A Year of Cooking
It’s amazing how long you can go without basic life skills. Pretty much all the food that went into my body from college until last year came from a can, a box, or a restaurant, and either tasted bad, actively tried to kill me, or drained my bank account (or all three). The first step is acknowledging that you have a problem. The second step is learning to cook. The third step, apparently, is writing a post about what you learn over the course of a year of step two.
From learning to cook, I’ve saved hundreds of dollars, eaten much better, and picked up a new skill that I might actually be able to use in a post-apocalyptic setting (my first!). This is all basic stuff, but if you’re starting from zero like I was, it may be helpful.
- Get a decent chef’s knife. I picked up an OXO for under $20, and I love it. I’ve used other peoples’ nicer knives since getting this one, and there is a difference, but starting with a decent knife for cheap means you get to practice knife skills and maintenance without caring too much when you drop it on the floor a half-inch from your toe. Related: picking up hot things without putting sharp objects down first is not advised.
- Epicurious is awesome. Probably 80% of the recipes I tried this year came from this site. The recipes are usually well written and you can find ones from all over the difficulty spectrum (from quick-and-easy to spend-your-Saturday-hating-yourself-for-sucking-before-finally-just-ordering-a-pizza).
- When I first started, I thought salt was something that primarily goes on at the table so everyone gets as much or as little as they want. This is dead wrong, especially for meat. If you’re cooking steak, chicken, or pork, get some kosher salt (big flakes), sprinkle it on generously, and let it sit for a bit at room temperature before throwing it into the pan or oven. This locks in the moisture, and if you do it right, you shouldn’t really notice a salty flavor, it should just taste better. In college, I had a tradition of cooking myself a steak whenever I finished a big project, and I always wondered why it never tasted as good as what you get at a restaurant. It was the salt thing.
- When you’re chopping things up, make the results the same size so they cook at the same rate.
- If you’re frying, sauteing, or grilling chicken or pork, make sure you use cuts that are thin enough or that you can finish cooking in the oven. I’ve started butterflying chicken breasts before throwing them on the pan, and the difference is stark. A full breast takes too long to cook through and will either burn on the outside or dry out before it’s done, where the half breast stays moist and picks up a nice brown color while cooking in a much shorter time.
- I’ve been amazed at how many recipes want an onion. Learn how to chop one and save time and tears.
- Keep the pan hot. Every time you add something cool to the pan, you cool the pan off (stupid physics), so right when doing so, ramp up the burner and then taper it back to where it was as the food heats up to where you want it. I’ve only internalized this one in the last couple of months, after repeatedly banging my head on needing twice as much time as a recipe suggests. Keep things hot, and they cook faster. Similarly, it takes a lot less time to boil water if you put a lid on the pot. Weird how that works, right?
- Get to know by heart how long different basics take to cook, and how long things can sit when they’re done, so you only panic appropriately when everything else isn’t finished yet. Rice takes 20 minutes and can sit for a while, while steamed veggies take 10 and can’t. Chicken dries out quickly, while steak can rest for a spell. If you turn the heat down a notch, you can keep onions sauteing for a good while, but not so much for garlic, and not at all for peppers. That sort of thing.