Culinary Lesson #4 - Advice for Beginning Home Cooks

Friday, June 08, 2012

Q8:  I'd really like to start making more meals at home, but I'm not all that comfortable in the kitchen.  If you could pick five pieces of advice for someone in my situation, what would they be?

A8:  In no particular order, I'd recommend the following:

  1. As touched on in an earlier post, having a wide range of quality cookware makes a huge difference.  If your typical home cooked meal comes from a blue box or is made in the microwave, this might be hard to hear, but fear not; even the most elaborate personal kitchen collections started off with nothing.  Little by little, save up and treat yourself to a new addition.  For anyone who's ever stepped foot into a kitchen supply store, you probably already have an endless wish list, making this task a bit overwhelming.  So where to start?  Aside from slowly building up a nice knife set, a cutting board, saute pan, sauce pan, set of measuring cups, and mixing bowl will give you a solid start.  Before no time, you'll have the kitchen of your dreams.
  2. Learn the correct way to read a recipe.  This means a couple of things.  First, overcome the false idea that recipes are to be followed to a tee.  Everyone's oven is different.  Everyone's equipment is different.  The climate that we cook in on a certain day is most likely not the same as when the recipe was written down.  And the list goes on...  For these reasons, baking times should be used only as an approximation.  Amounts of flour added to yeast breads should only be used as an approximation.  And so on...  The second meaning of this rule is to read through both the list of ingredients and the directions before you start anything.  There's nothing worse than getting to the end of a recipe and realizing that you don't have a main ingredient or piece of cooking equipment.  Visualizing each step of the process and making sure you have everything prepped and ready to go ahead of time is key.
  3. Keep a clean workstation while cooking.  Start keeping a trash bucket or bowl devoted to food scraps handy when cooking.  Get used to constantly wiping down the counter after each main step.  Put away ingredients once they have been used to open up more counter space.  When working with raw meats, always be mindful of cross-contamination, and devote a cutting board to raw meats to cut down on the risk of confusing what's touched what.  I know that all of these might seem like common sense to some, but they are definitely worth bringing up on this list, as efficiency and safety should take priority in the kitchen.
  4. Avoid becoming the next Sandra Lee.  Nothing personal, but I've never understood how it's worthwhile making a "homemade meal" using mainly premade/prepackaged foods.  In my opinion, you should be able to break down any recipe that you make and rattle off the elemental ingredients.  One of the main reasons why I started cooking is that it is a great way to know what's in your food.  More and more, we're seeing additives and preservatives added to our foods, along with an increasing amount of processed foods.  Why take away the nutritional benefits of raw ingredients and add the "unknown factor" of what's in your food, when you already have the power to control this?  (Want to learn more on this subject?  Check out these documentaries for different views.)
  5. Be adventurous.  Cooking is meant to be fun and is a constant learning experience.  Is there a certain dish that you've never imagined could be made at home?  Why not give it a try tonight?  Want to start eating healthier?  Why not plant a vegetable garden or visit your local farmers' market?  Grocery stores and fast food joints have saturated our culture with processed foods with little to no nutritional value, and, unfortunately, this has become the norm for many people.  It's time to learn where foods come from and understand what really goes into dishes made from scratch.  "Take chances.  Make mistakes.  Get messy."

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