Many people don’t know how to cook. Let me clarify that when I say cooking I do not mean putting something in the microwave or pressing a button on something that does all the work—not to say that using tools means you can’t cook. However, whether you know how to cook or not, you can always get better. The purpose of this article isn’t to teach you the miracle of how easy cooking is, to teach you everything you need to know or make you love cooking. The only thing I can offer you is progress. Let’s begin.
Knives are something you are going to need. The way I pick a knife is by focusing on having a heavier handle (a bit of weight but not too much) and having a variety of sizes. Generally, I use larger knives no matter what I’m cooking because it’s a lot easier if the knife is adding some weight into the cutting. However, if you’re doing delicate knife work then definitely go for the smaller knife. Please learn how to cut properly. There are several videos online that can help you get familiar with how to hold a knife and where to put your other hand. Some general pointers. In the hand you’re using to hold the knife, grip onto the knife with your third, fourth, and fifth fingers, then put your thumb and index fingers on opposite sides of the blade. Even though it’s tempting, don’t put your index finger on top of the knife, it limits your control of the knife. Additionally, the fingers on your second hand should not be fully extended or you will cut them. Make your hand into a “claw”-like shape (more details in videos). Finally note on knives, when you’re cutting try to roll the knife onto your cutting board rather than just pushing straight down.
Here’s a random pet peeve of mine that I’m going to put into a whole section. Please, please, please, please, please know how to clean your tools. Wipe your knives after each use, clean your cutting board between ingredients (especially if you’re using raw meats), clean your oven every once in awhile and for the love of cooking please clean your toaster. You can slide a piece out from the bottom (it should stick out) and it has a bunch of crumbs on it. If you don’t clean this you will start a fire at some point. Another note on toasters, you never need to reach inside to get your toast. If you raise the lever on the side it should pop the toast higher so it’s easier to grab.
The final tool that I’ll mention that I think really helps is a rubber spatula. It will save you batter when baking (can save three cupcakes worth of batter!), help you stir something without burning what you’re using and mixing in add-ins without adding too much air to the batter.
Marinating. It’s something we’ve all heard of, but if you are one of the people who may genuinely have no idea what I mean, marinating is when you leave a firm protein (meat, fish, tofu, etc.) and you leave it in some sort of sauce to let it absorb more flavour and make it taste better! It helps make food taste better, but it also keeps the same recipes different so you don’t have to be bored of the same thing. Additionally, learning to marinate your food can make you realize that good flavour, for the most part, revolves around sauce. Some very general ingredients that go great with proteins are garlic, onions, some mix of spices, and an overall sauce. For example, for fish I usually go for soy sauce, teriyaki, chilli flakes, garlic and parsley leaves. Ingredients aren’t the only things that make your marinade good though; the process is pretty important. The easiest tip I can give you that will quickly change your food if you’re not already doing this is drying your protein. Whether you’re cooking meat, fish or tofu, you have to pat your protein dry first so it can absorb the flavour, in addition to not watering down your marinade. However, if you’re making tofu I highly recommend pressing your tofu first (wrap it in a towel and put it on a cutting board and stack some pans on top or something heavy).
Some things you should be familiar with that will make you a better cook are: dicing an onion, mincing garlic, how to cook an egg (scrambled, fried, sunny side up, boiled and poached).
Baking is something I really enjoy and often practice in my free time. It can be really intimidating at first but if you can take comfort in anything just know that baking is all about control. If you do the exact same thing over and over and over again, you’re going to get the same results. That being said, there are some small things you could be changing without realizing that they have an effect on your dessert. Let’s go through a few. To start, if you’re baking something where you add a hot ingredient (melted butter) or if you’re cooking in a hot area (near the oven), you should be careful with how cold your eggs are. If you take the eggs out of the fridge and just crack them into the mix they will scramble. Some ways to get your eggs to room temperature are to a) leave them out while you prepare everything else or b) keep them in a bowl of room temperature water while you prepare everything else. This actually makes a difference. Additionally, if you’re trying to impress some people with a cake, I think that using box mix is really good and lets you focus on making a really tasty frosting (which people normally notice more than the cake anyway). If you’re going to do this I recommend swapping the recommended ingredients as follows: swap the water for milk, swap the oil for melted butter and double it, and add an extra egg. If you want a cake that domes then try to mix quick and efficiently—don’t get too much air into the mix. If you want them to be flatter, then mix for longer and don’t worry about adding to much air to the mix. In both cases, mix in each egg individually (please). When it comes to baking I really think that knowing your ingredients is crucial. Adding an extra egg can really help in a cake mix, but if you want it to be "fudgier" then only add the yolk. If you want it to be more delicate then add egg whites that have been whipped until they have stiff peaks (when you take out the whisk the bump stays up).
Baking is based entirely on ratios. I can’t think of an exception. If you want to become a better baker I recommend books like Ratio by Michael Ruhlman. He explain which ratios you should be going by for different foods. This can help you go from someone who can follow a recipe to someone that can make their own recipe from scratch. It has been years since I made pancakes, frosting or cookies while relying on a recipe. I’m not a natural born cook or anything like that, but if you study different foods I promise you will get better.
Some things you should be familiar with that will make you a better baker are: regular chocolate chip cookies, cinnamon buns, how to frost a cake (buy an offset spatula).
Overall, I think cooking can be challenging but I don’t think anyone is born with the inability to cook. Eventually you will need to cook yourself a meal and it is much easier to keep meals healthy and tasty when you know what’s going on inside your food. If you go online you can find plenty of resources to become better but aside from the book mentioned in the baking section, I highly recommend the book Food Anatomy by Julia Rothman as well as The Illustrated Book of Edible Plants by Jack Staub (illustrated by Ellen Sheppard Buchert). They’ll teach you about how to use ingredients, the history of different foods (did you know that the croissant is originally from Austria and was made to commemorate the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the Battle of Vienna?!?) as well as show you gorgeous illustrations of what each food and dining set up from different countries looks like. Once again, cooking can be intimidating, but choosing not to be intimidated can open yourself up different worlds of flavour, friendships and knowledge. I hope this guide can help you start less fires.
-- Paula Arkhangorodsky