Let’s get real for a minute: cooking can be intimidating, especially for those of us who were never taught how to cook by a loved one. There is a lot of jargon and oftentimes recipe authors make assumptions about what the cook already knows. To make matters worse, there are a number of cooking fundamentals that have the reputation for being very tricky or difficult. The truth is, though, once you have some of the basics down, cooking then becomes all about making it your own or improvising with what you’ve got—which can be lots of fun and make you feel just a little bit like a superhero.
I want to help you get there. I want to help to get you to a place where you feel confident not only cooking from a recipe, but also in improvising based on what you’ve got. So I am starting a series that I am going to call Cooking 101. Every month or so I will share a basic recipe or set of tips that will help you to build your repertoire and add in some new cooking techniques and dishes. I will also try to highlight ways that you can improvise once the technique or dish is mastered.
Before we dive into the first cooking fundamental, I also want to make a shout out for questions or requests! If there is something that you have always wanted to know about or a technique you wish you could master, let me know!
So, without further ado, let’s talk about the first component to Cooking 101: how to read a recipe.
Reading a recipe may seem like a pretty obvious thing. You read the ingredients list, make sure you’ve got everything, and then follow along with the steps as you cook. But that’s actually not how I do it and not how many of my experienced cook friends approach a recipe, so I thought that I’d let you in on how we do it in 4 easy steps. If you follow these steps you will find that your cooking projects go much more smoothly!
Step 1: Confirm you have the ingredients (or substitutions) AND cooking utensils and pots/pans you will need. Read through and make sure you’ve got what you need. If not, figure out if there is a work around, whether that is a replacement ingredient or a different tool to use (hint: Google is your friend).
Step 2: Take note of any ingredients that need to be divided. Sometimes a recipe will call for some of an ingredient to be used at one point and some at another (oil, butter, flour, etc.), make sure to keep an eye out for those so you don’t miss these important steps.
Step 3: Read through the entire recipe and make your own plan. Recipes are often written assuming that you will prepare all of the ingredients ahead of time. This is called mis-en-place. It is a great way to cook in a restaurant, but not efficient for a home cook. So while you read the directions, try to think through the best order for you. If it is helpful, jot down some notes along the side of the recipe. Can you start a pot of water to boil while you chop the first ingredients? Can you preheat the oven while you start putting together ingredients? Can you chop just the vegetables that start cooking first (usually onions, garlic, and harder vegetables) and then chop the others while the first ones are cooking? Or, if you are nervous about getting the steps done in time, is there a way you would like to slow the process down?
Step 4: Check the steps as you go. Even as you get started, make sure to check back. There is almost always a detail that gets forgotten.
That’s it! Not so hard. If you take these steps, I promise that following a recipe will go much more smoothly, you will feel less stress, and, therefore, you’ll enjoy the process more!