What do you wish you knew when you first started cooking?
November 15, 2013 4:37 PM   Subscribe

I recently took the step from instant meals and dining out to to living a little more health-consciously by making my own meals. Although my creations thus far have all been edible, I get the feeling that I am making a lot of novice mistakes that I would be able to correct more quickly if I had someone more experienced guiding me. To this end I come to you, oh wise MeFites; please share with me a list of things you wish you knew or realized when you started out cooking. (Or, mistakes you used to make that made you much better when you fixed).

I'd also appreciate any general cooking for dummies advice you might have to share. Please note that I have very little cooking experience; I barely even understand the difference between different types of cooking (I have thus far tried baking, broiling, frying various meats/fish - but don't know which kind of cooking method to use for which occasion).

Miscellaneous side question: I try to judge whether or not whatever I am cooking is done by how it looks on the surface; upon cutting it, however, sometimes it is still undercooked inside, so I have to recook it. Is a cooking thermometer a good way to correct this, or is there another reliable method to tell when the meat is finished?
posted by Kamelot123 to Food & Drink (54 answers total) 76 users marked this as a favorite
Mario Batali used to have a great show called Molto Mario. One thing he told a guest that really stuck with me and served me well: the reason restaurant food tastes better is because they use more salt, more heat, and more fat, than home cooks. Be aggressive with all three! (Obviously if you're trying to be healthy you may want to watch the fat, or the type of fat.)

An instant read thermometer is great for large pieces of meat like steaks or roasts or chicken breasts. For smaller chunks, either get good, cut into one, or use meat that is okay when cooked through (dark meat chicken, fattier beef, etc).

Have fun !
posted by ftm at 4:46 PM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yes, get a thermometer and learn how to use it, where to stick it in the meat. This is the only reliable way to know the doneness of your meat.

Don't forget about salt. It's not going to kill you and you're probably using less than you should to get maximum flavor. With that, taste what you're cooking while you're cooking it! Then salt it, taste it again, salt again, etc. You're done when it tastes optimal but not salty.

Don't be afraid to take risks and make mistakes. The worst consequence is that you have to toss it and order pizza.
posted by backseatpilot at 4:48 PM on November 15, 2013

Data devices are a great way to help you learn the "knack" - my mom can make a cake by just flinging stuff in the air, basically, but she got that way by measuring the ingredients over and over until she just knows what it looks like. Learning to judge springiness of meat by touching it AND measuring the internal temperature helps you learn the correlation between the two.

I like food science stuff for teaching me the hows and whys of food. Mark Bittman, Alton Brown, Harold McGee. Studying popular restaurant menus - you don't even have to go there anymore, it's all online - will help you get a feel for how various methods get used in the real world.

But mostly, people become good cooks by just cooking. You learn more from screwing up than you do from getting things right, and most screwups are more or less edible. Keep a frozen pizza in the freezer at all times, for emergencies.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:49 PM on November 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

In thinking about your question, I reflected back to my own early days of in-home daily cooking instruction (thanks, Mum!) yet I learned a lot from cook books even then, and still do. Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything book plus apps may be a good place to start.

As with any creative endeavour, you have to learn the rules first before being able to break them.
posted by Kerasia at 4:50 PM on November 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Cooking is an iterative process. Always taste as you go, unless you're cooking something that would be dangerous to eat raw like meat (in that case try to fry a little bit up to taste for seasoning).

Recipes are just guidelines -- every kitchen is different and your tastebuds are different too. Experiment! Leave out ingredients, try to use up what's in your fridge. Does the recipe call for parsley, but you only have cilantro? Go ahead and try it.

Check for a balance of flavors. Most faults can be remedied. Does it taste bland? Try adding more salt -- people often use less salt than they ought to, maybe because they think it's healthy. Dull and stodgy? A bit of acid like lemon juice can often liven things up. Too salty? Try adding potatoes if possible. Too spicy? Add something with dairy fat in, like cream or full-fat yogurt.

Have a few dependable techniques you can pull out and embellish as the mood strikes you -- for example, I know cooking salted and peppered and oiled boneless chicken thighs 20 minutes at 425 F on a parchment-lined cookie sheet will yield chicken exactly the way I like it. You can always throw together a pan sauce to make it more exciting, or not, as the mood strikes you.
posted by peacheater at 4:52 PM on November 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I am pretty self-taught myself.

I found that one really good chef's knife (mine wasn't expensive) and a large cast iron pan made all the difference in my cooking.

Backseatpilot makes an excellent point about salt. I keep mine in a large jar now so I can take pinches, measure, or dump some out to clean my pan.

I also found some blogs I liked that write about technique. I likeThe Kitchn but there are thousands out there. I save the instructions I need (how to bake a potato, roast garlic, etc) to my iPad.
posted by mamabear at 4:53 PM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The awesome thing about cooking is that there is no wrong way to do it (I mean assuming you end with an edible meal and no casualties).

That's actually the one thing I wish I'd understood about cooking, from childhood. There are no newbie mistakes or ways you're secretly Doing It Wrong. End up with food you're happy with? Congrats, you are doing everything correctly!

What this means is that you are allowed to do it any way you want. You are allowed to experiment. You are allowed to change recipes, take shortcuts, do it your own way. As long as you're happy with the finished product, you win.

For the meat question, thinner cuts might make this easier. Also, for some reason a lot of inexperienced home cooks start with chicken breast. Which is not an entry level cut of meat for this very reason. The shape of a chicken breast makes it not so conducive to cooking in a pan, it dries out easily, and it's impossible to tell whether it's done in the middle. And of course underdone chicken is actively bad to eat, as opposed to a rare steak or something.

For heating through other things that aren't meat, my secret is steaming. I'll often sautee or pan-fry something and then use the lid of the saucepan and the lowest heat setting to steam things for a minute or so to make sure it's fully cooked through. This is especially great for reheating frozen stuff and getting cheese to melt. But it works for anything, and it will usually prevent overcooking (or at least that burnt-on-the-outside-raw-on-the-inside thing).

If you find that you're having a lot of trouble with burning things on the outside before the inside can fully cook, you may want to lower the heat. "Low And Slow" is a popular kitchen expression for a reason. Things cooked longer over lower heat usually taste better than things hastily pan-blackened.
posted by Sara C. at 4:55 PM on November 15, 2013 [8 favorites]

Experience is the best (though not always the kindest) teacher. Thick cuts of meat are quite difficult to judge based on how they look on the surface - you really need to monitor how high the heat has been, if the meat was covered, etc. As others have mentioned, I was quite leery of fat and salt when I first started cooking, but they really do improve the flavor of anything once you know what you're doing.

I'd definitely read through a cookbook that covers the basics and pick out some things from there - I'd probably pick Bittman's and one of the America's Test Kitchen books if I knew nothing about cooking. Pick out a basic chicken-in-the-oven recipe (or similar) and master that, then maybe one that's on the stovetop to help understand the difference between how to cook with different types of heat. And as my old basketball coach used to drill into my head every day: "repetition is the key to success!" Don't try to make a new style of meal every day of the week, learn how to learn the simple things first, and the rest becomes easier.
posted by antonymous at 4:56 PM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Use recipes. Look through them, e.g. go to epicurious.com, or just google general terms like "chicken""mushrooms""recipe" together and you'll come up with a bunch of them - pick the ones that don't seem too hard and that get lots of stars in their reviews.

Recipes will get you to the dishes you want to make while you are learning cooking techniques.

You say: "(I have thus far tried baking, broiling, frying various meats/fish - but don't know which kind of cooking method to use for which occasion)." Well, the recipes will tell you which method to use.

I've been cooking for about 50 years or so and, while I now do a lot of improvisation, I still look up recipes from good sources and learn new things.

Cookbooks are of course good too, like the aforementioned Bittman's. But sometimes it's a pain in the computer age to mess around with a large book.
posted by DMelanogaster at 4:57 PM on November 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

Get a good kitchen timer and USE it. The point at which I felt like I like I was making consistently successful meals was when I really got my timing down, and you can either get there through lots of trial and error or just use a timer religiously (even if you're setting it to 60 seconds to sautee garlic before adding in more liquid to something). Eventually you'll have a better idea of how long 3 minutes, 5 minutes, 10 minutes is, and that's when you can start really multi-tasking and making more complicated dishes.

I have a subscription to Cook's Illustrated and have actually learned a TON from it. Before each recipe, they walk you through the rationale behind what they're doing, e.g. "First I tried a tomato base, but then I realized that would be too acidic. I added some butter to even out the flavor...Kept the heat low in order to get a more even consistency" etc. I always learn better and understand something more thoroughly if I know WHY I'm doing it and can apply that logic down the line.
posted by lovableiago at 4:58 PM on November 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Honestly, I wish I had known that cooking really is something that just requires lots of practice until you start to feel confident. I have watched plenty of cooking shows -- and I think those have helped a lot with learning general food knowledge, picking up some knife skills through observation, etc. -- but especially in terms of learning how to time things (which I have found one of the hardest things to learn), there's just no better way to get better than to cook a lot.

Master the basics! Learn how to cook killer eggs. Scrambled, sunny-side-up, poached. Nothing better than a perfectly cooked egg (not that I will call mine perfect).

You may also want to start off with dishes that don't require quick action so you don't get overwhelmed. I'm thinking something like beef stew, which uses an inexpensive cut of meat, is very hard to over- or under-cook, and teaches you how to braise and simmer (for some reason it took me awhile to figure out what a simmer was). I very much recommend this recipe, and I see it also has a video, which I'm sure would be very helpful.

And, unfortunately for the healthy side of things, butter really does make everything better.
posted by imalaowai at 4:58 PM on November 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

oh I almost forgot: WINE -- that is, when you add some liquid to cook the meat through in a pan, the main liquid might be chicken broth, but you could also add a little wine, making sure to boil off the alcohol quickly first, then simmer.

and I'm going to disagree with Sarah C's post, where she says food tastes better when you cook it slowly. To my taste buds, most food tastes best when you first SEAR it in some way using highish heat, THEN cook it through with lower heat. There are of course exceptions. Most fish need very little cooking and the mistake made is that people overcook it.

If you tell us some more about what you enjoy eating, I'll bet we can come up with some other ideas and tips.

and don't forget the GARLIC!
posted by DMelanogaster at 5:04 PM on November 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

wine, shallots (they're > onions!), butter, citrus zest, and fresh herbs go a LONG LONG way to making very simple dishes with otherwise plain ingredients taste amazing.

always cook eggs on the lowest heat possible.

buy high quality & freshly ground salt and pepper.
posted by zdravo at 5:07 PM on November 15, 2013 [6 favorites]

I wish I had known earlier how much of a difference having a good knife and keeping it sharpened makes. When I use a good, sharp knife, cooking is orders of magnitude more pleasurable.

Also n-thing those who have said to use salt!
posted by rebekah at 5:10 PM on November 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I grew up in a cooking family and cooked a lot at home, but some things I learned after working in a kitchen for a while that have made a big difference for me are:

- Learn how to sharpen your knives! This will make cooking a lot easier, safer, and more satisfying.
- Get a Benriner slicer - it's a super easy way to slice veggies and stuff evenly, which makes them cook more regularly, and also look nice, which is not to be discounted.
- Learn to make stock, and cook with it! It's another secret of why restaurant foods taste good.
- Use lots of fresh herbs when you can, and mostly don't bother with dried herbs, which tend not to have a ton of flavour. Putting some minced chives or chiffonaded basil will make it look a lot more appetizing and provide nice flavour/textural contrast.
- Acids are flavour enhancers like salt is, so using some lemon juice or vinegar can brighten flavours in a similar way as salt does. Salt's good too though.
- Buy spices in small quantities, store them in a cool, dark, place. Spices that are in a glass jar beside your stove are spices that probably don't taste like much anymore.
- Get pans that are on the heavier side and will regulate heat better. This might help with your burnt-on-the-outside issue. You don't have to spend a ton of money, get some Paderno stuff on sale, or hit up thrift stores and buy things that feel hefty. I like cast iron pans, but they're not for everyone.
posted by ITheCosmos at 5:13 PM on November 15, 2013 [9 favorites]

Oh, and I also advocate for seeing which ingredients it's important to you to use high quality versions of. Try some $10 organic butter, get carrots from a couple different folks at your farmer's market and do a taste test, get some grass-fed beef, etc. You don't always need to spend a ton of money on ingredients, but it's worthwhile figuring out which ones do make a difference (to you) and spending a bit more on them. Having a couple of luxury ingredients around that you only use a tiny bit of at any time, like truffle oil, is a good way to make simple dishes feel totally fancy, without spending a ton of money.

Oh, and learning how to caramelize onions is an amazing trick - it totally makes your food taste like a million bucks, but for the cost of, y'know, a couple onions.
posted by ITheCosmos at 5:19 PM on November 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Deglazing is an incredibly easy and reliable to make delicious pan sauces.

Basic pasta sauces are really pretty easy to learn and one of those things where even an amateur home-made effort where you make some mistakes will still taste better than high-end store-bought. When making pasta, always toss it with the pasta sauce the instant after you drain it so it will combine properly with the sauce.

Anything ground or shredded will taste a thousand times better if you do so right before cooking with it rather than buying pre-shredded or ground.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 5:19 PM on November 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

I thought this was a great list of the mistakes cooks make: Cooking Light.
posted by cecic at 5:20 PM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Buy a chef's knife and a large, heavy, wooden cutting board, and watch a couple of YouTube videos on basic knife skills—particularly how to chop onions and garlic. Seriously. Within a week, you'll be putting meals together much more quickly. It's the single best investment you can make in your kitchen. (A sturdy paring knife is very useful, too. You really don't need any knives beyond these two, except maybe a serrated bread knife.)

Keep things simple. You can find thousands of fussy, highfalutin recipes, and some of them might even be good—but all great cooks know that a few high-quality ingredients, assembled with care, can make a fabulous meal.

Cooking methods can be divided into two basic categories: wet (boiling, steaming, braising, poaching, blanching) and dry (baking, roasting, sautéing, deep-frying, etc.).

Wet methods involve the presence of water, which means that the food will never reach temperatures much higher than 212°F / 100°C—at that point, the water turns into vapor, and floats away, carrying the heat with it. Consequently, the food will never reach the higher temperatures that result in browning. Wet methods are good for vegetables and grains. Blanching, in particular, is a great way to quickly and easily cook vegetables, while preserving their flavor and crispness. (Don't overcook vegetables! Most people who think they hate vegetables simply grew up eating overcooked, mushy, flavorless vegetables. As soon as it turns bright green, it's done, and you should take it off the heat immediately.)

(Speaking of which, learn about carryover heat. Foods continue to cook even after you take them off the stove. For instance, you want to remove scrambled eggs from the pan while they're still a little bit runny—they'll finish cooking on the plate.)

Dry methods, obviously, involve a lack of water. (Methods that involve liquid oils, such as sautéing, are still considered dry.) This allows the food to reach higher temperatures, which is necessary when you want to brown or caramelize the food. Use dry cooking methods when you want something to brown or get crispy—think fried potatoes, or roast beef. Food nerds will tell you about the Maillard reaction, but you don't really need to know anything about the chemistry.

Salt is important (and do learn about the difference between table salt and kosher salt), but don't neglect all the different ways you can season with acids—vinegar, citrus juice, wine. A splash of lemon juice over some blanched asparagus, or a bit of red wine vinegar tossed into a bean salad, or some red wine in a sauce, can really brighten up the dish.

Taste as you go. This not only allows you to make adjustments (e.g., "hey, this could use some more pepper"), but it also helps you to understand how the things you're doing affect the texture and flavor.

Recipes are just guidelines. There is no one single correct way to make any given dish. Eventually, you'll learn how to suss out the spirit of the thing, and then you can improvise with the ingredients you have on hand. Most recipes just tell you what to do, but you should seek to understand why you're doing it. It might take you a while to get to this point, but it's hugely liberating. You'll start to recognize basic patterns—for example, almost every soup recipe in the world starts with sautéing chopped aromatics (onions, garlic, shallots, carrots, celery, bell pepper, carrot, etc.) in some kind of fat (e.g., olive oil), followed by the addition of a liquid (usually water, stock, or broth) and solid ingredients, with the ones that take longer to cook added first. Once you grok the basic formula, you can make a pot of soup from whatever's in your fridge.

On a related note, measurements aren't as crucial as many novice cooks think they are. Too much salt or spice can ruin a dish, of course, but almost everything else is negotiable. Again, it comes back to understanding the role/purpose of each ingredient/step. I once watched my brother measure exactly two laser-flat tablespoons of minced parsley for shrimp scampi, because the recipe called for two tablespoons. And the parsley in that dish is more for color than for flavor: any amount between a teaspoon and a quarter-cup would have been fine.

Fresher is almost always better. I personally allow two exceptions: unless it's July and you have access to garden-fresh tomatoes, canned tomatoes are better; and unless you have 2–24 hours to do a proper soak, canned beans are a perfectly reasonable substitute for dried beans.

Herbs (the green, leafy parts of plants) should be fresh whenever possible. Spices (the ground bark, root, or seeds of plants) are fine from a bottle.

Throw out your Teflon pans and get a couple of nice stainless steel and/or cast-iron pans.

Memail me if you want links to some easy-but-delicious recipes!
posted by escape from the potato planet at 5:21 PM on November 15, 2013 [6 favorites]

Good knives and knowing how to use them make a difference.

Cutting vegetables into same-size pieces so they cook at the same rate (and knowing which vegetables will take longer than others, so you start with those).

Knowing the difference between sautéing and frying. Knowing how to braise something, and what cuts of meat are best for braising versus frying/roasting/other method.

The ancient edition of Joy of Cooking that I have has good intro stuff about this, and I bet there are a ton of videos out there as well.

It's a journey, and it's not a race. I can guarantee that even the top chefs in the world never stop refining their techniques and learning new ones, and they all started out as mediocre cooks at best.

Oh, and when you do go out to eat? Pay attention to what flavors are going together and what kinds of sauces and treatments and seasonings your food had undergone. Keep notes! Try making it at home, whatever it was - these days, you can often google the name of the dish and the restaurant and find the recipe - or an approximation - online.
posted by rtha at 5:21 PM on November 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

most food tastes best when you first SEAR it in some way using highish heat, THEN cook it through with lower heat.

Steaks, sure. But that's because you're supposed to eat steaks with a little color on the inside. And maybe omelets, because the whole thing is supposed to cook immediately on contact?

For the vast majority of other foods, high heat is usually not a great idea.
posted by Sara C. at 5:24 PM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

A wonderful italian woman who I admire a great deal taught me to work with 'the five flavors': 'onion, garlic, celery, carrots, parsley'. The point is, many, many recipes (soups, bakes, pasta sauces, etc) have most of these ingredients, but the key is cooking them at the right temperature and order to add depth to your dish. Start with oil in the pan, add onion, saute til clear or carmelized, then add garlic, sauté, add celery, sauté, carrots, etc... then finish with parsley. If you are working with other vegetables, add them in order of their 'hardness' - the ones that take longer to cook going in first.

If you spend time honing your chopping skills, you will get more uniform pieces, and be able to saute at the right temperature to bring out the flavors uniformly- (not have some burnt while some raw).

The steps above take more time- but it makes the house smell _wonderful_ and will add a great deal to whatever you're cooking. You can also do these steps, then refrigerate or freeze the mixture until you are ready to use it.

Also.... add at least 2 Tablespoons of salt to pasta water. - if you are serving to Italians, do not forget this!
posted by iiniisfree at 5:25 PM on November 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

Don't burn your garlic...makes it bitter. When cooking veggies, it's best to slice it thin and saute low in a little oil and then add your vegetables. If your pan gets too hot and things are burning, you can add a touch of water. Great for zucchini, kale, chard, greens.

Roasted vegetables taste amazing. Cut up cauliflower, toss it in oil, add a sprinkle of salt and roast on a flat pan/cookie sheet for about 30 minutes at 420. (Turn the cauliflower halfway through). Finish with a sprinkle of lemon. Same goes for almost any vegetable: brussel sprouts, carrots, sweet potatoes, asparagus--but the cooking time will vary on all of these so watch them and experiment with times.
posted by biscuits at 5:26 PM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Some recipes are "just a guide" and some are not. If you are cooking anything that involves chemical reactions between ingredients (like a cake, a pie, pastry, bread) then getting the proportions of ingredients right is critical.

When you're first starting out look for recipes that set out dry ingredients by weight, not volume - they're more accurate.

Some countries use a 20ml tablespoon and some use a 15ml one. It is worth checking which country your recipe is from, especially if you're using that tablespoon to measure something like chilli or garlic.

Take the pan off the heat before adding spices to anything - otherwise you burn the spices.

If a recipe says to cook your onions slowly till they are soft and golden brown, expect that to take at least 15 minutes. You can hurry them up a bit by putting a bit of beer on them.
posted by girlgenius at 5:36 PM on November 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

To expand on some of the stuff I mentioned above:

There are a few basic categories of ingredients. Once you realize this, you'll see a lot of the same basic frameworks in the recipes you encounter.

Some of those categories include:

—fats (oils, butter)—conduct heat from the cooking implement to the food; help protect food from drying out; add flavor

—thickeners (cornstarch, sometimes flour, pretty much any other starch)

—aromatics (any fragrant vegetable that's chopped and sautéed as the first step in a recipe—see above for examples)—

—acids (see above)

—proteins (meat, poultry, beans/legumes, tofu, tempeh)—add savoriness and stick-to-your-ribs-ness to a dish, and (in the case of meat/poultry) provide fat as well

—starches (grains, root vegetables, pasta)—add body, thickness, and sort of a blank canvas to a dish, which can then be decorated with seasonings/herbs/spices/aromatics

"Don't burn your garlic" is great advice. Here's the deal with garlic:

You know that sharp, pungent, astringent, bitter flavor that people generally associate with garlic? That's allicin. It's produced when you rupture live garlic cells, like with a knife or a garlic press.

But! Heating garlic above a certain temperature deactivates the enzymes that produce allicin.

So: chop first, cook second = bitter garlic, because you produced a bunch of allicin in the chopping step. But cook first, chop second = mellow, savory garlic, because you deactivated the enzymes before chopping.

Essentially, there's a continuum of garlic flavors between "sharp/bitter" and "mellow/earthy", and you can land on different points along that continuum by adjusting how finely you chop the garlic before cooking. Finer chopping = sharper flavor. Coarser chopping = earthier flavor.

You can even roast whole garlic bulbs in the oven, and spread the gooey, delectable innards on bread with a knife, and it won't have a trace of that sharp garlicky flavor, because you destroyed all of the enzymes before severing the cell walls. It'll just be sweet, savory goodness.

Read this book.

And girlgenius is right—when it comes to baking, measurements are divinely fucking inspired, and you best not mess with them. Baking is alchemy.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 5:40 PM on November 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

One more (sorry):

You can think of different cuisines as different constellations of flavors. This is covered brilliantly in the Cooking for Geeks book I linked in my previous comment (see page 121).

For example, Italian: balsamic vinegar and lemon juice fills the "sour" role; tomato and Parmesan cheese fill the "umami" (savory) role; garlic and black pepper fill the "heat" role; capers / anchovies / salty cheeses / cured meats fill the "salty" role; etc.

And Latin American: lime and tamarind fill the "sour" role; tomato fills the "umami" role; chiles fill the "heat" role; olives and cheese fill the "salty" role; etc.

You get the idea. There are really six basic flavor components (the four you learned in school—sweet, sour, salty, and bitter—plus umami [savoriness/meatiness] and heat). Once you learn the sources of these flavors that are used in a given cuisine, you can mix and match to your heart's content.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 5:51 PM on November 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

Learn to sharpen your knives. Do it properly and do it often. Everything you do with them will be so much easier, and you'll be a lot less likely to cut yourself.

Rest meat before serving.
posted by wwax at 5:58 PM on November 15, 2013

Don't buy specialized appliances until you have an idea what you really like and will use. I have an electric griddle and a rice cooker and I use both of them tons, to the point where even the griddle never gets put away, because I warm tortillas on it for snacks. But it is very possible to end up with a million gadgets filling up your whole kitchen because you bought something that sounded nifty and you only used it twice. If you only eat rice once in awhile, just make it in a pot. If you eat rice four times a week, get a rice cooker. A few things are never worth bothering with... a quesadilla maker, seriously? But definitely think twice before you buy things that really do sound useful, like a toaster oven. I have almost bought one of those twice and have to keep reminding myself that I do not make stuff that it would be useful for often enough to justify the space. Also, you do not need the largest possible slow cooker or whatever unless you've got a big family or a big freezer.
posted by Sequence at 6:03 PM on November 15, 2013

I wish I had started using a pressure cooker sooner. Now I use it on average at least once or twice a week.
posted by The Deej at 6:08 PM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

A good knife is good. Knowing how to use a good knife is essential. There is a difference between hacking apart and onion and properly chopping it. Knowing how to slice thin pieces of meat or garlic make all the difference in the world.

YouTube is a fantastic resource to check out knife skills.
posted by munchingzombie at 7:08 PM on November 15, 2013

Oven cooking is slower than stovetop, generally speaking, but far more forgiving. Pork chops or chicken might take an hour in the oven and fifteen minutes on the stovetop, but an extra fifteen minutes in the oven will do far less damage than an extra five minutes on the stovetop, in my experience. Same deal with veg--steam or sautee too long, and you end up with a sad mush. You can roast things too long, but you have a lot more wiggle room. (The exception to this is maybe expensive cuts of beef, but I'm poor, so have no experience with anything fancier than the occasional pork loin.)

If you're doing one thing on the stovetop, I suggest doing the rest of the meal as things that can be done ahead of time and kept warm or things that you'll be roasting, and can afford to leave in there a while longer. Trying to coordinate three things that I'm cooking on the stovetop is still something I struggle with, and I'm a fairly decent home cook who's worked as a cook in a diner.

Read a lot. I'm not wild about recipes, generally, but love reading cookbooks. After reading "roast at 350 for an hour" enough times, it becomes almost automatic--you don't need a recipe, you just know that [whatever] gets cooked [however].

Finally, almost all cooking rules aren't. I know that it's heresy to many, but a lot of the time, I prefer garlic powder to fresh garlic, and I'd give up the vast majority of fresh herbs before you'll pry my dried whole thyme out of my hands. Some people (me!) love eggs cooked in plenty of fat over high heat--lacy crispy whites, yes please! My partner, however, thinks it's disgusting. Sometimes I like to eat pieces of sushi with pickled ginger on them, which I know is a huge faux pas that I should be ashamed of, but...well, fuck you, I'm not. I think cucumber rolls are delicious like that, and I'm not going to be embarrassed of eating--or cooking--things the way I want to. You shouldn't be either.
posted by MeghanC at 7:26 PM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Since I can't watch over you in a kitchen for technique here are my non-skill related tips.

Make sure the pan is hot enough ... putting food on a cold pan screws up the timing and the crispiness.

You don't have to make a full meal at once when cooking for yourself. If you're hungry eat a snack or salad first so you have the patience to cook properly. Also don't stress having all parts of the meal ready at the same time. it can be easier to cook one part, eat it while its hot and then go on to the next thing especially when cooking just for yourself.

I nth the sharp knife.

I tend to have a light hand salting while cooking and then salt at the table if not enough (but I try to reduce salt)

If you screw up, hot sauce, worchester sauce, steak sauce or soya sauce will make almost anything eatable.

Butter and sautéed garlic and/or onions makes many things taste good. There are some common flavour combinations that can be applied across many different dishes. The butter and garlic/onions, soya sauce and sugar, brown sugar and cinnamon, basil and tomato etc. As you try more recipes and read cookbooks you'll start to see patterns and you can experiment with the base flavour combo + random meat or veg.
posted by captaincrouton at 7:47 PM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm back again. Do you have a meat tenderizer? I used to cook boneless chicken breasts on the stove and they would take a long time and would cook unevenly. Now I pound my chicken breasts into even flat pieces before I cook them so they cook more quickly and evenly and are more tender. I place the chicken between 2 pieces of saran wrap and pound with the smooth side until flat.

Also, here's a really simple and tasty vinaigrette if you make salads. Even kids who come over for dinner love this:
6 tablespoons olive oil
6 tablespoons Trader Joes White balsamic vinegar (you can substitute your favorite vinegar but I find TJs the best)
1 teaspoon of honey
pinch of salt
1/2 garlic clove, smashed through a garlic press (could be less if you want...depends on how you like it)
Place all of it in a mason jar w/lid. Shake.
posted by biscuits at 7:58 PM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

This "Common Cooking Mistakes" article from Cooking Light and the accompanying MeFi thread are great.
posted by XMLicious at 8:12 PM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Lots of good tips here, lots of places to look and things to read and techniques to try. But let's get BASIC:

Smell. Sniff, snort, snuffle. Dip and taste. Look. Feel. At first all the things happening are overwhelming, and timers and thermometers can help. You'll need them less after cooking enough to get a feel for how long this-size-pork-chop will take, or your favorite brownie recipe. But the best way to cook is to USE YOUR SENSES.

Most people I know are careful and tidy and sort of reserved when they cook. The wonderful cooks I know are juicy and exuberant (even if they're tired, they love the food and the fooling with it). They sometimes have awful failures, but into the garbage and call for pizza and don't look back.
posted by kestralwing at 8:19 PM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

My big revelation when I was starting out cooking was that you didn't always need to cook things on high. I could never understand why my bacon always burned until I finally realized I could turn down the heat and it would still cook but it wouldn't burn before it cooked through. Pretty basic but it was a milestone!

Also, read all the way through a recipe, if you're using one, before you start cooking and do as much prep as you can ( chopping vegetables, measuring out liquids and other ingredients) before you even start your burner.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 8:31 PM on November 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Lots of great suggestions here. I'll add:

Use the meat thermometer, but touch the meat too. Eventually you'll be able to judge doneness by how firm it feels.

Also, LISTEN to your food. Is it sizzling too fast or too slow? You can usually catch things about to burn with your ears before they actually burn and you smell it.
posted by gnutron at 8:41 PM on November 15, 2013

Things I learned from my now-ex-husband:

1. Use high heat! Turn on the fire, wait a couple of minutes. Then add the fat (oil, butter, bacon grease, etc.). The magic happens when food browns. That's called fond.
2. Sharp knife. Learn how to use it. That takes practice.
3. Salt enhances flavor. If you are tasting a sauce or soup and it tastes flat, add salt. This includes for any grain or pasta you are cooking.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 8:47 PM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

The most important lesson I learned in the kitchen is that the first 2 or 3 glasses of wine I drink while cooking really help my end product, but when I consume the 4th through 6th, I start burning things and forgetting measurements, etc. Limit your wine intake to 3 glasses while cooking.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:11 PM on November 15, 2013 [6 favorites]

Nthing cast iron. Teflon is unforgiving and not great to work with either. Cast iron can take almost any abuse short of leaving it exposed to the elements for a wet season. Look for old cast iron in second hand shops that doesn't say Made in China or Taiwan - some people impute magic properties to the old stuff, but the real reason to get it is that the castings are much better. Don't pay more than $15 or $20 for a good size (#8) pan.

Also Nthing stock making. Stocks are handy to have, do not require a precious effort, and (if you are in to that sort of thing ) fill the house with a delightful meaty aroma.

I'm a big fan of doing enormous roasts - 450 for 20-30 minutes , then stick a cabled thermometer in the roast, set to chime at rare, and run the bone around 210 until done. Feast, use keep some leftovers for sandwiches &c, and freeze the rest in pre-cut soup sized portions for a rainy day (Here in Seattle we're looking at several straight months of those).

You can't fry an egg without plenty of butter. Besides keeping the egg from sticking, the butter melts in the pan as a sign that you should pop open the egg carton and start cracking.
posted by wotsac at 9:59 PM on November 15, 2013

-- Use lids on pans. If you don't have a lid, use tinfoil (leave one part a little loose so the steam can escape). Some people use a plate, but I always worry it's going to shatter.

-- If you're cooking in a pan, when in doubt cover it, and when in doubt, use low heat and cook slower. (That goes for everything from grilled cheese to pork chops to carrots).

-- Stir (or flip) as little as possible.

-- When cooking something in a pan, cook it covered almost all the way through, then flip it once and let it finish up uncovered.

-- Use butter, not margarine. And when in doubt, add butter.

-- High heat --> vegetable oil. Medium heat --> olive oil. Low heat --> butter. (You can also start on one heat/with one fat, and put another kind of fat in for while you're simmering your food).

-- Poultry isn't done until the juices are running clear. With meat you have to develop a feel for how tough/floppy it should be, so that just takes practice.

-- Toss the salad for longer than you'd expect, and use a very big bowl (so much easier).

-- Use refrigerated rice for fried rice.

-- My life-saving "gadgets": vegetable steamer basket and salad spinner. If you like poultry white meat or grilled vegetables, I'd also get a George Foreman grill.

-- My go-to flavorings: salt, vinegar, garlic, onion, wine, stock, paprika, thyme and bay leaves.
posted by rue72 at 10:06 PM on November 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

My biggest revelation was that you don't always have to keep prodding food while you cook, and in fact, it's better if you don't because then it browns nicely. Put something on the stove, leave it alone for a bit, and only mess with it once it starts browning. This makes everything taste magically better.

Second biggest revelation is that good quality olive oil really is magical.
posted by Xany at 10:53 PM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

You've probably heard that you should read the recipe through before you start cooking. I'd like to add that you should also visualize each step as you read. Early in my cooking days I would make pasta and realize as it was boiling that I didn't own a colander. Or I would remember as the french toast was flipped that I had forgotten to put the bacon on.
posted by possumbrie at 11:46 PM on November 15, 2013

Oh! And don't even bother trying to sear meat in a nonstick pan. I blindly fought that battle for WAY too long.
posted by possumbrie at 11:47 PM on November 15, 2013

The flavor in the dish will equal the flavor you add to it during cooking. Seems obvious, but took me a long time to internalize this.
posted by telstar at 3:09 AM on November 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Chiming in late to advise you to be adventurous, as well. Try recipes that include ingredients you'd normally turn your nose up at or "have never liked." I was never a fan of the combination of peppers and onions on anything. Then I tried a Gordon Ramsey recipe for seared pork chops with peppers and onions for my wife. IT WAS DELICIOUS.

So be willing to experiment with unfamiliar flavors/things/tastes.
posted by kuanes at 4:25 AM on November 16, 2013

Lots of advice above for how to do the food you like better.

I have learned the most by cooking food I have never cooked using recipes. I'm not doing it so much right now, but I normally try to cook at least a couple of new recipes each week. The first time I do it exactly as the recipe says. The second and subsequent times I change things to see what happens. If a recipe is truly awful I write that in the cook book and try a different one.
posted by kadia_a at 6:32 AM on November 16, 2013

Some "intermediate" level moves:

1. Don't be timid about heat. Heat's the engine, heat makes it all happen. It's a beginner move to be overly cautious. Do a nice robust preheat of ovens and pans, and cook right up to the edge of overheating. If you're serious about this, you're not going to walk out of the room while stuff's cooking, so burning's not a concern.

2. Think less about recipes and more about protein/carb/fat. Mix and match them freely and creatively. But do try to balance them. If you don't, you and your guests will be left feeling unsettled. Satisfaction comes not only from taste and sufficiency, but also from balance. If you want to be super healthy, add in the requirement that proteins be lean, carbs complex, and fat Mediterranean (olive and grape oils, etc). If weight, cholesterol, and family history of heart disease are not factors, butter or ghee are probably ok. But avoid margarine, crisco, etc.

3. If you can afford to do so, buy few cookware items but make them GOOD ones. It's cheaper, in the end, to invest in great stuff that will last than to buy cheap Chinese stuff that needs frequent replacing (and your results will also be better). If you go slowly and carefully in accumulating pieces, you can get them on closeout (Amazon has GREAT blow-out sales during the holidays....keep your eye out or set an alert on camelcamelcamel

4. Your own taste preference is a powerful force. Instead of trying to get recipes "right" (a beginner behavior), start thinking about how you prefer stuff, and use trial/error to get those results. You'll be surprised how focused your cooking gets.

5. Learn to smell rancidity. Seriously. Plenty of supermarket ingredients (or even "gourmet" ones) are rancid. We're so used to it we don't even notice. It's killer unhealthful, and will screw up your food. Learn to notice! Oils (especially nut oils), nuts, and grains are of particular concern.

6. Love whomever you're cooking for intensely with every stir of the spoon and scrape of the spatula. The tiniest actions and decisions add up, so make sure they're all done with an open heart, even if it seems sappy at first.
posted by Quisp Lover at 7:19 AM on November 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Don't use high heat...take it easy, specially cooking eggs. Start by warming the pan, then add butter or oil but turn the heat down to cook slowly.
I used to make the mistake of starting everything on HI and then walking away from stove....no more! I prepare everything ahead of time and add things as I go. Much better.

Another thing. Serve on warm dishes. You can warm them in a 200º oven.
posted by billl at 7:53 AM on November 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

USE LARGE UTENSILS. You really don't need a burger-size pan or half-cup sauce pan.

Wield a 10in chef's knife to smash and dice a clove of garlic. (Using the biggest knife you're comfortable with means less effort on the cutting. The weight of the knife does more work, and the lever of the knife's length keeps your cut straight.)

Boil 4 servings of pasta in a 6-quart stock pot. (Pasta cooked in a small pot will boil over. Then you turn it down and get gooey pasta sticking to itself.)

Exception: omelettes, blini, crepes depend on a small amount of batter cooking at the same time.

posted by Jesse the K at 8:02 AM on November 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

1. Good knives, kept sharp.
2. When cooking in stainless steel pans, heat the pan HOT before adding ANYTHING to the pan, including oil. This is the only way I've found to keep food from sticking to the pan.
posted by summerstorm at 8:45 AM on November 16, 2013

If you have any friends who like to cook, ask them to come cook with you. I know I've learned quite a bit from cookbooks and trial and error, but I suspect that most of what I know I learned from being around people who cooked. I know what bread dough is supposed to feel like because I helped my mom make bread (and I attribute my lack of ability to make pie crust to the fact that I never helped her make pie crust).

I've always enjoyed making something, or variations on a something, until I can make that sort of thing without a recipe (lots of soups, chili, omlettes, fritattas, pasta sauces, etc.).
posted by newrambler at 8:47 AM on November 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

There is no such thing as One True Recipe for a particular dish.

Even if it's the one in Joy of Cooking or some other authoritative source. Even if it's in Cooking Illustrated and there is a 3000-word article explaining why this is the One True Recipe. Even if it has fifty 5-star reviews. Even if it claims to be the easiest, the most authentic, or has the prettiest wistful macro photo of the results. (<whispers> Even if it's your mom's recipe, handed down from your great-great-grandma.</whispers>)

Unless you can identify exactly where you went wrong and will be doing it significantly differently the next time, never retry a recipe that didn't work. Try a different one, and then a different one after that, and then a different one after that, until you find one that works well for you. Bonus: you learn something from each recipe along the way, so that you can tweak the winning recipe and make it even better.

Also, yes, yes, yes to mise en place
posted by BrashTech at 9:39 AM on November 16, 2013

Yep. I came back to mention mise en place. Get a bunch of ramekins (little ceramic bowls/dishes), if you don't already have them, and get all of your ingredients prepped / chopped / measured / set out before anything hits the pan.

Another thing: vinaigrettes can be made in a couple of minutes at home, and they're good for more than just salads—you can marinate meat or portobellos in them before cooking; you can toss potatoes or other vegetables in them before roasting; etc.

To make a vinaigrette, just whisk the following together in a bowl, until combined:

—about 1 part acid (any kind of vinegar, or citrus juice—lemon, lime, orange)

—about 4 parts oil (olive oil is always a safe bet, but you can experiment with other oils too)

—flavorings—salt, pepper, minced herbs/garlic/shallots, ground spices, chopped nuts, grated or crumbled cheeses (Parmesan, blue, etc.), pretty much whatever you want. If you use dried herbs, let the vinaigrette rest for a while before serving, so the herbs have time to soak up the liquid and soften up.

—an emulsifier (optional): An emulsifier is just a substance that helps oil and water to mix. Adding one to your vinaigrette will make it easier to blend into a smooth consistency, and will help it stay that way for longer. Common emulsifiers include mustard (as dry powder or the prepared condiment), honey, egg yolks, and roasted red pepper. You don't need much. And now you know something about the chemistry of honey mustard dresing!

Always taste as you go. Add more oil if it's too tart, or more vinegar if it's too bland—it's more important to find a balance that works on your tongue than to slavishly follow a specific ratio. 1:4 is just a starting point.

Experiment with different kinds of vinegar—they're kind of wonderful. You shouldn't have any trouble finding white wine vinegar, balsamic, red wine vinegar, and cider vinegar. If you're feeling fancy, there are plenty of flavored vinegars on the market, too—pear, tarragon, ginger, etc. Sherry vinegar is delicious, but expensive.

An immersion blender will make the job even faster. I definitely agree that you should avoid gadgets, but this is one gadget that's actually hella useful. In addition to being good for vinaigrettes and other sauces, they're great for beating eggs and whipping cream, you can use them to pureé things right in the pot, and cleanup is a breeze.

Three final salad nerd tips:

—Salad greens are delicate. Handle them gently to avoid bruising them, and they'll taste crisper and better.

—Make sure your greens are dry before assembling the salad. Water dilutes flavor and prevents dressing from sticking. This is what salad spinners are for. (If you're using whole leaves of romaine or something, you can just blot them dry with a paper towel.)

—Don't put the greens in a bowl and then pour dressing on top. Instead, put a small amount of dressing in an empty bowl, add the greens, and then toss them lightly (with your hands or a pair of tongs) until the leaves are lightly and evenly coated.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 12:30 PM on November 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

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