How to Start Cooking When You Don't Have a Clue
Have you ever looked a picture of a delicious edible and wanted to make it, only to give up after reading its ingredient list? Or shown up to a potluck with some store-bought chips and dip, only to wish you could have brought the handmade entree sitting spotlight on the communal table? I used to be that person who gave up on recipes and brought sides to potlucks but not anymore.
One of the best things I’ve done in the past few years is learn how to cook for myself. It’s changed my life completely. I know many 20-something and 30-something-year-olds don’t know how to cook. I used to be one of them. I would stare at the frying pan and move my arm around awkwardly trying stir any food in it, unsure if it was undercooked or overcooked. It’s not that I didn’t want to know how to cook, but cooking is daunting when you don’t know how to do it and have no idea where to begin.
Cooking comes with so many bonuses that I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’m all about budget-friendly living, and cooking for yourself (when done right) does just that.
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Benefits of knowing how to cook:
You eat well by your own hands. You can host dinners or entertain guests with quality homemade food.
You can tackle new recipes and genres of food that appeal to you but are not commercially available or commonly found in restaurants.
You develop confidence in yourself as you acquire a new skill.
You have no shortage of admirers. As they say, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” and “A good chef always has friends.”
You eat healthier. You have better control over every aspect of your health because you know what you’re putting in your body. You can target skin and digestive issues, weight loss, diabetes, hypertension, and more by eating to improve your health.
You save money! Cooking for yourself costs less than eating out over the long-run. Compare the cost of a box of cereal and gallon of milk (about $8.50 total) that lasts a whole week versus a pastry and coffee over one workweek (about $5 daily or $25 a week). When you cook large batches, you also save by packing leftovers for lunch the next day.
How did I learn? I got lucky in that my boyfriend likes and knows how to cook. I started learning about two years ago when we began cooking together. He was top chef and I was sous chef in our kitchen. I mostly stuck to washing and cutting vegetables and measuring out spices. I refused to even stir the food in the frying pan at the start. I watched what he did and he gave me tips on what to look for in the food we were cooking.
Once a dish we cooked together turned out well, I felt confident enough to repeat it on my own. One of my favorite dishes that I’ve repeated over and over again is an orzo and eggplant casserole that was one of the first dishes we cooked together. Nowadays I’m a cooking enthusiast. If you don’t have a culinarily skilled significant other…
How to get started:
1) Start by learning basic skills and techniques
Learn to boil pasta, sauté onions, and chop vegetables. Once you know how to scramble an egg, move on to a basic omelet. Once you’ve sautéed one vegetable, try two others. My turning point was learning to cook onions. Onion and garlic are the bases of many dishes and once I learned to cook onions, even caramelizing them, I was confident I could manage most other vegetables I put in the pan.
2) Start with basic equipment
You’ll need a basic knife set or at least a kitchen knife. You’ll also need a cutting board and a large pot and frying pan. You can get a few more pots and pans with a full cookware set. The last thing you need is some cooking utensils. When I first started living on my own, my parents gave me their extra cookware. I purchased the rest of what I needed to fill in the gaps.
3) Cook with others
Cook with friends or family who are more advanced and can teach you a technique or two. If that’s not possible, watch online cooking videos that will teach you foundational skills.
4) Have an open mind about your food creations
Some things will turn out well while others may be duds. Most things you cook will at least be edible (except undercooked meat). I’ve burned muffins and made Morning Glory loaves that didn’t bake through. I’ve added vegetables to the frying pan without washing them first or forgotten a key ingredient when making pies. Whoops!
A few cookbooks and sample dishes to consider:
1) How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman
2) How to Cook series books by Mark Bittman
Dispelling cooking myths and excuses
Before I started cooking, I had a lot of excuses for not knowing how to cook. You, too, may have your reasons for not knowing or attempting to learn. Here are some common ones that I’ve said myself or that I hear and now want to dispel:
1) You waste food when cooking for one
I see where waste might happen, once when you buy whole packages of food jars or spices and only use part of what you buy, and once when leftovers go to waste. My solution is to make the dish twice or in double portions to use as much of the food as possible. Then refrigerate or freeze the leftovers. You can also make use of what you already have in your fridge or pantry. If a recipe asks for arugula but you only have a bag of spinach in the fridge, go ahead and use it.
2) You don’t have cookbooks or cooking equipment
You can try borrowing cookware from family or friends and cookbooks from your local library. If that fails, you can buy a basic set of pots and pans on sale at a department store like Macy’s or Kohls, a discount store, or even a thrift store. Don’t be fooled by high prices and fancy gadgets. The basics are fine for getting started.
3) You don’t have time or energy to cook
Cooking can be time-consuming at the start, but you’ll get faster with practice and preparation. If you have time to workout, watch TV, or any other non-essential activity, then you have time to cook. It helps to plan several meals with similar ingredients and then go grocery shop with that list. Once you have some familiar recipes down, you’ll be able to whip them up quickly without much thought.
4) You work for Google and get three free meals a day
I can’t argue with you there, only that cooking brings confidence in your own domestic abilities and that you may work elsewhere one day and need to cook for yourself.
Three recent dishes from my kitchen (pictured above left to right):
1) Baked orzo with eggplant, mozzarella, oregano from Plenty More by Yotam Ottolenghi
2) Braised eggs with turkey, tahini, and sumac from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi
3) Stuffed eggplant from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman
Learning to cook takes time and practice as with developing any other skill. Now with over two years of cooking regularly at about once a week, my self-perception has changed and I consider myself a decent cook. I no longer skip recipes because they have too many ingredients or dread bringing a dish to a potluck. I often cook dinner by myself or with my boyfriend a few nights a week. I even cooked nearly every day one week recently because I found so many recipes I wanted to try. I knew I could do it and I did!
But take heart if you’re new to cooking! I was where you once were and know how difficult it can be to get started. Keep cooking and you’ll get there too.