Learn to Cook

There is no way to write this article without working in several hackneyed phrases, but simply put learning to cook is an essential life skill that far too many people put off for far too long. Cooking is a valuable and rewarding way to spend time, and the goal of this article is to provide an impetus to someone that is considering beginning to cook but has yet to truly begin the process. If you are already well versed in the art of cooking then I doubt I have anything to offer you, but certainly pass this along to anyone who is oddly hesitant to enter the delightful world of culinary perfection.

While frozen pizzas can be quite tasty, wouldn't it be even better to create one's own pizza from scratch, replete with any toppings that can be imagined and all for a fraction of the cost of its frigid or delivered competitors? Restaurant prepared meals can be both visually and flavorfully dazzling, but wouldn't it be more impressive to create equally dazzling and far healthier meals in your own home, on your schedule and for far less money? Is there a cuisine you've always wanted to try but haven't been able to due to a lack of local restaurants or a dietary restriction? Learn to cook those cuisines yourself! No longer do peanut allergies need to repel one who wants to connect with Thai or Indian cuisine, when the allergic individual can shape recipes and flavors to their own needs while maintaining the integrity of the initial dish. These reasons should be enough to motivate anyone to achieve basic understanding of the culinary arts.

Cooking is an activity that can be done with friends and family, and that can help to shape one's understanding of different cultures and flavor profiles. Getting started cooking is as simple as picking out a recipe or watching someone cook one for you, and working to imitate it to produce the desired result. Just recently, I passed a powepoint file of recipes that I maintain along to my friend that had been living, quite literally, on Ramen noodles and frozen pizza for over a year. He tried some of the recipes in the file, and in response he said that “cooking can be fun - who knew?”. If that doesn't make it clear just how easy it is to be converted to the joys of cooking, try for yourself or ask your friends and family and you'll be churning out delightful food in no time at all.

Why Cook?

  • Impress your friends and family with your newfound talents and with your exciting palate. No one will ever think less of you because you've learned to cook.
  • Save Money! When you have to buy ingredients for a recipe separately, you save a lot of cash compared to buying a prepared meal at a restaurant or in the freezer section. Plus you will often end up with leftovers that can stave off the need to buy additional meals.
  • Improve your health. Now, there is nothing implicitly wrong with prepared foods simply because they are pre-prepared; “organic” and “natural” foods to not have any inherent superiority to other varieties. That being said, most restaurant and pre-made meals have large amounts of salt and/or fat, neither of which is kind to one's arteries or longevity. Cooking your own meals will allow you to control the proportions of these ingredients and will teach you to find ways to add flavor without destroying nutritive properties.
  • Broaden your tastes. Did you think that there was a food item that you simply don't like, such as Brussels sprouts or beets? When you can control the way these ingredient are prepared, odds are you will be able to find a way to cook them that is pleasing to your palate. Allergies or other dietary concerns preventing you from trying particular types of cuisine at a restaurant? Make those foods yourself and discover the flavors of the world that you've been missing!
  • Spend time together. Cooking can be a great way to spend more intimate time with your family or significant others, and cooking cooperatively can both speed up the process and make it more enjoyable for all involved. It's also a great new way to pick up new techniques and family secrets that will make your recipes shine.

Steps to Cooking

There is no secret to cooking per se, and it's largely an empirical skill that requires tailoring to one's own tastes and abilities. There are many techniques and ingredients that I have never used and indeed my never use since they might require expensive kitchen equipment or large time investments that I (and most any busy person) will not be able to readily make. Most of the steps that go into cooking a delicious meal, however, are very simple, and the execution of said meal relies upon uniting these various skills and utilizing them in tandem to produce one dish. That being said, leaping in to a recipe can be a somewhat daunting feat to those that only know how to butter toast or boil water, so breaking down your journey into the kitchen may help remove some of the anticipatory mental barriers that are keeping you away from your culinary potential.

Start Small

Trying to do too much to quickly when one lacks the requisite skills can cause a kitchen meltdown for the new would be chef. Recipes may call for certain specialty ingredients that many people aren't familiar with (for example, lemongrass is likely unknown to those not well versed in asian cuisine), or techniques that the average person won't have in their repertoire (blanching or chiffonade cutting, for example).

To gain a basic understanding of the types of ingredients and techniques used by chefs and cuisines of the world, it can be very useful to watch the Food Network or similar television channels or shows. The most useful shows are those in which commentators break down the importance of specific techniques or ingredients. With time, watching these shows can build a basic literacy in the interested chef that will improve their ability to replicate recipes that they find in their culinary adventures.

That being said, there is no need to watch others to begin to learn to cook. Simply find a relatively simple recipe and begin to prepare it as described - for example, my first recipe was a simple chicken parmesan that only required the skills of breading and pan-frying chicken breasts and cooking them in the oven. If something in the recipe isn't immediately clear, a quick online search will undoubtedly return several results that can clarify the term or demonstrate the needed technique in a helpful manner. Do not begin with a complex recipe requiring large amounts of ingredients or steps - while they may prove to be delightful if executed correctly, the increased number of steps results in greater room for error and thus a higher chance of being discouraged by a sub par result. Fresh pasta or a roux, for example, are not recipes well suited to beginners and should be aspired to with time.

The Trick of Taste

The hardest part of learning to cook is not the mastery of techniques or ingredients - these all become easier with time and experience. No, the most difficult skill in the culinary arsenal of any good chef is the ability to properly season food and to balance various taste profiles. The key here is to make sure you taste your food as you cook it. Obviously you shouldn't taste undercooked meat, but that exception aside it is essential that you taste any sauces you are making before they are done. While recipes are always a good place to start, if you don't taste your sauce in advance you likely won't realize when it needs more salt or pepper, which will result in a sub-par and flavorless or broken sauce. Make sure to taste test every component of the dish and consider how well they will taste together as well as separately. Once you have mastered the art of tasting and seasoning, you will never have to worry about serving bad food to your friends as you'll know how it will taste before you even serve it, and if you identify a problem in the flavor then you will be able to fix it before the food ends up being served.

Be Bold

Once you have a basic feeling for the essentials of cooking, you are ready to begin to improvise! When in doubt, go with big flavors that will be able to shine through a recipe. While adding 30 different spices may produce a very nuanced dish, 95% of the time you'll be able to get a more delicious meal using only two or three spices which are each carefully emphasized in the final product. Try to create meals that balance a range of flavors, by incorporating ingredients that stimulate sweet, savory, salty, and spicy palates at the same time, without allowing any one of these tastes to dominate the others. By including contrasting yet complementary flavors as well as textures in the final product, one can be assured that the recipes will prove to be successful. If you have begun to master the improvisational side of cooking then there is nothing else for you to learn here; go forth and cook!

Cooking | Food

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