How to learn to cook in 3 months
April 19, 2012 2:32 AM   Subscribe

Due to my mother's mental health, I was never taught to cook, and now I want to learn. However, the following complicates things...

- I am an absolute beginner. Meaning I don't know how to slice an onion or boil an egg.
- I work away from my parents' house (thanks goodness) on temporary contracts. I'm currently on a 3 month contract. So a) how do I establish a pantry from scratch that b) is small enough that it won't go to waste at the end? Bearing in mind I don't even know what's required to establish a normal, permanent pantry (we were not allowed to go shopping for food)
- I'm cooking for myself

What can you guys recommend in terms of establishing an appropriate, short-term pantry and beginner recipes for one person? Any good cookbooks out there? Thanks
posted by glache to Food & Drink (53 answers total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
If you can follow instructions, it's easy. 1) Buy "The Joy of Cooking" and pick a recipe that sounds tasty. 2) Acquire elements necessary for that recipe. 3) Follow recipe. 4) Learn from outcome.

Repeating steps 1 - 4 with things you like is a good way to acquire what utensils and staples you need. Don't worry about establishing a pantry, just start with things you like and buy the ingredients and implements as you need them.
posted by zippy at 2:44 AM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Cook Food has a pretty awesome introduction that not only goes over what tools you'll need, but also want staples you should think about getting. It also goes over basic cooking techniques, and talks through not just recipes, but the basics of being able to throw together a couple of things in order to make food.

I found it really helpful, because even tho I'm a pretty confident cook, cooking for me was always an event, not something I did as just a general part of life. Jervis really breaks down everyday cooking as just a part of life.

I also did an email forward thing. I'll share the text with you:

Hello People

We are participating in a collective, constructive, and hopefully TASTY experiment. As such, you have been invited to be part of a recipe exchange concept. We hope you will participate. We have picked those we think would make this fun.

Please send a recipe to the person whose name is in position 1 (even if you don't know him/her) and it should be something quick, easy and without rare ingredients. Actually, the best one is the one you know in your head and can type right now. Don't agonize over it; it is one you make when you are short of time. (may be something for the next dinner party?)

After you've sent the recipe to the person in position 1 below and only to that person, copy this letter into a new email, move my name to position 1 and put your name in position 2. Only my and your name should show when you send your email. Send to 20 friends BCC (blind copy).

If you cannot do this within 5 days, let us know so it will be fair to those participating. It's fun to see where they come from! Seldom does anyone drop out because we all need new ideas. The turnaround is fast as there are only 2 names on the list and you only have to do it once.


This was really great for getting the "day to day" recipes friends and family use when they're just cooking for themselves.
posted by spunweb at 2:52 AM on April 19, 2012

My recommendation for beginning cooks is -- pick a couple of dishes you like and then cook them repeatedly, like once a week each. Starting with soups or stews is not a bad idea, because they a) are cook-friendly, b) easily portionable. and c) teach you a variety of techniques. By cook-friendly, I mean that they are fairly forgiving -- if you can't cut things to the same size, the soup might not be perfect, but it will still be soup. Also, it's hard to burn soup (although it can be done). They also allow a chunk of cooking time that lets you get away from the stove.

If you like pea soup, I would recommend Alton Brown's curried split pea soup. Simple, direct, makes you practice cutting up onion and garlic, which helps with the knife skills, has a short list of ingredients that keep for quite a while, and it is customizable -- you can make it vegan, but swapping vegetable broth for the chicken stock, you can add meat if you like (a slice of ham or some sausage would be good), etc. You could try different curry powders (or other spice mixes). You can eat it for dinner (maybe with a friend) and have some left overs for lunches and/or another dinner.

Pick a second recipe -- a pasta sauce, maybe. Now do the same thing. Make both of these each week and pay attention to them. As you get the basics down, try changing things. Don't like the ground beef? Try pork or lamb, see what else has to change. Make these recipes your own, then add something else. Buy the minimum of equipment as you need it.

Over time you will develop both your skills and your taste, and that will help you add new dishes, flavors, and techniques to your collection.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:52 AM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

You can also find Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything," which is nice in that it has a lot of simple meals available.

The Joy of Cooking tells you how to cook everything, though and can be pretty good to have.

I would not discount starting with super easy things, though. If you eat meat, try the simple meal-planning of meat, veggie, starch. For example, you can do "Chicken leg quarters with green beans and couscous" or "Steak with broccoli and roasted baby potatoes." Go to the grocery and pick up an appealing looking meat, starch (potatoes, pasta, couscous, bread, polenta, rice), and veggie, and then once you get home search on the internet for how to cook the meat and veggies and starch. Veggies you can generally do okay with "Bring water in pot to a boil, boil veggies for 5-10 minutes." Sometimes the veggies may turn out a little overcooked, but they'll be edible even so, and you can just remember to cook them for less time later.
posted by that girl at 2:55 AM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

There are cookbooks for people like you, they are meant for other people who aren't used to kitchens. Take a look in Amazon (or elsewhere) for books meant for college students, bachelors, and single people.

One book I looked at recently and would've bought in a heartbeat is "How to Cook Everything" which covers a lot of basics plus the cooking tips and some more interesting less-everyday recipes. I think it's a much more inspiring book than "Joy of Cooking," which, while awesome, can be hard to bore through as a beginner and in many versions doesn't have any mouthwatering photographs (which is most helpful in understanding some steps in the kitchen).
posted by whatzit at 2:57 AM on April 19, 2012 [8 favorites]

Much of cooking boils down to the basic concepts:

- Knife skills
- Knowing how/when to simmer soups/gravies etc
- Knowing which ingredients to put in first (usually harder vegetables then softer ones, larger chunks of meat then thin slices)
- How to parboil/steam/fry/stir-fry/deep fry/roast/bake things
- Time management (e.g. peeling potatoes while waiting for the water to boil)

If you can master these basic concepts and skills, you can figure out most things yourself. I would recommend watching videos/getting someone to show you how to cook at first, to give you a rough idea of what needs to be done and how to repair your botch-ups. It will also give you confidence in your own skills.

I believe some of Jamie Oliver's cookbooks have a section at the start giving you a primer on how to execute the basic cooking techniques, if you have no one to show you how to.

That said, there is no substitute for real experience. I'd start with the basic dishes, focusing more on the techniques that I'd need to master (e.g. stir-frying vegetables) than the final outcome. Don't be too concerned if you burn something, it's almost inevitable that you will. Nonetheless, don't be afraid of high heat, just respect it and it will become your friend.
posted by titantoppler at 2:57 AM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd recommend Delia Smith's "How To Cook" which, literally, starts off with how to boil water and goes on from there.

There are also some great cooking tutorials on YouTube and, particularly, Videojug, and these are great as you can have your laptop close by (away from heat/water please!) and you can pause/rewind/go back to see exactly how something's done as you're following along yourself.

A pantry for yourself should consist of:

- one kind of 'long' pasta (spaghetti, linguine) and one kind of pasta shapes
- a bag of basmati rice
- three or four cans of good-quality canned tomatoes
- canned chickpeas and beans (borlotti, kidney, etc)
- powdered mashed potatoes (this is brilliant for thickening soups, sauces or stews)
- chicken/beef/vegetable stock - either a long-life carton or Knorr stock cubes
- all-purpose flour
- panko breadcrumbs
- salt and pepper
- olive oil and canola oil
- seasonings and spices such as garlic granules (not as good as fresh garlic, but okay if you can't get fresh garlic), cumin, coriander, curry powder, Chinese five-spice - think of the food you like and buy the seasonings that go with that food. The aisles in the supermarket will have sections for different kinds of ethnic food with the spices and seasonings all there.
- if you can get fresh herbs, fine, but if not buy some herbs in jars - the 'woodier' herbs such as oregano and rosemary are particularly good dried. Leafy ones like basil and cilantro not so much.

Buy a good set of cup measures - I got a great set in Bed Bath & Beyond for very little money.

Buy things like oil in small bottles, so you use it all before it goes off. Dried goods keep for ages.

I was brought up by a mother who didn't cook - our food came from cans and after I left home that's how I ate until I taught myself to cook. Now I'm a pretty damned good cook, so if I can do it, you can.

Keep it simple. A perfectly-cooked omelet is a delight, and very simple to master, with practice.
posted by essexjan at 3:26 AM on April 19, 2012 [14 favorites] - online video cooking school
posted by leigh1 at 3:34 AM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook is basic, basic, basic. It has little sections on kitchen hardware - knives, pans and so forth. It also has wonderful little explanations of technique - this is what dice looks like, this is what sifting is, etc. It has recipes for pretty standard American fare as well as fun things like falafel. This cookbook is my standard gift to young people just starting out - it truly is a basic primer on how to cook.

And, YAY! for taking care of yourself!!
posted by PorcineWithMe at 3:38 AM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I feel for you. HARD.

Sea salt and a container of ground pepper.

I am a culinary school grad and classically trained French Chef (I guess, I don't work I don't work professionally right now, although I am about to again...)

Seriously. Good tasting salt (Yes! There is a difference!) and plain old ground black pepper will get you through.

That said - What are you cooking?

If you can barely boil water, and even if you can -- The Basics - if you are first learning to cook --are EGGS.

Eggs are fraught. They have many properties. They are readily available in many degrees of quality, which effect application.

- A lazy person would tell you to google this - and you should google, regardless!

- Older eggs are better for hard boiling, because they are easier to peel.

- The yolk of an egg is a natural emulsifier because it contains the fat and lecithin.

- The white of an egg contains the protein (or albumin) and can clarify stock by binding impurities to it.

- The use of a whole egg is a thickener and a binder (but this is mostly down to the yolk) in meat balls, mac & cheese, crab cakes, other casseroles, etc..

- Mayonnaise is a classic egg-based sauce, as is Hollandaise, and pasta Carbonara sauce, too.

- Making great scrambled eggs isn't easy! Master this.

- Omelets!

- Crepes!

- Eggs en Cocotte (baked eggs)

- Sunny Side Up or Fried, and Over Easy

-Creme Brulee and Creme Caramel desserts

- Quiche.

- Souffle!

- Fritters

- Meat balls and meat loafs (already mentioned.)

- Casseroles (already mentioned.)

- Frittatas!

- Asian egg drop soups, like Vietnamese Asparagus and crab...

- Pasta doughs, and some breads.


If you can master The Art of Eggs - the rest will follow.


Pantry additions I can't live without (paprika, oregano, cumin, bay leaf, hot pepper, toasted sesame oil, soy sauce, red wine vinegar, white wine, white vinegar, sugar, saffron, fresh parsley, fresh cilantro) will expand as your repertory grows.

Base your Pantry on what you cook.

Learn the basics. That is my advice.
posted by jbenben at 3:40 AM on April 19, 2012 [11 favorites]

Enthusiastically agree about "How To Cook Everything". It's my #1 greasiest, most falling-apart cookbook.

I also love "The Flavor Bible", which is awesome because it tells you what foods go with each other. It's set up like an index; you can look up an ingredient, like "avocado", and it will give you a list of things that taste nice with it, with things that are especially awesome with it bolded. Each ingredient's entry also has a list of classic combinations featuring that ingredient.

Another rec: "Cooking for Geeks". That one's nice because it helps you understand how and why cooking works.

There are loads of YouTube videos and podcasts that demonstrate basic cooking skills; these can really help.

My minimal, use-it-all-up pantry would contain:

Kosher salt
Black Pepper
Cooking oil
Dried pasta
All-Purpose Flour

Hope this helps and you have fun cooking!
posted by Gianna at 3:40 AM on April 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

You're already getting some great book recommendations, etc, but my $0.02 is simply: watch people cook. Watch your friends. Invite yourself over to friends' places and just watch what they do. I don't mean, learn their recipes, but just things like, how they chop onions, how they make a simple tomato sauce for pasta, how they boil eggs etc. I saw their lazy hacks, and realised that cooking can be something quite simple and relaxing, and not the intricate, stressful procedure I had always imagined it to be. I'll never forget the time a friend of mine tossed a bunch of chicken, onions, oil and spices into a pot, covered it over a medium heat for a bit, lowered the heat for a bit, and then one hour later he had the most amazing chicken curry.

I learned so much more this way than I have through books and TV shows.

I was 18 before I learned how to boil an egg. But now I am pretty confident and capable of throwing together any number of things.
posted by Ziggy500 at 4:00 AM on April 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

If you can swing it you could cook together with friends. Not in a "Give me lessons" sort of way, but in a "here's something fun to do before we have a friendly dinner" sort of way. I haven't done this very often but whenever I do I learn about how other people do things.

On preview: Yes to Ziggy500
posted by sesquipedalian at 4:02 AM on April 19, 2012


A lot of those egg dishes are covered by the concept of Custard.

Again, google.
posted by jbenben at 4:04 AM on April 19, 2012

For an online version of 'watch friends', youtube it. There are youtube videos for every technique, e.g. how to slice an onion, boil an egg etc. Great if it suits your learning style.
posted by pickingupsticks at 4:10 AM on April 19, 2012

Also, you have your whole life to learn how to cook, so don't worry if it happens slowly. Loads of basic recipes are so delicious you will happily subsist on them for months once you learn them.
posted by pickingupsticks at 4:22 AM on April 19, 2012

Because my work involves both traveling frequently, often having to live in service apartments for weeks or as recently, three months, at a time, I have the same challenge of how to establish a pantry for one for a limited period of time (albeit, with the knowledge of cooking).

You will need perishable foods and non perishables. You can purchase the non perishables during one visit to the grocery but (since you are going to be doing this without experience of your consumption) we will start small.

Non perishables (or those kept in the fridge)

Rice, pasta, in about one kilo packet form
Save flour for after you begin recipes and see that you need it
Sugar - one kilo
salt and pepper - ready in the shaker from the spice rack aisle
Condiments - you already know what you like - tomato ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise etc - start with the smallest containers first as you develop experience of your consumption over time
Soy sauce and chili sauce (depending on your preference, background or recipe)
Butter and/or margarine
Cooking fat or oil


beverage - tea, coffee and/or juice
cold cuts for sandwiches and snacks or ready meals (ham, bacon etc) (you don't say if you're vegetarian or not, so I'm going with what I do to start a new kitchen each time)

In the freezer:

bag of mixed veg (very flexible for a variety of meals and dishes, particularly for one person)
bag of other veg
note: why frozen? mixing fresh veg which lasts a day or two with frozen allows me access to veg even if I'd not had time to go to the market especially if I'm on a project
sausages or something like hamburger patties
breast or chicken or pork cubes or preferred meats - again you can wait to see recipes for this

In general:

paper towels
cheap wooden spoon and spatula set - you will burn and lose these
knife and cutting board
wok type frying pan
griddle type frying pan

All of this is at minimum, some I carry with me to locations (and add my pressure cooker) but this is a basic kitchen set up.

I also carry curry pastes and powders, instant soups and mixes and additional condiments but this you will evolve as your preferences and experiences grows.

Hope this helps.
posted by infini at 4:23 AM on April 19, 2012 [6 favorites]

I personally think that a lot of the cookbooks mentioned here (including the Bitman "How to Cook" series, unfortunately, because I love him) are going to be too advanced for you, especially because you seem anxious about this.

I'm going to recommend three things:

1) There is a cookbook called Help! My Apartment has a Kitchen that is targeted to people like you, who have never cooked and have never had the opportunity to cook. I would also recommend you hit the library and look specifically at cookbooks aimed at kids (at our house we have Betty Crocker's Kids Cookbook but there are a million others) to evaluate if they seem to basic for you. The biggest reason I recommend kids cookbooks is that they have great illustrations and often explain things in the most basic ways possible.

2) Watch America's Test Kitchen on PBS, and/or read their excellent blog. ATK takes a scientific "trial and error" approach to cooking, so they try to make things three dozen ways and then explain -- step by step -- how to cook them. I will warn you, though, that a lot of their recipes are pretty complex: watch and read for a while and you'll probably identify some that you feel comfortable with.

3) re: Pantry. There isn't really any way for us to answer this question without knowing what you like to eat. So, really, that's your first step: what foods do you like to eat? Note that these are not "I'd like to try chicken kiev someday" type foods, but sit down and make an actual list of the foods you enjoy eating now - even if it's things that you just always order when you go out to eat. Then, find recipes for those things, and use the ingredients list as a guide for your pantry. It may very well be that you're only buying salt and pepper as long-term nonperishable pantry items, and that's ok.

Honestly, the place to start your pantry is with your weekly shopping lists. You are making those, right? Sitting down one day a week and figuring out what you'd like to eat for the next six or seven days is key.

Finally, I echo the idea above that learning to cook is a process, and a long one. Set easy goals. Learn to cook one or two things, then once they seem second nature move on to one or two more things. If it helps, know that I've been cooking my whole life, but I've only learned to cook bacon in the past three or four months.
posted by anastasiav at 4:27 AM on April 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

Buying bottles of pasta sauce, with additional fresh ingredients like mushrooms or chorizo added, make great meals which you can eat at least twice. (With the dry pasta)

I also note that put coffee under perishable.. guess I just drink way too much of it.
posted by infini at 4:27 AM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Awesome, congratulations on this endeavour. I took it on myself a few years ago, and have progressed to quite a decent level of skill in that time.

There are some great recommendations above, get a good cookbook (just one is enough) and start there.

a) how do I establish a pantry from scratch that b) is small enough that it won't go to waste at the end? Bearing in mind I don't even know what's required to establish a normal, permanent pantry (we were not allowed to go shopping for food)

Sea salt
Whole black peppercorns (you can break them down with a plastic bag and a hammer)
Bay leaves
Chili powder
Garlic Powder
Ginger Powder
Onion Powder

(yes, our spice cupboard is organised alphabetically.)

You should be able to sort all that out for less than $20. One tip is that often you can find refill spices in boxes rather than glass jars. We purchased bulk glass jars at a cooking shop (they were $.50 each or something) and then refills on spices.

A few other recommendations:
1) Decent quality knife and a sharpener. Doesn't have to be Japanese steel or anything but you will cut yourself, and when you do, you want that hog to be sharp.

2) As far as technique, choose a few simple recipes (pasta al'arabiatta, pasta amatriciana, pasta carbonara) for example, and master them. Understand things like time, temperature, how things interact, and various flavour combinations. (The Italians never use both garlic and onion, for example)

3) You will learn a lot about food by baking your own bread and/or pizza dough. It's easy, cheap, and perfect for one person. Baking is truly the mastery of cooking as precision is required. Pick up a cheap gram scale and your results will improve significantly.

4) Take a few of your favourite dishes, and learn how to make them. For me, it was macaroni and cheese, pork vindaloo, carbonnade, and burgers. Make them over and over again until you don't need a recipe. Until you can innovate a bit (add pancetta to the mac and cheese, or use different cuts of pork in the vindaloo) and love the results.

5) Three months is not enough time to master the theory of cooking (flavour combinations, etc), thus focus on getting great at executing recipes to perfection and tactically executing them. There is plenty of time for everything else later.

6) Read about cooking. Find new, simple recipes that you can make (chili broccoli is a great one, as are soups).

7) There's a balance to a meal, in both size (quanitity of ingrediants) as well as complementarity (spicy and cool). A nice arrugula salad with roasted onions and a fresh vinagrette is a great complement to a spicy arabiatta for example.

8) When in doubt, slightly overcook meat. You don't want to get sick.

9) Have fun. Cooking is amazing. After a few years, we barely want to go to a restaurant anymore. It's a rip-off most of the time and you can taste the inferior quality of the ingrediants and general lack of love. We went from eating out most of the time, to eating in most of the time. We're spending heaps less money, and we are both healthier than we have ever been.

Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. This is not a hobby pursuit, this will change your life and how you feel about yourself.

10) Good food always comes to those who love to cook. Offer to cook for friends at their house. I always say, "You buy the food and I'll cook it. I send them a shopping list, I show up, and I cook. That was really how I got good. People's expectations for homecooked meals are often so low, even the earliest student can hit the bar, if not completely surpass it.

11) Finally, this is a journey. Think about learning how to read. You start with letters, and you practice, over and over again. Imagine this journey will never end. Thus, there is enough time for each step. Master each step. Really learn to love it. You'll be surprised with how quickly you progress.
posted by nickrussell at 4:54 AM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

The first summer I lived on my own I lived on: quesadillas, salad, cut veggies, couscous, scrambled eggs/omlettes, and I'd make the occasional stir fry by buying those frozen rice/veggie mixes and adding chicken cut into tiny pieces and cooked in a pan. I wouldn't try to develop a full set of skills now, start very small. (It was warm and no air, so my recipes were in part too on things that didn't make too much heat).
posted by ejaned8 at 5:10 AM on April 19, 2012

These are all great suggestions - also, read up briefly on food safety - there are plenty of sites like No need to be obsessive, but make sure to keep meat refrigerated and don't keep it for too long, wash your veggies, etc.

A lot of the things which seem obvious to frequent cooks are not to beginners - I realized this when living with someone who had never cooked, he was leaving raw meat on the counter all night!
posted by beyond_pink at 5:22 AM on April 19, 2012

What do you like to eat? What do you eat most frequently? Which of these foods / dishes require preparation other than tearing open bag and/or heating up in microwave?

Now, look up recipes online for the dishes you like or eat frequently. Or, look up recipes in the books that people recommended. Start jotting down what these recipes have in common. Make a shopping list of these ingredients. So, say, if none of the recipes used paprika, then that's something you don't need to buy. On the other hand, if you like Asian food you will need to get a bottle of soy sauce. Actually, since you are starting from scratch, and you will be re-establishing pantries as you move, start keeping a spreadsheet or some record of your pantry contents. Make a note of things that you used frequently, and things that you bought but never used or used only once. Now the next time you have to go shopping again, you know what to buy and what not to buy. Of course, as your tastes in food change, your pantry contents will change, too. Ultimately, the pantry has to work for you, not some hypothetical "normal."

Do you have basic cooking equipment? Such as a frying pan (good for cooking eggs, cooking vegetables in a little bit of oil), a pot that can be used for boiling water for pasta (or boiling eggs), a colander (useful for draining pasta and washing vegetables), a sharp knife, and a cutting board?
posted by needled at 5:26 AM on April 19, 2012

Going to recommend The Joy of Cooking again, but with a bit of explanation.

This is a big book. 1152 pages. Most Bibles are smaller.

Don't be intimidated.

The reason it's big is because it's got not just recipes, but basic instructions for how to do just about everything in the kitchen.

Want to know about cuts of beef and what they're used for? Got it. What to know how to part and de-bone a chicken? Got it. Want to know how to boil and egg, both hard- and soft-boil? Got it. Want to know about what the various spices are and what they're used for? Got it. Want to know what to do with that random vegetable in the produce aisle you can't even identify? Got it.

More importantly, a lot of the recipes incorporate other recipes. So, for example, a recipe may call for a bunch of ingredients and Brown Sauce. There's a recipe for Brown Sauce elsewhere. So it teaches you not only finished dishes, but the basic components that go into making a lot of other things.

It's also got just about every kind of food in there. From breads to soups to entrees to salads appetizers, to mixed drinks for crying out loud.

So yes, there's a lot in there. But this isn't something you read from cover to cover. It's a reference book. So don't think, "Man, I'll never get through this thing!" think "Wow, everything I need to know is in there, plus a bunch of stuff I don't, and I only need to use the bits I want."

And really, this basic information is the best thing about the book. For example, I recently decided to start experimenting with pork ribs in the oven. They've got basically one recipe in there. But if you look at it a little more abstractly, what it's showing you is how to cook ribs, period. You can substitute any sauce or spice you want once you've got the actual preparation and cooking down. So when I look at recipes on the internet that look really tasty but can vary widely in their cooking times and temperatures, etc., I just ignore those and use the sauce they describe with the cooking method in Joy. Works like a charm.
posted by valkyryn at 5:35 AM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mark Bittman's Minimalist videos (with linked recipes, since the videos don't always show EVERY step).

While Joy of Cooking is wonderful, it requires a lot of cross-referencing and flipping back and forth if you truly don't know how to cook - "cook the tenderloin until well-done"...ok, check index..."Pork"....let's see, it says "Cook large cuts as you would beef, though at a lower temperature"...ok, check index..."Beef, cooking techniques"...wait, is what I'm doing considered braising or roasting?..check index.... It's definitely all there, but it really helps to have a foundation, or else a lot of bookmarks.

Bittman's Minimalist series, on the other hand, is all about finding delicious, often healthful recipes that have just a very few ingedients (sometimes only 2!) and use simple cooking techniques, but that you could totally serve at a dinner party with pride.

And also, congratulations on setting out to learn how to cook - it can be so much fun!
posted by Ausamor at 5:57 AM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also, once you get into it, do NOT tie yourself to recipes too closely. Experiment! It's fun! Even failed experiments can be edible.

I've got some favorite recipes that had some basis in some recipe or book but have morphed significantly as I took it and ran with it. Sometimes it is as simple as adding seasonings. For example, I found a pizza crust that we liked the texture of and was easy enough to work with, but it was way too bland, so I tried some stuff and eventually settled on adding some garlic power, onion powder, and italian seasonings to the dough, and it really makes a lot of difference. We have a pizza pasta casserole recipe that I took and started shooting lots of extra stuff into, like a diced large yellow onion (great generic filler), red, yellow, and green pepper (also great generic filler), and other things that made it at least somewhat healthier. Find things that are tolerant of imprecision and play with them. It's great fun.
posted by jgreco at 6:06 AM on April 19, 2012

When I was a student, How to Boil an Egg was the default learn-to-cook book (it does tell you more than just how to boil an egg, but is a pretty slim, basic volume if you want something un-intimidating).
posted by penguin pie at 6:09 AM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nth-ing How to Cook Everything, and its sister vegetarian book. Great, very useful stuff.

I'd also look for episodes of Good Eats on YouTube - they can be a bit twee but really explain what you are actually doing when you cook. They're perfect for beginners and people with limited pantries, as each episode gives you a couple of recipes, along with a "how, in general, to deal with the featured ingredient or process" section.

Finally, I can't recommend Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone enough - not only are the recipes useful, but it has long sections giving the basics for all vegetarian ingredients. It answers questions like "how can I tell if an avocado is ripe enough to use?" and "How do I know if a packet of cashews have gone bad?" and "Why and how do I need to wash quinoa before using?" clearly and in detail with no need to cross-reference back and forth. It's awesome for cooking with veggies, fruits, grains, and nuts, whether you eat them with meat or not.
posted by Wylla at 6:10 AM on April 19, 2012

Don't bother to stock a pantry. Seriously.
Yes, having things on-hand is useful, but mostly in the context of being able to cook all your favorite standard recipes without forethought or a trip to the store. You don't have favorite recipes. You can't come home and make dinner without an active decision of what you're going to cook. And it's just 3 months. Any list we give you is going to include 5 things you don't even get around to using once.

So, when you need something, buy it. When you've got some of that ingredient left over, make that same dish again next week. If/when you run out, decide if it was useful enough to buy again.
posted by aimedwander at 6:19 AM on April 19, 2012 [6 favorites]

I'm actually fond of Alton Brown's books, especially I'm Just Here For The Food and Gear For Your Kitchen for figuring out how to cook and what gear you actually need when you get to the point of wanting gear.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 6:33 AM on April 19, 2012

I really like Julia Child's "The Way to Cook" - it starts out pretty simple and builds on stuff from there.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:34 AM on April 19, 2012

Another vote for anything with the name Mark Bittman on it. "How to Cook Everything" will keep you busy for years, and is a great gentle introduction.

For inspiration and motivation, I also strongly recommend his short book "Cooking Solves Everything," which will take you away from a place of feeling daunted and truly get you pumped up and excited about cooking.
posted by jbickers at 6:46 AM on April 19, 2012

Books I have found useful as a novice cook (as in, what I refer to when I, a novice cook, want to cook): Where's Mom When I Need Her (very basic) and Joy of Cooking (reference).

Also, I second aimedwander's advice: buy according to your current recipes and you'll end up building a pantry based on the recipes and ingredients you like over time.
posted by immlass at 6:48 AM on April 19, 2012

Good news for the travelling cook - Bittman's How to Cook Everything is available as an idevices app. No need to lug around its 3+lbs. But I do think a slim volume aimed at a student is a better place to start. Flip through a few at the bookstore to find one with 4 recipes you want to make. A more grownup variation might be James Barber's Cooking for Two.

Good basics when Mr. Sleeve was learning were a chili, a lentil recipe, a sautéed meat recipe. What each of these have in common was that they were variations on "cut it up & let it cook on the stovetop" and they could be eaten for reheatable lunches.

One thing a cooking household does is plan meals in advance & create a grocery list based on the plan. This helps reduce the weekday hassle. Initially, you'll have to buy salt, pepper, pasta but eventually you'll have those on hand in your little pantry.

A definitely cook & eat with friends! Cheap socializing.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 7:02 AM on April 19, 2012

My husband was just like you were when we got married. He wanted to cook but had no idea. I'll say to you what I said to him. Pick a recipe and cook it. It's really hard to make something completely inedible and if you do throw it out, order pizza and try again another time.

Pick your favourite dish with say 4 or 5 ingredients and cook it once a week. Once you've got it mastered maybe fiddle with it a little, make it yours. Once you can cook it how you like without needing a recipe book move on and try something else. Think of it as an adventure. Have fun. Start with cooking breakfasts meals too, they somehow seem more forgiving.

nthing "The Joy of Cooking" recommendations. Each section starts with really simple recipes so once you master those you can move through to more complex ones. So in say eggs it starts with how to boil an egg and as you work your way through scrambled eggs etc to souffles and the like so great for beginners.

As for Pantry items those will depend on what you like to eat. A selection of Herbs and spices, if you like asian food then basic good soy sauce, mirin, jars of minced ginger and garlic (yes you can buy fresh but it's a pain to prep for a beginner) buy as needed for your recipe of the week until you get a nice little collection.

A few basics like some pasta/rice, tinned (or dried) beans if you like legumes, Tinned tomatoes in various forms. Honestly with a selection of herbs and spices and those ingredients you can go anywhere from Moroccan to Indian to Italian just add the meat & veg of choice. Take the tomatoes and put in some asian sauces and you have asian. BTW it is fine to "cheat" when you are starting out and are building confidence with jarred sauces or sauce & spice mixes.
posted by wwax at 7:31 AM on April 19, 2012

The Joy of Cooking is a wonderful resource, but I would recommend waiting on that one and starting with a cookbook that has pictures. As mentioned upthread, the Joy of Cooking tends to assume you know your way around the kitchen a bit, and can be intimidating for a beginner.

Mark Bittman is a good place to start, especially his minimalist recipes in the New York Times. If you're able to/into downloading apps for phones and pads and such, there's an app version of his book How to Cook Everything.
posted by emelenjr at 7:33 AM on April 19, 2012

I learned from the Fanny Farmer cookbook, which basically starts at a 'how to boil water' level, and has absolutely no pretentions.

Are you looking to really learn how to cook, as in, to be skilled in the kitchen? Or are you just looking to be able to prepare food for yourself so you don't have to eat out all the time? The latter, what I call busy-mom/dad-level cooking, is pretty easily obtainable. Here's a crash course:

Browning ground meat
Buy 1 lb of any ground meat (beef, turkey, etc). dump into a skillet and put on burner. Turn heat up about 3/4 of the way. Using a spoon, keep moving the meat around, breaking it up into smaller bits, and turning over until all the meat looks brown inside and out (white for turkey or chicken). Drain any fat. Then either:
1. Add tomato sauce of your choice (and a shot of wine and 1-2 whole bay leaves and pepper, if you want), turn heat down to lowest setting and cover for half an hour or so, so it bubbles occasionally (that's called simmering) -> instant bolognese sauce for pasta
2. Add box of spanish or mexican rice with water and included spices according to directions on box. Cover, bring to a boil (lots of bubbles really fast), and when it gets there, simmer for 25 minutes. -> Instant dirty rice
3. Add packet of taco mix. Follow directions on packet (add spices + water, bring to boil, simmer) -> Instant taco meat

Fill big pot with water. Add a glug of olive oil. Bring to a boil. Add box of pasta and follow directions on the box (different shapes take different times) Do NOT simmer - keep it boiling.

Pour 2 cups water into a small pot with a lid. Add 1 cup rice. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer - about 20 minutes for white rice, about 45 minutes for brown. You'll know it's done when all the water is absorbed into the rice. Check the label on the rice if you're not sure - almost all include cooking directions.

Broccoli or cauliflower:
Put into pot with lid. Cover with water so the water is 1-2 inches above. Bring to a boil, then turn heat down to a medium boil (not too rapid bubbling, but not as low as simmering) for 7 minutes. Drain. Cover with melted cheese, if you like it like that.

Scrambled eggs

Crack 1-2 eggs into a bowl. Add just enough milk to change the color, stir with a whisk or fork until well blended. Put 1-2 tablespoons of butter into a small skillet (frying pan), with heat at medium-high. When butter is mostly melted, pour in egg mixture. Keep stirring the egg mixture and turning it over so all sides are exposed to pan. When it looks like scrambled eggs, it's done. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Perfect roast chicken:
Buy a whole chicken. Rinse it once. Put it in an open flat pan. Cover with salt, pepper, paprika and poultry seasoning (they sell this in the spice section - or just use thyme, sage and oregano, which is mostly what's in it). Put into 425 degree oven for 25 minutes, then turn heat down to 325 for another 45 minutes. If you surround this chicken in the pan with thin- sliced raw potatoes when you put it in the oven, you have an amazing side dish to go with it.

None of these will win you any awards, but they're easy and delicious and pretty hard to get wrong (SET A TIMER - remembering how long something's been cooking is not as easy as it seems - things always come up). A good part of cooking is confidence, and you only get that by doing it.

(with apologies to all the real cooks and chefs on Metafilter who no doubt will cringe at the lack of skill or ingenuity in these recipes and the admission that prepackaged box mixes exist - quelle horreur!)
posted by Mchelly at 7:59 AM on April 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Here's how I learned to cook:
1. Minimally from watching my parents.
2. Julia Child
3. Jeff Smith
4. Jacques Pepin
5. Alton Brown

Seriously. From Julia and Jeff, I learned basic techniques. From Jacques I learned how to work efficiently. From Alton, I learned how to understand food and recipes.

I don't think you can get The Frugal Gourmet (Smith) on DVD, but the old episodes are up on YouTube (here's the one on garlic).

Today's Gourmet (Pepin) doesn't appear to be available, but there are some DVDs of his work.

Good Eats (Brown) is available on DVD.

As for a pantry, base it on what you want to cook. At a minimum, I would think for dry goods: salt, pepper, flour, sugar; wet: olive oil, cider or red vinegar. For dry herbs, if you're near a Whole Foods, buy what you need from their bulk bins (it's cheaper and fresher than store jars). Otherwise, buy fresh.

For equipment, two cutting boards (one for raw meat, label it with a sharpie), a good chef's knife, measuring spoons, measuring cups (but honestly, I have a 1C, 2C, and 4C that I use for everything). When I was younger, I got away with one large frying pan and a 4 quart pot and nothing else.
posted by plinth at 8:06 AM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I also learned to cook from Ground Zero. (Okay, ground 0.5 ... I knew how to make pasta, but not how to heat up sauce!) I learned without help, from books, as an adult, by trial and error.

I agree that you probably don't want to stock a pantry per se; three months is too short a time. Dig up some cookbooks at a garage sale or buy some new or check some out from the library or surf the web. Peruse them. Pick a couple things that sound tasty but not too intimidating (from the cookbooks or from your head, either is fine) -- I'd say two dinners and one breakfast. SCREW SIDE DISHES FOR DINNER. Getting everything to be hot and ready at once took me like 10 years of practice to get good at and it made things much more difficult and frustrating in the beginning ... I would stick with raw salads, raw fruit, and bakery-made bread for sides for regular meals at the beginning. So pick your couple of things you want to cook, make a short menu for the week (schedule your cooking on days you know you'll be done with work at a reasonable hour, make special breakfast on the weekend ... I also try to do more cooking when it's not too hot). Either write the cookbook name & page number on the menu next to the dish or print out the recipes and stick that all to the fridge together.

Now make a shopping list, including amounts. Shopping will at first take a long time because you don't know how grocery stores group things. (Some stores publish their "aisle lists" online. This is helpful, put your list in the order of the aisles.) Shopping at a new grocery store is the worst, even when you're good at grocery stores.

But first! Go to some place like Target and look at "kitchen starter sets" that they have for college students. Get a fun one! A mixing/serving bowl, a colander, measuring cups and spoons, wooden spoon for mixing, maybe a serving spoon, a knife, a pot, and a frying (saute) pan ... you don't need a whole lot more because you're on three-month assignments. Yes, high-quality tools make a difference. But I learned on a beat-up combination of stuff I inherited from my grandma, stuff I inherited when roommates moved out, and random poor-quality stuff I got from big-box stores. As I learned what I needed and what I liked, I got better quality tools. Some of my beat-up awful stuff is still in service because it does what I want it to do. But one of those "easy to pack up inside itself" sets for college students would probably be just right for you starting out cooking and moving around a lot. Also, get a meat thermometer. It's good to know you're not poisoning yourself when you're a beginner.

Now go grocery shopping and buy the ingredients you need. (Tip: if you go to a grocery store with a salad bar, you can buy "half a green pepper" already chopped up instead of a whole one that you're not going to eat the rest of. A few carrots instead of a whole pound. Whatever.) My other tip is, chopping kinda sucks, especially when you're bad and slow at it. Most grocery stores have frozen chopped vegetables, and I rely heavily on frozen chopped onions instead of chopping onions all the damned time. Sometimes I chop fresh onions, but frozen chopped are faster and in many situations, just fine. Buy smaller containers of things so you don't have too much left over -- it's discouraging. Get six eggs instead of 12. Buy small spice containers if you can find them. (Your spice pantry will stock itself with time.)

Plan double the time in the recipe for the first time you cook anything. (Even now that a pretty good cook who cooks 5 nights a week and can make some fancy-schmancy shit AND my whole Easter dinner arrived on the table hot at the same moment, suck it, time!, if the recipe says "30 minutes" I assume 45 for my first time through. It just takes longer when you're not familiar.) Read the recipe thoroughly and sort-of picture the steps in your head so you make sure you understand what you're going to do. And then just DO it. And fail. And do it again.

Books I learned a lot from (even if I didn't cook from them a lot): How to Cook Everything; On Food and Cooking; the Good Housekeeping Cookbook; How to Cook without a Book (encourages you to learn to improvise); More with Less; Mastering the Art of French Cooking. More with Less has the most "everyday" types of meals without a ton of steps that you'd serve at home on a Tuesday. Even Good Housekeeping tends a bit more towards presentation-y meals. Mastering the Art of French Cooking i read not so much to cook out of (although I did cook the recipes that struck my fancy) but as a sort of master class once I had learned the basics. I learned a lot of new techniques and how and why from reading that book, that made me understand what I was trying to do.

Also, grocery stores usually have a pretty decent "cooking tools" aisle these days, with stirring spoons and tupperware to store things ... but also things like single-use roasting pans and single-use pie dishes. Which you can recycle! or wash carefully and reuse a couple times before recycling. But you can always try that before committing to a whole roasting pan, especially if you decide, hey, I like to roast things, but moving a roasting pan every three months is absurd ... let me get one for $2 at the store for my fancy roast this month. Anyway, it's worth poking through and seeing what's available, so you know.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:07 AM on April 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

I was in a similar situation. I spent a LOT of time learning to cook just by doing so, learning not only what works and what doesn't but also what I like that might be counterintuitive (I will always like well-done eggs and soft bacon!). At first I was afraid to cook things on high enough temperatures and everything took forever!

More recently, though, I feel like I've learned a lot from watching cooking shows. Not just "Guy who has a cooking show and shows you a couple of dishes," but also the shows where you watch a number of people cook and get critiqued, like "Chopped," "Worst Cooks in America," and "Top Chef." Even though it's discouraging that they're such great cooks (except "Worst Cooks," of course), I feel like I always pick up a hint or two about either cooking or tasting, or even knife and prep work.
posted by Occula at 8:13 AM on April 19, 2012

... keep an easy backup on hand! If you cook something that's awful, don't punish yourself! Throw it out and nuke a Stouffer's, man. :-)
posted by Occula at 8:14 AM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Lots of good advice upthread about how to pick up some basic skills, but I wanted to add that in 3 months you probably won't make a dent in most packages of seasonings so your pantry will be rather wasteful. If I were doing this, I'd probably settle on learning how to cook a few Chinese and Thai dishes since I think this allows the most minimalist equipment and supplies with the most variety in menus.

A wok, spatula, and rice cooker are all cheap enough to ditch when you leave. Stock your pantry with soy sauce, oyster sauce, salted (fermented dried) black beans, canned Thai curry paste in various flavors, canned coconut milk, and fish sauce (nam pla). Keep hoi sin sauce, hot bean sauce/paste, and black bean sauce in the refrigerator. Fresh seasonings (garlic, ginger, etc) you buy as needed.

With this you can make dozens of different stir-fries and curries. Thai stir-fries are probably a little less demanding, technically, than classic Chinese stir-fries, and curries are even easier so start there.

Just about everywhere in the world, it seems, there's a Chinese/Asian grocery store with a few basic kitchen implements for sale so I think you can find this stuff almost anywhere. Plastic cutting boards are sanitary and cheap, and a big plastic bowl with strainer/colander insert will let you wash vegetables, toss salads, and drain noodles all in one. I'd spring for a good knife since cheap crappy knives are pure frustration, but they're small enough to take with you when you leave.

Final note: eggs are incredibly hard to cook properly! I still can't consistently turn out perfect eggs of any sort and I've been cooking for years. So I wouldn't recommend starting out with eggs even though they seem really simple - I think it would be too discouraging for a raw beginner. Get a few basic skills under your belt before tackling those deceptive little gems.
posted by Quietgal at 9:51 AM on April 19, 2012

My pantry tends to have the following:

* oatmeal - there are excellent metafilter threads on cooking oatmeal. see also: porridge.
* pasta - wait til the water boils. drop pasta in.
* rice - a rice cooker is the best thing ever. It cooks your rice for you and keeps it warm
* canned beans - we're going to eat out tonight. out of a can.
* dry soup bean mix - cook on low with water and any unused produce. add whatever you want and call it soup. i have even added candied ginger and had it come out tasty. and this is always what i do with my barley and lentils. common ingredients for flavoring soup are celery, carrot, onion. you can also add...
* olive oil, garlic, salt (for flavoring anything, not just soup) - open the garlics by crushing them a little. when open, smash them with the flat of your knife so they'll stay in one place while you cut them.
* nuts - nuts go on everything. they go on oats, they go on salad. they go on rice, they go on pasta. everything!
* dried fruits - they go with everything! see above. Since summer is coming, replace this with fresh fruits.

Those last two are nutritionally important. Add them to something every day. Speaking of nutritionally important, try to go through about several bags of greens a week. It's hard work, but an excellent habit.
posted by aniola at 10:13 AM on April 19, 2012

oh! and a potato should keep for several months. remove the eyes before use. it will keep you full for all of 10 minutes if you don't have it with something else, though.
posted by aniola at 10:15 AM on April 19, 2012

This book is the absolute greatest for brand-new cooks who have never cooked before.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:39 AM on April 19, 2012

N-thing the recommendation for How To Cook Everything. It has taught me what to do with foods I've never prepared before, let alone eaten!

I would also suggest that buying a bunch of stuff for a pantry could be wasteful in the short term and that planning meals for a week is a good strategy. That said, I suppose the most basic things to have in order to cook is olive oil, salt and pepper! Pantries are also pretty idiosyncratic--staples really depend on what you like to eat regularly. What sorts of foods to do you really like to eat?

Lots of people have recommended watching cooking videos, which I think is a stellar suggestion. I came in to suggest the videos at Cookus Interruptus. They're a little bit funny and the cooking style reminds me somewhat of how my parents cook. It's simple food with whole ingredients and they're really low-stress about everything. For example, here's how to make scrambled eggs. (You could leave out the greens to make it simpler.)

Good luck! Learning to cook is something to be proud of.
posted by purple_bird at 10:45 AM on April 19, 2012

3 months is really not a lot of time. I suggest you start very simple; make a few sandwiches. When cold cuts get boring, make some tuna salad (good chance to learn how to dice celery) or chicken salad (learn to poach a couple of chicken thighs). Learn to fry an egg. Have an egg sandwich.
Buy some jars of spaghetti sauce and some dried pasta. Boil the pasta, warm the sauce, and serve it up. If you want to expand on that, add some browned ground beef, and perhaps some diced onion, a minced garlic clove, and maybe some dried Italian seasoning. Pair that with a bagged salad, and you've got a spaghetti dinner.
Learn to roast a whole chicken. It's really dead simple. Pair with some roasted potatoes (cut cleaned potato into cubes, toss with olive oil, salt and pepper and roast in medium-high oven until they are fork tender) and fresh vegetable that you've steamed in the microwave. Now you've made chicken dinner.
Honestly, that's probably about as far as you'll get, but if you get the passion, you will certainly go much further. In the meantime, just get the hang of it, have plenty of backup microwave meals, and try to focus on what you really enjoy eating.
posted by Gilbert at 11:01 AM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Start with salads and with pasta.

Why salads - the can be as simple as an assembly job where you need to shop and then assemble in a pleasing manner on your plate and eat. Or as complicated as using several different kinds of lettuce, vegetables all lovingly prepared by you, freshly grilled chicken breast and little bits of fried bacon with a fancy home made dressing and nice bread baked by you. Start with lots of assembly and perhaps one vegetable you want to learn to prepare. Practice that. As you build up your vegetable preparation skills you could think about adding a freshly grilled chicken breast...or a boiled egg...or some grilled fish...and all of a sudden you feel like you could have a go at making your own salad get the idea.

Pasta - same thing. You can just learn to boil it - and stir a spoon full of pesto into it out of a jar, pesto doesn't even have to be heated. Once you're happy with boiling you could add a jar of sauce as opposed to pesto cause that needs to be heated at the same time as you boil your pasta. Then you could fry off some chicken or chorizo and add that to your jar of sauce that you're heating. Then you could learn to actually make some tomato sauce from scratch...

As to what you need to have in your pantry - as you get more confident you'll learn about ingredients and naturally acquire things. But initially, for my specific recommendations I'd suggest a bottle of your favourite salad dressing, some salt and peper, a bag of dried pasta and a jar of pesto. One saucepan, a chopping board and a knife. Minimal stuff to pack and move around, could conceivably even dispose of them at the end of your contract without significant financial loss.

Also, whilst you learn how to clean, de-seed and slize your pepper watch different cookery programs and find some you like. Just watch them and learn about some of the language used. If you are happy what the difference between grilling, steaming and frying is from watching people cook you'll find reading recipes a lot less intimidating.

As an anecdote to the power of watching cookery shows - my uncle was fortunate as his mother, his first wife and his second wife all could cook quite well and were happy to do it. So he was always very reluctant to try because whilst he had some basic skills he never felt he could just have a go and felt his efforts would not result in similarly nice meals. Then Jamie Oliver did his first TV show and he liked to watch it and liked his approach - all of a sudden it didn't feel so much like rocket science and more like something he could have a go at. So he did. And he now actually bakes his own bread and makes cakes for people and all sorts of things. So just be brave and have a go.
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:43 AM on April 19, 2012

I really don't think you should be worrying about a pantry for a 3 month stay, and I agree with those who suggest the most super-simple of all books. Bittman's books are great, but I think you should go easier than that to get your confidence up. What do you like to eat? This is the most important question, as its easier to spend time cooking something you are excited to eat. Keep it really simple if you can, for example
1. Boiled or scrambled eggs. I do a mean scrambled egg, but for boiled eggs I bought one of those plastic egg-timer things that goes in the pan with the egg and tells you how boiled it is. Awesome.
2. Dried pasta, jar of pasta sauce and something you would like to mix in with it.

Good luck! And just buy what you need, don't waste money stocking a pantry, you don't know what you need in your pantry yet. I guess salt and pepper, because those are universal.
posted by Joh at 11:43 AM on April 19, 2012

I've also been learning how to cook recently, and I've found really useful. It has videos on basic techniques, like mincing garlic and chopping onions, as well as video walk-throughs on different recipes.
posted by dean_deen at 12:51 PM on April 19, 2012

When I started out, I couldn't boil water, so I can empathize.

Here's my recommendations:

* Concentrate on what kinds of foods you like, that are simple, and that microwave/reheat well. One of the problems with learning to cook is that it can be overwhelming and exhausting. So pick things you can make once and then eat throughout the week while you steadily build up the skills that will make cooking less of a chore and more of a fun hobby.

* Don't go out and buy a bunch of spices and items for your pantry in one fell swoop. I built up my spice cabinet by just finding recipes I wanted to try and getting the spices for those. My spice cabinet consisted of salt, pepper, and garlic powder for about four years. Spices are the least of your worries.

* Don't worry about learning every technique. I think I've steamed veggies maybe twice in my life, but I can pan-fry anything because that's how I like to eat. Think about what you like and focus on that.

* Use cheap tools when starting out. I used a $5 knife until about six months ago. And my pots and pans were from thrift stores or cheap pans on sale at the supermarket. You don't need to spend much on the basics when you're learning.

* Don't get hung up on 'proper' ways to do things. I discovered that I've been slicing onions wrong all my life and I eat them every week. So what? It's just an onion. With most veggies, cut off the ends and then slice it however you want, and look it up online if you're not sure if the skin is edible or what to do about seeds.

* Don't worry about getting ingredients from canned and frozen and premixed sources. One of my favorite family recipes is canned tuna, canned corn, and canned mushroom soup combined over rice. Super simple, super delicious. Don't bother making pasta sauce from scratch now, but maybe add some fresh diced tomatoes to it while it's on the stove. Lots of home cooks use various soup mixes and other prepared foods for marinades or sauces or ingredients in other dishes.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 1:11 PM on April 19, 2012

For inexperienced cooks, I really like the book How to Cook Without a Book: Recipes and Techniques Every Cook Should Know by Heart. It's oriented around learning a basic technique — frittata, chopped salad, stir-fry, etc. etc. etc. — which you're then able to apply to whatever ingredients you have on hand. Very good for getting to feel comfortable with cooking, and good for moving you toward feeling confident enough to start adapting and improvising based on your own tastes.
posted by Lexica at 8:54 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone! All the responses were so fantastic I could not pick a best one!
posted by glache at 4:33 AM on May 22, 2012

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