Five Big Mistakes Beginner Cooks Make

Americans now spend more money on bars and restaurants than they do on groceries. A major reason for the change is that we live increasingly busy, on-the-go lifestyles. However, there’s another factor that might be just as significant: Many Americans have poor cooking skills or simply aren’t comfortable in the kitchen.

The problem is magnified among millennials. In fact, just 45% of those ages 18 to 24 consider themselves at least “somewhat good” at cooking. When a generation that’s known to ooze self-confidence admits to being only “somewhat good” at a skill, you know something’s up.

I empathize with these millennials. When I first started trying to cook my own meals, I struggled. I would throw everything into a slow cooker and hope for the best. It didn’t matter if all I had in my fridge was carrots, ketchup, and some old fish — into the slow cooker they went.

While that’s cost effective, it was also gag-inducing. All too often, I found myself overpaying for restaurant food because I was so sick of eating my own slop. My strategy didn’t help my social life, either: If you want your roommates to hate you, just try slow cooking stinky fish five times a week.

Fortunately, with just a little bit of practice, you can become a competent home chef and eat well without spending so much money on restaurant meals or take-out. I spoke with Sabrina Sexton, the program director for the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan, about the big mistakes amateur cooks tend to make when starting out.

Mistake No. 1: They Have Unrealistic Expectations

While I wasn’t putting enough thought into my meals, many others have the opposite problem. They see something delicious on the Food Network, and then try to recreate that meal. Or they go out to a nice restaurant, get the recipe from the chef, and become determined to make that same, complicated meal at home.

What some people fail to realize is that nice restaurant meals “are usually the result of multiple cooks, who often spend days preparing the different elements of a meal,” Sexton says. “That makes these meals impossible for even serious amateur cooks to reproduce at home. Most chefs rarely even try!”

Instead, Sexton advises, “Manage your expectations and keep it simple.” For instance, it takes minimal effort or skill to unwrap a few chicken breasts, season them, and then put them in the oven, but that’s all it takes to make this very well reviewed baked chicken recipe. You can get frustrated and burned out trying to hit home runs every time you’re in the kitchen, especially if you’re new at it — so it’s best to start slow and simple.

Mistake No. 2: They Don’t Do Prep Ahead of Time

In a restaurant, prep work is of utmost importance. “In the professional kitchen, all the preparation is done hours prior to actually cooking,” Sexton says. “This can cut down on time and stress when it comes to cooking the meal.”

The prep work in a professional kitchen has a fancy name: mise en place. In your home kitchen, it’s just called chopping up the vegetables ahead of time.

For example, if you were to make these tasty-sounding vegetarian tacos, the recipe might seem intimidating at first. It calls for things like minced garlic, chopped onions, and a very specific amount of lime juice. If you were to try to throw this all together after a long day of work, it’d be easy to get frustrated and order a pizza instead.

But if you try to knock out the prep whenever you have free time — dicing the onions, measuring out the spices – you can store the ready-to-go ingredients in your fridge for at least a couple days until you’re ready to use them. This will take away a lot of the headache when you actually want to make the meal.

If you really want to get hardcore about it, you can participate in something the folks over at Reddit have termed Meal Prep Sunday. This is a community that shares tips on how to prepare meals in bulk on a Sunday so that you don’t have to think about it the rest of the week. Trent is also a huge proponent of using lazy weekend days for meal prep to make your weeknights easier.

Mistake No. 3: They Just Wing It

I’ve been guilty of looking up a great recipe, doing the first three or four steps, and then assuming I can just do the rest without referring back to the recipe. Apparently, I’m not alone, as Sexton felt strongly that taking a haphazard approach to cooking is a big reason why amateur cooks experience frustration.

She advises people to explicitly follow a recipe when attempting to make meals that are even somewhat complicated. Eventually, you’ll gain the confidence and skills to make the leap. But at the start, don’t feel bad about taking your time and reading every part of the recipe.

Also, don’t be afraid to look up words you’re unfamiliar with. “Some recipes do a better job of explaining steps than others,” Sexton says. “If you don’t understand a term or technique in a recipe, stop and Google it.” As your grandma always said, patience is a virtue.

Mistake No. 4: They Don’t Watch Instructional Videos

Sexton is agnostic about where to find the best recipes, because there are so many good resources out there. A simple online search will provide you with tons of fantastic options.

But while there are many great recipes, Sexton recommends that amateur cooks hone in on ones that allow you to follow along with a video. “The critical thing to look for is websites that offer videos that explain technique. There is no point in trying to follow a recipe if you don’t understand what it’s asking you to do, and if you don’t understand the steps involved,” she explains.

Videos are especially great for people who are visual learners. Something that looked complicated in writing can sometimes seem quite simple after you watch someone else do it.

Mistake No. 5: They Don’t Invest in Quality Cookware

Trying to cook with cheap, dull knives and a haphazard assortment of rusty pots and pans is going to frustrate you and stall your growth as a cook. That doesn’t mean you need to have a professionally stocked kitchen to cook well. But investing in a few high-quality tools of the trade can help you get more comfortable in the kitchen.

“The home cook doesn’t need a lot of stuff,” Sexton notes. “One or two saute pans, one or two sauce pans, and a good pot is enough. The other items worth investing in are good-quality knives, like Wusthof. Must-haves are a six- or eight-inch chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a serrated knife.”

While some of the better brands get expensive, it’s easier to bite the bullet when you look at cost per use as opposed to just the upfront cost. If at all possible, it’s worth it to pay a little extra to get something you only have to buy once. As Sexton puts it, “Good quality pots and pans will last a lifetime and help ensure good results when cooking.”

You can save a bit of money picking up high-quality cookware used: Keep an eye out on sites like Craigslist and eBay for secondhand items from respected brands. They might not look quite as pretty as the shiny new set of cheaper kitchenware you can get at Walmart, but they will last longer, perform better, and likely cost you less in the long run.

Summing Up

I recently had a friend tell me that he would like to cook more for himself, but he just “doesn’t know how.” He associates cooking with fear and frustration.

With a little practice and patience, people like my friend can start to associate cooking with frugality, flavor, and fun. The cost savings are both immediate and immense – and cooking at home can also be major boon for your health: People consume on average 200 more calories per meal when eating out versus eating at home.

So, if you want to save money, get healthier, and maybe impress your friends, it’s time to break the bad habits and start doing great things in the kitchen.

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