My Cooking Learning Curve

My Cooking Learning Curve

Jennifer at Saving had a post last week on The Cooking Learning Curve, where she talks about how to learn cooking basics when you know next to nothing.

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

Friday: Store-bought rotisserie chicken, salad bar salad, corn on the cob

Photo credit:  Josh Koonce
This post is linked to Menu Plan Monday and Top Ten Tuesday.


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10 comments | Comment


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  1. Plop says:

    The best cookbook for beginners i’ve ever seen (and i still use it) is an old scholar book for girls learning cooking (in those course given to girls before feminists suppressed them).
    These books have all the basic, from cooking a piece of beef, making your own pasta, desserts, mayonnaise. Really everything is detailed from the basics.
    You also have recommendations on what to make with what, wich wines to use, the season of vegetables.

    It’s a little treasure, neglected today !

  2. Jamie says:

    These are all great ideas! The only thing I’d add is to keep a back-up meal on hand. A box of pasta and jar of sauce tucked in the pantry or a bag of ravioli stashed in the freezer can be a life-saver if you burn/ruin a meal beyond saving or are extremely short of and time/ too stressed to concentrate on practicing cooking real food. :0)

  3. Clare says:

    I loved this post! I was starting to participate in more of the cooking right before I left for college… now that I’m there I don’t really have the time or resources to cook. I always want to try again during summer vacations, but for some reason I’ve developed an inexplicable fear in the kitchen. Maybe my perfectionist tendencies have developed since going to college? At any rate, I appreciate all your advice, and especially point 10!

  4. This was a great post. When I was first married, I knew how to bake cakes (from a box) and banana bread. Everything else, I had to learn. Over the years, I have read cookbook upon cookbook and watch cooking show after cooking show. The funny things is, I use a very limited number of recipies today. “How to Cook Without a Book” and Alton Brown’s “Good Eats” have taught me how to cook the basics and then vary them to be interesting. Cooking chicken, making soups, making a salad, many pasta dishes, egg dishes and basic casseroles don’t require a book anymore. I am still learning, but now I enjoy cooking. I still whip out recipies that are different for something fun, but cooking is often something I do with out a book. Practice doesn’t always make perfect in my kitchen, but it has made it a whole lot more fun!

  5. Anne says:

    Love the cookbook recommendations! Thank you! We have been blindsided by food allergies, so I’m learning to cook in a whole new way…. It has really taught me to appreciate good quality food and simple flavors in a way I never did before!

  6. Wonderful advice. I was lucky to have a few dishes under my belt when I left home, since my mom made us all cook occasionally. I’ve been wanting to check out that How to Cook without a Book — sounds like a real winner.

  7. This is some really great advice! I have really improved my cooking skills over the last 15 years (when I got married and didn’t really know any meals except macaroni & cheese), but there is still so much I want to be able to do!

  8. Pamela says:

    Lots of information here. I’ve been cooking for 35 years but still found this interesting and informative. Cooking isn’t something I love doing, but my family seems to think they need to eat — so I cook. The pile of veggies makes my mouth water!

  9. 'Becca says:

    Great advice! I particularly like your #6. I’ve always found it easier to make one-pot meals or at least things that are cooked in two pots but served together (like this yummy pasta dish) than to make a main dish and side dishes.

    Another idea that’s served me well is: Be willing to experiment with what you have on hand. You might find a new combination that tastes really great!

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