Learning to Cook Part I: How to Make the Effort Worth The Skill

For those of us whom aren’t foodies, cooking is a necessary evil. On the other hand, eating out is a significant cost. But the trepidation of learning to cook three meals a day, seven days a week, might be enough to make that cost worth it. 

Yet with black swan events like COVID-19 and busy parents responsible for family diets, cooking at home is becoming more a necessity than a luxury. What’s the non-foodie, so-not-Gordon-Ramsay, busy individual or parent to do?

The problem of learning to cook can be connected to something larger–the issue of picking up independent skills. Understandably, autodidacts face a host of issues when making the brave jump to teaching themselves, and cooking is no different.

Before we dive into solutions, we have to take stock of the problems. Let’s explore some of the common, and legitimate, complaints about why learning to cook is difficult.

Learning to cook is impossible without the right equipment.

Complaint 1: Grocery shopping/gathering ingredients is time-consuming.

It certainly is. Particularly for working parents, taking time out of the day to…

  • commute to the grocery store
  • select ingredients
  • wait at the checkout line
  • go back home
  • unload everything in the refrigerator

…this can easily add up to a few hours more productively spent with kids, relaxing, or invigorating hobbies.

Complaint 2: Estimating time can be tricky.

This is a pet peeve that I personally experienced a lot when learning to cook. “Quick” recipes promising to take fifteen minutes often bled to an hour or more. Between the hassle of taking out equipment, prepping, and cleaning, the struggles of time estimation can introduce unwanted chaos to a busy schedule.

Complaint 3: Washing dishes is annoying.

This ties to complaint 2 above. “Cooking” is more accurately described as “prepping, cooking, and washing dishes.” When people say that cooking is fun, washing dishes is almost never what they’re thinking of. Yet it’s undoubtedly a necessary part of being more involved in one’s own kitchen. 

Besides the uncertainty of learning to cook, the burden of washing dishes can be stressful enough to give up altogether.

Complaint 4: Thinking of what to eat and cook.

Thinking of what to cook takes creative energy and mental bandwidth that might be more productively used elsewhere. The idea of whipping up gourmet dishes might seem glamorous at first. But the fact of the matter is, eating is a necessity, not a luxury. 

Constantly coming up with something different twenty-one times a week can quickly become exhausting.

The strategy to tackle these complaints

Learning to cook is intimidating. It takes time to overcome the initial hurdles and the hesitation of investing an uncertain amount of time and energy before seeing any returns. For many people, that initial obstacle might not be worth it.

Yet the problems of choosing not to cook remain unanswered. How can I feed my child healthier food? What can I do to control my diet? How can I minimize my food budget? What measures can I take to stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Many of cooking’s common hassles can be simplified by a high-level, strategic point of view. This is true for learning any skill, but especially so for one as fundamental as learning to cook. With a little time, perseverance, and the right strategy, learning to cook can be optimized for both time and cost.

Tip #1: Emphasize building a stock of pantry staples rather than recipe ingredients.

This tip addresses Complaint #1, the problem of knowing how to shop for ingredients. 

When you’re learning to cook, trying to get ingredients for recipes can be extremely daunting. You may not know where to start, and once you do, the inefficiency may cause a lot of time to be lost. This is the case for any new skill. Learning to pick the right guitar before learning to play can be just as tough.

In more general terms, gathering the right tools is difficult. For a carpenter, no carpentry is going to happen without a hammer and saw; for a guitarist, no music without their guitar. But which hammer and saw should the carpenter pick? Which guitar should the musician play? 

For people learning to cook, the equivalent question is that of pantry staples. Fortunately, pantry staples are much easier to select than the tools of an artisan. If you know which staples can be applied to a wide range of dishes, grocery shopping becomes an automatic errand, rather than a frenzied search for exotic ingredients to a recipe you’ve found on Pinterest.

Because of differences in culture and preference, this will vary between individuals.

A household that prefers Asian food might stock up on soy sauce, miso paste, and kimchi. These salty condiments add a quick burst of flavor or double as meat marinades, dipping sauces, and soup bases.

A household that prefers Western cuisine might stock up on mustard, pesto, and tomato paste, which mix well as salad dressings, sandwich spreads, or pasta sauces. Common to most households are dried rice or pasta and cooking oils. A more detailed and excellent guide to pantry staples can be found here.

With the wonders of modern technology, grocery delivery services might even save you the hassle of stepping outside your house to collect ingredients.

Virtual assistants like Wing can help with the more tedious aspects of home cooking.

With the foundation of pantry staples in place, you’re on much better footing to start cooking than you were before.

Tip #2: Aim to master a few general techniques rather than specific steps.

To a beginner, learning to cook seems to mean mastering an infinite array of dishes and steps. Just like the mystery of how concert pianists memorize dozens of pieces of music, the portrayal of chefs in shows like Iron Chef can lend an undeserved mystique to learning to cook.

The fact is, most dishes suitable for home cooking usually consist of a few universal building blocks. They roughly involve baking, sauteing, boiling, mixing, or simmering. Although many cooking guides can have more or less than these five techniques, like this one, the broad categories are roughly the same.

Each of these building blocks might have fancier versions. For example, the difficult end of “mixing” can involve meringue or folding for macarons. But at their most basic, they can quickly become muscle memory. If a recipe is complicated, it’s usually not because of an inherently fancy technique, but simply because it combines a lot of different steps that might be tricky to time correctly. 

For a beginner, it’s wise to take these techniques separately. Stick to recipes that only involve one at a time. For example, a stir-fry (only sauteing) or a salad (only mixing) might be more approachable than a fancy stew that calls for browning the meat (sauteing) and simmering for hours (simmering). 

Start with the basics, then move onto more challenging recipes. Those might have more complicated steps that combine those basics. Like many intimidating skills, cooking is made up of building blocks; the key is to conquer them one at a time.

Tip #3: Select ingredients and dishes that minimize prep time and dishwashing.

A few best practices can minimize prep and cleanup work when learning to cook.

My favorite trick is to use ground meat (chicken, beef, pork), resulting in faster cooking time, no cutting boards to wash, and a better ability to soak up flavors.

You might choose to top oatmeal with berries as opposed to apples, pears, and bananas (which need cutting).

Opting for pre-washed spinach is faster and less messy than something like broccoli, which requires washing and cutting. 

Tip #4: Master a few simple core dishes that can be easily varied for both convenience and variety.

This tip addresses Complaint #4, the “I can’t think of what to cook” problem. Fortunately, there is no need to create something different every time. No one, not even celebrity chefs, is creative enough to reinvent the wheel every day.

The goal is to build a small but versatile repertoire. That way, you have a few staples, reliable dishes to fall back on even on the busiest of days, but varied enough to break the monotony of eating the same thing frequently. 

The key is to know your preferences well. Some people fall back on their culture’s comfort food at the end of a long day, for example. Then, adapt your cooking style to those preferences to churn them out quickly when you can’t think of what to cook. But vary them depending on available ingredients. 

Illustration of a Hand Adding a Pinch of Salt to a Pot of Stew. Pinch

To take an example from my own life, I love three things: noodle soups, egg dishes, and Italian pasta. They also form the base for a fairly complete diet. Only a few inexpensive staples are needed for all three: broth, eggs, dried noodles, and pasta, plus whatever miscellaneous meat or vegetables I might have in my fridge. 

While everyone will be different, hopefully, the example above illustrates a good way to optimize time, variation, and convenience. The challenge of “thinking what to cook” isn’t necessarily solved by being the most creative and spontaneous master chef, but identifying your preferences. Your goal is to see each dish as part of a bigger, more complete diet. Then master the variations of something repeatedly enough for it to become muscle memory.

Takeaways — Building Habits and Simplifying Skills

Across the board, an overarching theme dominates. Learning to cook, or learning anything, requires breaking down complicated tasks into digestible pieces that are easy to learn. 

Learning to cook isn’t about becoming the next Gordon Ramsay. It’s about building sustainable habits that contribute to your health and well-being. While learning to cook may seem impossible amidst the chaos of remote work, supervising children, and remaining healthy, remember that there’s a light at the end of a tunnel. Your favorite dishes will be homemade so quickly that cooking is nothing but an afterthought. 

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