Kitchen Clueless
February 12, 2007 10:12 AM   Subscribe

Help me not be scared of my kitchen.

I have little to no kitchen experience beyond boiling pasta. I seem to lack a lot of the common sense how-to that most cookbooks presume of their readers. This makes me extremely nervous.
For example, "brown the meat" is way too vague for my rules-loving brain. How brown? Should I break it up into pieces, and what's the optimum piece size? I know there's something with grease and a tin can, but what and why? And when I add half a chopped onion, what the hell do I do with the other half?
I took a spin through the "cooking" and "kitchen" tags and didn't spot anything relevant in the first few pages. Any recommended books, sites, etc, for basic kitchen and food know-how? I'm cooking for one (hey ladies!) if it makes a difference.
posted by sonofslim to Food & Drink (49 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Can you find someone more experienced to cook with? I was scared of the kitchen too until I watched my friends slice onions, beat eggs with a fork in a small bowl, chop a tomato properly, sautee a chicken breast...
posted by footnote at 10:18 AM on February 12, 2007

I love Alton Brown's "I'm Just Here for the Food". It's an excellent first book explaining the different cooking methods, with a few example recipes at the end of each section.

"The Joy of Cooking" provides whole chapters on preparation and storage of food. There's also an appendix of ingredients and how to use them.

If you want more science, "On Food and Cooking" is excellent. It will answer a lot of questions like how you can heat milk without making a skin on top.
posted by backseatpilot at 10:21 AM on February 12, 2007

Yep, we share your viewpoint!

A few weeks ago a friend of ours bought us a copy of the book "Delia Smiths - Complete Cookery Course" which is apparently legendary for this subject - ie Starting from the point where we are at rather than assuming anything. Just reading the Introduction made me start to relax as, like you, I prefer a rules driven approach rather than vague generalities.

Another thing we did was to buy a new cooker as we had always suffered with variable old cookers in the past. So we made a strategic investment (ended up paying £600 for a Neff) and it is really starting to pay off. Clearly new tools don't make a great cook, but the bad tool (12 year old cheap cooker) was previously stopping us from even getting past base one!

Think there are a lot of people in our position, but it seems from talking to people and being brave plus reading books like the above, we can make progress. I did my first casserole last week and it feels like a whole new world is opening up :-)

Hope this helps you on your journey....
posted by pettins at 10:25 AM on February 12, 2007

There are lots of cooking shows on tv that you can watch for basic operations, and these podcasts were just posted on the blue. For a beginner I highly recommend the America's Test Kitchen shows on PBS.
posted by tula at 10:31 AM on February 12, 2007

I'm female and love cooking now, but one of the first cookbooks I ever got was about freshman year in high school when I was just starting to spend some time in the kitchen. I *think* this is the one (redesigned since I had it): Cookbook for College Kids.

If it's indeed the one I'm thinking of, the authors approached it from talking to someone who'd just left home and whose mother used to do everything for them. They start with super simple recipes and even had instructions like "Open the oven door, use potholders to remove pan, close oven door."
posted by handful of rain at 10:37 AM on February 12, 2007

I went to the library a little while ago to check out textbooks for "professional" cooking courses, and was surprised at how basic they were.

Skip the Larousse Gastronomique, and find the ones community college students are using to learn how to make 30 club sandwiches at a go. Tomatoes sliced X thick, toasting is done like this, etc. Food storage tips. Rudimentary salad assembly instructions, with explanations of lettuce. Pictures included. I found it useless, written as it was for people like you. Presumably useful for you, then?

Spending time around people who can cook, as per footnote's advice, also sounds like an excellent idea.

If you can find things beyond ants on a log, recipes for children might not be a ridiculous idea.
posted by kmennie at 10:37 AM on February 12, 2007

Cooking for Engineers seems a good resource for you.
posted by IndigoSkye at 10:37 AM on February 12, 2007

I'd say quit worrying about it and just wade in. Half the fun of cooking for yourself is arriving at bizarre concoctions that have never graced the inside of a kitchen before -- and often they turn out to be quite edible.

Just make sure your meat is fully cooked and that you're careful with the double boiler. Everything else will sort out as you make mistakes and have to eat the results.
posted by tkolar at 10:37 AM on February 12, 2007

A lot of what you're looking for takes practice. Practice getting the feel for "how brown is brown", practice getting to know your cooking equipment, and learning what equipment might be limiting you.

For starters, just start cooking more. See if there is an adult-ed class nearby that offers a "cooking for the scared" intro class. I know what you're saying, most cookbooks assume a lot. You want a cookbook with an intro section, one that starts out by teaching the basics. I think "Joy Of Cooking" has an intro like that.

Most people who say they can't cook really mean they have no confidence that they can cook. If you can set an oven to the right temperature, set a timer, and use a thermometer, then YOU CAN COOK. Think of it like carpentry: If you can measure, cut, and nail, you can build a birdhouse. Pretty much anyone can do that.

Keep in mind I'm talking about basic cooking, enough for you to make meals that you like to eat and perhaps cook for a small group of people without being embarrassed. There is that whole other level of cooking that is more art form than anything, the place for chefs, people with a lot of experience, and people that are just gifted. It's possible you can achieve that level eventually but you should set your goals a bit lower for now. You're building a birdhouse, not doing fine woodworking.

You need to be able to learn from your mistakes and either take notes on paper or in your head. "ok, that steak was an inch thick and 10 minutes at 450 didn't cook it through... next time I'll try for 12 minutes." "Wow, when I added butter to that pan it started smoking and burning... next time I shouldn't let it heat up so much."

If you get The Food Network, start watching "Good Eats", with Alton Brown. Buy his first book, "I'm Just Here For The Food." Alton, or, AB as his fans call him, is not a chef. He's not about teaching you recipes. He teaches the science behind the food. Once you know WHY something does what it does, you get a better idea of how to control it. Why do we mix our cheesecake on a low speed, not a high speed? Why do we add an egg to this... why do we add salt to that, why should you not crowd the pan when you fry things?

I've learned more from AB than from just about anything or anybody.

Don't be afraid to cut into meat to tell if it's done. People will scream "YOU'RE GOING TO LET ALL THE JUICE OUT!" Well, no you won't. Not enough to ruin the whole steak. Get an oven thermometer.

Try focusing on one type of meal, like stir fry or roast chicken. Cook it once per week until you can do it perfectly. You'll learn a lot in the process, skills that you can incorporate into other meals.

Making omelets or other egg dishes is a good way to get a feel for your stove. You'll learn how hot certain pans can get, how to adjust the heat so you don't burn things, etc.

Start small.
posted by bondcliff at 10:37 AM on February 12, 2007

The thing to remember here is that there's not usually a "right" answer to how things must be done. If your technique doesn't quite match what the recipe author was expecting, you'll probably still come out with something tasty. If the onions are chopped instead of minced or vice versa, the final product is not going to be significantly different. Don't overthink things too much, just experiment.

Cooking for one is the best time to learn, because nobody else is depending on you for dinner. If your experiment goes incredibly badly, I'm certain a non-cook like you will have PB&J on hand and a pizza delivery guy on speed dial. And you were only making enough for one anyway, so it's not like you're out a ton of money. You'll learn from your mistakes, but honestly, it's hard to mess food up so badly that you can't eat it.

There are two minor exceptions to the "feel free to experiment" rule: baking (because the chemical reactions are important, so proper measuring and mixing technique matters) and cooking meat. With meat you can still experiment, just make sure to cook the meat to the proper temperature/doneness (to avoid food poisoning). I'm sure one of the books people will be suggesting here will tell you the specific guidelines for each kind of meat.
posted by vytae at 10:42 AM on February 12, 2007

When we were just starting out, someone gave us a copy of the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook. It was an excellent kitchen primer for us.
posted by Doohickie at 10:45 AM on February 12, 2007

(and yes, Better Homes talks about cooking meat ;-)
posted by Doohickie at 10:46 AM on February 12, 2007

Learning to cook is a learnable skill. Something to consider would to be hire a personal chef, or a cook or chef who wants to make some side money, to give you a series of cooking lessons. In order to make that more cost effective you could invite some other kitchenally challenged friends to share the costs? Make it into a social opportunity. Don't be afraid to ruin something. You will make it better the next time.
posted by SMELLSLIKEFUN at 10:48 AM on February 12, 2007

I would second Alton Brown's I'm Just Here For The Food as a great beginners cookbook. If you can find an old copy of The Joy Of Cooking then you will have a great resource to find out what a lot of old family recipes mean when they talk about "browing" etc. I'm sure the new one covers this equally well, but I find having an old copy around the house is indispensable. I think the one we have if from the late 60s or early 70s.

I also have a few "one dish" meal cookbooks at my house for quick and easy stuff that is still good. My favorite from Prevention magazine seems to be out of print.

Alton's approach is common-sense scientific, so if you like having things explained in plain language and someone defining their terms along the way, he's a great place to start.

Gigantic multi-course meals are certainly not where to start of course. :) Alton's book focuses on how to cook a particular things based on the method he discusses. Baking is one of those, and I have my favorite baked potato recipe from his book. Easier than you would ever imagine (although, I use a sauce brush to slather canola oil on my potatoes and not dip them in a bowl as he suggest - I'm all about ease of cleanup at my house).

Alton's show Good Eats has a loyal following, and you can hit the Good Eats Fan Page for transcripts of his show which included LOTS of explanations and recipes.
posted by smallerdemon at 10:50 AM on February 12, 2007

This book, Where's Mom Now That I Need Her? saved my ass when I first struck out on my own and is a great base for cooking and other "just started living on my own" type of hints.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:51 AM on February 12, 2007

IndigoSkye's link.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:54 AM on February 12, 2007

Along with Alton Brown and an older edition of Joy of Cooking, this book (and anything else) from the folks at Cooks Illustrated/America's Test Kitchen is full of good advice from simple to advanced.
posted by TedW at 11:00 AM on February 12, 2007

Best answer: Reference material is good, the books suggested so far are great, and if you have access there are some programs on TV that can help with the visuals (even PBS generally runs some cooking shows on weekend afternoons, if you don't have cable and do have a nearby public TV station). The 30-minute meal genre is not haute cuisine, but those shows are really good about making decent simple meals so you can see basic simple techniques in action. (If you get it, Jaques Pepin has a show called Fast Food My Way that is probably the best of the "quick meals" genre.)

Start out cooking things you know. If you're making tacos or lasagna, or spaghetti sauce, you probably have a pretty good idea whether the meat should be crumbled, right? And as long as you have a grasp on basic food safety (like, don't eat raw ground beef - you may need to brown a few times before you have a feel for how long it takes ground beef to stop being red/pink, but that's okay, because visually you can tell), you'll be fine.

Cooking is not a precise science at the basic and intermediate levels - once you start making hollandaise sauce, that's when you have to do it right or you've made glop, but it still looks like glop so you know it didn't work quite right. Baking is the big chemistry thing, cooking is mostly physics.

The common sense comes very quickly once you actually start putting your hands on things. There's no shame, by the way, in starting out on the semi-homemade (I call it Doctor Betty Crocker) path - use prebaked pizza crusts, curry mix, jar sauce, whatever you need in order to focus on one basic concept (cooking your own chicken to go with jarred alfredo sauce, for example) at a time until you get your legs under you.

As for the onion, you wrap the rest in plastic and put it in the fridge for later (bonus: cold onions tend to make for less eye-watering). You can probably google "onion refrigerator" if you're worried about how long. Don't hyperfocus (or panic) to the point that you can't work your head around that stuff - don't just shop for one meal, don't cook as if the recipe in your hand is your last. Make notes for later, put your leftovers away, and eventually you'll actually have room in your head to cook for several meals at once.

There are very few things you can do in the kitchen, as long as you have a healthy respect for fire and sharp blades, that will get you killed, arrested, or even a bit sick. Safety first, and then everything else is really pretty flexible.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:03 AM on February 12, 2007

Help! My Apartment Has A Kitchen is another good, basic cookbook that breaks down cooking terms to plain English. It also tells you where to find mystery ingredients in the grocery store, which was so very helpful when I first started cooking.
posted by donajo at 11:16 AM on February 12, 2007

You might want to take a trip to your local public library and poke around the 620s. That way, you can find out which authors and cookbooks make sense to you without spending a lot of money. You might even ask the reference librarian if she knows of a good beginner's cookbook.
posted by QIbHom at 11:17 AM on February 12, 2007

Best answer: Expanding on what Lyn Never says: one way to lessen panic in the kitchen is to pay attention when you eat (food that is cooked by other people, that is). Don't know how brown "brown" is? The next time you're at a restaurant or friend's house, chowing down on that burger/steak/piece of chicken etc., look at what color it is; touch it with your fingers so you can tell what the texture's like. You really know a lot more about cooking than you think you know; don't understand what the cookbook means when it says "chopped onions"? The next time you have something with chopped onions in it - tacos, a sauce, a salad - look at what size they pieces are, and think about the cooking method used, and why those two might be related. And read Alton Brown.
posted by rtha at 11:21 AM on February 12, 2007

Depending on how you learn stuff, TV shows could be much easier to learn from than books.

With all sorts of techniques, seeing someone do the thing is far more constructive than reading a description of how to do it.

(I would have never been able to butterfly a chicken without seeing it on Good Eats.)
posted by ambilevous at 11:30 AM on February 12, 2007

- Ditto Alton Brown.
- Check the library for back issues of Cook's Illustrated. A great resource for not just the "hows", but they "whys" of cooking.
- Just cook more. A lot of the questions/fears you have are from not knowing. And the best way to learn is by doing and making mistakes.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 11:30 AM on February 12, 2007

It might not be as detailed as you want, but Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything has been a great resource for me.
posted by dentata at 11:32 AM on February 12, 2007

I second Joy Of Cooking - my boyfriend now uses it often. He's found it invaluable for looking up simple stuff like "how do I cook mushrooms" or "how to grill a steak". And that means yay for me - I get a meal cooked for me!

FWIW, I think JOC has much more information on technique than Bittman's How to Cook Everything, which I also have.
posted by twiki at 11:37 AM on February 12, 2007

Seems like some great advice in this thread. I just wanted to chime in to say that I find Mark Bittman's Books to be very valuable resources for this sort of thing. Check out How to Cook Everything or perhaps, The Basics as alternatives and/or supplements to The Joy of Cooking.

PS: If you do buy How to Cook Everything, buy the hardcover. The book is simply too unwieldly to be a paperback, and it won't hold up. Trust me.
posted by theantikitty at 11:38 AM on February 12, 2007

Oops. Scooped by dentata.
posted by theantikitty at 11:38 AM on February 12, 2007

People have mentioned Cook's Illustrated but haven't really gone into detail about why it's so good for someone in your situation--they take nothing for granted whatsoever. They'll explain exactly what size pieces of meat should be; which pan you should be using from your arsenal and why; how long a given task will take. They almost always give measurements for things like salt and pepper (whereas many other cookbooks just say "to taste"). Their recipes are extensively tested, sometimes to the point of utter obsession ("we made 300 cheesecakes"), so you can be sure they won't go horribly wrong on you. And they do great, complete product reviews to boot--you'll gradually become knowledgeable about how to stock your pantry and your cabinets.

Another cookbook author I find good for beginners is Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa. She's also really good about providing exact measurements and times--probably because she comes from a catering background where the chef has to give detailed instructions to partially-trained-lackeys.
posted by bcwinters at 12:03 PM on February 12, 2007

I was in a similar boat. Two friendly MeFites bought me a gift certificate for a one night cooking course. I was very nervous but the course went well and I felt very comfortable afterward. The course was at Dish in Toronto

Incidentally, one of the dishes we made in that course was a Raw Food dish. I loved making it because, once the element of heat was removed, I was very relaxed and could work at my own pace. I now "cook" very regularly--all raw dishes and have even thrown four course dinner parties for 10 people that went extremely well and people often request my dishes and desserts when I go to parties or gatherings.

So: 1) try taking an intro cooking course (I've also since taken dessert courses, knife skills courses, etc.) and 2) try a style of cooking that eliminates whatever it is that makes you nervous about the kitchen (for me, without knowing it, that was the heat--which imposes a time element).

If you're interested in Raw food, this book is stellar. Without exageration, it changed my life for the better. There are other great raw books but this is still my fave. Note, however, that for many raw food dishes, you'll need a *really* good blender or food processor. Preferably both. A dehydrator is also useful. (I haven't used a stove/oven in close to a year.)
posted by dobbs at 12:04 PM on February 12, 2007

I love food; I love pots and pans and knives, of which I have dozens and hundreds (don't even ask me about china); I love food storage vessels and I have a very extensive collection of glass and stainless steel examplars of these from the 40s, 50s, and early 60s (before the era of plastic lids); I have many cookbooks and food books from about the last fifty years that I enjoy reading; and I love my kitchen.

But I am a terrible cook. I have never been able to set a number dishes in motion, weave together the necessary tasks of preparation, and have it all arrive at the table at the same time no matter how often I try.

So, don't be afraid, just plunge ahead-- you can have a terrific time in there without being any good at it (as with certain other rooms in the house I won't mention here), but if you insist on being able to produce something people will exclaim over (sincerely), try baking, both casseroles and pastry. All you have to do is follow the rules, which are number intensive and very fully laid out in general, and you will probably amaze yourself, gratify your friends, and dumbfound your detractors.
posted by jamjam at 12:44 PM on February 12, 2007

There's a lot of good advice here. When I was learning to cook, I would have loved to have someone beam down and tell me everything I needed to know in order not to have a disappointing result the first time I cooked something. To me, it seemed like there were so many ways to make something that was not quite delicious -- and I didn't even know where to begine finding out.

Start with a few things you really like a lot, and/or that work great for your lifestyle. Your favorite cut of steak, favorite kind of chicken, number one salad, top one or two vegetables, your idea of a delicious pasta, a simple desert that always hits your spot, something you'd want to eat with a guest at your place. Do those till you're happy with them.

Your sources for the details should be any/all of the suggestions given in this thread. Ask experienced good cooks; see what Alton Brown says; own a few of the books and compare what they say. Also, look for a few recipes on line for the same thing, and notice how they differ. And, nerdy though it may be, make notes when you learn something. "This burns on high heat. Use half the salt. Needed more time than indicated."

I'm suggesting you start with a smallish set of dishes so that you can get successful early on and enjoy the cooking and eating as soon as possible. A lot of people have certain 'keepers' that they cook regularly for years. Some of mine date back to my earliest efforts.
posted by wryly at 12:51 PM on February 12, 2007

When I started uni one of my housemates was in your exact position. Her experience of cooking was limited cooking to opening packets! Then she had to share a kitchen with me and another housemate - we were cooking things from scratch.

At that point she was intrigued. She was asking for measurements for things like a pinch of salt. No idea - still couldn't tell you what my pinches equate to or how much oil I drizzle over my salad...I learned to cook by watching my family cook and by trial and error...

In the end my housemate compromised. She found our instructions lacking in detail. Nevertheless she felt inspired, had a go and learned to cook maybe 5 or 6 basic dishes she enjoyed. She used spice mixes and sauce jars. Unfortunately she never did get the confidence/had the inclination to try to expand on her somewhat limited new range.

My point is this - if 'general' instructions worry you by all means start with detailed & prescriptive books. Once you have got a bit of experience and gainded some confidence I would however urge you to try different things :) Much more fun.

Second the suggestion to pay attention to what you eat and what others eat when you are out and about. Make a note of nice smells, textures, colours etc. Touch food. Taste things when you have the opportunity. People always note food they don't like but could not nescessarily tell you what they enjoyed about a dish...

As a side note - I can't stand Delia Smith, never mind how fool proof or otherwise her method of boiling an egg is...when you see her cook on TV she looks as if she hates handling food! If you don't enjoy cooking how can you teach others to cook and to enjoy it?!
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:12 PM on February 12, 2007

These book recommendations seem great, but getting back to that odd half-onion:
1. if you really like onions, chop it up and throw it into whatever you're making. Or chop it up as a garnish/condiment for whatever you're making.
2. use a small onion to begin with. (By small, I mean the same size as a golf ball or a baseball, smaller than a softball. If all these sports comparisons aren't useful to you, bigger than an apricot, but smaller than a naval orange.
3. as suggested above, save it. Cut the onion in half (and usually that means along its equator, rather than through the poles), wrap up cut surface of the bit you aren't using with wax paper or plastic wrap, chuck it into a tupperware or recycled plastic take-out tub, and refrigerate. You could do this even before you peel the onion.
posted by janell at 1:21 PM on February 12, 2007

One time as a kid, mom was away or sick, dad didn't want to make my eggs for me, and I didn't think I knew how to do it (had never done it before). My dad said "put them in the pan, when they look like something you want to eat, take them out."

Browning meat is the same, you've seen lots of browned meat before and you know generally what it looks like. Break it up as small as you want. Brown it as dark as you want. For an onion - put the whole thing in, or save the other half, or throw it in the trash - who cares - just don't be scared of it. You'll do fine.

It's not rocket science - you'll screw up sometimes and make good food other times. If something turns out terrible, go out for chinese or have a bowl of cereal instead, and try it differently next time.
posted by putril at 1:52 PM on February 12, 2007

I can't believe I am suggesting this, because I think her recipes are pretty dull, but I think that a new cook can learn a lot about technique watching Rachael Ray's 30 Minute Meals on Food Network. I love Alton Brown, too, but I think for a total newbie he delves a little too deeply into each topic.

30 Minute Meals is great because you can watch an entire meal be assembled in ... 30 minutes. She doesn't use a ton of ingredients, and almost never a "weird" ingredient, so the recipes are really attainable. She is pretty annoying, IMO, but I do think she makes cooking very approachable, and it is a fantastic show to help you not fear the kitchen. Once you get used to cooking I think the show is pretty worthless, but I definitely got a lot out of it a few years ago.

I think the cooking shows are more useful than books if you have no clue what you're doing, because the show will show you exactly what "brown" should look like, or how to chop an onion. On 30 minute meals you can watch the food cook in front of you and gauge how long things really ought to take.
posted by gatorae at 2:05 PM on February 12, 2007

Just to help you overthink this stuff even more: there are two different ways to cut an onion. If you're going to make onion rings or chopped onion, you'll be cutting it through its equator; if you're going to use it in a stirfry or curry, you probably want to halve it pole to pole, then cut the halves into segments parallel to the veins rather than across them.

Rule 1 of beginner cooking: cooking is just adding heat to food. It's not hard.

Rule 2: If you have no idea what you want to make, start by frying an onion, then see what you feel like adding to it.
posted by flabdablet at 2:55 PM on February 12, 2007

Small librarian note: cookbooks are in Dewey range 641, not 620. At least in the US.
posted by exceptinsects at 3:07 PM on February 12, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone's responses so far have been great! I already feel like less of a cartoon bachelor.
posted by sonofslim at 3:49 PM on February 12, 2007

Two years I was exactly where you are now. I learned from TV. Specifically I recorded and watched repeatedly the PBS programs America's Test Kitchen (a production of Cook's Illustrated) and Everyday Food (from Martha Stewart, but she *never* appears) and Tyler Florence's shows on the Food Network: How to Boil Water and Tyler's Ultimate. (I'm sure I could have leared much from Ms. Ray, but ohmylord, the perkiness, I just couldn't take it.)

Once I got some basics down, then I could appreciate Alton Brown, who is, of course, God.
posted by mojohand at 4:19 PM on February 12, 2007

Best answer: Seconding How to Cook Everything. Joy of Cooking is a good one to have as a reference, but it's light on pictures and a lot of the recipes are more old-fashioned than you're realistically going to make.

Also seconding the advice that you need to learn through trial and error. I would get a cheapish nonstick pot and a cheapish nonstick pan, a wooden spoon, and a silicon spatula (it won't melt when you forget and leave it in the pan). You can wreck these things in the 6 months when you're learning the basics, and not worry about it too much.

Some general tips:
1. Don't leave the stove on when you're out of the room, until you have the hang of how long things take to boil etc.

2. If you have gas stove, keep flammable things like papertowels away from it. Don't try to put out a fire with flour!! One of my housemates after college did that - bad news.

3. Don't cook on the highest heat setting of your burners. It's very rare that you would need to.

4. Stovetop on + empty pot on burner = bad. This includes if there's water that boils off entirely.

5. Don't store pots etc on the stovetop. Some older ovens (only electric?) vent through one of the burners on the stovetop. So you can be caught by surprise if you leave pots on the stove for storage and use the oven -- see #4. Also, if there are pots on the stove, I've found I am more likely to leave a burner on.

6. Know where your fire alarm is and how to disable and re-arm it, if you have to. Know how to work your vent fan (a fan over the stovetop to take away cooking fumes/smoke).

7. Learn the basics of handling meat safely (how much to cook it etc). Whatever surfaces and implements you use to chop meat, be sure to wash with hot water and soap.

8. As flabdablet says, learn to sautee chopped onion and you are well on your way to hundreds of tasty simple dishes.
Basics to learn first, IMO:
- how to make rice (tip: Don't use Uncle Ben's or other partly precooked rice. Get a plastic bag of long or medium grain white rice from the Mexican/Indian section of your supermarket. Follow directions. Then keep the lid on the pot until the end, even though you are tempted to look and stir!)
- how to cook pasta (tip: only add pasta to water that is already boiling or it will be mushy and terrible. The more water you can use the better, even though it takes longer to boil. Different kinds of pasta take radically different amounts of time to cook - follow package directions, or cut the time they suggest a little shorter. A bit undercooked is better than overcooked, with pasta.)
- how to cook eggs at least one way you like
- how to sautee onions and garlic, the basis for various tomato sauces, stir-fry, chili, etc.
- how to steam veggies (easy, fast, keeps the nutrients and flavor in them)

And, because I couldn't resist looking, here are a few treats from the AskMe vaults...basic ingredients; good things to put on top of rice; a million soup recipes; how to make a great stir-fry; cooking and shopping for one; which herbs to use when; fresh, canned, frozen etc veggies; how to clean cooked egg off pans; how to wash dishes and kitchen implements; what to cook when you're tired.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:28 PM on February 12, 2007

Ditto on Alton Brown's book. Also watch his show Good Eats.
posted by radioamy at 7:00 PM on February 12, 2007

I sit corrected, exceptinsects. You are correct - cookbooks are in the 641s. It has obviously been way too long since I moved from ref to automation.

(sonofslim, the only true cooking disaster I've seen is when my brother attempted to make a hard boiled egg without water or a pot, on an electric stove. Even that could have been saved had I not tried to save the day by removing the nicely browning egg from the red hot burner with metal tongs. You will do better.)
posted by QIbHom at 7:57 PM on February 12, 2007

Response by poster: QIbHom, in high school I set fire to the kitchen drapes while attempting to make french toast -- don't ask me how, I still can't figure it out. Years later when I was allowed back in my parents' kitchen, my brother and I tried to make cookies for the family. We were out of some ingedients so we substituted baking soda for baking powder and... this hurts to say... eggnog for eggs.

He's since given up on cooking altogether and married a chef.
posted by sonofslim at 8:27 PM on February 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

From one rules-loving brain to another:

You know how, when non-technical people are scared they'll blow up the computer by touching it, our first instinct is to explain to them rationally that they don't need to be scared, but we also sympathize because we understand that anything totally foreign is inherently scary? It's the same here: people are giving very rational advice but we also sympathize with kitchen-as-alternate-universe.

Luckily, the kitchen is even more forgiving. Like all of us, you will mess up; you will make ridiculous messes all over your counters; and you will improvise at least one horrible, horrible sauce. And it won't hurt anything. Just have fun, experiment, & remember foods don't need to be perfect to taste great.
posted by allterrainbrain at 8:56 PM on February 12, 2007

Learn this now, from the beginning: clean up as you go. If you're standing around just stirring something from time to time, or anxiously watching through the little oven window, wash a thing or two and put it away. Now. Nothing is more discouraging from cooking things than thinking of the huge mess you had to clean up afterwards last time. And, if you're like me, a disorganized mess of a workspace makes it hard to think.
posted by ctmf at 11:00 PM on February 12, 2007

sonofslim, I didn't mention the time my brother set fire to the kitchen making Mom breakfast in bed (he put the toast in the toaster, went to take one of his 1.5 hour showers, and it malfunctioned). He was 24 then, I think.

So, keep a box of Arm and Hammer (unlike you, I have to look up the difference between baking soda and baking powder every time, because I haven't made that mistake yet) around to throw on kitchen fires, and you are all set. You learned about eggnog, and I'll bet you never confuse baking soda and baking powder again. Great! There are worse things in life than a batch of inedible cookies (for example the time I tried to pull taffy by myself, dropped the batch on the floor and tried to get it off by using a flat head screwdriver as a chisel, and a hammer).

ctmf is totally right about cleaning up as you go. And I recently heard my brother has taken up cooking as a hobby (I suggested to Mom that she increase her house insurance).
posted by QIbHom at 5:23 AM on February 13, 2007

When I had my own kitchen for the first time and was learning to cook, my 1975 Joy of Cooking was my best friend. Particularly the "Know Your Ingredients" section in the middle.

I now have a subscription to Cook's Illustrated, and I love it. Love. It.

So I'm seconding those two, and adding to the good-luck wishes.
posted by Pallas Athena at 7:08 AM on February 13, 2007

I'm kind of in the same boat as you, only slightly further down the path from "WTF? It says brown meat but this is pink" to "Oh this? I just whipped up a 7 course meal, no biggie." Only slightly. (I'm still somewhat terrified) Here's a few things I've learned:

One thing that helps is knowing that if I do screw up, I can always go get pizza.

Also, I hate the Rachael Ray cookbook we have because it's very vague and a lot of steps are implied. I think you would hate it too since you want clear instructions.

Oh, and get those Food Network shows on DVD or TiVo so you can pause and rewind them. Nothing is worse than "wait, what just happened there" when you're trying to learn a recipe.
posted by revgeorge at 9:20 AM on February 13, 2007

I'm like you [I think] and two things have helped me.

1) Someone gave me a cookbook, New Food Fast by Donna Hay. It was a cookbook with beautiful pictures of every dish. If you aren't a food person naturally, finding something to cook from normal cookbooks is really hard because you aren't really clear on flavors or the whole "language of food." The pictures really saved me. It also helped me know what the final product was supposed to look like so I could sort of reverse-engineer what I was doing. Also Donna Hay is Australian so she would literally reference things that do not exist and I'd have to come up with something else. This should have sucked, but it taught me that I could screw up and still have good food. Or at least edible food. And that's sort of the secret to cooking- making changes to make something your own. However, please note that the pictures are the star of the show and the actual instructions can be vague, and the language-barrier can be annoying. "What is a 'rasher' of bacon? I don't know but it better be a strip because that's all I have" But I can't begin to tell you how much it changed my life to have the right cookbook for inspiration.

2) I tivo-ed a few episodes of America's Test Kitchen. They really don't assume a lot of knowledge. Also, since their whole premise is exploring all the variations of a recipe or product to find the "best" it helped me learn some of the basic chemistry of cooking and even "lifehack" tips like how to chop an onion.

Both things helped me get less hung up on process and just get comfortable with what was going on. It will still sometimes take me forever to cook something because I have to read the instructions and look at the picture 10 times. And I frequently overcook meat. But I'm getting better.
posted by Mozzie at 4:28 PM on February 14, 2007

« Older Finicky feeder   |   Lawyer's duties upon notice of possible crime Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.