25 and TRYING to COOK
June 17, 2009 3:48 PM   Subscribe

I'm 25 and starting to cook - What? Where do I get it? Why?

I'm 25 and me and my roommate are just starting to cook on our own. Our add water and microwave days of college are over. Plus we like to have friends over sometimes, and ordering a pizza makes for a lame dinner party.

Basically this just feels like something we should be doing, it's fun to try new things and in general, it saves money!

Some things I always liked growing up:

• Big Mac 'N Cheese fan
• Anything with Cool Whip...
• Mom makes this breaded chicken that got baked...
• Love salads, been trying to broaden my horizon in terms of dressing

I also always struggle with whether to buy the brand names or the store labels. Does it make a difference?!?! What do you guys buy and why?

Anyway.... I'd love to hear your ideas. I'd love some new easy recipes, but I'm really curious about the art of grocery shopping too. Discount store? Upscale store?

Thanks in advance!! If your ideas are really good, I'll have you all over for dinner. ;)
posted by designbyme to Shopping (57 answers total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
When I started cooking about five years ago, I started with soups. It's difficult to really louse up a soup and making one always feels fancy and impressive, both to myself and to others. Most of the work is in prep (cutting veggies, etc.), you can feed yourself for a solid week on a nice stew, and feed a bunch of people on a big ol' pot of something. The Soup Bible was the cookbook I started with, and it's really pretty terrific.

As for grocery shopping, go somewhere inexpensive for your prepared/boxed goods, but seek out grocery stores with fresh produce, meats and cheeses--those are the things that are really going to vary from store to store. Oh! And if you can, buy your spices in the "ethnic foods" aisle--in my experience, badia brand spices are much cheaper (though you may have to buy yourself spice jars) but just as good as brands like McCormick.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:57 PM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm also mid 20's and slowly adding to my culinary arsenal. In terms of cooking supplies, one thing I've found out, after returning a ton of stuff, is "if it's too good to be true, it's rubbish." For example, a $19.99 food processor looks like a steal but doesn't do a good job. Save enough to buy quality stuff you'll take care of. You don't need every gadget there is. My brother, Everichon, told me: "You need a good vegetable knife (usuba), a good French-style chefs knife, and a good paring knife. And skillz."

I've also found generics to be generally reliable. Archer Farms brand, a Target generic, gets rave reviews from Minnesotans.
posted by ShadePlant at 3:58 PM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, once you can cook... wow. Life is good when you can prepare great things to eat by yourself.

This Parmesan Chicken Recipe is killer. It's not fried, and it's easy to prepare. I love it.

I think you could make an extra large batch, and have some chopped into one of your beloved salads the next day. A good, simple combination would be greens like baby spinach and bib lettuce (torn up), chicken, avocado, parmesan flakes, cherry tomatoes with a simple mustard vinaigrette.
posted by lottie at 3:58 PM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh! And I want to add an exception to what ShadePlant is saying about appliances: try thrift stores for things like blenders and crockpots. You'll find stuff that's not only cheap, but also (particularly if you can find things made before the early 80s) much more reliably made than what you'll find now.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:00 PM on June 17, 2009

Start with some fairly simple things - omelette, proper baked potatoes, sausages and mash.

Stir fries are pretty simple and easy to learn, and once you have the general idea you can vary the recipe to include whatever veg is cheap at the market and whatever meat you find in your freezer.

Egg fried rice with "extras" (chicken, prawns, veg...)

Invest in some extra virgin olive oil and some balsamic vinegar and use it to make dressings.

There are some things where the cheapest is always fine; sugar, flour, for example. Then others where if you can't buy the decent stuff you shouldn't buy it at all; prawns come to mind.

If you don't know which is which, buy the store label once, and only buy better next time if the store label turns out to be horrible. Or, read the ingredients list: aspartame, other additives or half a ton of salt are warning signs, as is anything else you don't want to eat, or if you realise you are paying through the nose for something you could make yourself!

Some people stick to buying their eggs free-range and their meat organic for both welfare and flavour reasons; YMMV. It's more expensive, but nothing says you have to eat a ton of meat at every meal.
posted by emilyw at 4:06 PM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I similarly started randomly cooking last year, and I was delighted to find how easy it is. I started by just browsing Tastespotting every day and saving up recipes that looked appealing. The more primary ingredients (fresh veggies, flour and sugar, anything else that's not processed to begin with), the better it'll probably taste.

Store labels are generally fine, especially if you're at a pretty okay grocery store (not super-expensive, but not discount either). Start by just making a list of the five or six recipes you want to try that week and buying what you need; pretty soon you'll realize that you use certain things (onions, cheese, olive oil) on a daily basis and you'll have an easier time shopping without a complete list.

Expect to spend some money on cooking tools, though you can generally do just fine with the second-to-cheapest option at Target or the like. You may want a food processor pretty quickly, but that's one of the only tools that will really open up significant recipe options. You'll also start to accumulate spices, which is a very good thing even if it can run a little pricey.

Most cooking is actually really easy. I find baking difficult, though, and I'd shy away from anything that requires super-specialized equipment to start.
posted by you're a kitty! at 4:07 PM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Buy the cookbook, Jamie at Home. The recipes are really impressive, but aren't that difficult. The flavors are strong and wonderful.

As far as store brand vs. name brand, I buy store brand for the most part (aside from Ketchup...it's heinz or nuthin!), most grocery stores have refund policies if the store brand is crap. Here's a decent article on when to buy organic or not.

Grocery shopping tips? Make a list, make a list, make a list. We go shopping once a week, so we plan out our meals on Sunday afternoon and make the list for everything we need, check them off as you put them in your cart.

Some folks we know swear by the discount grocery stores (Aldi here in the midwest), but we stick to the standard stores. It looks like you're in Chicago, so I would suggest Jewel-Osco for the staples (pasta, butter, flour etc). If you're doing a nice steak or a roast chicken or some snazzy veggie dish, I would check out Fresh Market or Whole Foods for the proteins.

Good luck and have fun! (and if you decide to make some Jamie Oliver recipes give us a call, we're in Normal, IL :-D)
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 4:09 PM on June 17, 2009

As a 20 something who just recently started to cook, I cannot recommend these two things enough: a crockpot and a cast iron skillet. Then just start cutting things you like up and toss them in there. Follow recipes but improvise. I find the generic brands work just as well for most things but if you can afford it, class it up for the important items. Go to a cheap supermarket and get the essentials (see what's on sale) but do some research online and find the good (and affordable) places to go for stuff like cheese, bread, and whatnot. Also, farmers markets are great.
posted by saul wright at 4:11 PM on June 17, 2009

Oh, and mexican food is really easy to do well (if not necessarily authentically). Try out salsas until you find one you like, buy a bunch of canned black beans, and go to town. If you buy corn tortillas and fry them yourself into tacos or tostadas, that'll make a huge difference with minimal additional effort.
posted by you're a kitty! at 4:12 PM on June 17, 2009

For recipes, I recommend one of the big bit of everything cookbooks. Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything: The Basics is very good. The Joy of Cooking is a classic. They tend to give a lot of advice on how to do things, what kinds of things substitute, etc.

Groceries: are you near a farmer's market? They tend to have fresher foods, and are usually competitively priced. Shop in more upscale neighbourhoods for cheaper produce. Store brands are usually fine.

Stir fries are a great thing, so are omelettes and fritattas.
posted by jeather at 4:20 PM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ah yes: if you find you are slicing yourself up with knives, or burning things on the bottom of pans, it's probably not because you're crap at cooking. It's because you haven't followed the advice above and got a good knife and a couple of good pans yet.
posted by emilyw at 4:20 PM on June 17, 2009

Generics are often just as good as (or better than) the brand-name, but not always. I worked at a grocery store that had really awful tasting generic peanut butter, for example, so you need to test things and see. Generally I would spend my money on good fresh produce and certain expensive foods I like a lot (like good cheese), and stick with generic cereals, pastas, plastic bags, etc.

I just started cooking, too, and I like online recipes because you can read the comments and see if it's any good or get tips to make it better. That helps me a lot. I'm going to second smittenkitchen, which has a lot of recipes I could actually see myself making.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 4:23 PM on June 17, 2009

I love grocery shopping. What works for me is to know exactly what I need--I have several meals planned out for dinners, and a general idea of what I'd like to eat for breakfast and lunch. I leave a little flexibility by buying enough food to cook 5 meals, leaving 2 nights to either go out or decide on the day-of to buy groceries for a specific dish.

Generally, the generic/store brand won't differ much in terms of quality from national brands. I have noticed slight quality differences in especially cheap generic brands--Country Delight in particular--but when it's just the store brand, like Safeway, I can't tell the difference. However, it's sometimes nice to try the luxurious version of a basic ingredient--I can't tell the difference between Nestle chocolate chips and Safeway brand chocolate chips in cookies or brownies, but try replacing basic chocolate chips with a chopped bar of pricier dark chocolate. (Expensive chocolate chips just don't do it for me--they don't melt right--but chopped off a bar... oh baby!)

Also, and I say this as someone who doesn't look down on processed foods and grew up eating Cool-Whip, try making some desserts (or breakfasts--waffles?) with real homemade whipped cream instead of Cool-Whip. Oh! And switch to real butter if you're using margarine.
posted by Meg_Murry at 4:28 PM on June 17, 2009

This is a pretty good starter cookbook.

Store brands work pretty well for a lot of things. Spend the saved money by getting the best fresh produce and meat you can. Fancy cooking techniques or expensive gear add very little to a dish compared to using fresh, high quality ingredients.
posted by Bookhouse at 4:33 PM on June 17, 2009

When I started cooking at 21 I found myself on recipezaar.com. I love that website. There are ratings so you know what the really yummy stuff is, plus lots of comments so you can gauge what people did to change the recipe. It's also perfect for - I have this cut of meat and an onion, what can I do?

Ingredients should follow your food philosophy. I'm 99% organic, so I do a lot of farmer's market stuff and Whole Foods. But if you're not worried about organic, I don't see why store brand is any worse than name brand, unless you like paying more.
posted by anniek at 4:34 PM on June 17, 2009

Serious Eats is a great food blog and has inspired me to really broaden my cooking range.

I just made Martha Stewart's Mac and Cheese - it is pretty awesome.
posted by geekyguy at 4:38 PM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you want to understand the "why" of what you're told to do in recipes, check out Alton Brown's exceptionally informative "I'm Just Here For the Food" book.

It explains in fantastic detail why you do what you do when you're cooking. That understanding will get you to a point where you can start improvising in the kitchen.

The sequel, "I'm Just Here for More Food", goes into the why's of baking, which is much more of a science than I had realized.
posted by burntflowers at 4:42 PM on June 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

For grocery shopping, I let price dictate things to one degree, quality to another.

For things where quality isn't really an issue (canned spaghetti sauce, canned olives, bulk bags of sugar, flour, rice, pasta; cartons of soymilk) but price might be, I head to Walmart. Generic is just as good as brand name most of the time. Some things, such as peanut butter and coffee, are worth spending more money on. I save money on canned/jarred/dry goods so that I can spend more on fresh produce.

For things where quality is more of a concern to me (cheeses, butter, meats, fresh veggies and fruits), I head to either the local 'gourmet' shop (really, it's just a smaller grocery that focuses on quality instead of quantity) or else a farmer's market. At both places, if I find something that looks good, I'll ask for a taste and usually get it. If it's a veggie or fruit I've never dealt with before, I'll ask for advice on how to use it and prepare it. This is how I learned that jicama is great in salads and that the flowers on chives can be eaten in salads.

Also, if I find an ingredient I like, I'll google it. Often there'll be a website dedicated to how to cook it and recipes for it. Cherries worked this way for me - there are two cherry associations, both have a list of recipes on their websites. Same for canned pumpkin - Libby's Pumpkin has a big list of recipes.

I have a bookshelf full of cookbooks but the one I reach for most often is Jane Doerfer's Going Solo in the Kitchen. It's great for single cooks and there's a chapter in there about "Getting Started" where she talks about grocery shopping and what you might want in your pantry. The only downside I have for this cookbook is that there are no pretty pictures!

I also watch Heidi Swanson's 101 Cookbooks for salad and ingredient ideas that are particularly good for vegetarian recipes.

As for equipment, I agree with the others: buy quality! Today, I'm tossing a set of pans that I bought based on the low price; the saute pan has heavy black scorch marks after only ten meals... and I didn't even burn anything in it!
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 4:46 PM on June 17, 2009

To add some testimonial to the How To Cook Everything by Mark Bittman recommendations: this is my go-to cookbook when I either 1) have a dish in mind that i want to cook but need a recipe or 2) have an ingredient that I need to learn to prepare and/or need a recipe for.

Don't know how to steam an artichoke or cut a mango? There you go. What do do with the 10 lbs of lemons your neighbor gave you? Lots of ideas for any given ingredient. His books are a godsend.
posted by soleiluna at 4:56 PM on June 17, 2009

As a 24 year-old who can cook, the advice I give is that cooking is more intimidating than it is difficult. Honestly, once you learn how to cook something without burning it (medium heat! Watch while it cooks!) or drying it out (once the chicken isn't pink in the center, stop cooking it!), it isn't that hard to follow a recipe.

Generic vs. brand name: As the above posters say, it depends. A lot of canned goods are fine/indistinguishable as store-bought, but there is a HUGE difference between Meijer cream cheese and the Philadelphia brand. If it's not something that undergoes serious alchemy to make, the store brand is probably fine.

Equipment: A lot of posters recommend buying cast-iron pans, crock pots, and expensive what-have-yous, but I manage to make do with a few non-stick pans and steel (?) pots. Honestly, if you cook with enough olive oil and stir frequently, not much will stick to the pan. (I feel that people have been cooking with pretty simple means for a few millennia, so I'll survive with basic cookware and some decent knives.)

Resources: Allrecipes.com is your friend It's daunting to drop $20-50 on a big-ass cookbook you're unsure of, and the internet has all kinds of recipes available, for free! The online advantage is the emphasis on simple recipes. If you buy a cookbook, be prepared to spend more time preparing the foods, but expect the results to be more satisfying. Also, a cookbook will suggest meals, alternate ingredients, and add-ons that take a dish from basic (pan-fried chicken) to satisfyingly complex (chicken cacciatore.)

(Pro-tip: A librarian friend told me they get so many copies of The Joy of Cooking that a lot get tossed out. Look at used book shops for bigger cookbooks like this; I got tJoC for $20.)

Starter Recipes: Chili is a good start. My recipe goes something like this:

1. Chop 1 onion, toss in a pot/pan with 1lb ground sirloin
2. As meat browns, add 1tsp cumin, oregano, and ancho chili pepper/chili powder. (If you like spicy, add some cayenne pepper too)
3. Once meat is cooked, add 1 28. oz can of tomato puree. Stir.
4. Dice 3-4 baseball-sized tomatoes (ok, do this beforehand) and add. Stir, let simmer for ~20 minutes.
5. Drain 1 14oz can of kidney beans & add. Add 1/2 a chopped green pepper if you feel like it.
6. Once that heats, taste it & adjust spices as necessary (it will probably need more chili pepper/powder, and it WILL NEED salt & pepper)
7. Serve!

-Mac & cheese is usually pretty simple (boil noodles, cook onions, pile cheeses together, throw in baking dish, bake for half hour.) There are tons of M&C recipes on the internet, so find one that looks good for you.

-A simple breading consists of flour, bread crumbs, and parmesan cheese. Use the internet to find the proper proportions; I just eyeball it & hope for the best. Put the breading on the chicken, douse with some mozzarella & tomato sauce, and bingo bango, you have chicken parmesan.

(Pro-tip: Use that simple breading, add some chopped fresh dill, some butter (~4 tbsp) and some mustard, stir until it's pasty, slather it on 1lb of salmon, and cook at 400 for 15ish minutes. Soooooo good.)

-If you learn to make this tomato cream sauce, people will be impressed. Serve it with some crusty bread (as a bonus, slice said bread, put a layer of cheese [fontina is a favorite of mine] on the bread, top with a slice of tomato, add some salt, pepper, & basil, and put it in the oven until the cheese is melted and the bread is toasty.) So good!

Ok, those are my secrets. Good luck!
posted by Turkey Glue at 5:10 PM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you can get past the cutesy writing and overly feminine style, The Pioneer Woman Cooks is an incredibly useful resource, especially for inexperienced cooks. Most of her recipes are delicious but basic and not too fancy, with simple techniques, and tons of pictures. Whereas most recipe books will say "Chop up all the vegetables" (or similar), she posts photos and instructions for every single step (eg *photo* here's the onion, *photo* first slice it this way, *photo* then slice it this way).
posted by telegraph at 5:11 PM on June 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

Use really good olive oil, Irish butter, sea salt, and good pepper.
posted by milarepa at 5:18 PM on June 17, 2009

Some cookbooks you should consider:
seconding Bittman's How to Cook Everything - easy, but not always the most complex flavors. Newly updated.
Rombauer's Joy of Cooking: a classic, with a zillion recipes and deep technique.
and finally Pam Anderson's (not the one you're thinking of) How to Cook Without a Book: my wife, who hates to cook, loves this one.

I'm a huge Alton Brown fan .. but his cookbooks are more gear and technique than recipes, so I wouldn't put those first on the shelf. If you want theory plus a scientific approach to how to do things (they try a zillion techniques till they get it right), then Cook's Illustrated The NEW Best Recipe is what you want. It's loaded with recipes, and they explain the dead-ends they tried. This is the one I go to first when I want to cook something.

I agree with advice above: cast iron skillet (cheap, but under-appreciated, and will last your lifetime), a cheap big pot for pasta, a medium pot (cheap now, All-clad when you can afford it), a saute pan (great for stir-fry, etc. ) - but wait till you can afford a good one. Same for the Dutch oven.

And good knives: a chef's knife, a paring knife, a serrated bread knife, and you're done.
posted by cameradv at 5:28 PM on June 17, 2009

Make pasta with some good sauce (doesn't have to be made from scratch sauce, but avoid Ragu, Prego, etc). Tons of things ... rigatoni in vodka sauce with maybe some grilled chicken, baked ziti ...

BBQ is great because there's very little clean up. I just had some Guinness burgers for dinner with some BBQ'd corn. There's ribs, steaks, fish even hot dogs. I BBQ year round and live in NY.

Make your own tacos works great with a dinner party, keep a bunch of hard shells toasty in the oven while the soft shells can quickly be warmed up in the microwave and put shredded cheddar, diced onions and tomatoes, lettuce, sour cream and salsa on the table and it becomes a buffet style thing. The hardest part is browning some chop meat and seasoning to taste (or use one of those packets they sell for a dollar).

Between pastas and BBQ things, you can easily go more than a week without repeating anything.
posted by Brian Puccio at 5:31 PM on June 17, 2009

I recommend watching a lot of Food Network shows if you can--I've learned so much from that.

I also like Small Batch Baking for desserts for one or two people.

As far as brand name vs. generic, that's a really subjective thing. I don't mind generic pancake syrup but my boyfriend hates it. We're particular about ice cream we eat but not ice cream that goes into milkshakes. Certain frozen veggies have to be brand name for me, but for canned mushrooms it doesn't matter. The best way to do this is to try brand name and generic versions of everything that shows a significant savings to figure out what you prefer. Also, learn to check the unit price on the shelves--sometimes the generic or the biggest size ISN'T the best deal.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 5:33 PM on June 17, 2009

Young and just learning to cook? check out Brokeassgourmet.com It totally rocks.
posted by chaoscutie at 5:51 PM on June 17, 2009

Seconding watching the Food Network. If you have DVR, even better! I learned the bulk of how to cook from there (and really, most of it is learning the method.) Cookbooks are great, but it's another thing to actually see how a cook makes a vinaigrette by hand, or what a good sear on a steak sounds/looks like.

Shows that are good for beginner cooks:
Ask Aida (her sausage lasagna is my fam's new fav, we had it at Easter and I'm making it for my dad this Father's Day)
30 Minute Meals (if you can stand Rachel Ray, she actually has some decent stuff)
Barefoot Contessa (super simple stuff, but so impressive! And delicious)
Good Eats (geeky and interesting)
Cooking For Real

Other shows I like:
Tyler's Ultimate
Secrets of a Restaurant Chef (although she does get a little complicated sometimes)
Guy's Big Bite (although he does get annoying sometimes, kind of like the male Rachel Ray.)

Don't let the fancy equipment they use intimidate you. A lot can be done by hand (mixing, whipping, etc.) The only thing I *really* want for my kitchen is a food processor, and I can get one for cheap at Target or something that will suit my needs just fine.

If you're just cooking for one (or two, I don't know if you & your roommate share food), make the whole recipe (4-6 servings) anyway. Leftovers are great, and it's so much more satisfying to microwave a home cooked meal than to microwave something from a box.

I know it's tempting to try to learn how to DO IT ALL RIGHT NOW. I'd suggest trying one new recipe a week. That's what I did.
posted by AlisonM at 5:51 PM on June 17, 2009

I'll second Mark Bittman's book, and raise you one of those "Easy Recipes using 3-4 ingredients" books (there are dozens and I don't have a favorite). When I started cooking for myself, I was always overwhelmed by the amount of stuff I was supposed to have readily available in my kitchen. By limiting your options, you can focus more on the process of cooking - learning how long stuff takes, what ingredients compliment each other, etc. Some of those complex recipes can actually be a tad expensive, and I like cooking because it's cheap (among other things). Keep it simple, and build on your tastes later.
posted by antonymous at 6:08 PM on June 17, 2009

Mark Bittman's blog at the Nytimes is awesome. I keep an eye on that.
posted by sully75 at 6:08 PM on June 17, 2009

Get a wok and learn the joys of one pan cooking. Rinse out the wok & cleanup is done! Plus it's good, healthy eats.

Learn how to read labels and avoid these as one of the top five ingredients:
- Sugar
- Saturated Fat
- High Fructose Corn Syrup
- Trans-fats / Hydrogenated Fats
- 'Enriched' Anything
posted by torquemaniac at 6:19 PM on June 17, 2009

When I started cooking, the best and easiest to use tool I found was a nice, big wok. Stir fries are incredibly easy, just add oil, some garlic/onions, and then veggies, some kind of protein (chicken, fish, tofu, red meat, anything goes), let it go and med/high for a while, and then add some sauce for the last minute or two. Amazingly easy, and delicious over rice, noodles, or even in soup. You can branch out to a huge variety of dishes using the same wok, its a really versatile tool, but I'm still stirfrying on a regular basis. After the wok, definitely go for a crockpot for more easy, makes you look like more of a skilled chef than you are deliciousness.
posted by KilgoreTrout at 6:24 PM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

What you want are cookbooks that teach you fundamentals AND explain how to use ingredients. My "classic starting cookbooks" are The Art of Simple Food (which is amazing) and Basic Cooking.

Once you're a bit comfortable, it's hard to go wrong with the 75th anniversary edition of The Joy of Cooking -- it's not amazingly good food, but it's very diverse and can teach you a LOT about the way food goes together.
posted by ellF at 6:49 PM on June 17, 2009

did that work?
posted by chaoscutie at 7:22 PM on June 17, 2009

I like Smitten Kitchen too, she's particularly good on desserts. If you like a more guy's guy type of cooking site, you might try the Paupered Chef --- they go off the deep end a bit sometimes with the homemade sausage, but he's also clear with good pics and talks about what worked and what didn't.

If you buy one nice thing buy a nice knife --- a proper steel chef's knife, maybe $60-$110. A good sharp knife makes a huge difference --- when you're starting out, you often see recipes that say they take 15 minutes and they take you an hour, and it's almost always down to prep time. A good sharp knife helps a lot and the rest is just practice.

Recipes -- me, I like pasta, so here's a quick, basic tomato sauce:

1 28oz can crushed tomatoes, 2 tbsp olive oil, 1 medium onion, 2 cloves garlic, 2 tsp dried Italian seasoning, 1 bay leaf, salt, pepper.

Dice onion, mince garlic. Put pan on medium heat; add oil, onion, garlic, pinch salt. Cook, stirring briefly, until slightly softened, about 5 min. Add tomatoes, stir. Add herbs, salt and pepper to taste. Leave to simmer about 15 min. Don't forget to take out the bay leaf. Serve over pasta.

You can easily double or triple that and freeze it in single servings --- microwave the sauce while you're boiling the water for pasta. You can also tweak it easily: Use chopped fresh tomatoes and fresh basil for a lighter, more summery version. Add crushed red pepper flakes for kick. Brown some ground chuck with the onions for a meat version. It would also work as a base sauce for pizza.

Just remember with any sauce or soup to salt and taste as you go --- a touch of salt enhances flavor without making stuff taste salty, and you want every element to be properly salted --- if you add it all at the end you can end up with bland veggies and salty broth.

If you want to get a little more adventurous, you might try roasting a chicken for your next dinner party. There's 100 different ways to do it, this is my preferred: Fill the cavity with some aromatics (half a lemon, herbs, garlic) rub the skin with butter or oil and sprinkle a good amount of salt and pepper all over it, then leave it to sit uncovered in the fridge for several hours, overnight if you can swing it. The cold air of the fridge helps dry out the skin so it crisps up nice and the flavors really penetrate. Roast at 425, until a thermometer poked into the thickest part of the thigh hits 150. About 15 min per pound. Let it sit for ten minutes or so before carving --- if you cut it right away while it's piping hot a lot of the juices run out. You can also slice up bunch of potatoes quite thin and layer them under the chicken in the roasting pan. Main and side in one go, and all you have to do is veggies on the stovetop.

Let's see, what else? Fresh broccoli and califlower and string beans are microwavable. A thermometer is your best friend for cooking meat as you're learning. Start off trying stuff you know you like. Even when you basically know what you're doing it can take a long time to get a recipe perfect, so don't sweat the fuck ups and have fun. And if all else fails try adding cheese. Good luck!
posted by Diablevert at 7:38 PM on June 17, 2009

Shoot, that should be 170, in re the thigh meat. Don't go getting salmonella on me.
posted by Diablevert at 7:41 PM on June 17, 2009

Nth'ing Bittman's How To Cook Everything. Two other great books of his are The Minimalist Cooks at Home and The Minimalist Cooks Dinner, though you may find some overlap with HTCE.

IMHO, one of the most valuable tools in a kitchen is a modern Pressure Cooker. You can produce beautiful dishes with very effort, quickly tenderize inexpensive cuts of meat and prepare grains and dried beans in a fraction of the time required on stovetop or in a slow cooker. Lorna Sass's cookbook is a wonderful place to start; she also has a great vegetarian pressure cooking book.

If you want to try your hand at preparing elegant but easy meals for company, check out Jacques Pepin's Fast Food My Way. And if you ever can catch any reruns of his shows on PBS, just watch the man cook; he'a wonderful teacher, and you'll learn a lot.

Bon Appetit!
posted by pianoboy at 7:41 PM on June 17, 2009

One of my staples (besides chili): Monastery Lentil Soup. I've never bothered with the Sherry--another poster might have a substitution. Red wine, maybe? (I don't bother with that either, still tasty)
posted by Decimask at 7:42 PM on June 17, 2009

Rice cooker: my most highly valued appliance. And a heavy cutting board, a couple decent knives, and a big cooking dish with a flat bottom and lid. I accumulated stuff slowly so I only have stuff that I use. If you're renting and expect to be moving in the next few years, there's no big rush to owning, say, a creme brulee set.

Consider just experimenting. This is my favorite way to cook, but there have been some miserable disasters. My husband finds the failures endearing, so it works out. (cherry-ginger-garlic pasta sauce. fail.) It works out better when I stumble on something great (like a spanikopita lasagna I made once). In the beginning, my revelations were things like "ah! onions really round out the flavor!" or "the basil lost its flavor when cooked!" or "bacon - why not?" The discovery process is so fun.

Baking bread is rewarding and very pleasurable. I'm having a hard time articulating it, but it makes me feel... grounded? womanly? timeless? Whatever, it's worth trying. The internet loves no-knead bread - and it's amazing - but the simple recipe on the back of the yeast package is hearty and fun.

My favorite recipe books are 1) this one that alphabetically lists all major veggies and how to select them, the basic methods of cooking them, and several recipes each. And less practically, 2) the anthology fundraiser cookbooks assembled by schools, churches, women's clubs, etc., especially if they're quite old and regional. You can find them at used book shops and yard sales. They have the strangest foods, and they're so personal.
posted by degrees_of_freedom at 7:52 PM on June 17, 2009

I cannot recommend the power of the internet enough here. Simply Recipes and Smitten Kitchen are absolutely awesome.

In addition, you should grab yourself a chef's knife, a paring knife and a vegetable knife (or a santoku). Cooks Illustrated rated Victorinox as a best-buy brand. You could probably pick up all three at once for around fifty bucks, or split them up as small presents to yourself as you master new recipes. While you're at it The New Best Recipe is quite handy as a reference for all those dishes you would like to make once you really get going.

Also, echoing the comments above to ditch margarine and go with butter if there is any baking going on in your kitchen. Try to avoid keeping any dried spices you buy near the stove. The heat from cooking near them can cause the spices to lose flavor and degrade.

Finally, and this is my favorite part, invite some friends over. Pick out the two or three things you cook really well and make an evening of it. One of the wonderful things about cooking is the social aspect. Not to mention, their thank-yous for a home cooked meal will provide fuel to get through what you perceive to be failures down the road.
posted by conradjones at 7:54 PM on June 17, 2009

You've got a lot of great advice above. I'll also chime in to add that you should watch America's Test Kitchen on PBS. They basically test and perfect recipes and cooking methods, as well as do real taste tests and equipment tests. Cook's Country, featuring the same people and format (but more about homey-type foods), is also spectacular.

In that vein, this is the greatest macaroni and cheese you can possible ever make.
posted by General Malaise at 7:57 PM on June 17, 2009

My go-to cookbook is How to Cook Everything -- it has some decent recipes, sure, but I like its explanation of techniques (e.g., what to look for when buying produce X, or how to perform cooking technique Y). Once you get a little experience under your belt, you'll probably find that the internet is a better source of recipes than any book (even the Larousse Gastronomique, though that's an interesting book in and of itself).
posted by axiom at 8:20 PM on June 17, 2009

I have to second soups as being incredibly easy and hard to botch. For a million recipes, check out www.epicurious.com.
posted by slateyness at 10:25 PM on June 17, 2009

If you can find one or two cooking classes that are really pitched just right for you, they can be a great confidence builder. I was already an intermediate cook when a really great hands-on Thai class taught me not to be afraid of high heat. I'm still looking for just the right knife-work lesson.
posted by Mngo at 10:42 PM on June 17, 2009

I started cooking about a year ago. Some scant advice:

* If you're learning to cook on an electric stove, you'll have to work harder for good results.
* Learn to pan-fry stuff. Delicious, easy, and works with many ingredients!
* Recipe websites are okay (I'm particularly fond of Joy of Baking -- try the cream scones!), but there's nothing like browsing through a good cookbook and picking out the recipes that look appealing.
* Figure out what each part of the recipe does. Don't just follow it blindly.
* Costco is your friend, especially for meats.
posted by archagon at 11:50 PM on June 17, 2009

I was in the same boat as you. I hadn't really cooked ever and decided to start after graduating to the real world. I started a few months ago with a 5 ingredient stir fry and have since made chicken kiev and bread, all with great success.

My roommate and I decided two key things from the start.
1: If the cooking doesn't make you ill and/or require ordering out for pizza afterwords, it is considered a success.
2: You must cook something substantial (this definition will change upwards) at least once every week.


You'll need a "core" cookbook. Better Homes & Gardens, How to Cook Everything, whatever. This is the go-to book for reference questions such as, "What the hell is a scallion?" Usually, these books will also have recipes with very detailed preparation instructions - a real help when you're starting or just really tried. Make sure to ask your family and friends who cook for their favorite recipes. They'll love you for it *and* they have a strong possibility of being really good.


NYTimes - A No-Frills Kitchen Still Cooks (by Mark Bittman of /How to Cook Everything/).
Restaurant supply stores are awesome. Basics for incredibly cheap *and* whisks the size of a pole-arm. I spent all of $40 on the chef, paring, and bread knifes I got and I still overpaid, compared to the next store I visited. Get all the mixing bowls you can. OXO angled measuring cup. Don't buy gadgets until you can name quite a few real instances you encountered that it would have helped/made possible.


I've mostly been getting the cheapest stuff. It's better to keep an eye on what *kind* of stuff you're buying; prepared/processed vs. fresh, spies vs. sugar, etc. I'm worried about pesticides and spending money, so knowing what to buy organic is useful. Cook's Illustrated (aka America's Test Kitchen on PBS) is basically Consumer Reports for food. They have a free supermarket buying guide. Do a few comparisons and see if better ingredients are worth it or not *for you*. Buy spices in as small as quantities as possible - preferably in bulk food style baggies. You won't know what you generally use until later.
posted by easyasy3k at 11:54 PM on June 17, 2009

Oh! One more thing: you simply must read "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan. It'll change your culinary outlook.
posted by archagon at 12:03 AM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

The only 2 cents I'll add--- don't be afraid of high temperatures, especially when cooking meat-- (veal, lamb, beef, etc). By cooking at a low temperature for a longer time, yes, you'll cook it through... but you'll dry it out as well.

When you have a good piece of red meat, cook it at a medium-high to high temperature for 3-4 minutes, then flip and repeat--- after this, tent it in foil and cook it in the oven at 250-300 degrees for as long as you need to cook through (about 3-4 minutes for rare, 10-12 minutes for medium, leave it in for an hour for new charcoal briquettes).

Then, let it rest for a few minutes. The larger your cut (read: legs, loins, whole-bird turkeys/chickens), the longer the rest (let a turkey rest out of the oven for 10-15 minutes. It sucks all the juices back in and makes for a moist offering.

As an added bonus, the juices that come from your tenting (and I admit, to a piece of beet, I usually add onions--- red shallots are awesome on good steak) can be then put into a boiling-hot skillet with a snippet of oil and a (premixed) water/flour (or water/corn starch) mix for quick gravy.

Spices are tough sometimes. Rule numbers 1-7? Spices DO go bad. If your paprika was put into it's tin during the Nixon administration... throw it out. Flavorful spices (paprika, cayanne pepper, red pepper, thyme, oregano... pretty much all of them. (Except cloves. Never had cloves go bad on me, but someone may rush to contradict me here)) go bad within a few months of first being used. So unless you're making chicken enchiladas or chili every night, you may not need that industrial-size, 342 oz chili powder.

I leave Italian cooking to those who know it better, but especially on ground red-meat (lamb/beef), don't forget your cumin; it's a great spice, and in the US, at least in my experience, it's underused.

Okay. Quick'n easy Chicken Enchiladas.

Canned/Fresh Tomatoes (see paragraph 2)
Bell Pepper
Chili Powder
Cheese* (See Paragraph 3)
Sour Cream* (Optional, for serving, not preparation)

Take a chicken. I'm lazy and use either a rotisserie, or whatever cut looks good in the butcher's counter that particular day/week. Chop/shred that bird up into little tiny pieces (bite-sized), cook them just enough to get the pink out (with pieces that small, this shouldn't take long), then set them aside in a bowl.

Heat your pan on medium-high, then add a bit of olive oil, and add your minced onion. Let the onion get nice-n-shimmery, then add your bell peppers. Immeadiately, take some canned tomatoes (unless you're in Europe, or another place where you can get legitimately fresh tomatoes. Most of them in the US are picked green, and ripen while being shipped--- then wax is added. I don't find them to have much taste. Better to get some that were picked fresh, then immediately canned. I really like San Marzano.) (probably about 28-36 oz) and start them simmering in a pan. Add garlic. (to personal taste-- you're not going for pasta sauce, so 3 cloves? okay. 3 bulbs? not so much.)
After they get to just-about-a-boil, add chili powder. Add plenty (several Tbsp), and taste every once in a while. Once you stop tasting tomato-sauce-with-a-bit-of-spice and start tasting the equal amalgam of flavors, you've won a prize and can continue to the next step. (Remember also-- once it cools and bakes with your chicken and tortillas, the flavor'll be diluted a bit, so don't worry if it's just-a-tad too spicy).

Now! Toss your chicken in the sauce (just like you would a salad), pick the pieces up, (slotted spoons are your friend on this step) and set them aside again. then add plenty of cheese. I usually use a mixture of shredded queso blanco and sharp chedder... but depending on your region, do whatever you like.

Allrighty. We've come to the messy step. Take a skillet and warm it up on high. Take some oil (the spray--pam stuff works well, because you're going to coat the pan every coupla' tortillas to avoid sticky carbonated messes)
Dip your tortillas in the sauce, get them good and coated (don't burn your hands!), then fry them for about 10-15 seconds a side, flip, then set them somewhere to cool. (You'll get a kind-of assembly line working here-- soak, fry, remove, soak, fry, remove, etc) After it cools enough to handle it, grab some chicken, lay it across the diameter of the tortilla, roll it up, and put it in a baking pan. Repeat until the pan is full, or you're out of chicken. If your sauce gets thin, add more tomatoes/chili powder... or just add water. The flavor'll permeate everything, so don't worry about watering it down too much unless you pour a bucket over the pan.

Then, you have this nice, neat looking pan full of rolled tortillas. Cover it in cheese, then drain the leftover sauce on top of everything. Now, you can either serve it right away, or store it. If you're planning to serve it later, just warm up your oven (300 degrees works nicely) and let it heat up for 10-15 minutes. (Check on it. My oven heat sensor's wonky, so your times may differ)

Dollop with sour cream, and enjoy.
posted by Seeba at 12:46 AM on June 18, 2009


Most people commenting in this thread are recommending different recipes, pans, etc....

When cooking it is important to remember what are the components of the meal. Are you serving for your friends three courses? Is money a concern? What kind of atmosphere is created by the food you serve?

We have all gone done the road of ordering a pizza or throwing some burgers and steaks on the grill so I would start with the most basic building blocks of any good meal. Think of the main ingredients and then it is easy to embellish anything. Here are some good tips outside of the box.

1. Define the crux of your meal. Meat, fish or maybe the cheese and bacon chosen for a super mac and cheese. Define what you want to eat and trust yourself. This will most likely be your biggest investment. For example, if its a nice summer day, maybe fish is the best answer. Dinner Party on Friday night? Maybe some pork or beef. A better way to explain this concept is to choose the crux of your meal and build from there. Most choices for a good meal start with what is available on the day you need to cook.

2. Plan a budget for what you will serve. This may sound stupid, but ask yourself what does it take to make 1,2 or 3 courses for however many people you have. This will help with getting portions right and enable you to use the power of the internets or cookbooks to deliver a slamdunk. It means that whatever you serve, you won't be left out. When you define what is a portion and then stick to it, you have already gone a long way towards making your evening successful.

3. Use Building blocks. Any course needs something to bring out flavours and support your crux. Usually this comes down to vegetables and or herbs/spices. Same thing applies to any dish really. Remember it and make it your bible. Again, the hardest part of being a good cook is trusting yourself - recipes are followed and executable, what you want to present is solely dependent on you.

4. Remember that easier is sometimes more impressive. A prawn cocktail to start made from some frozen jumbo prawns and an easy homemade dip that can be prepared way ahead is probably much better than those 4 hours and cash spent on making something incredibly complex. If the goal is to have a great meal with friends, use the KISS principle otherwise you'll be in the kitchen the whole time while your guests are wondering where you are.

5. Focus on doing something well when starting to cook. Silly as it sounds, learn to make a couple of dishes well for your buddies and girlfriend. You can branch out from there, but as the saying goes, everyone comes for the conversation but ends up talking about the food. No one wants to be the cook that is too ambitious and can't cook.

6. Experience different foods. Whatever your budget, equipment or taste. You have the ultimate guide to good taste built in. If your palette is lacking, experiment on your own and find what you like. I recall being in my early twenties and discovering brie seriously for the first time. God it was awful and the stench was revolting. Zoom forward and now I actually am in France tasting some of the best handmade brie to be found. Absolute heaven.

Last but not least is to remember is to remember that cooking foods for friends is about the conversation and ability to share thoughts. A beginner cook can and will have more success with a meal based on that alone.
posted by Funmonkey1 at 3:18 AM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding Cook's Illustrated . It is a fantastic resource. It has a TON of really good recipes that have been tested and tweaked by a staff of chefs. It has good tutorials on cooking techniques, as well as tips and tricks that will improve your cooking.

It also has product reviews for almost anything you can imagine: pots, pans, brands of pasta, brands of toaster oven, brands of ketchup, spice brands... almost everything. It's a pay site, but it has a free trial and in the end its not that expensive. I think it has every recipe that is in the New Best Recipe as well.
posted by AceRock at 7:23 AM on June 18, 2009

  • Everyone can cook - toasting bread is cooking. Don't think of it as hard because it is not.
  • Everyone can follow a recipe - grab a book, any book, find a nice picture, follow instructions EVERYONE can do it
  • recipe's are just guidelines - don't worry if you do not have the correct ingredient/brand/amount it probably does not matter. Don't worry if you do not have scales, the right pots/pans etc - it does not really matter
  • Experiment!! Nothing is wrong - just different tasting/texture. IT DOES NOT MATTER. Whatever you do will (almost) never be so bad that you can't eat it :-)
  • Maybe start with one-pot-meals - more scope for error as the cooking times and ingredients matter even less!

  • posted by lamby at 8:52 AM on June 18, 2009

    campbell's has this dinner box. it comes with the rice and the soup can, all you need to get is the meat. i suggest this because it is a good starting point in figuring out how to use the oven. you also start to learn how tender and moist you prefer your meat and the same goes with the texture/consistency of the rice. you can also add more to the mix, like veggies or change up the soup. by learning this process, you can start adding different soups, meats, veggies, and flavors. before you know it, you will be making a pot roast all by yourself!
    posted by penguingrl at 5:08 PM on June 18, 2009

    cameradv has it right. The New Best Recipe and The Joy of Cooking are required reading, in my opinion. Lots of people recommend How to Cook Everything, and I own it, but I'm not a fan.

    As others have mentioned, Cooks Illustrated is good. I find Cooks Country (also by America's Test Kitchen) to be more useful on a regular basis. (And the recipes should appeal to a mac-n-cheese fan.)

    The Calphalon Commercial Hard-Anodized 12" Everyday Pan is a versatile, reasonably-priced pan that, if you're like me, you'll find yourself using all the time.
    posted by thinman at 11:27 PM on June 18, 2009

    Oh, also... if your mom, dad, or grandparents are good cooks, and are still around, call them. They can teach you stuff. And get their recipes now. It is much harder after they are gone. Speaking from experience on this last point.
    posted by thinman at 11:39 PM on June 18, 2009

    Several people mentioned Cook's Illustrated above. The produced a cookbook called America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook and it is my go to place for recipes. Just like in their magazine and their tv show, all the recipes have been scientifically tested over and over again and I've had more first time success with their recipes than anyone else. This cookbook is also in a ring binder so it will lay flat as you cook.It does include some technique tips and hints on best products to buy but doesn't contain the 1 to 2 pages of prose on "why" a recipe works or not. That's helpful too (so I have that book as well) but it isn't necessary for someone just starting out who wants to get some culinary wins under their belt.
    posted by mmascolino at 7:33 AM on June 19, 2009

    Season It!
    Make sure and add salt as early in the cooking process as possible (unless it's something that salt might break down too much, like scrambled eggs - with those you should add salt only towards the end when the egg starts curdling - that's the only example I know of so far where adding salt too early can mess it up). It can make a HUGE difference in flavor! I remember making a healthy chickpea curry 2 times. Of course those health cookbooks never use salt so the first time I made the curry it was sooo bland and tasteless. The 2nd time I had wised up to salt and added it in the beginning and the difference was staggering! Of course don't use too much, it only takes a little at the right time to bring out the flavor... and make sure to consider if any of your ingredients already have salt in them.

    Buy only the produce you plan on using in the next 2-3 days
    I find I tend to overestimate how much produce I will really use or eat in the next week or so. I used to buy those big bags of potatoes and garlic and onions, only to use about 2 or so before they all went bad. (Btw- never store potatoes and onions in the same place! Fumes from the onions rot the potatoes. Also, never refrigerate tomatoes, it kills the flavor with no hope of return.) Or I'll buy a couple plums or bananas for snacks and never eat them. Now I only buy produce I KNOW I'm going to use/eat in the next day or so, and I try to err on the frugal side (like buying 1 plum instead of 3 if I want a snack- I can always buy more if I really like it!). But I live in a city and have the luxury of shopping as often as I need to... which I recommend if you have that option. I also really like shopping at individual produce stands, bakeries, butcher shops, etc, instead of just getting all my food from one big grocery store... the quality of everything tends to be much better and fresher (but it can be a bit of a pain in the ass to go to 5 diff places, so only do this if it's convenient enough not to discourage you). If you don't have these conveniences then you just gotta plan your cooking out more.

    Farmer's markets rule!
    Just go to one and pick out an ingredient you're drawn towards or that looks really fresh and popular and in season... and then figure out a recipe from there! :) This past Wednesday I went to one and noticed tons of asparagus and strawberries. I picked up both, found a recipe for bacon-wrapped asparagus, and it was AMAZING!!!! :) (The strawberries were sweet enough on their own to be eaten plain, no white in the middle of these strawberries...)
    posted by thejrae at 2:28 PM on June 19, 2009

    Learn to make stock and don't ever buy it. Use it in place of water in most recipes and keep putting the new excess cooking liquid back in the freezer. After a little while, you'll have a tasty and ever-changing medium with which you can turn almost anything into a good meal. I am not including animal grease in this formula. Fat does not make a good stock.

    Sharps: A good 10-14 inch Chef's knife, a paring knife, a serrated knife, a whetstone or an old Italian guy with a pushcart and a pedal-operated wheel.

    Pots and pans: Cast iron cookware is in your local thriftshop at a fraction of the cost of new. If you know anyone that has access to a military base, that is the kitchen goldmine. Those thriftshops are full of other peoples brand-new-why'd-you-send-this-to-me-I-don't-cook- waste. Throw cast iron in the oven for an hour after giving it a Peanut, Olive, or Corn oil spongebath, and you'll have pots and pans that you cannot destroy. If your landlord has saddled you with burners that heat unevenly, cast iron is your only hope- It redistributes the heat evenly.

    Books: I've had to pitch all of these because I wore them out. Everything except Beard is out in paperback now.

    James Beard-This guy launched me right at the nexus of good food and reasonable effort. I can't find the particular title, but it might be in your library if it is out of print and he starts with a chapter on stock and how all else evolves from that.

    Julia Child-"The Way To Cook" A condensation of the groundbreaking trilogy. This is your tomato sauce. This is your basic dough. This is a Beef Wellington you can pull off with substandard appliances.

    The Frugal Gourmet- Frittatas, Quiches, Souffles, and death by baked asparagus.

    The Joy of Cooking is good if you already know what you are doing. It's kind of sparse in certain critical instructions for the newbie. If I were going to be stuck with one single book and complete amnesia, I'd pick "The New Doubleday Cookbook". In 1975 it weighed in at 967 pages. It's all there.
    posted by Mr. Yuck at 9:12 PM on June 23, 2009

    Response by poster: Thanks everyone - I was able to pull nuggets of help out of all of your comments, so I'm not going to mark any particular one as best.
    posted by designbyme at 11:35 AM on August 1, 2009

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