Eight Tips for Beginner Cooks
The learning curve for beginner cooks can be steep; in the absence of any cooking experience, executing even the simplest recipes can be intimidating and stressful. Using these eight easy tips, even cooking novices can gain the confidence they need to begin tackling their first recipes. By understanding the fundamentals and mastering basic techniques, cooking will become a fun and relaxing past time that will save you money and impress your friends and family.
1. Purchase the Right Cookware
It's easy to waste time and money by purchasing bad cookware that is either poorly designed or wrong for your specific needs. When choosing your first cookware, consider what qualities are most important to you (i.e. cost, ease of maintenance, efficient heat conduction) and then learn to find high-quality pieces that will hold up over time.
Stainless steel cookware is fairly low-maintenance - the surface is not porous and will not crack or deteriorate over time. Stainless steel is also dishwasher safe (though washing with warm soapy water is preferable) and can be scrubbed without ruining the finish, so long as the proper scrubbing material is used. When purchasing stainless steel pots or pans, look for cookware with solid, heavy bottoms. Even if the bottom of a pot or pan seems level in the store, unless it is solid and heavy, it will warp over time and start rolling all over your cook top when heated (making cooking not just irritating but dangerous). The added weight on the bottom of most pots and pans also usually means that heat will be distributed evenly during cooking, which is helpful. If your budget allows, also consider cookware with aluminum or copper bottoms. Because stainless steel is not an ideal metal for conduction, cookware with aluminum or copper will offer the durability of stainless steel while still maximizing conduction.
Non-stick or Teflon coated pans are a bit trickier to care for, but quite convenient, especially for low-fat cooking. The advantage of non-stick coated pans is exactly what the name implies; the Teflon coating prevents foods from sticking, reducing the need for oils and fats in cooking. Unlike stainless steel, Teflon will crack and chip over time, and needs to be scraped and scrubbed with materials that won't expedite that process. Plastic utensils and soft sponges will prevent cracks and chips, extending the life of your pan. Once the finish does start to chip and crack, it's safest to discard your cookware - there's nothing appetizing (or healthful) about getting small flakes of non-stick coating in your food.
The highest-maintenance (though by far most versatile) of common cookware is cast iron. All new cast iron is coated in a wax for shipping that must be removed prior to use. Scrubbing in hot water with soap and a steel wool pad will remove the wax. Cast iron must be cured at least once a year, even if the cookware was cured at the factory. Curing cookware might seem intimidating, but is really quite simple. All it requires is rubbing a thin layer of a neutral food-grade fat or oil, then baking the cookware at 300-350 degree Fahrenheit for several hours. This process is well worth it, as cast iron is versatile and easy to clean once cured. The ability of cast iron to hold temperature makes it ideal for dishes requiring long cook times, such as stew or chili.
2. Accessorize Your Cookware
The right accessories are as important to successful cooking as the right cookware. To get started, there are four basic things you'll need: a knife, a cutting board, spoons and spatulas.
There are many dangerous things about a kitchen; among the top dangers is a bad knife. Before attempting to chop anything, any aspiring cook first needs to buy a sturdy, well-made knife that can be sharpened. Though it's not intuitive, dull knives are much more dangerous that sharp ones because they require a cook to apply more pressure during slicing and dicing, taking away from the control he/she has over where the knife lands when it finally breaks through. Additionally, dull knives can slip along the surface of food and cut fingers in place of produce. So unless you want your cooking experience ending with a trip to the emergency room, invest in a good knife and learn how to use it.
To keep knives sharp, a good cook will also invest in a wooden chopping block or cutting board. Unlike glass or hard plastic, wooden cutting surfaces will not dull the blade of a knife. Thick chopping blocks are durable but heavy, whereas thinner, lighter wooden boards will be gentle on your knives and easier to move around the kitchen. For cutting raw meats, you'll want a light gel board that won't be as difficult to clean as your wood board, and therefore won't harbor bacteria that could contaminate food later on. Just remember to never cut your raw meat on your wooden cutting board, as wood is porous and can harbor bacteria.
When choosing spoons and spatulas, there are two things to consider. First, the heat resistance of whatever material the utensil is made of, and second, whether it will be too abrasive for the cookware you'll be using. When using non-stick cookware, plastic, rubber and wood are best because they won't leave scratches on the surface of the cookware. When using anything else, wood and metal are preferable because they won't melt or absorb in whatever you're cooking,
As with cookware, always keep in mind how to care for your utensils and cutting boards. Know what can be put in the dishwasher, how hot things can get, and when things should be thrown away.
3. Keep Your Kitchen Clean
A clean kitchen means a happy kitchen, or rather, a happy cook. Keeping your kitchen tidy will free up work space for you to comfortably set out the ingredients and equipment you need to cook successfully. Working in a crowded or cluttered kitchen can lead to accidents like spills that will only add to the stress of learning to cook. Give yourself room to work - the first step to any recipe I make is always 'make sure your kitchen is clean'.
If space is an issue even when your kitchen is spotless, consider using your dining room table to prep ingredients, especially if your dining room is not carpeted. Other alternatives include setting up a fold-away table, or purchasing a roll-away island or cart that can be tucked away when not in use.
4. Safety First
Besides keeping knives sharp, there are several things you can do to minimize your risk in the kitchen. First, have a fire extinguisher on hand on the off chance something goes wrong. Fire extinguishers are both cheap and readily available; having one on hand is the mark of a responsible, careful cook. Second, know what can cause fires, as prevention is the best means of fire control.
Oil, heated past a certain temperature, will catch on fire, as will food left too long on a burner or in an oven. When working with oil at high temperatures, keep a large lid or some other large flat surface around to clamp over a flaming pot or pan in case of fire. Clamping a lid over flames will also work for small fires from burnt food. Most importantly, always trust your judgment. If you feel you can not safely put out a fire with a lid, use your fire extinguisher. If you feel you can not safely put out a fire with a fire extinguisher, call the fire department.
Another major threat to a cook's safety is water. Wet food put in to oil will splatter and can easily cause burns; to reduce the risk of being splattered by hot oil, dry all food destined for hot oil, and use a utensil to drop food in to oil when necessary. It's also easy to forget about steam produced by water in food during cooking, but burns from steam are more serious than burns caused even by boiling water. When opening covered pots or pans, or when opening the oven during cooking, keep your arms and face clear of the path of steam.
5. Chop, Dice and Slice
Once you are fully equipped with everything you need to start cooking, you'll want to start learning the best ways to use these tools to save you time and headache.
Chopping, dicing and slicing are the three basic ways to break down any food. Some recipes call for very precise cutting, and some don't. A good way to know whether you need to fuss over perfect cuts or just hack away until everything is 'close enough' is the cook time. Perfect cuts are necessary for shorter cooking times so that everything cooks evenly. If you're throwing everything in to a pot to simmer for several hours, there's no need to waste your time on even cuts because everything is going to be cooked well past the point of just done.
For every food that needs cutting, there is a 'path of least resistance' - an easy way to quickly and safely chop, dice or slice. A quick internet search on how best to execute whatever it is you're working on will save lots of time and hassle in the kitchen, keeping your cooking experience as enjoyable as possible.
As a general rule of thumb, know when to fuss, and when to relax.
6. Hot and Cold, Wet and Dry
If you've ever tried to make french toast or a grilled sandwich an ended up with a soggy mess, then turned up the heat only to end up with blackened bread still soggy in the middle, it's because the amount of liquid and the heat that you're cooking with is not balanced. Knowing what effect you want to have on the food you're cooking will help you avoid under or over cooked food.
The amount of heat applied to food does not determine the speed at which it cooks, but rather, how it cooks. For example, cooking onions slowly with low heat will cause them to release their juices in a process known as sweating. Similarly, bacon cooked slowly will release its fat in a process known as rendering. If you want crispy bacon or browned onions, you need more heat applied faster and in the absence of liquid (in this case oil). If you attempt to make food crispy, but it ends up soggy, it's because you either had too little heat or too much liquid.
The first step to proper cooking therefore, is proper heat control. As mentioned earlier in this article, a well-made pot or pan will go a long way towards accomplishing this. Once a pan has come to what you believe is the correct temperature, avoid the temptation to make major adjustments to the heat if your cooking doesn't go as initially planned. Instead, adjust in small increments and wait to see how much the heat changes. This will prevent the temperature from fluctuating up and down too quickly, which could lead to unevenly cooked food.
Another common mistake to avoid is adding too many cold ingredients to a pot or pan at once. This can happen when a pan is overcrowded, or when the ingredients being added are straight from the refrigerator. Consider, for example, the soggy french toast. Even if the perfect amount of butter is applied, and the pan comes to the perfect temperature, if a cook were to then add four large, cold pieces of toast to the pan, he/she would drop the temperature of the pan, leading the toast to cook too slowly.
The amount of liquid used in cooking is a balancing act with the amount of heat. For beginner cooks, following recipes carefully can go a long way towards keeping food properly lubricated without turning your frying into a confit. As a general rule of thumb, use enough liquid to accomplish what you're trying to accomplish, and no more.
Not every recipe is perfect, and not every person's tastes are the same. Seasoning food starts at the very first step of cooking; salting and peppering throughout cooking will bring out flavor, while waiting until the end of cooking will leave your food tasting either bland or salty.
The best way to season food is very simple; taste it. Taste it whenever you can to make sure that you're developing big, rich flavors. It's also helpful to know what foods will take lots of salt. Most starches, such as pasta, rice, or potatoes, will take a lot of seasoning before tasting too strong. The same is true for foods with lots of fat, though it's important to consider whether salt has already been added, such as with cheeses or salt-cured meat. Anything light or watery, in general, will not take in too much salt without tasting salty.
Once you're comfortable adding salt and pepper, begin experimenting with other seasonings. Draw from other recipes for inspiration - there is a reason why certain spices are used to season similar foods. Also consider adding depth to dishes by using chicken or beef stocks in place of water, or rendered fat in place of oil. The more you experiment, the better you'll become at thinking of creative ways to spice up your food.
8. Inevitable Failure
Mistakes when learning to cook are inevitable, so be prepared. Have extra ingredients on hand, or practice preparing dishes ahead of time when cooking for friends. If you're cooking for a dinner party, stock up on wine and appetizers to keep your guests happy in the event of a mishap. Serving lots of salty cheese and crackers with wine will have the benefit of deadening your guests' palates, making most of your minor mistakes undetectable.
As a last resort, keep the take-out menus close at hand and don't be afraid to admit defeat. Having a laid-back attitude about cooking will help you weather the ups and downs of learning to cook without becoming discouraged or defeated. If you keep a positive attitude and learn from your mistakes, even the worst cooking disasters won't keep you from trying again.