Friday, June 8, 2012

8 Ways to Be a Better Cook

I've heard about people who "can't cook," and I have to say that I'm perplexed by this idea. Cooking is a skill. It can be learned. I can cook now, but it wasn't always that way. I had to practice, and I am very much still learning. If you're embarrassed that you are of a certain age and you still don't know how to cook, I imagine it's because you haven't practiced it much over the years. You will not wake up one day knowing how to cook. And like anything else, you can't expect to master something the first few times you try.

If you simply don't want to cook, that's okay; there are other cooks in the world. But I find cooking to be quite rewarding, so I think everyone should give it a shot. Here are the cooking lessons I've learned over the last 10 years:

1. Start cooking. Duh. You can't win if you don't play. If you want to get better at it, you can't avoid it. Get in the kitchen and get to work. Practice, practice, practice.

2. Make a list of your favorite dishes or ingredients and prepare meals that incorporate your favorite stuff. Don't just go for the easiest recipes out there. Make sure that what you're making is something that you'll likely think is tasty when it's done. There's something to be said for putting your heart into a meal.

3. Do follow recipes. I started off making meals that came from boxes (and I don't recommend this, but it is one way to start off easy) where the ingredients were minimal and everything was spelled out pretty clearly. Even a package of rice or pasta will have cooking directions on them. Almost everything I make started off with a recipe that I've memorized or modified over the years.After a short time, you'll begin to see recurring themes in the recipes, and soon you'll be on to #4.

4. Okay, you've mastered your favorites, and you've started following recipes. Now it's time to experiment. Visiting a farmers market or signing up for a CSA is one way to encounter different ingredients that you can get creative with. I've found that going through my pantry and fridge is a good way to inspire creativity as well--what can I make with what I already have? Lately, I've also been inspired by some of Trader Joe's pre-made meals. I buy them, eat them, and then recreate them in my own kitchen.

5. Learn from the pros. All right, the goal here is to not rely on restaurants as much, but when you do go out, read the menu and see how the restaurant is putting things together. You might not have insight into all their ingredients, but you can see how the dish comes together and which flavors complement one another. Also, I don't have cable TV, but I hear tale of various cooking programs that people like to watch. I imagine those are likewise inspiring :) Lastly, find a cooking class in your community. From basic to advanced, you're likely to learn a thing or two and make some friends.

6. Cook with friends. Watch how they do things and compare notes. Since no one really taught me most of the cooking methods I use, I sometimes get self-conscious cooking with others around, but there's no one right way to do it as long as it tastes good in the end.

7. Keep some basic items in your pantry at all times. Your basics might be different from mine, but here's what I always have on hand: olive oil, canola oil, white rice, wild rice, pasta, salt, pepper, chili flakes (I put these on everything!), and dried parsley. If nothing else, I could put several of these ingredients together to form something edible.

8. Be sanitary. Nothing will destroy your confidence like giving yourself or others food poisoning. Wipe down your countertops before and after cooking, wash your hands, and wash your utensils thoroughly.

Overall, be fearless! It's just food, and there's always pizza if it's truly a disaster (you know, you can make pizza at home too, right?).


Laura said...

I love adding more veggies to recipes! It's also fun to search online for recipes with ingredients that I already have. Yesterday I found some lentil recipes that sound good so I'm going to have to try them out.

Domestic Kate said...

Oh, good tip, Laura! Someone once told me about an app that allows you put in what ingredients you have and get a recipe that fits. You can also do something like that at

ruthieo said...

I second the CSA recommendation! I would have never cooked with kale, chard, or leeks if my CSA didn't deliver it to my door, and now I love them all!