Why I cook.

Returning to the subject of Michael Ruhlman, the passionate and blunt food writer behind Ratio, he posted a mini-essay on his blog last week titled “Why I Cook,” giving his reasons and urging his readers to do the same. (This comment from one of his readers is alone worth the click, although it’s quite sad.) Here, therefore, is my answer to the question of why I cook.

I cook, first and foremost, to eat. When I was in graduate school, my wife was working 40 hours a week as a preschool teacher, which, some of you probably know, is exhausting work. I, meanwhile, was done every day by 3 pm, sometimes sooner, and generally didn’t have much homework to do, so I thought it was the least I could do to take over the cooking duties. And, in hindsight, I was pretty bad at it. But we ate, and we ate cheaply. That still holds today, even though I can splurge on more expensive ingredients – although I now understand the value of those ingredients, and when and where it’s worth the splurge and which corners one can safely cut for home cooking.

My life has changed dramatically in the eleven years since I’ve graduated, as I now have a demanding job but a commensurate income and at least have the excuse to slack on cooking. I continue to do so because…

* I want the control over what goes into our bodies, especially since the first-person plural now includes my three-year-old daughter. I know what we’re eating, and I know that we’re limiting her intake of pesticides, high fructose corn syrup, preservatives, or needless quantities of salt. I know the bread we eat is 100% whole wheat, because I made it. I know the beef we eat was grass- or grain-fed, and that the sea bass I purchase (rarely) came from a sustainable fishery, because I bought it and cooked it myself.

* All three of us have to monitor our diets to limit our intake of one or more ingredients or nutrients. For me, it’s lactose, and a handful of other foods that my stomach doesn’t like. For my wife, it’s sugar and a few minor food allergies. For my daughter, it’s protein, so we’re raising her as a vegetarian, and are glad that she hasn’t quite made the bacon/pig connection yet. (I did suggest we name the stuffed-animal pig we bought her “Smokey,” but my wife called that “twisted.”)

* It lets me spend my calories where I want to. I’m not on a diet, nor am I a rabid calorie-counter, but I will put on weight if I completely ignore what I’m eating, something that happens to many people in my line of work because we’re on the road so much. When I cook, I can stick with lean meals and use those extra calories on dessert, or on a big mess of waffles and sausage on a Sunday morning.

* I can vote with my mouth. Organic food isn’t for everyone because it’s expensive, and while I wish organic farms could feed everyone today, we’re not there yet. I also know that the more that people like me who are not rabid environmentalists but care enough about food safety, the environment, and the rights of farmers and laborers in the food supply chain choose to buy organic or sustainable or fair-trade products, the more that that section of the industry can grow.

* You can’t beat the flavors of fresh food. I can buy and cook the same day, and if I time it right, I might get a locally-grown vegetable or fruit from ground to table in a day or two. We pick strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries every summer and I put them up in jams so that I can still get that unbeatable taste of summer in the middle of January. I grow herbs in my backyard because pesto Genovese is sweeter and more potent when you picked the basil 20 minutes before putting it in the food processor.

* And, most of all, I cook because I love it. There is something magical about taking ingredients, applying heat and a little know-how, and producing a dinner to feed your family. There’s a tremendous reward in bringing a dessert or a basket of bread to a party and seeing people enjoy the food you crafted with your hands – regardless of whether you ever receive a “thanks” or a “wow.” And, to me, food just tastes better when I earned it in the kitchen.

Any one or two of these reasons would be sufficient for me to continue cooking, but all of them together have made it a part of my routine that borders on obsession, to the point where I miss it after too many days on the road – the sight of bright-green basil or deep red roasted peppers, smell of onions caramelizing in the pan, the feel of bread dough that just needs a few seconds of kneading, the sound of meat hitting the surface of a hot pan, and the taste of all of the above.


  1. My reasons are a lot like yours, minus the kid and food allergies, plus extra bonus trying to save money when I was an undergrad (and god, to think of how bad a cook I was back then . . . ), plus a real pleasure at being able to completely skip most of the aisles at the grocery store. For me, though, it really comes down to one thing: I love the process. I love the mix of precision and improvisation, the transformation of mess into order, multiplicity into unity. It just makes me extremely happy, and a few days without cooking is like a day without reading: I start to get very antsy.

    We’re also lucky enough to have the time to devote to cooking, and friends who feel the same way about cooking; more or less since we got out of college, my wife and I have had a social life that has revolved around meals at friends’ houses. It makes for a pleasantly homey life.

  2. I cook as I love food and make better, better tasting, more nutritious and more natural food than I can buy. This is the reason number 1, 2 and 3. I’ve never had a processed meal that came close to me on a bad day (not that I’ve had a lot of processed food – almost all of it tastes terrible if your palate never adjusted – I know some people who like that stuff, yuck). Even when I am flush and can eat out it’s very expensive to find a restaurant that cooks better – that’s why I generally eat Chinese or Indian albeit I now can do a better curry than 90% of UK Indian places (being modest frankly) if I crack shredded beef I may never eat anything but Peking Duck out again.

    Being very large and a big eater it’s better for me to restrict input of salt, carcinogens, saturated fat, trans fats, fructose, etc…. Most of the health risks of being large come from eating even more bad food not necessarily the weight per se.

    Making bread with only flour, yeast and water is great as well. It’s shocking to buy a loaf and read what they put in it.

    However the main reason is taste and pleasure. You can find/create recipes that are almost no time and trouble without having to resort to complex procedures or pre-prepared crap most days.

  3. Healthy eating, environmental impact and pure enjoyment are all big parts, but this sums up the biggest …

    “… I love the process …”

    Just part of a longer quote, but its my #1 reason overall. Cooking is a tremendous outlet for my OCD; I control everything start to finish, all of the ingredients come from where I want them to and there is a defined finish line. Which may read very odd, but there is something very soothing about knowing I have that outlet regardless of whatever else is going on.

    And Keith, I couldn’t agree more about going a little nuts after time on the road. 2 or 3 days of restaurant only food, even on an expense report, is about all I can happily do. Even in Maui or New Orleans.

    (Not looking forward to having a kid when it comes to this sort of thing. I’m over the top when it comes to what my dog eats, I can’t imagine how bad I’ll be with a kid.)

    Great topic. Ruhlman is awesome.

  4. nicely put, keith. i’ve been astonished by the passion and articulation of so many people hooked by this simple question.

  5. Agreed, great topic. Ruhlman’s Ratio needs to be added to the must read cooking book list (haven’t seen that question popping up in chats as much).
    Seems like I’m following the KLaw learning to cook timeline. Not that my job requires me to travel at all, but just the personal traveling that I do makes me miss being home and cooking. Just wondering, what cities/areas are the best at easing that desire to be at home and cooking for yourself?

  6. First off, I love cooking. I love the whole process of creating dishes from scratch and watching them come together and making people hungry when they walk in the house. Since I started cooking, I find I rarely like to eat out since we can get better food cheaper eating at home.

    I have an additional motivation similar to many others on here. I have been a Type 1 diabetic since I was 15. It is a pain in the butt to manage, but I have been very successful so far. A big reason I have been successful is I know what I am putting in my body every day.

  7. By the way, I recommend Ruhlman’s Elements of Cooking as well. Great reference tool for a home cook.


  8. it might be noted that a lot of csa’s bring down the cost of organic local food and in our particular city (phoenix) we have very a large food co-op that is geared just to getting people large amounts of produce for cheap – much of it organic. also – great post keith.

  9. I’m going to comment on the organic food comment. From reading this blog I learned about Trader Joe’s. There’s a couple around town where I live in St. Louis but I had never stepped in to one until I started following KLaw. I was amazed how much better the produce and breads were. And on a lot of products, the cost isn’t prohibitively higher than the usual grocery store. I would definitely encourage more people to try this kind of shopping. I still go to the regular store for much of my shopping but I can’t eat their produce or bagels or breads anymore. The difference is that pronounced.

  10. What’s the benefit of eating grass or grain fed beef as opposed to cornfed?

    Just happened to recently read

    I guess I’m not up on the debate.

  11. I have the protein thing too – that’s one thing … but ultimately, I can’t draw or sing … cooking is where you can start with raw materials, produce something better, all by yourself. There is some sort of bliss there.

  12. First and foremost, I enjoy eating.

    Second, I am a chemistry graduate student. So I enjoy applying what I know about the chemical make up of the various ingredients to what is physically happening. I’ve recently picked up Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking” and it has been interesting learning new things about what is happening during various cooking techniques to different ingredients.

  13. I agree with everything you said and would submit one more ‘better for the family’ type reason – the value of family mealtimes.


  14. Keith, you are in desperate need of help my friend. You have a serious addiction to cooking that may require years of counseling and thousands upon thousands of dollars to cure.

    Or you could just continue doing what you love.

    I’ll leave that for you to decide.

  15. Well, here is the question then: Do you prefer cooking? Or baseball?

  16. What an excellent question, and a superb answer by Keith.

    Why do I cook? In a long winded kind of way, I cook because when I was a teenager my older sister worked in one of Victoria’s top restaurants. Every few months she would spoil her little brother, by taking him to the restaurant for dinner.

    Eating there, I fell in love with scallops grilled in a little butter, butternut squash ravioli, pan seared steak with white beans, and sablefish served over a creamy polenta, oh how I loved that creamy polenta. The food was incredible, a revelation to my young palate (it probably didn’t hurt that my sister’s co-workers always made a point of giving me hugs). An avid foodie was born.

    Through much of my early twenties, I was an enthusiastic diner, collecting restaurant visits the way a child might collect baseball cards (Yeah, I’ve been to Bishops, have you been to West?). I loved food and more importantly, I loved good food. Cooking just came naturally from a love of the ingredients.

    Like Keith, I learned a lot from watching Good Eats, I also watched a Canadian show called Chef at Home, and became a big fan of Jamie Oliver (particularly Jamie at Home). Those shows helped to lay a foundation, an understanding of flavors and how to combine them. Then I became obsessed with cookbooks (Oliver’s many, French Laundry, Julia Child, A Taste of China, Vij’s, Robuchon, etc, etc, etc…), reading them in bed like novels. At some point, the craft itself took over. Like Keith wrote about, I get antsy (my wife might even say cranky) when it’s been too long since I cooked. I need to cook. At this point, It’s like feeding the beast.

    On the other hand, I really could have saved all those words and just answered like this: Why do I cook? It’s the ingredients. I love the ingredients; when Keith talks about the basil in his backyard I can smell it, and when I can smell the basil, I can taste the perfect sun kissed tomatoes that in a few long months will pair so well with the basil. And once I can taste those tomatoes, then I can feel the milky, rich texture of the bocconcini that will pair so well with the tomatoes and basil. I love food, the colors, the smells, the textures, the flavors. I just… love food. What can I say, I cook because I’m a fat kid trapped in a skinny kid’s body.

  17. I blatantly already prattled on for too long, but I had one other thought… KLaw talks about the Organic food movement and supporting local farms, which I think is incredibly important. Not just organic food, but supporting small local (wherever local is for you) farmers and buying food that has travelled down the street, instead of across the world. This is obviously important for environmental purposes, but also benefits us with better, healthier, food (ie, to continue my tomato obsession, when tomatoes are picked green in California and shipped 1000s of miles, they will never be what a tomato should be).

    When my wife and I were married last fall, instead of putting party favors on every table, we made an unfortunately small donation to a local farm that is trying to save itself from being sold to developers. We felt this represented who we are and supported a cause that we deeply believe in.

    If anyone’s interested (and Keith’s willing to allow the link), this fundraising campaign for the purchase of the farm by the community that it serves, and its placement in the hands of a land trust, can be read about here (I don’t send the link with an expectation that people thousands of miles away will want to donate, but more so that you can read about something which might have a similar opportunity in your community):


    Ok, now I’m really done… and hungry.

  18. Wow, as an organic farmer, and an educator at a school where were converting large swaths of land to organic production, you all have no idea how satisfying and reaffirming it is to see a group of internet commentators profess their interest and enjoyment of organic foods. Your customers any farmer would be proud to grow for…Thank you.

  19. Douglas Peterson

    Reply to Tim above about grass v. grain fed beef:

    So I’m fairly certain that the difference is that grass fed beef is allowed to graze in order to get that food. This has two benefits. First, you don’t end up eating cows who lived their whole lives in an 8′ stall doing nothing but eating and crapping until it is time to die. Second, the cows actually move around more which produces a bit of different texture because the muscles are more developed.

    In my experience, non-factory-farm raised cattle tastes substantially better. Usually when I cook steaks, I drown most store beef in a marinade and spices to bring out the flavors. When I have a good piece of real beef, just the meat has enough flavor that a little salt and pepper is all that is needed to get great flavor.

    But don’t take my word for it, go to the store, buy two pieces of beef and compare for yourself.

  20. Derek, perhaps I’m a master of the obvious, but are you related to Keith by any chance or is your last name purely coincidental? Regardless, appreciate the post.

  21. Not that I know of, Bob.