Introduction: Basic Skills for Better Cooking
If you find cooking to be a stressful or confusing experience, you're not alone! I've taught lots of my friends to cook over the years and those are the major complaints they have.
While expertise in cooking really only comes with practice, you can greatly improve your cooking right now with very little effort! In this lesson, I'm going to cover some of my fundamental rules of cooking. :)
The main image for this lesson comes from How to Make Great Burgers at Home.
Follow the Recipe the First Time You Make It
I recommend reading a recipe all the way through and making a shopping list of the ingredients.
If it's your first time cooking something, I really do believe it's important to follow the recipe exactly. No leaving things out, no substitutions, no skipping steps in the recipe. All of those things are there for a reason, and you have no idea how changing one of those things will affect the final product.
After you've cooked it the first time, you'll be able to see how it should taste and find out what you did and didn't like. This will allow you to make informed changes the next time around!
For example, this could mean halving the amount of fish sauce in a recipe because it was too strong for you. Or maybe adding more of a certain spice because it was lacking.
This is essentially how I learned to cook - following recipes to learn about different cooking techniques and how different seasonings work together and with what. The more you do this, the easier it will be for you to come up with your own recipes and seasonings!
Prep Work Is Important
Above: the prepped ingredients for my Pressure Cooker Chicken Soup recipe
Multitasking can be hard for even experienced cooks! It's important to plan ahead and be organized so you can focus on cooking. (You know, instead of prepping three things at once while your pan gets too hot and burns something as you're digging around in a drawer for the spices you need. :P)
When I cook, I like to prep and cut all my vegetables and meats, measure out my spices, and make sure I have all ingredients ready and near to the stove when I start. It may seem like overkill, but it will make you much more organized and stop you from frantically multi-tasking when you realize you don't have an ingredient!
Also: don't feel obligated to put everything in tiny bowls like the photo above. That's just to make it look better for the camera! Typically all my veggies sit on the same cutting board and I put my spices near the stove to get ready. Nothing fancy happens during undocumented dinners. :)
Clean Up As You Go
Along with prepping all your ingredients, this will help you feel less overwhelmed while cooking. While prepping, I keep a "garbage bowl" handy to put any food scraps into.
(The garbage bowl can double as a compost bowl, too! Just keep meaty scraps out.)
I also make sure to put up each thing as I'm done with it.
Finished measuring out your spices? Put up the bottles!
Finished using those bowls for breading chicken? Rinse them and put them in or next to the sink for cleaning later.
Many times, once your food starts cooking, you'll have downtime while waiting for things to simmer or brown. That's a good time to sneak in a little dish washing or to load your dishwasher.
I always try to go to bed with a clean kitchen so cooking the next day goes much easier. :)
Instant Thermometers + Safe Minimum Temperatures
A major thing that can go wrong while cooking is undercooked or overcooked meat. Thankfully, this is easily prevented!
I highly recommend investing in a small instant read thermometer so you can be sure that your meat will be safe to eat AND has not dried out.
Below is a chart of the minimum safe food temperature for a variety of meats from the Foodsafety.gov website:
I recommend going to their website and printing this chart out. It's a great idea to it tack on the fridge!
Always Start With a Hot Pan
I recommend that you always heat your pan until it's nice and hot before adding oil or fat when you're looking to sauté or pan fry. Depending on what you're making, you'll want to let the oil/fat warm up a bit or a lot before adding your food.
I do it this way for a couple reasons:
- Adding food to a cold pan with cold oil means the food is going to release more moisture as it cooks. This means less even oil distribution, too! This makes the food steam and cook unevenly.
- Once the pan is heated, you can add the oil at anytime and start cooking. This allows you to better control the temperature of the oil - you can let it heat only a moment or let it heat until it shimmers to sear something like a steak. I much prefer this method to adding oil at the start (only to get distracted by something else to find smoking oil in the pan).
For more information on this, check out this article over at Serious Eats.
Patience + Using Your Other Senses
Photo above: browning meatballs for mySpaghetti and Meatballsrecipe.
It can be tempting to want to constantly poke at food browning on the stovetop, or to keep opening the oven door to check on your food. But these things are detrimental to the cooking of your food!
Opening the oven door lowers the temperature, meaning you're increasing cooking time and possibly missing out on browning from higher temperatures. If you constantly stir or move food that should be browning, you'll never get the color you'd like - it needs to sit and cook!
Instead you'll want to be patient, set a timer, and rely on your other senses.
The more you cook, the more you'll start to get a sense for how your food is cooking. Most of the time, I can tell almost entirely by the smell of something if it's done. I can tell by the sounds of bubbling if the heat is too low or high. I often use touch to figure out if meat is cooked through.
Always pay attention while cooking - you'll learn so much just by following different recipes. :)
Consider Timing When Cooking
Timing is not something you may consider when you start cooking.
However, it becomes really important when you start cooking multiple things at once! For that, you'll need a plan. Time to ask yourself the hard questions. ;)
Before you start cooking, always consider these things:
- Which dishes cook in the oven, and which on the stovetop?
- How long does each dish take to make?
- If you need to use the oven for multiple dishes, will it be possible to cook them at the same time, or will you need to stagger them due to temperatures?
- Can any dishes be made ahead or served at room temperature?
If you take these things into consideration along with making sure you do all the prep work beforehand, cooking will be so much easier!
Spice It Up
Photo above from myDry Rubrecipe.
If you're the sort of cook that tends to stick to salt and pepper, I have an instructable for you: How to Use Herbs and Spices in Cooking. In it I give you a great list of spices to add to your pantry stash, and some ideas for using them!
Expanding your supply of herbs and spices is a quick way to completely change the way you cook. For inspiration, try cooking food you like to eat but have never made!
Cooking with new ingredients (and especially seasonings!) will teach you which flavors work together and which don't. You'll also learn which flavors combinations you like the most, which is useful when you're ready to wing it and cook without recipes. :)
Taste + Season Constantly
Photo above: checking the seasoning on my Herbed Potato Salad Recipe
You'll want to taste your food fairly often throughout the cooking process to make sure it's going in the right direction. (But always be careful when your recipe includes meat - make sure the meat is cooked through before going in for a taste!)
Tasting is especially important at the end of cooking! Seasonings will change throughout the cooking process, so it may be necessary to add more of a particular seasoning to get the taste you're looking for.
You may also find that adding more salt or a bit of acid (vinegar or citrus juice) can help boost the flavors!
Tasting is also VERY important when cooking things like pasta and vegetables to determine their doneness. Check them frequently to ensure they are cooked just the way you like them!
Now that I've given you a tour of some kitchen basics, let's move on to cooking techniques.