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Just learning to cook... where do I start?

I'm a sophomore in uni and I've recently just moved into an apartment with a couple of people. Now that I get a stove and everything, I've really become interested in learning to cook as the majority of my meals are take-out or Ramen :P

My question is where do I even begin learning to cook? I can stick chicken in the oven and that's as complex as I've gotten so far. Can anyone recommend some cook books? Cooking supplies? (I have a large skillet, some knives, and a small cutting board right now). I'm also interested in subscribing to some cooking mags.

Thanks in advance.

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  1. You will be sure to get some good advice here.

    I'll start with telling you about two magazine's that you can get some simple recipes out of. One is Everyday Living, and they even give you a list of ingredients to go shopping for each week and other tips.

    The other magazine is the Food Network Magazine.

    I would start with a large dutch oven (5 quart), a medium sauce pan along with your skillet. I shop TJMaxx, Homegoods for anything kitchen related. You may not find everything in one shopping trip, but you can't beat the prices.

    One of the earliest and easiest things I started making was spaghetti sauce/gravy. It's just a bit time consuming to watch over the pot for a couple of hours. And Marcella Hazen's recipe is pretty basic and delicious.

    A couple of tools that I use all the time are, microplane, wooden spoon, plastic spactular, wire wisk and some nice sharp knives.

    I wouldn't go crazy buying all kinds of gadgets, just things like a can opener and hand held mixer should suffice for now.

    You can get all kinds of recipes of the internet now, so you don't even have to purchase a cookbook yet. Google can be an amazing tool, as can Epicurious, Tastespotting and Foodgawker as well. Although I love Ina Garten's way of cooking and ease of style.

    Good luck and have fun. And if you need anything specific, ask here. Lot's of great people and cooks/chefs to help guide a novice. ;)

    1 Reply
    1. re: mcel215

      Several hours to make a sauce is a lot for student. I have been known to say that jarred spaghetti sauce is a crime against humanity, having been raised on the good stuff, so for a student with limited time and probably money, my suggestion is to learn how to make a quick and inexpensive tomato sauce out of a 28 ounce can of tomato sauce using simple seasonings that you can keep in your apartment pantry, such as dried garlic powder, dried basil, dried oregano. There is absolutely nothing wrong with starting this way, which will be much cheaper than buying a $6 jar of pre-seasoned spaghetti sauce. You can always use fresh garlic, onions and basil if you have them on hand, and they improve this greatly. This only takes fifteen or twenty minutes, and by varying the amount of basil, garlic and oregano (more for pizza sauce), you can replicate a jarred tomato sauce for about 1/4 the price wtihout watching a pot for hours. No shame in taking short cuts, and it is still better than opening a jar. You You can add browned ground beef or browned Italian sausage for a meat sauce. Adding mushrooms gives you another variation.

      No criticism intended here please, but they all don't need several hours. My family never cooked it for more than an hour, and we regard the long cooked sauce as something "Sicilian" versus the Neopolitan that we are more used to. Tomato sauce only needs to cook for a short time to be delicious. If you prefer the all day version, knock yourself out, but the long simmering of a dark red sauce is something someone's Sicilian Grandma used to do on Sunday. This is a busy college student, after all.

      I'd avoid magazine subscriptions, but would buy from a newstand whenever you see a recipe that catches your eye. Cook's has a lot of techniques, and I agree with the Food Network recommendation.

      mcel's recommendations are spot on for equipment and Ina Garten's books. For the Dutch Oven, if you are a scrupulous pot scrubber (and so are your housemates), enameled covered Dutch Ovens are great, -- but they can rust. You can't leave them in the sink or leave them wet. If you are going to do that, go for Stainless Steel. Get one with a cover that can go into the oven and get a metal cover, not glass.

      Good luck.

    2. Pick up a copy of "James Beard's Theory and Practice Of Good Cooking". Each chapter is devoted to a specific method of cooking (Frying, Roasting, Braising, Baking, etc.) He fully explains the cooking method & and its variations and then gives recipes using that cooking method. He even has a chapter devoted to what pans, utensils, knives, etc. that a good kitchen should contain. This was my "Cooking 101" and I still have my beat up hardcover purchased many years ago.

      Did a search for this book on Amazon.com & found new & used copies for $3.75 to $8.74. I think this is the best investment you'll ever make.

      1 Reply
      1. re: cavandre

        I would also add 'The James Beard Cookbook'. Lots of good basic recipes across the board. Beard writes knowledgeably and lovingly of food.

      2. ok, this reminds me of myself 5 years ago,
        get good quality olive oil, kosher salt , pepper grinder, and try some other stuff like paprika, curry, chef pauls poultry magic , red peper flakes. get wood cooking utensils. during the summer try to take some cooking lessons somewhere. watch food network and buy gourmet and other magazines. whats your favorite kind of food. do you cook on the stove the most or try the grill? get some good butter to kerrygold or lupak. oh.. basil, cilantro, onions, garlic, oregano, potatoes and rice. not all together but essential on the kitchen.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Aochoa

          Oh, I totally forgot about this. It's wierd in the beginning, you have to kind of brace yourself to spend a lot shopping initially. There is sometimes stuff you might not have like balsamic, olive oil, spices etc. You'll build up a stock eventually, from which you can eventually invent your own recipes, but a bare kitchen is the most daunting thing. I feel safe in the company of the contents of my cupboard.

          But I'd agree with pretty much everything Aochoa said.

        2. Great advice so far...remember: cook what YOU like to eat...very good place to start.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Val

            Totally agree there. If a recipe has a major ingredient or flavouring you just can't stand or can't get (either at all or at a reasonable price), just try substituting and see what happens. No cream? See what whole milk will do (usually you are just affecting the richness and creaminess of the dish), or if pears are out of season? try apples, and see what happens. You'll flop sometimes, but if you pay attention to what went wrong, you'll soon figure out what you can and can't "get away with".

          2. "The Joy of Cooking" is my bible. It's a great book to have whether you're beginner or advanced. The book lists how to cook almost *everything,* and it's easy reading.

            1 Reply
            1. re: shaogo

              I agree. This book was a HUGE help to me when I first started cooking, and I still use it all the time.

            2. Go to the public library and check out a couple of cookbooks that look interesting. Take a few minutes and browse the periodicals (I'd say Fine Cooking, Cooks Illustrated, Food and Wine, and Gourmet - but that's me). This way you don't spend money on a book or subscription that you don't like

              Besides Chow, Allrecipes is a great web site. Have fun, and make your roomates do the dishes.

              1. If no one's mentioned it yet, get a bigger cutting board. Nothing more frustrating than chopping stuff on a board that's barely fit for cutting up a tomato or half an onion, unless that's having a dull knife tossed into the bargain.

                My tip for honing a knife without access to steel or whetstone: Turn a porcelain plate upside down and use the unglazed ceramic edge that normally rests against the table. Hold your knife at an angle and swipe the blade over the edge a couple of times.

                Also get some Tupperware or similar plastic boxes for storing leftovers, smelly or delicate stuff in the fridge.

                General tips: Make sure that the pan is hot before you start frying. Boil vegetables in a very small (just enough to cover) amount of water.

                You don't need to buy every possible herb and spice in the world all at once. You can pick up one or two a month and get familiar with them.

                Remember to ask for student discounts on magazine subscriptions.

                Have fun with your cooking and don't be afraid to experiment.

                1. Get yourslef down to you nearest good bookshop. Browse the "general" books - not the ones by well known chefs - what you're looking for is something written in an easy to understand style that's going to tell you the basics of *how* to cook, not *what* to cook. Yes, I know that sounds boring but once you grasped the basic techniques everything else will fall into place.

                  I don't know how it will be where you are, but where I am the bookshops have several books specifically aimed at students who are probably having to cook for themselves for the first time. Easy food....quick to prepare....cheap and tasty

                  Are the two you are sharing with also interested in cooking. Do they have experience they can pass on to you? Can you all learn together - a fun idea perhaps?

                  1. Next time you're at a bookstore, see if there's a copy of The Way To Cook by Julia Child. Browse through that and see if it's to your liking.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: CookieWeasel

                      I recommend getting subscriptions to:

                      1. Cook's Country
                      2. Cuisine at Home
                      3. Fine Cooking
                      4. Cook's Illustrated

                      That is how I learned in the beginning.

                      1. re: Becca Porter

                        Hey, nice to see you around this bus stop.

                    2. When I was first learning to cook, the most helpful cookbook was "Dad's Own Cookbook". It's the most basic cookbook I've ever seen. (There is even a chapter on how to boil an egg). My favorite cooking mag is Martha Stewarts Food Everyday. It's the tiny one in the checkout aisle in the grocery store. If there is a particular dish you want to make, go to Epicurious.com, you can usually find quite a few variations. Good luck-cooking is fun!! And remember-clean as you go!!

                      1. Cookbooks: Joy of Cooking, The New Basics, Mark Bittman's How to cook Everything.
                        Websites: Allrecipes, Recipezaar, Epicurious, Chowhound
                        Mags: Cooks Illustrated, Martha Stewart & Martha's Everyday food.
                        TV: Lidia's Italy, America's test Kitchen, Joanne Weir's cooking class.
                        Get some good basic tools, a dutch oven, a good nonstick skillet, an instant read thermometer, box grater & microplane, a Forschner Fibrox chef's knife and paring knife and mostly, just have fun! Cooking is NOT the drudge that most peeps think it is. (It's the clean up that sucks...) As Jacques Pepin says... "appy coooking!" adam

                        1. I think you're going to be overloaded with great advice from folks on this site. With that said, I'll try to keep it simple.

                          1) I am normally an advocate for purchasing as high a quality tools as possible. However, in your case, it may not be prudent for now. You're new to cooking, you have roommates who may or may not respect your stuff or know how to use/clean them, etc. You know your financial and living circumstances best, so it's your call. I'd be really pissed if I or my roommate trashed my brand new $100+ saute pan or bent the tip of my $200 chef's knife while attempting to pry open a stuck drawer. You can go to places like Target and find decent stuff that won't break your budget. Heck, Target even now sells Riedel wine goblets. Even cast iron pans are not impervious to abuse, but if you can learn how to use and care for one of these, they're indispensable.

                          2) Storage is always an issue in the kitchen. Not enough cupboard or cabinet space, not enough counter space, not enough bowls to temporarily store seperate ingredients that are eventually going into one or more dishes. Try to get things for your kitchen that can play more than one role, as well as getting things that are the same sizes for storage (e.g., stainless steel nesting mixing bowls).

                          - Get as many bowls as you can - stainless steel is tough and easy to clean. It helps to get various sizes - at least two that are salad bowl-size, and graduate down in size as much as you can, having at least two of each size. You'll often see various sized stainless steel bowls at the supermarket's kitchen area. These are usually the same shape but of different sizes, which are ideal for storage. You could easily get two or three bowls of three or four different sizes and they won't take up much room in your cupboards or cabinets. You will get a lot of use from these for mixing ingredients for baking, prepping multiple ingredients, storing, marinating, and tossing salads.

                          3) Magazines that I found very helpful to learn more about technique and the science of cooking were Cook's Illustrated and Fine Cooking. Both had a strong focus on techniques and gave me good insight.

                          You may or may not familiar with "America's Test Kitchen," on PBS. It's produced by the folks at Cook's Illustrated. Anyway, the show is based on achieving the best results through scientific techniques. One can always argue that "there's a better way," or this or that, but the results are always solid.

                          4) Try to keep seasons in mind. You may want to serve strawberry shortcake in January but you typically won't get good results, at least not from the strawberries. Likewise, tomatoes will be kicking butt in the summer - good ones are practically non-existent in the cooler months. If you buy in-season, the prices will be better, the ingredients will be superb, and you're more likely to achieve the results you want.

                          1. "food + heat = cooking" - Alton Brown.

                            I love Harold McGee, Julia, etc. but Alton nails the most basic applications of heat to food in his book "I'm Just Here For the Food." For mags, I would start with "Cook's Illustrated."

                            1. i agree with a lot of the recommendations already here...

                              definitely definitely agree on the thermometer. and definitely cooking things you like.

                              does your uni or local area have inexpensive cooking classes?

                              good ingredients -- if you have farmers' markets, they're great, and try to cook with seasonal things as it'll just heighten the taste

                              have cooking nights with friends where you experiment together

                              things i use most: baking sheets/pans, pot, frying pan, whisk, measuring cups (for baked goods), good knives... and agree on enough bowls... i love my kitchenaid, but a hand-mixer is just as great. love my cuisinart too.

                              for a while, just try to make something new every day or every other day. you might also try working to master a few things at a time. have patience. i know, at least for me, most of my frustration came with prep-work at the outset. frankly, i'm still averse to chopping :)

                              1. How fun, aardvarkwallet. I third the recommendation for "Joy of Cooking". Put it on your Christmas list if it's too expensive on a student budget. Alternatively, you can find some wonderful recipes on the Internet by doing ingredient searches. I particularly like Epicurious, which has thousands of collected recipes from Gourmet & Bon Appetit magazines.

                                I use the advanced search feature:


                                You can click on "fast & easy", enter the ingredients you have on hand or want to use, and once you get the results you can sort them by fork rating, which is quite handy, if you trust others' judgment. For example, searching for the word "pasta" with "fast & easy" checked off, you get 590 recipes, including pesto pasta, egg noodles with brown butter, and lemon gnocchi with peas. Don't know if any of that sounds enticing.

                                Make sure you have some good quality knives (a proper chef's knife should cost a minimum of $40.00, but the better ones are often $100.00 plus. It is actually easier to cut yourself when you're using a dull knife, or a knife of poor-quality. Also, it's best to make sure your pots have a reasonably thick base, so that the heat conducts well. Most pots provide information about this on the labels. I remember when I first moved out on my own and was constantly burning things. I thought I was a poor cook, but later I discovered that crappy pots were responsible.

                                It's important to remember, also, that many magazines offer online subscriptions for a fee (for free, you can often still get a lot of information, as in the Epicurious collection, Martha Stewart, Saveur, and Food and Wine--do a search, and you'll find them, each with its handy search engine and recipe database). The one I would recommend is Cooks Illustrated, which has a lot of recipes, plus equipment reviews, cooking lessons, videos, and taste tests; it is a reliable source -- I have many of their cookbooks -- and you can print out all the recipes you want during the subscription period, and keep them on file.


                                Also, general Internet searches for recipes (there are lots of great blogs out there), plus threads on Chowhound, and posting your own questions to Chowhound are all great ways to access helpful information/new recipes.


                                1. Look at http://thepioneerwoman.com/cooking/ Easy recipes, lots of pictures (really lots) and they turn out good. You'll be very popular and have lots of visitors if you start turning out these foods. You'll be able to make this stuff because Ree makes it soooo easy. As you go along making things, you'll get a good idea of what you need. And you'll learn skills as you go.

                                  1. Forget cookbooks or cooking magazines.

                                    You want to cook, not read about it.

                                    Learning how to cook is a process -- nurtured through trial and error and, most importantly, through your own experiences.

                                    Talk to people that like to cook, or know how to cook better than you -- e.g., do your parents cook, or do you have siblings that cook?

                                    Also, the quickest way to learn how to cook is to get paid for doing it. Yup, get a job in the kitchen at any restaurant. Doesn't matter what position -- dishwasher, fryer, short order cook, baker, etc. Just being in that environment you'll learn so much through osmosis you'll be able to turn out a 4 course gourmet meal in no time.

                                    11 Replies
                                    1. re: ipsedixit

                                      I assumed if she had a grandmother who was a great cook, he or she wouldn't have come here with the question. :) Some of us are not lucky enough to grow up around good cooks.

                                      I found that interesting quality magazines broke down the learning into digestible chunks. It exposed me to more techniques and dishes than I could have learned on my own. They kept me interested.

                                      1. re: Becca Porter

                                        Yes, absolutely, my experience too. Even though I have a mother who cooks very well, it wasn't easy making time for this activity with her, and I wanted to make different things, too. One can become a reasonably accomplished cook by using the books/magazines/Internet resources available. Youtube, also, has quite a lot of cooking videos that I've found useful.

                                      2. re: ipsedixit

                                        +1 for this. However, I would add that when you're paid to cook for others, you won't be able to cook things the way *you* might want it. Nevertheless, good advice. I rarely read cookbooks. I just look up internet recipes when I'm unsure.

                                        1. re: Soop

                                          "However, I would add that when you're paid to cook for others, you won't be able to cook things the way *you* might want it"


                                          Of course that's right. What I meant when I said that taking a cooking job would help you learn how to cook is that it'll help you learn techniques and the basics of cooking. Once you've mastered those, then cooking on your own and creating your own creations will flow naturally.

                                          1. re: ipsedixit

                                            Definitely the fastest way.
                                            Mind you, I've known amateaur chefs that are better than a lot of professionals (including horror stories about stock rotation, stirring sauces with expensive knives etc). I guess it's easy to pick up bad habits if you cook day in day out - especially if you don't have passion.

                                            A lot of what I learned (bearing in mind that I was in the same boat a couple of years ago) has been from the fine people of Chowhound.

                                            1. re: Soop

                                              Hahaha, my husband has used my expensive chef's knife as a screwdriver before.... If you didn't pay the big bucks for it (or have no idea that big bucks were paid for it)...why not?

                                        2. re: ipsedixit

                                          While I agree with creating your own experiences, I must disagree about the cookbooks/mags. It helps to have some sort of guideline. You don't want trial and error when cooking, say, chicken.

                                          1. re: schrutefarms

                                            True, but you can search the internets :) I looked up exactly how long to boil an egg from Deliah Smith rather than risk a too-hard boiled and was not disappointed.

                                            Also, I'm lucky enough that my partner has an innate ability to calculate such cooking times!

                                            1. re: schrutefarms

                                              "You don't want trial and error when cooking, say, chicken."


                                              Really, why? If anything, chicken is the *perfect* dish for trial and error (assuming you don't undercook it and leave it half raw). Chicken is cheap, and takes to just about any type of cooking method and is bland enough that it will shine with whatever type of seasoning, marinade or sauce you pair it with.

                                              1. re: ipsedixit

                                                Yeah, I think he means you don't want to undercook it.
                                                However, any recipe will give a cooking time, and any cookbook will offer a chart for cooking times per weight.

                                                1. re: ipsedixit

                                                  Yes, I was talking about the dangers of undercooking poultry. If you can get your cooking times right, then, yes, chicken is a great trial and error dish, as it is so versatile. I was having flashbacks of myself attempting fried chicken with no cookbook years ago-burnt on the outside, raw and gooey on the inside. And then proceeding to serve it to my friend.

                                            2. You don't have to cook fancy to make a good meal. Something I cook quite a lot, and doesn't take any effort, is a steak of some kind (seasoned and marinaded in olive oil), with some spinach wilted in butter. As long as you pay attention, little can go wrong. You might under/over cook the steak slightly, but just keep your eye on it.

                                              Other than that, for your "essential" kitchenware, I'd say 3 saucepans (for when you need to cook more than 2 things at once - I've never needed more), a dutch oven, a good chefs knife, a baking tray (good to get a nice thick one), some ovenware dish for lasagene etc. and the skillet you already have. Maybe a collander and a cheap stainless steel stock pot too.

                                              Short of that, other stuff can be handy, but that's your essentials.

                                              2 Replies
                                              1. re: Soop

                                                Most of the advice here is good. Don't buy anything unless you think you'll use it a lot. Best cookware to invest in, bar none, is a cast iron skillet. If you do yard sales you may find one already seasoned for a few bucks. Other than that you need good knives, a roasting pan, a few cookie sheets, a few sauce pans, tongs, ladle (some of the gadgety things can be found in dollar stores). If you can find a dutch oven, too (cast iron is good but not essential), you'll be equipped with some versitile multitaskers. A cheap coffee grinder is also helpful--you can grind coffee AND spices. Most of this stuff can be found at yard sales if you're willing to search for it. If you want to bake you may want to invest in a few cake pans, round or sheet. If you have lots of money to spend (who does lol, but thought I'd mention it), you can invest in something wonderful like a stand mixer, a blender or a food processor, which make lots of kitchen work easier, but up to you.

                                                If there's a food coop or natural foods store or place where you can buy supplies in bulk, check it out. You'll often save over the grocery store. I'd check such places for spices, sea salt, coffee, flour, pastas--all the staples. Then search around for inexpensive sources for produce, meat, and dairy products. The less prepared foods you buy, the more money you'll have (and you'll eat better too!).

                                                I don't know that'd I'd buy cookbooks right off. Maybe wait till you know whose style of cooking you prefer. I keep a three-ring binder and when I find a recipe online that works well for me, I print it out and put it in a plastic sheet in the binder. Over time, I've built up recipes that I like and that I know come out great when I cook them. I've found recipes on the Food Network, Cooks Illustrated (worth the $30 per year--even if just for one year), All Recipes and many other websites.

                                                And most important is stay connected to places like Chowhound. There are many online foodie communities, and this is a great one. People love to help, so don't be afraid to ask lots of questions!

                                                One other site I've found helpful is http://www.cookingforengineers.com/. It has videos and step-by-step directions, which is great for learning techniques (as is the Chow Tips feature here).

                                                Good luck and have fun. Cooking can be a great stress-buster. :-)

                                                1. re: SharaMcG

                                                  Yes- agreed on the good knife. You can do anything with a good knife!! Mine is a Mac knife, you can buy one online for about $70.

                                              2. A lot of good advice already given. I agree with a good chef knife. I really like Ina Garten's books. With a few exceptions, her recipes are pretty simple with outstanding results. She does a lot of roasting vegetables, and quick meals. Simple techniques. My two most worn are...Barefoot Contessa and Barefoot in Paris. Enjoy.

                                                1. I learned to cook because I really liked the Silver Palate cookbook. I thought the food seemed so elegant, and nothing like what I was eating at home. Maybe before you buy a cookbook, spend some time at the library, and see if you find anything there that makes you want to cook.

                                                  The dollar store is a good resource for cooking utensils. But buy a good garlic press, the cheap ones just don't cut it. And Marshalls, TJ max, and the outlet shops can have good prices on good quality cookware.

                                                  1. concentrate on technique over recipes.
                                                    a good book is "timing is everything"
                                                    just cook and cook some more and then do it again

                                                    1. Say, aardvarkwallet, are you interested in fried pork chops?

                                                      1. I think Julia Child's The Way to Cook is a really good cookbook for both beginners and experienced cooks.

                                                        1. Get a copy of the Joy of cooking. Great place to start tells you how cook anything and what things are.

                                                          1. Hi aardvarkwallet! I've been cooking for a few years, but I still feel like I'm just beginning to learn to cook.
                                                            So, rather than even attempt to tell you what books to look at or what utensiles to buy, I will offer this for advice:
                                                            In order to learn how to cook, you have to start by learning how to taste.

                                                            When you take a bite of something, stop and pay attention to the textures, the flavors. Is it sweet, bitter, savory, salty. Do you like the combination of tastes, could it benefit from adding anythign, taking something away?

                                                            Once you feel comfortable with what flavors you enjoy together, you will find it easier to play around in the kitchen. At least that's what worked for me!
                                                            In the same way that if you want to paint, you should first understand that red and yellow make orange, while red and green make brown...