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? To some, the idea of even turning on the oven can cause panic. Cooking can be intimidating, and many claim to be bad cooks without even having attempted a recipe.
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 under-cooked 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 or widely known tips in the cooking world, but if you’ve never worked with cooking tools, measurements, or certain ingredients before, it may be new. Either way, I hope that these tips inspire non-cooks to try their hand at a basic recipe or two.
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, use the ½ cup. If it calls for 2/3 cup of flour, dump in 1 1/3 cups.
- Use a butter knife to level off the top of the cup when measuring dry ingredients so that you’re dumping in an accurate amount of an ingredient. Scrape the excess ingredient back into its container by running the knife flat across the top of the cup.
- Before using a glass measuring cup for liquids, 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 the glass to the correct line with your ingredient.
Ovens and Stoves
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. Also, make sure that no pots or pans are stored in the oven before you preheat. 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”. The oven will beep once it has reached its desired temperature.
Work on prepping your recipe while it preheats. A 350 degree oven takes a few minutes to preheat while a higher temperature recipe (example: 425 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 usually necessary unless your recipe calls for 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 to cooking. Electric ovens will heat faster than gas. Make sure that if you're using a gas oven that you turn the knob all the way off when you are finished cooking to prevent gas from seeping into your house or apartment. If you're using an electric stove, be sure not to touch or clean the stove top until the red indicator light turns off saying that it is cool enough to touch.
Say you’re out on your own for the first time, and your mom has cooked you your meals your entire life. You’ve been inside a grocery store, but you've never done a weekly shopping trip on your own. Here are some tips for buying food for the first time.
- Eggs come in more than one size. You’re going to see medium, large, jumbo, etc. There are several brands of eggs too. They also come in white or brown. If you’re baking, it’s best to go for the large eggs. If you're just cooking them for breakfast, though, any size will do.
- 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 them both, but if you're on a budget, look for the generic version of a product near its brand name.
- 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 80-90% lean. It is much healthier and easier to work with. Meat that is 70% lean or less is going to create a lot of grease when you cook. As for bacon, study the package to see how much white fat surrounds each strip. Look for the package that contains the most pink. The same goes for chicken.
- Fruits 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 one; 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, peaches, plums, and nectarines should be firm to the touch. Watermelons should have a big yellow spot on the bottom of the rind. Vegetables should be a bold, bright color in most cases. Use your best judgment, and stay away from the rotten stuff.
Until you have enough practice in, your best chance of executing a perfect receipt is to 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, it's going to set you back and potentially ruin your finished product.
YouTube videos and cooking shows also help. You have the added benefit of watching a more experienced cook's technique. They will feed you tips, show you how the ingredients should look at each step, and give you an idea of the best tools to use for the job. You really should only attempt simple recipes at first, but once you become more confident, these videos can help you through more difficult ones.
Don’t rush. If a recipe tells you to refrigerate the dough for an hour, do it. Don't try to make something cook faster by putting it at a higher temperature. 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 cookie batter, but if you need two cups of flour, add the flour.
How to Boil An Egg
The first time I ever made hard boiled 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 a little more involve than just boiling and draining, 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 lid rattle).
- Remove the pot from the heat but keep covered. 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. I like to place the bowl of ice water in the fridge since the ice will melt fast.
- If it’s Easter, go ahead and dye them. Otherwise, peel them for deviled eggs, salads, or just eat them plain or with salt and pepper.
Pancakes are one of the first breakfast foods that I tried to make. These are easy to prepare but take some practice learning how to flip and cook through without burning them. I like to use biscuit mix. It's a little more involved than just adding Bisquick and water which makes them feel more homemade. Most biscuit mix 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 - about 50 mixes with a large mixing spoon). Preheat your skillet. Keep it on a medium setting. Spray or butter the pan. Drop in a large spoonful of batter. Let it cook 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 (don't try to flip it into the air like you've seen in the cartoon). Let it sit on the opposite side for a minute or two. If the top doesn't look done, you can flip it again for a few seconds. Just keep checking it. Slide it onto a place when you think both sides are done. 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 about seven pancakes so cut the ingredients in half if you are only cooking for yourself and don't want a bunch of leftovers.
Scrambled Eggs and Omelets
You only need two ingredients for this one: eggs and milk. Two eggs makes a good sized portion for one person.
Crack the eggs 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 clump together and are fluffy (up to five minutes). If you like them cheesy, throw a piece of cheese on top, turn off the stove and let the cheese 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 omelet for breakfast, pour the same mixture into the pan, but don't mix it. Let it cook, running your spatula around the edge of the pan to keep it from sticking. When the center looks solid and bubbly, 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 omelet and a small skillet for a thicker one.
Making a grilled cheese sandwich isn't difficult, but they can burn easily. So, making them will teach you how to pay attention to your cooking and learn how fast food cooks on a stove top.
Place your cheese (and any other fillings such as tomatoes or whatever else you like on your grilled cheese) between two slices 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 cheese to melt. Keep flipping it over and over until the bread is browned to your preference and the cheese is melted.
Chicken Stir Fry
Ingredients: Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1-2 pieces of chicken breast.
1 bag of frozen (thawed) or two cups of fresh vegetables.
1 cup of sauce (soy sauce, orange sauce, teriyaki, etc.)
1 cup of rice (optional)
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 they're browned on all sides. Remove the chicken from the pan and set it aside. Add some more olive oil in the pan. Throw in your vegetables. Stir until the vegetables are soft. Add your chicken back in the pan, and stir it all around. Add your sauce. Cook until the sauce starts to bubble. Then, serve with rice if desired.
Ground Meat (amount varies depending on how many burgers you are going to make)
1 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 won't stay together) and a slice of bread shredded into tiny pieces (I recommend using a cheese grater. Also, don’t use the entire slice if you’re making less than two burgers. I like to use the heel of the bread that would otherwise go unused). Use your hands to mix it all around. Shape into patties. Season with salt and pepper. Throw it onto the grill (I like to use a George Foreman), 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. Serve on a bun with your desired toppings.
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, depending on the type of pan you are using (the mix will tell you). 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. 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 stove. 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.
- 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 gears. Then, squeeze the handles together until you hear a click. Keep squeezing with one hand, and turn the knob with the other. If it doesn’t seem to be cutting through the lid of the can, stop and re-position 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. They're sharp.
- Defrost. If your meat is frozen, give it plenty of time to thaw before cooking. You should most likely take it out of the freezer the night before or 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 thawing.
- 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 16 minutes, depending on taste and the size of the noodle. 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 dipping my hands in the powder like a gymnast 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 your next batch, and one cooling already baked cookies.
- Time out the preparation of a meal so that all courses finish cooking around the same time. Example: If you're making chicken, rice, vegetables, and dinner rolls, preheat the oven for the chicken first. Decide when to start boiling the water for the rice and vegetables so that they finish around the same time that the chicken is done. Then, figure out how long the dinner rolls have to cook in the oven so that they are finished by the time you serve the meal.
The grill that I use to make hamburgers, hot dogs, and even grilled cheese.
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 confidence you will build 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 meals or embarrassing cooking stories in the comments below.