Cookbook review: Making every cook a better cook

‘Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook’ by Sohla El-Waylly (Knopf, $45)
"Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook" by Sohla El-Waylly (Knopf, $45)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

"Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook" by Sohla El-Waylly (Knopf, $45)

Nothing takes the joy out of cooking faster than a recipe flop. It’s somewhat reassuring, however, to know even seasoned pros sometimes mess up. Sohla El-Waylly cites herself as an example.

In the opening pages of her debut cookbook, “Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook” (Knopf, $45), El-Waylly fesses up to the stuck salmon fillets, undercooked Thanksgiving turkeys and broken gingerbread houses that brought her to tears early in her culinary journey.

With experience, she came to embrace those mistakes, viewing each as an opportunity to discover something new. “My confidence in the kitchen comes from failing,” writes El-Waylly, a classically trained chef who has become a familiar face in New York Times cooking videos and on TV shows including HBO Max’s “The Big Brunch.” Those discoveries have made her not only a better cook but also a brilliant teacher, as evidenced in this 578-page doorstopper.

Don’t assume that the lessons within are only for beginners. The recipes, while rooted in classic techniques, are fresh and original, and labeled from “easy” to “advanced.” Fun facts and “nerdy deep dives” throughout are as entertaining to read as they are educational.

Each chapter delves into an essential skill. The first, “Taste,” includes an exercise in seasoning using a simple cucumber salad as a canvas. Eggs are the teaching tool of “Temperature Management 101″; “Go to Brown Town” focuses on dry-heat methods such as that used for Crispy-Skinned Salmon with Radishes and Nuoc Cham; “Getting to Know Dough” includes a recipe for Crusty No-Knead Focaccia with instructions for transforming it into pizza.

In “Just Add Water,” my eyes landed on Cheesy Macaroni Pomodoro — an “extra saucy cross between mac and cheese and pasta pomodoro and tomato soup.” I came away with tips for gauging pasta cooking times by taste, along with a soothing bowl of comfort to last me for days.

Maybe next I’ll try to conquer my caramelizing fears with Pretzel and Molasses Butterscotch Bars. And if the result fails to live up to my expectations, I’ll remind myself there’s no shame in starting over.

Susan Puckett is a cookbook author and former food editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow her at

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