Learning the basics of at-home cooking has been both one of the most rewarding and the most punishing experiences of my life. I truly think that experimenting with food, using trial and error a lot of the time, has taught me to be much more okay with making small mistakes in my life.
That’s because I know that I can always come back from it. I know that I’ll try again and maybe next time I’ll figure out a couple more things, do a few more things right, and ultimately end up with better results. But I’m not expecting perfection.
Why I decided to cook
I didn’t grow up with cooks. Neither of my parents, or grandparents, or siblings for that matter, could cook. That’s not to say that I didn’t eat well as a child. I very much enjoyed a weekly pizza night, some frozen fish sticks, a lot of out-of-the-box cooking, and all kinds of takeout. I had zero complaints.
With that being said, I always ate my veggies, haven’t ever been a picky eater, and I think that’s because my parents exposed me to a lot of different kinds of food at a young age. My favorite place to eat when I was a child was a Chinese place. I still dream about their sweet and sour chicken sometimes.
However, I always felt like there was something missing when it came to dinner time at my house. Sometimes, I’d go to a friend’s place and be in awe of the beautiful meals my friend’s parents were putting on their table. So, I remember a certain point in my teens I firmly decided I wanted to cook.
Learning the basics
I experimented with cooking the usual things that I would eat on my own when I was a teen, but in my twenties is really when the magic happened. I moved into my own apartment, had to buy my own groceries, and was able to make more informed decisions about what I wanted to be eating.
I very much remember chowing down on a lot of buttered angel hair noodles with some shrimp, calling it “shrimp scampi”, and thinking I was at the height of luxury. But a couple of years later I decided to go vegan. Now, this story doesn’t have anything to do with dietary restrictions and I’m certainly not telling you what is best for your life and your body, just to be clear. However, being the person that I am and thinking I knew best, I decided to go vegan overnight (disclaimer: do not do this). Suddenly, I was like, “what am I going to eat?” and that actually forced me to abruptly confront my eating and cooking habits.
As such, one of the best decisions I made, quite quickly after I looked at an empty fridge with no earthly idea what I was going to eat, was to invest in cookbooks. The first one I ever bought was Vegan Cooking for Carnivores which turned out to be an incredible choice because it took me back to square one and taught me a lot of cooking basics that I thought I knew, but totally didn’t.
For example, it laid out plainly what kind of things I should keep in stock in my pantry and fridge to make everyday cooking easier like: your standard herbs and spices (garlic, oregano, basil, paprika, etc.), some sort of cooking broth (veggie or otherwise), pasta, beans, lentils, and rice that you can use for tons of dishes, and a versatile high heat oil (I use grapeseed. It’s cheap and pretty good quality).
Furthermore, it taught me basic terms like: julienne, mince, dice, cut on the bias, and chiffonade, which are all just fancy words for cutting in a specific way that suits your dish.
Once I understood those things, I was able to graduate to making basic stuff like pasta sauces, soups, dips, basic roasted veggies, and little finger foods. Then, I tried my hand at more complicated recipes like homemade pizza, where I made the dough, sauce, and included some tasty toppings. The first time I made an edible pizza, let me tell you, I was absolutely over the moon.
Setting realistic expectations
So, now to the meat and potatoes (pun intended) of why I think everyone should force themselves to do at least some at home cooking.
- It taught me to be okay with messing up
- I learned to take critical feedback
- I felt SO accomplished when I achieved a good result
Listen, I know it doesn’t feel good to try and fail, but if you take away nothing else, just listen to this. When I put myself out there, tried to learn a new skill, and failed, guess what happened? Nothing. I made some not great food that was still totally edible most of the time, and I learned to critically look at a situation and decide what I did wrong.
I learned to remove myself from the equation and know that I had the skill within me to get it right, I just had to be willing to try again. Getting it wrong was never a reflection on me, my talents, or my self-worth.
And guess what else? The very next time I tried, I usually got it right. Man, that is such a good feeling to snap a picture and pop it on your Instagram and actually be looking forward to dinner most nights because you know it’s not going to be the same old chicken nuggets, which are still great by the way.
Where should you start?
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, like you have no idea what you’re doing, try doing what I did and go back to the beginning. Try following a cookbook or YouTube tutorial like Binging with Babish.
I love all of his videos, which are mostly based on famously cooked meals from tv and film. However, he also has an entire series where he teaches you basics like how to cook eggs, fish, risotto, a solid steak, and much more. He also has two cookbooks that contain the recipes and step by steps that you need to know (I own the newest one). This isn’t an endorsement, I just truly think his content is super accessible for everyone at any level and that’s probably because he’s also self-trained.
Anyway, back to “where to start”. Just start with learning how to cut your ingredients, then maybe try some easy cooking methods like sautéing in a pan or roasting in the oven. Then, once you get more comfortable with that you can work in some more complicated recipes with multiple steps, multiple cooking methods, and maybe even some fancy kitchen tools like a food processor, immersion blender, or a pressure cooker.
It is going to be easy? Not always, but that’s the beauty of it. You can learn to critically analyze yourself, fix your mistakes, and try try try again. You can start somewhere, build on what you know, and in no time you’ll be looking back wondering how you ever got by on all those instant noodles.