5 Things Every Beginner Cook Needs to Know

Julia Child discovered the art of French cooking. Rachel Ray mastered the 30-minute meal. And for most of my young adult life, I took pride in my ability to order a solid take-out spread.

It wasn’t that I was a picky eater, and I certainly enjoyed a variety of food groups. It was more that I was plagued by fear: the fear to cook, the fear to fail, and the fear that other people would be forced to eat the fruit of my labors — or not. It may have been the time I cooked pasta with a side of canned tomato puree that sealed my fate. Or it could have been that time a box of mac and cheese brought me to tears. Needless to say, cooking was never my strong suit.

Ten years later and I can now say I actually enjoy cooking. I like finding recipes and investing in the effort as a labor of love. And I find my family’s commentary endearing as I continue to learn their favored dishes. Cooking skill didn’t magically appear overnight, though, nor did I find it in an adulting handbook that was left at my door the day I got married. Instead, it was a culmination of lessons I learned along the way.

So if the notion of boiling water brings on panic sweats, or the idea of preheating the oven seems as daunting as a marathon, then you are in the right place. Here are some essentials to know before you start cooking. And in no time, you’ll perfect that soufflé your S.O. has always wanted to try.

  1. Invest in the gear
  2. You need a mitt for baseball and a pen for class, sneakers for the gym and an umbrella for the rain. You need some gear for cooking, too. Unfortunately, the measuring set that’s missing a tablespoon probably won’t cut it. A stainless steel pan, a complete group of measuring spoons, and a Pyrex dish set are useful items. Though they are pretty, the KitchenAid mixer and copper bowls aren’t necessary yet.

  3. Find recipes and pin the good ones
  4. Cooking is an initial investment of time until you’ve mastered some of your favorite dishes. Start by pinning recipes that look good to you — pasta and chicken meals are sometimes easier for beginners. If an ingredient seems too foreign or the hunt for that special cut of meat will cause stress, skip that recipe for now.

    Check out cookbooks from the library to find new recipes; a book like What to Cook and How to Cook It by Jane Hornby provides great recipes, tips, and tricks for making this whole cooking thing work, complete with step-by-step pictures, too.

    This book, What to Cook and How to Cook It by Jane Hornby, will help beginners decipher things to know before cooking.

  5. Schedule time to practice
  6. Whether you’re cooking for yourself or friends, it takes practice to learn the basics. Skill grows with repetition, and cooking is no different.

    Work better under pressure? Schedule a dinner party for friends and cook the main course. Adding stakes to the experience commits you to trying your best. It doesn’t mean dessert has to be from scratch — just work on one meal and buy the cookies from the grocery store. And if you burn everything, you can always make a run to the taco truck.

  7. Talk to the masters
  8. The best place to start the cooking process is with Grandma. Or your great aunt who has slayed the sauce game for a generation. It could be your uncle’s friend’s cousin who’s perfected the best way to BBQ. Start with the greats in your life — ask questions and find answers.

    High-quality, fresh ingredients can take a meal from good to great. Talk to your butcher about the cut of meat you need, and they’ll help you find the perfect marbleized steak. Ask the produce guy how to choose the best melon. They know and want to help.

    Visiting the local farmer’s market is a fun way to learn about the food in your region of the country. Use what’s in season and make friends with vendors (often, they’ll let you sample their products). You’ll find yourself discovering a new perspective on your community.

  9. Have patience
  10. Learning anything new takes time. Be gentle with yourself, because there will be some big wins and some losses, too. That burned lasagna will humble you right back to the beginning of your cooking journey, and that’s okay. I learned to appreciate some real messes, because they just made my successful meals look and taste that much better.

And above all else — above the tastes, colors, and smells you create with your cooking — have fun! Without that ingredient, the best meal can taste bland. Music, good company and conversation, maybe even a glass of wine can transform cooking from a project to a pleasure.

Isn’t that what good food is for? Sharing a meal nourishes our spirits just as much as our bodies and a simple soup can do that just as well as beef bourguignon.

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