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June 27, 2013 at 8:00 AMComments: 7 Faves: 0

Out of the Fire and into the Frying Pan: Working up the Confidence to Conquer the Kitchen

By Goldilocks More Blogs by This Author

“I'm not domesticated,” my friend told me as she chopped up some pears. I laughed. I was teasing her for using pre-made frozen shrimp for her dinner party. “I don't cook,” she reassured me.

I laughed even more, “How do you think I learned?” I asked her, “It's not like anyone taught me!” She smiled, but didn't say anything. It's true. My family is filled with amazing cooks, only, none of them were very good at communicating how to do anything in the kitchen. My dad's favorite response was “I don't know.” Then he would proceed to cook and glare at me for trying to watch, he wasn't one for putting on a show. To this day, my dad and I can't cook in the same kitchen.

I admit, since I first started cooking for myself, I've made many mistakes. I've burnt food, put too much salt (I will never do that again), and made things sloppy and mushy. The goal has always been to learn, and with each failure, I learned how not to make something.

The Fire

Finding your inner chef

For some odd reason, my friends love to tell me how much they can't cook. They always seem to do it when I am cooking for them. It seems an odd time, especially since they can clearly see that I have little knowledge of what I'm actually doing in the kitchen. If I don't manage to cut my hand open while chopping vegetables, I find that dinner a success (I have numerous scares). As I sit there, trying to make something yummy and not burn down the house, my friends go on about how they can't cook and how they wish they could. I roll my eyes at them and smile as I slip on my oven mitts.

To clear the air a bit, let's get one thing straight: cooking is not hard. Fancy cooking the way chefs at five star restaurants cook? That might be hard. But trust me, good food doesn't always have to have red wine reductions and French words. Cooking is about food, and everyone can understand food. Your ancestors have been cooking for generations despite never having set foot in a culinary institution and we all have fond memories of our Grandmother's favorite dishes.

The idea of cooking is to soften food so that it is easier for us to digest. Generally, to soften food we apply heat and some form of liquid, like water or oil. That sounds simple enough right? Cooking, much like a wide variety of art, consists of basic techniques. It is true there are artists out there who will wow and amaze, but this does not make the basics off-limits to learn. Anyone can learn the technique, anyone can cook.

The Frying Pan

Some easy advice for budding chefs

So, I say to all of my friends who are afraid of cooking to get in the kitchen: don't be so afraid of the food. It's not like those broccoli stalks are going to come alive and eat you. Or bite you. (You'd have bigger problems to worry about if that happened than whether or not you burn them.) Really, all they are going to do is taste delicious when you're done cooking them. Take small steps. Start with foods you know and love. Broccoli is great. Carrots, potatoes, and green beans are all simple veggies that can be cooked in a myriad of ways. Once you get the hang of these veggie staples you can move up and on to bigger, more cool-sounding vegetables like parsnips or kale. Most vegetables cook in similar ways; learning how to cook one type of veggie gives you ideas for how to cook another.

Having a recipe nearby for moral support is a great way to improve confidence. Just know that the recipe doesn't know what's happening in the kitchen, so it gives general advice to help you out, and that advice may not always be what you need. Sometimes things cook at a slower or faster rate than the time on the recipe. Don't worry, just go by the description. If the recipe says soft, translucent onions in 5 minutes but your onions are still stark white – cook them a little longer.

There is always the Internet. While I don't recommend following any old recipe online, I do recommend watching instructional videos on how to accomplish some of the harder steps of cooking. Artichokes were the bane of my existence until I watched a how-to video. Learning how to try and do new things is always important and seeing how they can be done is one of the best ways to accomplish this.

There are many ways of cooking food. Think boiling. You can boil almost anything! There's also sauteing, baking, or frying. These are all simple ways that you can easily see what's happening with the food so you can take it away from the heat before it burns. The key to not burning your food? Paying attention! Don't go sit down and watch TV while you have something on the stove. That's how food gets burnt to little brown nuggets. Instead, focus on the kitchen, do one thing at a time, and don't try to outdo yourself. Know your limits. If you're not confident in the kitchen, start by making only a few simple dishes and, as you gain skill, start stacking the ideas until you can make a full meal without feeling like you're running around like a chicken with its head cut off.

Taking the Heat

Cooking your own meals is a great way to live a healthier and happier life. You'll be cooking to your tastes and preferences, which means you have control over everything that goes in your food. Since there are a lot of hidden sugars and salts in most restaurant food, this is a great start to a healthier you. Take it from someone who works at one of those restaurants: a seemingly healthy bowl of soup can hold your entire day's worth of sodium. Cooking your own food also can be much less expensive, especially if you're like me and avoid high-priced meat and fish. Keeping costs low means that you can buy better quality food that's not only better for you, but for the environment as well.

It's also one of the best ways to check your eating habits. Learning how to make popular comfort foods like fried chicken and doughnuts can be fun and a great party activity. They also are very time consuming and high maintenance foods. If you're craving a piece of fried chicken – have some fried chicken, but make sure to wait for it to cook and then clean up after it. Instead of buying unhealthy foods, make them. You'll find yourself wanting them less and less as you remember how tedious it is to clean the fryer every time!

Just remember, the way to get into the kitchen and feel happy there is to not be afraid and to pay attention. Start small. Go with what you know. Stick to what you love. Soon enough you'll be cooking dishes that you'll find more delicious than anything you could order at a cheap restaurant.   

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  • Great post. Don't fear cooking the food is awesome advice. Trial and error is totally the way I cook. Problem with that is that I don't write anything down, then something turns out awesome and I'm not sure how to repeat it (made this crazy awesome eggs and mixed-sauteed veggie thing once, and my family will never be happy until I repeat the success).

    Some things I have learned about stir-frying vegetable are: a) the pan needs to be plenty hot before adding them, b) the veggies need to be cleaned, DRY, and room temperature before heating the pan, and c) veggies need to be in small enough pieces that the inside cooks before the outside is toast.

  • Yeah duplicating success can be hard, but then, I hardly ever measure in a way that can be written down. I prefer to just wing it every time. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. There's always next time :)

  • I started cooking at eleven years old, so I've always been extremely comfy in the kitchen. The main thing is to just not be afraid! I burn myself twice a year every year, once cooking Thanksgiving dinner, once either baking Christmas cookies or glazing a ham (it never fails). Once you conquer the fear of messing up and potentially burning yourself, everything usually goes along swimmingly :D

    And on the note about stir fry's Sprouty: You can also use frozen vegetables, it's easier to keep them from burning, and you won't need to keep adding water or oil to the pan.

  • Mellissa, I find that frozen vegetables form a block and either they turn too mushy or the outsides are cooked and the cores cold. Maybe I'm just too picky, but I want them perfect, you know?

  • Hmm, maybe it's your cooking temp? I usually cook them at a high temp to start off with, stiring them frequently, and then cover to steam at a lower temp. It usually takes about ten minutes, and if you watch it closely, the veggies will still be crisp and bright green (and no longer frozen ;))

  • I feel a bit odd here mentioning this but I don't really care for stir-fry... I'd much rather eat my veggies raw or baked/grilled. The oven might take longer than a stir-fry but somehow that crispy texture most veggies get is what I love most. Frozen veggies are super easy in the oven too!

  • THANK YOU for this post. I get annoyed when people tell me they "can't cook" because yes, I "couldn't cook" either until I actually tried it out and practiced. Granted it took me an entire summer to learn, but I was learning to prepare a new dish every few nights. It was SO worth it in the end. It just takes practice and telling yourself that you WILL make mistakes, but that is the whole learning experience.

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