Boil a potato. Or a carrot. Or a hunk of meat. And what do you have? Well, if you are a starving person who has not seen food for six weeks, this is food. Just. Most of us, confronted with a plateful of such materials will think instantly of a great reason to be somewhere else. The potato or carrot or meat might have been prepared in a way that would make them taste great. In fact, boil the potato and the carrot and the hunk of meat together in a nice stock with some herbs and you might end up with a terrific stew. Knowing how to combine ingredients is one element of technique. But generally, technique refers to the working methods you employ when cut up a food, when you assemble it, and when you heat it. It involves precisely how you do these things, under what physical conditions, and for how long.
Time and again good cooks discover it's not what you cook, but how you cook it that really counts. In terms of ingredients, what's the difference between wallpaper paste and French bread? Well, there's hardly any. French bread has a tiny bit of yeast. But if you added this to wallpaper paste it would be wallpaper paste with yeast. Though they contain exactly the same ingredients, almost nobody would argue that French bread is indistinguishable from wallpaper paste. So the difference lies in the techniques for preparing each. And the same argument holds for every single dish known to man.
When I first started cooking vegetarian, I looked at ingredient lists. This was because early vegetarian cookbooks frequently were not very facile in discussing the techniques. Or the techniques were not very refined. This is a good way to start cooking. But one should only cook this way for a very short while. Focus on techniques and the ingredients become slightly less important. Substitutions can be made on the fly with minor adjustments. The focus then is on the interaction between the food and the chef with the chef shaping the food into its final glorious form. This is cooking.
Learn a recipe and you can cook one thing, and probably nothing like as well as it can be cooked. Learn HOW to COOK. And you are king of the kitchen. Nothing is out of your reach. The recipe is a simple tool to jog your memory. There are a number of cookbooks that really teach technique well. Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking lies open in front of me, for I wanted her take on clarifying stock. Madeliene Kamman's The Making of a Cook is even more authoritative, though sometimes it feels a little less encouraging to the beginning cook.
James Peterson teaches cooking at a prominent school and any of his cookbooks will go a long way in teaching technique. I purchased his award-winning book on sauces. I'm not sure there is a sauce in the whole book that I have cooked, but it changed forever the way I cook and view food. And I maybe read 22 pages in the whole fat award-winning volume. The idea of the perfect integral sauce has been my own cooking 'holy grail' ever since. And I pursue it with almost every cooking opportunity. Sounds silly, but I assure you that there are a lot of sillier and much less practical ideas, like the 'fluffier souffle.'
Pam Anderson weighs in with Cooking without a Cookbook. This really is the 'holy grail' of good cooking. When one has mastered enough crucial cooking techniques, the cookbook is a tool for inspiration. Or it is a tool for reminders. We refer you also to the pages on Continental cooking and Chefs. In these two places there are works that shadow, enhance, amplify, and clarify most of the things in these books.
Eat well and prosper.