One moment you marvel at a chef deftly dicing vegetables – the next you despair over ever mastering the technique yourself. Competitive cooking shows such as "Top Chef" and "Iron Chef" dazzle and amaze, sure, but can leave you feeling decidedly inferior. But not everything's a competition, and instructional cooking shows encourage home chefs to adopt new methods, experiment with recipes and hone basic skills.
Some of these programs are as entertaining as they are educational. Viewers tune in to enjoy the host's personality, expertise, humor and to see appetizing images of foods. Certain shows, however, have inspired people to look at food prep in a whole new light. Thanks to the television shows listed in this article, the kitchen is no longer just the place to house the refrigerator; it's a center of nourishment, competence, innovation, science and knowledge. Oh, and food. Definitely food.
Boeuf bourguignon, French onion soup gratinée, duck à l'orange, coq au vin, mousse au chocolat: The recipes sound daunting, but the woman who brought them into viewers' homes was down to earth. Julia Child began teaching America to prepare French cuisine without fear in 1963 on WGBH in Boston. "The French Chef," syndicated to almost 100 stations, taped lived and aired without changes. Whatever Julia did, viewers saw. The series showed a real working kitchen with, sometimes, real mistakes. (That potato pancake that got flipped onto the stovetop? Just place it right back in the pan. Only the viewers will know.)
Dishes were prepared in real time; there were no magical transformations from counter to stove to serving dish. Child shared her enthusiasm for cooking, making difficult dishes seem possible through practice, practice, practice. In 1966, she won an Emmy for "The French Chef," though the show's many viewers had already validated her accomplishments. Still, some detractors were horrified by the apparently relaxed sanitation in the TV kitchen. Julia's reaction: "I can't stand those over-sanitary people" [source: Bio -- Julia Child].
Chef Graham Kerr didn't get his nickname from globetrotting and exploring foods around the world. The truth is much more literal. At the start of each episode, he ran onto the set and leaped over a chair. Amazingly, the glass of wine he carried never spilled. (Maybe it was the plastic wrap stretched over the top?) This stunt set the tone for the series. Although Kerr cooked complex, rich dishes, with plenty of butter, cream and brandy, his energetic personality made cooking seem fun. He taught viewers to appreciate fine foods, even while they were grinning at his antics.
Taped in Ottawa, Canada, the series was seen on stations around the world from 1969 to 1971. Kerr's wife Treena worked behind the scenes to help produce its 195 episodes. "The Galloping Gourmet" came to an abrupt end when a truck smashed into the family car [source: Padman]. Kerr suffered temporary paralysis, and surgeons had to remove part of his wife's lung. In 1975, the recovered chef brought his humor back to the air with "Take Kerr," a cooking show that addressed viewers' time and money issues.
Exquisite food doesn't have to cost and arm and a leg. That was the assumption of Jeff Smith, better known as "The Frugal Gourmet." The series began in 1983, and aired on PBS for 14 years, where the show spread throughout the public television world. In 1990, "The Frugal Gourmet" switched from public to private production. An animated cook, Smith was also not afraid to make a mistake on camera and move on. Even though the show was taped, its chef wanted to convey the excitement of a live broadcast. At the time, "The Frugal Gourmet" was the top-rated cooking show in the U.S., and Smith's cookbooks became bestsellers.
The series ended on a negative note in 1997 after seven men filed suits against Smith, claiming he had sexually abused them years before. Smith was never indicted and maintained his innocence; the lawsuits were settled out of court, and Smith returned to the Seattle area, where he died in 2004 [source: Today].
Spicy, exotic Creole and Cajun recipes were part of the draw of this Food Network show hosted by Emeril Lagasse. Another part was the enthusiastic and energetic chef himself as he ran the fast-paced show. Born near Boston to a French Canadian father and Portuguese mother, Lagasse brought his working-class background and unusual heritage to the series. It debuted in 1995 and ran on and off for 12 years. In 1996, Time named "The Essence of Emeril" as one of the best 10 cooking shows on television [source: Bio -- Emeril].
Emeril's recipes often defied categorization. Some were elegant, like surf-and-turf or sweet and savory crepes. Others were suitable for more casual occasions, including summer entertaining and football parties. Pure comfort foods made appearances, as well, when Lagasse presented his "kicked-up" meatloaf, 5-bean chili and beef stew – often with his trademark exclamation "Bam!" whenever he added seasoning.
Successful cooking is not magic, unknowable and unattainable to all but a select few. That was the emphasis in the Food Network show "Good Eats," which kicked off in 1999 and ran for 16 seasons. Cooking is an art, but one that uses science, and best results are achieved by knowing why something happens and what technology is needed to make it so. Providing background knowledge was essential within episodes, like showing how to prevent a roasted turkey from drying out; unusual ways to use salt; how to best sear a steak; what leavener makes the best biscuits; and how to make a smooth roux.
Alton Brown, the creator and host of "Good Eats," brought a mixture of goofy fun and approachability as he investigated origins of ingredients and explained techniques. He used skits to teach food science. Where else on television can you see a giant onion or life-sized gingerbread man? This mixture of fun and information made "Good Eats" one of Food Network's top shows, averaging 20 million viewers monthly. That's not a surprise. After all, who wouldn't want to see "real" elves sitting in trees explaining the process of cracker production?
Your cake ended up flat as a pancake. The new soup recipe is way too salty. And how did that steak get so tough? The staff at "America's Test Kitchen" is dedicated to preventing those calamities. Their goal is to offer foolproof recipes by using the science of cooking. As of 2014, this PBS series has aired for 14 years, teaching viewers how brining affects food; the difference between baking soda and baking powder; how cornstarch works in sauces; why fish sticks to the grill; and how bacteria affects different types of cutting boards.
"America's Test Kitchen" comes out of a 2,500-square-foot working kitchen in the Boston area. Over 30 full-time employees develop recipes, testing them dozens of times [source: America's Test Kitchen. The kitchen crew strives to reach the perfect combination of ingredients, technique, temperature, cooking time and equipment. Not limited to television, the kitchen's materials are also available in cookbooks, in magazines and online.
School, work, household chores, family moments: Who has time to cook? Food author Michael Pollan maintains that the average household in the U.S. spends about 27 minutes each day on food prep [source: Wilson]. Rachael Ray to the rescue! On the Food Network's "30 Minute Meals," the energetic and confident Ray demonstrated recipes for busy viewers with limited budgets. The food was prepared in real time, so the 30-minute time limit couldn't be faked.
The series, which ran from 2000 to 2012, focused on simple recipes, common ingredients, and, occasionally (gasp!), store-bought shortcuts. Sure, you could make cornbread from scratch, but you can also use a decent mix from a box while you concentrate on the rest of the meal. Ray had recipes to cover all your food needs. Need reduced-calorie ideas? She had 'em. Want something the kids will like? Maybe homemade versions of takeout food! Planning on hosting a tailgate party? Look no further. Ray even offered variations of the classic American burger.
If you become stressed out at the thought of entertaining, the Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten, should be your fairy godmother. Her Emmy Award-winning show specializes in simplifying entertaining to reduce anxiety and increase the chance of success. It has been a staple on the Food Network since 2002.
Garten took an unusual path to her cooking show. In a former life, she was a nuclear energy budget analyst for the Carter presidential administration (rather untraditional credentials for a food television show host). In 1978, Garten switched gears and opened a specialty food store called The Barefoot Contessa [source: Food Network]. Three cookbooks later, the television show came along. Now Garten offers pointers for how to host a cocktail party for a crowd; how to throw a housewarming party; how to make French cooking simpler; and how to plan a potluck dinner. Relax, she says – it's all doable.
Inadequate ingredients can make a pasta dish bland or a fish recipe, well, fishy. That's why Lidia Bastianich of PBS's "Lidia's Italy" teaches viewers how to select the best ingredients as well as how to prepare them. Lidia presents a practical, sensible and unflappable demeanor, which she comes by honestly as owner of four New York City restaurants. She's also written cookbooks and hosted other cooking shows, so she's prepared for whatever happens.
Since the show debuted in 2007, Bastianich has featured recipes from multiple areas in Italy. Topics include using wine and chocolate, featuring fontina cheese in recipes, stirring up simple sauces and making fresh pasta. Before cooking, Bastianich might pay a visit to the source of her ingredients, seeking out wine or prosciutto makers. The food prep part of the show is designed so viewers are able to cook the dish right along with Bastianich -- she might as well be in your kitchen.
Martha Stewart's Cooking School is appropriately named. This PBS series is more like a culinary class than a television show. Stewart prepares food in a simple, calm and direct manner that lets viewers concentrate on techniques. The show is more about information than entertainment, unlike some of Stewart's past productions[i]. In addition to making suggestions based on her kitchen experiences, Stewart discusses scientific principles that affect recipes.
The fourth year of the show began in October 2014. It covers everything you need to know, from basic skills to classic techniques. Stewart walks her audience through procedures such as roasting, poaching, braising and blanching. Many are done in real time so viewers get a true sense of how long a process takes. With her straightforward approach, Stewart brings the idea of a cooking show back to the actual cooking.
HowStuffWorks talks to Caroll Spinney, the man behind the 'Sesame Street' characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch since 1969.
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- NPR. "Julia Child on France, Fat and Food on the Floor." Sept. 1, 2011. (Nov. 20, 2014) http://www.npr.org/2011/09/01/139793130/julia-child-on-france-fat-and-food-on-the-floor
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- Wilson, Bee. "Out of the Oven..." The New York Times. April 26, 2013. (Nov. 13, 2014) http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/28/books/review/cooked-by-michael-pollan.html?pagewanted=all