When I did How to Adult: Eating, I promised one later about cooking. The future is now.
These two sides of food–eating and cooking–come with significantly different skill sets. With eating, we found that you can eat enjoyably and healthfully by following three basic principles: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. When it comes to cooking, five minutes watching an expert chef can send you retreating into thinking I’ll just go ahead and buy every meal for the rest of my life. How am I supposed to do that?
There’s an intimidation factor to overcome with cooking. I’ve been (attempting to) cook all kinds of stuff at home for years now, and I still worry I’m going to screw it up half the time. It’s going to happen. And that’s the point. The most important thing when it comes to cooking is that you try to cook.
Start with boxed macaroni and cheese and feel like a boss because you boiled and drained noodles, then added butter, milk, and powdered cheese to get a zesty (radioactive?) sauce. No shame. That’s about the only thing I knew how to cook when I first started making my own meals.
Or dive into a complex cookbook recipe with 31 ingredients that takes 6 hours to prepare.
Try, try, try.
You will definitely blow it once in awhile. Cooking is one of the last great opportunities for trial and error in a thoroughly routinized world. Sometimes you’ll add too much salt. Maybe the first time you give salmon a try you overcook it a bit. Seafood is especially daunting. But you learn when you mess up. Oh, this is how I should do it next time.
The sooner you start cooking at home, the better. It’s such a valuable pursuit. You know every ingredient that’s going into what you’re eating. You feel a sense of accomplishment for doing it yourself. It saves money because it’s cheaper than eating out. So many good things happen when you cook your own meals.
So how do you do it?
A little bit of equipment is required–the basic utensils, pots, pans, and the like. This list is a decent place to start, though I certainly don’t have everything that’s there. It takes time to acquire the kitchen gear you want or need, so start with inexpensive equipment that’s the most essential, and then add and replace as you go.
It’s hard to make anything if you don’t have steps to prepare it. That’s where recipes come in. The goal with recipes is to understand basic techniques and principles for putting ingredients together. How to Cook Everything, by former New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman, is really good for this. For hundreds of the most common dishes, he gives you the standard recipe to get the basic concept down, and then variations so that you learn how to improvise. In time, you’ll be able to look at what you have hanging around in your kitchen and turn it into meals.
My wife and I have also enjoyed using The Complete Cooking for Two Cookbook, because you end up with portions that are–surprise, surprise–just right for two people (or a meal for now and leftovers for later if you’re cooking for one). There are countless cookbooks, with dozens more published every week. If you want to expand the things you can make to dishes from a particular region of the United States, or strictly vegetarian, or specifically desserts, you can find any number of choices.
There are also tons of food blogs to mix in new recipes if you want to break from the books you’re using. Smitten Kitchen is a delight. Food 52 is endless. 101 Cookbooks is easy and healthful. Search and you will find.
When it comes time to plan and prepare meals, it helps me immensely to pick some of the things we’re going to cook during the week ahead of time, and get those groceries in one trip. Because of busyness, laziness, intimidation, and everything else, it’s probably not an achievable goal to cook each and every meal you eat in the next 7 days–at least when you’re starting out. Aspire to make something like 3 or 5 legit, cooked meals. The rest can be easy-to-put-together things like sandwiches, salads, and low-cost fast-casual stuff if you’re short on time. Making simple lunches with my wife to take to work is one of my zen moments during the week.
As you cook, you’ll find recipes you love and recipes you hate. There will be dishes that get a little better each time you prepare them, because you figured out you like to add more garlic than the recipe calls for, that your oven takes five minutes less than what the page says, or that there’s an ingredient that’s not in the recipe but makes it taste so much better.
You’ll get a repertoire of things that become a breeze to prepare because you’ve made them and modified them so many times. You can move up to making 8 or 10 (or more) meals at home each week, and try new, and even harder-to-cook, dishes. Way to go, Alton Brown.
There’s also a variety of techniques to learn–especially knife skills. There are more good videos online for cooking technique than you could ever watch.
Cooking, like so many things, is a lifelong process of developing understanding and ability. Don’t let the mastery of the celebrated chefs of the world intimidate you out of cooking yourself. If you want to get to their level, I’m certain you can. We need more people who care that much about real food. I’m in awe of what they do.
Or, just get really good at making simple and delicious pasta every Tuesday night.
Either way, it’s just a matter of trying. You got this, chef.