Jennifer’s learning curve started with Hamburger Helper; mine started in the home kitchen of a talented chef. I nannied for her kids in college, and she wanted them to eat well while she was away. So she’d prep elaborate meals (well, elaborate for a college student, a baby and a 4-year-old) and leave me detailed instructions on how to actually cook the food when she was out.
At the time I thought it was overkill to serve small children chicken on the bone and $14/pound pasta when they’d be perfectly happy with deli turkey and carrot sticks, but finishing off those dinners for her kids gave me a lot of confidence in the kitchen.
I could only make a few things on my own by the time I graduated, but that’s all I needed to get started. Once you can cook a few things well, it’s pretty easy to build on that foundation–and the payback to your wallet, health and creative side is enormous.
If you want to learn to cook, don’t worry–you don’t need to run out and find yourself a babysitting job like I did. Just start cooking. It’s the practice that makes you good. Here’s how to get started:
1. You Need Tunnel Vision.
When you’re learning to cook, you don’t crack open a cookbook and suddenly acquire the skills of a master chef. You learn by doing–one technique at a time. Don’t be overwhelmed with the millions of recipes out there. Pick three things you want to learn to make, and focus like a laser on those three things.
2. Start Simple.
If you’re a cooking newbie, start with simple foods you already like to eat. If I had to learn to cook from scratch all over again, I’d make my three things grilled chicken breasts, scrambled eggs, and steamed broccoli. These foods are simple, versatile, and I know what they’re supposed to taste like.
3. Pick One “Nice” Dish to Master.
The general rule is to master the basics before tackling harder recipes, but it’s nice to have one fancier dish in your (limited) repertoire. For now, choose one go-to company dish and make it every time you have people over. When I was a newbie, my go-to nice dish was chicken parmesan.
4. Buy or Borrow a Basic Cookbook.
Buy a cookbook with recipes for foods you like to eat, not just because the chef’s famous or it has great reviews. How to Cook Without a Book is my top choice for the new cook. Pam’s cookbook is filled with simple lessons on cooking techniques, and not just recipes–which makes it easy for a new cook to get off the ground quickly.
The internet has tons of recipes available, and my favorite recipe sites are here. But there’s nothing like a real book for browse-ability and convenience.
5. Cooking Is More Fun With Good Equipment.
I learned this lesson from my mom–it’s much more enjoyable with the right equipment (and it really doesn’t matter what “it” is). If I were restocking my kitchen on a budget, I’d buy a good saute pan and a cheap stock pot. If I made a ton of eggs or fish, I’d buy a nonstick skillet.
6. Don’t Get Overwhelmed.
When I was first learning to cook, I could make an entré just fine, but making the entré plus side dishes was just too much. If side dishes overwhelm you, I highly recommend Pam Anderson’s cookbook Perfect One-Dish Dinners, which is targeted at this problem.
7. Use Your Microwave.
If side dishes are tough for you, frozen vegetables make an easy side dish. The talented chef I nannied for loved frozen vegetables–especially peas (with butter and freshly chopped mint). Not all frozen vegetables taste good. (I hate frozen green beans!) But brussels sprouts, peas and spinach are go-to vegetables for our family dinners.
8. Use Condiments. And Spices.
The same simple foods can get pretty boring if you have them every night, so learn how to change things up with spice rubs and seasonings, salsas, relishes, sauces, and anything else you can think of. If all you can cook right now is grilled chicken, you can still keep it interesting by varying the seasonings and condiments.
9. Use Shortcuts.
Ina Garten is a huge fan of assembling foods instead of actually cooking them from scratch, so check out her Food Network page for ideas. I love grocery store shortcuts like rotisserie chickens and the salad bar.
10. Have Confidence.
If you have a bad day in the kitchen, don’t beat yourself up about it. It happens to everyone. Just remember: you can learn to cook, and it’s totally worth it.
Here’s a menu plan to get a new cook off to a good start:
Monday: Grilled Mexican spiced chicken breasts with guacamole and black beans
Tuesday: Hamburgers, coleslaw, potato salad
Wednesday: Sautéed boneless skinless chicken breasts, steamed green beans, chopped salad
Thursday: Grilled steaks, baked potatoes, steamed broccoli
Photo credit: Josh Koonce
This post is linked to Menu Plan Monday and Top Ten Tuesday.