A newcomer’s guide to the world of cooking, designed to elaborate on some basic skills and help you avoid silly beginner’s mistakes.
It’s not really important what kind of person you are or what kind of life you lead. We all have to feed ourselves on a daily basis for as long as we live, so why not learn how to make the experience as fun and delicious as possible. I know the task of learning how to cook can feel a bit overwhelming, especially if previous attempts have not turned out the way you’d hoped. Most YouTube channels and cooking shows still manage to fool us viewers by making the most intricate dishes look easy, and one quickly falls for the temptation to try something beyond one’s capabilities.
But don’t let such an experience hold you back and prevent you from becoming a decent and confident home cook (or whatever you desire to become in the long run). To help you initiate that glorious new phase of culinary explorations, I have compiled a list of essential tips to guarantee you a flying start in the kitchen. If you’re already an established home chef, great, but I guess this article will probably not cut it for you (sorry). However, if after a year of increased at-home time, you still opt for delivery service on a daily basis, you might find this guide useful.
As is the case with so many things in life, you do have to make a small investment before you can actually get started. But lucky for you, I’ve broken the necessary equipment down to the absolute minimum.
- Chef knife: pretty much a must if you want to be as efficient as possible in your preparations. I know they can sometimes look intimidating, but don’t shy away from getting accustomed to a large chef’s knife. A heavy blade significantly reduces the effort it takes you to chop down firm root vegetables for instance. And rather than going for the most expensive one you can find, do think about buying a sharpener. While I advise using a heavy blade for most of your basic preparations, the damage you can do with a blunt knife is horrifying.
- Cutting board: pretty much self-explanatory!
- Pans and pots: two of each should get you through most of your cooking. Do be careful however to get non-stick pans and don’t underestimate the amount of support it gives you in controlling the texture of your ingredients when frying. Similarly, a casserole dish is a great investment for all you lazy chefs out there. A container that allows you to slow-cook stews and sauces over several hours without a care in the world.
- Wooden spoon and plastic spatula: one for poking and stirring in your food (after all, we don’t want to damage our new pans), the other to clean out any remains from empty bowls and pots. The latter is especially helpful to make sure you don’t waste anything.
- Roasting tray: do make sure to get one that can also endure direct heat, which will allow you to use it both on the stove and in the oven. So, don’t go for glass or chinaware, even if you think it looks better. Functionality clearly trumps aesthetics in this case!
- Sieve: cheap to buy, yet versatile in use! This one comes in very handy each time you need to use flour in a recipe and want to make sure that you end up with a smooth batter or dough.
- Blender: you may question whether this is an essential, but if you lack confidence in your fine chopping skills, this small tool may save your life (or finger). And again, great for lazy home cooks who don’t want to use brute force to grind everything down in a pestle and mortar.
Just like there is a number of basic tools that you will use almost every single time you get behind the stove, there are a few ingredients which are close to indispensable. Again, just the very essentials, but an important selection nevertheless.
- Salt: a big revelation, I know. Do make sure that you have at least two kinds ready at the go. Coarse salt for seasoning of cooking water, and fine salt for your ingredients. Personally, I advise against using dispensers when it comes to salt. An open container where you grab a pinch is better, because it allows you to both feel and see more clearly how much you’re adding. The fine dispensers often make it quite hard to control the amount that is coming out. Plus, once used above a steamy pan, chances are high your salt just sticks together.
- Pepper: again, great to have more than one option at your disposal. If you opt to get a refillable dispenser instead of the ready-made ones, you’re able to create your own mixture according to your own taste. And do get some whole black peppercorns! If you fry them of lightly in a dry pan, you release an amazing aroma into your kitchen. Simply crush them with a heavy pan afterwards, and use them as a final topping on your pasta dishes.
- Oil: don’t be cheap when it comes to good quality oil. Do makes sure to try a few varieties and see which one speaks to you the most. While olive and sesame oil are great for salads, a neutral one like vegetable or sunflower oil is better suited for frying ingredients at a high temperature and over longer periods of time.
- Vinegar: again, something where you chose according to your own taste. Some are sweeter, some are sharper. Do see that you have two at your disposal, a light and a darker one, makes for better optics depending on your final dish!
- Garlic and onions: both flavour carriers and flavour enhancers. Easy to store in a dark cupboard, and considering the frequency at which both of them are used in most recipes, it is in my experience best to always have them in stock. Plus, onions are perfect for practising your knife skills. When it comes to garlic, do yourself a favour, and always remove the core before adding to a dish. It’s very easy to do and helps you avoid that bad aftertaste. Simply chop off the bottom of a clove and cut in half lengthways. Both halves of the core will more than likely just fall out.
Start at your local grocery store
When it comes to deciding on what you want to cook, I highly advise that before you start looking up recipes, you first go to your trusted grocery store. Do get accustomed to the ingredients that you’re actually able to get there! While there are some elements that you can often easily substitute with an alternative (lemon juice instead of white wine vinegar for instance), some ingredients require very specific preparations. For example, if you plan on slow-cooking meat, do make sure that you can get an adequate cut at your local store. Don’t buy a steak for that purpose, or you’ll probably end up with a very rubbery result. When it comes to the centre piece of your dish, you don’t want to fool around too much, trust me!
However, this does not mean that you should forever shy away from any recipe that might require an ingredient or two that you can’t get at your local food store. If you’re really adamant about a certain dish, do take it as an incentive to explore more specialised shops and you eventually find what you need!
Work your way up
A good way of developing a firm stance in the kitchen is to start by picking one particular ingredient, and trying to learn all different preparation methods there are for it. In my opinion, eggs are perfect for that purpose! Relatively cheap to buy and so versatile in use. Do start with something easy like frying an egg in a pan, before working your way up to scrambled or poached. You quickly learn a number of techniques along the way, as well as what it means to control heat (thinking about your first hollandaise here). An don’t shy away from recipes that only require egg white or yolk. Once separated, save the rest in the fridge and look up a dish that only requires the half you’re left with. For instance, a French meringue only requires whites and a bit of sugar, making them a quick and stress-free desert.
Don't be afraid of the stove
Finally, I leave you with one of the best tips I’ve ever received when it comes to cooking: don’t be afraid of the stove! People who still lack confidence in the kitchen tend to shy away from high heat, boiling water in a pot, or bubbling oil in a pan. However, the majority of dishes require you to quickly fry off ingredients at very high heat, which only works if you allow your stove to run with all guns blazing. Also, a piece of fish or meat often needs to be pressed down once dropped into the pan, which can be quite frightening when you’re not used to having your hands that close to the heat source. But don’t be afraid! It’s much easier to take a pan off the heat if it’s running to high than saving an ingredient that’s been slowly boiling away all of its flavour and texture for minutes. Do trust yourself, learn how to handle the heat, and you’ll become a much better cook in the long run!