I have developed a strong sense of wasting no food. Like, zero waste policy. Even feeding scraps to chickens feels like a bit of defeat.” A respondent to the survey added: “I LOVE that you’ve included efficient use of scraps and ingredients. This is an under-appreciated skill, and why I would never be interested in a pre-portioned service like Blue Apron (that theoretically have no scraps). My mantra is the 1830 quote from author Lydia Maria Child: ‘The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing be lost.’ ”

But another respondent had anecdotal evidence to the contrary—“Waste depends on other things. My dad was a great cook, but he wasted a lot of food and didn’t care”—and a third used history against me: “Inventory management makes you a good home economist, but just look at Eleanor Roosevelt: Household management does not necessarily make for tasty meals.” Burned!

Another important point: It’s quite possible to get really good at certain aspects of home cooking and then regress. That’s because we don’t do it in a vacuum. “I feel like my skills (and joy) in being a home cook have declined since becoming a parent,” one person replied to my survey. “Now it’s about speed and adaptability and, frankly, the whims of my kids, not a fun, long cooking project (which is how I used to approach things).” Others, however, said having kids made them less wasteful and helped them figure out how to menu plan better.

One of my favorite additions to my list of milestones came in an email from my father, an excellent home cook, who, unlike me, isn’t bound to recipes. (He really came into his own after we left home and he retired, which explains why I never learned it from him.) He mentioned a practice I hadn’t considered: self-critique. “It’s exactly like learning to write. For some reason most people can’t tolerate criticism of their writing,” he wrote.

Same with their cooking. I feel you’ll never get better if you can’t sit there with other people and critique. Too much oil. Don’t let it bake so long. Little more salt. Didn’t need the bacon bits. Too many ingredients calling for attention. It’s just dumb to sit there and not plan to improve a dish. Or, if it comes to that, to agree it’s a dish not worth the effort in the future.

A survey respondent echoed my dad’s observation by proposing “When were you able to call something you made ‘inedible,’ without shame?” as an additional milestone to add to my list. Here’s another way in which personality, and the culture we grow up in, affects the kinds of cooks we become. I’ve unconsciously adopted my family’s dish-critiquing practice in the past decade, and it can be difficult to convince people at the table that I actually want feedback, and am not just fishing for compliments. Who knew that being thick-skinned would be part of cooking?

I’ve come to believe that being “good” at home cooking is both more complicated, and far more forgiving, than noncooks may think. Presuming that people who cook a lot would like more people to cook at home (yay dinner party reciprocity!), I wonder what we can do to enhance transparency about this reality. For people like me whose families didn’t teach them young, the parts of cooking that make it such an interesting multilevel brain exercise—pantry management, menu planning, equipment maintenance, the storage requirements of fruit, vegetables, and meat—can seem inscrutable and overwhelming. I do wish we still had good home-ec classes, but failing that, one takeaway from this experiment is that I’d like more food writing to emphasize process.

I asked Merrill Stubbs, who co-founded Food52, about the home cook’s learning curve, and she pointed out the management bits of cooking aren’t often to be found in recipes. “Take something like cleaning while you cook,” which Stubbs, who went to culinary school, reported is “drilled into your head” if you are trained professionally. “You’re just going to feel more calm and organized if you clean as you go, rather than facing a pile of dishes at the end of the night after you’ve done all the work. People complain about it, but no one really talks about the strategy to combat that,” Stubbs said. “Because it’s not that cool. You don’t see it in a recipe. It doesn’t say, like, ‘Chop your vegetables and then wash your cutting board because you’re going to need it again in a few minutes.’ ”

Some of my favorite food writing is now about the process of home cooking: Tamar Adler’s intimidating, beautiful book An Everlasting Meal, which emphasizes the continuous flow of home cooking and makes waste reduction into a fetish; Stubbs and Amanda Hesser’s cookbook A New Way to Dinner, which talks you through menu planning and explains how to chunk out cooking tasks to be done on the weekend to make your week easier; Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion’s Keepers, which will tell you which pans to have and which types of canned tomatoes to keep in stock.

More than anything, I think we need to banish the idea that you “become a good cook” at some magical moment, and that’s that. There are all kinds of ways to do it. “Even before I had any idea what I was doing, I was always one to improvise; that’s my personality,” one respondent wrote. “By the same token, not all ‘accomplished’ cooks are comfortable with improvisation, and follow recipes meticulously. These are just two different styles, like Glenn Gould vs. Fats Waller.” I love this idea, though even this taxonomy is a little too definitive for me. I think you can float back and forth—Gould one decade and Waller the next—as your circumstances change and you gain and shed competencies and affinities. If we talked more about how digressive the journey can be, would more people cook more often? I’m all for it.