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Author Topic: Learning to cook tips  (Read 19684 times)

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artk2002

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Re: Learning to cook tips
« Reply #105 on: January 06, 2015, 01:16:35 PM »
Here's a bit of a brain-dump, in no particular order. I'm repeating some things already said here... I won't be citing the first person, but just take this as reinforcement!

Get some good recipes and at least one good basic cookbook. Beware that there are some very pretty cookbooks out there where it's clear that the author never actually tested the recipes. I don't know Joy of Cooking, but our basics are Fanny Farmer (mine) and Meta Given (Mrs.k2002's.) These have basic recipes that have been used for a very long time (The first Fanny Farmer was published in 1896; Meta Given in 1947.) I also strongly recommend Cook's Illustrated and Americas Test Kitchen cookbooks. Although they aren't great on a lot of ethnic foods, the recipes are well tested (Mrs.k2002 is a tester) and very well written. The articles in Cook's Illustrated are great because they talk about the process involved in creating a recipe, including variations that they tried that did or didn't work. They also have good basic technique instructions.

Follow your recipes to the letter to start with. Don't substitute right off -- it takes time to learn what you can and cannot change. Yes, it's ok to replace Perfecto® Pickled Pears with Peter's® Pickled Pears but don't try to replace them with Poached Peaches. (Lots of recipes from product labels specify that company's line of products for everything that they can. It's ok to replace with another brand as long as it really is the same product.)

Along the same lines, measure carefully, at least to start. Part of experience is learning when/how to break the rules, but first you need to learn how to follow the rules. This is true in cooking, baking and pretty much any art form. Nobody starts out as a Rembrandt, they start out by copying Rembrandt and then growing from there.

Invest in quality ingredients. I know that's a bit scary when you're starting out -- who wants to waste good ingredients in the chance that you might make a mistake? The thing is that while good ingredients can't save you from mistakes, no matter how good you are you can't make a good result with bad ingredients. I strongly suggest getting good spices: Penzey's has some great starter assortments. The difference between good spices and cheap ones can be amazing. They may be a bit more expensive, but you may find yourself using less, because they tend to be more potent. I know that when my sons are out and cooking on their own, one of the gifts that we will give them is a collection of Penzey's spices.

Learn how to pick your ingredients, both vegetable and meats. The produce person and butcher at your market can be a great source of information. Don't be afraid to ask them. They can also give you advice about how to store various things. Or how to ripen stuff if you buy it a bit green. Visit your local farmer's market and ask questions there. Everywhere I've gone the vendors have been great and very helpful. They want you to succeed, so you'll come back and buy more. They often have suggestions on how to prepare something as well. Getting a lesson in how to pick, store and ripen avocados is very useful -- it's the difference between an amazing guacamole and mashed green soap. The same applies to just about any fruit or vegetable you might want. It also applies to meat. Knowing how to identify a good cut of meat can make or break a recipe.

Start simple. Pick recipes with just a few steps/ingredients to begin with, then expand.

Don't be afraid of cast iron. I know that some people regard it as hard to use but I've never found it to be that way. Once seasoned, the things are very nearly indestructible and you can now get pre-seasoned ones. Yes, you do clean it, you just don't scrub it down to bare metal. That coating, by the way, is not simply a layer of grease. There's a chemical reaction between the oils used to season it and the metal of the pan. It's actually part of the pan, not some yuck that's going to go rancid on you.

Good knives are important. Sharp knives are even more important. Dull knives are actually less safe than sharp ones. With dull ones you have to use more force and more force means less control. Learn how to properly sharpen your knives.

Don't use your sharp knives on a hard (stone, granite) counter; that will dull them very quickly. Either use a plastic cutting sheet or a wooden cutting board. Despite rumors that go around, wood is not more prone to bacteria than other materials. There are some anti-bacterial properties in wood. If you do keep a wood cutting board, coat it with mineral oil (the food stuff, not the stuff used for painting!) once in a while. It helps prevent stains and makes cleanup easier. Again, not the stuff you get in the paint section -- that's poisonous!

Cooking for one or two people: There are some very good "cooking for two" cookbooks out there (including ATC.) Scaling recipes down can be challenging for even experienced cooks, so try to get recipes that are as close to what you want as you can.

Cooking and baking are different disciplines (I'm not going to get into the art vs science aspects, because each has some of both.) Get started with one first and then move on.

Invest in some honest friends and be prepared to take their input, both negative and positive. Learn to distinguish what may be personal preference with actual issues with your cooking. "I hate tomatoes" isn't very useful; "This is a bit too salty for me" is.

Don't expect perfection. I've been cooking/baking for a long time and still have things come out wrong. Sometimes I know what I did and sometimes I don't. It may be something as subtle as the temperature/humidity in the kitchen, for instance. The advice up-thread to try anything three times is good. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again is good advice.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bow lines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

SplishFish

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Re: Learning to cook tips
« Reply #106 on: September 14, 2015, 04:25:13 PM »
Great points, artk2002! To elaborate with some of my thoughts:
Follow your recipes to the letter to start with. Don't substitute right off -- it takes time to learn what you can and cannot change. Yes, it's ok to replace Perfecto® Pickled Pears with Peter's® Pickled Pears but don't try to replace them with Poached Peaches. (Lots of recipes from product labels specify that company's line of products for everything that they can. It's ok to replace with another brand as long as it really is the same product.)

Along the same lines, measure carefully, at least to start. Part of experience is learning when/how to break the rules, but first you need to learn how to follow the rules. This is true in cooking, baking and pretty much any art form. Nobody starts out as a Rembrandt, they start out by copying Rembrandt and then growing from there.
I've been cooking since I was a kid and I apply this principle to pretty much any new recipe I try. I always go by the directions the first couple of times to "get the feel" of it, then make adjustments or substitutions.

Quote
Don't be afraid of cast iron. I know that some people regard it as hard to use but I've never found it to be that way. Once seasoned, the things are very nearly indestructible and you can now get pre-seasoned ones. Yes, you do clean it, you just don't scrub it down to bare metal. That coating, by the way, is not simply a layer of grease. There's a chemical reaction between the oils used to season it and the metal of the pan. It's actually part of the pan, not some yuck that's going to go rancid on you.
I like the Lodge brand for cast iron. https://www.lodgemfg.com/ It all comes pre-seasoned as well.

And it is very indestructible. I have some cast frying pans from my grandmother (easily over 70 years old) and they are still in good shape. If you have an old, rusted pan that was sitting in the basement or from a garage sale, a sanding and re-seasoning are all that's needed to bring them back to service.

Quote
Don't use your sharp knives on a hard (stone, granite) counter; that will dull them very quickly. Either use a plastic cutting sheet or a wooden cutting board. Despite rumors that go around, wood is not more prone to bacteria than other materials. There are some anti-bacterial properties in wood. If you do keep a wood cutting board, coat it with mineral oil (the food stuff, not the stuff used for painting!) once in a while. It helps prevent stains and makes cleanup easier. Again, not the stuff you get in the paint section -- that's poisonous!
The food-grade mineral oil may be marketed as "butcher block oil" or "cutting board oil", fyi, if you can't find it and the clerk gives you a blank stare.

To expand on wood's anti-bacterial properties: the board needs to dry completely. How it works is that the wood fibers suck the moisture right out of the bacteria, killing it. (Alcohol works in a similar fashion; it dehydrates the microbes.) This also means that bacteria don't become resistant because it can't adapt to desiccation.

A couple of my own ideas:

Learn to fry an egg. It's a quick and easy meal you can make for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. They typically only take one pan and a spatula to make (maybe a mixing bowl and whisk for scrambled) and cooks up in minutes. It's also pretty hard to be a total failure at eggs unless they are burned. Yes, they may be a bit hard or not quite the style you intended, but more than likely will still be edible.

Pasta is a very easy make, and does cook up fast once the water is boiled. The hardest part is getting to know how long to cook it to get it to the level of hardness/softness you prefer. Just remember you can cook hard pasta a little longer, but you can't un-cook mushy pasta. A tip if you plan to re-heat leftovers: cook the pasta a bit al dente to start with. It will get mushier as it's re-heated. (I live alone and one box of pasta is too much for me to eat in one meal or before it goes bad, so I've learned to save batches for my lunches at work.)

TootsNYC

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Re: Learning to cook tips
« Reply #107 on: September 14, 2015, 05:49:32 PM »
The concept of having everything prepared is called mise en place, it's an old French technique taught in cooking schools and it works! Especially for items that are going to be cooked quickly like stir fry or an omelette. It makes it much simpler for the cook. Investing in a set of ramekins helps with this technique.

The "measuring everything out before you start to cool" prevents several other problems.

1) you know you have all the ingredients. No more "halfway through when I realize I don't have enough eggs."

2) You don't forget to put the egg in, because it's right there in front of you.

3) You don't burn or overcook something from being distracted by chopping or measuring, because you can keep your eye on the stove.

#learnfrommyfail

(I also now make the bed--a similarly late-in-life "I should have always done this" "they know what they're talking about" lesson)

I have a set of 8 tightly nesting stainless-steel bowls that hold about 2.5 cups that are perfect for this. They nest so tightly that the entire stack is only 1.5 inches thicker than a single bowl would be. And they're small enough for a small amount, but they'll also hold a heap of chopped vegetables, etc.

These bowls have made it possible for me to do this--one hurdle was always that the bowls took up so much space. But these are wide enough that they're pretty stable, and they're light.
So sometimes I stack them after I've filled them in order to free up counter space.
« Last Edit: September 14, 2015, 05:54:26 PM by TootsNYC »

Frog24

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Re: Learning to cook tips
« Reply #108 on: September 15, 2015, 01:30:26 PM »
Learn to heat your pans appropriately. 

Some foods can go into pans cold, and some need to have the pans hot.  Your cast iron pan will heat differently and hold heat differently than your stainless steel pan or your aluminum pan.  A hot pan can prevent certain types of foods from sticking.

Case in point from the "cooking eggs" post above: 

I heat the stainless steel pan over medium high heat for a few minutes before I put in the butter/oil for eggs.  How do I know it's warm?  I hover my hand over the pan to see if I can feel the heat coming through.  I put the butter/oil in the pan and thoroughly coat the bottom and sides, then let it sit for a minute so the oil can warm through.  Then I put in the eggs.  They sizzle when they hit the pan.  Even though they're scrambled, very little (if any) egg sticks to the bottom or sides of the pan.

My husband puts oil/butter into a cold pan and before either of them warm up, he pours in the eggs.  He leaves things to warm through and then scrapes the pan to scramble the eggs.  There are always eggs stuck to the bottom and sides of the pan, which are pretty gross to clean off later.