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[November 22, 2012]
How millennials learn to cook
Nov 22, 2012 (Chicago Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- With college a few years in the rearview, my excuses for relying on Lean Cuisines started to dwindle. It was time to develop some cooking skills that didn't involve peeling back plastic film.
Sure, I could whip up a mean grilled cheese. Plus scrambled eggs, Jell-O, macaroni and cheese. But I wanted to learn how to treat my friends to a full meal -- a main dish, sides and a dessert -- without having to dial takeout.
I don't feel pressure to hop into the kitchen just because I'm a woman. But cooking seems to be a rite of passage to adulthood. It's about being competent in a learned skill.
My first recipes came from mom. Her Midwestern masterpieces -- Thanksgiving stuffing, creamy casseroles and body-hugging comfort foods -- were a great start to my repertoire. But I was also seeking culinary diversity.
Unlike the generations before, we millennials don't crack open a cookbook or pull recipe cards from a neat little box. We fling open our laptops and turn to the good ole Internet.
Google any dish you can imagine and you'll get nearly a thousand Internet monkeys telling you the best way to make it. But who is trustworthy Pinterest, the female-heavy social networking site, is loaded with colorful pictures and enthusiastic descriptions of baked goods and "husband-and-kid-pleasing" dishes. I've had some luck finding recipes this way, but I'm not in the market to feed a band of 6-year-olds at a race-car-themed birthday party.
Themed blogs (30-minute meals, vegetarian, desserts) are often helpful and interesting, but sometimes these sites involve a narrative from the blogger that's a bit too personal. I just want the recipe, not the details of your current bathroom renovation project.
Websites with authority like foodnetwork.com and marthastewart.com offer solid chefs backing their stuff, but those often take a hair more expertise than your average 20-something might have up his or her sleeve.
I don't know how to reduce a sauce yet. I don't know what you mean by "double boiler." I certainly don't have the understanding or patience yet to let something caramelize.
But that's where beginners should start, according to Shelley Young, owner of a local cooking school, The Chopping Block. Learning the building blocks of proper cooking techniques is the first step.
"In cooking, you're empowered by a sense of understanding of basics," Young said. "If you're looking for a chocolate chip cookie recipe and you like them thin and crispy, you would want a recipe that uses all butter. If you like them thick and chewy, you want part butter, part shortening. The science and the technique is the next step in cooking." Young said novice chefs looking to expand their skills should first tackle knife skills, sauteing, roasting, braising, sauce-making and baking techniques.
For those who don't have the money or time for the preferred in-person instruction or cooking classes, I've found YouTube has an abundance of videos offering technique tutorials, usually in 10 minutes or less. Some feature celebrity chef personalities, others culinary instructors or stay-at-home moms with blogs.
When it comes to sifting through Internet recipes, Young said one of the best things a newbie can do is build a "vocabulary of tastes" so as to understand the components of the dish appearing on your computer screen.
"If you come across a recipe online and it has tarragon in it, you might not know what it tastes like," Young said. "So when you go to a restaurant, ask the waiter or the chef, 'What's in this What am I tasting ' You can build yourself a vocabulary of flavors to expand your understanding and be able to put those flavors together in your mouth." Mike Artlip, chef instructor at Kendall College's culinary arts program, said he has hundreds of recipe books he loves and swears by, but lately he's become of a big fan of Googling too.
"The advantage of cookbooks is they're usually written by trusted authors, but the Internet is faster and there's certainly much more variety," Artlip said. "Also, more and more traditional cookbooks can be found online." He said most recently, he searched the Internet for a Philadelphia cheesesteak recipe, found one he liked, adapted it and distributed it to the class.
When it comes to finding good recipes online, Artlip said skip the pictures and look to the directions.
"The hardest thing to write is a recipe -- so look at the directions or lack thereof," he said. "I don't always take recipes as gospel, but there should be clear directions." I know this well. My stuffed bell peppers slopped out of the crock pot, dilapidated. I've confused baking powder with baking soda and ended up with a mess. I used a juice blender to grind pesto ingredients instead of a food processor. I exploded adobo peppers in the microwave (some hardened and turned into maracas).
However, I must say my first stab at chicken Parmesan came out delightful. And if you're ever in the market for a mini-cheesecake recipe, mine turned out fabulous.
What it boils down to is, no matter the source, each must face the same trial-and-error every cook ever has endured. You learn the basics, you make mistakes. It's about learning the skills and techniques as you go.
The best lesson is one I learned from mom: Cooking should be unpretentious and enjoyed with people you care about.
Shoutout to my boyfriend for faking enthusiasm for the rock-hard cookie pie I recently burned. Glad you still have all your teeth.
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