YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

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.

Los Angeles Times Articles