Teaching Yourself To Cook At Home: Ten Tips From My Kitchen To Yours

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Regular readers of The Simple Dollar know I have a deep passion for preparing my own food. Not only is it less expensive than eating out, I have far more control over what goes in it and I am able to prepare the things I want, not just some choice from a menu.

The biggest challenge I have, and this challenge is shared with a lot of busy people out there, is time. It takes time to learn how to cook, and even when you do know how, it takes time to actually prepare the food as well. For many people, that’s a big threshold to cross, especially when it’s so easy to just pick up something on the way home.

I’m not ashamed to admit I was much the same way. For years, I lived mostly on takeout and fast food, and it wasn’t until I began to build an appreciation for culinary arts that I began to try making things myself. The first things I tried were abject failures, and it all seemed incredibly difficult, but after time that passed and now I’d rather make my own food from basic ingredients (even stuff like pasta) than eat out.

Here are ten big keys I discovered during this transition, and hopefully they will translate to your own kitchen as well.

Commit yourself to doing it regularly. This is the first big step. Make a commitment to prepare all of your dinners at home for one week, then see if you can actually do it. Simply getting yourself in the kitchen with a positive “I can do this” mindset is 80% of the work.

Minimize your tools. Most kitchens that I visit have tons and tons of cooking tools jammed in the drawers. You don’t need most of this stuff for day to day cooking. Get a big box and toss everything in your drawers into this box. Seriously. Then, when you actually use one of these tools, pull it out and use it, then put that tool in your drawer. You’ll find that in about a month, you’ll have about six to ten tools in your drawer and they’ll take care of 95% of the stuff that you do. Just stick with those in your drawer and only add to that number if you find yourself using something a lot; keep the rest in a box in the pantry or the closet.

Minimize your pots and pans. Many people go out and buy a ridiculously overblown set of pots and pans for their kitchen, then overload their cupboards with this stuff. The only problem is that if you buy a set of fourteen pans for $100, you’re not getting a deal – you’re getting a bunch of $7 pans that don’t heat evenly and often are covered with a no-stick substance that comes off after a few uses. Instead, take that cash and buy two or three top notch pans instead of an army of cheap ones – a sauce pan, a very large frying pan, and a pot big enough to cook soup or a roast in is great for most people. Spend that $100 on just the three pans and you’ll be way better off – plus you don’t have the obstacle of dealing with an army of pans in your cupboard.

Get out and measure all of your ingredients before you even start something. Seriously. You’ll find that when you’re in the midst of making something, the last thing you want to do is wash off your hands, get out an ingredient, measure it, then add it to the mix – you’re going to want to just keep going. So just measure out everything in advance. I usually put stuff in bowls and small cups on the table so I can glance and grab what I need at a given point.

BittGet a cook book that teaches technique. I almost exclusively point kitchen novices towards Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything This book is basically designed with the busy person learning to cook in mind; it’s loaded with details on preparation, explaining the finer points of almost every common culinary practice. The recipes focus on a merger of simplicity and flavor in an effort to show beginning cooks that it is indeed easy to create something delicious in the kitchen, but the book really shines when demonstrating technique. My genuine advice if you’re starting out in the kitchen is to get this book and use only this book for a while – take the rest of your cookbooks and put them away somewhere else for a bit. When you’re feeling confident about much of the stuff inside, move onto other cookbooks – you’ll suddenly find them easy where they may have been almost overwhelming in the past.

Don’t tackle complicated stuff right off the bat. Start off by preparing simpler stuff. For example, if you’re making pasta, start off with a very basic sauce recipe and make sure you’ve got it cold, then move on from there. If you’re making bread, make a few loaves of basic white bread so you know what you’re doing, then try more complicated stuff like a rye-pumpernickel swirl. Trust me on this one – with the bread, I made five loaves of it before I got one that turned out like I wanted. I just kept trying and making adjustments and then finally… fantastic. After that, I knew how to make bread and made a few loaves of excellent white bread before moving on.

Try to learn something each time you make something. I even go so far as to try to take some notes each time I prepare a dish, but that’s not necessary. For example, the first time I made a loaf of bread, it turned out very dry and dense. The problem? I let it sit out for far too long and the yeast was basically completely finished before it ever went into the oven. Later on, I would see some loaves coming out very tall, light, and fluffy, while other loaves would be more dense and smaller. The difference? When I prepared the yeast by putting it in warm water, if I stirred that yeast and warm water more until all of the yeast particles were dissolved, the bread rose a lot more – in fact, you can almost see a direct connection between how dissolved the yeast is in warm water compared to how high the bread rises.

Make comfort foods at first, safe ones that make you happy and excite your taste buds. If you like Italian, focus on Italian dishes – make some homemade pasta, homemade pasta sauce, and homemade Italian bread. Like steak? Pick up some of your own and experiment with preparation and grilling techniques. Put aside the desire to eat healthy and focus on preparing food that you enjoy eating, so that when you start nailing it (and you will), you’ll know it with your taste buds. When you’ve built up some skill, then focus on options that match the level of healthiness you want.

Focus on fresh ingredients. If a recipe calls for a vegetable, don’t pop open a can. Get the fresh vegetable from your local grocer. The same goes for fruits and other items – the fresh forms of these items just pop with flavor in a certain way that frozen and canned versions do not. Plus, when you use fresh ones, you’re avoiding preservatives and potentially unhealthy packing materials, like the sickeningly sweet high fructose corn syrup that canned fruits come in.

Keep your kitchen clean. One big part of cooking is the cleanup, and I find it’s always better to just clean things up as soon as possible. If something goes in the oven, I make it a point to have everything cleaned up (or at least in the dishwasher) before it comes out of the oven. Doing this consistently ensures that the kitchen does not become a disaster area, which is often another difficulty that people have when first learning how to cook.

If you follow these ten tips, you’ll find that preparing your own food at home can be much, much easier than you ever thought it could be – and then you’ll discover how much healthier and tastier the food is and how much money it can save.

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23 thoughts on “Teaching Yourself To Cook At Home: Ten Tips From My Kitchen To Yours

  1. one of the best things we have in our kitchen is a crockpot (we have a small one 2.5qt and a bigone i think 4 or 5 qt).

    Put stuff in, go to work, come home, done! they cost next to nothing to buy, and making really good meals also costs next to nothing! There are tonnes of slow cooker recipies too.

    one of the biggest payoffs is it cooks while your at work so when you come home you dont have to spend time doing it, just eat, and take the leftovers for lunch next day or another dinner.

    cooking at home is great, we try and stick to one or two pot meals (if it requires 10 different pots on the stove.)

    As an aside, cooking at home prompted us to keep a set of small pots growing fresh herbs on the windowsill. Fresh parsley beats dry anytime!

  2. (browser errored out so dont know if my comment made it… ohwell)

    one of the best things we have in our kitchen is a crockpot (we have a small one 2.5qt and a bigone i think 4 or 5 qt).

    Put stuff in, go to work, come home, done! they cost next to nothing to buy, and making really good meals also costs next to nothing! There are tonnes of slow cooker recipies too.

    one of the biggest payoffs is it cooks while your at work so when you come home you dont have to spend time doing it, just eat, and take the leftovers for lunch next day or another dinner.

    cooking at home is great, we try and stick to one or two pot meals (if it requires 10 different pots on the stove.)

    As an aside, cooking at home prompted us to keep a set of small pots growing fresh herbs on the windowsill. Fresh parsley beats dry anytime!

  3. I am also a *huge* fan of Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything” and I don’t think I could get by without it.

    For secondary cookbooks, I can highly recommend Alton Brown’s books (“I’m Just Here for the Food” and “I’m Just Here for More Food”) for those of you who are interested in the physics of cooking or baking.

  4. You mentioned fresh ingredients over frozen or canned. Good idea when they are in season and cheap, but some fresh ingredients out of season can be very expensive.

    If you have the ability to buy fresh produce in bulk and can it yourself, that’s probably the best option. Next best is to buy frozen – there are usually no added preservatives to frozen produce and a vast majority of the flavor and nutrients is maintained. I would definitely recommend that you at least check out the frozen option at your local grocery when doing price comparisons.

  5. Don’t buy pans/pots or knives in sets.

    Always buy them individual. You’ll have 1/2 the supplies that cost 3/4 as much and work 2x as good.

    I mean, how often do you REALLY use the boning knife? Wouldn’t you prefer a better chef’s knife?

    –Michael

  6. I totally agree with the “kitchen cleanup” tip. That is what I have difficulty with, most of the time and I actually do enjoy cooking. Thanks for all the nice tips.

  7. Actually frozen vegtables and fruits are often as good or sometimes better than fresh, since they are picked and packed at the peak of their ripeness/freshness. In the growing season it’s ideal if you can get fresh veggies and fruit, but in the winter frozen is sometimes the only way to get the food you want.

    Also, if you’re really a novice at baking and cooking to take it easy at first. If you’re eating out all the time, it’ll be enough to start making boxed pasta and canned/jarred pasta sauce before diving into making it yourself. Try making a few boxed goods (brownies, cakes, muffins) at first just to get a feel for things. It’s less overwhelming for a lot of people and it’s good practice.

    Plus you’ll be able to appreciate the taste difference once you start making things completely from scratch yourself.

  8. For a more advanced technique book, I’d suggest Jaque Pepin’s “Technique” books. I have the 1971 “La Technique”, but I guess that’s been updated with “Complete Technique”. Anyway, some of the things he describes are pretty tricky, but well explained.

    Oh, and boning knives are *very* handy if you buy whole chickens and part them yourself (as I do)

  9. Man, the point about cleaning up as you go is key. The first few times I cooked, it looked like Godzilla had gone to town in my kitchen! Now, by the time whatever I’m making is simmering/baking/roasting or whatever, I’ve put everything away and cleaned the counter. My girlfriend always says it doesn’t look like I cooked at all!

  10. I really liked this post because I’m working on my cooking skills. I took for granted my family’s home cooked meals and now realize not only were they healthier, but they tasted better than the prepackaged food.

  11. A man who knows his way around a kitchen is a good thing. A man wise enough to clean as he goes…well that just leaves me speechless.

    I wholeheartedly agree on the pots/pans and knives issue: go for quality over quantity!

  12. These are great tips! I used to be a chef and you definitely only use a couple of pans and knives that are your favorites and that’s it. Having good tools is important to and can make cooking more pleasurable. With knives it’s also important to realise that preference in knife brands is often a personal thing and you should try out a couple in the store, ask to hold them and see how they fit in your hand. It’s no good buying a giant 12″ chef’s knife if it is too big for your hand or intimidating – because then you won’t use it. See what you feel comfortable with. Also, there is no one best brand – there are about 5 or 6 great ones and which you pick, is entirely personal choice – I myself have a mix fo three different knife brands because they were the ones that I prefered in that particular size and for the purpose I knew I would use them.

    As for cleaning – yes do it as you go! The tornado kitchen after cooking can really put you off from wanting to do it again, because it’s the cleanup you dread, not so much the actual cooking.

  13. I realize it’s not for beginners, but a pressure cooker is a huge time saver. We do beans and grains like rice with ours. It is also great for tenderizing meats. Just cook briefly (maybe 15 minutes) in the pressure cooker and then roast or fry in the usual way.

  14. Here are my money saving home cooking tips (I home cook frequently; eating out is a joy and a savings killer).

    1. The Joyce Chen microwave rice cooker & vegetable steamer is a miracle worker and only $12! My wife loves rice and is a disaster trying to cook it by hand. No more.

    2. Preparing dried beans in a slow-cooker will save you many $$$ and the beans will be perfect. Careful, though, not to overcook them, or they will turn to mush. I love Bush’s Best Beans, but dried beans are easily 1/5 the price.

    3. Grow your own herbs, like dill, basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme & sage, and harvest through the summer to save for the winter. It’ll save you much money, and fresh herbs will dramatically improve your cooking. They’re basically fancy weeds — easy to grow and require little space or work.

    4. If you bake your own bread or make your pizza dough, use a starter that ferments via wild (i.e. FREE) yeast. May be hard to do if you live in the city.

    5. Wine-in-a-box. There are very high quality table reds for $15 for 3 liters (go for the Australian shiraz’s). That’s a high quality $3.50 bottle of wine that won’t go bad for 6 weeks after opening. I drink a Pinot Grigio in the summer for $7 for 3 liters (Glen Ellen, I think). It’s a good solid table white (quality reds are much harder to come by a lower prices than the $15).

    6. Cook in bulk and freeze, freeze freeze…

  15. I’d say that canned tomatoes taste way better than off-season “fresh” tomatoes.

    The most helpful thing I did when I was beginning to cook was read food blogs. I find that they’re easier to use than cookbooks/magazines because they generally include commentaries on the recipes, giving more details on the steps or include possible substitutions/additions. Plus, I’d find a handful of new recipes to try every few days.

  16. To make kitchen clean-up easy, I take the plastic grocery bags which I get for FREE, cut one on a side so it’s big & open up , and put that under my cutting boards/work area. Then when I’m done, just fold up the bag & throw away, all the mess is gone (or most of it).

    #1 cooking tip: Don’t cook things to death! And don’t cook everything on high! Over cooking food takes more energy (gas/electricity), takes more time, and food won’t taste or look as good. Of course you want chicken to be thoroughly done, but believe me that doesn’t take burning it black on the outside.

    To make frozen veggies just like fresh, put in a strainer & run water over them. Do this in the beginning of cooking so they can thaw out while your chopping etc. They’ll taste better & cook faster.

    I use a pressure cooker a lot…it’s “reverse” of a crock-pot. It takes things that need to cook for an hour, especially vegetables, and cooks them in 15-20 minutes. A good quality one will last a long time….I have a “Presto” brand with the weight on top that goes back & forth (kinda noisy) & has safety release valve, but there’s also more modern models that have a dial. I like the original weight-type because you can see it’s pressured.

  17. I’ve also heard that the cookbook called “How to Cook without a Book” is a great tool for teaching you the fundamentals of cooking so that you don’t have to rely on recipes and you can be more enterprising with leftovers. (I confess I do rely on cookbooks and following instructions when I’m cooking for other people; when it’s just for me, I don’t mind winging it and experimenting. And I always eat leftovers, even when my experiments in cooking don’t taste or look all that great.) . It makes me think of Audrey Hepburn being able to whip up an omelette from Humphrey Bogart’s near-empty refrigerator in the movie “Sabrina.”

    Online recipe sites are great, too, because of the comments and reviews section. baking911.com has helped me out a lot.

  18. When vegetables and herbs are about to go bad in my refrigerator, I just chop them up and throw them in a freezer bag. Then these are my go-to bags when it is time to make a chili, stew, or anything in the crockpot. I always seem to have bell peppers wrinkling in front of my eyes or only using part of an onion. They look and taste great out of the freezer and I find myself always adding them to various things (scrambled eggs, spaghetti sauce, corn muffins, etc.) for extra flavor and nutitrition. Even the stalks from the broccoli get saved and thrown in to a chili at a later day (unbeknownst to the preschooler).

  19. It may be expensive up front, but I’d even suggest taking a round of basic cooking classes. They’ll make you more confident in the kitchen and pay off greatly down the line.

    If it’s not possible, then even one or two focused on basic technique (Knife Skills, Braising, etc.) could be a great boon to everyday cooking.

  20. Before you go to a sotre and buy brand new pots and pans check out your local rural farm auctions. Those farm wives cook like mad for custom cutters and process their own garden goods so they have all the good stuff. And you usually get it for 1/4 of the cost at a store. Also you have the chance to talk to alot of farm wives and ask them questions about how to can, cook, etc. They are better than cook books!!

  21. Trent, thanks for the cook book recommendation. I’m going to buy a copy of How to Cook Everything. Hopefully, I’ll learn at least how to cook a few more things. ;-)

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