If you’re started the journey of becoming someone who can cook, sometimes it can be daunting. If you have no idea where to start, or are in a cooking rut, here are some tips for you:
1. Pay attention to what you eat. One of the best ways to hone your cooking skills is to hone your tasting skills. When you’re at a restaurant eating a meal, pay attention to what they put on it. Especially when there are combinations you might not have thought of. Some flavor combinations are obvious, like pesto tasting good on pasta. But think of all the weird combinations out there: ham and pineapple, chicken and waffles, even peanut butter and jelly is weird if you think about it. Notice things like that and ask yourself why someone thought to try to use those combinations–and maybe you can use them too. When eating at a friend’s house, ask them how they make their pasta salad, or hummus. Cooking is like writing. You can’t write well unless you read. You can’t cook well unless you taste and really pay attention to food.
2. Think about balancing the flavors. Once you’ve begun to be more aware of different flavors, you can start to think about how to balance them, and begin to have an understanding why flavor combinations work (like peanut butter and jelly=salty sweet). The main flavors you will come across are salt, acid (citrus, vinegars), sweet, and bitter (cabbage!). Every great dish is about balancing at least three of those and helping them to be in perfect harmony with one another. If you’ve ever baked a batch of cookies and been surprised to see that there was a tablespoon of salt in there, this is why. Because you have to balance. When you’re beginning your journey as a cook, and you taste something you’ve made, and it isn’t working out (happens to the best of us), ask yourself what the dominant flavor is, and then think of a counter point. If it’s too sweet add salt. Too salty add sweet. Too tangy add some bitter. Too bitter add some acid.
3. Start with basic recipes. As tempting as it is to flip through some recipes and announce “I am going to make Coq Au Vin! Or handmade raviolis!” resist the urge. Start with recipes that have a very basic amount of ingredients. Pasta is a good place to start. Make a pasta sauce and maybe saute some mushrooms and onions to go in the sauce. Don’t make the pasta from scratch! Keep your first recipes under 10 ingredients. Better yet, under five. Learn to juggle that much in the kitchen before you push for more adventurous stuff. If you don’t, you may get discouraged on your first go around.
4. Cook the kind of stuff you normally eat. This again speaks to the urge you might have to try some fancy stuff early. But, if you cook the sort of things that you normally eat there are lots of ways this can help you. You might be able to find healthier alternatives for things you normally buy prepackaged. You know how it should taste, so you can play with it a little bit more confidently, and you will most likely be able to make a recipe that is similar to your normal diet if you make it with stuff you already have in the fridge. Don’t buy a whole thing of coconut milk just because you really want to try to make Thai curry soup. Unless you frequently eat Thai curry soup, or know exactly what you’re going to do with the leftover coconut milk. Instead, if you eat macaroni and cheese a lot, try starting there. You most likely have pasta and cheese on hand.
The best tip for beginning to cook is don’t get discouraged. Use every failed dish as a learning opportunity. Eat and don’t think “That was gross! I suck at cooking!” instead think “This isn’t as good as I would like…what could I add to it/take away from it to make it better?”