For many people, the idea of preparing a meal is a daunting challenge. Without opening a cardboard box and sliding a frozen delectable into the microwave, some wouldn’t even know where to start. As it was for myself once upon a time, it was the story for the 4 kids my wife and I raised when we began teaching each of them to cook in turn.
As our children reached an age where they could reach the back burner of the stove, we began teaching them to cook. As they took their regular turn preparing dinner for the family, we accepted one basic premise; one does not start as an adept and proficient chef. We knew there would be meals served a bit under-done – we knew there would be dishes served well overdone. It’s part of the process.
There are however a few basic principles which if followed will aid the process in quickly becoming a better cook.
1. Mise en Place
Mise en Place (Meez ahn plahs) is a French culinary phrase that translates to “everything in its place.” In my years of learning to cook, I would put this principal at the very top of the list. One should have every utensil estimated to be used, out and easily at hand – preferably lined up in order of need. The spices, and all other ingredients should be measured out, and lined up also in order of need.
When a dish is just at the precipice of perfectly done, the last thing one wants is to be rummaging through a drawer looking for a measuring cup, or through a cupboard looking for the thyme. A dish can go from just right to overdone in just those few seconds it takes to find the “missing spatula.”
Have everything out, prepped, and ready. Right down to the serving dish.
2. Begin with Recipes
Pinterest can be a veritable treasure trove of recipes. Clicking from one beautiful picture of a mouthwatering meal to the next, one can quickly end up down a rabbit hole of recipes.
Recipes are road maps that others have drawn in order to assist you on your culinary journey. For a beginning home cook, following a recipe exactly as written can quickly develop cooking skills. As those skills are honed, one will rapidly learn to adapt recipes to their own palate.
“That recipe was good, but it was a bit too salty. Next time I’ll cut back on the salt.”
“That was good, but it was a bit bland… next time I’ll add some cinnamon.”
…and just like that one will begin the transition away from recipes and gradually learn the basics of cooking.
3. Have the Right Tools
It’s true, an egg can be fried in a cheap pan bought at a dollar store – an onion can be sliced with a cheap knife – a fish can be turned in a pan with an ordinary spatula. However, having quality knives can improve the quality of the cut. Having quality pots and pans will conduct the heat more efficiently throughout, thus greatly affecting the way it heats the dish, and eventually the end result. Having a good fish spatula can not only help one to keep a delicate fillet intact, but can be useful in a myriad of other ways.
Having the right tools makes all the difference. They can often be expensive, but when quality kitchen tools are purchased, and taken care of, they can be lifetime investments which will reward the home cook over and over again.
4. Accept it – You’re Going to Make Mistakes
You’re going to make mistakes. Cook anyways! When preparing a meal for one’s immediate family, it’s not quite as bad to have a dish that needs to go back in the oven. It’s not really as embarrassing to pull some burgers off the grill which closely resemble the charcoal briquettes used in the cooking process.
However, when outside friends, family, or acquaintances are around the table – one carves into the turkey – and blood runs freely from the leg-joint – it’s easy to get embarrassed!
“Hey, how about everyone eats some mashed potatoes and gravy while I throw this guy back on the fire,” he said sheepishly as he lifted the dripping turkey from the table.
There are rarely ways to improve one’s abilities which don’t involve trial and error. Sometimes a lot of error. However, as a person pulls one overly-rare dish after another or one charred piece of meat after the next, you’ll get a feel for what has gone amiss.
“Hey, Ralph! You let me sip that Heineken and shoot the bull with you so long that I burned the hot dogs!” retorted Steve, a bit perturbed.
Looking at the shriveled black oblong chunk of meat which once read “Oscar Meyer,” Ralph replied, “Throw one on the bun and hand me the mustard.” He would have rather eaten it a bit less “charred,” but heck, Ralph was here because he liked his buddy Steve, not because he expected a Michelin Star meal.
Just keep cooking. The rest will sort itself out over time!