Tips for Rookie Cooks

Tips for Rookie Cooks

Tips for Rookie Cooks

What seems perfectly obvious to the experienced cook can scare a novice right out of the kitchen, so for those of you who are new to cooking, we’ve put together some tips, suggestions, and simple explanations that we hope will squelch your fears and make it the fun and satisfying adventure it is meant to be. We’ve also included our favorite tips and shortcuts—tricks that will make cooking faster and easier. So whether you’re a kitchen newbie, read this section to discover a tip or two that we hope will help you prepare easy, stress-free, delicious meals.

  • Read the recipe

Read the recipe Before you begin cooking—even before you decide on something you think you’d like to make— read the whole recipe all the way through. Make sure you know upfront if something needs to be made the day before and chilled overnight, or if it’s best served straight out of the oven, or if it serves two people and you’re expecting 10.

  • Don’t stress over quantities

“One teaspoon of ground cumin” is merely a suggestion. Unless you’re baking, when precise measurements truly do matter, most recipes are merely suggestions. Since this is a cookbook, as opposed to a conversation, we provide detailed instructions for making our dishes—but please take those instructions with a grain (or half a teaspoon) of salt. If you adore black pepper, or garlic, or beets, go ahead and use as much as you’d like, wantonly ignoring our recommendations. Just take care not to overdo it; taste as you go.

  • Don’t stress over ingredients

It may sound strange if you’re used to following recipes word for word, but even ingredients are negotiable. If you’re making a stuffed chicken breast recipe, then, yes, you do kind of need a chicken breast. But you don’t need to follow any recipe (except when you’re baking) precisely as written. If a recipe calls for three or four dried herbs and you’ve only got two of them, you don’t need to run out to the market for those you don’t have on hand. Just use what you have, increasing their quantities to make up for the missing flavors. You can even swap one dried herb for another—just sniff around your spice rack until your nose finds you a good substitute. Firm vegetables can often be used interchangeably—vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, and potatoes. So can the more tender veggies—eggplant, peppers, mushrooms, asparagus. If a recipe calls for butternut squash, try swapping it with pumpkin, zucchini, or summer squash. Pretty much all salad greens are interchangeable, though the result may have a slightly different look or flavor. A recipe that calls for soft fruit like peaches will probably work just as well with another soft fruit, like apricots or pears. One nut or berry is as good as another. What we’re trying to say is: Don’t be afraid to experiment, whether inspired by creativity or by constraints!

  • Fresh versus frozen

Whether we’re talking about meat, fish, fruits, or vegetables, fresh is always preferable to frozen. Who wouldn’t want to cook with ingredients purchased that morning at the farmer’s market or picked straight from your bountiful garden? But we know that this scenario isn’t always possible, so feel free to substitute frozen foods when necessary. The FDA has declared that frozen fruits and veggies are just as nutritious as fresh. Some say they may even be more nutritious because they are usually frozen immediately after harvesting—whereas fresh produce may sit around the grocery store for days or even weeks. It’s also just incredibly convenient to have a stash of frozen foods in your freezer, available for use at a moment’s notice. And we all know that love convenience.

  • How to heat oil (or butter)

Numerous recipes begin, “Heat oil in a skillet until hot but not smoking,” but you might wonder how you’re supposed to know if it is hot enough. With butter, it’s fairly easy to tell, since it becomes liquid and you can see it bubbling away. It’s a little trickier with oil, but only a little. One way to tell if oil is hot is that it will begin to shimmer. If you’re still not sure if it is hot enough, throw a small piece of whatever you are cooking into it. If the food immediately sizzles, you know your oil is hot. If it doesn’t sizzle, remove the bit of food and wait another minute or two.

  • How to cook pasta

Set a big pot of water (enough to allow the pasta plenty of room to circulate as it cooks) over high heat. Toss in several healthy pinches of salt. (Adding salt is crucial for giving flavor to the noodles themselves. Salting them after cooking or salting the sauce will not prevent the noodles themselves from being bland.) Bring water to a boil and add pasta. Lower heat just enough to prevent water from boiling over, and cook, stirring occasionally to keep the pasta from sticking together or to the bottom of the pot. Consult the pasta package for recommended cooking time, generally somewhere between 8 and 12 minutes. Taste a piece—if it’s too hard to bite, let it cook a little longer. Pasta is done when it’s chewy and tender, but still a little firm in the center. (This state is called al dente, meaning “to the teeth” in Italian—referring to the pasta’s chewable firmness. Overcooked pasta becomes soft and bloated.) If you are making a warm dish, reserve about 1 cup of pasta cooking water in case you need it for the sauce. (This water, unlike water straight from the tap, will add a bit of flavor to your sauce and will also help to thicken a sauce since it contains starch from the pasta.) Drain pasta in a colander set over the sink. If you’re making a cold pasta salad, rinse the pasta with cold water to hasten to cool and to wash off any excess starch. If you’re making a warm dish, don’t rinse it. For sauced pasta dishes, you may want to cook the pasta until it is just slightly underdone and finish cooking it in the sauce. This will both help to thicken your sauce and help your pasta absorb the flavors of the sauce.

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