How People “Cook” Today

Cooking Skills in the UK have taken a sharp downturn. Suzanne presents her evidence and for the sake of our farmers hopes we can turn things around.


Share this article:

In my introductory piece for this website, I wrote about my own approach to cooking and my hope that lockdowns would have had the benefit of people acquiring greater cooking skills.

Subsequently we have seen a huge permanent switch to working from home, and whatever problems this might have wrought on productivity, it should have cemented an improvement in our cooking.  Sadly, it seems to have had the opposite effect.  Instead of using the time freed up from commuting to prepare meals people say that they have less time than ever to cook (or indeed perform any other form of “housework” according to a survey by Good Housekeeping magazine).  This confirms my own observations, which are largely based on what ingredients are available and what recipes other cookery writers are advancing.

There is usually a raft of new cookery books published in time for the Christmas market, but 2023 was the first time I haven’t wanted to buy a single one of them.  A very clear theme has emerged – food that can be prepared in minimal time and with few ingredients.  If you want to publish a cookery book today, you need to subscribe to this ethos. Jamie Oliver, who one might say built his career on showing people how easy it is to throw some ingredients into a roasting tray, chuck it in the oven – et voilà, has had to simplify the process and cut the number of ingredients down to 5. Mary Berry’s latest offering is also all about making it simple (Mary makes it Easy) and now Ella Mills, the poster girl for plant-based foods, has written Healthy made Simple although she did find 5 ingredients too restrictive and instead worked with a maximum of 10. Even the newspapers have instructed their food writers to change tack, for example, the Telegraph’s Xanthe Clay has now been reduced to taste testing processed foods available in supermarkets.

There’s no point in making things harder than they need to be, but things I had thought were quite simple, such as cutting carrots into batons or soaking some beans overnight are not, apparently, quick and or simple enough.

What is my beef with the way people cook nowadays?  In a nutshell it seems to be making us further removed from the ingredients and how they are produced, which is a major problem for farmers, our land and our health.  As a cook, I will add that I think it is also a disaster for the way food tastes, but this is just part of a bigger picture.  Let me give you some examples.

We should all know that ultra-processed foods pose a real danger to our health, but there are lower levels of processing.  Virtually all of the recipes being written today make use of ready prepared foods, whether fresh, as in the case of buying ready chopped vegetables; or processed e.g. buying your beans in a can.  Some processed ingredients leave me completely baffled, such as “add a teaspoonful of garlic granules”?! These shortcuts add to the cost, and come at some nutritional loss, but, or so I’m told, have to be weighed against the alternative of reaching for an even more processed ready meal. 

It is almost impossible to tell at what time of year the recipe is intended to be cooked, such is the complete mix of “fresh” ingredients imported from all over the world.  Fresh tomatoes, eaten raw, are included with abandon.  I’m also regularly seeing aubergines in features published in the winter.  Like tomatoes, these require considerable heating and lighting to produce out of season.

 Another gripe is the ubiquity of flavourings.   Ella Mill’s favourite ingredient, pesto, is “always in her fridge because it jazzes up everything”.   Jars of pesto taste disgusting. I challenge you to eat a teaspoonful on its own – you will probably need mouthwash afterwards! Pesto should be made fresh, in July/August in the UK because that is the only time Basil has grown sufficiently robustly. It’s seasonal!

 “Condiments” (substances such as salt, mustard or pickle intended to enhance the flavour of food according to the Oxford dictionary) are no longer about gently bringing out the natural flavour of foods, but instead the dominant flavour – in the way that as children we used Tomato Ketchup. We have understood that fermented foods can be good for our guts but forgotten how many fermented foods we already have in our repertoire, such as yogurt, cheese, or sourdough bread, so Kimchi ends up everywhere rather than as a welcome accompaniment.  It’s the same with pickles, not just a few gherkins to counteract the richness of a pork terrine, but a complete starter of pickled vegetables, which no wine can match, and that have you reaching for the antacid tablets in the night.

In addition to the gochujang chili, which is a hallmark of Kimchi, there are no end of chili-based preparations to choose from including nduja, sriracha and sobrasada; they are everywhere and make everything taste the same. The way that British people embrace foreign food would usually be something that I considered a strength of our cuisine.  Our population now includes people from all over the world, and it is natural that they will bring with them something of their native cuisine and that our own will be enriched as a result.  However, at least at this time, we seem totally confused about our culinary roots but also appear to care little about the authenticity of anyone else’s.

The most common red flag that tells me things are changing in the food world is difficulty in buying ingredients that I have used for years.  My local Farmers’ Market no longer qualifies to use the name.  The majority of stands now sell ready-made foods of cuisines from all over the world; its more a place to buy Street Food than raw ingredients direct from the producer.  I can, thankfully, usually still source what I need online.  But it is depressing how many previously common foods have become “specialist items”.  Fresh yeast, whole candied peel, fresh suet and dried beans are just a few of the latest that are now delivered to my door.

How are people learning to cook nowadays?

I learnt to cook in a different era and in many ways still live in a different way to the urban majority. I live in the country, so a trip to a supermarket would be time consuming in itself. It is actually quicker to pick something from the garden, or even the hedgerow, than get in the car and drive to a supermarket.

Years of cooking experience mean that I don’t have to ponder for long about what to have nor how to prepare it. There isn’t really a shortcut to gaining this experience, although anyone who tries will gradually acquire it.  My blog post Finding your rhythm explains more.

Whilst I learnt mainly from books, these no longer teach traditional methods (although you could buy older, perhaps even out of print, books).  Something I didn’t have was access to online tutorials, YouTube is full of them if you know what to search for.  Cookery programmes on television are more about entertainment than education.  I particularly hate Great British Bake Off because it contains so many unhealthy ingredients and won’t spend the time on making a proper long risen loaf of bread, preferring to reward unusual flavours.  Baking cakes seems to be the one form of cooking that people still do, as a hobby or to post pictures of on social media.  Making cakes also seems to be the only form of cooking parents do with their children and even the Brownies has replaced its Cooks badge with one for Baking.

Amongst the new books there are some sound nuggets of advice.  Ella Mills lists 12, of which cooking once but eating twice (follow on dishes) is her top tip.  This is fundamental to developing a good rhythm for your cooking.

For the same reason, my own top tip would be to plan ahead. It doesn’t have to be formal, although a weekly meal plan can be valuable, but at a basic level, I never finish one meal without thinking about the next. That means that in the evening I remove whatever I will need for the next day from the freezer and yes, soak some beans, or the porridge, or whatever else we are having. You have so many more options if you think ahead than you do if you wait until you need to eat. 

A lot is talked about time saving equipment. Air fryers are the latest and apparently one in three homes now have one.  I think they are capable of much more than most people use them for, which is mainly frying without fat, but this is their forte and unless you have specific restrictions (such as the lack of a space for an oven), I think they are destined to become largely unused.  Some people love their slow cooker, which certainly helps you come home to a ready hot meal, if a bit “samey”. And recently I received two comments to my pulses article recommending the use of a pressure cooker.  Both came from people who cook beans everyday, and a pressure cooker certainly cuts the cooking time, although in my opinion the best taste, texture, digestibility and nutrition come from slowly cooked, pre-soaked dried beans. In fact, all of these pieces of kitchen equipment rob us of the opportunity to smell, taste and observe the cooking process but by all means, buy equipment that you think will save time for recipes that you cook often. However, in my experience of teaching cookery in different people’s homes, there is really very little that can’t be done with good basic equipment.  So, like lack of time, please don’t use a lack of equipment as an excuse for not cooking properly.

Where does this leave us?

The positive aspect of the changes I am observing is a desire to eat more healthily.  However, people are swallowing too many over simplified theories about what is healthy.  You certainly can’t rely on our medical profession for any sound advice on nutrition and it only takes a brief review of some older cookery books to see how everyone was once telling us that margarine was healthier than butter, or that low-fat versions of foods were better for you.  Today, the most common misconception is that meat is bad, not only for you but also for the planet, and needs to be replaced with largely vegetarian diet. Yet, especially in Britain, pasture fed livestock should have an important role to play.  How much good does it do if the vegetables we are eating have had to be imported?  The quality of ingredients is what matters.

Supermarkets often say that they only supply what the customer wants, yet there are clear messages coming from them that tell me they are more concerned about their supply chain and the lowest prices.  Ultimately, of course the consumer has the power to not buy what is being offered, but if we don’t start to use that power and put more effort into sourcing food that has been produced in this country, we are sleepwalking into losing our farmers and farmland.

Share this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *