I can confidently say I weaseled my way to knowing how to cook because of my mom. She also taught me what it means to multi task, which you wouldn’t believe how important of a skill that is to have when cooking. Though did I really only know I had any of those skills until I started experimenting on my own. So, really, if you’re just not sure if you’re a good cook (because you just haven’t actually tried), well then you’re selling yourself short. And if you already know hands down you shouldn’t come within 10 feet of the kitchen – eh, but I am horrible at understanding money, yet I have no debt. So there’s always that silver lining of hope – ways of becoming a better cook.
I really don’t want to say there are key basics to understanding how to cook that everyone should know… but there is. And in grade school if you had the option to take a class on ‘homemaking’, which including cooking probably, I have without a shadow of a doubt that those people who took that class can probably cook, or love to cook even if they’re terrible at it.
And that’s part of it – you have to love to cook, or at least like it (whether that’s for the art form of it, or the end result). Sure, there are those that hate to cook, but that are somehow born with that god-giving gift of culinary skills. You don’t need to be born with that skill though, because many of it is learned and understood, just as anything else in life. And here I have explained in simplest form of the crucial ways to becoming a better cook.
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Crucial Ways To Becoming A Better Cook
Understand that timing is everything
Am I right? I mean, your life is based around time. So is food. You can’t rush perfection. And many times that’s what we expect. ‘It shouldn’t take more than an hour to make soup!’ Ah, but it does. It does, when done right.
So think about what it is you want to make. Let’s say it’s Lasagna. A simple, plain 3-ingredient lasagna. Who doesn’t love lasagna. You know, you think you could just whip up spaghetti sauce and spaghetti pasta and call it a day, but you want to venture out a bit. Get your toes wet.
So lasagna requires the lasagna noodles, the ricotta cheese, tomato sauce (or spaghetti sauce), and then piled high with some sort of cheese on top. I like Mozzarella, so we’ll go with that. And usually lasagna gets baked at the end. Well, by the time you pop the lasagna in the oven, everything is really already cooked that needs to be (yes, the noodles should be boiled beforehand unless you use the “ready bake” kind).
Now, there are recipes that allow you to throw in uncooked noodles as is – but those are usually slow cooker recipes (recipes that cook at snail pace over the span of 6-8 hours). But when you’re looking to have a lasagna ready in an hour, that’s not the way to go about it. You can’t just skip steps and expect your dish to come out tasting like the rolling hilltops of a Tuscan restaurant.
So, you spend the extra 20 minutes boiling that lasagna pasta, straining it, drying the pieces and laying them out flat to be placed in a casserole dish. The hardest part is what is next anyway.
Now comes the part where time and patience come hand in hand. You must lay your pasta, then spread a generous layer of ricotta cheese over top. Meantime, not forgetting to add your tomato sauce on over that, and then repeating from step one. Now, imagine adding more steps: like spinach between the ricotta and the sauce. Or mushrooms, olives, prosciutto, or what have you. Granted, that is why cooking is an art – nothing needs to be perfect. But take away from this the time you put towards the dish to make it what it is. You think a lasagna could be done in twenty minutes, then an hour goes by and you probably are thinking to yourself, ‘I’ll never make lasagna again – that took two hours to make, when I ate it in a matter of 10 minutes!’
Welcome to the world of cooking.
A lot of times it is order of operations
Here I am treating cooking like a math problem. ABSOLUTELY. Maybe not in every recipe, but here’s the deal: just treat it like one anyway. Before you go into throwing the ingredients together, think about if everything can all be cooked all at once, for the same amount of time.
I hope you said no. Generally speaking, a lot of recipes can. That’s what they call them ‘Crock Pot Recipes‘. That’s a whole different chapter to cooking itself. It sounds easy, and yes it actually is, once you understand the process. And you can’t crock pot every single recipe known to man – every meal you make would take all day, every day. The problem is when you automatically assume that any recipe can be thrown together at once and cooked under an hour. You can wonder why some dishes come out frumpy, uncooked, overcooked or basically inedible. And you don’t want any of those.
Let’s pretend we’re going to make chili. That’s easy enough. We have ground beef, tomato juice, chili beans, and let’s say we’re adding an onion and green pepper to the mix (spice it up!). So let’s say you throw everything in the pot, you skip to the bottom where the recipe online says to simmer for about an hour to an hour and a half. Okay, an hour later comes – your beef still looks a little pink, and your pepper and onion are still very fresh and firm. So you think, ‘It’s OK, I’ll just simmer it longer.‘ Two or three hours later, your chili is finally ready, and it’s almost 9 O’clock at night.
Don’t do that to yourself. Again, yes the timing thing – you’re never going to have chili ready in an hour, even with preparations like chopping your onion and pepper. But certain ingredients will never be cooked through in that amount of time, either.
That’s why some ingredients in your recipes require attention first, or longer, over others. Sure, you could get tomato juice heated on high in 10 minutes, but it could take over an hour to tenderize an onion and pepper on simmer from the start.
That is the reason for order of operations. So, general rule of thumb when cooking one-pan recipes with meat is that gets cooked first. No matter what. So, you brown your beef first. About half way through cooking your beef, you can add the chopped onion and peppers. See what I did there?
By doing that, you are both cooking the rest of your beef, while also giving your veggies the extra time and heat they require to become tender. Vegetables like onions and peppers take the right amount of heat for a period of time to cook through. Too much time could result in them becoming soggy or too soft, so it’s always best to turn down the heat to at least medium/low when cooking vegetables. The onions you will start to see become translucent. Peppers take about the same amount of time.
Then you can add your tomato juice, taking your temperature down to a simmer, and adding in your beans. With that, an hour to an hour and a half on simmer should do your chili fine wonders. The other way would take up to three and a half hours on simmer for your chili to be done!
And it also works from the opposite perspective for recipes. Say you cook your veggies first thing when you have meat to cook and pasta to boil. That’s at least a matter of 30+ minutes cook time to go yet – and your vegetables are in for a SOGGY AWAKENING. So unless you like overcooked veggies, I suggest those always get done midway or towards the end.
Know everything about your ingredients
Get to know the ingredients you’re dealing with. Certain things cook in no time, and other things require the low and slow method (otherwise you’ll over cook or under cook). Things such as rice, dried beans, and potatoes – those take time! Dried beans require being soaked overnight, potatoes tend to require up to an hour to soften in the middle, and rice – if you don’t have a rice cooker, then you know the struggle there (too much water, not enough water, rice is still hard, etc.)
So if I’m ever making a recipe that requires rice, I always put that on first, and give that the most time on a low and slow heat. Otherwise you’ll rice will come out hard, and nobody enjoys that! Same goes for dried beans – recipes with that require the beans to be soaked in water overnight just to soften – so a lot of times it’s easier in the long run to go with the canned beans for quick recipes.
Vegetables such as celery, fresh green beans and carrots take a while to soften. Many times they require being boiled or steamed to speed up the process for quicker recipes. While others, such as zucchini, snap peas, and onions don’t take but 10 minutes on a medium low heat. To get to know your ingredients, it’s always best to cook them lower and longer until your desired firmness.
Starches such as potatoes require being boiled for up to 30 minutes ahead of time in order to be used in recipes. Or baked an hour or longer for baked potatoes. Believe you me, I have tried getting around the possibility of simply cutting potatoes into chunks for a Chicken Pot Pie, and placing it into the oven for the expect 40-45 minutes to bake. Those potatoes STILL came out pretty firm. Sometimes there’s just no cutting corners when it comes to perfecting recipes.
For your meats, the major ticker is that if you cook it too fast on too high of heat expect it to be dry. And it’s very easy to tell when your meats are under cooked as well – chicken should be white (not translucent or pink as it starts), and beef should be a tan all throughout the center (unless you are cooking certain beef cuts, like steak, corned beef, etc.) So if you cut into your chicken at it’s thickest part and notice any hint of ‘translucency’, or doesn’t flake, it needs more cook time. Over cooked chicken is easy to spot, too. If you cut into your chicken, and push down with a knife from the top – it should ‘ooze’ slightly of it’s own juices. If not, you may have cooked it dry. Same with meats such as steak.
When in doubt, lower heat works every time
It could be chicken fajitas, lasagna (using uncooked lasagna pasta), chicken wings or a whole chicken roaster, queso dip, soup and much more. This is where a crock pot becomes so handy, especially when you’re questionable about your own cooking skills. The crock pot can fix that worry for you, since it does all the work.
Picture this: you’re up for work from 8-5; wouldn’t it be great if dinner was basically ready and on the table when you get home? I thought I’d catch your attention. The crock pot does just that.
Granted, you will have to prep the crock pot beforehand (which you can easily do the night before and just store the ingredients in the fridge until that morning), but it allows you to leave the house while your meals cook. The trick is the low heat setting – which cooks your food at a slower rate, allowing you to feel safe leaving it on and running throughout the day.
You can find one of these gems just about anywhere, but some just comes with too many bells and whistles today. This one here is perfect for overall use with just a one dial heat setting, and it even includes a mini side cooker for sauces and gravies! Crock pots come in many volumes, and shapes – so this one here is a ‘casserole’ shape, but not as deep, so it’s perfect for lasagnas, breakfast casseroles, layered recipes such as dips and much more.
Sometimes it’s just nice to throw your ingredients in a pot and let the low cooking temperature do the work for you. And hands down your recipes will come out perfectly cooked each time.
Here I have included a simple guide to what and for how long these simple recipes should cook in a crock pot:
Low heat setting – cook time: 4-6 hours (or until liquid is absorbed)
Chicken Fajitas –
Low heat setting – cook time: (thawed chicken) 4-6 hours, (frozen chicken breast) 6+ hours
Chicken Roaster –
Low heat setting – cook time: up to 8 hours
Taco Soup –
Low heat setting – cook time: 8 hours
Start easy on yourself, then work your way up
Like I have mentioned previously, the worst thing you could do is choose a recipe that is far beyond what you already know. So don’t try to replicate the Coq au vin just yet – yeah, because I don’t even know what that is, either. If you’re confident in mastering spaghetti, that’s a start! And you should be proud, because there are some who can’t cook pasta right to save their own life.
But branching out should be baby steps, meaning: add new simple ingredients to thing you can already make; add mushrooms to your spaghetti, or counter that into creating a very simple chicken Parmesan (which is basically thin sliced chicken breast over spaghetti pasta, covered in marinara and provolone cheese (great, now I want parm).
When you have mastered the areas above, you can be ready for intricate meals. But if you’re not exactly confident on how to cook your meats, or your order of operations with ingredients, you may want to step back a little. You may read those online recipes that sound incredibly easy, the one with 20 different ingredients, and it can still leave you stuck or making you take a wrong turn for your first time.