Top 10 Tips for Being a Better Cook

24 Aug

I mostly taught myself to cook.  Though my family is full of excellent cooks, my mom in particular, and I grew up with food made from scratch, I didn’t really learn to cook until my second year in college when I moved out of the dorms.  At first, I made a lot of pasta, eggs, quesadillas, and lots of things out of boxes and cans.  I had no real idea of how to properly prepare vegetables, or how to make an omelet, my own soup, or a marinara sauce.  There are some things that have definitely helped me in my quest to learn to cook.  If you are on a mission to learn to cook or be a better cook, the following tips may be as useful to you as they have been to me.

  1. Buy yourself some cookbooks. The internet is a great resource for recipes, but there’s nothing like thumbing through a cookbook to get ideas and inspiration for trying something new.
  2. Set a goal of making at least one new dish per week. Shooting for this goal, or surpassing it, will keep you out of a rut and help you learn faster by exposing you to a variety of ingredients and techniques.  In no time, you’ll have a reliable repertoire of dishes you’ll feel confident making for yourself and others.
  3. Don’t be afraid to fail. You will have the inevitable screw-up, so accept that.  The first time I made chocolate chip cookies, I didn’t realize that cookie dough expands as it bakes, so I made giant balls of dough and ended up with huge cookies.  Not such a disaster, since they were still chocolate chip cookies!  My family still makes fun of me for it.  In the words of the great Julia Child, “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure.  In cooking you’ve got to have a “What the hell?” attitude.”  Now that’s some sage advice.
  4. Keep it simple. Rome was not built in a day, and you will not become a master cook in a day.  Trying to do too much too soon will set you up for frustration.
  5. Don’t get hung up on following recipes exactly. When baking, being exact is important because baking is more scientific than cooking.  You need exact proportions of things like flour, liquid, and baking soda in order for your baked goods to come out right.  However, cooking is much more flexible.  Look at recipes as templates–good ideas that can be adjusted according to ingredients you have on hand or simply your own personal preferences.  For example, if you don’t like cilantro, don’t feel obligated to use it in a recipe.  Replace it with an herb that you like or just don’t use any herbs.  It’s really up to you.  You’re the boss in the kitchen.  Remember, no one’s watching you, so do what you want.
  6. Watching cooking shows has been very valuable for me because you can observe techniques and pick up lots of helpful information it might take you a while to learn otherwise.  I learned to chop onions, garlic, and other vegetables by watching people like Giada de Laurentiis on her show Everyday Italian on the Food Network.  I learned lots of other things from her as well, like how to properly cook pasta and get your fish to come out perfectly every time.  I also love Ina Garten and her show Barefoot Contessa. She and Giada both have excellent cookbooks, but you can also find their recipes on the Food Network website.
  7. Don’t think of cooking as drudgery, and you’ll do it more often. Not everyone shares this view, of course, but I view cooking as an important form of caring for myself and others.  There’s really nothing like eating something awesome you’ve made for yourself to make you feel pampered.
  8. If you have a local farmer’s market, check it out sometime. An old friend convinced me to start going with her, and through this experience I learned a lot about food and I started experimenting more in the kitchen.  I learned what’s in season when, which also helps me know what to buy at the grocery store.  Buying in season generally means better quality and less expensive produce.   You want to stay away from peaches in December, for example.  They’ll be expensive and will have no flavor.  Only buy cherries in the summer, or you’ll pay out the nose.  Before I started going to the farmer’s market, I had no idea that kale and swiss chard are mostly winter vegetables, that figs are best in July and August, and that apples start appearing in the late summer, early fall.  I also started cooking with vegetables I had never tried before.  I had never thought of eating kale until I found some beautiful purple kale at the farmer’s market and decided I had to find some way to use it.  So, I bought it and made omelets.
  9. Enlist the power of Google to help you learn. If there’s something you don’t know how to do, Google it.  If you have ingredients you don’t know what to do with, Google them and it will find a recipe for you.
  10. Plan ahead. I like to use Sundays as my day to make food for the week.  You don’t need to cook all your meals in one day, but it’s helpful to get a head start by cooking up some soup or making a casserole.  You can also use any blocks of time you have to pre-chop vegetables, cook rice or other grains, cook beans, etc. to use on the fly during the week when the last thing you feel like doing is chopping and you don’t have 2 hours to cook beans.
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