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Learning to Cook

November 18, 2013 at 2:52 pm

A friend asked me at lunch today: “How do I learn to cook?” Since this question seems to come up a lot in my life, I figured I would write a post on the topic so I could easily answer the next person.

I am passionate about cooking. I learned to cook from my mother at a very young age. She would always encourage me to help cut the vegetables, or stir the soup. Some of my earliest memories are of helping out in the kitchen (the others are of taking things, usually expensive, apart). For me, cooking developed naturally as I absorbed what my mother taught me. When I hit college, I started collecting cookbooks trying to improve on my skills in earnest. However, I quickly became disappointed in what the average cookbook had to teach.

You see, the problem with most cookbooks is that they are just recipe collections. Sure, some good ones will give you a  few brief pointers on how to knead bread, or broil a steak, but most are just a list of recipes that throw terms at the reader that they might not be familiar with. “Saute one cup of chicken, diced into one inch cubes”. What’s a saute? What’s a dice? What temperature? What pan? Do I cover it?

Most folks think that they know the vocab, and throw the recipe together in a way that makes sense to them. This usually results in an edible meal that roughly approximates the recipe, so most people leave it at that. Presto! We’re cooking now! Never mind the fact that our ragu is now more of a vegetable stew and our bread is completely crumbly without any of that nice chewy texture we were looking for… Cooking not only throws an entirely new vocabulary at you, it also throws you a new grammar and syntax, which most books don’t even touch on. By following the average cookbook, we are merely parroting back what we are reading and failing to understand why we’re doing any of it. This isn’t how you learn.

So how would I recommend you learn to cook? Learn the vocab, learn the grammar, and learn the syntax.

The vocab is basic, and fairly easy. It’s not like you are becoming a doctor and need to learn latin. To take our earlier example, sauteing involves cooking meat in a pan with oil while braising uses some other water based liquid. Most folks at home braise meats unintentionally when they cover their frying pans. The Professional Chef and Jacques Pépin’s Complete Techniques do a great job of going over the vocabulary of cooking, while illustrating it with both recipes and pictures.

Grammar is a bit more tricky. The rules are hinted at, and even discussed in a high level, in The Professional Chef. However, pick up a copy of Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking and you will really get a feeling for the power of culinary grammar. For a full review of Ratio, see this article I wrote a while back. To summarize it, though, imagine knowing the base ratio for a cake and then being able to make any cake you can imagine. Then imagine changing the ratio of the exact same ingredients and coming out with a scone instead. This is the power of culinary ratios. They free you from recipes and let your imagination take flight.

Finally come syntax, and this is one of the harder things to learn. Syntax, in the cooking world, is the fingerprint of a particular cuisine. More accurately, it is the flavorprint of a particular cuisine. What makes American BBQ unique when compared to, say, Vietnamese BBQ? If you look at the recipes, you will notice that it is all in the specific ingredients and flavoring agents that are available to each culture. Unfortunately though, no-one, to my knowledge, has written a good book on the flavor prints of the world. The only way to learn syntax is by reviewing recipe collections on specific cuisines, looking at the ingredients in ethnic markets, and analysing the flavors when you eat out at a restaurant that specializes in that type of cuisine. It may not be easy to learn syntax, but it can be fun and filling!

Since this is an article on learning to cook, I want to share my favorite cooking show as well. Good Eats is a fantastic show by the mad scientist of the culinary world, Alton Brown. It gives great examples of all of the above material and does so in a fascinating, highly entertaining way. Truth be told, Good Eats was one of the reasons I started looking in to the whys and wherefores of the cooking world. You can pick up the DVDs of the show on Amazon, and I’m sure you can find episodes streaming online if you look on the search engine of your choice.

Was this article helpful? Did you find it interesting or disagree with it? Please post in the comments below!

Edited to add: Turns out there are a few cheatsheets floating around on flavor profiles. Have a look.


August 13, 2013 at 11:51 am

When you look at dishonesty as a social disease, things get very interesting. I always believed that “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching” (John Wooden), but perhaps there’s more to it than that. Character is also standing up for what you believe in the face of social pressure. Tricky double-edged sword, that is. However, it is worth careful consideration. This article gives some great food for thought along these lines.


Monitors and Caching DNS

June 20, 2013 at 4:53 pm

Had an interesting issue today. One of the production systems suddenly went dark, and we found out about it from the client. This is never a good way to start a Thursday. It turns out that the client was having DNS issues and the domain was no longer valid. Relatively simple fix, crisis averted…

But why didn’t the monitoring system pick it up?

We use Dotcom-Monitor to check each of our sites on a regular basis. The monitor actually logs in to each website to verify functionality. What in the DNS world could cause this issue in such a scenario? How about a caching nameserver? Turns out, to limit the stress on their nameserver, Dotcom Monitor set up a standard caching nameserver that keeps a record in cache until the record expires. So even though DNS was no longer working for this site, the monitor thought everything was A-OK.

What can we do to fix this issue? Not much unfortunately. Dotcom Monitor will have to implement a change in their infrastructure which will likely increase the load on their DNS servers significantly. Since that’s not likely, it looks like I’ll have to build a service into our internal monitor (Zabbix based) to check for the domain against the SOA for it.

PageSpeed score of 96/100!

June 12, 2013 at 5:21 pm

PageSpeed Insights ScreenshotAfter configuring W3 Total Cache and playing around with google’s free PageSpeed Insights tool, I was able to increase The End of the Tunnel’s score from 49 to 96! This is impressive to me because this site currently runs on the basic DreamHost shared environment plan. No dedicated servers, no fancy configurations, just good cache management. Fantastic!

Flush DNS Cache for a Single Domain

June 11, 2013 at 10:13 am

I was working on the site today and ran into an issue: Our caching DNS server (Windows 2008) was holding on to the old webserver’s IP. This wasn’t a problem for me locally as I used the old hosts file trick to point to the new server. However, this meant I couldn’t show other folks the site until either the cache was completely flushed or the record expired.

A little googling later, and I found this little command from ServerFault.

dnscmd dnsserver.local /NodeDelete ..Cache whatever.com [/Tree] [/f]

/tree    Specifies to delete all of the child records.

/f       Executes the command without asking for confirmation.

This allows you to clear just a small portion of the cache, as you define it. Pretty handy!

New Site Live

June 10, 2013 at 5:45 pm

Welcome to the new The End of the Tunnel. This site is currently under construction. Stay tuned as I populate the site with back data, articles, and interesting links.

Of Floors and Friends

June 5, 2012 at 10:20 pm

This past week, several of my friends and I went to the cabin to do some much needed renovations. I will be documenting these renovations over the next few posts and will link them here when finished.

Four of the five key players in this tale of triumph.

  • Putting up a Storage Shed
  • Living Room Demolition
  • Jacking up the Cabin
  • Foundation Work
  • New Living Room floor

Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking

January 5, 2011 at 1:02 am

Originally posted on the Zombie Squad Forum on Wed Jan 05, 2011 1:02 am

I’ve been cooking for most of my life, even though my definition of cooking has changed considerably over the years. When I was young, cooking meant helping my mother in the kitchen with whatever she would let me do. It started out with holding a spoon here and there, to stirring the pots, to actually cutting up the veggies. Cooking was listening to what my mother told me to do, and following her instructions closely. As I grew, cooking became more complicated. I found cook books and cooking shows, which opened up an entirely new world! All of a sudden I had recipes to follow instead of just my mother’s words of wisdom. This evolution continued as I learned to “customize” recipes. Take a little from one recipe, a little from another, maybe change up some spices here and there… This led to some culinary triumphs, like the oddly delicious scrambled pancake, and many culinary failures; pancakes should never have tendrils. The evolution continued as I realized there were different techniques for cooking. I purchased the Culinary Institute of America’s The Professional Chef and worked my way through bits and pieces of it to broaden my horizons and skill base. I watched shows like Alton Brown‘s Good Eats and began learning how ingredients actually worked together. I started to see the patterns in recipes and come up with some of my own. But I was still basing my culinary work on existing recipes in one way or another.

Review of the September 19th, 2009 Appleseed Shoot in Saratoga Springs, NY

September 19, 2009 at 3:39 pm

Originally posted on the Zombie Squad Forum on Mon Sep 21, 2009 3:39 pm

“Shooters, Your 2 minute preparation period has begun!”

The chill from the night is still in the air as I lay down on an old carpet remnant and examine my loaned Ruger 10/22. Chamber flag out, wrap the sling around my arm “hasty” and lie down… The sun shines at a shallow angle and warms me. It also creates some glare in the tech-100 sights. I focus on the target and dry fire a few times. Wait, this isn’t right. I remember the training from earlier: align the sites, create the site picture, control my breathing, focus on the front site, get into the shooters bubble, squeeze the trigger, and follow through… I run it all through my head. So much to internalize!

Wiggy’s Sleeping Bag and FTRSS Review

February 4, 2009 at 3:08 am

Originally posted on the Zombie Squad Forum, Wed Feb 04, 2009.

Updates at the bottom of this post.


Wiggy’s makes a line of top notch synthetic sleeping bags right here in the good old US of A. They carry a lifetime warranty, keep their warranty even after machine washing, and don’t appear to loose their loft when compressed. All bags come with a compression sack and Lamilite pillow. A particularly nice feature is that you can combine two bags into the Flexible Temperature Range Sleep System, or FTRSS.