For every person I talk to who is confident about cooking, there are at least two others who tense up at the thought of cooking more often — or cooking at all. Here's how to get beyond the fear.
Cooking is one of the best things we can do for ourselves, an act of self-care for the body, mind and, yes, soul. But I see a strange divide in attitudes toward cooking. On the one hand, cookbook sales went up 21 percent in the first half of 2018, compared with a year prior. (While the increase was driven in part by sales of HGTV celeb Joanna Gaines’ “Magnolia Table,” another major contributor was a general uptick in home cooking.) On the other hand, for every person I talk to who is confident about cooking, there are at least two others who tense up at the thought of cooking more often — or cooking at all.
I blame the myth that cooking gourmet meals at home is supposed to be easy and that if it’s not, you’re a failure. A few things fueling this myth? Gorgeous food photos (aka “food porn”) on Instagram, Pinterest and in glossy food magazines. Celebrity chefs who make whipping up a meal look effortless. (Note that food shows tend to be long on witty banter and short on dirty pots and pans.) Cookbooks — and not just the ones filled with glossy color photos.
The pros and cons of cookbooks
Cookbooks, you ask? Let me explain. While quick-recipe how-tos are a top-selling cookbook category, on the whole, cookbooks don’t cater to beginners. Now, I love cookbooks — I’d better; I own close to 300 — but they serve mainly for reference and inspiration. Most of the recipes nestled in these volumes belong in the category of “Let’s make that this weekend,” not “It’s 6 p.m. on a weeknight and I need to get dinner on the table before someone gets hangry.” Only when I’ve tried a recipe with resounding success, and the ingredient list is relatively short, does it get promoted to weeknight status.
In fact, when you want to cook from scratch quickly, it is generally best NOT to follow a recipe. I’m not alone in this opinion. Lately, I’ve been geeking out on podcast interviews with chef Samin Nosrat, author of “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking.” The book — now a Netflix series — is a cooking class in book form centered on the idea that if you learn how to use the four elements listed in Nosrat’s title, you can cook without a recipe, allowing you to be “loose in the kitchen.” Certainly better than being uptight, don’t you think?
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Nosrat has said she was reluctant to include recipes in a book about cooking without a recipe, but she knows that recipes can serve as a safety net for those who aren’t professional cooks. But she did exclude photos, because when what you make doesn’t look like the photo — which it never does, because those images have been styled, often professionally — perfectionism can rear its ugly head. So if you tend to dismiss cookbooks without photos, perhaps reconsider.
I’ve long felt that always cooking from a recipe is a little like always using GPS to get from point A to point B — you never strengthen your own internal navigation, and when a recipe starts to go sideways, you won’t know how to course-correct.
A few years ago, when J. Kenji López-Alt — Serious Eats columnist, former test cook and editor for “America’s Test Kitchen” and Cook’s Illustrated magazine, and author of the James Beard Award-winning “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science” — spoke at Town Hall, he said something akin to “There’s no such thing as a foolproof recipe, because there’s always a bigger fool.” So how can you develop your internal kitchen GPS?
Learn basic techniques and skills. Once you have them, you can deploy them at a moment’s notice to create a nutritious, enjoyable, satisfying meal for yourself and others. It’ll save you time and money because you can work from a short ingredient list of your own choosing instead of hunting down unfamiliar ingredients, the unused portions left to rot in your fridge or languish in the pantry. Nosrat’s and López-Alt’s books can help with this, and so can taking some hands-on cooking classes. Both PCC Natural Markets and The Pantry offer technique-based classes.
When choosing recipes, look beyond time. Better recipes include not just times or time ranges (“bake for 30-35 minutes” or “sauté onions for 10 minutes”), but descriptions of what the ingredient or dish should look or feel like. Cook’s Illustrated magazine is excellent for this, and I recently learned that they have readers test prospective recipes. If fewer than 80 percent say they would make the recipe again, they go back to the test kitchen as often as needed to make sure every recipe is a winner.
Meal kits may or may not be a solution. Each meal kit is one meal you don’t need to shop for, and you can be confident you won’t be stuck with extra ingredients — like three-quarters of a bunch of cilantro — but you’re still cooking from a new-to-you recipe, and possibly on a weeknight. Even when the results are tasty, I’ve personally found meal kits to be too much trouble. But you may feel differently.
Do your mise en place. One reason cooking looks easy on your favorite food show is mise en place, a French culinary phrase loosely translated as “everything in its place.” When you measure, chop and organize your ingredients before you actually start cooking, the process will be much more relaxed and enjoyable. There are few things worse than realizing you need to add the onion to the pan right now and you haven’t chopped it yet. Even better, mise en place gives you time to clean up as you cook, giving you more time to watch Netflix after dinner.