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Which ability applies to cooking meals with cook's utensils?

I've been looking through the PHB Chapter "Using Each Ability", and I checked the section on cook's utensils in Xanathar's Guide to Everything (p. 81), but it doesn't give any hint.

The question came up while the party has been in a small farmhouse with a fireplace. In the wilderness I believe the Survival skill can apply due to being outside and needing the skills to cook with the very basic supplies, but how about in a more urban environment with a proper fireplace or even a oven?

Is there any ability that could/should be applied to cooking a meal, or is it completely up to the DM?

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Your question looks at the D&D 5E ability check system a little bit backwards. The mechanic is in fact called ability checks, not skill checks or tool checks, and it's intended to be used looking at the ability first, and then figuring out whether proficiency in a skill or tool might apply. From the Ability Checks section of chapter 7 (my emphasis added):

For every ability check, the DM decides which of the six abilities is relevant to the task at hand and the difficulty of the task, represented by a Difficulty Class.

And then looking at how Tools work from Chapter 5:

Proficiency with a tool allows you to add your proficiency bonus to any ability check you make using that tool. Tool use is not tied to a single ability, since proficiency with a tool represents broader knowledge of its use. For example, the DM might ask you to make a Dexterity check to carve a fine detail with your woodcarver's tools, or a Strength check to make something out of particularly hard wood.

So rather than looking at it from the perspective of "How do I do a check with cooking utensils?", we need to look at it from the perspective of "Why is the DM calling for an ability check?" There are plenty of things involving cooking utensils that probably wouldn't call for a check at all, since making a normal everyday meal while in a home with all the ingredients handy isn't really something that tends to have much of a chance of failure or much impact of success. But sometimes the character is trying to do something where it makes sense to use a roll to determine if it succeeds, so the DM would call for an ability check. And then if having proficiency with cooking utensils would be helpful to accomplishing the objective, then the proficiency bonus would be added. Here are some ability checks I can imagine calling for where one could reasonably add the proficiency bonus for cooking utensils:

  • A Strength check to cut open a large animal that requires a lot of effort, but you need to know how to cut it properly to in order to prepare it correctly. (Thanks ZwiQ for this suggestion.)
  • A Dexterity check to make something with fine detail, like decorating a cake.
  • A Constitution check to produce food taking a long time in a hot, muggy, kitchen full of fumes.
  • An Intelligence check to remember an old family recipe.
  • A Wisdom check to observe how somebody else is making a recipe to be able to copy it, or to decipher what kind of food they might like.
  • A Charisma check to make food in an appealing way, or to try to make friends using food.

As you've noticed, other than the general suggestions provided in the "Using Each Ability" section, it's really completely up to the DM when ability checks are called for, and which ability applies to the task that the character is trying to do. Different DMs definitely have different philosophies and approaches to it. And sometimes really more than one skill or tool proficiency could reasonably apply. I've certainly (as DM) called for Charisma checks allowing for either their Persuasion or Cooking Utensils proficiency to be applied, whichever they had, since they were trying to make friends using food. But once the DM picks which ability to use for the ability check for whatever it is that the character is trying to do that requires a roll, it's not usually that hard to figure out if proficiency in a tool might apply to the roll.

Note that since "Your proficiency bonus can’t be added to a single die roll or other number more than once," (Ch. 7, "Proficiency Bonus") even if you have proficiency in both a skill and a tool that might apply to the ability check, you still only add your proficiency bonus once. (And Blckknght in the comments says that there is an optional rule suggested in Xanathar's Guide that could grant advantage in that situation, but I don't have that book so you'll have to look that up for yourself.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ A better example for the strength check could be if you need to cut open a large animal, particularly if the animal is initially alive. A bluefin tuna could be couple hundred kg and you might need to slice it with a knife without harming the delicious parts. \$\endgroup\$ – ZwiQ Aug 11 at 10:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ZwiQ Oh sure, that example probably does work better. My point was mainly that the point is to focus on the ability, not the tool. \$\endgroup\$ – user65839 Aug 11 at 15:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ Xanathar's Guide to Everything has a big section on situations where tool proficiencies would apply, and further suggests that having a relevant tool proficiency might give you advantage on ability checks where you're already benefiting from a skill proficiency (and it gives examples for each kind of tool). It is (obnoxiously, to my mind) silent on which ability should apply when just using the tool proficiency, even though it suggests DCs. \$\endgroup\$ – Blckknght Aug 11 at 21:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ FWIW, I think linking to this Q&A about what ability scores are used for what tools would be a useful addition to this already nicely presented answer. It would fit into your analysis of reach ability score beautifully. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Aug 12 at 12:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ "making a normal everyday meal while in a home with all the ingredients handy isn't really something that tends to have much of a chance of failure" — kind of sounds like somebody who doesn't cook. Ref \$\endgroup\$ – Tim Grant Aug 25 at 0:03
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The answer by Peter Cooper Jr. is quite comprehensive. So I update this earlier answer to complement it with examples of how the 5e designers themselves consider applying the rule.

The proper mechanic is the proficiency in artisan's tools. Mike Mearls suggested Wisdom as the appropriate ability in an unofficial Twitter post on March 7, 2016:

I'd say wisdom - takes insight to balance ingredients, capture flavor.

Chris Perkins suggested Intelligence in two unofficial tweets (1,2) on October 9, 2016:

Is a check even necessary? If so, I'd go with Intelligence check (with prof. bonus if the character has a cooking background).

An Intelligence (Performance) check would work. #cooking

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