A Word To The Non-Cooks In The Crowd

Ivy says:

My inability to cook is legendary. Want a cake or a pie? I’m good at that- I can bake. But if you want some fried chicken, I am not your girl. That said, I have three kids and I’m on a budget. I have to cook. And in order to save money and try to be healthful, I have to cook from scratch as much as possible.

It’s funny. Some people, I think, are born with a natural ability to cook, and some people are not. The difference, I think, is personality driven. Baking is a fairly exact science. Follow the directions exactly on a good recipe, and you’ll generally end up with a good product. Cooking, on the other hand, is way more subjective. Try getting a recipe from a cook. They’ll normally rattle off a bunch of ingredients, and not much more. Ask for amounts or cooking times and they’ll shrug and tell you they’re not sure.

So what are those of us who are non-cooks to do when we want to actually cook something? First, you have to find some good recipes. We have a ton of good, easy recipes on this site. Also, I love AllRecipes.com.

And here’s a surprising place I found interesting things to make- the game Cooking Mama on the Nintendo DS. Now, the game doesn’t have actual recipes. It’ll teach you to cook in the same way Guitar Hero will teach you to play the guitar. However, it does have a lot of very interesting things that you make, and you get an idea of what goes into the recipe as well. I’ve seen things on there and googled them to get an actual recipe.

Cooking mama has taught me several things about real world cooking. Like the fact that you won’t always get a recipe perfect on the first try, and that’s okay. Like, last night I was making rice pudding (in the real world) and I managed to end up with a bunch of burny bits in it. Next time, I’ll know to stir while I’m waiting for the recipe to boil. See, all your cooking failures are just learning steps to success. And while it definitely sucks to have to throw out food, especially in this economy- at least next time I’ll know the right thing to do.

So, to all you just-learning cooks out there, chin up! Find some recipes and give them a try. I especially find various ethnic foods to be good to start with- many of the recipes are very economical, and since several of them require cooking techniques that are unfamiliar to Americans, they tend to be better explained on the internet, I have found.

Let’s hear it from the experienced cooks- what tips do you have for the newbies?


  1. Apple-anche part deux | Lesley Eats on June 5, 2011 at 9:17 pm

    […] I count the apple prep. Here’s where I admit I’m a cook, not a chef or a baker. There’s a lot of technique I don’t know, a lot of gadgets I don’t have (aside […]

  2. Heather on November 3, 2008 at 7:30 am

    For many, many years I thought I hated stew. I finally gave in and ate some to be polite when my in-laws brought a batch over while I was on bedrest with my first child. That night I discovered I didn’t hate STEW, I hate Dinty Moore Stew. (That was what my mother made.)
    That’s when a light bulb went on and I began tasting foods in many different forms, not just the manner in which I had first been introduced. The only thing I still truly despise is mayo and I still haven’t gotten around to the homemade version.
    Best of luck with your home surgery efforts, take pics! 😉

  3. fluffernutter on November 2, 2008 at 6:21 pm

    I think your advice is just right. I learned to cook after eating my way across Europe and realizing that the food we ate at home was not very good.
    So I never had a problem with cooking, but photography was always really difficult for me. So I took that approach: tried something to see whether it worked, and if it did, I kept doing it. If it didn’t, I learned from it. Next, I plan to try home surgery. Wish me luck!

  4. Jane on October 26, 2008 at 10:03 am

    Great comments! I had to start cooking very young, as my mother was the world’s worst cook, so by the time I was an adult, I became a chef. Two tips for you: write on the page of the cook book you are using for a particular recipe, because you may not remember what was right or wrong the next time you cook something. My cookbooks have things scrawled on the pages like: Use only 1/2 t. salt, not 3/4; cut sugar by 1/3; try apricot jam wash on pie shell, pre bake 10 minutes; cake not done, try 15 minutes longer.

    Next: have something in the freezer that can be made in 10 minutes if a dinner has to be trashed. Mine is frozen tortellini, chunks of frozen ham, frozen heavy cream, frozen peas. Always have Italian parsley and Parmesan on hand. Presto! Tortellini alla Panna. Many times when I was cooking for a new beau, and nervous as can be, dinner would end up in the trash can. Out came my old favorite, and life was good.

    Lots of cooking is attitude: I go into a Zen space, where there is calm and focus. Even when I worked on the line in a New York restaurant, where cooking is like ballet with knives and fire, I was always calm.

    And, Yes! Food Network rocks, especially my favorite mad scientist, Alton Brown.

  5. Keter on October 26, 2008 at 12:03 am

    I learned to cook and bake as a young child due to illness in the family – I was often the only one who was well enough to stand at the stove. And I often didn’t have anyone around to direct me. So I learned by imitating what I remembered from watching other cooks – including Julia Child other chefs on PBS.

    The things that served me well were these:

    – Learn the basic techniques of cooking: you at least need to learn how to saute, braise, broil, etc.

    – Learn how to cook a few basic recipes. Mine are smothered (chicken, steak, pork chops – just vary the spicing, the technique is the same), cream soup (potato, broccoli, cauliflower, leek, clam, corn), stir-fry (everything from Mexican fajitas to faux Tandoori chicken to shrimp with peas and water chestnuts), omelets (eggs+almost anything else), layered one-dish casseroles (often my C.O.R.N. strategy).

    – Learn how to make stuff to go over other stuff: a meal can be made quickly in the skillet and poured over something else: rice, pasta, garlic bread, biscuits, polenta, etc.

    – Learn how to manage liquid balance: this is the difference between crispy and soggy, stir fried and parboiled. Learn how and when to correct liquid balance by pouring off excess or soaking up (with rice, noodles, cornstarch, or flour).

    – Learn which flavors go with which other flavors. Develop favorite combos.

    – Learn spicing. Develop spicing combos to complement your flavor combos.

    – Learn what substitutes for what – and what doesn’t. For example, rice and pasta often can switch places. Some veggies can stand in for others – cauliflower and broccoli can fill the same role in most recipes. Ketchup can pinch-hit for tomato paste in some dishes, but not others (ketchup is sweeter). If you can make it with chicken, you can usually make it with white-meat pork, too.

    – Learn how to time dishes to finish in the proper order (this takes a lot of practice)

    – Learn how to cascade meals so that the leavings from one become the beginning for another. For example, as I type, tonight’s roast chicken carcass is rendering down for chicken stock to be used the next time I need stock, while the last batch of stock – from pork chop bones in this case – is simmering in the crock pot to make a stew for tomorrow (I’ll bake an oatmeal bread to go with it), and tonight’s mashed potatoes will appear again in Tuesday’s broccoli-potato soup.

    – Learn how to put together a filling al fresco meal or salad that can stand in for a meal.

    – For inspiration, watch other cooks – on TV or in a restaurant with a view to the kitchen. When dining out, try to figure out what ingredients are in a dish you like and what steps were required to prepare and cook it.

    When you’ve learned the things listed above, you should be able to walk into your kitchen, glance at what’s in your refrigerator and pantry, and put together any one of at least three potential meals on the spot without a recipe.

    Good luck and happy cooking! :o)

    Oh…and I’m not without my challenges in the kitchen: I used to be a really great baker, only now a wheat allergy means that I’m having to reinvent recipes and techniques to use other flours…*sigh*

  6. Meghan on October 25, 2008 at 6:29 pm

    Never compromise the quality if your cookware, ever. Sharp knives cut better and injure less. Heavy pots hold and distribute heat better and are less likely to burn things on the bottom than lightweight pots and the same can be said for bakeware. Even things like glass and ceramic bakeware should be important, since if they aren’t tempered properly they could break at the most improper time.

    Do your research on countertop electronics to make sure you’re not over-paying but that you’re not buying something that won’t work either.

    One other thing to note: I love silicone spatulas for just about anything, but make sure you’re getting 100% silicone and not a cheap blend, as the less expensive version absorb colors and odors, which makes them less versatile. If you can, bend the silicone. If it turns white/lighter in color, it’s a blend, if it stays the same color it’s silicone.

    Yes, really great cooks don’t need fancy tool, but they do need good tools that work properly.

  7. Emma on October 25, 2008 at 6:59 am

    Ivy, allow me to disagree 🙂 – MY inability to cook is legendary. Not only can’t I cook, I also can’t bake and my husband used to do all the cooking. Well, at least until I had to start feeding my baby solids, and then – my journey began. My cheat-shit was a book by Anabel Karmel, the baby-toddler-meal-planner, and those recipes are so easy, that even such a disaster-in-the-kitchen as myself could make something that was safe for a baby to eat :).

  8. Jackie Leeper on October 25, 2008 at 2:44 am

    All the advice given was wonderful. When I was first married I received a cookbook/pamphlet from Metropolitan Insurance. It was a big help to a newlywed. Short, simple and to the point.
    If you have a grandmother that likes to cook AND teach, Pick her brains. She won’t be around forever, and then you’e lost a precious loved one and a great resource.
    Last but not least ALTON BROWN GOOD EATS. HE IS THE BEST THING ON FOOD TV! I am 65 years old and did not learn to bake biscuits from scratch till I saw him. Now mine are as good as MY grandmother’s, who I should have asked when I still could.
    My husband, God bless his heart, was not generous with compliments said mine were the best.

  9. Emily C on October 24, 2008 at 11:42 pm

    Taste. Taste. And keep tasting! Then you’ll know if it’s tasty.

    That’s my advice as a creative cook. Who loves to bake.

    And don’t be afraid of screwing up. Because even the best cooks mess up really bad sometimes.

  10. Mom of three on October 24, 2008 at 7:40 pm

    I’m an okay cook, but my family hates to eat. They want the same things over and over and over. Hubby is the most pickiest person you will ever meet. He wants every thing plain. So I don’t cook new stuff all that often because no one will eat it.

    The thing I have learned and taught my kids is when trying a new dish for the first time, even if it’s a main meal, cook it with your normal dinner, just half the recipe. Then everyone can try it, and yet still have comfort foods to eat if they don’t like it. If they do, then you can add that to the list of dishes to cook alone the next time.

    I also always have canned fruits and peas around. My kids will make a meal of those, so if we are eating something they don’t necessarily like, the can fill up on the fruits and veggies they do like.

    When they were littler, we had fruit of the week club. Each week we had a new fruit each week. They HAD to try it. They did not have to like it. The ones they did like we could buy again. The ones they don’t like I don’t buy any more. I found they don’t like fresh peaches, but they love the canned ones. (Yes, you can get them without sugar syrup). They loved fresh and canned pineapple and we have that a lot. We always have fresh apples, oranges and bananas to fill up on if mom burns dinner or if you just really don’t like it and everyone else does.

  11. HM on October 24, 2008 at 4:41 pm

    Mac-n-cheese is actually one of the first places I started experimenting, lol! Add some frozen veggies to the water and bring to a boil then add the pasta and continue as usual. Some good veggies for this are broccoli, peas, mixed veggies, corn. Really just about any veggie will do, but those are some of my faves to add. Also, when it’s all cooked and mixed up- add a can of tuna or chicken for protien and viola- a meal of pasta, veggies and meat. Still do this in a pinch if I am pressed for time, energy or ingredients.

    Another great easy peasy (and cheap!) meal? Black beans and yellow rice. Buy a 70 cent package of yellow rice and follow the directions on the package. Buy a 50 cent can of black beans and add some taco seasoning (or if you’re me cumin, oregano, chili powder and garlic powder) and let it simmer on low while the rice cooks. When it’s done top a scoop of rice with a scoop of beans, add cheese if you want and enjoy.

    Hmm, another one that I started with was creamy chicken and broccoli over rice. I would dice some chicken breast and sautee till it was cooked thru, then pour in a can of cream of whatever soup and some broccoli and simmer till the broccoli was cooked. I’d ladle it over rice and there was dinner.

    Oh, and soups. You can never go wrong making a soup if you start with a broth. Add any veggies, meat, starch and spices you like and there it is. Pretty much fool proof. Example- chicken broth, diced cooked chicken, a can of tomatoes, mixed veggies and rice. Easy peasy.

    Some of my favorite staples to keep on hand are frozen veggies, onions, garlic, any kind of pasta, canned tuna, canned tomatoes, cous cous, chicken broth, beef broth, rice and canned beans. With those I can make dozens of meals, and with the addition of some chicken breast, or steak or whatever I can make dozens more.

  12. Alice on October 24, 2008 at 3:50 pm

    “Even as an experienced cook I sometimes wish a recipe would say, heat to a biol on Hi, then turn to 4. It would make things a whole lot easier.”

    Oh, I so second that although I’m quite the inexperienced cook. I’ve had panic attacks over what number to put it on before, I swear.

    Same as Ivy, I’m a great baker but I can’t cook at. all. Shoot, I screwed up oatmeal this morning. I can barely make box meals well. It’s just sad. And I just separated from my partner who is a fantastic cook & did all the cooking (oops!). So we’ll see what happens now.

    For cooking, I really like the sites where you can plug in the ingredients you have and it gives you recipes. Otherwise I’m staring into a cupboard of what I think is filled with nothing and we end of eating mac-n-cheese.

  13. N. on October 24, 2008 at 3:45 pm

    Keep things simple and have fun. My husband and I have been cooking 90% of our meals for almost a year now and in that time we’ve had some great successes and some failures. Just because a recipe looks really good doesn’t mean you will actually like it which can be frustrating after an hour to two of cooking. But that’s okay just move on. We like to find recipes online because then you can see what other people thought and any amendments they made.

  14. Rebecca C on October 24, 2008 at 3:34 pm

    I learned how to cook via Semi Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee. Another great starting place is the Kraft website. I know, I know. They use lots of packaged, precooked items. But it takes a lot of the scary out of cooking. And honestly after I had mastered a few of the “Dump one can of this, another of this” I could handle the harder ones.

    Another note: Crockpot recipes tend to be VERY forgiving. They are simple, and you don’t have to worry about burning food, or what number is Medium High. Even as an experienced cook I sometimes wish a recipe would say, heat to a biol on Hi, then turn to 4. It would make things a whole lot easier.

  15. Rebecca on October 24, 2008 at 2:21 pm

    Everyone has offered the same kind of advice that I would offer, pretty well. My one addition is this: salad dressing.

    Making your own is an excellent way to practice experimenting and being adventurous (advice from all the others so far). If you do ‘screw up’ and you have to throw it away, it’s a fairly low cost item to toss. And all the ‘flavour’ balancing that will help you become a good cook applies to salad dressings. Not to mention that making your own allows to you get rid of some of the preservatives and artificials from your diet.

    Try something like this: pour about 1/4 cup of mild vinegar in a clean empty jar. add salt, pepper and maybe some sugar, and 1tblsp of mustard. Then add 1/2 to 3/4 cups of olive oil or salad oil. Put the lid on the jar and hand it to the kids to shake it until it’s all mixed. Then.. taste it. Now – here’s the experimenting part. Change up the amounts of salt and pepper. Add herbs, seasonings. Whatever you like. And just keep playing around. Maybe substitute some or all of the vinegar for some other tangy liquid (like citrus juice). Try substituting yoghurt or cream for the mustard. Adding more or less.

    See.. like those other nasty cooks, I didn’t give a very good recipe. That’s the point. Play!!!!!!

    Hope that was helpful.

    (and IMHO Rachel may not have pedigree as a chef, but she’s one of the best people to watch for how to put ingredients together. She’s the ultimate version of someone who learned how to cook by cooking for her family by experimenting and being adventurous)

  16. HM on October 24, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    You are totally right, cooking and baking are 2 entirely different things. I can cook like no one’s business but baking intimidates me to no end. I think of it like this- baking is more of a science and cooking is more of an art. Baking is about precision and cooking is about creativity. Although, you can have a technical cook and a creative baker. 😀

    So, Advice-

    1. Start simple. I got married and became responsible for the food at 18 years old, and I admit I used a LOT of boxes and cans on my way to culinary competence.

    2. Food Network. I know it sounds silly but about half of what I know was learned from Food Network. All time favorite? Good Eats with Alton Brown. He doesn’t just show you how to cook something, he explains WHY it works the way it does. Which leads to my third tip:

    3. Learn as much as you can about WHY food does what it does. The more you know about the background of cooking- methods, properties of different foods, why you add this then and not another time etc…- the easier it will be to take chances and explore. I guess it helps to have a slightly scientific mind.

    4. Keep at it. I didn’t become a great cook overnight. I’ve spent the past almost 11 years and I am still learning things. The best way to learn to cook is to cook.

    5. Experiment. After you’ve learned some basics, got some recipes that you are comfortable start experimenting. Start small- maybe substitute noodles for rice or chicken for beef, like ingredients, then move on and just see what works for you. To this day I will start with a recipe, follow it to a t, then never make it the same way again because I tweak it to my preferences.

    Hope some of these ideas help. 😀

  17. Stefani on October 24, 2008 at 1:24 pm

    Wanted to let you know, that you are right. Baking and Cooking are two totally different things. Funny thing though, I cook great, but can’t bake worth a lick.

  18. Lesley on October 24, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    Watching cooking shows helps a lot–I mean those hosted by an actual chef (not Martha or Rachael) where you see technique and they talk about why they use they ingredients they use. Alton Brown is great. And Top Chef–you can see successes and failures and learn a lot about technique and ingredients watching it.

  19. Taylor on October 24, 2008 at 11:57 am

    I’m certainly no chef, but I do love to cook and I’m reasonably good at it.

    Here are my tips:
    1. Don’t be scared: The worst thing you can do is to be timid about cooking. Yes, you will probably mess up a few times. Yes, it may not taste good. But don’t think that just because you make something that isn’t spectacular it will ruin your life. Just try!

    2. Keep trying the same recipe. If you make it once and it doesn’t work, try it again. Try to pick out what you didn’t like about it and alter it the next time you cook it. Does it need to be cooked longer? Not as long? Does it have too much pepper? And do it quickly, because then you will remember what you didn’t like about it clearly. Perfect one recipe before you move on to another.

    3. Be adventurous. Are you making something and you think, gee, this would be really good with some onions? Or, chili powder would really liven this up! Then go for it! The fun of cooking is tweaking things to make them exactly how you like them. Don’t feel like you have to go by the recipe exactly.

    And remember this: Even brilliant chefs have to throw things in the garbage sometimes. Failure is ok!

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