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Build Your Cooking Confidence with These 7 Surefire Tips

New to the kitchen? Start with these basics.

by Miranda Martin
July 8, 2020 | Living

When asked to share her most memorable cooking mistake, comedic blogger and kitchen neophyte Emelie Samuelson responded, "Oh my god, which story do you want first?" 

Samuelson has set off her fire alarm while boiling water, added three times more salt than necessary to a dish she was "helping" make, and bungled dinner for her entire extended family on more than one occasion. 

Like many other self-proclaimed "terrible cooks," Samuelson would like to improve her culinary skills, but is unsure how to begin without feeling overwhelmed. 

"My eventual goal is to get to a point where I can stand in the kitchen and say 'OK, I know enough to do this. I can make something work,'" she said. 

If this sounds familiar, the following tips will help you learn how to start cooking with greater confidence.

1. Safety first

Before you even pick up a knife or think about turning on the oven, make sure you have the knowledge to keep yourself safe.

"The two places that immediately come to mind where safety is really important are heat and sharpness," says Nik Sharma, a James Beard-nominated cookbook author and recipe developer.

In addition, Sharma emphasizes that all kitchen safety is good to know for first-time cooks. He strongly recommends checking out the YouTube channels of Serious Eats and Culinary Institute of America for thorough and accurate kitchen safety information. 

2. Plan ahead

Sharma's biggest tip for kitchen newbies? Read the recipe ahead of time to make sure you're prepared for the entire cooking process.

"Sometimes recipes involve an incubation time, or maybe you have to leave it overnight, and so you can plan ahead. Time is a really important thing to get a sense of where you're going," Sharma said. 

While there's no way to fit a four-hour recipe into 30 minutes, preventing simple cooking mistakes is easy if you prepare. Reading ahead is also important to make sure you have the correct ingredients. 

"Sometimes you can actually do a lot of substitutions. If you don't have one of those ingredients, but you have something else at home you can substitute, you can work those things out if you read the recipe early on," Sharma said.

3. You don't have to do it alone

When you're just starting out, recipes can be a lot to handle. You might not know all the terminology or the proper way to do certain techniques. If cooking isn't something that comes naturally to you, sharing the experience with someone else can be educational and fun. 

Even if you can understand the recipes on your own, working alongside a culinary partner may help you learn shortcuts or alternative ways of preparing and cooking food. 

Samuelson believes half of her cooking problems stem from being nervous in the kitchen. Having someone else there with her is a big help.

"My anxiety in the kitchen is so much lower when it's a team effort, where I'm being guided a little bit," she said.

4. Master one recipe

Every master chef has one dish they know they can crush every time, and your experience in the kitchen should be no different. If you start your cooking journey by learning a single recipe to perfection, it will build up your confidence and knowledge and will help carry you through to more complicated dishes. 

Photo of Nik Sharma in the kitchen. Rewire PBS Living Cooking
"Family recipes are quite helpful, because they're tested," Sharma said.  |  Credit: Nik Sharma

"I really nailed pasta with a little bit of butter and cherry tomatoes," said Samuleson. "And I'd sprinkle a little bit of cheese on. That was a big thing for me."

Sharma recommends starting with a family recipe as a great way to begin your cooking journey. 

"Family recipes are quite helpful as a skeleton sometimes, because they're tested," he said. 

"I know that they're going to work, because someone in the family has been making them for so long. I can go back and follow that skeleton, and then, if I need to tweak it or change it to my satisfaction, I'll do it to make it work for me."

5. Build on what you already know

You may think you're the world's worst cook, but I bet you can still make something in the kitchen. No matter where you start, you can take a recipe — even the most basic — and add onto it. 

If you only know how to make toast with peanut butter, take it up a notch to something more complex. There are so many funky toast combinations that don't require any more skill than toasting and spreading, such as avocado toast, sweet potato toast, eggs on toast and literally hundreds of other variations.

6. You don't need expensive tools

While it might eventually be a good idea to invest in your kitchen accoutrements, don't be discouraged by not owning fancy tools and gadgets right away. Even professionals in the field sometimes have to make do with what they have, and the food still turns out the same in the end!

"If you have a recipe that says you need an obscure tool, like if you're working with a large number of cherries and you're trying to pop the seeds out, some people will buy a special tool so it saves them time," Sharma said. "I don't have that, so I use a chopstick to push the seeds out."

If it's good enough for the professionals, it's good enough for us beginners!

7. Overcome your fear by diving in

As she has started to feel more comfortable and even gotten a little experimental in the kitchen, Samuelson says her biggest challenge now might be overcoming the fear of failing.

"When I recently made homemade macaroni and cheese with my friend Amanda, that was the first time in my life I'd ever made a roux," she said. 

"I just needed to be shown it was easy, because making a roux sounds like one of those impressive chef-y things. Now I know how simple it is, and I'm not afraid of doing it."

Miranda Martin
Miranda Martin has written for FloSports, Ms. Magazine and more. You can contact her at [email protected] or visit her website to see more of her writing.
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