In the current economy, many people have started cooking more at home. Many more people wish they could cook, but are intimidated or frustrated by cooking. It doesn’t have to be that way. Cooking at home doesn’t have to be difficult or even that much more time consuming than driving to a restaurant and waiting for someone to take your order and deliver your food. True, if you want to become a gourmet chef, it’s going to take a significant investment of time and resources. But if you just want to learn how to make good, quick meals at home, it’s easy to do so. Here are some tips.
Find several basic cookbooks that appeal to you: Get several cookbooks from the library or a used bookstore and read through them to find ones with recipes you like. You should also get a cookbook that teaches the fundamentals of cooking such as weights and measures, basic cooking techniques, and preparation and clean up tips. Books with exotic recipes are fine, but if you won’t eat them or have no idea how to prepare them then the cookbook will sit on the shelf unused. Get some basic cookbooks to start with and look on the Internet for even more simple recipes that appeal to you.
Take a class (or get help from a friend): Some people prefer to learn with others. If that’s the case, many community colleges or extension programs teach inexpensive or even free basic cooking classes. You usually learn the basics of cooking and one or two simple dishes. If you have a gifted friend, ask them to teach you the basics or to let you hang around while they cook so you can see how it’s done.
Give yourself plenty of time: When you’re just learning to cook, you don’t want to feel pressured. Make sure you have plenty of time to devote to reading the recipe and preparing the meal so you won’t feel rushed by your kids and spouse continually asking, “When is it going to be ready? We’re starving.” When you rush you make mistakes and leave things out, so give yourself plenty of time. Weekends and holidays are good times to practice your cooking.
Start with simple dishes: Don’t make Beef Wellington on your first foray into the kitchen. You will end up frustrated, angry, and disappointed when it turns out badly. Start with very simple dishes like casseroles, pasta dishes, salads, and easy chicken dishes. These require only the most basic of cooking skills and are easily mastered. As your confidence grows, work your way up to the more complicated stuff only if you want to.
Follow the recipe, at least in the beginning: It’s tempting to substitute or add ingredients in a recipe that you think could benefit from changes. However, when you’re just starting out with cooking, it’s better to follow the recipe exactly the first few times. This gives you an idea of what it should taste like and how it’s prepared and you’ll have a better idea of whether your proposed changes would really help. It’s the same when you start trying to reduce the fat, oil, and salt in a dish for health purposes. Only by knowing what it tastes like and how it’s prepared when made the “regular” way can you judge whether your alterations are helping or hurting and how the cooking process changes with lower fat ingredients.
Invest in proper tools: This does not mean that you run out and buy every small appliance known to man and invest in pricey cookware. Many cooking supplies such as measuring cups, mixing bowls, pots and pans, storage containers, knife sets, and crock pots can be found cheaply at yard sales and thrift stores. You can also buy perfectly serviceable utensils and pans from Target or Wal-Mart for little money. Look at the recipes you make the most and start with the tools needed to make those dishes. As your skills and needs grow you can invest in more and better equipment, but start simple in the beginning.
Cut your time by using pre-started ingredients: Yes, things like
pre-cooked chicken, bagged salads, pre-made hamburger patties, frozen vegetables, sauce in a jar, and rice mixes are more expensive than buying these things in their uncooked, unprepared forms but if time (or lack of skill) is a big issue for you, you can use them for quick meals. Chicken Alfredo made with pre-cooked chicken strips and jarred Alfredo sauce takes much less time and skill than actually cooking and cutting the chicken and making the sauce, but it still costs a lot less than buying it at Olive Garden.
Make what you like: Don’t get hung up on French cooking if you can’t stand French food. Make dishes that you’ll enjoy, even if it’s just spaghetti with meatballs. If you won’t eat it, then the time spent cooking is a waste.
Master the basics: Learn how to cook pasta and rice. Learn how to cook dried beans and bake potatoes. Learn how to stir fry and saute. These and other cooking techniques sound simple, but they are the foundation for many recipes. Once you get the basics down, you are in a great position to improve your skills.
Take notes as you go along: Note the things that went right with a dish and what went wrong. Note how you might like to change a recipe in the future. Do you want to add more or less seasoning, for example, or try a lower fat version? Keep a list of things you still need to learn to make the recipe turn out better. Mark down any questions that arise as you prepare the food, or any terms you need to look up. As you make your notes you’ll start to see where your strengths and weaknesses lie and you’ll be able to see what you’ve learned and what you still need to figure out.
Bonus tip: Practice really does make perfect. Even the best chefs screw up a dish occasionally. Don’t beat yourself up if your efforts aren’t that great at first. Cooking is a skill that must be learned, just like learning an instrument or a language. You won’t know everything about cooking after you make your first meal, nor should you be expected to. The more you cook, the better you will get. Don’t give up over a few burned or odd tasting dishes. Learn and try again.
Cooking at home doesn’t have to be a big scary deal. Simple meals like pasta, baked potatoes with vegetables, salads, or even hamburgers are fine to start with. As your skills, tastes, and kitchen supplies grow, you can branch out to different foods and things that require more skill to prepare. The point is to get in the kitchen and try. Cooking at home saves you a ton of money over eating out all the time and it’s usually healthier, too.