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What to get for the absolute novice?


My little sister just started cooking for herself and her boyfriend. She is what I would call an absolute novice. I often get phone calls asking me how to cook rice in the microwave, how to make chili cheese dip, and how to tell if chicken is done.

She has also asked me what she can do with leftover defrosted hamburger that has been partially cooked in the microwave. I explained that she couldn't just refreeze it partially raw, but to finish cooking it and use it within the next couple of days.

So far, we've given her the four ingredient cookbook, mixing bowls, an 8x8 casserole plan, basic kitchen supplies, a lot of advice and some simple family recipes.

I'm planning on getting her a meat thermometer for Christmas, but I was wondering if anyone had any other recommendations: cookbooks, supplies or otherwise?

She is also the type of person who accidently uses rye flour instead of regular, gets teaspoon and tablespoon mixed up, and gets easily intimidated by recipes.

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  1. Sounds like she's at the stage that my sister was once at. I gave her the Good Housekeeping Cookbook and she's found it v. useful.

    5 Replies
    1. re: MMRuth

      I'm not as familiar with GH Cookbook, but Joy of Cooking has absolutely everything from the very very basic to fancy baking/esoteric ingredients/ethnic food.

      1. re: laurendlewis

        The nice thing about the GH one is that it has lots and lots of diagrams - don't have JoC so I don't know if it does or not.

        1. re: MMRuth

          I suggested realized I referred to the wrong one - it was the Better Homes & Garden Illustrated cookbook.

          1. re: MMRuth

            I have this one - the Better Homes and Garden) and it's really a good cookbook.

            Tuesday I bought 3, one for each boy, because I had given mine to one of the boys ( I know, I know he's not a boy anymore!), but our 2nd son was calling asking me about different cuts of meat and I couldn't answer because our oldest had my cookbook! So I bought 3, I got my old one back,transfered my notes into the new ones, gave one to my oldest, I will give one to my second when I see him next and will have one for the youngest when he moves out.

            This edition doesn't have a recipe for apple butter though!

        2. re: laurendlewis

          The Joy of Cooking would be my choice. It not only gives you recipes that work for nearly every standard American dish you might think of cooking, it also gives you good descriptions of the techiques you use in those recipes, as well as about other topics.

          I would also consider a class on some basics, even making stock. Find me someone who really knows how to make good stock, and I'll show you a good cook.

      2. I would get her one really good, high-quality chef's knife. It's the most useful thing she could have and it will instill in her a "respect the tools" attitude. This will slow down her cooking, which will keep her from making silly mistakes and also make her safer in the kitchen.

        9 Replies
        1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

          I agree. Top priority along with a couple of good cutting boards to protect the new knife. Don't want sis or DF chopping on the kitchen counter.

          1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

            "it will instill in her a "respect the tools" attitude"

            What, a free knife will instill such an attitude? Howso?

            1. re: FrankJBN

              Have you ever used a knife that says "I will **** you up if you don't use me properly?" Our favorite knife in the house -- which was a wedding gift, incidentally -- is a large Japanese chef's knife that's razor sharp, perfectly balanced, and entirely capable of cutting off your finger at the knuckle if you're not careful. As a result, this is the safest knife in the house, because we're both very aware of the knife, the food, the board and everything else in a way that we might not be with our vintage Sabatiers. I nick myself all the time with those guys, but I've never come anywhere close to injuring myself with this knife.

              1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

                "I will **** you up if you don't use me properly?"

                Only top-quality chef's knives say this?

                the greatest danger is presented by unbalanced dull knives. Any chef or butcher will tell you that a sharp knife is far less dangerous than a dull knife.

                1. re: FrankJBN

                  Right...which is...erm...what I was just saying. So why would it be a bad idea to get her a good quality chef's knife? I'm confused.

                  1. re: FrankJBN

                    Yes and no. As co-owner of the knife referred to above, I can say that I'm used to handling duller knives on which I can safely touch the blade, while cleaning them or whatever, but I'm pretty scared of this knife, especially if I'm handling it with wet hands (knowing all too well that it's easy to get a cut that I don't even feel on a wet fingertip.) I know that in use it's safer than a duller knife, because it glides right through whatever I'm cutting, but it's pretty intimidating to handle.

                    And, frankly, I've been cooking for 40 years, but I'm well aware that "any chef or butcher" has far better knife skills than I do or ever will.

                    1. re: Allstonian

                      It seems to me that dull knive that can really give you awful injuries are usually such that they only cut when used with force. Most kitchen injuries seem to happen when not all that much force is used. A sharp knife, it can always cut you, it just does not take much force for it to sink into human flesh.

                      I think a good knife is a good idea, after someone has done at least a little bit of cooking. Chop a few onions with something relatively dull, and then you step up to a good knife.

                      Or, just use good knives, and you take your chances.

                2. re: FrankJBN

                  Novice cooks don't know the difference between a really good knife and a so-so knife. Not the ones I know..my niece put mine in the dishwasher!!

                3. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

                  I would purchase her a basic knife set ( Kitchen-aid chef and paring knife w/ a steel)a cookbook and a inexpensive digital thermo (Target sells Polder's) to tell when foods are done.

                4. When I started cooking, I used my mom's old Better Homes & Garden cookbook to look up everything from how to roast a chicken (what oven temp, how long, what temp the bird should be when cooked), to how to make chicken soup, meatloaf, pancakes, etc. It'll even tell you how long to steam green beans or broccoli. And what cuts of beef are used for what preparations. Specialty cookbooks like the 4-ingredient ones are good for recipes, but the nice basic ones (BH&G, Joy of Cooking, GH, etc) are invaluable for someone who is just getting past "how to boil water".

                  As for her asking about the defrosted hamburger, I don't think that's such a bad question. It's very similar to ones we get here on CH!


                  1. Among many other things I am sure she could use I would suggest Lora Brody's Kitchen Survival Guide. She wrote it for her sons when they were moving in to their first apartments and it is full of essential information presented in a very readable and enjoyable style. Good recipes and easy to use.

                    1. Nice set of cast irons is useful.

                      I agree with the others that a basic comprehensive cook book is a great aid.

                      I started with Betty Crocker and it didn't hold me back at all. I think it was better than GH, not as good but simpler than Joy.

                      It is over thirty years ago that I made Betty Crocker's Turkey Divan (with chicken) for my first home dinner date. She loved it.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: FrankJBN

                        I had cast iron when I was in college and ruined it because I didn't know how to care for it properly. I wouldn't suggest cast iron for a young cook unless you know they would care enough about it to take care of it and you teach them how to take care of it.

                        But, cast iron is awesome. I'm just now building my arsenal of it back up.

                        My favorite gifts I got as a young cook was Pyrex. I still have a lot of it, and still love it. It's fairly indestructible, but if you break it, it's not the end of the world. And you can get sets that come with lids so they store leftovers.

                        1. re: FrankJBN

                          No cast iron for a novice. Get her teflon pans and no-scratch spatulas and spoons.

                        2. joy of Cooking or Fannie farmer cookbook...

                          also, a subscription to something like Everyday Food, would be really useful i think

                          1. If you are considering getting a cookbook I would suggest that it have plenty of pictures, explains what things like dicing v chopping are, have a note on each recipe as to how hard it is and how long it will take to make it and what might go well with it.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: Sal Vanilla

                              I agree about photos/diagrams - photos are inspirational I think.

                            2. I would give her the gift of cooking with her and talking her through basics of cooking, why you do what you do and trying to build some insticts and confidence. Ask her what she would like to make, build a meal around it together and cook it. Next, you decide on the meal and you choose one where you can demonstrate good hints and tricks and how to save something you goof up. Why not start with Thanksgiving dinner??? LOL

                              1. A good comprehensive cookbook is an essential to somebody just starting to cook. My favorite cookbook for the basics is Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. It's got basics like how to boil an egg, cook a steak, bake a potato, in addition to more advanced recipes. Plus, I find the format easier to use and the explanations more helpful than Joy of Cooking.

                                You might look into a gift of a cooking class for your little sis -- while some people learn easily from books, others benefit from the classroom interaction.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: DanaB

                                  Another vote for Bittman's HOW TO COOK EVERYTHING.

                                2. What about one of those Penzey's spice assortments? You can customize a box with some real basics. Throw in a pepper grinder and some peppercorns.
                                  Some grocery stores and cookware stores offer cooking classes, sometimes free. Maybe get her a gift certificate for a class.
                                  My kids learned to cook by chopping and measuring for me. Just getting comfortable with those skills is a big step toward cooking well.
                                  How about a pasta pot? There's alot of pasta dishes that don't take many ingredients, but are very good.
                                  Salad spinner?

                                  1. Given the things you describe, I would start with some things to minimize what she needs to think about and keep in mind as she cooks. Things that spring to mind are:
                                    -a rice cooker (i had a simple one with an on/off/warm switch that was about $20)...it's a set it and forget it appliance and one part of your meal is done with 1 minute of attention.
                                    -a microwave vegetable steamer (tupperware makes a great one and the microwave is a wonderful way to steam vegetables for simple sides)
                                    -a good set of quality storage pieces and a label maker. she can keep the flour, sugar, salt, rye flour etc separated, clean, dry and prominently labeled.
                                    -tongs, both regular and non-stick safe (i like oxo's)

                                    I'd wait on things like cast iron because that's a lot for her to try to keep straight while learning the basics.

                                    Good luck!

                                    1. The Good Housekeeping cookbook is good for those who like to see pictures of what something is supposed to look like at the end.

                                      Either the Joy of Cooking or the Fanny Farmer cookbook is a good basic reference book, plus has tons of recipes.

                                      How to Bake by Nick Malgieri is a good all-around basic baking book. It has sweet, savory, cakes, cookies, pies, breads, basic and a bit more complicated and some color photos, and is easy to follow.

                                      Are you in an area where there is a decent cooking school or decent classes? Learning with a group of novices might be less intimidating than having her watch you do it and would force her to do it herself.

                                      As far as supplies, I would make sure she has some basic sized pots and saute/frying pans, maybe 2, 3,4 and 8-quart pots and 10 and 12-inch pans. Okay, and an open roaster, a 9 or 10-inch spring form pan, 2 9-inch cake pans, a couple of loaf pans and some cookie sheets, some wire whisks, liquid and dry measuring cups, measuring spoons. Yeah, the high-end stuff is great, but this is a novice, probably young and much as people love All-Clad, Calphalon and/or Le Cruset, not everyone has the budget for it.

                                      1. In our house we have been delaing with this very thing for a year or so, as Collage Son has been out on his own. I think the gift of books is wonderful, and we stumbled across "Dad's Own Cookbook".(http://www.amazon.com/Dads-Own-Cookbo...
                                        I was prepared to be cynical, but the book actually delivers a wealth of information that the novice cook needs, like how to shop, how to store, clean-up, basic recipes. I sometimes wish I had a copy on my shelves. I just visited my son and noticed the book out, with food schmutz on on the pages, so I believe it's being used! Highly recommend it.

                                        The other recommendation would be a piece of equipment I'd not seen mentioned yet, one that would be useful for the underequipped. A browse through your local Asian grocery/market can yield a cooking vessel that is part wok/part saute pan/part saucier/non-stick and sturdy for about 15 bucks. A lot of dishes can be made in such a pot/pan.

                                        Oh wait, one more: a classic blue speckle-ware roaster-with-lid. Roasting can be a no-brainer, and yield incentivizing results for the novice cook.

                                        1. If you are planning on spending perhaps a whole day with her, why not make it a cooking day? I wanted my stepdaughter to learn to cook before she went to college. I just think it is an imporant life skill. Anyway, we would choose things that she really liked and she'd write down the recipes as we made them. We had a binder just for her. As she gained more confidence I'd ask her to make certain dishes. It became a great source of pride that she could make some of her favorite things like, baked chicken, guacamole, and molton chocolate cake. When she got to college she wowed everyone on her floor with homemade cookies. I just sent her an email asking her to be in charge of apple cobbler for Thanksgiving.

                                          3 Replies
                                          1. re: DaisyM

                                            Daisy, what a great thing to do. Novice cooks also need confidence, and your request of an apple cobbler is wonderful in instilling that. The more they cook, the more they learn! Kudos.

                                            1. re: cayjohan

                                              Thank you. I'm really lucky. She was only 13 when I became her stepmom and I told her the two things that I wanted her to know how to do before she went to college were to cook and invest. She did both and is at an Ivy League school. I'm really proud of her!

                                              1. re: DaisyM

                                                I think what you did for your step-daughter could be a nice gift from the OP to her sister. I do the same for my younger sister, who is a fair cook, but lacks confidence. I guess what we're really talking about is mentoring. A fine concept in any arena of learning.

                                          2. I will back up a couple of other replies.
                                            Give her a good medium sized carbon steel knife, one wooden and one plastic cutting board, and a 10 inch cast iron skillet that you, her beloved older sister, have taken time over two weekends to begin seasoning for her. With those basic implements, she can cook all over the world. And, anyway, any thing she does as a novice cook to damage any of these items can be reversed.

                                              1. As others have mentioned, the Better Homes & Gardens cookbook might be best. But some people just never develop (sob) much of an interest in tasty food. :)

                                                1. Though I'm no expert, I'm not a novice, either, so will chime in with what's inspired me to cook over the years:

                                                  Silver Palates, all of 'em (I am rediscovering them now, actually)
                                                  Food and Wine subscriptions (I have 10 years' worth, and when you get an issue every month, it inspires you. Plus, their recipes are generally pretty easy)
                                                  Good tools: a great knife, a nice all-clad coppercore pan, tongs,a manageable-size cutting board, even a silicone basting brush!
                                                  Marcella Hazan (who doesn't love Italian? and her recipes are simple)

                                                  Cook's Illustrated (most recently, I got an internet subscription, and it's a great resource for all the things i never learned to do right, like chop onions). One of these days I'll get a subscription to the print version . . .

                                                  2 Replies
                                                  1. re: bebevonbernstein

                                                    The magazine idea is a good one - I sometimes go back through my old Gourmet magazines for the particular month we're in.

                                                    1. re: MMRuth

                                                      I collect cookbooks, but they frequently sit on the shelf, and some of them I've never, EVER cooked from. But I get inspired anew from the mags each month, and though I suppose all the recipes are available on the web, I can't bring myself to get rid of the magazines.

                                                      They are also interesting from a historical perspective (as are the Silver Palate books) in that they really represent the way we ate in that period (my Food and Wines cover 90 to 2000, roughly). That's one thing I'm finding fun about revisiting the SPs -- it's SOOOOO how we ate in the 80s! The dinner parties we threw, and we ALways cooked from Silver Palate!

                                                  2. I thought of one other thing that might be super helpful: a cuisinart mini prep or other small food processor. Or, if you want to instill a bit more ambition, an immersion blender with some attachments. It's amazing what one can do with an immersion blender. Soups, sauces, salad dressings...all super easy.

                                                    3 Replies
                                                    1. re: ccbweb

                                                      I would add an immersion blender to my list of inspirational tools, though I haven't gotten one yet. I DO have a mini prep, but when I use it? Not a day goes by that I don't wish it were a larger food processor, which I've never bought. When I have the money, I'll buy a larger food processor and an immersion blender, and kick the mini prep to the curb.

                                                      1. re: bebevonbernstein

                                                        Great suggestion! I got my cuisinart in 1992, when I was 25, and it's still going strong. It was a GREAT addition to my cooking equipment, and if you buy a good one the first time, they really do seem to last.

                                                        I don't have an immersion blender, but the old standby, the hand-held mixer, works in this context as well.

                                                        1. re: bebevonbernstein

                                                          I have both a full-sized Cuisinart and a mini prep, and use them both pretty often. The big one is no good for chopping herbs, for instance.

                                                          The immersion blender is great for some things a hand-help mixer doesn't do at all - for instance, pureeing a soup in the pot.

                                                      2. I saw a microwave rice cooker at Walmart the other day. Given her desire to microwave that might be a nice gift. Plus, it would be one less thing for her to tend on the stove. If she is learning to cook tending and timing are issues.

                                                        1. I got a new cook the book "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen" after spending quite some time in the aisle at the bookstore perusing ALL the similar offerings. I didn't want one with recipes for, say, a quesadilla as I found that to be too simplistic. My recipient liked the book.

                                                          Also, have you considered going over and giving some cooking lessons/kitchen directions?

                                                          1. my list of essentials and near essentials

                                                            1) GOOD knives. you can fake almost anything else.. but good sharp knives are safer and make cooking easier. Several sizes.. and you should show her why a chef’s knife is better than a small one for prepping stuff

                                                            2) A salad spinner. besides the fact that without one every dressing you make will get watered down and not stick to the salad, its useful for so many more things (like crisp french fries)

                                                            3) a rice cooker

                                                            4) good pans.. some nonstick, bust some definitely NOT

                                                            5) time together cooking.....

                                                            oh yeah the book “timing is everything” is a good thing for any chef to have.. of any level

                                                            1. When I was a new cook I bought one of those all in one pot sets, it had a pasta drainer, colander and veggie steamer all nested in a stock pot w/lid. I got a lot of use out of it. I think any basic cookbook with easy recipes and lots of pictures, diagrams and charts is essential. My favorite is Sunset Easy Basics for Good Cooking. I still use it as a reference and it is currently on loan to coworker who needed to review some basics.