How Do I Know If I'm Really A Good Cook?

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Welcome to the Feedbag, where all the dumb questions about food, drink, cooking, eating, and accidental finger removal you've been embarrassed to ask can finally receive the berating they goddamn deserve. Also: answers. Send all your even-vaguely-food-related questions to with the subject "Feedbag." All of them.


Your column last week about how to get your spouse to improve her cooking brought up a question that NO ONE addressed: how does one know he actually IS a good cook? And that someone else isn't? All of you seemed to assume the husband actually IS a good cook, and she's not. But we don't KNOW that—he gave no examples of his great meals, or her lousy ones.


Joan, I think if you—

There was just an assumption that she must be lousy. Actually, he could be one of those guys who loves his mom's Cream of Wheat and boxed mac'n'cheese, and won't eat spices. He may think the height of baking was her Pop Tarts. There ARE people like that. And they think if they can eat their charred, dry burger that they must be a great cook.


Those are fair points, Joan, but if you go ba—

For all we know she may be making great Thai food and he won't eat it. I took a suburbanite from work to a Mexican bakery to shop for cookies, and cookies freaked her out. I worked with someone who had never eaten Chinese food. Ever. Their palates were like a 4-year-old's.


May I respond now?

OK. See, the thing is, if y—

You'd think dating and living together would've involved SOME conversation about food for this husband and wife, and some cooking together. His letter was mystifying and I wish he'd have given examples of what they each cook. Anyway, he sounded resentful, passive-aggressive, and ungrateful. Not sexy.



You're raising a fair point—that we don't know whether Brad's wife truly was a bad cook, or if he just has a lousy palate, or what—but if you go back and re-read the response to his question, you'll see that I pretty carefully avoided that issue altogether. The reason for that is that it actually doesn't matter—not even a little bit—whether Brad's wife is a good cook or a bad one; whether Brad has an adventurous, sophisticated palate or the food-tolerance of a high-strung toddler; whether he's capable of making better food on his own or is a dirty, dirty liar.


Even if Brad's wife is Amanda Freitag and he has the palate of a horsefly, it does no good to tell him No, Brad, this is actually really good food: he doesn't like the food, regardless of what that says about his dumb palate's unworthiness, and he doesn't have any control over that part. What he has control over is what he does about it: he, and no one else, is responsible for fixing his dissatisfaction. He can do the cooking, or learn to do the cooking, or learn to appreciate his wife's food—what he can't do (not without being an asshole) is idly nurse his resentment, and give his wife neither an honest response to the question "Would you like me to make dinner?" nor any meaningful assistance in preparing food both of them can enjoy.

Does that make sense?

SO, the QUESTION is:

You're not even listening, Joan!

How does a person actually know if their food is "good"? And what makes it "good"?


Those are two questions, Joan! Dammit!

But seriously, there are certainly technical-minded answers, here, having to do with mastery of cooking skills, and familiarity with a range of ingredients, and the ability to repeat a result, and so on—but really, a good cook is someone whose food tastes good to the people for whom they're cooking it (and also I guess I should probably say that their food ought not to give those people furious, intractable diarrhea, too, even though that seems like it ought to be kind of obvious, ahem, Uncle Jerry).


There's a little bit more to that definition than meets the eye, though, because it implies that a good cook is someone who A) knows his or her audience, B) knows his or her abilities, and C) has the wisdom and humility to seek a sensible pairing between the two. That is to say, if Joe Schmo makes franks-'n'-beans with Alpha Bits cereal suspended in it because that's exactly the way his kids like it, he's a good cook for them; if Joe Schmo opens a 9,000-seat restaurant in Manhattan and doesn't improve his skills or his menu beyond franks-'n'-beans with Alpha Bits cereal suspended in it, 99.999999% of his customers will hate his food, and then he will not be a good cook—he will be a lousy cook, just like Guy Fieri is.

So, if you wanted to conclude that a good cook is someone whose food will be liked and appreciated by nearly any reasonable person who eats it, that's fine. It leads us back to a discussion of technique and kitchen skill and repeatability, though—since the development of these is what reliably results in food that nearly anyone will enjoy—and, frankly, you've wasted enough of my time already, Joan. I've got things to do! This belly-button isn't gonna make itself talk in front of the mirror, goddammit!



I'm pretty alright at cooking things. I've got a pretty good handle on what tastes good, what goes with the other thing, etc.

My issue is that I live alone and, while I enjoy that at this late-20s time in my life, cooking is way more enjoyable for me when someone else can eat it with me & tell me how good it is.

Now I do have a girlfriend, and she does enjoy what I make or at least pretends to, but we're busy young professionals and only see each other a couple times per week and sometimes cooking isn't #1 on the list of things we want to do (that spot goes to "watching Chopped re-runs, perv). So I guess my question is: should I go work at a good kitchen or adopt a family to cook for or what?


Eh, throw a regular, once-weekly dinner party for a lot of people, like a regular Sunday-afternoon or -evening feast. Invite a regular gang of the largest number of friends and/or family members your home (or the home of someone with a larger home than yours who is willing to allow you to use it as the venue, so long as you agree to leave the kitchen spotless at the end) can fit, and make the most ambitious food you're willing to attempt. Do formal place-settings and wine glasses and all that shit. That'll give you more than enough of your cooking fix. The rest of the week, you'll be happy to sustain yourself on a sleeve of Ritz crackers.


Can you give a rundown on the difference between stock, broth, consume, and bouillon? I am a foodie novice so I use them interchangeably.


Sure thing, Lisa. The difference between stock and broth is a little bit hazy, sometimes, but basically, you can think of stock as a cooking ingredient made from the slow simmering of raw ingredients, and broth as the finished product. Stock, if you should happen to taste some by itself, doesn't actually taste like much of anything at all, because, for all its various ingredients, it contains no salt. Broth, on the other hand, is seasoned and ready to eat. So, for that matter, is bouillon, because bouillon is just a French-cuisine word for broth.

Then there's consommé, which is clarified broth (or bouillon, if you prefer to be consistent in your use of annoying French terminology): you simmer and stir the broth for friggin' eternity and use egg whites to gather all the solid, particulate matter in a raft at the top. Done well, this produces a beautifully clear, luxuriously rich, vividly flavorful liquid which must be served very hot so that its high concentration of gelatin (from the meat and bones you used to make it) doesn't turn it into friggin' beef-flavored Jello as it cools.


So: Stock is what you get when you simmer meat and veggies and bones and such in water for a long time, broth and bouillon are interchangeable terms for what you get when you season stock and turn it into an actual dish for consumption, consommé is what you get when you use egg whites to clarify broth or bouillon, and this has been a very boring answer. Boobs boobs explosions aliens boobs.

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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home, or in shorter form on Twitter @albertburneko. You can find lots more Foodspin at


Image by Sam Woolley