We occasionally link to goods offered by vendors to help the reader find relevant products. Some of these may be affiliate based, meaning we earn small commissions (at no additional cost to you) if items are purchased. Here is more about what we do.
I was always taught, “If you can read, you can cook.” Essentially this is true-if you can read a recipe and follow directions, you can cook.
I will have to say, however, that I have found in my 20 years of cooking that the best dishes usually don’t come from adhering strictly to a recipe. When you’re learning to cook it may be a good idea to stick closely to the recipe to avoid disaster and disappointment.
Once you’ve got the basics down, that’s when you unleash your imagination…you’ll be pleasantly surprised with what you can come up with! To get to that point follow some of these tips and ideas to learn to cook:
Equip Your Kitchen
I could talk about this all day and have even written an article about equipping your kitchen for baking. Having the proper equipment in your kitchen will save you failures, disappointments and frustration.
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 anytime soon. Here is a quick list of my must-haves:
Start with heavy, stainless-steel cookware including: 1-3 and 1-5 quart saucepan, 1-small saute pan, 1-large saute pan, 1-deep sided skillet. All with sturdy handles and lids that do not get too hot to touch.
I’d recommend this Calphalon Tri-Ply Stainless Steel 13-Piece Cookware Set
Heavy aluminum sheet pans and various sized glass casserole/baking dishes should also form the basis of your beginning cookware set.
QUALITY kitchen knives that are evenly distributed, heavy, comfortable and SHARP. I could literally preach on this all day. You’re more likely to injure yourself with a dull knife than a sharp one.
If you’re nervous about sharpening knives, I’d suggest investing in the Chef’s Choice Model 130 Sharpener if your budget will stretch that far.
Although I love true Japanese kitchen knives, these can be difficult to sharpen unless you know what your doing.
You should consider a hybrid for your Santoku in the form of the of the Wusthoff shown below.
Since this knife has Japanese form but the softer steels and cutting angles found in western knives, it has an amazing ability to chop while allowing the novice to easily sharpen the knife with the included sharpener which should do an adequate job. Will it get as sharp or stay sharp as long as a true Japanese example?
No, but it doesn’t require hours of study and practice to hone it either and you can use the included sharpener or an electric one such as they Chef’s Choice suggested above with zero issues or problems.
Utensils that include: 3 stirring/mixing spoons ( I prefer a heavy resin to wood), slotted spoons (spoons with holes), 2-3 spatulas varying in size, hand grater, microplane, colander, 3 sizes of mixing bowls, professional quality cutting boards (1 designated for meat only and 1 for fruits and veggies only) wood may be used for the fruits and veggies.
If your absolutely starting from zero in the kitchen department, I’d suggest that a set like this one from OXO pictured above will go a long way in filling out your utensil needs.
One of the worst ways to start learning to cook is to dive in head first without some sort of plan. Set your kitchen up so that you know where things are and can access them quickly. I realize that many people do not have the luxury of designing their kitchen, but hopefully your kitchen is easy to move around in.
As a general rule, the oven/range, fridge and sink are set up in a triangular shape to make moving about easy and fluid. Keep like utensils together, have a hook for your apron, and I prefer to have hooks for my cutting boards so that they air dry.
The second part of getting organized to take inventory and be sure you have everything that you need. If you’re following a recipe, take 5 minutes to be sure you have all the ingredients you need and, while you’re at it, get them out and prepped. Also be sure you have the proper equipment.
For example, if you don’t have a mixer, hand mixer or whisk, you’re going to have a hard time making a meringue. At the same time, if you don’t have eggs or cartoned whites, 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 to find I don’t have eggs or whites.
Read The Directions
You learned this task in Kindergarten and it’s still important today! Cooking isn’t scary or hard. All you have to do is read and follow directions. If a recipe says to preheat the oven, then preheat the oven. The chef’s who developed the recipe added that step for a reason: it’s important.
Now, this is not to say that you need to hang on every single word as gospel. Cooking is also a lot of common sense. If a recipe says bake your chicken for 45 minutes, but you take it out and it’s still clucking (pink and/or cold) put it back in and keep an eye on it. The best way to know if your meat is done when you’re learning to cook is to take its temperature.
Also keep in mind that because your chicken wasn’t done at 45 minutes, it’s not your fault (unless you forgot to turn the oven on) and it’s not the recipe’s fault. Your cut of meat may be bigger and thicker than the one used in the test kitchen. Just read, follow directions, be safe and use some common sense and you won’t have a bit of trouble.
Get The Feel Of It
Take some chances. Recipes are not gospel, they can be tweaked. For instance, if you’re making salsa and the recipe you’re using calls for 1 jalapeno pepper, but you just go gaga for spicy, go ahead and add two or skip taking the seeds out! Adding and subtracting ingredients to suit your taste is a must.
What’s the point of cooking food you’re not going to like? This rule applies to cooking recipes, but you have to be very careful doing this with baking recipes, and yes, there is a difference. Same idea applies to achieving the desired texture of foods.
Everyone likes their mashed potatoes differently. Some like chunky, some like smooth and others like skins in. If you don’t like skins, peel those taters before tossing them in the pot! While you’re whipping them, keep an eye on the texture. If you like chunky, stop when it’s chunky, if you like smooth keep going. Same goes for adding the liquids: if you like your potatoes thick don’t add quite as much liquid and vice versa. Cook to your preferences. And always remember to season and taste as you go.
Don’t hold off seasoning and tasting until the end. Seasoning throughout will help develop flavors. Tasting as you go lets you know whether or not you’re on the right track. You can salvage a dish partway through, but if you’ve got it dished up and ready for the table before you taste, you’re going to have problems.
If you’re petrified of failure, start with easy recipes. The best way to build confidence is to have success. So what if you’re not cooking circles around Emeril the first time in the kitchen? Something as simple as a tasty meatloaf and a good mash will make you feel more confident in your abilities than a collapsed soufflé or gummy risotto. Also, don’t make your first foray into the kitchen to entertain.
Cook for yourself and a few (very) close friends and family before throwing a 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 you and your significant other before you dive in head first.
So that’s basically my tips for learning to cook. If you’re looking for specific recipes or techniques, let me know and I’ll see if I have the answers.
I started cooking when I was 5 years old and pretty much everything I do/know is self-taught.
I literally sat down and read cookbooks cover to cover as if they were best selling novels. I started out simple and have moved on to some pretty advanced stuff because I love cooking and feeding my family good, healthy food. Enjoy!
About Lynne Jaques
Lynne is a stay-at-home mother of two boys. As a former US military officer and the spouse of an active duty US military member, Lynne enjoys traveling the world (although not the moving part!) and finding new cuisine and methods of preparing food. She also has the habit of using parenthesis way too much!