Tips for First Time Cooks
Do you make a mean bowl of cereal? Can you spread peanut butter and jelly on a sandwich? Is that the furthest you’ve ever taken your cooking skills? The idea of turning on an oven can invoke anxiety in some people. They don’t want to embarrass themselves by cooking a terrible meal, but they’re also ashamed that they’ve never tried.
The truth is that anyone who has ever cooked, who is good at cooking or has cooked on a regular basis had to start somewhere. They’ve had their share of charred meat, soggy bread and limp vegetables. If all you want to do is get a head start in learning to cook or have a handy guide available to help you along, follow these tips below. A lot of these may sound like common sense to most cooks, but if you’ve never worked with cooking tools, measurements or certain ingredients before, this may all be new to you.
- Learn to Measure – Good cooks can eyeball their measurements and get their recipe to turn out right. Don’t try this until you’re confident in your cooking. Get yourself a set of measuring spoons and cups and measure your ingredients right. Most cups come in these four sizes:
- ¼ cup
- ½ cup
- 2/3 cup
- 1 cup
Most measuring spoons include:
- ¼ tsp (teaspoon)
- ½ tsp (teaspoon)
- 1 tsp (teaspoon)
- 1 tbsp. (tablespoon)
Sometimes you’ll want to double a recipe. An easy way to do this is to just measure out two spoon or cupfuls of your ingredient (example, dump in two cups of sugar instead of one). However, it’s helpful to just know how to double your measurements so that you just need to scoop out one cup of an ingredient. For example, say you’re baking cookies, and the recipe calls for ¼ cup of brown sugar to make three dozen cookies, but you want to make six dozen cookies. Instead of mixing two bowls of cookie dough, just double all of your ingredients. If it calls for ¼ cup of brown sugar, dumb in ½ cup. If it calls for 2/3 cup of flour, dump in 1 1/3 cups.
- Use a butter knife to smooth out the top of the cup when measuring dry ingredients so that you’re dumping in an accurate amount of an ingredient.
- Before using a large, glass measuring cup, make sure you are looking at the correct type of measurement (if you’re going by cups, look at the cups side of the measurements vs. liters/milliliters) so that you’re filling up to the correct line.
- Preheat Your Oven
When you’re making hot foods, the oven is going to be your best friend. You may be a microwave master, but ovens are a different story.
Before baking, ovens have to be preheated. Learn how to preheat the oven you are using. Typically, you press the “preheat” button, choose the temperature that is called for in your recipe and press the “start” button. Make sure the oven reads, “preheat”. Work on prepping your recipe while it preheats. A 350 degree oven takes a few minutes to preheat while a higher temperature receipt (example: 420 degrees) can take 10-15 minutes to preheat. It’s safe to slide in your recipe when the oven beeps. It will then stay at that temperature unless you adjust it or press the button to turn off the oven all together.
To use the stove top, no preheating is necessary. Some recipes will tell you to warm the skillet before adding your food. If that’s the case, then do so. Otherwise, spray that pan down with Pam or butter and get cooking.
- Know Your Ingredients
Say you’re out on your own for the first time and your mom has cooked you your meals your entire life. You’ve never gone to the store to pick up some groceries. You’ve been inside a grocery store. You have the candy shelf next to the checkout line memorized, but that’s really all you’ve ever paid attention to. Here are some things that are going to stop you in your tracks your first time shopping for groceries on your own.
- Eggs come in more than one size. You’re at least going to see medium, large and jumbo. There are several brands of eggs too (do they separate the chickens by brand at the farm or something)? If you’re baking, it’s best to go for the large eggs. Otherwise, choose whatever size or brand that makes you happy.
- Milk is another choice you have to make. You might have grown up on whole or skim milk. Maybe you’re into the new Almond milk. When baking, though, 2% is the way to go. Any other kind of milk can change the consistency of a recipe.
- Brand names or generic? This is ultimately going to be up to you. A lot of generic products work just as well and taste just as good as brand names, but you may still prefer the brands. The only way to know for sure is to try the generic.
- Fatty meat. When going through the packages of meat, try to select the ones with the least fat. For ground meat, the lean percentage should be marked on the label. Look for meat that is ideally 90% lean. It is much healthier and easier to work with.
- Fruit and vegetables are tricky to choose from. Pinterest will give you so many tips for choosing the best produce. Your grandma probably also has a method for selecting the ripest melons. I really can’t say that any method is foolproof. Sometimes you get a good haul; sometimes you don’t. I can’t say what makes a fruit or vegetable good, but I definitely know when to look out for the bad. Look for bruises on the skin, discolorations or unusual sizes. Unless you’re going to eat them all within a day or two, bananas should be at least a little green when you buy them. Cherries are best when they’re a dark red. Apples and other soft skinned fruits should be firm to the touch. Vegetables should be a bold, bright color in most cases. Use your best judgment to stay away from the rotten stuff.
- Follow Directions
- Get yourself a cookbook. I prefer ones that show you a picture of every single recipe so that you know what it’s supposed to look like when it’s done.
- Make sure you have not only the ingredients but the cooking tools necessary to make a recipe work. If you get halfway through and find out that you need a flour sifter or special kind of spatula, you’re not going to be happy with yourself.
- Don’t rush. If a recipe tells you to refrigerate the dough for an hour, do it. If you want to race the preheat setting on the oven, you’re going to be sorry.
- Omitting ingredients sometimes works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Learn which ingredients are important and which aren’t. Flavorings are not that big a deal. If you don’t like raisins, don’t add it to the bread batter, but if you need two cups of flour, add the flour.
- What do you mean you’ve never boiled an egg? Simple recipes to start with.
- Hard boiled eggs. The first time I ever made hardboiled eggs, they did not turn out. I first Googled, “How long does it take to boil an egg?” I got answers ranging from five minutes to 30 minutes. All of those can’t be right. Needless to say, I threw away about half a dozen eggs that day. Even though nobody was watching, that was very embarrassing. When I got my first cookbook, it showed me a flawless method that has worked every time that I have tried it. It’s kind of involved, but at least you won’t be wasting your time.
- Fill a pot with water. Make sure that the water is deep enough to cover the eggs over an inch above their tops.
- Place the eggs in the water (gently).
- Cover the pot and set the pot on the stove. Turn on the burner and wait for it to boil.
- Once it is on a rolling boil (not just a few bubbles but bubbling so rapidly that it makes the pot cover rattle).
- Remove the pot from the heat. Let the eggs sit in the hot water for 15 minutes.
- Remove the eggs from the water and let them soak in a bowl of ice water for a few minutes (if you want a definite time frame, go for five) until they’ve cooled.
- If it’s Easter, go ahead and dye them. Otherwise, peel them for deviled eggs, salads or whatever you’re making.
- Pancakes. These are easy to prepare but take some practice with the skillet part. Get yourself some biscuit mix. Most boxes have a pancake recipe on the back. Here is the recipe on the box that I often buy:
2 cups of biscuit and baking mix
1 1/3 cups of milk
2 tablespoons of granulated sugar
1 large egg
Mix it all together (Not too much. Keep it lumpy). Preheat your skillet. Keep it on a medium setting. Spray or butter the pan. Drop in a large spoonful of batte (use a plastic mixing spoon, not one of those large tablespoons in your drawer). Let it sit on the skillet for a minute or two. Soon, little air bubbles will form at the top of the batter. Once there are several bubbles throughout the pancake, slide a spatula under it. If it feels firm underneath, flip it over as fast as you can. Let it sit on that side for about half as long. If you feel you need to flip it again to brown the top half thoroughly, go ahead. Don’t be discouraged if the first pancake doesn’t come out right. The first one never does. If your second pancake looks decent, you know you’re doing it right. One batter makes enough pancakes for about two grown people so cut the ingredients in half if you are only cooking for yourself.
- Scrambled Eggs
You only need two ingredients for this one: eggs and milk. Two eggs makes a good sized portion for one person.
Crack them into a bowl. Then, pour some milk over the eggs (This is one measurement that I just eyeball. For one serving, I use about as much milk as I would for a bowl of cereal. If you use too much, don’t worry. It’s just that the eggs will be runnier).
Beat the mixture with a fork until the yolks break and the mix is a dull yellow color. Heat up your skillet on a medium setting, and grease it with butter or spray. Then, pour in the entire mixture.
Once you hear it start to sizzle, start mixing with a spatula until they look done. If you like them cheesy, throw a piece of cheese on top, turn off the stove and let it melt before serving. (Throw a lid over top of the skillet if you want it to melt faster).
If you get ambitious and would rather have an omlet, let the mixture sit in the pan. Don’t fluff it. Just run your spatula around the sides of the pan as it cooks. When the middle doesn’t seem watery any longer, throw on your fillings (cheese, meat, vegetables, etc.). Then, slide the spatula under the omelet and fold it over the other side.
Use a medium pan for a thinner omlet and a small skillet for a thicker one.
- Grilled Cheese – You should know how to put one of these together. Place your cheese (and any other fillings such as tomatoes or whatever else you like on your grilled cheese) between two pieces of bread. Butter both sides of the bread or just spray your pan with cooking spray. Set it on medium heat. Then, set your sandwich on top and cover with a lid. Let it cook for a few minutes. Then, flip it over with a spatula. Let the other side cook. Press down on the top of the bread to allow the inside to cook. Keep flipping it over and over until it is cooked to your ideal darkness.
- Chicken Stir Fry –
Ingredients: Extra Virgin Olive Oil
One or two pieces of chicken breast.
One bag of frozen (thawed) or two cups of fresh vegetables.
One cup of sauce (soy sauce, orange sauce, teriyaki, etc.)
Coat a skillet with extra virgin olive oil (two or three tablespoons). Set the burner on a low to medium setting. Cut up some fresh vegetables or defrost a bag of frozen vegetables. If you forget to defrost, that’s okay. Definitely defrost your chicken, though. Cut it up into little pieces. Then, throw it in the hot skillet. Stir the pieces around until it’s cooked through. Remove it from the pan and set it aside. Add some more olive oil. Throw in your vegetables. Stir until you can cut through them with the end of the spatula. Add your chicken back in there, and stir it all around. After a minute or two, add your sauce. Cook until the sauce starts to bubble. Then serve.
- Hamburgers –
Ground Meat (amount varies depending on how many burgers you are going to make)
A slice of bread
Salt and Pepper
Defrost your meat. Toss it into a bowl. Add a squirt of ketchup, a squirt of mustard, an egg (don’t use a whole egg if you’re making less than two hamburgers or your meat will be hard to work with) and a slice of bread shredded into tiny pieces (I recommend a cheese grater. Also, don’t use the entire slice if you’re making less than two burgers. I like to use the end slice of the loaf that you would otherwise feed to the birds). Use your hands to mix it all around. If you’re making one burger, break off a part of the mixture and form into a patty. Season with salt and pepper. Throw it onto the grill (I like to use a George Forman), in the oven or in a skillet. Cook to your preference. They say not to flip it too often. If you don’t like a lot of grease, press down on the meat with a spatula to squeeze it out. If you like cheese on it, let it melt once cooked through while the grill, oven or skillet is still hot.
- Cake –
One box of cake mix
Various amounts of the following three ingredients depending on the mix (read the back of the box): usually eggs, vegetable oil and water
Grab a cake mix for your first baking project, and give it a try. You only need three other ingredients besides the mix (not including the icing): vegetable oil, eggs and water. Measure your ingredients, pour them into the bowl and mix with a hand mixer. Use the directions on the back of the box to help you along. Don’t forget to preheat your oven and grease your pan as directed (I like to use Crisco or some generic form of it). Bake as directed. Use the toothpick method if you’re not sure if it’s done. Insert a toothpick into the center of the cake while still in the oven (use your oven mitts/potholders please. Don’t burn yourself). Pull it out. If there’s cake sticking to the toothpick, leave it in the oven for another few minutes. Keep inserting the toothpick until no cake sticks to it. Take it out of the oven and let it cool for a few hours before icing.
- Rookie Mistakes and Tips
- Don’t set your plastic utensils down on the hot stovetop. I’ve burned oven mitts, spatulas and food by setting them down on the hot stovetop. I have an electric oven so there’s no flame to remind you that the stove is on. Make that part of your routine to shut off the burner as soon as you’re done cooking. It takes time to cool down anyway, and by the time you’re ready to do the dishes, the pans will be cool enough to clean.
- Don’t boil soup. Soup should be heated until it’s hot, not boiling. I don’t know why, but everyone advises against it. So, I don’t do it.
- Be careful with the can opener. Position the can opener around the (clean – rinse it off under the sink) lid of the can. Make sure it’s tight between the two wheels. Then, squeeze the handles together until you hear a click. Keep squeezing with one hand. Then, turn the knob with the other. If it doesn’t seem to be cutting through the lid of the can. Stop and reposition the can opener. Try to squeeze it tight again. When you turn the knob, there should be a smooth cut around the lid. When you get around to the other side of the can, stop about a half inch from where you made your first cut. Then, pull back on the can with the edge of a spoon or knife. Don’t touch the edges of the lid, or you’ll have blood in your vegetables.
- Defrost. Give your meat plenty of time to thaw before cooking. You should most likely take it out in the morning and let it defrost in the refrigerator all day. If it’s still pretty frozen an hour or two before you’re ready to start cooking, take it out and let it thaw at room temperature. Just be sure to keep it on the plate in case the contaminated juices melt off of the meat while
- Read the labels at the grocery store. This is something that I still mess up. I’ve bought corn oil when I wanted vegetable oil. I buy wheat noodles when I just wanted regular noodles. Mistakes happen. Try to remember to look at the front of the box before you buy.
- Drain your noodles after boiling. Water should really be on a “rolling boil” when you dump in your food. That’s when you can start timing it according to the bag. Different noodles take different amounts of time to cook. For example, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese noodles always take 7 ½ minutes to cook whereas pasta noodles can take up to 12 minutes, depending on taste. Read the back of your package to find out how long to cook your noodles. Stir them frequently to keep them from sticking, but don’t stir constantly. Always drain the water from the noodles after you’re done boiling. Dump them into a strainer, and shake the strainer around to get off the excess water before serving.
- Flour your hands when working with sticky dough. I throw a few spoonfuls on a small plate and keep dabbing my hands in the powder while I roll dough balls for cookies.
- Keep two different cutting boards handy: one for meat and one for vegetables, to avoid contamination.
- When making cookies, keep them small (roll into small spheres or dump a small tablespoon onto the tray), and they will turn out softer. Try to have at least three cookie sheet available so that you can create an assembly line of one tray baking, one to prep. and one cooling.
- Time out the preparation of a meal so that they all finish around the same time, giving you a few minutes to tend to each recipe as they finish cooking. Example: throw your chicken in the oven, start preparing your rice about halfway through the chicken’s cooking time while boiling your water to boil your vegetables which will start cooking a few minutes before the chicken and rice are done. This will keep everything hot so that it is all ready to serve at the same time.
Now is the time to try your hand at cooking. Start slow and build your way up to harder recipes. The more successful the meals, the more you will build confidence in your cooking. Just take your time, follow directions, pay attention, and you may find that you have a knack for cooking. Good luck! Share your successful recipes or embarrassing cooking stories in the comments below.