Cooking is a rewarding skill that teaches people practical skills, such as artistic creativity, hand-eye coordination, organization, time management and problem-solving.
While to some people the idea of cooking can seem intimidating, one can learn to cook with precision and ease. This can be done by establishing an understanding of basic techniques and practices in cooking and building on this foundation.
To start learning how to cook, one needs to have on hand the right equipment for their situation. The usual tools necessary for day-to-day cooking include a pan, a pot, a spatula and a big cooking spoon. Other materials include bowls, utensils, cutting boards, colanders, half-sheet baking pans, parchment paper, measuring cups, graters and can-openers.
While the list seems vague, the types and number of these tools needed are specific to each recipe. This guide to types of pots and pans holds more comprehensive information on types of kitchen tools and the materials they are made of, including stainless steel, aluminum and non-stick items.
One of the most important directions to follow in any form of cooking is to first understand the plan of action. By understanding what procedures to follow, one is able to properly prepare their equipment and application decisively.
After reading the recipe and procuring the necessary equipment and ingredients, one can then prepare the ingredients via washing, peeling, cutting or dicing.
Since chopping all of the ingredients and leaving them to pile up on the cutting board is both inefficient and hazardous, one should safely place the assorted prepared ingredients and their scraps into bowls procured while gathering the necessary equipment.
Surrounded by readily available tools and ingredients, eggs mingle with oil, cooking on the pan. Imperative to any food preparation is the setup of ingredients and equipment prior to cooking, otherwise known as mise en place. Photo by Dana Masri
Hygiene is also important to cooking. Washing one’s hands is an implied necessity. Throughout mise en place and later cooking, one should take time to clear their station and wash their dirtied equipment, which mitigates possible accidents and additional stress due to clutter.
To properly prepare ingredients that require cutting, one should always use a sharp, shapely knife. A dull knife holds a greater chance of skidding onto one’s extremities, and an improper type of knife is prone to imbalance and unwieldiness. For general cooking, use a chef’s knife. One should also utilize a curled finger grip on the ingredient that is cut, as this also helps to keep one’s extremities from the path of the blade.
Carefully angling her left knuckle parallel to her right hand’s knife, fingers curled inwards, the cook grips the salmon fillet. She avoided nicking her fingers on her knife using this hand positioning, known as the claw grip. Graphic by Angela Guiso
Similar to commonly used kitchen utensils, cooking is beholden to commonly used ingredients. For flavoring, a basic set of seasonings includes salt, sugar, vinegar and crushed pepper. This is because all foods rely on good flavor to elevate their experience, derived from the balance of saltiness, sweetness, acidity, bitterness and spiciness.
Personally, in place of salt, I like to use ingredients such as bouillon (concentrated broth), soy sauce, fish sauce, sun-dried tomatoes, aged cheese, anchovies or miso paste, depending on which fits the recipe most.
In addition to adding salt, these ingredients further add depth and savoriness, otherwise known as umami. This savoriness is derived from glutamic acid, which is also elevated in products such as Doritos and ramen noodle flavoring. Even though one can’t taste umami similar to how one tastes sweetness or sourness, it enhances the overall flavor.
It may seem strange to purposely make a dish sour, but the key is to enhance the flavor, not overwhelm it. In this case, acidity adds brightness and complexity to a dish, even if one doesn’t outwardly taste it. Any acid added is better than no acid.
In place of the more commonly used white distilled vinegar, I love to use limes, lemons or apple cider vinegar, as I think they are more muted, brighter and flavorsome. Other zesty ingredients include yogurt, citruses, hot sauce and rice vinegar.
Without the bitter notes in chocolate, coffee or lemonade, the sweetness and creaminess are cloying. In Brussels sprouts or Chinese broccoli, one can appreciate how the bitterness adds complexity to an otherwise rich, cloying or flat flavor by pairing their bitter taste with other complementary ingredients such as bacon, butter or oyster sauce.
For recipes that call for sweetness, one must be sure that in adjusting the sugar to other sweet ingredients, the sugar is not inherently needed for the structure of the food product, such as in baking cakes or cookies. In the appropriate recipes, I like to use molasses, oyster sauce or dried fruit such as raisins.
Outside of flavoring, other day-to-day ingredients used include oil, garlic, onions and a set of ingredients such as vegetables, fruits, grains and proteins. Since the foods within the set heed one’s personal tastes, they are entirely subjective.
The task of figuring out one’s tastes is both a challenge and an exciting adventure. Take time to explore where you acquire your food, such as grocery stores and farmers’ markets. Investigating and learning about new and unique ingredients is a journey in chemistry and psychology.
Along this idea of discovering where one’s tastes lie is the understanding of where one’s food comes from. It’s a simple gesture of appreciation to ponder the effort that goes into producing and delivering ingredients to be accessible to the public, as the recognition towards our complex, expansive and diverse food system demonstrates respect towards one’s food and the workers who devoted themselves to supplying one with said food.
Although the types and number of ingredients used can depend on the specified recipe, they more so depend on one’s plan of action. This is because as one learns why techniques and procedures in cooking are used, and how they result in the desired product, one can improvise and adapt recipes into what direction they’re willing to take.
Additionally, knowing what ingredients, prepared or unprepared, and equipment one has on hand is key to reducing waste. Even knowing what type of flavor one is envisioning is key to mitigating confusion and messes.
Listed below are general guides on how to boil any bean and how to roast any vegetable. These two ingredient preparations allow one to have on-hand beans, which are versatile, and cooked vegetables for a side dish or the following recipe. One also learns how to manage the stovetop and the oven, which is crucial to avoid issues and hazards such as burning one’s house down.
Multimedia graphic by Madison Lenard and Angela Guiso
For how to roast vegetables, the guide, To Roast Any Vegetable, explains the process clearly and comprehensively. In the last minutes of cooking your vegetables, I highly recommend adding cheese to the vegetables and using your oven’s broiler (heat from the top of the oven) to melt and brown them. Since broilers are extremely hot, always keep an eye on the food, or it will burn.
The first recipe I’d recommend for beginners is this riff on greek salad, a combination of olives, feta cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers and red onions in a vinaigrette. The base recipe is from Serious Eats, but I’ve added changes and additions based on my preferences.
The purpose of trying to make this salad is to teach you to build flavor based on your preferences, to practice precise actions and to adapt to problems that may arise.
Multimedia graphic by Angela Guiso
After one has practiced their cutting, flavoring and organizational skills, I’d recommend this guide on 8 Essential Methods for Cooking Eggs (All In One Place) | Kitchn (thekitchn.com). Eggs compliment nearly every dish out there, from being incorporated into recipes as an ingredient to simply topping a dish. The chemical reactions of cooking an egg are also visually appealing to beginner cooks, as the changes in the egg’s physical qualities easily indicate what stage of cooking the egg is at.
Multimedia graphic by Angela Guiso
Congratulations on if you’ve successfully tried the recipes. While the recipes and guides listed in this article cover many of the fundamentals of cooking, I highly recommend you search online for more skills and dishes to try out.
My favorite websites to find recipes include Serious Eats, Food52, Kitchn, NYT Cooking and Cook’s Illustrated. They usually provide reliable and diverse recipes, as well as helpful guides for preparing and cooking ingredients. Additionally, the Food Section of The New York Times are interesting for their exploration of the culture, history and science behind dishes and procedures.
As for cookbook-related resources, I recommend You Suck at Cooking for snippy jokes and beginner tips, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat for comprehensive and interesting explanations as to why and how procedures in food occur and Dining In for simple but refined recipes. There are also plenty of guides online for discovering cookbooks for any audience.
Cooking is worthwhile because one is able to express creativity and demonstrate skill over their craft to create a product that evokes pride. Naturally, mistakes and missed steps that occur, but there will also be beautiful and delicious accomplishments to round out the experience. Experiment, have fun and be careful.