At the beginning of this year, I made a resolution to myself, that I would learn how to cook a respectable meal. At the time, I had no knowledge of how to cook, yet I was tiring of the bland, prepackaged meals for dinner. In addition, I knew that my last year in college meant that my days eating my parents’ food were numbered. Thinking further down the road, I couldn’t rely on my future wife to do all the cooking. All of these factors finally motivated me — as someone who would avoid cooking in any circumstance — to finally learn the culinary ropes.
I didn’t expect to get very far, or be able to cook very well. But today, I can look back and say that at least the food I prepare tastes good to me. In fact, I now prefer eating my own cooking to food from a fast food place most of the time. In the past nine months, I’ve made every recipe I’ve wanted, from chicken burritos, to hotdish, and garlic fries. Along the way, I had tremendous support from my roommates who helped me prepare countless meals. I’ve also experienced my fair share of cooking disasters and kitchen messes. While I won’t claim to be the next Gordon Ramsay, I do want to share with you some tips that helped me learn to cook as well as I can today.
It started with some fresh ingredients
One of the reasons why I was so attached to prepackaged meals was their convenience. It took at most ten minutes in a boiling pot of water to close the gap between being hungry and starting to eat. But eventually, the lack of variation in the taste of convenience food annoyed me. I started adding fresh ingredients to packaged meals. Sometimes, it was adding sour cream and freshly chopped green onion to a bowl of Mac and Cheese, other times it was cracking an egg into my favorite instant noodles pictured at right. It took some of the “convenience” out of “convenience food”, but was well worth the additional flavor and texture. Preparing a few fresh ingredients helped me learn some kitchen basics, such as using a knife and cracking an egg. These skills by themselves weren’t enough for me to make a fresh meal, but they lay the foundation for more complex recipes.
I made cooking a social activity
While I was still in my cooking infancy making prepackaged food, my friend Ian had already been making great-tasting meals from scratch for many years. Now that we were roommates in the same apartment, we began preparing dinner together. In the first few meals we made, I designated myself to some of the easier tasks, such as stirring a pot of noodles, or washing the dishes. Menial as these tasks seemed, they helped me get into a cooking mindset.
Eventually, I wanted to be more involved in the preparation of the meals. The only problem was, I was really slow at just about everything. It took me thirty seconds to chop a stalk of green onion whereas Ian could do the same in ten seconds tops. I was determined to be more efficient. For every meal we prepared together, I would pester Ian with a lot of questions. “How did you chop that bell pepper? How do you peel garlic so well? How are you not crying when you’re dicing that onion?” Ian would demonstrate to me all of the time-saving kitchen hacks in his arsenal. When there was something he didn’t know, we would watch a video, and try to follow along. It was experiential learning at its best, and my cooking skills progressed rapidly through the months.
Recipes were a godsend
One of the things I love most about cooking is that I can make whatever food I want. It’s just a matter of finding a recipe online, buying the necessary ingredients, and having the right cookware in the kitchen. Along with my roommates, I’ve made everything from gumbo to pizza, from pasta to southern-style fried cinnamon apples. In any given week, I’m always looking for a new recipe to make. There are thousands of recipes for thousands of different cuisines online, and many more in cookbooks in bookstores. You could theoretically make a different dish every day for many years to come!
If you are just starting out cooking, I recommend this fried rice recipe. It’s simple enough that most beginners can handle it, but complex enough that you must pay attention to the steps. Then chicken really is optional, and I like to add some assorted frozen vegetables and some teriyaki sauce to the rice while it’s cooking.
Start with vegetables, then progress to meats
Unless you are strictly vegetarian or vegan, many recipes you find will call for meat of some sort. I avoided meat dishes for a while, as I didn’t want to get food poisoning from mishandling raw meat. Instead, I opted to learning how to sauté vegetables first, as there was less of a risk of food-borne illness. After a month or so of fresh-meat-free dishes, I finally made a meal consisting of none other than fried rice with freshly cooked ground beef. To this day, I still use a food thermometer to check that whatever meat I cook has been cooked to a safe temperature. This guide to safe meat temperatures, courtesy of the FDA, currently sits on my refrigerator door as a handy reference.
It’s okay to make mistakes
One time, I was trying to make a fried cauliflower snack. The last step called for a brief broil, so I pressed the Broil button, set the timer to five minutes, and shut the oven door. Big mistake. Ian later admitted that he forgot to tell me to leave the oven door open while broiling! When we took the baking sheet out of the oven, the cauliflower looked more like small lumps of coal rather than anything remotely edible. But ever since that mistake, I now know to keep the oven door open while broiling.
Mistakes like these are bound to happen to you. When it happens, you might have to re-cook the meal, or throw out a part of it. Don’t be discouraged! Recognize what you did wrong, and learn what should result if you follow the procedure correctly.
Don’t be afraid to improvise
Of all the recipes I’ve made, I have followed exactly zero of them down to the last letter. I often need to substitute or omit certain ingredients because I don’t have them at home. Conversely, I’ll add various herbs and spices not in the recipe, to taste how they complement or enhance the food’s overall flavor.
A lot of recipes have exact measurements for the ingredients to use, for example “1 cup flour” or “4 cloves garlic, minced.” I rarely pay attention to these measurements. In place of measuring cups, I prefer eyeballing and taste-testing to get the right proportions and flavor. This is not to say that you shouldn’t measure your ingredients at all. Rather, you can make trade-offs between precision and efficiency, as most recipes will taste fine if you add a little more or little less of the ingredients that the recipe calls for. In fact, not following the exact measurements gives you the opportunity to fine-tune the taste of your food to your liking, a luxury not afforded when eating out.
Keep an open mind
Cooking is a form of creative art. The kitchen is your canvas, the cooking utensils are your drawing implements, and the culinary delight at the end is a result of all the chopping, dicing, slicing, sauteeing, boiling, brush strokes, pencil lines, and paint splotches on your once-blank canvas. You can paint whatever food your mind can dream of, or take an existing recipe and add your own interpretation around it. For any recipe, there exists countless variations of it. It’s up to you to be creative, to make the food you like, and to continue discover new recipes, new ways of cooking, and new kitchen tools that will help you prepare your masterpiece.