This is a response to Barb Abramson’s writing prompt “Chef up! Are you the man of the kitchen?”
When I was younger, I got the idea to impress my girlfriend by inviting her over for a home-cooked meal, made by yours truly.
What could be more romantic?
Wouldn’t that be a good way to show a sensitive side? I was useless in the kitchen, but I had a secret weapon: my Italian grandmother. She laughed when I called her, but she told me what to buy and how to prepare a simple but yummy meal.
It must not have turned out too badly because that girlfriend and I are still together, more than 20 years later.
Like most American men, I learned little about cooking as a child. I sometimes watched my mother and grandmother, who loved cooking and occasionally won recipe contests. I took the required “home economics” classes in school to learn (and forget) the basics of baking. Even when I married that girlfriend, I was the stereotype male klutz in the kitchen: I could make toast and cold cereal, and heat frozen burritos in the microwave, and grill chicken or burgers without burning them (most of the time), but anything involving a stove or an oven was beyond me.
Furthermore, I still sort of bought into the idea that guys don’t cook, unless they’re cooking in a certain way. Grilling steak? Manly. Prepping soup? Not manly. I wouldn’t say it was feminine, but it wasn’t masculine. The only exceptions were any male chef who had turned cooking into professional success. Money and popularity, particularly in the context of business, make cooking into sport. Our culture still promotes this idea. For example, among Food Network chefs, there are plenty of men having contests or tours or promoting their restaurants, but if anyone talks about getting your family’s dinner on the table every night, it’s usually women.
The bottom line: although I enjoyed eating good food, I had little interest in making it: there were plenty of people in my life that could do it for me. And this was an area of life where a man need not be self sufficient.
Until things change.
Ten years ago, my wife’s career took a new direction, and she began working 80-90 hours a week. She had my full support. But I found myself in an unexpected situation: due to our schedules, I was now responsible for most meal prep.
I realized pretty quickly that I had two options: either we would survive on frozen food and takeout — expensive and not very healthy — or I had to cook. How hard could it be? I wasn’t aiming to be a five-star chef, but I could get a decent dinner on the table every night, right? Even the famous Julia Child said, “I was 32 when I started cooking. Up until then, I just ate.” Why couldn’t that be me?
It turned out to be much harder than I expected, and much better.
So, in these ten years of cooking, I’ve learned a few things. If you’re a noob in the kitchen, but are looking to change that, maybe this will help.
Can you assemble furniture from IKEA? Follow GPS instructions to get to a restaurant? Sing your favorite song, in correct order, with the original singer’s inflections? These are all step-by-step activities, and if you can do them, you can follow a recipe.
When you’re hiking through a national park, they tell you to stay on the path unless you’re expert enough to explore safely on your own. Likewise, when you’re following a recipe, follow the recipe until you know enough to experiment. Until then: don’t skip steps, substitute ingredients, or change the measurements. Stay on the path. Too many times, I’ve gotten lost in a recipe and had to throw the whole thing out (and then order take-out).
You can’t just throw a bigger engine into a car without changing the chassis, suspension, and so on. Likewise, you can’t just add more ingredients to a recipe without expecting other differences. For example, you might not be able to double a stew recipe, or increase the size of the cookies, without adjusting cooking time or temperature. I tried doubling the size of a bread loaf once, and didn’t adjust anything else about the recipe; the interior was still raw dough even though the outside was browning.
In cooking, as in landscaping or home repair, you need the right tools. A well-rounded kitchen should have measuring spoons and cups; frying pans and saucepans and large pots; baking sheets and pans; mixing bowls; spatulas and whisks and slotted spoons; peelers and graters; knives and cutting boards; oven mitts; and much more. You don’t need kitchen power tools like mixers, blenders, food processors, or slow cookers, but they are helpful. Epicurious has a good starter list. Check your kitchen: you may already some of this stuff. I can’t tell you how many things I didn’t know I had in the kitchen. (On the other hand: don’t buy kitchen gizmos unless you genuinely have a need for it. The last thing you need is less storage space on your shelves.)
Besides tools, a carpenter will stock up on nails, screws, fasteners, and other basic items. Likewise, your kitchen need a supply of basic ingredients such as spices. The Food Network has a pantry list that is a little long, but good. I’m not a fan of big-box warehouse stores like Sam’s Club or Costco, but they do tend to sell spices in bulk at a serious discount.
Speaking of tools: only use wooden, plastic, or high-temperature rubber tools if you have nonstick Teflon-coated cookware. Don’t use metal tools. It will scratch and scrape at the Teflon, and then…. that might not be black pepper in your stir-fry.
Read a recipe before you try it, and make sure you have all the ingredients, tools, and time. Be careful about hidden time requirements. For example, one ingredient for chili might be “half cup of chopped onion.” That means: you don’t just need an onion, you need to peel it and chop it too. Martha Stewart recipes often have these little time bombs.
“Measure twice, cut once” works in the kitchen, too. Cooking gave me an appreciation for the full scope of food preparation, which starts long before you turn on the stove. If you’re planning on cooking certain meals this week, or baking something for an event, then plan your shopping ahead. Read the recipes, make a list of what you need to buy, and go grocery shopping. You’ll save money by only buying what you need, instead of throwing out food every week.
Need a recipe to follow? Honestly, the ingredient boxes have pretty good recipes. For example, if you need a chocolate cake, try the cake and frosting recipes from Hershey’s Special Dark Baking Cocoa. But, a good basic cookbook is invaluable, such as the Betty Crocker cookbook, because it includes recipes and guidance on general cooking issues. If you know a good cook, ask them for some good simple recipes. If you have a favorite television chef, he or she probably has a book or magazine you can get. Finally, the Internet is your friend: sites like AllRecipes can be a gold mine (or a trash heap), while services such as Supercook will search for recipes based on the ingredients you have on hand.
You’ll eventually learn the differences in items that might otherwise seem similar to you. For example, “EVOO” (extra virgin olive oil) cooks differently than canola oil, or butter, or bacon fat. And baking powder is not the same as baking soda; it contains baking soda but also has another ingredient, and that makes all the difference. The bottom line: don’t make assumptions about things.
Dried herbs are roughly three times more potent than fresh herbs. So, if your recipe calls for fresh basil and you don’t have it, you can substitute a third as much dried basil. But don’t put in equal amounts: you’ll overwhelm the flavor. And if you don’t have exactly the right ingredient, you might be able to carefully substitute a replacement, but it might not be quite the same.
Learn to keep the cleanup in mind. The cooking might be done by dinner, but the kitchen work is only half over: you still have to clean the equipment and workspace. When I first began cooking, I used a ridiculous number of pots and bowls. But after cleaning the kitchen a few times, I thought about how to reduce my tool requirements. You will eventually get to that point, but until then, remember that cooking is only the first half of having dinner.
You will fail. Maybe spectacularly. I once attempted to use leftover guacamole on a pizza — no, I cannot explain why I thought this might work — and it was so gross that even the dog wouldn’t eat it. And my kids still joke about it. If one of my meals doesn’t turn out well, somebody will say, “At least it’s not that guacamole pizza.” Amen. But don’t let fear of failure stop you. To quote Julia Child again, “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.” (A backup plan is also useful, which is why I still have the local pizzeria on speed-dial.)
Usain Bolt didn’t start out by winning a gold medal. When you’re first doing something new, you are going to be slow. Things will take a lot longer than you expect, because you’re new to it. If you stick with it, though, you’ll become much faster and better organized.
Get your kids involved. Not every kid likes cooking, and you have to be age-appropriate for safety, but some will want to help measure or mix ingredients. When you’ve done a recipe enough times, you can get creative with the kids (like using cookie cutters on tofu). Just remember that it will probably take longer to finish when a child is involved.
Cooking is a privilege. It costs money to buy the equipment and stock the ingredients, and to pay for electricity and/or gas. If you can afford a kitchen with a refrigerator, stove, and clean running water, you’re better off than many of our fellow humans. A quarter of the world’s population has no fridge. More than a third cook on makeshift ovens fueled by wood or other biomass. A tenth of the world lacks access to clean water, and a third don’t have running water to their homes. Even in the U.S., many people do not have access to a reliably stocked kitchen, and home cooking has been on the decline for decades. So, don’t take it for granted.
When in doubt, ask for help. Ask a family member, a friend, a neighbor, people you know on Facebook — anybody who knows cooking more than you do. Better to admit you don’t know, than make an enormous mistake.
I started cooking out of necessity.
I’m hardly an expert, and you won’t see me on the Food Network anytime. But, now that I can prep meals, I enjoy food a lot more, and so does my family.
Maybe that will be true for you as well.
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