Learn to Cook – Geek Edition

December 3, 2004

Some people have known they were geeks their whole life long. For others, the realization comes more slowly, but the signs are always clear. Too many gadgets. A tendency towards obsessiveness. You read posts on obscure blogs. Whatever…

So you’re a geek? So what? It’s the new millennium. Being a geek is almost cool. There are geeks among the rich and famous. Well, the rich anyway. Geekhood is the new black.

So, why should you learn to cook? Excluding the infamous Robert Rodriguez quote for a minute there are lots of reasons:

  • Eating raman noodles three times a day just isn’t healthy (it’s the coconut oil)
  • You don’t have to learn the chemistry and physics involved to do it, but you’ll be a lot more versatile if you do (think "the difference between script kiddies and code ninjas")
  • There is a sense of amazement and accomplishment when a dish comes together, just like any other good hack.
  • It tastes good.
  • It’s another thing that you can feel superior to the mundanes about.
  • It’s another thing that you can feel superior to your peers about.
  • You can involve a lot of cool tech and gadgets.
  • Being a good cook can help attract a mate, and you probably need all the help you can get.
  • You’ll astonish relatives when you show up for family get togethers with amazing edibles.
  • Like a tableless three-column CSS layout, it looks impressive despite being simple when you know how.
  • It’s easy (or it will be for you, anyway)
  • It’s fun.

Okay so there are some good reasons to learn how to cook. Let’s face it, though — even if she was a good cook, you’re not going to ask your momma to teach you, and you’re not going to take a home ec. course. Just how does one learn to cook the geek way?

Well, funny you should ask…

First, you’ll need some instructional material:

Some reference documentation:

And finally, some equipment:

  • 1 Kitchen, at least semi-functional (you’ll upgrade and mod as you go along)
  • 1 PVR of some variety (Tivo is fine, as is MythTV)
  • Access to basic cable content (Satellite, Hacked Cable, Bittorent, whatever)
  • Web Browser (Firefox, et. al.)

The Books

The Alton Brown Books

Alton Brown is an exceptional instructor for geeks, because he’s one himself. This is a guy who overclocks charcoal grills and uses welding gloves for oven mitts. He’s one of us (hey, if you get written up in Wired and interviewed on Slashdot, you’re a geek.)

The real reason to read Alton Brown is his approach. These are not "cookbooks" per se — they’re well written instructional guides to the science of cooking and baking. To paraphrase Brown, a recipe is like getting directions to a location — they’re fine unless something goes wrong (detour, a fallen tree in the road, etc.), in which case you’re lost. A map, on the other hand, would give you a good opportunity to find your way around the problem and get to your destination.

What Brown gives you is the "map" — how things work and why.This includes details on such things as the molecular structure of carbohydrates, the effect of surface to mass ratios on heating, etc. — and explanations as to why these details matter.

Brown also spends quite a bit of time on methodology, explaining and quantifying some of the more baffling and vague instructions you’re liable to run into in recipes — things like "creaming butter and sugar" and "folding", which are probably obvious to someone who grew up taught how to cook, but not to the rest of us. This is all made quite accessible with great examples and illustrations, and quite a bit of humor, most of it on the geekier side of the equation.

The first book, "I’m Just Here For The Food" covers cooking (as opposed to baking), and is loosely broken up by heating methodologies (searing, broiling, steaming, roasting, etc.). The second book, "I’m Just Here For More Food" covers baking, and is broken up by mixing methodologies (the "Muffin Method", the "Creaming Method", etc.) — the (well thought out) reasons why are covered in the introduction.

Both of these books are actually ameniable to sitting down and reading — they’re well written, informative and humorous, and they flow well from section to section. When you’re done, with a little practice you’ll be able to take your average recipe (from anywhere) and figure out how it really should be executed (and often, where it is misleading or just plain wrong).

The third book,"Gear for Your Kitchen" is a little different — it covers all of the mysterious gadgets one finds in kitchens (and kitchen stores), and goes over which ones you really need, and how to select them. More importantly, it goes over what you DON’T need (most of it), and why. Think of it as much like your favorite hardware test and review blog, but for knives and small appliances. This book will save you a lot of money, and a lot of grief.

The Reference Books

Both of these books (The New Best Recipe and Baking Illustrated) are produced by Cooks Illustrated magazine. Cooks Illustrated (and their PBS series "America’s Test Kitchen") basically specializes in finding a bunch of different recipes for a given dish, and trying all of the variations to find which one most reliably produces the best results. For instance, they’ll bake 90 lemon cakes to figure out the best way. These books are compilations of the resulting cooking and baking recipes, respectively.

Of course, everybody’s taste differs, and you might prefer something a little different from what their editors preferred. On the other hand, for many standard recipes, these books will give you a "known good" starting point from which to embark on your own expression, and that’s often worth it’s weight in gold. I’ll oftimes cook their version of a recipe once or twice, and then start making it my own.

The Equipment

The Kitchen

Needing a kitchen is obvious. You will need, at a minimum, a working stove, oven, sink, and refrigerator. Clean all of it, buy a good thermometer, and google for instructions on calibrating your oven’s thermostat. After that, you can turn to Brown’s book (Gear for Your Kitchen) for insight into what to keep, what to replace, what to throw away, and what to acquire fresh.

Outside of a good set of measuring cups and spoons, and several good digital thermometers (a remote thermometer like a Polder, and an instant thermometer, at a minimum), you can probably get by on the cheapest and most basic cooking gear — you probably already own something suitable. If you don’t have anything, you might hit discount stores and even garage sales and second hand stores for some starter equipment.

Don’t spend a lot of money on a lot of stuff – get something to get by with, and focus on replacing it, a piece at a time, with good stuff. In the case of pots, pans, mixers and knives, expect to spend a little money on the good stuff, but you can do it as you go along, and acquire stuff that will last you the rest of your life (and maybe your kids’ lives as well). Amazon’s Friday Sale is occasionally a great source of discount high-end cookware.

The PVR and Cable Content

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a good video is worth even more. Some things just make much more sense when you can SEE someone do it. Food TV is a great resource for this — not only is Brown’s program ("Good Eats") worth watching, but there are a number of good cooking shows on different cuisines.

You can see how to perform various techniques, and what the damn thing SHOULD look like if you do it right. These shows are also occasionally a great source of inspiration for what to try.

The downside is that all of the real cooking shows are on during the day, when most geeks are either working or sleeping. If you turn on Food TV in the evening, odds are you’re going to find Emeril, The Iron Chef, or 40 Dollars a Day.

While I’m sure these are entertaining to somebody, they probably won’t show you much useful about how to cook stuff you want to cook in your own kitchen. (I’ve been considering coming up with an Emeril Drinking Game — you know, every time he says "Bam", take a shot, every time he says "Yeah Babe!" chug a beer, etc., — but that’s another post).

So set your PVR to catch a selection of the REAL cooking shows, decide which ones appeal to you, and set a season pass. The PVR will also let you save episodes and go back and forth over fine details, which is often handy.

The Web Browser

If pr0n is the most prolific content on the ‘net, recipes are a close second. A hundred recipes for anything you want are as close as your favorite search engine. Armed with the knowledge you’ve learned from the above, you’ll be much more able to pick out the good ones from the horrid, and make the mediocre ones actually work.

Another good thing to consider is a subscription to Cook’s Illustrated — you COULD subscribe to the magazine, but it’s cheaper ($20) to get an annual subscription to, which gets you not only current content, but lets you search articles from back issues as well.

In addition to the recipes (as described above in "The Reference Books"), they also do taste tests on standard supplies, like flours, canned goods, etc. as well as tests on equipment. The former can save you a few bucks and help you avoid expensive crap, while the latter can save you a lot of money — I received their "best buy" Santoku and Chef’s knives as birthday gifts, and I’m still thrilled with how well they perform, particularly compared to some much more expensive cutlery.

It may be practice, but you can eat it..

About the only other thing you need is a sense of adventure, and practice, practice, practice. If you try this, I think you’ll be amazed at how quickly you’re producing some quality edibles.

As a bonus, even if you tend to cook with the richest ingredients (nothing does the job of butter like butter, for instance), you’ll probably be eating a damn site healthier then you would if you were eating pre-prepared or fast-food crap.

There’s nothing quite as entertaining as eating seriously good food, and finding that you’re actually getting healthier (losing weight, even).

Have fun!

* "Learning to cook is like learning to f*ck — you’re going to be doing it for the rest of your life so you might as well be good at it." – Robert Rodriguez, in "10 Minute Cooking School" featurette on "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" DVD

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