- Read the Recipe
When I first started out cooking for myself there were many times when I started to prepare a recipe only to find out that I should have marinated the pork… last night, or that I needed to chill a dish for hours before I could even serve it.
Reading a long recipe can be a pain, I know. But spend that 5 minutes to read through ahead of time and future-you will thank you for it. It can save you from surprises and headaches – like not having an essential ingredient.
Don’t forget to re-read when you begin cooking (because most of us don’t have a photographic memory).
- Follow the Recipe (at least for the first time)
I learned my lesson when I was a beginner cook after many cooking fails. I thought I could just wing it!
I started to follow recipes properly and once I got comfortable with them, I was able to improvise and make tweaks to my taste. After a couple of goes, I started seeing similarities to other recipes (especially in similar cuisines) and I became more comfortable with making my own changes and substitutions.
If you’re feeling nervous as a beginner, it’s easiest and often simplest to follow the recipe as directed. This includes using actual measuring spoons, not the regular spoons you eat with (they are not the same)! But also allow yourself some room to deviate – for example, if you hate coriander (like me), leave it out.
If your recipes are describing techniques that you’re unsure about, feel free to check out Good Cook Guide’s cooking school.
- Have the Essential Cooking Tools and Equipment for Beginners
And I don’t mean the latest food processor or manual chopper machine. There are plenty of gadgets and appliances out there that claim to make your cooking life easier, but there are only a few that I would consider essential in my kitchen.
This is my stripped-down list for a budding home cook or someone living in a small flat or on a tighter budget. In my opinion, these are the must-have items for beginner cooks (I’ll do a separate list for baking):
If you have the budget, then consider investing in a good chef’s knife as it can last you many many years and can make life in the kitchen a lot easier.
There are plenty of options out there to suit all budgets, so try not to use your plates or countertops if you can help it. Consider getting two boards so that raw foods can be prepared separately, to avoid cross-contamination.
Ideally, a saucepan and a non-stick frying pan
This gives you a good degree of flexibility in the dishes you can make and can cut cooking times if you can use both at the same time for more involved dishes. If you are looking to cook on a budget, then I would recommend a deeper frying pan (and ideally with a lid), which can do both jobs and give beginners access to most recipes.
An oven-safe dish
Don’t worry about this if you don’t have an oven. But if you do, then consider getting an oven-safe deep dish (such as tempered glass). This opens up a whole new avenue for cooking!
You have your eating utensils (e.g. forks, spoons, and chopsticks) but don’t forget your cooking utensils! Wooden utensils are a good go-to and can help prolong the life of non-stick cookware (they also work for other cookware like metal). A spoon and spatula would be good for most of your flipping and tossing needs.
You can always peel potatoes and fruit using a knife, but I am just not that skilled! My personal favorite is a Y peeler – I find it much easier to use compared to a swivel peeler.
Not all cans have pull-rings so, yeah, can’t live without this one.
To drain all that yummy pasta (unless you have tongs). If you don’t trust the cleanliness of your sink, then a colander will also be useful for washing produce.
Measuring Cups and Spoons
If you’re taking up my advice and cooking as directed in a recipe, then you’ll need proper measuring tools to measure out specialty quantities like 1/3 cup or ¼ tablespoon. These tools are especially important for baking where it is an exact science and ‘eyeballed’ quantities are unlikely to give you good results.
With the tools and equipment listed above, there isn’t much you can’t make. And in my mind, other utensils and implements can be bought as and when you need them.
- Keep Your Knives Sharp
Did you know that a dull blade can be more dangerous to use than a sharp one?
There was a time when I used to get nasty cuts from chopping vegetables such as tomatoes and onions when my knife slipped. I used to think it was (just) my chopping technique. The difference was night and day when I got a new knife – I never knew vegetables could cut like butter!
It turns out that you use more pressure to cut with a dull blade. The increased force behind the knife results in crushes and tears rather than slices and can increase the chances of a knife slipping. A sharp blade would “grip” the surface more readily and actually slice.
- Steady Your Chopping Board
With sharp knives you want to make sure that your board doesn’t swivel around, to prevent any potential accidents. An easy way to keep your chopping board in place is to put a damp towel underneath it, which will help stabilize it. This also helps maintain a steady surface when you are rolling out dough.
- Have Everything Ready
A fancier way of saying this is “mise en place”, where the equipment is organized and set out and all the ingredients are prepared (meaning washed, measured, chopped, diced, or whatever the recipe calls for) before you start cooking.
Cooking becomes a lot less daunting when everything you need is at your fingertips. You don’t want to be measuring out the next ingredient when other items are overcooking. This is a simple way to make cooking less hectic for any beginner.
- Turn Pan Handles to the Side
All logic gets thrown out the window when you’re hangry after a long working day. Because of this, I used to rush around a cramped kitchen in a small flat and have had many close calls with running into pot and pan handles.
By turning the handles away to the side (as long as they’re not sticking out), you minimize the risk of you – or anyone, really, including young ones – running into and knocking over hot foods and pans that can cause nasty burns.
A safe cook is a happy cook!
- Don’t Overcrowd Your Pan or Baking Dish
Have you ever wondered why your potatoes have come out soggy from the oven? Or that your meat didn’t get that crisp brown finish when you pan-fried it?
This one took me a while to realize but your food needs space to brown or crisp up. When you cram your food together, they start to steam rather than brown because of the moisture that gets released. So instead of super crispy, you get super soggy.
To get that super crispy finish, make sure you give your food enough space in the pan or baking dish. Cook in batches, if you have too much food or if your pan is too small.
- Pre-heat Your Pan
You’re hungry and you want your food, now. I get it. But, in terms of cooking, patience really is a virtue. Similar to the point above, moisture is released as your food heats up. So when you put food into a cold pan, you might end up with really dry meat in the end!
Spend the time to pre-heat your pan! Lock in that moisture and you’ll be rewarded with a nice sear.
- Salt Everything, but Taste as You Go
Salt is often what’s needed to overcome blandness. To prevent over-salting at the end, you should season when instructed during the recipe. You want to make sure you’re adding salt during the cooking process to allow the flavors to develop.
Remember to always taste as you go, so you know when to stop! You can always add salt, but it’ll be very hard to take away.
- Give Yourself Enough Time to Cook
It’s always a good idea to keep track of cooking times and, even better still, to set a timer for a few minutes less than what’s been called for in a recipe. Most ovens heat up differently, so it’s important to check on your food to make sure it doesn’t overcook!
But don’t be discouraged if you are, overall, taking longer than what the recipe states (e.g. during preparation). You’re new to this and not everyone works at the same speed, especially when juggling a few things at once. When cooking dishes that are more involved, it may be that as a beginner, you assume you’ll need more time than stated in the recipe so you’re not rushing towards the end.
- Learn from Your Mistakes and Successes
I’ve had plenty of cooking fails and well… they happen! Sure, it’s disappointing when things don’t turn out as expected. But I also take it as encouragement that I am finding out what works and what doesn’t, what I enjoy and what I don’t, and what things I’m good at and what I can improve on.
Cooking is a never-ending learning process. Failures and successes are both undoubtedly part of the process of becoming a better cook!