So much of why people don't love to cook stems from a lack of confidence. They worry that a recipe won't turn out exactly like that gorgeous, professionally styled cookbook photo. They don't know what it means to "sauté" something. They're convinced they'll burn the homemade cookies. They don't want to fuss with specialty ingredients like fish sauce or exotic chili peppers.
I get it. Cooking can be intimidating. And it seems so much easier just to leave it to the professionals: to go out for dinner, again, or to pick up a frozen entree from the grocery.
Still, I'll try to convince you: Cooking really is fun. It's a great way to let off steam at the end of a busy day (not just another chore to accomplish). It can be a cool family activity. Not to mention, it's a powerful way to take control of your diet and manage your health.
So, let's try to build your confidence in the kitchen. Whether you're experienced or you need some encouragement, here are five tips to help you cook like a pro.
1. Get good at a few basic techniques.
Here are three to practice.
Sauté—to cook in a wide pan or skillet with a little oil over moderately high heat. A nonstick skillet, 10 or 12 inches in diameter, works best. You want the pan large enough so that the food isn't crowded, so that it browns instead of steams. Use about 1 tablespoon of olive or vegetable oil, just enough to coat the bottom of the pan. Heat the oil over medium-high until it shimmers, then add your ingredients and lower the heat slightly. Let the food brown, then stir or turn it over. Use this technique to cook diced vegetables, thin cuts of meat (like pork or chicken cutlets) or fish fillets.
Roast—to cook in a dry heat (typically in the oven) that surrounds the food and cooks it evenly on all sides. Use a wide, low-rimmed pan, like a roasting pan or rimmed baking sheet. Red meat (pork or beef) is typically browned before roasting. Whole turkey, whole chicken or turkey breast can be roasted with herb sprigs and lemon wedges tucked into the cavity. Thick fillets of salmon are great roasted. Cut vegetables into evenly sized chunks, toss with olive oil and roast until they're browned and tender.
Grill—to apply heat directly to food, from a source above or below. We typically think of grilling meats, but vegetables are also super delicious when they're kissed with a bit of charring. Recipes for grilling typically call for cooking over higher heat (to create those lovely dark brown markings), then finishing over lower heat to cook the dish to the proper temperature.
2. Don't guess when it's done.
Food that's over- or under-cooked is perhaps a cook's biggest concern. Aroma, color and texture offer clues, but until you're confident in judging doneness yourself, rely on temperature. Insert a digital, instant-read thermometer into the thickest part of the dish. Here's a guide:
Fish is done when it separates into large, moist flakes when you poke it with a fork. Vegetables are done when they're easily pierced with the tip of a paring knife, but not mushy.
3. Know how to season.
Restaurant chefs use salt to build flavor in a dish from the ground up. Even if the recipe does not call for it, add a pinch of salt when you add the first ingredients (say, onions and garlic) to the pan, and again when you add key ingredients. Finally, taste the dish before serving and add salt and pepper if needed. Use just a pinch of salt at a time, and hold your hand about 12 inches above the pan to distribute the salt evenly. If your recipe calls for canned vegetables, beans or broth, use no-salt products so you can control how your food tastes. Chefs prefer kosher salt for cooking, because it's easy to grab by the pinch from a bowl and it dissolves evenly. Keep a small dish of kosher salt by your stove.
4. Start with great ingredients.
The better, fresher your ingredients, the less you need to do with them. Chefs start with great raw materials, and simply get out of the way to let them shine. A perfect, ripe tomato needs only shower of sea salt and cracked pepper. That bunch of just-picked spring asparagus needs only a few minutes on the grill. A locally raised chicken needs only time in the oven with some lemon halves and thyme sprigs. You can't mess up when you start with great ingredients.
5. Let go of perfection.
Those photos you see in cookbooks, food magazines and on Pinterest? They're all professionally done, with just the right lighting and cute props. Honestly, it's enough to get something that tastes great on the table. If the cookies are burnt on the bottom, they're still made with love, and they're still yummy.
Once you've mastered these five basics, then you'll feel more comfortable working without a recipe or adapting recipes with other ingredients. And cooking will be easier and a whole lot more fun.
Having the right tools is another way you can become a pro! Check out my top 10 must-have kitchen tools.