There are plenty of practical reasons for learning how to cook: saving money, controlling what you eat, knowing precisely what’s in your food. I’m in it for the impractical. I love making a 27-ingredient mole negro when a craving strikes, hosting half a dozen friends on the fly on a weeknight, transforming peanut butter into a four-course meal in under an hour just for kicks.
But I didn’t begin my culinary journey — working at fine-dining restaurants, hosting internet videos and eventually writing a cookbook — with extravagant meals or complex dishes. Every good cook first masters the basics, like correctly holding a knife, salting your food and getting to know your pans and burners. It might not seem exciting, but we all have to start somewhere. (I promise: Even a pro like Gordon Ramsay once chopped his onions slowly, unevenly and probably with a dull knife.) That’s why the team at New York Times Cooking and I have spent the past year working on a brand-new video series to help you learn to cook, whatever the reason.
Your First Lesson? Eggs.
You may have made a ton of eggs in your time, or you may just rely on the bodega. Either way, there’s so much to learn about this foundational ingredient, and I’ll walk you through it all in the first episode of this series.
• Learn how to shop for them well: Understand labeling and get to know the parts of the egg (beyond just the white and the yolk!).
• Make the fluffiest scrambles: Learn how temperature, whisking and seasoning can all create different results.
• Get perfect crispy-edged fried eggs: You’ll want to go hot and fast in a cast-iron skillet — nonstick skillets don’t retain heat as well — then baste with the cooking fat.
• Become an expert on over easy, over hard and sunny side up: Poking the yolks once they’re out of the skillet will help you know how cooked they are.
• Boil up easy-to-peel eggs: Cold eggs go into boiling water and then an ice bath once cooked. The drastic temperature changes help the shells separate from the cooked eggs.
• Poach gorgeously: A gentle bubbling of the poaching water and some early straining help create a clean shape.
And much more!
Each episode of this monthly series focuses on a core ingredient (eggs, rice, chicken, pasta, broccoli, fish and beef), teaching you how to buy it, store it, prep it and, of course, various techniques for how to cook it. In the months to come, I’ll teach you how to make a frittata with whatever you’ve got, a buttery pilaf to level up your rice game, the easiest spatchcocked roast chicken, crispy salmon without any stovetop splatter, broiled broccoli that even the pickiest eaters will love, a one-skillet steak dinner and my mom’s spaghetti. You’ll learn how to blanch, broil, braise and more along the way.
Recipes: Easy Recipes for Beginning Cooks
We’ve decided to spotlight these ingredients because they are all easily available, affordable, versatile and popular. If you’re not into one of the ingredients, you can translate the skills we cover to other foods and cuisines. Once you learn how to blanch broccoli, you can blanch anything. Most grains cook similarly to rice. And perfect how to sear a chicken thigh, and you can sear basically everything.
Before getting into the nitty-gritty of cooking an egg or grating cheese for the glossiest, sauciest spaghetti, here are some basics to help you become a better cook. Because new year, new skills!
Start With the Right Stuff
I don’t believe in the adage, “A poor craftsman blames his tools.” Properly equipping yourself in the kitchen is crucial to not only making good food, but also having a good time while you do it. You don’t want to be searching for a tiny bowl for your onions when you could be drinking a glass of wine. Luckily, in the beginning, you only need a few key pieces:
Work on a large cutting board. Small cutting boards are ideal for cutting proteins, since they’re easier to scrub down in the sink. But when it comes to all other prep, get the biggest board that will fit on your countertop. This allows you to chop all of your ingredients and have them on the board in neat piles, avoiding lots of little bowls and cleanup and keeping chaos to a minimum.
Buy a knife you can sharpen. A knife’s only job is to be sharp. Most professional-level knives require significant skill to sharpen appropriately, and even the most expensive knives eventually dull. Steer clear of trendy celebrity-endorsed knives with bespoke handles or whatever your favorite chef uses, and work instead with an affordable knife, coupled with a knife sharpener or inexpensive whetstone, until you hone your sharpening skills.
Get a heavy skillet. If you’ve been struggling to achieve a crackly sear on your rib-eye, evenly char a wedge of cabbage or develop a mahogany fond (the burnished bits left on the bottom of the pan that are packed with tons of savory flavor), it’s not you, it’s your skillet. A heavy-bottomed skillet better retains and distributes heat, limiting hot spots and preventing big temperature drops when you add food to a pan. Opt for stainless-steel, cast-iron, carbon-steel or enameled cast-iron, all of which are suitable for high-temperature cooking, unlike nonstick pans.
Everybody needs a big bowl. You need plenty of room to groove when tossing a big salad or seasoning vegetables for roasting.
A sheet tray is more than a sheet tray. It can do it all: Roast meat and vegetables, bake cookies and cakes, and dry-brine proteins in the fridge. Look for one with a rolled edge, which is less likely to warp over time. They come in standard sizes (18-by-26 inches for a full sheet tray, 13-by-18 inches for half, which is the most popular size for a home kitchen, and 9-by-13 inches for a quarter) that easily nest together because you will want more than one.
Learn How to Read a Recipe
A recipe can be a jumping-off point for a meal, inspiring with its combination of flavors or techniques. In that case, you don’t need to read through it carefully. But when you’re starting out, reading the recipe before you start cooking and then precisely following it will ensure you learn something new and advance your skills.
Look for cues, not times. Think of cook times as a guide, and, instead, use all of your senses while cooking, paying close attention to the visual, auditory and olfactory cues written into the recipe. Are the onions meant to be just translucent or deeply browned? Should the stew be simmering gently or boiling vigorously? Following these indicators will lead you to a tastier result than any timer.
Think critically about swaps. Precision is vital for baking and pastry recipes, which often don’t take kindly to swaps. On the other hand, savory cooking can accommodate substitutions with ingredients that cook similarly. For example, tender herbs, like cilantro, parsley and dill; root vegetables, such as carrots, parsnips and turnips; and hearty greens, like kale, escarole and collards, can often step in for one another.
Taste Your Food — a Lot
The biggest mistake that new cooks make is forgetting to taste their food. You have to season in stages, throughout the cooking process, and remember to sample along the way. Sometimes, this means tasting things you might not want to, like briny pasta water, slick vinaigrettes and chalky spices, but it is the only way to ensure that your food is seasoned to the core, rather than superficially. It’ll also allow you to identify any flavors that could be going off the rails and get them in check before it’s too late.
Be Nice to Yourself
You can instantly find thousands of recipes for a roast chicken online, but the internet is also filled with curated photos and videos of perfectly plated dishes shot during golden hour. It’s easy to get discouraged when there’s so much to compare yourself with. When I started cooking, I had only a couple of cookbooks, most without photos: I didn’t know if the dishes I made were “correct,” which meant I could enjoy the stellar accomplishment of making myself a meal. If you end up with anything edible, that’s a win.
Don’t worry about plating or lighting. If you managed to transform eggs into breakfast, that’s magic. And if you didn’t, there’s always takeout, and another meal to try again.
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