Why Subscribing to Online Cooking Classes Is Worth Doing Even If You've Gotten Your Vaccine
Pretty much as soon as lockdown started, my social media feed filled up with ads for MasterClass. This subscription platform promised online courses in everything from writing to filmmaking to yoga, taught by true standouts in their fields. I mostly ignored the ads until I saw one for a course on bread taught by Apollonia Poilâne, and I could not resist. Poilâne is one of my lifetime favorite bakeries in Paris, and her bread is one I have always wanted to achieve. For me, it was going to be worth the investment if I could just learn the secrets of that one recipe. But if I was going to be able to really justify the expense, I would have to take advantage of more than just that one class.
What is MasterClass and why do I love it?
MasterClass—an online education platform where you pay an annual membership fee ($15/month) and then have access to more than 100 "classes" in video form—has amazing lessons in 9 different categories, but I was really thrilled with the cooking content. And even though we can see light at the end of the tunnel and know that we will be able to return to some normalcy in the foreseeable future, a MasterClass subscription is still worth the investment, especially for cooks.
Unlike most cooking shows these days, which seem to be less about teaching something and more about competition, wackiness, or over the top recipes (or are just a platform to promote the empires of the celebrity hosts), MasterClass courses return to a style of cooking guidance we may not have really seen since Julia Child. Here, you find help on vital skills like how to choose product, basic knife skills, sauce building techniques, and even some thoughts on equipment and setting up your kitchen. Yes, you get specific dishes and recipes, but more than that, those recipes are there to teach cooking basics that are then adaptable to your culinary practices moving forward.
Each course comes with a digital cookbook, so that you can have access to the specific recipes, and considering the stature of the teachers, if you were to just buy a cookbook from each of them you would spend more than your whole MasterClass subscription.
I have been cooking for more than 45 years, I write recipes for a living. And while I have never attended culinary school, I have taken short courses over the years to improve on specifics. But even after all of that experience, I still learned some simple tricks that were new to me that have already changed my cooking practice. Here are just a few of the things I have learned so far:
Gabriela Cámera, Mexican cuisine, and how to cut a tomato
I don't do a ton of Mexican cooking, but I loved watching Gabriela Cámera cook. From homemade tortillas to beautiful salsas, the class was very inspiring. My surprising takeaway? When she goes to core her tomatoes, she does not use a paring knife in a circle around the core, which is dangerous (if the knife slips you can really hurt yourself). Nor does she do what most of us do, cutting the tomato in half and then making a V shaped cut on either side of the core on both halves. Instead, she cuts the tomato in two uneven parts one side having the whole stem. That way she just has to V cut the whole core out at once, making for a simpler, faster process that was a major lightbulb moment for me.
Massimo Bottura, modern Italian cuisine, and how to reduce food waste
Massimo Bottura is one of my favorite chefs to watch—he's just so passionate about what he does. His best teachings are focused on rethinking food waste and getting creative about repurposing. From dehydrating and roasting vegetable peelings and scraps for intense broths, to making pasta dough from breadcrumbs (themselves made from toasting stale leftover bread), Bottura's takeaways will have you as excited about getting smart about food waste as you are about his Michelin-starred Bolognese technique.
Thomas Keller, French technique, and brilliant help on the basics
Thomas Keller has the most content on the site and goes into a lot of detail about basics, making his expansive classes great for people who either are starting with limited kitchen experience or who really want to transform the way they work in the mode of a classically French trained chef. One of the best things I learned from him is that when you are making stocks, sauces, or soups that will need skimming, set your pot offset on the burner so that a small area is not over the heat. The foam and solids that need skimming will naturally move to the cooler side, making skimming much easier, instead of chasing it around the full surface of the liquid. Brilliant!
Yotam Ottolenghi, Middle Eastern cuisine, and flavor boosters
Yotam Ottolenghi has a terrific course with many wonderful dishes, and I love how vegetable-forward his cooking is. Making vegetables the star is great for anyone who either is a vegetarian or vegan or lives with one, but also for those who are just trying to use a little less meat in their cooking. My favorite takeaway: Flavor Bombs, his recipes for condiments, garnishes, pickles, and sauces that you can make ahead and keep in the fridge for a week or two to add instant punch to anything you are cooking. It is a great reminder that often the difference between a boring dish and a crave-worthy one is just a simple garnish or flavor booster.
Apollonia Poilâne, bread, and making granola from bread (!)
Of all the courses, making bread with Apollonia Poilâne is the MasterClass lesson I have returned to again and again. There is something utterly soul-soothing about watching her elegant technique, her calm respect for the products. It is just shy of ASMR content. But I was surprised to see how she uses bread as an ingredient in cooking, especially in her recipe that uses old bread to make granola, subbing it in for the usual whole grains. Her philosophy is sound—bread is just grains in different form—and the result is so much more than just a good way to use up bread, and is a terrific, surprising treat. I immediately started saving all the heels of my homemade loaves when they get too hard to eat.
The bottom line
Whichever MasterClasses you choose, I bet you will find some small tips that will mean big lifelong changes to your cooking, and that, for me, makes it a service worth investing in, pandemic aside. The site is always adding new lessons, so I'm looking forward to encountering more chefs and insights as we crawl out of the pandemic. But no matter what the status of our collective public health, we will still have lazy rainy days, cold winter weekends, and holidays ahead, and your best new binge might just be a cooking class that will stay with you longer than any sitcom or true crime drama.