19 Dec 2015
So you’ve decided to learn how to cook from scratch. If you’ve never done this before, the place to start is not with gourmet magazines or cooking shows. The stuff there is more like festival, special-occasion food, not what your mother or grandmother put on the table, three times a day, seven days a week. You want basic, utilitarian cooking. It doesn’t cost that much, and it doesn’t involve exotic cookware or specialty skills.
Where do you find such cooking? Start with your family and friends. See if someone can start showing you the basics of eggs and stoves.
If your mother or grandmother aren’t around (or they don’t cook either) we can turn to the old ‘teach yourself how to cook’ books. Quite a few people learned how to cook from books. I know I didn’t. I’m mostly self-taught. The key is that way back when, no one expected you to have a fish poacher, five kinds of oil, or cilantro.
A very nice book that I like is a reprint from Dover Publications. It is “Cooking for Absolute Beginners”. It’s a Dover Publications reprint of a 1946 book called “You Can Cook if You Can Read,” and the book proves it on every page. Yes, it’s dated. It doesn’t have any pictures; not even a line drawing. But it has a sense of humor and assumes you know nothing about cooking.
There are plenty of cookbooks on learning how to cook. Betty Crocker has made nice ones. If you don’t feel like buying a book right away (and you don’t have Aunt Sukey on call) go down to the library. Look for words like basic and beginner and “learn how to” in the title. Children’s cookbooks are a good resource, too, but watch for trendy or cutesy recipes such as sandwiches that look like clown faces.
You can also turn to the industrial-agricultural food complex. Your grocery store is full of “make a meal” products, both shelf-stable standbys like Hamburger Helper and modern freezer-case products with lots of vegetables in them. They get you used to standing while facing the stove and seeing what happens as things simmer, boil, and bake. Follow the directions exactly at first until you get used to using a stove and a pan. When you’re comfortable with using Hamburger Helper, add your own ingredients to the mix such as onions and peppers, cooking them with the meat.Don’t expect to eat with Hamburger Helper the rest of your life unless you want too. This exercise is designed to get you comfortable with turning raw food into cooked food. You’ll notice that a can of sauce and a box of dried pasta cost way less per pound then HH does and they’re less salty and processed-tasting. That’s when you can turn to the grocery store, which is jammed with alternatives that can be combined in new and inventive ways.
The grocery store will usually sell some basic cookware. Otherwise, go down to Wal-Mart. Start with a 2-quart saucepan with a lid, a 1-quart saucepan with a lid, and a non-stick frying pan. As you get better at cooking, add what you need when you need it.
I use the same pans over and over. I have two non-stick frying pans—ideal for scrambling eggs—several saucepans in various sizes, a Dutch oven, and a stock pan. I have others but they don’t get used nearly as much. One of my cast-iron skillets gets used only for cornbread, and I use my double boiler less than once a year. If you buy one of those big sets of cookware, you might discover that you’ll never use some of the pieces. But if you’re gifted one, take it joyfully and add to the set as you discover what you need.
All of the “teach yourself how to cook” books will have lists of suggested pots, pans, mixing bowls, utensils, measuring cups and the like. Read over the list to see what you already have or can get from well-stocked relatives before you buy anything. Even a list as basic as the one in “Cooking for Absolute Beginners” has things on it that I don’t own such as pudding molds and food mills. I’ve been cooking for 30 years, and I’ve never felt the need for either of them.
Start cooking, a bit at a time, using simple recipes and find out what you will use before spending the money on more pots and pans. Keep in mind what you have the space for in your cabinet. Plenty of lists recommend candy thermometers, but if you aren’t going to make fudge, you don’t need one.
Baking desserts such as cakes and pies is something to work at after you’ve become comfortable cooking with the stove. A casserole, although it is baked in the oven, is basically stew with a topping and in terms of how it is assembled tends to be similar to many of the things you cook on the stove. For casseroles and oven-fried potatoes, you’ll need to add to your cookware collection a 9-by-13-inch baking pan and a cookie sheet with sides.
As you cook, you’ll develop a list of easy-to-make foods that your family will eat. Stick at first with easy and quick; there’s no reason to learn to make Beef Wellington. There are plenty of cookbooks that specialize in simple minimal ingredient stuff. The ones to be wary of are those that claim to be few ingredients and then the ingredients turn out to be pricy or weird, leaving you stuck with leftovers that no one will eat. Again, your library is the place to borrow these books and try them out in your own kitchen before you purchase them.
If you find that you like only a few recipes in a book, it may be better to Xerox them and leave the book at the library. If you find yourself checking out the book over and over and using many of the recipes, then buy the book.
Another old book that I like and cook from is Peg Bracken’s “The Complete I Hate to Cook Book”. These recipes date back to the early sixties and are simple, basic, and unconcerned with the amount of fat, calories, or salt. Most of them are pretty good too. The book is a hoot to read, and it shows that plenty of women never liked or wanted to cook. They did it because they had to.
There is nothing wrong with this approach. My mother cooked that way and so did Dear Husband’s mother. Two or three times a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. For decades. They put food on the table for the family, and it got eaten. It didn’t win any prizes but the job got done with minimal fuss and expense.
As you get better at cooking, you may want to get fancier on holidays and weekends. This is entirely up to you and your energy levels.
As you get better at cooking, you may want to plan your meals so that you make plenty, allowing for leftovers (or “planned overs” as some twee foodie writers call them). I do this a lot. I like to make plenty so that I don’t have to cook every day. Does this mean that we eat the same thing sometimes for several days in a row? Yes, it does. It can also mean that if I cook intensively for several days, we get a fridge packed with a smorgasbord of leftovers, offering real variety at the evening meal.
Leftovers also mean cheap lunches to take to work and easy breakfasts if you don’t feel like cereal, boiled eggs or toast in the morning. There is no rule that says you can’t eat leftover spaghetti for breakfast.
When you plan for leftovers, make sure to use them! They don’t save you time or money if they get shoved back to far corners of your fridge. If I see too many containers in the fridge, I don’t cook until the leftovers get eaten.