I stood at the stove, watching nervously as the spaghetti undulated in the boiling water. I called my housemate over to ask him if I had to stir the pot again or if I could let the pasta cook undisturbed. He patiently told me it didn’t really matter. I was the most stressed-out cook in the history of noodles.
Today, about 10 years after that pathetic scene, I’m still not a great cook, but I’ve had some practice and I don’t need to ask for advice while cooking spaghetti anymore. The journey toward competent cooking has been fun, frustrating, rewarding, and embarrassing — sometimes all within the same evening in the kitchen. Here are eight things I’ve learned over the past decade.
1. Cook books are your friends.
In cooking as in life, learn from those who have gone before you. I decided to get better at cooking when our first daughter was born and it was clear we wouldn’t be going to restaurants — like, ever again. As my wife nursed the infant to sleep one evening, I cracked open an America’s Test Kitchen cookbook to a recipe for sesame noodles.
I love America’s Test Kitchen. They experiment with a recipe dozens and dozens of times before publishing it. I was extremely careful in my preparation, following their steps down to the 1/8th of a teaspoon. It took me an hour and a half. And it was the best meal I had ever cooked, by a mile.
2. It’s nice to have short-term, time-bound measures of accomplishment in life.
The sesame-noodle meal was a very satisfying experience because there aren’t all that many times in life when you can work on a project for a bit and then immediately enjoy the fruits of your labors. This is why my two favorite domestic tasks are cooking and mowing the lawn. It’s nice to have these sorts of activities to punctuate the longer-term projects of life, like marriage, child-rearing, and trying to become a better Christian.
3. While closely adhering to recipes is helpful at the start, cooking leaves you wiggle room.
As I grew in confidence thanks to the quick successes with America’s Test Kitchen, I realized I could pay slightly less attention to every little measurement and still make a pretty good dish. Cooking is forgiving and encourages playing around. Baking, on the other hand, requires perfect precision. Serious bakers I know don’t even use measuring cups for the flour and sugar — they weigh the stuff out in grams instead. The two activities call for different behaviors, just like our older daughter continues to learn the difference between an “inside voice” and an “outside voice.” It’s generally a smart idea to pay attention to context in the kitchen or the workplace or wherever and act accordingly.
4. Be patient: Wait for the pan to get hot before tossing something in.
I’m usually hungry while cooking, so I want to just get on with it. This is a big mistake. Searing something like a steak on the stove is pretty simple, for instance. But if you jump the gun, throwing the meat on the pan before it’s smoking hot, you’re ruined. I am reminded here of a quote attributed to Blaise Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Many a chef’s problems stem from their inability to stand quietly to the side of the stove alone.
5. Look for and learn from patterns.
After a while, I noticed some patterns emerging across a lot of the recipes I tried. Get the oil hot. Start with an aromatic like an onion or garlic. Brown meat, remove it from the pan, use the bits left behind to make a pan sauce with some sort of liquid, return the meat to the pan. I learned some basic techniques and patterns. Now, if the fridge is running low on stuff and I don’t have a solid recipe to go with, I can improvise and turn out something decent.
In On Writing Well, William Zinsser talks about how a carpenter first has to learn to build a solid, unadorned house before turning to things like fancy lattices and cornices. The same idea applies to writing and cooking. Get the basics down and take pride in them.
6. Fake it while you make it.
Cooking used to intimidate me, so I didn’t do it. The one semester in college I didn’t have a dining hall, I ate pop tarts for most meals. What if I cook something bad? What if I mess up and embarrass myself? The problem is that the only way to learn to cook is to cook. You can read or watch YouTube tutorials all you want, but there’s no substitute for getting in the kitchen and cooking. I should have stood in front of that pot of noodles all those years ago with some feigned confidence: “I will conquer you, pasta. Even if I cook you too long, you will be edible. It will be okay. It is better to not eat pop tarts all the time. I am stronger than you.”
But no, I cowered. I forgot the absolute worst-case scenario isn’t all that bad.
7. When all else fails, there’s cereal in the pantry or delivery pizza just a phone call away.
My wife helps me remember this fact. She is good at laughing off culinary misadventures, while I too often let them frustrate me. Cooking is a low-stakes activity (as long as you’re heating the chicken all the way through). No need to add pressure. (Unless you’re using an Instant Pot, which is all about adding pressure. Sorry, that’s a bad dad joke and I’m trying to delete it.)
8. More important than the quality of the food is the quality of mealtime companionship.
Our family just moved to a new state, and we showed up at a local parish cookout recently. My wife met the organizer, and asked her if she was a super-involved church volunteer. Just for meal-related activities, the organizer said. “I think it’s very important for people to eat together.” I like the idea of a church volunteer who only does food-related activities.
The word “companion” literally means “one who breaks bread with another.” Some of the best quality time you can have with others comes around a table. I’m not exactly sure why that’s true, but I do know that no matter what you’re eating, the most important part of cooking is sharing the meal with someone whenever possible. “If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him,” the late activist Cesar Chavez said. “The people who give you their food give you their heart.”