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“If you can read a recipe, you can cook.”
Have you been told this countless times as a beginner home cook? And do you absolutely hate that phrase?
For someone who is just starting out in the kitchen, the anxiety about cooking does not immediately vanish as soon as you read an ingredient list and step-by-step instructions.
So much more is involved!
When you’re learning to cook, there is significant work to do throughout the entire process, from equipping your kitchen to cleaning up after the final bite.
Once you understand the basics and build a strong foundation complete with thorough preparation, realistic goals, and consistent organization, that’s when you can start to slowly unleash your culinary imagination.
With experience gained over time paired with a hunger for learning new recipes, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with what you can create!
But to get to that point, we need to start at the very beginning. Follow these tips and suggestions to learn how to cook with confidence!
Cooking Tips for Beginners
Carefully Read the Recipe
Approaching a completely new recipe can be overwhelming, and it may be scary for a cook with little experience.
The best advice I can give is to avoid rushing this process. Slowly and thoroughly read through the recipe you want to make.
A technique I have for working with new recipes is to read the entire recipe once all the way through, then write it out or read it aloud a second time.
Each segment of a recipe provides essential information that you will need to understand. And sometimes an important step can be missed if you only skim through a recipe once!
Starting with the ingredient list, make sure you fully comprehend every measurement and ingredient you will need. If you’re confused about a type of measurement or don’t know what ingredient is required, take a pause to look up this information.
Now, this is not to say that you need to hang on every single word as gospel. As you are reading a recipe, keep in mind that prep, passive, cooking, and total times are estimates when these are provided.
Preparing a recipe also involves a lot of common sense.
Let’s consider a popular cooking scenario – making a weeknight chicken dinner!
If your recipe suggests that you roast your chicken for 45 minutes, but you take it out and it’s still clucking – er, raw and cold! – you’ll need to continue cooking it and keep an eye on it until it reaches the intended temperature.
The best way to know if what you are preparing is actually done is to be mindful of the estimated times provided, but to also take the reins and make your own sensible judgements along the way, relying on your senses and your knowledge of food.
Also keep in mind that just because your chicken wasn’t done at the 45-minute mark, it’s not necessarily your fault, and it might not be the recipe’s fault either.
Don’t overreact and deem this a cooking mistake or failure. Making adjustments is common and necessary when preparing food at home. Your cut of meat may be bigger and thicker, and your oven might behave differently.
Just read the recipe, follow directions, be safe, and use some common sense to adapt to small and unexpected scenarios.
Another reason why reading and reviewing your recipe before anything else is important is so that you can take inventory and be sure you have everything that you need.
When you are reading through a recipe, take five quick minutes to check your fridge and cabinets for all of the ingredients. You’ll also want to review whether you have all the required equipment and tools.
At the same time, if you don’t have eggs, or a can of chickpeas, then you’re definitely not making a meringue!
I can only imagine how irritated I’d be to get the pie shell and lemon filling ready for the meringue on top, only to find I don’t have one of the main ingredients or tools on hand!
Equip Your Kitchen
Speaking of kitchen equipment…
Having the proper equipment in your kitchen will save you from many instances of unpreparedness, failure, disappointment, and frustration.
Starting out, you don’t need a lot – just a few foundational basics that will be your best buds as you cook and bake.
Think of the items you purchase as an investment – if you purchase quality tools now, your cooking experience will be positive and you won’t have to repurchase the same equipment again any time soon.
Here is a quick list of the most essential pieces:
- Baking sheets
- Colanders and strainers
- Cutting boards
- Casserole dishes
- Dry and liquid measuring cups
- Kitchen scale
- Kitchen shears
- Kitchen towels
- Measuring spoons
- Meat thermometer
- Metal mixing bowls
- Pots and pans
Let’s discuss the items on this list in more detail.
Overall, you will want to own multiples of certain pieces of kitchen equipment. Your kitchen flow and efficiency will benefit greatly when you have multiple kitchen towels, tongs, spoons, whisks, spatulas, cutting boards, mixing bowls, and pots and pans in different sizes.
For example, if you use your one and only towel to clean up a mess, what will you do when you make yet another mess a minute later? And you don’t want to be stuck in a perpetual cycle of cleaning the same spatula over and over and over again for a single recipe!
Having numerous cutting boards will help you more easily designate one for raw meat, one for fruit/vegetable prep, and another for ready-to-eat items.
I would also recommend that a beginner chef purchase a cookware and bakeware set, rather than buying individual pieces – all of the essentials will be included in a single purchase.
Sets are carefully curated to meet the various needs of most home cooks, and these can be as simple as a 3-piece set or as abundant as a set with a dozen or more items.
If you are determined to make a variety of recipes, anything from cakes to steaks, you’ll make a smart decision choosing a larger set. However, if you only want to start introducing a few home-cooked meals each month, a smaller set might be all you need in the beginning.
OXO Good Grips 15-Piece Everyday Kitchen Tool Set, available on Sur La Table
Start by purchasing a set of popular kitchen utensils – these will all become your trusty tools as you handle task after task in the kitchen. You’ll confidently wield each tool in the OXO Good Grips 15-Piece Everyday Kitchen Tool Set, available now on Sur La Table. It’s also available directly from OXO.
For your cookware, purchase a set made from a durable material that’s easy to both clean and maintain. Able to withstand years of use with an even distribution of heat, Sur La Table’s Classic 5-Ply Stainless Steel 10-Piece Cookware Set gives you two sizes of saucepans, two sizes of skillets, a saute pan, a casserole dish, and lids for each item.
Sur La Table Classic 5-Ply Stainless Steel 10-Piece Cookware Set, available on Sur La Table
The same goes for your bakeware! Buy a set that will give you the most versatility for multiple baking and cooking tasks. This 10-Piece Calphalon Nonstick Bakeware Set from Sur La Table has versatile basics you’ll often use.
And when you’re ready to make more financially serious investments, consider reading our reviews of different pieces of kitchen equipment such as food processors, slow cookers, and stand mixers, all of which will immensely assist you with prep and cooking.
Kitchen equipment should be selected based on your own personalized prep style.
For example, if you think you’ll be baking just as often as you’ll be cooking, and you want versatile equipment that can help you with all kinds of prep, a stand mixer that can be used with multiple attachments will be an indispensable purchase.
Get the Feel of It
“Practice makes perfect” is a saying that I’m sure many of us heard from our elementary school music teachers as we fumbled through our first attempts at playing instruments…
But this is a highly accurate saying when it’s applied to learning in the kitchen as well! So take the cliché to heart and start cooking – a lot.
The more time you spend in the kitchen, and the more recipes you make from scratch, the more you will continue to hone and develop your skills – and add your personalized touches.
I always like to make a recipe as closely to how it was originally written as possible the very first time.
After eating the dish, I then take a brief moment to analyze what I liked or didn’t like, and then I make it again in the near future with any tweaks that I think will help to improve it.
You can also choose to adjust as you go, once you’re able to confidently replicate your personal taste preferences through the changes you make in the kitchen.
For instance, if you’re making salsa and the recipe you’re using calls for only one jalapeno, but you and any present company love spicy food, you can self-assuredly leave the seeds and membrane in the jalapeno, or even add two jalapenos instead!
Adding and subtracting ingredients to suit your taste is a skill that you will develop as you get a better feel for the process.
However, I do not recommend playing with your ingredients when it comes to baking, which is more exact and reliant on specific measurements to ensure certain chemical reactions and results.
It’s best to follow instructions and measure ingredients precisely as they are for your recipes that rely on baking techniques, such as cakes, cookies, brownies, muffins, and pastries.
Continued practice will also help you learn how to expertly handle various tools, utensils, and equipment.
You may make a few messy over-easy eggs with broken yolks at first, but you’ll soon be flipping them perfectly the more you make breakfast in the mornings as you learn just the right quick movements with your skillet.
And your knife skills may be a little shaky in the beginning, but after you repeatedly cut enough ingredients like onions, you’ll be slicing and dicing like a pro!
If you’re petrified of failure, start with easy and user-friendly recipes.
It’s as simple as that. Save the expertly prepared prime rib for a few more months down the road.
The best way to build a sense of confidence is to have recurring successes with simple recipes. So what if you’re not cooking circles around Emeril your first time in the kitchen?
Also, don’t make your first foray into the kitchen in order to entertain a large party.
Make food for yourself and a few (very) close friends and family before throwing an elaborate dinner party. You want honest, but kind feedback. If you’re going to throw a dinner party, give the whole meal a trial run for yourself and your significant other before you dive head first into the deep end.
You can also safely take a semi-homemade route, employing the help of a selection of prepared food items to give you a shortcut for more complicated techniques.
Love the idea of a fun family pizza night, but you have no idea how to make the dough? For the first time, go ahead and use a premade, store-bought pizza dough. All you need to worry about are the toppings and cooking procedures!
Once you have successfully hosted your first, second, or third pizza night, you can then spread your culinary wings and make your own pizza dough from scratch.
Stay Clean and Organized
You know those bad kitchen habits you might – but totally, definitely, 100% do – have?
Like haphazardly putting dishes away, or leaving your fridge and freezer a mess for months upon months, or not tracking and rotating your pantry purchases? Not cleaning up after making a meal, not caring for your equipment and tools as you should, or not labeling anything after you open a container or store something?
Look me in the eyes and confess, you abominable sinner.
When you want to become a more serious home chef, you’ll need to get clean and organized. No questions asked.
One of the worst ways to start learning to cook is to blindly start cooking without an organized plan, and doing so in a messy situation.
Before putting on your apron and using all your cool new utensils, check out our collection of cleaning articles – you’ll find everything you need to maintain a clean and well-organized kitchen and avoid a chaotic, messy environment.
Even if you consider yourself to be a lazy cleaner, we can give you the inspiration and motivation you need.
Don’t think you have the time for cleaning? You don’t need to commit to an all-day cleaning fiasco! We can help you organize your kitchen chaos in just 15 minutes at a time.
Not only is cleaning efficiently an important step as a beginner chef, the way in which you set up your space is also a point of consideration. With a strategically designed space, you’ll know where things are and you’ll be able to access them quickly.
I realize that many of us do not have the luxury of designing our own kitchens – I myself have lived in tiny studio apartments with even tinier kitchens and I know what that’s like!
Take the time to adapt to your specific kitchen environment by using the space you do have wisely.
Small changes like keeping similar utensils neat and organized in separate holders, purchasing a mounted spice rack, and installing a hook for your apron will help you every time you’re working.
Study, Study, Study
Practice makes perfect, and learning is a lifelong process!
Every recipe you review and every meal you cook presents an opportunity to learn something new. And it’s just as important to be book smart as it is to be kitchen smart.
To be the most well-rounded home chef, you should be able to support practical experience with both knowledge of and respect for what you are preparing.
No, I’m not suggesting that you should read Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” from start to finish all in one sitting! (Though it is an excellent resource and you can find copies on Amazon).
Simplify the studying by focusing on one upcoming recipe you want to make.
Let’s say you want to make Foodal’s recipe for a creamy butternut squash soup…
You might be curious why a soup recipe includes potato starch or cornstarch, and what qualities are found in various thickening agents.
Or maybe you see that the recipe suggests chicken or vegetable stock. What exactly is stock? How easy would it be to make it yourself? What’s that process like?
Each recipe opens up the potential for you to branch out and learn about new ingredients, historical and cultural origins of foods, and new culinary techniques.
Constantly ask questions, and always seek out the answers! This will help you to improve as a home cook as well.
Take a Break!
While we here at Foodal will be your biggest cheerleaders as you are learning how to cook at home, we also believe in the revitalizing power of taking breaks as needed!
Don’t overwhelm yourself with new cooking techniques every single day. Give yourself a guilt-free break and order delivery every now and then, or set a date to enjoy dinner and drinks at your favorite restaurant.
Heat up some frozen chicken nuggets and tater tots. And don’t even think about making ketchup from scratch – the bottle you have in the fridge is perfect enough!
Homemade ice cream? Not today… That half-eaten pint of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream you bought at the store is waiting for you.
You should never feel any bit of shame when you take a much-needed pause from cooking – you deserve some time off from all that reading, studying, prepping, standing, cooking, baking, and cleaning.
After enjoying some essential recharging time, you’ll be ready to jump right back into the kitchen with a fresh perspective and a new recipe to make!
Experienced chefs, what is the best advice you can share with beginners? And for those of you just starting out, do you have any other questions? Leave all of your comments and questions below!
Are you inspired to learn more after reading this article? Our helpful how-to guides can teach you about specific ingredients, new cooking techniques, entertaining like a pro, and more. Read these tutorials next:
- How to Bake with Whole Grains at Home
- How to Defrost Poultry: 3 Methods to Thaw Out Your Bird
- How to Cook Meals for a Week: Get Ahead with Meal Prep
© Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published on March 7, 2017. Last updated on April 22, 2023. Product photos via Sur La Table. Uncredited photos via Shutterstock.
About Nikki Cervone
Nikki Cervone is an ACS Certified Cheese Professional and cheesemonger living in Pittsburgh. Nikki holds an AAS in baking/pastry from Westmoreland County Community College, a BA in Communications from Duquesne University, and an MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University. When she's not nibbling on her favorite cheeses or testing a batch of cupcakes, Nikki enjoys a healthy dose of yoga, wine, hiking, singing in the shower, and chocolate. Lots of chocolate.