When you are learning how to cook, reading any recipe makes the dish sound so easy. You cut that up, add a splash of this, add a dash of that, lower the heat, and in the end you have a perfect meal.
I WISH it worked that way…unfortunately trial and error are what ultimately make you the best you can be. As I have taught myself how to cook over the last year, I had a lot of epiphanies, and “a-ha” moments. Sometimes they were a little too late and sometimes I was able to save the dish right in the nick of time.
Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned and hopefully they will help you along your cooking journey.
1. Prep your ingredients.
This has happened more times that I would like to admit, but my sauce is fully cooked and I need to add an ingredient that is either not measured out or not cut up. This ultimately leads to something becoming over cooked or burning. So my cooking lesson is to make sure EVERY SINGLE INGREDIENT you are using is measured out and cup up prior to even starting to cook your dish. Timing is everything when it comes to making your meal perfect.
2. Use the right size pan.
Week 19: Chicken Pad Thai, it the perfect example of this. The pan I had was just way too small for all the ingredients. This resulted in 1. a giant mess in my kitchen, 2. I had to split my dish up so it would all cook, and 3. it was not evenly cooked as some parts were crispy and other were soggy. Make sure you have the right size pan before making a dish or there is almost no way it will turn out right.
3. Have the proper kitchen appliances.
There are a number of times when I truly cannot make something because I do not have the proper kitchen appliance. This can be the correct type of knife, a mandolin, a food processor, a large enough pan or even the right baking dish. When starting out this can be expensive to buy all the appliances and equipment, so make sure that there are a number of recipes you want to make that will require that appliance and buy one at a time. Once you have it all, cooking is so much easier and enjoyable.
4. Clean as you go.
A messy work space makes it difficult to prepare your meal. If you have a million unwashed bowls and ingredients all over the counter, it is difficult to find space to continue your preparations. When you have lulls, like something is heating up on the stove or in the oven for a few minutes, put ingredients away or place bowls in the sink. This will allow you to always have a work space to continue building your dish.
5. Thaw your meats.
One of the biggest mistakes is not taking my meat out of the freezer early enough. This can drastically impact the cooking time and if a brine or marinade penetrates the meat. I recommend placing frozen meat in the refrigerator during the day, and then take it out and leave it on the counter for 1-2 hours prior to cooking. This should allow it to be fully thawed and easier to work with. If you are brining it or marinading it, fully thaw the meat prior to placing in the brine. Then place back into the refrigerator for the required amount of time.
6. Buy a spice rack.
This may be a big purchase, but if you can spend $30-$40 on a filled spice rack, it will make buying the ingredients so much easier! There have been a lot of times where I have been able to experiment with the spices or I have been able to save money not buying the spice individually.
7. Your dish will take longer than the approximated time on the recipe.
The recipe may say it will only take 30-40 minutes, but factor in that it will take you at least 1 hour- 1 1/2 hours to make the dish. When you are starting out, you will constantly check the recipe for the next step and ingredient measurements. Also, just the fact that being new in the kitchen means you will move a lot slower than most seasoned chefs.
8. Practice makes perfect.
This applies to a lot of different aspects of life, but especially in the kitchen. Your first attempt may have great flavor but the consistency may be off, or you have the consistency right but the flavor is missing something. Either way you should keep trying. I made summer rolls in week 33 and I realized I over stuffed my rice paper so I couldn’t roll them as tight. They were still good, but the ingredients kept falling out. Next time I will use fewer ingredients and try to roll them tighter. The more I practice the better I will get.
9. Step out of your comfort zone.
Once you master a dish, or perfect the cooking of a type of meat, it is so easy to continue to make that one item. I was this way for 26 years. Making a different dish every week allowed me to try making cuisines from different cultures, and using spices and seasonings from other countries. The more I used, the more I realized there is so much more than just baked chicken. So step out of your comfort zone and pick a crazy recipe. Who knows, it may be your next favorite dish!
10. Have Fun
I am a perfectionist and I want every dish to turn out perfectly. But the truth is, you are going to mess up… A LOT. So don’t sweat it! Practice makes perfect and have fun doing it. When the dish turns out great celebrate, when it doesn’t laugh it off and try again! If you really want to boost your moral, turn on Netfix’s Nailed it, and regain your confidence!
11. Take a Cooking Class.
As a new chef, I wanted to boost my confidence in the kitchen and just have more kitchen skills. To do this, I recommend taking a cooking class. A lot of cooking schools or community colleges will provide cooking classes that you can do as a group, date night activity, or individually to improve your skills. If you are a new chef like me, an introductory cooking class will teach you basic kitchen knowledge like knife skills, how to cook different proteins and how to measure ingredients correctly. If you live in the Washington, DC area like me, check out CulinAerie! They truly have some great classes, but they book up fast!