It’s time to admit this - I’m not a great cook. It takes me forever to chop an onion. I use boxed ingredients. I’ve burnt more things than I can count, and made meals my dog refused to eat.
Now, people ask me to cook for them. They request my ‘specialties’ at parties and potlucks. I’ve also gone from fast food addict to meal prep superstar.
No, I haven’t morphed into a killer chef by any chance. Instead, I’ve just managed to pick up a few tips and techniques that allow me to fake it. Here are some of them.
My first real efforts at cooking were driven by financial necessity. Basically, I couldn’t afford eating out or ordering too often So, I decided I would take some of my restaurant favorites and try to replicate them.
My first attempt was this Pad Thai recipe. It was complicated. I had to go to three stores to find everything I needed. It was also a surprising success. That gave me the confidence I needed to try other recipes.
I have several cooking websites bookmarked. I check out various cooking channels on social media, and have an email folder just for cooking stuff. Not only have I learned to cook a bit better, my palate has improved. Now, when I taste food I can make a mental list of the different herbs and spices I detect. Between that and recipes, I can do a serviceable job at replicating many dishes.
Cooking is a high impact, sensory experience. Sometimes intimidatingly so. For me, this led to a bit of timidity. I didn’t cook over high heat, because I feared burning something. I held back on seasonings because I was afraid the food would be too salty or spicy. What I got from that was insipid, boring food.
There’s a reason that restaurant food tastes so good. The cooks use salt, and they aren’t shy with it. They sear meat in order to get the Maillard reaction. This leads to food that is ‘golden brown and delicious’. So, turn up your heat and get some color on your food. It seriously turns up the flavor. The same goes for roasting in the oven. Higher temperature caramelizes meat and vegetables.
Mise en place is a French term that roughly translates to ‘everything in its place’.
Have you ever noticed that the cooks on Food Network have their ingredients cut up as they need them and divided into different bowls? That’s mise en place.
By preparing like this, you know that you have all of the ingredients you need. I know from experience that there’s not much worse than getting halfway through a recipe with food on a hot stove only to realize you don’t have a key ingredient.
This is also a great trick for those of us who aren’t so good at multitasking. By doing the prep work first, you can focus on cooking when the time comes. I’ve burnt enough food while trying to slice and dice the next ingredient to know that I cannot successfully split my focus.
Now this trick may not help you to produce the kind of food that you’d want to serve to a date. It can help you make cheap, easy food a bit tastier and healthier. This is also a great way to experiment with flavors. Here are a few of my fast, goto favorites that I still make today:
- ‘Souped up’ Ramen With Mixed Vegetables, Miso Paste, Soy, or Hot Sauce
- Homemade Vodka Sauce With Jarred Red Sauce a Shot of Vodka And Splash of Cream
- Healthy Mac And Cheese With Real Cheese, Tuna or Chicken, And Frozen Peas
- Frozen Pizza Loaded With Sauteed Vegetables
- Fortified Canned Soup With Extra Beans And Veggies
- Boxed And Bagged Noodle And Rice Dishes With Frozen Vegetables, Beans, and Lean Protein
Don’t be afraid to experiment with various seasonings either. You can’t make convenience foods perfect, but you can boost the flavor, fiber, protein, and vitamin content.
No, you don’t need to go the near store and spend hundreds of dollars on cooking equipment. What you should do is pay attention to quality when you buy a few items. First, purchase a decent chef’s knife. They are versatile and worth the money. Remember that a sharp, well-made knife is a safer knife.
Next, think about the kitchen equipment you will need to accomplish your cooking goals. If you’re a breakfast person, The Juzz recommends choosing a nonstick pan just for cooking eggs. Other equipment you will appreciate having is a cast iron skillet, slow cooker, large pot for soups and pasta, and a small pot for side dishes. Consider investing in a decent set of bakeware as well. Add some serving spoons and spatulas and you should be good to go.
As you get more experience, you can start looking at more specialty equipment. Depending on where your tastes lean, you might consider a panini press, rice cooker, crockpot, stand mixer, or other gadgets. If smoothies are your thing, consider a blender as well.
I firmly believe that the most impressive home cooks have a varied repertoire. It is worth the time to practice and master some standard dishes that you can whip up to impress others. Here are a few I recommend learning:
- Making a roast chicken dinner
- Baking a cake and a pie
- Making potluck friendly dessert
- Whipping up a quick stir fry
- Grilling a steak
- Making at least two vegetarian friendly options
- Mastering a stove top and a baked pasta dish
- Throwing together a salad with a homemade vinaigrette
- Making a filling and honey casserole or soup
- Fixing eggs in multiple ways
If you can master these, you will have something to cook and bring for any occasion. You’ll also be able to stock your fridge with a variety of foods as many of these are great meal prep options.
You’ve worked really hard to make a great dish. You taste it, and it’s bland. So, you grab the salt shaker and start sprinkling. You taste it again. Now, it’s too salty.
What happened? Seasoning is something you should do as you cook. The difference between salty food and well-seasoned food isn’t just the amount of seasoning you use. It’s also the timing. By salting and tasting as you cook, you use salt as a tool to build and extract flavors.
That isn’t to say you can’t use salt at the end. In fact, consider experimenting with pink or gray salt to finish off steaks and other dishes.
It’s no fun cooking if you constantly worry about slicing a finger, burning yourself, or getting food poisoning. Learn the basics of food safety and a few techniques for making cooking a bit safer. Here’s a list of things I own and have learned.
- This great food safety guide is a must read.
- A food chopper that allows me to dice onions and other items quickly without cutting myself
- A mandolin with guard to get perfectly uniform slices
- A food thermometer to ensure that everything is cooked safely without being overdone
- A fairly expensive set of oven mitts and hot pads
- A splatter guard for deep frying
Another piece of equipment that I cannot recommend enough is a fire extinguisher. The ones they make today are small, portable, and well worth the money. I’ve never used mine, but I am definitely glad it is there.
For me, nothing builds confidence like following a great recipe and having it turn out perfectly. Once I do that, I begin to experiment. For example, I might substitute asparagus for green beans in a vegetable saute. I might substitute some decidedly Mediterranean spices and chicken in a pasta dish with some southwestern spices and beans.
Recently, I was cooking several items at once and needed every burner on my stove. I was also cooking a beef roast with potatoes and carrots. Instead of having that take up space on my stove, I browned everything, added liquid, and through it in a casserole in a low oven. In just a few hours it was tender and delicious.
Have you ever wondered why a plate of fried fish or shrimp often comes with a lemon wedge or malt vinegar? That’s because the acid balances out the fattiness of a deep fried dish. On the other hand, a bit of honey or sugar can can mellow sharp or tangy flavors. Fats make food unctuous and gives them good mouth feel. Check out the flavor star. This provides a great explanation of the different flavor elements as well as the science behind them.
There are so many reasons to start cooking. You don’t need to be an expert to save money, eat better, or impress your friends. Just learn a few techniques, be willing to experiment and learn from your mistakes, and purchase some basic equipment.