Ten Spectacular Tips for Getting Started in the Kitchen

I love cooking at home.

I used to hate cooking at home, though. I was awful at it. I burnt things. I messed up scrambled eggs beyond all recognition.

But over time, I got better at it. I started figuring out lots of little things that made the entire process smoother and made my results much better without necessarily improving my skills.

Now, I vastly prefer what I make in my own kitchen over what I can get at most restaurants. What I make at home is tastier, usually healthier, and quite a bit cheaper, too.

Along the way, I’ve picked up lots of little techniques for making home cooking much easier and faster. Here are ten that really changed things for me.

Hone your knives.

One of the biggest frustrations I had with home food preparation is that whenever I had to chop anything, it took forever and I often smashed them into oblivion. I thought it was cheap knives, but after getting a much nicer one, I had much the same problem after the first use or so. The entire problem was a simple one – the edge of the knife wasn’t honed. Honing a knife’s edge is incredibly simple. Just take a sharpening steel and lay your knife on it, with the hilt of the blade near the hilt of the sharpening steel. Then, with the blade forming a small angle with the steel, drag the blade slowly but firmly back down the steel to the tip. At the end, the tip of the blade should be near the tip of the steel. Then, switch hands and repeat with the other side of the blade, and alternate back and forth a few times. Your previously-dull knife will now slice through vegetables like a hot butterknife through butter.

Don’t fear the crock pot.

Crock pots have this strange reputation for turning out bland food. In truth, though, crock pots are just as good as what you put in them – all they really do is cook things at a low heat over a long period of time. The trick is to make sure your ingredients are good and that you’ve added plenty of herbs and spices right off the bat. Crock pots are absolutely perfect for making stews and soups and chilis that benefit from long, slow cooking – just put the ingredients in the crock pot in the morning, turn it on low, and let it sit all day. In the evening, you’ll have a tremendous meal waiting for you. We’ve also found a lot of success slow-cooking pot roasts with lots of vegetables in a crock pot.

You can almost never over-season a dish.

The only exception to this seems to be hot peppers, which can drive some people away. Aside from that, you have to go to almost grotesque lengths to over-season most dishes. So, if you’re unsure, toss in some more spices. It’ll usually make the dish more tasty than simply following the recipe absolutely.

Use fresh ingredients.

Fresh ingredients are often the key to making a recipe really pop. While frozen vegetables (for example) are passable, nothing beats the pop of fresh vegetables in your mouth. While canned vegetables can work in a pinch, they just don’t compare. Canned meats are convenient … that’s about all I’ll give them. In most cases, there’s more nutrition in fresh ingredients as well.

Store staples in the freezer.

Whenever you prepare something that might be used as a staple in another meal, make plenty of it and store the extras in the freezer. Chicken breasts, loose ground beef, loose sausage, and diced onions all work well in this way.

Always make stock out of leftover bones and leftover vegetables.

The meal is done. You have leftover chicken bones, or maybe you have some leftover vegetables of various kinds. Perhaps you have a leftover hambone or the bone from the middle of a roast. Quite often, these things get thrown out. Save those leftovers. Just take them to a crock pot, add enough water to the crock pot to cover whatever you add (and maybe half an inch more), then turn it on low and let it slowly cook all night. In the morning, strain the liquid (just to get the big pieces out) and save the liquid in a jar in the fridge. Then, the next time you need to make something using those flavors, just bust out that jar. That stuff is fantastic flavor.

De-glaze at every opportunity.

Another great source for flavor is the “glaze” on the bottom of a frying pan after you cook something – that stuff is pure flavor! Just put some water into the hot pan, watch it sizzle, and notice how much of the glaze on the bottom of the pan comes off into the water. That liquid can now be used in a lot of ways, from adding flavor and moisture to rice and side vegetables or allowing the meat to simmer in it.

Stick with comfort foods at first.

It’s easy to get caught up in the sexy idea of preparing some novel dish in the kitchen, but if you don’t have the skills yet, it will likely end in frustration and an underwhelming result. Instead, at first, stick with dishes that you know you like that you’re intimately familar with. For me, that means tuna casserole, hamburgers, and broccoli with rice.

Try cooking something familiar without a recipe.

Another great way to really amp up your skills in the kitchen is to attempt making a familiar recipe from memory without using a recipe. This requires you to begin thinking on the fly a little bit as you cook and often forces you into doing things a little different. Sure, sometimes you’ll fail, but you’ll learn a lot from abandoning the recipe.

Get others involved.

For me, no kitchen experience is better than cooking in the kitchen with people whose company I enjoy. Being in the kitchen while my wife chops vegetables, my daughter stirs a mixture, my son snaps green beans, or my best friend butters some garlic bread makes the entire experience far more enjoyable no matter how the meal turns out. Get people into your kitchen and cook together – it becomes an amazing social experience.

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  1. Johanna says:

    This is a very good article, but there seems to be a bit of a mismatch between the text and the title. A lot of these tips are more appropriate for people who are already comfortable with the basics of cooking, not for people who are really just getting started. Personally, I would highly recommend NOT trying to cook without a recipe until you’re comfortable cooking *with* a recipe.

    Also, you might want to be careful about referring to your own ideas as “spectacular,” even if they are.

    My biggest tip for the true beginners in the kitchen is: Give yourself plenty of time. Don’t wait until you’re hungry (or until your kids/friends/roommates are hungry) to start cooking. You might be tempted to cut corners, and if you ruin the dish entirely (which is all the more likely to happen if you cut corners) you’ll be that much more frustrated.

  2. Ramona says:

    I used to view cooking dinner as one of the list of things “I had to do”. Once I started relaxing (time issue) and enjoying what I was doing, it was so much more enjoyable. There are days when it’s still just a rush and just get ‘er done, but I have days when I look forward to preparing a special meal.

  3. Beth says:

    Great post :) I’ll have to try some of these tips — especially de-glazing. (Also makes the pan easier to clean, I imagine!)

    One thing I’d like to add is to keep vegetable trimmings (like the tops of carrots and celery stalks) to use in soup stock. I also keep the water when I cook veggies (a container or baggie in the freezer works well).

  4. That does make sense, dull knives cause you to cut yourself, as well as avoid prepping food at home, or eating the right veggies!

    John DeFlumeri Jr.

  5. Nick says:

    Yea… I agree with Johanna. I’m not sure that these are great tips for getting started in the kitchen… For that list I would include things like:

    1) Learn how to cook dried pasta correctly.
    2) Learn how to make a basic marinara sauce with fresh or canned tomatoes (1/2 an onion and some garlic cooked in some olive oil then throw in diced tomatoes. Cook for 10 minutes until the tomatoes break down. Top with Parmesan/basil/pine nuts/etc.)
    3) Make a basic vinaigrette. You won’t need store bought dressing ever again.

    Your ideas are helpful also though. The only one I would very much disagree with is “You can almost never over-season a dish.” That’s just wrong. You can always over season a dish. In fact, one of the harder cooking steps to learn is how to nicely salt a dish.

    You will over-salt a lot of things by thinking you can almost never over-season something.

    Just my two cents.

  6. Stacey says:

    I agree with over-seasoning. In the two years that we’ve been married, I have yet to overseason something – and that includes the time the cap fell off my oregano container. Honestly, that was the best pot roast we ever ate!

    If you’re working with spices that are older than 3 months, add extra. I always double (yes, double!) the amount of seasoning in a recipe unless I’m working with freshly-opened containers. It makes a huge difference, and we can add less fat because the dish is more flavorful.

  7. Jeremy says:

    One more tip: focus on the process, not the results (at least not always).

    Whenever I cook something new and exotic, I always use a very basic preparation that lets the flavors and textures of the new ingredient come through. This helps me understand the ingredient and how it might fit into a more elaborate preparation in the future.

    A few examples:

    You’ve never cooked rack of lamb before. Avoid that tasty looking curry-crusted rack of lamb recipe. Throw on some salt and pepper and pan-sear it until medium rare. Taste it. Do you even like the flavor of lamb? How’s medium rare for you? (MR lamb is very different from MR beef). The answers to these questions could have been easily obscured if you’d used some complex spice rub.

    You buy some bass but have never cooked bass. Throw on some salt and pepper and steam it. How’s the texture? Did you over- or under-cook it? If so, what did it look like? Use visual clues to get the preparation right next time. Did you like the flavor? What flavors might go well with it?

    To me, being a good cook doesn’t mean “knowing a lot of recipes.” It means understanding ingredients and techniques and how to fit them together.

  8. Anne KD says:

    I started really cooking when I went out and got myself a cookbook that told how to cook, not just recipes. In my case it was ‘Joy of Cooking’ back in the 90s. I read it like a novel. My other cookbooks, gifts, I could go through and figure out how a recipe is constructed, but Joy, and also ‘How to Cook Everything’ by Mark Bittman- these are the books that taught me how to cook and not just follow a recipe. If you’re lucky you can find these or similar in the library, but I just simply bought them since I wanted to know how to cook. I use these books daily.

    @Beth- I always ‘deglaze’ my pans- usually only because of the easier cleaning :) .

  9. Looby says:

    I think spectacular might have been overstating it a little.
    Also I completely agree with Nick, it is possible to over-season food, particularly with salt.

  10. Emily says:

    One tip I would add is to taste everything during the cooking process, especially if you’re not using a recipe or worried about the amount of seasonings. It’s best to catch that something is too bland/sweet/spicy while you still have time to do something about it.

  11. brad says:

    good tips!

    “hot butterknife through butter.” WINCE

  12. Johanna says:

    On the overseasoning issue: There’s a small number of seasonings that you have to be careful with. These include chiles (and other “hot” spices), salt (and seasoning blends that contain salt – check the label), and also cloves and turmeric. With pretty much any seasoning I’ve ever used apart from those, you don’t have to worry about rendering the dish inedible if you add too much. But YMMV.

    To Nick’s list of tips for beginners, I’ll add:

    4) Learn how to cook rice. And understand the difference in cooking times for brown rice versus white rice.
    5) Learn how to sautee onions to a nice golden brown – this is the basis of good flavor for many, many dishes. If you want to cook both onions and garlic, cook the onions first, then add the garlic. (Garlic burns quickly. Burnt garlic is bad.)
    6) Learn how to make soup out of whatever ingredients you have on hand.
    7) Many beginning cooks I’ve known (including me), when they first see the large amounts of fat and oil that go into their favorite foods, immediately start trying to make low-fat substitutions. Do not do this. Learn how to make the full-fat version first, then start fiddling with it if you want to.

  13. Scott says:

    I would disagree with a few of these things. The thing about the crockpot is not universally true, you really need to brown some things before crocking them such as a roast. Learn to use it wisely, there are other helpful crockpot tips. You absolutely can overseason a dish especially where kids are concerned and not all seasonings work well with each other. Freezing fruits and vegetables at home depends on what you plan to do with them after they’re thawed since they don’t return to their fresh like texture. I would not “always” make stock. The last thing I need is a freezer full of stuff I’ve spent time making that I may never eat. Only make stock if you plan to use it.

  14. Shannon says:

    I don’t know if I agree with the overseasoning issue. As #5, Nick, said, it’s very possible to overseason a dish, especially with salt. Salt should be added last to almost any dish–if you add too much at the beginning of the cooking process, it can impossible to undo it. I also think that we Americans oversalt in general, so getting away from salt towards other spices is key to good cooking and a more openminded palate.

    As #1, Johanna, states, there are spices that you should go easy on, as they will ruin a dish. Nutmeg is another one–too much nutmeg makes a dish taste medicinal and bitter.

  15. Bavaria says:

    Hmmm, looks like the peanut gallery is restless.
    Thanks for the article Trent and the encouragement to cook and enjoy the process.

  16. Q says:

    I’m surprised nobody has mentioned starting with “4 ingredient” cookbooks. I have a few lying around that I use when I try to teach my girlfriend. Also, I’ve seen a few lo-cal cook books with decent recipes inside.

    I like Johanna’s and Jeremy’s tips, and would add even further to start from the very very beginning – which is an ingredient list. As mentioned above, 4 ingredient cookbooks well for beginners, as the least amount of ingredients lowers the chance of an “error”. (“Errors” can be fixed or re-used, comes with experience). Reading the ingredients list 1st, the cooking and prep time (if listed) and the entire recipe will give you a gauge. Also, it isn’t “frugal” to just buy all the ingredients without further looking into if you will have “extra” of that ingredient or even if it might be better to buy a bag of such ingredient for future use. All the pre-planning helps.

    Getting started in the kitchen takes as much prep, if not more, than anything else you need to prep in life. Besides housing, food is the next highest expense for most people, and learning the basics to everything helps.

    Anyways, I’ve slowly been working on a cooking blog myself, inspired by Trent, and the coincidence that I have been teaching friends and loved ones how to cook!

    With that, I leave a staple “recipe” I teach:

    Cooking rice: You don’t “have” to wash the rice 1st, but it helps. Rice should always be a 2 to 1 water to rice ratio. That is, for every 1 cup of rice, you need 2 cups of water. 1 cup of rice can usually serve 2 or more persons, so, unless you love rice, start with 1/2 cup.

    So, start with the 1/2 cup of rice in the pot. Fill with 1 cup of water. Put the pot on the stove and turn to medium-high heat. On an electric that would be a 6, on a gas, it should be roughly be turned to a 5 o’clock position. Wait until the water starts to boil (maybe 5 minutes), then cover the rice with a lid/or small plate (as long as it is covered) and turn the heat to Low, or a 2 on an electric. Some electric stoves do not turn down the heat fast enough, so changing to another burner can help control the temperature.

    Set a timer (microwave timer is convenient for this) for 15 minutes. When the timer is up, check the rice – it should be close to done, if not done. If it isn’t, cook an additional 3 minutes. Cooking temperatures vary, so, cooking additional 3 minute increments controls any damage that can happen with the rice. Turn off the stove when all the water appears gone, and the rice is a solid white with a sheen. Congrats on your fresh pot of rice.

  17. Chelsea says:

    When you read Q’s description of cooking rice it seems so easy, but our rice cooker is the 2nd best investment in our kitchen (after the slow cooker). The rice cooker makes perfect rice, other grains, and steamed vegetables.

    +1 to sticking to comfort foods. Once I started cooking pasta on Monday, stir fry on Tuesday, pizza on Wednesday, chili on Thursday, etc. I got good at cooking all of those things and could move on to new things.

  18. Stephan F- says:

    On the dull knife thing… You also need a good cutting board. Plastic is best for raw meats as long as it fits in the dishwasher, wood is best for vegetables as it is faster then plastic.
    Whatever you do stay away from glass (dark lord of the Sith evil), it dulls a knife immediately, its horrible. My parents had one and it is just too dangerous, a sharp knife is a safer knife.

  19. Craig says:

    I like cooking but I love eating which poses a problem. With time restraints and lack of patience it is hard to cook a lot. I like items that are fast and easy to clean.

  20. Kris says:

    Johanna, Looby, Meg, and Shannon, I might add curry powder to the list of potential overseasoners. Too much, and you’ll want to scrape your tongue with a soccer cleat.

    Besides that, great post.

  21. cv says:

    I would add one more tip:

    Don’t let any one list of tips, book of recipes, or helpful friend be your sole source of cooking advice. All of my friends and family members cook and eat differently. Some eat less meat, some like things saltier, some eat lots of rice but little pasta and some are the opposite. For some reason I’ve never really felt the need for a crock pot. Trent can’t live without his.

    Start with basic recipes, and focus on what you like. Don’t spend the time learning how to make scrambled eggs or perfect rice or marinara sauce or hamburgers if you don’t really like them. Eat what tastes good to you, and don’t get hung up on what you’re supposed to like, or whether a particular combination of foods would seem weird to others.

    I like nutella on a tortilla as a snack. I eat baked potatoes topped with black beans and cheese for dinner when I’m feeling lazy. In college I lived on peanut butter and sliced apple sandwiches. I make homemade bread but buy stock. I throw some bulgur wheat in my vegetarian chili to give it a heartier texture. I can also cook plenty of dishes with more general appeal for when I have guests, but in private I eat what *I* like and cook the way it fits my lifestyle.

  22. beth says:

    (My other comment is awaiting moderation, so hopefully this one doesn’t post first…)

    Oh, and @Kris-#20… I about spit water all over myself reading your curry/cleat comment. Hilarious!

  23. Gabriel says:

    Here’s a great nutrition tip for stock – when you have bones, add a shot of apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, or some other acid. While you can’t really taste it (unless you add a lot because you want to), it ups the nutrition dramatically. It actually PULLS the calcium out from the bones, so you get a super nutrient rich broth!

    When making a stock like this, I’ve even added my old egg shells. You don’t taste them, they just add nutrition!

  24. chacha1 says:

    Gabriel, thanks for the tip on stock. I usually don’t make stock because I usually don’t cook meat with bones in (exception: oxtails), but I will remember this.

    Re: deglazing: depending on your recipe, try deglazing with liquor, wine, or balsamic vinegar. Even coffee/tea. It’s just a couple of tablespoons of liquid but can really expand the flavor profile.

    Re: browning: I only brown lamb or beef before slow cooking. Most pork roasts and turkey breast don’t have enough fat to caramelize, so you’ll just accelerate drying out the meat if you brown it first.

    Re: overseasoning: just as a counter-comment, if something *does* get overseasoned, the easy workaround is to add starch or dairy. But I never add salt to a meat dish until it’s finished and tasted. Usually, it doesn’t need any salt.

    My suggestion for a missing spectacular tip (y’all, it’s Trent’s blog, he can use whatever words he wants) is, if you want to start from zero with cooking, start in a class or with a tolerant friend who has a well-stocked kitchen. Not everyone likes the same flavors and it’s easy to overinvest in spices, especially, that you may not like.

    Finally (!) if you are getting more confident in the kitchen and want to try new flavors, World Market has become a great source of exotic ingredients, including spices, much less expensive than major grocery stores and a wider range.

  25. Andrea says:

    Ditto johanna, #1.

    One of the best books I ever found to help the utter novice turn into a pro was “How to Cook without a Book.” The author broke down basic proportions and showed people how to adapt them to almost any situation.

  26. bethh says:

    I’ve overdone cardamom in my baking sometimes: it adds good flavor, but too much of it imparts a dustiness that is not very nice.

    Ditto everyone’s cautions about salt.

    I’ve learned to wing it pretty well in the kitchen. I try to take notes, though, just in case something is SO great (or SO bad) that I want to remember it in future.

    Finally: keep inventories of your freezer & cupboards posted where you can easily consult them. I’ve fallen off that wagon but vow to get back on it.

  27. Susan says:

    I agree with Bavaria. Trent, thank you for the post. I enjoyed reading it and will review it again this evening when I am not eating my lunch at my desk.

  28. Candi says:

    I will say this, I am learning to cook. Some nights I am even pretty good. I, however, detest it. I just don’t enjoy cooking. None of the tips is going to make me suddenly like doing it.

    And good heavens, YES you can overseason a dish! And I am not talking salt. I am talking garlic, onions, rosemary etc. all of which when used with a heavy hand turn a good dish into one I simply won’t eat.

  29. michelle says:

    garlic garlic garlic.

    my roommate just picked up a HUGE (like 32 oz.)jar of minced garlic from the store for around $5. It saves so much time from chopping, and adding a spoonful of garlic to the pan before you start cooking makes a world of difference in flavor. You can’t go overboard, and almost everyone loves a garlicky flavor.

  30. Julie says:

    I have an even easier way to cook rice, I do it often and it always comes out perfect. I prefer Jasmine rice, I think it has a better flavor, a little sweeter, not so bland as plain white rice.

    The easiest way to cook rice is again, stick to the two to one ratio, but put it in bakeware. I use a Corningware set, and bake it in the oven. Jasmine for some reason is a little faster than plain rice, it takes about 30 minutes. I just dump in 1 cup rice, two cups liquid (sometimes using stock for flavor) put it in the bakeware, cover it with a lid and 30 minutes later, perfect. No waiting for water to boil, easy cheesey. If you arent sure of the time, just check it to see if all the water is absorbed. If so, its done.

  31. Debbie M says:

    When you mentioned learning a few helpful tips, the tips I remembered learning popped in my head, and they are quite different from yours:

    1) Scramble or fry eggs in a nonstick pan (or I’ve heard cast-iron is great, too) with additional lubricant (such as butter or spray oil). Otherwise it may take you many sessions of soaking and scrubbing to get that stupid pan clean.

    2) You do not have to dirty up every dish in the kitchen to bake. First get a big plastic bowl and melt your butter in the microwave in that. Then add the liquid ingredients and mix well. Then add your flour (don’t mix it in yet) and put the other ingredients on top of the flour. Then mix the dry ingredients as well as you can without dipping your stirring implement into the liquid part. The goal is to spread out the baking soda and baking powder so they don’t end up all clumped in one part of your batter. Then quickly mix it all together until just barely mixed and continue from there.

    3) If you grate the whole block of cheese at once, you only have to clean the grater once per blog of cheese. But grated cheese gets moldy more quickly than ungrated cheese. But it stores well in the freezer.

    4) When flipping pancakes, going more slowly trying to be careful does not help. Quickly slide the spatula under the pancakes. Psych yourself for a moment if necessary, then quickly flip the pancake. (It’s the same as with a bike—trying to ride slowly and carefully makes it much harder to keep your balance.)

    5) Ask your relatives to share their recipes for your favorite foods or let you watch them cook. Try to remember to do this before they die or go senile—it always seems like you have plenty of time, and you do, until one day you don’t. Also ask for recipes at potlucks. Some people won’t give you their recipe (but giving out your favorite recipes is great insurance in case you lose them and so that sometimes you can eat your favorite food without having to cook them first). Also some people either accidentally or deliberately don’t give you the recipe they actually use, but generally it’s really nice to start with a recipe of something you already know you will like.

    6) Similarly, volunteer to help people in the kitchen or at least keep them company while cooking. Ask them questions about what they’re doing and why. Learn from roommates while you still have some.

    7) Take notes on your recipes. Write if you liked it or, if not, what was wrong, and maybe recommendations of what to try next time. If you do try the recommendations, write down whether they worked or not. You can use sticky notes if you don’t actually want to write in your book or on your note card. (I am still learning this tip. It’s so hard to remember to pull the cookbook back out after I’ve eaten the thing I cooked.)

    As for “spectacular” I would have to agree that cooking with sharp knives is spectacularly better than cooking with dull knives. Yes, I learned to cook at camp. I’ve used a knife that was so dull it was sharper on the back than on the front. I have also used knives that have been used to open cans.

    To Craig, I find that if I eat my own cooking then my laziness helps cancel out my love of eating so that I am able to stay at my proper weight. The time I gained the most weight was when I had all the free food I wanted and didn’t have to cook it or do the dishes (I was a summer camp counselor).

  32. Gretchen says:

    Frozen vegetables are better than fresh, most of the year. I agree with canned being awful for most (tomatoes being the notable exception).

    The crockpot is only good for things you want to taste all like one thing, like soups. Distinct flavors don’t happen over all day. (and whomever pointed out the browning first is 100% correct.)

  33. Gretchen says:

    BTW, the crockpot is actually also great for making beans.

    Just toss them in unsoaked and let them go, then drain after cooking.
    You’ll want to season the water.

  34. Mel says:

    I’m a lifelong vegetarian (almost 30, never eaten meat) and 2 years ago I moved to Prague, Czech Republic. It’s still not a very vege-friendly place (think “yes, it’s vegetarian, it’s just got a bit of sausage in it”).

    I could barely cook when I arrived, but without the array of easy-to-use meat substitutes I was used to, I started getting more interested in how to cook. And I discovered… I can actually do it! I have some basic dishes, which are hard to mess up (except for mistaking the chili powder packet for paprika – that was ‘interesting’ potato goulash!). I’m now trying to learn how to organise “my” kitchen and pantry so eating at 10pm isn’t the norm. Not easy when we tend to get home at 8pm!

    My tip: I have a recipe folder of recipes printed from the net and photocopied from books. They’re in plastic pockets which get hung on the knife rack while I’m cooking, and I scribble notes on them (“make *sure* it’s not chili!”) as needed – often measurement conversions, sometimes time or quantity adjustments.

    But I found that for a lot of things, there just is no recipe – or it’s one that’s just told and remembered, not written down. I’ve found that listing those things in my folder is a great source of inspiration when I’m hungry and can’t decide what to eat.

    So, less than 2 years from “I can’t cook, don’t want to!” to helping a friend learn… not bad, I’d say. :) My (Czceh) boyfriend has even said I now do some traditional Czech things better than his mum and grandmother!

  35. Dave M says:

    My 2 cents on stock. If you have some bones and/or vegetable scraps, do make some stock (and I’m sure there’s a crockpot stock recipe out there somewhere). If you aren’t making soup or sauces right away, freeze the stock in ice cube trays, then store the cubes in zip bags. When you need some liquid for a stir fry or sautee, throw in a couple cubes. You’ll be surprised!

  36. deRuiter says:

    A loose-leaf notebook with clear plastic sheet protectors is really handy for organizing recipes. The loose-leaf stores TESTED hand wriiten recipes from friends, torn out magazine pages, recipes from the back of boxes (think original Toll House cookie recipe.) When a recipe in a book works, I X-erox copy the page and put it in the loose-leaf. All recipes which succeeded are marked with an “X” (means recipe worked.) Successful recipes are also marked with the date and occasion for which the dish was first prepared (this is such fun to read, and it brings back many happy memories over the years, “Made this pot roast the last time Grandma came for dinner and she loved it!” and often the weather, “Very cold and snowy, great day at home making this mushroom barley soup from the Russian Tea Room’s recipe.” When I want to make a particular recipe, IT’S ALWAYS EASY TO FIND, all tested recipes are in the loose-leaf, no hunting through many cooks books. The clear plastic protectors are practical in the kitchen while you cook. If they get messy, you wipe the pages with a damp cloth! My guilty secret is that I have two more of these loose-leaf notebooks, huge ones, with recipes which interest me, stored in the clear plastic protectors. I will never make most of these, but once in a while, for inspiration, I leaf through these books, and come up with a recipe to try. This is also where I store hand written recipes from friends, neighbors, chefs, recipes torn from magazines, back of the box recipes which are interesting. That way, when I want to try that nice recipe which So-and-so gave me, I KNOW WHERE IT IS instead of hoping the tiny slip of paper with the recipe is around somewhere! Store a copy of all your tested recipes off site. In case of a fire or flood, it’s bad enough to lose your “stuff”, but to lose family recipes, tried and true, a life time of collected, favorite dishes, would be too much. As long as the people, the pets, and the recipes survive, you can always start over! Your family recipe collection is a legacy.

  37. Rachel says:

    I agree with the salt caution, but otherwise a terrific post.

    A couple of other points – any cook should carefully read each recipe before starting – you could discover that it uses an ingredient you’re missing, a procedure you don’t have the equipment for/don’t feel comfortable doing or even is a badly written recipe that doesn’t mention all ingredients, is ambiguous or misses something else important that will leave you guessing and perhaps jeopardising the end result.

    Also, this is by no means a must for any cook, beginning or otherwise, but I really enjoyed a book called “The Science of Cooking” by Peter Barham – he describes several cooking and food preparation processes from a scientific perspective, troubleshooting for common problems that can arise etc. I found this book gave me a bit more confidence when I tried to break free from specific recipes and helped me to improvise with a good idea of what would work and what wouldn’t.

    One last point is to jot down any changes you make to your recipe and how it worked (do this in pencil if, like me, you have a big problem writing in books). Whatever the reason for the change the first time round – missing ingredient, urge to experiment or a serendipitous mistake – you want to have a note of how it turned out for next time, or for future generations who will find your recipe collection all the more precious for it.

  38. anne says:

    about paula deen’s farmer’s pork chops-

    i know it says to slice the potatoes into cold water then drain them- this is so they won’t turn that weird grey color from the air

    but instead i just have the white sauce already in the baking dishes (i never can fit this all in one dish) and put the potatoes in the white sauce and stir it up, then slice more potatoes, stir them in, etc. so they’re never sitting around long enough to turn color. then i put in the onions and put it all in the oven for 15 minutes like the recipe says.

    i’ve never done it w/ the cold water like you’re supposed to- just thought i’d share that.

  39. steve says:

    I don’t know what else there is to say on this topic. Unless you have an above average income, frugality will not make you rich. It will stave off disaster and maybe build you a little extra cushion, but unless you can stash away a good 30-50K per year from your mid 20s to retirement, you will never be rich. So you need an income of at least 60K to pull it off in an average working life.

    The numbers don’t lie.

  40. steve says:

    It’s difficult to overseason in the sense of making something taste so powerful of one flavor that it is unpalatable; however, it is fairly easy to overseason in the sense of throwing the balance of flavors of the dish off, particularly along the axes of sweetness, sourness, and saltiness.

  41. Bill in Houston says:

    I’ve found that you can overseason something by adding too much salt. Salt should enhance the flavor, not replace it. This isn’t the Revolutionary War era, and that haunch of beef doesn’t have to get us through the summer.

    I have become more familiar with my crockpot recently. The local Kroger has had some great sales on various meat. I picked up three chuck roasts a few weeks ago and turned one into Chicago Style “Italian Beef.” Last week pork ribs were 99 cents a pound. After defatting five pounds I was left with 4.6 pounds of pork and ribs. Into the crockpot with some generic barbecue sauce, a can of chunky tomato sauce, some apple cider vinegar, worcestershire sauce, shoyu, and garlic, paprika, a little chili powder, and some cumin. One hour on high, and 8 hours on low. Most of the meat fell off the bone, so I put that (3.6 pounds!) in a separate dish and put the bones in a bag. I saved most of the liquid and refrigerated it.

    We have dinner meat for a week. Total cost, maybe 6 bucks.

  42. Bill in Houston says:

    @ #39, you need a lot more than 60k a year to do that, but you can still be comfortable on 60k and retire comfortably.

    I have an income that is several multiples of that, and my wife makes that much, yet we’re still frugal. We want our house paid off soonest, both cars paid off (one down, one to go), our student loans paid off, and want to save up a decent amount for our kids’ college (we do need to pop a few out first, but we want to be ready).

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