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question for fellow beginning cooks

I'm new to the trying to learn how to become a good cook and impress my friends, family etc. I'm also the type who goes overboard trying to learn all the ins and outs of what it is I'm focusing on, which now if learning to cook. So I want to see what other beginner cooks are wanting to learn.

Here's my list of things that I'm trying to focus on.

1. Which tools for cooking are necessary?
2. What staple foods and seasoning should be in my cabinet?
3. What new tools out there make cooking easier and are musts to have?
4. What meals are easy to make but will look like i must be a chef to create and will impress my family and friends?

Beginning cooks, what else are you searching for and where are you finding this info?



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  1. For tools for cooking, please post on the Cookware board. You may also want to check out our Home Cooking board for threads on ideas for new cooks, and cookbook recommendations for new cooks.

    Cookware - http://www.chowhound.com/boards/41 - a number of useful threads about what a beginning cook might need (http://www.chowhound.com/topics/408225


    Home Cooking - http://www.chowhound.com/boards/31


    3 Replies
      1. re: luvtapas

        the Home Cooking thread is a huuuuge resource, offline, the early 90's edition of that classic Joy of Cooking has large parts dedicated to the basics and definitions of food ingredients, handling and prep.

        1. re: hill food

          sorry checked later and while I bought mine in the 90's it is in fact the 1975 edition. Unfortunately the latest update omits such helpful tips such as cleaning squirrel and other wild game I hear.

    1. im getting ready to give a friend cooking lessons and a book i am using as a bit of a guide is off the shelf by donna hay. has great overview of staples and how to stock your pantry to be ready for throwing a good dish together quickly and easily (slow food is great, but not everyone has time for it).

      1. 1. There aren't any tools that are "necessary". You don't need many specialized tools unless you are cooking very specialized dishes. In other words try to find ways to make the same tool work for more than one thing.
        2. As far as staple foods go try not to have to many frozen things that you will "use sometime" the longer the food is frozen the higher the chance of freezer burn. Always try to buy fresh if you know you are going to be entertaining because it is alot easier to work with. Seasonings on the other hand, I have found that the seasonings I use most that add a good flavor to just about any dish are: garlic salt, seasoning salt, and pepper. Worchestire Sauce is an amazing thing to kick up just about any kind of beef.
        3. One tool in particular that has made my cooking experience a lot easier is the Swedish made Bamix. It is a handheld blender that can do a myriad of diiferent jobs. They come with an approx/ price tag of $200 but they are very worth it
        4. I have found that you can make pretty much any meal look spectacular based solely on how its presented. For instance, when putting an entree together on a plate that involves a suace topping don't go overboard with the sauce because it flows all over the plate and causes a mush look instead put a small amount on and then but the rest of the sauce into a gravy boat or comparable dish. Garnishes can build up presentation to any dish. From something small like putting a sprig of parsley under the side of an omlet for breakfast to making some fresh pico de gallo to top a serving of rice. One thing that also bolsters any dish presentation would be to avoid drips on the edges of the plate. IF you drip on it while transferring food simply wipe it off with a clean towel.

          1. Not "necessary" but in our house we use our pressure cooker and Vitamix nearly every day.

            1. Buy one of those digital probe thermometers. I bought one years ago and overnight it dramatically improved my meat-roasting abilities. No more overcooked meat! Probably around $20.

              (These are the ones that you stick into the roast (chicken, beef, pork, whatever) and a wire attaches to a unit outside of the oven, so you can monitor the temp of your meat at all times, and set the timer to go off when it hits a certain temp)

              1. Especially with your second question, I think it varies by your style of cooking. I've had so much trouble over time by going out and buying what a cookbook recommends for a pantry, and then finding that these items are of little use to me. It's even more annoying when the book itself only uses a "staple" item once in the entire book. So, anyway, I think what is a staple to you depends on what you eat often. For some, that could be a can of tomatoes and for others it is rice. Flour of some sort is quite useful, of course. But butter, for example, would not be kept by all. YOU are the determinant of what is a staple.

                I wish I'd had a really basic book when I started, one that told me how to eat and how to fix, say, 2 weeks of basic meals, like hamburgers, potatoes, salads, and the like. Most of my life I've filled in the gaps by eating out or mooching, since I really never started with a basic idea of how to cope.

                Currently I'm more interested in eating each day without eating out. I also want to stay within my doctor's parameters. That part has been the worst part of it all. Over the years what they want me to eat changes. So once I develop habits and meals and pantry items, etc. that work, then it all goes "poof!" and I have to learn something else. It is really annoying and as a result, I am a very patchwork cook. I know lots of little things from all over, but I'm not really very good at feeding a family. Anyway, share my triumph that I finally got to make and eat a spinach salad again for the first time in years. I'd forgotten how to do it, but I quickly regrouped. YUM!

                Really, not that many "gadgets" are needed in the kitchen, not until you get down to specifics. I mean, you need knives in most any kitchen, but I don't know if you personally could use a blender. I love colanders/strainers, but I existed for years without one. If you are considering an item, find out what people end up using it for in reality, not fantasy, then ask yourself, how would you use it?

                3 Replies
                1. re: saltwater

                  saltwater: the ability to improvise is indeed key, all one really needs are a big knife, a small knife, a cutting board and a couple of pots.

                  w/o getting too personal, can you relate why your MD's have been switching your diet? if it is, then silence will tell me I asked too much.

                  just trying to figure why spinach would be off a list.

                  good advice about preconceived ideas about what "should " be in the kitchen vs. what one actually uses. just give the selection time to evolve as needed.

                  (edit for the OP) don't skimp on the knives, choose a hefty haft and keep 'em sharp - heavy so you have a good sense of where the blade is (in regards to your fingers) and sharp so it doesn't slip. I like my Henckels, but there are plenty of other good brands out there. play/test in the store (w/o scaring the clerks) until you find the hand balance you like.

                  1. re: hill food

                    It might be a TMI to explain fully. But in essence, I couldn't digest many items for years, with times of it being worse and better, with no seeming pattern. I have been chained to within a 20 ft radius of a bathroom in recent years. First (over 20 years ago) they thought allergies and I had one of those diets where you remove every possible offender and only eat vegetables (no wonder they never figured out the problem with that diet) and then each week you add back in one item. Anyway, finally someone found a medication that removes/binds the bile in my system and presto! I can digest things with fiber and vitamins in them again. Not perfectly, and it has side effects, but I was able to eat that spinach salad without incident.

                    Leafy green raw things have been an item that my digestion cannot make a dent in for years. Ditto for basil, parsley (and vegetables, beans, whole grains, corn, etc.)

                    I am so happy about this because now I won't have to be worried that I am malnourished.

                    1. re: saltwater

                      not TMI, and none of business, but nice to hear you're back in the wide world of ingredients

                2. I am not a beginning cook, but I have taught cooking. One the best resources out there is "Timing is Everything". This book is amazingly detailed and lists the cooking time for pretty much anything edible. This is often the hardest thing to master - having all your dishes ready at the same time. This book helps tremendously in achieving that. I wish it had been available when I was learning to cook. My first dinner parties would not have been served by the course so frequently!


                  1. Why are you asking beginning cooks for cooking info? Would you expect a new driver to teach you how to drive? You don't have to be intimidated by folks that are down the road somewhat - we all had to start somewhere. My recommendations:

                    1) Learn Mise en place, or Mise (meez). Translates to Put in place. Simply put, prep all your dinner recipes and standard use ingredients ahead and have readily available in easily reachable containers. This could be chopped onions, minced garlic, cleaned and chopped cilantro, grated cheese - whatever you will need for the entire meal. Make sure you have everything you need in terms of tools and pots and pans before you start. This allows you to concentrate on what you need to be doing when cooking - looking at the food, smelling, timing (looking at the clock or timer). Discipline yourself to not start cooking something and then start searching for spices or figuring that you'll have the time to grate or dice something as something else cooks.

                    2) Learn the basic types of cooking, and the basic types of meat that work well with each type of cooking. Boiling, Braising, Roasting/Baking, Grilling, Pan-Fry/Sauteing, Deep Fry, etc.

                    3) You need one good reference cook book that gives you all the times and temperatures for roasting meats, boiling lobsters, etcetc. You can have as many cookbooks as you want to be creative, but you'll always need that basic reference book. It can be a Betty Crocker or Best Recipes (America's Test Kitchen) or anything that has charts that shows temp/time/doneness.

                    4) Get good knives and practice knife skills. Don't buy sets. You really only need 2 - a chef's knife and a paring knife. Everything else helps, but isn't mandatory unless you're cutting bones (then get a meat cleaver). Learn to keep your knives sharp by whasing them by hand and drying them right away, putting them up in a place that will keep the edge from being damaged, and buying a steel and learning to hone with it. Periodically take you knives to a professional to get them sharpened. Don't be afraid of sharp knives - it's the dull ones that will mess you up, as you push hard on something that you wouldn't have to if it were sharp, and it slips.

                    5) Get pans that are oven-safe (can be put in the oven). A lot of the cheap ones that have plastic handles are not oven safe. A quick and easy meal is thick cut steaks or chops, browned on both sides on the stove-top, then put in a pre-heated oven to finish to whatever doneness you desire. Throw some russet potatoes in the oven about 45 minutes earlier, and you have 2/3rds of a fine meal. Make a salad and/or boil/steam some vegetables for the last 3rd.

                    6) Learn scallopine. Buy veal or chicken pre-thin-sliced and flattened, or flatten yourself. S&P, then dredge in flour then put in a fry pan with a little oil. Turn over when browned, then take out of the pan when nearly done. Deglaze with wine or broth. Now you can make any number of traditional sauces in the pan with the floury and meaty bits, from piccata (lemons & capers) to pommodoro (vodka, tomatoes, cream), marsala (marsala wine, mushrooms). Put the meat back in to finish.

                    7) Learn to bread (dip meat in flour, then egg, then bread crumbs) to make cutlets. Learn to make batter to make batter fried items - either deep fried in a pot of oil (use a thermometer), or fried in a pan, one side at a time. Learn to know the difference (when to bread and when to batter).

                    8) A good immersion hand blender with attachments for chopping can be very useful.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: applehome

                      someone's been around the block...

                      1. re: applehome

                        These are all very good suggestions, thanks applehome for the refresher list.

                        1. re: applehome

                          Applehome, you are obviously a very good cook and possibly have spent time in a commercial kitchen. Your post should be a sticky.

                        2. Get a food processor (cuisanart here) and when you start to make some money on your meals invest in a 6 qt. Kitchenaid .. these will eventually pay for themselves and make life easier.

                          1. First identify what you like to eat and appeals to you to learn how to cook. There are many posts on CH on comprehensive and basic cookbooks. Spend some time in a book store or a library to determine those books that appeal to you, then buy one or two, or borrow them from a library first and cook from them before buying, keeping your early attempts simple. As a beginning cook I loved the Time-Life series, The Good Cook, which i think is out of print but available in many libraries. Each volume is devoted to a particular category of cooking, with comprehensive information on history, preparation, varieties/types, etc. Volumes include sauces, poultry, fruits, vegetables, salads, outdoor cooking, desserts, classic desserts, beef, pork, fish and seafood, pasta, and on and on. It's a great series and I refer to them often for basics.

                            Start simple, don't spend a lot of money on cookware and appliances that you might not use. For instance, a vitamix, and $200 hand blender, even a kitchenaid are very pricey items for someone who hasn't even learned what he/she likes to or wants to cook. But a quality chef's knife, paring knife, good skillet, a basic set of quality saucepans, a whisk or two, a handful of wooden spoons and rubber spatulas, a set of stainless mixing bowls, will get you started.

                            But the most important thing as a beginner is to start simple. If you've not cooked much before, don't start with Mastering the Art of French Cooking. A fine home cook doesn't necessarily need to know how to make complicated sauces, for example, if the cook can't make a roast chicken or can't determine when a steak on the grill is done to one's preference.

                            Master the basics that are necessary to cook the food you like to eat before trying to equip a kitchen completely and before moving on to complicated stuff. Make your learning to cook a journey, and enjoy each step and misstep along the way.

                            As far as stocking your pantry, all food items have a shelf life and in my opinion it's better to buy what you need when you need it. Rather than stock up on stuff and then survey your pantry to pfigure out what to cook, first figure out what you want to cook and then buy ingredients for a particular recipe or meal first, so you don't waste your money or shelf space on foodstuffs you don't immediately need.

                            1. thanks everyone this is great info for me? Keep it coming, I'm taking it all in.

                              thanks again

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: luvtapas

                                hi Luvtapas-- first ignore my suggestions (or anyone else's) if they don't appeal-- you will always learn better & faster if you are doing something that you are excited about.

                                1. (ever so briefly) your excellent knives and a few high-quality pots & pans should be among your first purchases. don't skimp on these, you'll be using them a long time :)

                                2. visit new restaurants, farmer's markets, specialty food stores whenever you can. check out cookbooks from the library.

                                3. a great place to start is with breakfast! poaching the perfect egg, scratch pancakes, etc. is easy and rewarding. it's really hard to screw it up totally, and if you do it's often just the cost of some eggs. many fancier breakfast items (quiche, souffle, crepes, blinis, savory pastries) can also be served at other meals or dessert. easy, impressive, good confidence builders.

                                4. don't ever buy precut veggies, train yourself to chop them, using correct knife skills. button mushrooms are a good thing to practice on-- any vegetable you enjoy eating is too! make veggie-heavy recipes like soups often while you develop your skills, getting faster and more uniform slices and pieces. shopping for fresh veggies at a farmer's market on the weekend, and then chopping them for an hour and making a meal from scratch is a great exercise in learning to eat seasonally-- very fun.

                                5. don't try to learn too much at once, jumping around from technique to technique. repeat recipes to perfect them. try an easy cake or bread recipe, then bake it again, and a third time, to learn from your own experiences. specializing in a few items you enjoy making and doing them really well will impress your loved ones more than a big production dinner you're not comfortable with.

                                6. don't forget to have fun :)

                              2. My feeling is that most beginning cooks focus too much on technique and not enough on quality of ingredients - especially staples. If you start out with good quality farmers' market veggies, anything you make will be good, even just serving them raw. Invest in good-quality staples - from your rice to your salt to your olive oil - rather than buying occasional fancy ingredients (lobster and foie gras) and skimping on the staples. Use the highest-grade products where the flavor is going to come through best - not just in fancy dishes. It's more important to use good-quality rice in a dish that is plain-tasting and mostly made of rice than in a fancy 12-ingredient risotto, for instance. Learn low-level techniques before you try to do complicated recipes (a well-executed omelet or simple pasta dish is more impressive than a failed timbale).

                                Basically - farmers' market, good staples, one good knife, one good pot, and track down a copy of one of the best books on food ever written, Outlaw Cook by John Thorne (out of print, check used sellers).

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: Sister Y

                                  1) Buy a chef's knife that is comfortable, can hold an edge, learn how to use it, and learn how to take care of it. Use any chance to practice - dicing an onion, garlic, etc. are things you will want to practice a lot. Take a class, if you can. The poster above is correct - a chef's knife and a paring knife are the "wax-on wax-off" of knife skills.

                                  2) Buy a fun-to-read cooking book like Alton Brown's "I'm just here for the food" - give you an understanding of the science/techniques... if you want to go hardcore, pick up McGee's book "On Food and Cooking". I like reading Cooks Illustrated a lot...

                                  3) Find some recipes that excite you, and are reasonable (a 3-hour reduction might be a bit much to try at first)... try them. I learned about the value of pre-heating bowls and ingredients from making spaghetti carbonara and risotto (and of pre-cooling them from whipping cream). I learned to save a bit of pasta water from making vegetable pasta sauces.

                                  4) Try to stick to ingredients that are accessible - a bad batch of home-made regular pasta or bread is no big deal, or a middling marinara sauce is not big deal, but if you are making mushroom risotto with fresh porcini or truffles, you might be setting yourself up for a bit of a financial hit.

                                  5) Don't try to match what you get in a restaurant - they have crews to make home-made stock and "chipotle foams", prep tons of vegetables, and concern themselves with whether to have 3 dipping areas or 4. But you can equal a restaurant in different ways.

                                  6) Always think about getting more flavor - don't throw away greens from the celery tops, think if maybe that bacon fat can be used somewhere else, etc.

                                  7) Don't buy Cooking Light. Cook good food but don't eat as much of it.

                                2. I use my 8' chef knife at least twice a day. That and a few good paring knives, a bread knife and my knife needs are met.

                                  A thermometer makes life a lot easier.

                                  I also subscribed to a few cooking magazines (Cooks illustraited for a couple of years) and learned a lot of basic stuff from them. I got a few great recipes, but they tend to be heavy on the meat for main courses and I'm a vegetarian. I let my subscription lax after awhile.

                                  I'd only buy the spices you think you are going to use. I tend to keep baking spices around, since thats what I do a lot of. However, I also always have onions, garlic, olive oil, parmesan and a few other staples that I know I'll use on a regular basis.

                                  I'd also suggest spending some time at your local bookstore. Check out some cookbooks and see which ones might meet your needs. Find a comfy chair and take your time. I've bought a few cookbooks that hardly make it off the shelf because the recipes take more time than I'm willing to spend to make food for myself most days and haven't always had the best results with some of them either.

                                  If you are an omnivore, the Joy of Cooking is a good standard to start with.

                                  1. I guess I can't fairly qualify myself as a "beginning cook" but I was there very very recently, and here are my two cents...

                                    I'm still in school and on a school budget. If you are just beginning to cook, don't start with the shopping, start with the cooking. That is, it would be great to start in an outfitted kitchen with pots and pans that will "last" and appliances that will make life "so much easier", but, until you know what your preferred pan material is or what type of handle you like the best, or how heavy you like your knives, etc you shouldnt really spend the money on them! Why? Bc something that is absolutely necessary for me, might not be so great for you!

                                    First, you should check out cookbooks that appeal to you and work from there. If a particular recipe requires a piece of equipment or a tool, get it then. If you do this you will find that your kitchen will grow with your repertoire! Plus, you will already have ingredients on hand to build upon for future recipes!

                                    Cooking is an incredible rewarding subject to throw yourself into obssessively! Welcome to the club!