Posted on March 28, 2011 - by

D.I.Y. Cooking: Where to Begin and Why

Illustration: Andrew Rae / NYT

A recent New York Times Dining feature called the D.I.Y. Cooking Handbook caught my attention. “How is that different from any other cookbook?” I wondered. “Isn’t cooking in and of itself a D.I.Y. endeavor?”

Apparently not. “What follows is a D.I.Y. starter kit,” author Julia Moskin explained, “small kitchen projects that any cook can tackle.” The 13 accompanying recipes included instructions on making your own fresh cheese, maple vinegar, tomato chili jam, and cultured butter.

These are recipes not for whole dishes, but for ingredients. Most of us pick these things up in boxes or bottles at the grocery store, either too busy or too daunted, never dreaming that we might be able to produce them in our own kitchens at home. In my own case, it’s a little bit of each. Why go to the trouble of making your own butter when you can buy it with so much less effort?

Yet there is something irresistible to me about the idea of relearning the forgotten skills of cooking. Like cracking the code of a dead language or publishing something in samizdat, it feels a little subversive. Dangerous, even.

While none of Moskin’s recipes require canning, curing meat, or foraging for wild food, these are logical next steps for the D.I.Y. cooking enthusiast. And that’s when the whiff of danger associated with producing your own ingredients takes on a more menacing character. Because most of us did not learn at our mother’s knee how to judge whether a pickle jar has sealed properly or what sorts of mold are safe to scrape off pancetta, we fear that we will not be able to tell if something goes wrong. Movies like Into the Wild, where (spoiler alert!) a seasoned woodsman eats poisonous wild potato seeds and dies of starvation, don’t inspire confidence either.

Moskin recognizes this fear of the unknown, and the article’s illustration acknowledges it tacitly too: a placid-faced figurine chops recognizable ingredients on an invisible countertop, reminiscent of instructional drawings on exercise machines. The message is clear: there’s no need to fear because you’ll be guided through every step of the process.

While I don’t pine nostalgically for a return to the days when my ancestors on the Minnesota prairie worked from dawn to dusk just to feed themselves and their sixteen children (I’m not exaggerating), I do envy their skills, if only because there’s something uniquely satisfying about producing nourishment with your own two hands. What’s more, I envy the way kitchen wisdom was passed down then— face to face, spoon to spoon.

So after I’ve made enough batches of kimchee and crème fraîche to feel confident that my experiments in D.I.Y. cooking aren’t going to kill anyone, I’m resolving to teach someone else. The Internet is a wonderful tool, but it’s no substitute for a watchful eye and someone to lick the bowl with.



We'd love to hear yours!

  1. Visit My Website

    March 29, 2011


    Maureen said:

    Thanks for bringing this article to my attention. My experience is that a lot of “cooks” just have a fear of making anything like this from scratch. Of course industrial food systems have made us lazy. I posted a note recently about making applesauce from apples that needed to be used up. It couldn’t have been easier, made the house smell great and tasted delicious. This type of cooking requires a certain state of mind I think.

  2. Visit My Website

    April 20, 2011


    Jacqueline Church said:

    This book, uncredited by the NYT piece cited, DIY Delicious by Vanessa Barrington Is fantastic and I encourage everyone to try it out~