Let’s Dish: Advice for the kitchen novice

by Amy Flanigan on January 27, 2009 · 12 comments

I believe anyone can cook. Of course, as with anything, practice makes perfect. A lot of people think cooking is difficult, and thus it becomes a chore. It’s actually quite easy, especially if you have a recipe in front of you to follow. And cooking, unlike baking, is very forgiving.

Ironically, I used to be one of those people who thought cooking was hard, or required way too much effort. It wasn’t too long ago that I would have been happy eating cereal for dinner. And actually, what’s so wrong with that? But I digress…

Here are some of my guiding principles:

• Don’t try a brand new recipe if you are in a hurry or have very limited time.

• If spending a few extra dollars to get pre-cut broccoli or pre-washed mushrooms will save you 20 minutes preparing the meal, do it! (It’s still significantly cheaper than eating out.)

• Assemble and prep all of the ingredients BEFORE you start cooking. This makes the process smoother and faster.

• Remember that you can always add, but you cannot take away. For instance, if you’re not quite sure how spicy you want the dish to be, add only half the spicy ingredient that the recipe calls for, then taste it. You can always add more.

These principles are closely related to tips on being more efficient in the kitchen, but they’re meant to serve as a guide to encourage a beginner. Thinking back to when you first started cooking, what was helpful to you – the perfect utensil? Finding a grocery store with specialty items? An all-purpose cookbook? Experimenting with different seasonings? Safety & sanitation tips?

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Chaya July 27, 2009 at 4:56 pm

What helps me is to get out all my equipment and ingredients before I take one step in the recipe. As I use each one, I put it on another counter so I know it is in the recipe. For me, organization is the key to whatever success I have.

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Jennifer January 30, 2009 at 1:54 pm

I like to have recipes that come with pictures, so I have an idea of what the dish is supposed to look like.

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Jan Winning January 29, 2009 at 4:08 pm

Another hint….go for the Internet !!!

I find I use my cookbooks less and less..just look up a recipe on line and you will get lost of different varieties and along with commentaries.

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Paul January 28, 2009 at 2:09 pm

Have someone in your life who knows how to cook.

Works for me every time.

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Scott January 28, 2009 at 1:24 pm

Have a back-up! Trying that new Thai dish could prove to be a disaster, and leave you very hungry. I always have a simple sandwich or mac and cheese ready to go in case I screw up. And that’s a lot.

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Amy January 28, 2009 at 1:14 pm

Timing is an issue for most people, including me. Maybe that’s why “one-pot” meals are such a hit…

Before you begin with any recipe, read through it thoroughly, and configure how long it takes to prep each item – even take notes! And, yes, do a little math. How long does it take to bake the meatloaf? And how long does it take to make the mashed potatoes? Can I peel the potatoes while the chicken is cooking, or do I need to do that beforehand? And don’t be in such a rush to get every item on the stove at the same time. If the broccoli only takes 10 minutes, but the entree takes 30, then the broccoli needs to wait patiently for 20 minutes. (It’s that ugly math again!)

And, again, get everything “into position” before you start – equipment, utensils, ingredients, etc. This helps with timing and preventing stress.

I’ve gotten a lot better at making sure the veggies aren’t mushy because I’m still waiting for something else to be done. The more you cook, the less this will be a problem because you learn how long it takes you to do things. Some people can cut an onion in 3 minutes, while others will struggle with it for 10. (Of course, this too, gets easier with practice.)

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Carol January 28, 2009 at 11:40 am

Excellent advice, especially assembling and prepping ingredients and starting with half of a spicy ingredient. Beginners should also give themselves permission to fail. When I first started making homemade bread, I made every conceivable mistake possible! Persistence paid off, however because I now know what not to do. Following simple recipes (as the ones on your site) and your suggestions for the kitchen novice should give confidence to new cooks.

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Rachel January 28, 2009 at 10:59 am

A friend of mine bought me “The Best Recipe” by Cook’s Illustrated, and that has been my inspiration and food bible ever since. As long as you can follow a recipe, you’ll make awesome food. I would say that most of my cooking comes out of that book, and it’s proven to be the one thing that made me more confident in my cooking.

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Mike January 28, 2009 at 9:38 am

All good suggestions, Amy. The thing I always have trouble with is getting everything to be done at the same time. Seems like whenever I try to make a couple different dishes for dinner, one of them ends up being cold because, despite my attempt at planning, one element of the dinner was done way early or way late. Any suggestions?

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Sarah January 28, 2009 at 9:11 am

Find a mentor or someone who inspires you! Amy, you’ve gotten me interested to get reacquainted with my kitchen.

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Lisa January 28, 2009 at 6:15 am

I remember buying the “The Joy of Cooking” when I first started. I now have more specific cookbooks, but it was a great reference then and still is today.

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Carrie January 27, 2009 at 10:18 pm

Invest in a good set of knives.

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