Malcolm Gladwell Was Completely Wrong About Cooking

I'm sure many of you have read or heard of Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell's book about exploring the sources and drivers of exceptional success. One of the key themes in his book is the concept of the 10,000 hour rule--that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to get good at a new discipline.

Another way to think about that number is to call it 10 years of roughly 20 hours of intense practice per week. You wanna learn to sculpt? 10 years of practice. You want to earn a living playing blackjack? Yep, 10,000 hours.

But there's one discipline where the 10,000 hour rule is complete crap: cooking.

You can become a good cook, a really good cook, in a small fraction of that time. In fact, if you can read and follow simple instructions--a pretty low bar--you can learn the basics of cooking simple, good meals in a matter of days. Seriously.

How to go about learning to cook? First, spend a few hours perusing a basic, introductory cookbook. Books like Julia Child's The Way to Cook, Better Homes and Gardens and The Joy of Cooking are the traditional resources for learning how to cook, but a more recently published work like Delia's Complete How To Cook will teach you the basics just as well.

Second, spend just a few more hours trying some recipes out in your kitchen. If you're nervous picking out recipes, have a look at my essay on How to Tell if a Recipe Is Worth Cooking with Five Easy Questions. And if you're unsure what kind of cooking gear you might need to get started, read my essay on mastering the costs of setting up a kitchen.

Then, start cooking. You'll be shocked at what you can do in just your first few attempts.

Readers, what were your experiences like when you first began to cook?

Related Posts:
The Favorite Cookbooks of My Favorite Bloggers
Six Cookbooks That Should Be the Foundation of Your Cookbook Collection
Six Secrets to Save You From Cooking Burnout
The Basics of How to Modify a Recipe

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Unknown said...

Dan, you're right. You don't have to have 10,000 hours of cooking under your belt to get good at it.

For me, there were two stages.

The first was just following recipes. That stage only takes a few tries per recipe. In a couple of months, I had enough recipes internalized that I was a good cook.

The next stage was learning how to cook without recipes. I was a recipe-dependent cook for a few years before I realized there was a next stage.
I started to see the connections between similar recipes. That was when I started to internalize basic techniques. All sautes are the same basic technique; so are all braises, and so on. I had that one well in hand after another six months or so.
*Pam Anderson's "How to Cook Without a Book" came along at exactly the right moment for me; that was the book that helped me crack the code behind recipes.

But the thing that keeps me cooking is that I'm still learning new things. There are new and better techniques, different flavor profiles, all sorts of ethnic and regional much to explore!

By a rough back of the envelope calculation, I've got 3650 hours of home cooking under my belt (1 hour a day for 10 years). Only seventeen years to go until I'm a master!

Mike V

Laura said...

For folks who have kids, I'd say let them get started young, even if they aren't actually "cooking." My mom let me sit on the counter and watch while she cooked, and she let me taste and answered my questions. I learned a lot just by watching and listening. When I was 10 she let me make Sunday dessert, which was usually a cake from a mix. Simple, hard to ruin, and great for teaching a child how to use a mixer and an oven and basics like cracking eggs, measuring liquids, and preparing pans. Eventually I applied those skills to making things from scratch, and after a while, I branched out from desserts to main dishes (things my mom made without recipes, so I followed her instructions).

After a while I started exploring cookbooks. I learned that when you follow the recipe, things pretty much turn out like the books say they will. Next was the experimenting phase: playing with spices, changing up ingredients, trying different styles of cooking. Sounds pretty much like MikeV's path, doesn't it?

Anyway, there are three keys for me, I think (probably more if I thought about it):

1. Cook things you like or that you are at least pretty sure you are going to like. There are so many things that I love to cook simply because I look forward to eating them, even when the process of cooking is long, and some things that I don't enjoy cooking because the return in eating them just isn't high enough.

2. When you find something new that you really love, get the recipe! See #1.

3. Be curious. Ask questions, read, taste. Cooking is as much about learning as it is about eating, I think.

Laura said...

One more thing: Don't be afraid to fail! Happens to the best cooks.

Kira said...

I wouldn't say that Gladwell argues that it's 10K hours to get good at something, more like to get to a professional level, in which case it's probably true of cooking too. I spend a lot of time cooking but rarely come up with my own recipes/ideas the way a professional or more experienced cook would. I understand your point that you can be a passable or good cook with way less than 10K hours of cooking, but I think the principle still holds in this case.

I always figured I could cook because I'm pretty good at following directions. However, every task took FOREVER. After spending some time watching my then-boyfriend and his mother, it all made a lot more sense!

oilandgarlic said...

I think a lot has to do with the way you learn. Some people learn best by reading; some learn by doing, i.e. hands-on instruction.

While you can improve your cooking skills by reading recipes and through trial and error, I think nothing beats hands-on training from a good cook.

When I tried to learn on my own (using cookbooks or watching cooking shows), I would get extremely frustrated. Cooking was time-consuming and I had more failures than successes. However, once I met my husband and could watch and learn from him, I improved by leaps and bounds!

Daniel said...

Thanks for the great input and for your learning experiences. Great insights.

KMAYS, point taken. I suppose it also depends on how you think about the various types of cooking expertise. An example: I probably have close to 10k hours of home cooking under my belt, but I only really started creating orginal recipes in the past couple of years--after I started blogging. And I don't even have a single hour of cooking as a pro in a restaurant--unless you count one summer at Burger King. :)

Also, agreed with several of you that you can juice your learning speed by setting the right conditions. I learned a ton during my childhood and adolescence by watching and receiving cooking lessons from my Mom. And while I've gotten ideas, recipes and inspiration from cooking shows, I can't say I've learned a whole lot about the mechanics of cooking by watching TV. Cooking with a real person next to you in the flesh allows for a richer learning experience.


Joanne said...

I think the hardest part of learning to cook was not actually the learning part but just accumulating all of the spices, basic ingredients, and pots and pans that you need to cook. As you said in this post, anyone can follow a recipe. And as long as you're conscientious, it will turn out well.

My first cooking adventures were pretty basic and I made dishes that my mom had made countless times before - breaded chicken cutlets, pasta with sausage and broccoli rabe, etc. Then, having the type A personality that I do, I couldn't just stop there but I started accumulating recipes from online sources. I wanted my food to not just be edible but to actually taste good. It definitely did not take a ridiculous amount of time though. And, I mean, you need to eat anyway right? So you might as well be learning something while you're doing it.

Dave said...

You are dead on - almost anyone can cook. It's easy, fun, and rewarding very early in the game. That's why so many people enjoy it.

Being a chef? Now that's where the whole 10,000 hours thing starts making sense.

Chandrika Shubham said...

Learning basic cooking to fills one's belly is a easy job to do but to be an adept in it, really requires a lots of practice and patience.

Jennifer C. Valerie said...

Awesome site you have here. We just connected via twitter. I'll be tweeting your link out later.

Keep up the good work.

Daniel said...

Joanne, I love your philosophy. Might as well learn something. I think most of my readers feel the same way.

Dave: yep, exactly. Thanks for your thoughts.

FV2, thanks for stopping by and thank you for the positive vibes!


Charmian @Christie's Corner said...

I'm going to play devil's advocate here and say Gladwell might be more correct than you think. In the past, people learned to cook from their mothers and / or grandmothers -- unwittingly logging hundreds of hours -- perhaps thousands or hours -- in the kitchen, slowly absorbing knowledge. Whether you realize it or not, if you watched someone cook, you learned something.

But some people are reaching adulthood without ever watching someone cook. And the gaps in their knowledge surface in unpredictable ways. I once asked a friend who never learned to cook to zest a lemon while I diced the vegetables. My back was to her while she SHREDDED the lemon right down to the core. Another friend with little baking experience didn't know a cup of butter and a pound of butter were two different measurements and ended up with shortbreads that melted all over the oven.

"Stand Facing the Stove" might be a sarcastic title, but this recipe writer's joke shows how much knowledge has been lost without the "apprenticeship" of early culinary exposure in the home.

That said, I do NOT think cooking is difficult to do or learn. But it does require some knowledge of techniques and practical experience. And that takes time.

Daniel said...

I can always count on you, Charmian, for bringing an insightful viewpoint to the table. It is entirely possible that the people who had the benefit of watching their mothers or fathers cook logged hundreds of hours of "practice" without even really realizing it. Good point. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


Melissa said...

I've been so meaning to come back to this post. You know my story, Dan, so it makes sense. As a matter of fact, the entire reason I found you a year ago was because you linked to my post "total disclosure, one year later" when I had my 1-year anniversary of my blog and I told my tale of, as Charmian puts it, reaching adulthood without ever watching someone cook.

It certainly is possible to do a decent job without 10,000 hours. All you need is determination, a bit of common sense and, just a suggestion, a good teaching book like Bittman's "How To Cook Everything." Any book that explains more about the food itself ad doesn't just spit recipes at you. Armed with those elements, you can make edible, even tasty meals in just a few weeks.

That being said, I still, after a few years, feel like a novice. I am still amazed every time I make something new and I still feel like there is soooo, so much left to learn. Of course, that's part of what makes cooking fun, right? It's not a hobby. It's a lifelong journey. For me, one of endless joy, accomplishment and discovery!

Daniel said...

Melissa, what I always loved about your blog was how infectious your joy was with cooking. And it's clear to me you are far from a novice!

And thanks for the additional book suggestion--I've not read Bittman's book but have heard it is excellent. Thanks as always for your thoughts.