Newbie kitchen questions
September 13, 2015 6:54 PM   Subscribe

As my earlier question will show, i am not a fan of cooking. But I have finally decided that I want to learn how to cook and reduce my dependence on seamless. You might have guessed that I am very new to cooking. In fact, i am figuring out my way around kitchen. Sharp knives, hot surfaces, hot oil, food germs etc are kind of anxiety inducing. And I am really anxious about making a mistake and poisoning myself. So, some questions:

1. Is it safe to use something like clorox disinfecting wipes on a surface that I will use to cut and clean veggies? Is it ok to use disinfecting wipes on my knife? If no, what are my options to clean my cutting board regularly or in between meats and veggies.

2. Can you recommend a good mincing tool? Many recipes ask for mincing herbs etc .. doing it by hand using knife will take me a hell of a long time. What is a good tool to mince quickly and isnt big. I am at a space premium?

3. Are there any quick ways to clean your hands after getting your hands dirty while you are mixing or chopping something, working with oil and doing sundry other things during food prep? Using water/soap every few minutes is a pain and towels become dirty/stained very quickly...

4. As I am single, anything I buy tends to be on the shelf for quite a while. I use the smell test to determine if something is good/worth cooking or eating. So, just to be sure, should I keep everything in the fridge?

5. Cooking every day is a chore. So, if I keep my food in the fridge, for how long, usually, is it edible? I mean, I think I have some chicken curry leftover in my fridge since around Aug 15th. It doesn't smell bad, is it ok to eat?

Also: What is the bottom drawer of the oven for?

Look forward to your answers and any good suggestions for a newbie starting in kitchen.

What would be something you wish you had known someone had told you instead of having to figure out after a kitchen disaster?

posted by TheLittlePrince to Home & Garden (31 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The bottom drawer of the oven is either a place to keep pans (usually in electric stoves) and doesn't have any heat element to it, or it's the broiler, where the heat (when you turn it to broiling) is really intense on the top, to brown something on the top of whatever you put into it, for a very short amount of time.
posted by xingcat at 6:59 PM on September 13, 2015

The USDA offers some simple food safety rules. Per their guidelines that you should, "use most cooked leftovers within 3 to 4 days", there is no way a curry that's been in your fridge for almost a month is still in the safe zone.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:01 PM on September 13, 2015 [8 favorites]

I suggest finding a friend who loves cooking and asking them to give you a grocery list. You go but those groceries, have that friend over, and have said friend cook with you so you can watch their style. Repeat with as many friends as you have that cook.

Also YouTube probably has great instructional videos for things like "how to mince".

Soap and water has never failed me re: knives and prep surfaces. Bleach wipes thereafter once in a while if meat is in direct contact w stoves.

I as single person am liking blue apron. I order from time to time, instructions are clear, two portion meals are dinner plus lunch or next day dinner for me. But I'm handy in the kitchen, YMMV with that one.
posted by slateyness at 7:09 PM on September 13, 2015

The first thing to know is that, really and truly, there isn't that much that can go wrong in the kitchen. The worst thing that could happen would be a fire or injuring yourself with a knife, but assuming you are an adult this is not likely to happen. And if you do ignite a potholder or slice your finger, it's really not the end of the world, anyway. I just got back from a month working at a B&B in Europe, where me and another girl were pretty much thrown into the kitchen, handed a few cookbooks, and told to prepare traditional Tuscan cuisine for paying guests. It was fine. You will be fine.

Answers to your specific questions:

1. Use soap and hot water to clean things, as a rule. Disenfecting wipes aren't the worst for certain surfaces in certain situations (for instance if you accidentally wipe chicken grease all over the handle to your fridge), but for utensils and food prep equipment, soap and water. Bonus points if you have a dishwasher, because you can run it on hot and use an antimicrobial detergent. But seriously washing by hand in hot soapy water is also fine. Re cross-contamination, my solution to this is to wash thoroughly between uses. Others like to have separate cutting boards for each (this may be more convenient if you don't want take a break to wash stuff). Honestly, at the end of the day if you're cooking everything you plan to eat, it's not a huge deal. It's a bigger deal for things like salads.

2. A knife. Most things that need to be minced are easy to chop and used in small enough quantities. If you're finding that you have recipes that call for mincing 10 lbs of potatoes or something, you may want to either reduce the yield of the recipe or start with easier recipes. It will be easiest and most efficient to chop vegetables with an 8-10 inch chef's knife instead of a paring knife or some other random knife not suited to the task (deboning knife, steak knife, tomato knife, what have you). Using the right tools for the job will also make cooking a lot easier, as will practicing basic skills like chopping vegetables. If you really hate chopping veg, a lot of supermarkets have pre-prepped stuff you can put straight into the pan.

3. For the most part, I just rinse and wipe on a kitchen towel. Have a lot of kitchen towels so that you can easily replace them when they get dirty. That said, wiping off after rinsing your hands once isn't "dirty". I do mine anytime I have a load of whites or towels going into the wash, or if they physically have food matter on them. If I get a lot of oil (or especially animal fat) on my hands I will wash with soap and water, sure. If I'm working intensively with something really sloppy I'll usually just wait till I'm done with that task to wash my hands. Having a towel you plan to put into the wash right away is also a good idea for very intense kitchen projects (baking from scratch, butchering your own meat, etc).

4. Different stuff needs to be stored in different ways. Look up optimal storage for new items online when you get home from the store. Not all perishables need to go in the fridge. Also, as a fellow single person I find it easier to buy small quantities of stuff and use it all in specific recipes rather than having a ton of produce and raw meat around going bad.

5. A week to 10 days is my rule of thumb. Often you can freeze leftovers (especially stuff like curry), which might be better for you as a single person. And, again, no harm in buying and using small quantities of things. I find that my repertoire tends to be a little more repetitive than it might be for a family of 4, as I will cook a full recipe and eat it over the course of a few days rather than sticking it in the fridge and waiting till I crave that dish again. If you hate eating the same thing over and over, find something that works for you.
posted by Sara C. at 7:10 PM on September 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

1. No. Those aren't meant to be used on surfaces that will contact food. Use soap and water.
2. A sharp chef's knife and cutting board. You'll get faster.
3. Soap and water. Get a dozen kitchen towels. When you've used one to the point you think it's dirty, toss it in the laundry and grab a clean towel.
4. Impossible to answer without a lot more information. Some stuff lasts for years, some for days.
5. Same as above, but that curry is way too old. A week old would probably be fine, but a month? Toss it.
Bonus question: either it's just a drawer where you can store pans, or it's the broiler. This is an important difference! Look and see if there's a heating element visible above the space when you pull out the drawer.
General advice: the knob on your stovetop burners has a lot of settings in between off and high. Pay attention to recipes that specify how high to turn up the heat for particular tasks. Cranking it on high all the time isn't a good idea.

Watch cooking shows, watch Good Eats, read recipes, try things! You'll be fine!
posted by bink at 7:12 PM on September 13, 2015 [5 favorites]

Chiming in on question #2: I have been tempted by these herb scissors for a while, but haven't bought them, probably because I tend to indulge in pre-minced tubes of herbs which not only save the hassle of mincing but also stay fresh for a couple weeks. They're in 90% of my local grocery stores, usually stored near the fresh herbs. I highly recommend them for things like basil, parsley and ginger.
posted by dotparker at 7:30 PM on September 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Generally, I try to do things that make my hands dirty with my left hand only. This leaves my right hand clean to hold the knife or open the fridge. But I only consider meat and oil to require extra washing before touching something else. Things that touch veggies, eggs or dairy can be quickly rinsed with water until the final wash-up with detergent.
posted by kjs4 at 7:32 PM on September 13, 2015

One thing I did when first learning to cook and feeling nervous about cross-contamination/poisoning myself was just to cook vegetarian while I was getting a handle on the cooking part. There are WAY fewer ways to poison yourself with vegetables than with raw meat. You can also throw in pre-cooked meat items (such as the pre-cooked chicken sausages, packages of pre-cooked meatballs, rotisserie chicken, etc.). By using items that are pretty hard to poison yourself with, you can take that fear out of the equation while you're figuring out all the other details of cooking.

I would also figure out just a few (or even just one) dishes you want to learn first and work on getting good at them before you add in more. It's hard to predict without knowing what you like, but I'd recommend things like fritatta, baked pasta dishes, stir fries, vegetable curries, etc. where you can learn a basic technique and then switch out lots of different ingredients to keep it exciting.

In terms of your specific questions:
1. Soap and water. You don't want to end up with the Clorox stuff in your food. You can always wipe something off with that and THEN wash with soap and water, but that seems like an extra step that's not needed.
2. I would say just use a good chef's knife, but if you really want a separate tool, a mini prep can be used for lots of good stuff (like making pesto, chopping onions, and other quick prep tasks). You can get them pretty cheap, like this one from Amazon.
3. Soap and water is pretty much the easiest in my get used to it (and used to working a bit cleaner and keeping your hands cleaner as you work).
4. Depends a lot on the item - good rule of thumb would be that anything NOT refrigerated at the store doesn't need to be in the fridge until after you open it.
5. Definitely do not eat month-old chicken! I wouldn't keep most prepared leftovers for more than a week. But, lots of things freeze well so you can make big batches and freeze if you have freezer space.
posted by rainbowbrite at 7:33 PM on September 13, 2015 [4 favorites]

1. I don't put anything on food surfaces I'd be willing to put into my mouth, and I would not eat a bleach wipe. What I do is start with the less problematic foods and work my way down ("problematic" can either mean "will negatively affect flavor", like chopping onions before making a fruit salad, or "is a concern for cross contamination", like slicing bread on the raw meat prep area. And then soap and water as needed, or more cutting boards.

2. A nice chef's knife can do darn near anything. I learned knife skills in a kitchen, and I like the tip upthread to ask an experienced friend to show you the ropes, or take a cooking class, but there are books and YouTube videos too. Mincing is fast; you make fast thin slices, shuffle in half so they lay flat and rotate 90 degrees, make fast thin matchsticks, rotate a glob 90 degrees, and mince away. They don't need to be as perfect as other shapes sometimes need, so there can be some slop.

3. Again it's an order of operations situation, and you'll probably work cleaner with more experience, but yeah I do a quick rewash 3-5 times during the course of just normal cooking.

4. Examples would be good. Pasta, most flour and oil, dried beans, canned goods will make no difference. Fresh fruit and veg will last longer for the most part. Don't trust the smell test, plenty of nasties don't smell, or are bad for you before they smell. Still Tasty is your friend while you figure out typical ranges. Like leftovers, I rarely leave for more than 2-3 days. I tend to the conservative end, but month old chicken is deep in to No Way territory for almost everyone.

The general thing I'd note is that you may seem to have a hard time buying the right amount at first, alternating "tons of waste" with "I forgot the key ingredient, guess it's cereal for dinner." Or, you'll make dinner and half the food is cooked and cold before the other half has hit the pan. These are a super duper normal component of home economics. It's a learned skill that improves with practice.
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:38 PM on September 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

1. Those are for counter tops and stove tops.
2. Keep practicing. Start with slow, deliberate strokes, you can go for speed once you're satisfied with the consistency of your quality. Keep your guiding fingers bent so you don't lose them!
3. I keep a tea towel nearby or on my apron, and wipe my hands on that for everything except meat, that's usually enough to get you through prep and cooking.
4. Refrigerate those things that specify it, and most vegetables (unless you are trying to ripen them), don't refrigerate canned goods, spices, bread, flour, dry goods, honey, oil, vinegar (pretty much anything in the baking aisle).
5. 3-4 days is usually the rule of thumb, but I use the 5-7 day rule of thumb and it's never gotten me in trouble. Raw meat is a very different story. Red meat: 2-3 days tops, chicken/fish: 2 days.
posted by furtive at 7:45 PM on September 13, 2015

1. Soap and hot water will do you fine. Try to organize the time you're prepping to do vegetables first and proteins after, if you possibly can. (e.g. at work on chicken-delivery days I ideally schedule my prep to get vegetables in pans/in the oven doing their thing so I can butcher down the birds and then do the usual scrubdown right before service).

2. Go to YouTube and look up knife skills videos. It doesn't take long to learn how to be safe and adept with a knife. This is likely best for you so you're not cluttering up your kitchen with don't-work-very-well gadgets that do only one thing. And remember, the sharper a knife is, the safer it is, because it requires less pressure and is less likely to slip.

3. Unfortunately no, the easiest way to get oil off your hands is soap and water if you're avoiding dirty towels. Again, try to look through your recipe and see what you can restructure so as to avoid this problem.

4. Define the smell test in this question? Because see next:

5. At home, with a non-professional cleaning/sanitizing and chilling regimen, yes all cooked foods need to be in the fridge. And your horizon is 5 days--label and date things if you're finding yourself unable to remember. The smell test for when something is bad or not is basically useless; not all pathogens will emit off odours when making your food toxic. The only way a smell test is useful is to tell you something is absolutely bad; it cannot tell you if something is good. Please look up 'Danger Zone' and remember to get foods from hot to cold (or vice versa) as quickly as possible.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:08 PM on September 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

These questions are so overwhelmingly 'newbie' that I fear Ask may be doing you a disservice by pretending we can actually take you from your current state to a person who can function in a kitchen. Because this is a fair whack of 'my god, if they don't know that, what else don't they know?' Like the idea that a kitchen is a dangerous place is a ridiculous idea for most people, but...but you might actually be a person who could end up with a serious kitchen/food accident.

I would ask around your circles -- social media is wonderful for this sort of thing -- to suss out somebody who is a good cook who enjoys cooking and who could use a modest but respectable hourly wage to do everything from take you around the grocery store to teach you how to shop for a few planned meals and pantry staples, and then take you home and help you figure out knife work, hot oil, how to follow a recipe, how to make a few basic dishes you like and how to cook a few staples, teach you about basic food safety and storage...

Right now you are way behind where my eight-year-old is in kitchen/cooking know-how. I feel like we are telling a five-year-old to cut loose and feel free to experiment are slightly less likely to cut your finger badly or start a grease fire than a five year old, but apparently even more ready to poison yourself (month-old chicken).

Re. 3., unless it is a food safety issue (and I agree that starting out with vegetarian foods might be easiest there -- wash your greens, but), either keep your hands messy, or consider buying aprons and using them to wipe your hands off on.

Next time you have a take-away curry you're not going to finish up quickly, throw it in the freezer instead...
posted by kmennie at 8:12 PM on September 13, 2015 [9 favorites]

Everyone's already answered your questions, so I'll talk about getting more comfortable in the kitchen.

I did not learn how to cook growing up. I'm fortunate that my first grown-up apartment a) did not have a microwave and b) was in small-town France, which forced me to actually learn rather than just nuking pizza every night. I'm still no Mario Batali, but I'm reasonably competent at feeding myself, and getting better with practise. Some things I've learned:

a) Simple, high-quality ingredients go a long way to making great meals. If you can, splurge on things like organic meat and veg; cooking for one means that you buy less than a family would and it's often worth it, especially if you do your research and pick carefully.

b) Baby steps. Do you have a Trader Joe's nearby? Aside from having a really great frozen food section, they also have meal components that can be put together to make a good food- portobello ravioli with pesto, jasmine rice with chicken tikka masala, stuff like that. This is good when you don't have the brain to actually cook, and is generally cheaper/healthier than seamless and the like.

c) The suggestion above to ask a friend to be your guide is brilliant. I would caution you, however, to maybe pick someone who hasn't been cooking since they were little- my grandmother, for instance, although she's got good intentions, is complete pants at showing me how to cook because she's been doing it so long it's all approximations and instinct.

d) as for cooking for one, this is how I do it. Lunch and dinner is 14 meals. Every Sunday, I cook four servings of three different recipes, portion them out, and chuck them in the fridge. That's most of my week taken care of, with a little wiggle room for unexpected dinner out or a 'fuck it, I need junk food,' day.

e) the suggestion to cook vegetarian until you get more confident is a good one. There's not all that much you can do to veg that'll make you deathly ill, but meat's a completely different issue. I suggest starting off with things like pre-cooked sausages until you've developed a little more confidence in the kitchen. Also, having an experienced friend to call on will prevent you from doing boneheaded things like putting oil in a pan to cook bacon.

f) related to d), meal planning is your friend. Knowing what you're cooking and being sure you have everything you need makes the process simpler AND saves you money. I like to do my planning and shopping the day before I cook just so there's no moment of, 'oh shit I don't have onions.'

g) Pinterest is a goldmine of simple, cheap recipes- you can search by keyword, and the 'Related Pins' feature is always fun to explore. Budget Bytes is a great resource for cheap, simple, delicious meals- and she has super detailed explanations and photos. I particularly love her crustless quiche and black bean burrito recipes.

Honestly, cooking is not as difficult as people make it out to be. You just need practise, patience, and a sense of humour, and you'll be fine.
posted by Tamanna at 8:18 PM on September 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Start with vegetarian food, really, or cook vegetarian plus precooked/prepared proteins (rotisserie chicken, frozen fish items with instructions, frozen meatballs, only-needs-warming proteins like Hillshire Farms smoked sausage or kielbasa) until you start to get comfortable.

One of my favorite knives (like, used 2-3 times a day) is this mini-santoku from the grocery store. It's only 5" long, very controllable, holds an edge well, cheap enough to throw in the dishwasher with no guilt.

Just for now, don't eat anything older than 5 days for cooked food, and 2 days past "best before" date on raw meat.

Soap and water and a scrub brush. You can clean your counters with bleach wipes, but not food-prep surfaces.


- Youtube. Search for food you like to eat, search for techniques you want to know more about.

- It is not a personal failure to use shortcuts. That is a natural progression from eating restaurant food to full-on homemade cooking. It is fine to use prepped items (depending on where you are, you may have a store with a number of ready-to-cook items like Fresh And Easy in California, or a deli department that offers ready-to-cook items), it's fine to use pre-cooked items, it's fine to use frozen semi-prepared food. Making yourself fish tacos from Gorton's frozen breaded or grilled fish, prepared according to instructions, and a bag of tortillas and a dressed cabbage salad you made yourself IS cooking. Making spaghetti with jarred sauce IS cooking. You will learn from doing these things.

- Cook things you are familiar with for now. Don't make curry if you don't eat curry. Don't make fritatta if you don't really like or know egg dishes.

- When you do order delivery, try to get stuff you want to figure out how to cook, so you can steal idea.

- Chicken thighs are one of the cheapest cuts of meat in the grocery store, and pretty forgiving. They're a good place to just get the feel for cooking protein.

- Definitively easy chicken breasts, with additional links to oven methods. I do at least 5 breasts every weekend for eating during the week.

- As a single person, you can cook recipes that serve 3-4 and put one leftover in the fridge and 1-2 in the freezer (in freezer bags or Gladware) to microwave in a couple weeks, so you don't get tired of the one thing.

I don't want to underplay food safety, but people with normal immune systems do not generally die, or even suffer more than one unfortunate day on the toilet, from even pretty slack food-handling unless it is criminally negligent stuff like feces contamination, which happens before you (or more often the restaurant/store) ever receives the product. Bagged spinach is more dangerous than pork or chicken, on the whole. It's far more likely that you're going to eat a fair amount of overcooked food that is chewy and not-great or underseasoned food that is bland and unimpressive, than that you are going to poison yourself.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:18 PM on September 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

#1: You shouldn't really need to clean your board in the middle of preparation very often.

The best advice I can give you is to read your recipe all the way through before you pick the knife up. Prep anything that isn't meat first (cut vegetables, grate cheese, etc.), and move it off the board into bowls or on to plates. Prep your meat last.

That should keep you from having to wash the board mid-prep, and take a lot of the stress out of the actual cooking at the same time.
posted by Kreiger at 8:25 PM on September 13, 2015

I've worked in a number of kitchens, so a lot of my habits come from professional experience and dealing with health codes.

1. It's perfectly safe to use bleach wipes on cooking surfaces, but I prefer wiping cutting boards and things that have touched raw meat with a spray solution of bleach and water. Wipes are expensive and bleach is cheap. I also have two cutting boards, and don't use the same one for meat and veggies (my veggie cutting board is wood, which is porous and shouldn't be used for meat) just out of convenience.

2. The best mincing tool is your knife. With some practice, you'll be able to take down a bunch of parsley in seconds. Learn how to chiffonade basil; it'll serve you very well. If you have a substantial amount of stuff to mince, a tiny food processor, like a Cuisinart Mini-Prep, is great for that.

3. Unfortunately, washing your hands frequently is a bug of cookery. I use latex gloves when handling raw meat to minimize washing with soap. For many non-raw-meat related applications, you shouldn't need soap.

4. Only things that need refrigeration need refrigeration. Produce that needs it generally is refrigerated at the store. Produce cut or chopped automatically needs it. Don't put your uncut tomatoes in there. Your dry beans will be fine in the cupboard. But, put your whole wheat flour in the freezer--it has more fat than all-purpose flour and can get rancid quickly.

5. Cooked food generally has a refrigerated shelf-live of about a week, but degrades in texture substantially in 2-4 days. The freezer is your friend, though. You can get about six months in there.

I heartily recommend reading/watching/listening to the stuff America's Test Kitchen puts out (Cook's Illustrated, ATK Radio, the PBS shows). You'll get so much from them. Alton Brown's Good Eats TV series is also amazing beginner's cooking education. I promise, once you get the hang of it, cooking is really great!
posted by General Malaise at 8:37 PM on September 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

What Kreiger says - work out in what order you can prep things that minimises/removes the need to clean your board and knife during prep. If I need to prep fruit as well I normally start with that, then non starchy and non smelly vegetables, then starchy veg, onions and the last thing is raw meat. If required that way you can rinse the board/knife in between eg after juicy fruit, tomatoes etc, you don't end up with oniony desert and are unlikely to cross contaminate anything.

Unless you've handled raw meat/fish rinsing your fingers with water and/or wiping on a tea towel work fine for cleaning fingers unless there was a lot of grease - which there shouldn't be all that often. Small, thin tea towels that you can change frequently without significantly increasing your laundry pile are best.

Kitchen scissors are great for chopping herbs or slicing spring onions etc until you learn knife skills. And they are still useful after you learn knife skills, eg to chop up whole tinned tomatoes in the tin...the juice stays contained. But yes, learn knife skills. Any small kitchen gadgets like a mincer take a disproportionate time to clean so they tend not to save time.
posted by koahiatamadl at 8:47 PM on September 13, 2015

Although some here may raise eyebrows at your question about whether or not it is OK to eat that curry (it is not still ok to eat, btw), many others would have immediately forgotten the original date when they purchased the curry and would have either blindly eaten it or blindly thrown it out. And now, you can toss it while maintaining your new knowledge of food safety (no more than 5 days for leftovers). Do not despair - you are a beginning cook and you're already learning and on your way!
posted by samthemander at 12:04 AM on September 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Your local board of health offers a food safety course for food service workers. They end up with a permit to prepare food safely for the public. Costs betwen 6-12 dollars. Not a bad start. It takes usually two hours and you get a quiz. Yes.
posted by Oyéah at 12:16 AM on September 14, 2015

I think you should take a cooking class. Although there are decent instructional videos out these days, I can't imagine learning the very very basics just from those. It's good to get a sense of how things are supposed to look, feel, and smell, etc. from close up (and it's good to get feedback from an IRL person).

1. 2nd getting two cutting boards, one for meat and one for veg. I keep a small dish out while I'm cooking, just to temporarily hold the meat-touched spoons etc. while in use. I rinse the meat board (& utensils & etc that raw meat has touched) immediately after I'm done with them in very hot water, letting it run for several minutes, then wash with dish soap.

3. No, you constantly wash your hands in between things. I use paper towels as well, though, for really mucky stuff. Before I start, I tear a piece of paper towel off to use as I do stuff, and also let a little stream of water run so that I don't yuk up my faucet with my ground-beefy hands. I use paper towels for anything involving meat, and regular T-towels for anything else. (I get annoyed when I run out of paper towels, makes a huge difference.)

4. Plan your meals and shop for 2-3 days at a time, and yeah, you can keep it all in the fridge. Invest in GlassLock or similar containers for optimal freshness.


What would be something you wish you had known someone had told you instead of having to figure out after a kitchen disaster?

Don't leave plastic stuff on top of a toaster oven you plan to use forthwith.

Cleaning as you go really is better than leaving a huge mess to deal with later.
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:41 AM on September 14, 2015

What I wish I had known:
Everything is a learning curve (including chopping herbs, promise! No matter with what yoy chop them, you will be a lot faster within a couple of months!)
Pick one recipe you really want to master. An easy one. Then cook it ten times. The first time will be meh. Google or ask people why. Try again. The tenth time will be really really good. Better than in a restaurant because it will be like you want it!

Don't be afraid to use short cuts. Buypremade spaghetti sauce until you have perfected how long to boil your pasta to your liking. Then try your hand at homemade sauce.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:50 AM on September 14, 2015

Don't feel like you have to be making the fanciest stuff in the book, and don't feel like it has to turn out like the picture. There's something really satisfying and affirming about boiling an egg just the way you like it, and if your perfect ham-and-cheese toasted is wonderwhite, processed cheese and square ham then that's yours and no-one should ever make you feel like you should be using artisanal free range bread made by Bolivian arsewombles or whatever.

Buy the first couple of Jamie Oliver books - The Naked Chef and Return of The Naked Chef. They're really simple, well written and full of stuff that's designed for first-time cooks. There's lists of basic kitchen equipment and technique that are really helpful. The recipes in these books are also designed for you to experiment with as you get more confident, and you start to learn how ingredients match in the pot and on the plate. Most importantly, they're not fussy or preachy like his later books. (30 Minute Meals is incomprehensible!)

In Australia, many home cooks get their best family recipes - the ones they cook over and over again and write down in their notebooks or index cards - from the Australian Women's Weekly cookbook series. The Birthday Cake Book is a legitimate classic of recipe book history, and I make something from this one pretty much every week - it's a book of things you can make and freeze, so all of the recipes make great leftovers.

Otherwise, be kind to yourself. So many of my friends have gone into total meltdown by trying to make something impressive, rather than something they wanted to eat. Don't learn to cook for a dinner party - learn to cook for your own happiness. Don't be afraid to try new things, but make sure it's what you like, not what you think you ought to make.

Finally, my personal favourite: LAZY FOOD IS GOOD FOOD. When you realise that a roast is just chucking vegetables and meat into an oven and walking away for a couple of hours, it's a lot less scary!
posted by prismatic7 at 5:18 AM on September 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

What would be something you wish you had known someone had told you instead of having to figure out after a kitchen disaster?

Blue Apron or Plated or another ingredient delivery service can be training wheels. After you've made something once using the pre-measured ingredients, you'll have a much easier time pulling something similar out of the grocery store.

Learn your spices. Start with the recommended amounts and then make small changes and see what happens. After a while, you'll develop your own preferences.
posted by anaelith at 5:56 AM on September 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

1. Use soap and water on your cutting board and knife. Use a different cutting board for meats and veggies. Run it through the dishwasher between uses to disinfect.

2. Buy stuff pre-minced.

3. I put ivory liquid in a hand pump soap dispenser and I wash every few minutes. It really isn't that tedious.

4. Some things don't survive well in the fridge. Buy small portions. Cook enough to share with others. Have dinner parties.

5. Don't eat the chicken curry. If it's more than 4 days old, toss it. There are some things that you can cook and then freeze (once it is cooled, before it is old) in portion sizes to reheat later.

The bottom drawer of the oven is for keeping things warm for your dinner parties. Or, extra storage.
posted by myselfasme at 6:17 AM on September 14, 2015

My advice would be to.. not use any recipes that involve things that are hard, yet. Get comfortable with just being in the kitchen, first. Don't try to jump into french cooking. Get like a "college starting out!" cookbook, or some kind of teenager cookbook if you can find one. A lot of people will tell you cooking is easy, and it is, but a lot of people have more experience then they think they do. If you truly have as little experience as your question seems, you either need to start cooking with people who can help you, or you need to start cooking things that are really easy.

There's tons of stuff you can make that is like.. just a teaser to cooking, that is still delicious, and once you get comfortable with that type of cooking, you can start cooking things from scratch and mastering knife skills (do NOT go buy a fancy expensive knife. people will tell you it's easier to cook with them and sharp knives are less dangerous, but this is something that assumes you have basic knife skills. buy something smallish and reasonably sharp, like a santaku or a 6 inch slicing knife, but don't buy a chef's knife. be careful when cutting. don't try to chop like experienced cooks yet. just cut things and be careful. err for caution. cut round things into smaller pieces before you try cutting them in half, and try to keep flat ends on cutting boards as much as you can. I've seen very experienced, red seal chefs cut through their fingers with good, sharp knives. don't try those yet. They're great, but they're an advanced skill.)

Shake & bake chicken drumsticks, rice, salad. a little chopping with no chance of poisoning yourself, a little measuring, a little shaking, and some oven skills. very basic, especially if you have a rice cooker (which I would recommend. I know a lot of people are like "so single use!" but they are actually great.) one of my favourite meals to help kids cook. make your own salad dressing (an oil, a vineagar, something sweet and a herb! mix.)

fried egg sandwiches. delicious.

vegetarian curries and chilis and stews and soups are fun to cook, hard to screw up, and make lots of extras that freeze well. you can just plop in some pre-cut meat while it cooks, or add pre-cooked meats near the end. Slow cooker recipes are good too, easy.

I am quite a good cook, and a thing I still often do is buy a rotisserie chicken, a package of smallish tortillas, a can of refried beans, a package of enchilada sauce, and some cheese. peel off and shred all the chicken, mix with some enchilada sauce, then put a little beans and chicken in each tortilla, roll them up, pack them into a baking pan, top with grated cheese and the rest of the sauce, bake for a bit (20 mins?). Eat delicious enchiladas for dinner. This is another fun thing to make that feels very cooking but has a low poisoning chance.

I use paper towels for wiping things in the kitchen, or I go through about 2 kitchen towels while cooking something. you gotta wipe your hands but don't feel like washing all the time.

I own those herb scissors someone else linked to, they're fine! great for basil, kind of useless, but don't take up too much room.

I own this mincer for garlic, and I love it so much that I replaced it when I broke one about 3 years ago. Don't leave it closed after using it, the garlic apparently makes some kind of permanent glue.

try some baking! baking is not too hard and you'll learn lots of stuff from it, it has a very low chance of poisoning you, and your friends will enjoy getting cookies and brownies.

Have you heard of Blue Apron? do you live in the US? That seems like a pretty good service for learning to cook and minimizing waste and leftovers and a lot of the hard parts of cooking!
posted by euphoria066 at 10:40 AM on September 14, 2015

1. Yes, soap and water.
2. Take a knife handling class. You can also get a small food processor. For herbs and such you can use a coffee grinder, but NOT the same one you use to grind coffee. Oh yeah, get one of these for Garlic peeling; it's life changing.
3. You can use gloves, but then you're throwing them away a lot. Soap and water is the way. Just buy a big stack of kitchen towels on the cheap at Costco. I use white ones, because then you can bleach them in the wash.
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:40 AM on September 14, 2015

My philosophy of kitchen gadgets is that they make sense for things that are hard for you to do, even if they are easy for a chef. After all chefs have a lot of practice, you don't. But for some things, it makes more sense to learn than to buy another tool. I have a gizmo for mincing garlic, and often use scissors for herbs.

One thing I would consider is an ulu and bowl set. They make chopping small amounts of stuff, including herbs, pretty easy. The one I have a souvenir from a relative's trip to Alaska.

A quick read thermometer is not a gizmo; it's a tool.

You can worry too much about germs. Modern kitchens have much better hygiene than kitchens from 100 years ago. The danger is pretty much confined to raw meats, and even there, mostly poultry.

To wash my hands, I get a little dish soap just by running my finger over the top of the bottle.

There are some cookbooks that are aimed at simple preparation rather than high cuisine. Also, recipes from food companies, as seen on the backs of packages and cans as well as websites, are usually pretty simple.
posted by SemiSalt at 11:55 AM on September 14, 2015

Whatever you do, don't avoid buying the right tools for the job because you're afraid of hurting yourself. If you try to process vegetables for a recipe with a 4-inch paring knife, it's going to be difficult and take forever, and the result will probably be unevenly chopped vegetables that don't cook right. Your takeaway will be that you can't cook.

You don't need any special know-how to learn how to use basic tools like knives, cooking elements, etc. People go crazy for pro-level attention to detail (fancy knifework, exotic prep methods, extreme DIY approach), but the bottom line is that humans have been feeding ourselves for millions of years, and in the vast majority of cases nobody gets hurt. Coming up with new danger scenarios is the opposite of what your approach should be.

Don't panic!
posted by Sara C. at 12:37 PM on September 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

I own those herb scissors someone else linked to, they're fine! great for basil, kind of useless, but don't take up too much room.

I was going to say the same thing. Someone gave us a pair as a gift, and they only work if you have something that is large enough to hold in one hand and cut with the scissors in the other hand, which rules out most herbs with tiny leaves. (Also I do think they take up too much room, but that's relative of course.)

We just use a chef's knife to chop herbs.
posted by smackfu at 12:43 PM on September 15, 2015

I use a pair of $2 scissors. I keep multiple sets in a jar on the counter and throw then in the dishwasher when they get dirty, and then demote them to garden/garage when they get dull. You absolutely do not need unitasker scissors for 98% of kitchen scissoring.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:11 PM on September 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

This book has some great basic knowledge if you have a geeky side: I know several people who were new to cooking and found it very helpful.
posted by bloggerwench at 10:41 PM on September 15, 2015

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