It is my firm belief that, with a few exceptions, everyone can learn to cook decent food, for not too much money, without going insane. This is not the same as believing that everyone can cook – in fact, I believe that many people who think they can cook, can’t, and maybe people who think they can’t cook, probably could, if they just relaxed and gave it a whirl, starting with something simple.*
Because really good food doesn’t have to take five hours, doesn’t have to drive you crazy, doesn’t have to dirty every dish in the kitchen and leave you too exhausted to eat. It takes a few pieces of equipment, a certain amount of forethought, and a willingness to get back in the saddle after you fuck it up. Because you’re going to fuck it up, throw it away, and order pizza (or eat ramen) at least once. No matter how disheartening this is (and it’s brought me to the verge of tears before), learn from your mistakes and try again, or you will never get anywhere. So, general tenants:
- Recipes are your friend, not your enemy or your master. Find recipes you like and buy the ingredients listed if you want to cook them. READ THE WHOLE RECIPE BEFORE YOU START COOKING. Follow it, but switch things up a bit if you like – change out a vegetable, add some cheese or a different spice. You’ll get the hang of it later. But DON’T think that if you use a recipe you’re not really cooking, and don’t think that if you stray from the recipe a bit everything will go horribly awry. Have fun.
- READ THE WHOLE RECIPE BEFORE YOU START COOKING. I’m putting this in twice, because while some recipes will work if you carry-out each instruction before you read the next one, a lot are not that well written. You must read the recipe to know what equipment you have to have ready, and all the things that need to be chopped before hand. If you want to have dinner ready in a hour, and you discover when everything’s already started that you need to marinate your steak over night, you’re S.O.L. It’s really good to have an idea of everything you’re going to need to do before you get started. So if you’re not cooking from a recipe, take a second to think the whole thing through. And if you are, read the whole recipe before you start cooking.
- If you’re going to keep to a budget, you need to plan. This one could actually be re-written as “read the whole recipe before you go shopping.” I plan in two ways: I have some staples I always keep around, and I plan a few meals (or a week’s worth) before I do my shopping, so that I can be sure to get all the ingredients. If you do not have a plan, you will not be able to create meals, or you will go over budget, or both. And it’s fun! The internet is full of recipes; pick ones that look easy and appealing, get the stuff and try them out.
- If you’re trying to learn to cook, stick around and look at what’s happening!** Observe what you do, how you do it, what happens to different ingredients under different conditions. If you walk away, not only will things burn or overcook or boil-over, but you won’t know why.
- Anyone can cook. You can cook. You will make mistakes. You will burn things, or discover that food is underdone and in an attempt to fix it wind up with something that is either soggy (vegetables) or dry (meat) and definitely overcooked. When this happens, pay attention. That’s where you learn. What did you do? What can you do differently? Food is just chemistry. Was it the heat? Too high or too low? Too much liquid or too little? Too much spice/acid/sweet? If you pay attention to your mistakes, you’ll get better and better. But don’t give up on cooking because it hasn’t always gone well for you, and also don’t give up on the specific dish. Try again next time and it will be better. Messing up is how you learn, both generally and in specific.***
- Pay attention to what you like. Do you love mint and lemon as a combination? Ginger and garlic? Cumin and cardamom? You have as much a right to eat what you like as anybody you’re cooking for, and it’s good to be able to develop a style and know what sorts of recipes will be not only within your taste preferences but within your abilities.
Here are some things that you might need to watch out for:
- Pay attention to how high your flame/electric-burner heat is. This is MUCH harder on electric stoves than gas. If things look like they’re cooking too fast, don’t hesitate to turn down the heat a bit, and if you’re cooking with electric, just pick the pan right up and move it. You can always cook things longer without too many ill effects. It’s impossible to go back once things are burned or overcooked.
- Taste-as-you-go. Once things are cooked to the point where they aren’t dangerous (do not, for instance, taste chicken before it’s cooked all the way through), taste as you go. Especially as you add spices and other strong flavorings. As usual, it’s always easier to add more than to take away.
- Pay attention to measurements! Especially starting out, keep a close eye on those Big T’s (tablespoons), Little t’s (teaspoons) and the like. When you are just starting, measure everything. Once you know what a tablespoon of oil in the pan looks like, then you can forgo this step, but you need that mental guideline before you start guessing. Remember: there are THREE teaspoons in a tablespoon. If you get that one wrong on something intense, you will seriously change the flavor of a dish. That said, if you add your teaspoon of ginger and you find you just want more, go ahead and add some more. But slowly – careful not to overshoot the mark.
- Onions will make you cry. Be careful with you knife.
- Cook things of similar size and density. For stove top cooking (which is most of what I do, being a control-freak who likes to be able to keep fussing with things the whole way through) these are the two main factors in how quickly things cook. Garlic will cook MUCH more quickly than anything else, because it’s usually chopped very small and is also not very dense. Carrots are very dense, and so will cook slowly. Try to make sure you put things of about the same density in pieces about the same size into the pan at the same time, because they will have similar cooking times.
- When you buy too much stuff, cook it anyway. If you are in danger of letting produce or meat go to waste, there are three answers: esoteric salad combinations, pantry pastas, and oddball stir fries. Cozy up to one or all of these, and you’ll throw out a lot less stuff.
* I MEAN IT. You will not succeed if you start out with creme brulee, or with hollaindaise sauce, or with guinea hens stuffed with skinned green grapes and sage leaves, wrapped in bacon and roasted in a slow oven. EASY FOOD IS GOOD FOOD. If you get ahead of yourself, you will be discouraged and miserable. I know this from exprience, and it sucks BALLS to look at a ruined amalgamation of incredibly expensive ingredients and know you’re gonna spend even more money on the take-out you’ll be eating instead.
** Unless you’re waiting for a big ole pot of water to boil, and don’t have anything else to prep. Then don’t watch. Really.
***A handy hint – especially with tricky stuff, try it out on yourself (or somebody you trust to keep loving you even if things go awry) before you try it out on a fancy dinner part of Very Important People you desperately want to impress.