Here at Ovenu, we love nothing more than a dirty oven. Not only is it a great chance for us to go to work, but it shows that the oven is well-used, hopefully giving the chef plenty of practise.
But for some, the idea of cooking meals can be intimidating, and they may limit themselves to the same quick meals over and over again – or, god forbid, buy microwaveable meals.
Luckily there is no need to stoop to such drastic measures. Even the most amateur of cooks can improve their skills with these simple steps, and soon begin to really enjoy the process!
Your cupboard should be as well-stocked as possible before you start cooking. At a bare minimum we’re talking oils, seasonings, tinned tomatoes, rice, butter and stock, although if a certain meal is your favourite it’s wise to get everything in you may need for it. Preparing a shopping list with the ingredients of meals you want to try is a good way to ensure you don’t have to run to the supermarket every few days. Get hold of both kosher and table salt, as they have very different purposes, and use each new recipe as an opportunity to top up your collection of herbs and spices – get a few at a time and soon you’ll have a huge stock to choose from. Most will lose their potency over a year or two, so make sure you don’t hold onto anything for too long.
2) Grow Your Own
One of the best ways to enjoy cooking at home is to have plenty of fresh, home-grown ingredients to work with. If you’re able to grow vegetables, that’s fantastic, as even making a simple salad from homegrown lettuce and tomatoes is a real pleasure – but try something a little more interesting to cook with, such as courgettes or aubergines. Not only will you have the freshest ingredients possible, which will taste much better than store-bought produce, but your pride in growing them will factor into your pride of the meal you’ve prepared.
If you aren’t able to grow vegetables, at least try to cultivate some herbs. They can be bought as small plants and then all that’s needed is maintenance to keep them going. For recipes that call for a small portion of a given herb, you’ll be wasting much less by clipping it from your own plant than buying a bunch that will mostly end up wilting. There’s also something magical about snipping your own herbs to add to your meal.
3) Good Equipment
If you don’t have decent cooking equipment, your meals just aren’t going to come out right. This starts with good quality pots and pans – preferably two saucepans or more of varying sizes and a frying pan. A mortar and pestle is good for fresh herbs, a good pair of scissors can stop you from struggling with stubborn packets, and measuring cups and spoons mean you always use the amount specified in the recipe. Your oven and cooking equipment also need to be clean, or burned-on carbon will effect the taste or potentially unevenly cook your meal.
Arguably the most important instrument in the kitchen is the knife, and until you use a good quality, sharpened knife you probably won’t know what you’re missing out on. For beginner chefs, a German blade is best and will hold an edge very well; even better if you can buy a knife sharpener or whet stone to keep it sharp. A top-quality sharp knife will slice through tomatoes with just an ounce of pressure, which will make your preparation quicker and neater.
Speaking of being ready, one of the best things you can do to help yourself out is to plan out the meal very carefully. This starts with reading the recipe through a number of times – you don’t want to find out half way through that you have to leave a meal to rest for thirty minutes, messing up all of your timings. Doing this is especially important if the meal is something fast like a stir fry, where you really don’t have time to stop and read over the instructions.
Another way to feel prepared for the meal ahead is to prepare and lay out all ingredients, seasonings and equipment before you get started – professional cooks call this “mise-en-place”. There’s a reason why TV chefs always seem so laid back, and that’s because they don’t have to spend a moment thinking about weights or measurements – it’s all right there for them. Make sure any new bottles are opened so you don’t struggle at a crucial moment, and don’t worry if it takes a while; the preparation process will get much quicker with practise.
5) Get Inspired
If you’ve ever watched a cooking programme or leafed through a food magazine, you’ll understand the lure of a good recipe. Try to replicate meals that look simple and straightforward at first, and build up to elaborate dishes – remember, you’re not trying to win any competitions here. Buy recipe books where you can and spend some time every few days looking through it for a new meal to make, then write up a plan for the week so you know what to buy at the supermarket. Cooking programmes are also a great way to see how professional chefs do things, and you might just pick up a handy skill along the way.
And finally, the most important nugget of wisdom you’ll read here…
Just do it, as they say. The only way to get better at cooking is to do it regularly – you can read as many books as you like but it won’t help you to taste whether there is too much salt in a sauce. Keep a spoon on hand to try samples of anything you make, and experiment with some of the herbs and spices in your cupboard or window sill. Add salt a pinch at a time, tasting each time, until you have just the right amount; and if you aren’t sure if a certain seasoning will work, sniff it directly after sniffing the meal. Your nose is as good a taster as your mouth.
To get started, choose five meals or so and cook them over and over again until you know them by heart. Sooner or later you’ll be so familiar with the process, the smells and the tastes that you’ll be able to deviate from the recipe and really make it your own. It’s also very important to choose meals that you enjoy eating – that may seem like banal advice, but it’s surprising how many people will limit themselves to cooking just healthy meals without consideration for how it’ll taste. Sure, triple-cheese lasagnes aren’t good for you, but you’ll enjoy eating it so much you’ll be desperate to try again and make it even better next time. Cooking for friends has the same effect, as the more compliments you get the more eager you will be to improve on your success.
Practise, preparation and good produce – that’s all you need to become a great cook at home. And a clean oven helps, of course.