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Scared of Cooking? Start Here (Part 2: Cooking Tips)

Dec 02, 2011 10:23PM ● By Anonymous

Here’s the thing: When you’re making home-cooked meals with whole ingredients, it’s really hard to get it wrong. You might overcook a piece of chicken or serve gluey mashed potatoes, but you’re really light-years ahead of people who don’t even try. One of my other hobbies (though recently neglected) is running, and one of my favorite motivational quotes is “It’s better to run 1 mile than to think about running 5 miles.”

In essence, it’s better to try than think about it. If you’re ready to try, here are some of my best tips to start cooking very easily, healthfully, and inexpensively.

Make a list of five to 10 basic foods or ingredient you and your family enjoys, and strive to have them in your house at all times. For me, the list would look something like this: Whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, fresh broccoli, canned diced tomatoes, chicken breasts, frozen shrimp, zucchini, chicken broth, and dried beans. With these nine ingredients, plus basics like olive oil, salt, pepper, and other herbs, I can always put together a meal that my husband and I will enjoy. Therefore, every single time I go to the grocery store, I buy these ingredients.

Look for recipes with less than 7 ingredients. Maybe I’m alone in this, but I find that simple recipe preparation tends to be the best. When I try to do something complicated, I tend to get into trouble. The other day, I made a really good dinner that consisted of just 7 ingredients for the entire meal. I marinated chicken breasts (1) in a mixture of Dijon mustard (2) and balsamic vinegar (3) while I was at work. When I came home, I cooked brown rice (4) in chicken broth (5) in the oven. When it was almost done, I added the chicken breasts and its marinade to the pan to give the rice some extra flavor. While it was cooking, I sautéed chunks of zucchini (6) in olive oil (7). Full meal, seven ingredients.

Read the recipe. Twice. How many times have I started cooking only to find out that the recipe requires 2 hours of chilling/resting/marinating/etc.? If I read the recipe first, I know what it entails.

It’s better to undercook than overcook. Obviously, you don’t want the chicken to be pink in the center or the bread to be doughy. But so many ingredients taste better when slightly underdone versus slightly overdone – vegetables stay slightly crisp, shrimp is tender rather than chewy, pasta has a bite rather than a bit of mush. If a recipe says cook something 10-12 minutes, take it off the heat at 10 minutes and let it continue cooking in the pan (Because unless you dunk it in ice water, nothing stops cooking immediately).

Recognize potential, and try again. A recipe won’t always come out perfectly the first time. If it’s good, but not GREAT, work on perfecting it. The first time I made Chardonnay gravy for chicken or turkey, it was good with potential. When I made it again for Thanksgiving, it was GREAT.

Challenge yourself. I’m not beyond this step. I’m currently working on a “12 in ‘12” challenge for myself to try recipes I’ve either been afraid of in the past or would love to have that “perfect” recipe for. My list includes homemade ravioli, challah bread, New York cheesecake, veggie burgers, pho, and tagine, which are all dishes I’m afraid of, as well as cream of crab soup and fluffy dumplings, which I would like to perfect. The point of this exercise isn’t to do it perfectly, but to commit the time and energy to just trying it.

Next up: What kitchen equipment do you really need to cook well?

If you have any specific cooking tips, questions, or requests, always feel free to comment on the blog or email me at