This page could also be titled “Things I Wished I had Known When I Started Cooking.” I basically taught myself to cook through the power of the internet, and I understand it can be a little intimidating. To help out a little I’ve created this guide (still a work in progress). This is partitioned into sections of no particular order that can be read sequentially or independently, as needed. Click on one of the links in the table of contents below to take you to the named section. If you think of something that you want to know or you think should be added feel free to leave it in the comments.
Seasoning and Other Measurements
One of the most annoying pieces of advice I received when learning to cook involved seasoning foods. A recipe would call for a teaspoon of salt and my mother would proceed to mock me as I actually pulled out a measuring spoon and measured out the salt. My best suggestion for new cooks is to ignore the older cooks in this regard. When I, taking my mother’s advice, guessed at the amount of salt, the dish became almost inedibly salty. (I refused to try cooking again for a full year.) At the very least, if you measure out the amount instead of guessing and the dish doesn’t come out quite right anyway you can blame the recipe instead of yourself.
Over and Under Measuring
You can’t always measure something out perfectly. That’s just life. In cases like this it’s sometimes important to know whether it would be a good idea to veer on the side of too much or too little. Unfortunately it’s different for every spice and every person. (My dad, for example, adds salt and pepper to almost everything that the rest of the family thinks is perfect.) While some cooks would argue that you should always season things optimally so that your guests/family don’t have to adjust anything themselves I say that if there’s salt, pepper, or something similar on the table and you’re not quite sure always go a little under. They can add more at their pleasure. I’ve also compiled this list here of the general rules of thumb I use when cooking.
It’s certainly possible to have too much garlic, and everyone’s tastes differ, but I personally prefer a little too much garlic to not enough. This goes equally well for fresh or dry garlic. I’ve noticed that recipes that seem a little bland are often cured by adding another clove of garlic or two.
The first thing you should know is that freshly crushed peppercorns are definitely stronger than the preground stuff that’s been sitting in your cabinet for three months. Since black pepper is one of those things most people have on the table it’s perfectly acceptable to go under rather than over. Having said that, I’ve found adding a little bit too much pepper doesn’t tend to hurt a dish too much, so long as you don’t accidentally spill the entire jar in.
Salt is another one of those things most people keep on their tables, and I would again advise going under rather than over in this case. You can always put more on, but you can’t really take it back out again. Just keep in mind that some recipes and techniques call for more salt than you would normally be comfortable: brining, for example, requires a lot of salt. If, despite your best efforts, you do end up with too much salt a smidge of sugar or honey can even out the flavor without being too obvious.
Cumin, in my humble opinion, is awesome. I tend to go a little heavy on the cumin, and a dash for me is likely more than a dash for the average person.
Oregano and Parsley
It’s pretty hard to use too much of these herbs. It’s certainly possible, but especially if you’re using the dry stuff it can be difficult. A little (or a lot) “too much” probably won’t harm your dish a whole lot. (Sometimes I just shrug and throw a handful in.) Note that too much of the dry stuff can throw off the texture a bit, though, especially if it’s really old.
Cardamom, Allspice, and Cloves
These three spices are particularly strong; just take a whiff and you’ll figure that out on your own. Less is often more in the case of these guys which can quickly overpower a dish if you use too much. That’s no reason to be scared of them, though: they’re amazing spices. Just use a little caution at first.
Capers are another thing that you don’t want too much of. They can quickly overpower a dish and make it completely inedible. If you’re not sure, veer on the side of caution. They also tend to make a dish really salty, especially if you add a lot of the juices in the bottle. As a rule of thumb avoid adding as much of the liquid as you can and then be cautious about adding any more salt.
Dill and Cilantro
These are both a lot stronger fresh than dry. When dry you can go over the amount called for in a recipe without too many repercussions, but it can get a bit overpowering if they’re fresh. If you’re not extremely fond of these herbs use caution. If you love them like me, though, you probably won’t have any problems even if you use “too much.”
I’m a huge advocate of ginger. Rather like garlic I tend to go a little overboard when it comes to ginger. Powdered ginger is a lot milder than fresh ginger, which tends to have a more “floral” tone to it, but in both cases I think going over a little won’t hurt you. Caution regarding ginger is most important when you’re afraid it will overpower your other spices. Too much dry ginger can also make your meal feel a little chalky, especially if there’s not a lot of moisture in it to begin with.
The Importance of Fresh Foods (Or the Lack Thereof)
You’re expecting me to say that fresh foods are vital to cooking, aren’t you? I’m not. When you first start looking at recipes (that aren’t found on my site) you’ll find lots of them will call for “fresh dill” or “fresh peas” or “fresh spinach.” I personally think it’s a little silly. Sure, sometimes a dish is better with fresh herbs, vegetables, or other ingredients, but a dish isn’t going to be a complete disaster because you used frozen peas. If you have fresh ingredients available to you (and ‘available’ can mean ‘monetarily available’ just as much as it can mean ‘physically available’), by all means, use them. I personally love using fresh basil. But don’t let yourself be limited simply because you can only acquire the dried/frozen/canned equivalent. With that said, here are some basic guidelines I’ve personally found to be true in regard to fresh vs. not-quite-fresh foods (though this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an extensive list).
Most recipes when they call for tomatoes mean particularly ripe tomatoes (though there are, obviously, exceptions). If you’re having a hard time finding ripe tomatoes and don’t have enough time to wait for it to ripen on your window sill grab a can of tomatoes instead. Under ripe tomatoes can leave a recipe bland and uninteresting, but using canned tomatoes probably won’t hurt it. Just keep in mind that canned tomatoes are kept in liquid and if the recipe calls for straight up tomatoes that can add a lot of unexpected moisture.
It’s undeniably better to use fresh garlic than the dry kind (except when you’re using it as a seasoning or something similar). When it comes to the pre-minced bottled garlic versus the freshly minced kind, though, the distinction is a little fuzzier. Freshly minced garlic is stronger than the bottled stuff, though a little extra of the bottled can usually make up for that difference. It is true that the meal tends to taste better when you use freshly minced garlic, but it’s subtle and probably won’t be obvious to your average diners. If you’re short on time or just feeling lazy feel free to reach for the bottled variety.
I hear that there’s bottled minced ginger the same way there is with garlic but my local grocery store doesn’t carry it. To me the distinction is more a question of dry, powdered ginger or fresh ginger. I personally prefer fresh ginger, which aside from the great flavor it adds also helps keep your dish from getting dried out or gritty. If you don’t have the time, desire, or supplies to use fresh ginger though the dried can work as a decent substitute.
If you’re using dry minced onions you’ll probably want to reconstitute them before you add them to a dish, because otherwise they can make your food a little on the gritty side. I tend to be an advocate of fresh onions, though. They’re stronger and taste better, in my opinion.
Some Common Cooking Techniques
These are the basic cooking techniques that recipes often ask you to do without any explanation for how to do them.
As in, “Brown the ground beef.” Brown is a term normally used in reference to ground meats, and refers to the process of rapidly cooking the meat in a pan. When you’re browning ground beef it actually changes from bright pink to brown in color, but the term is a little less literal when you’re working with chicken or turkey, which tend to turn white or only very lightly brown. You typically don’t need to add oil to the pan to brown meat as long as you keep an eye on it and frequently scrape the bottom to keep it from sticking. To brown a meat first heat up your pan on medium or medium high and then introducing the meat. Using your spatula or spoon start by dividing the chunk of ground meat into smaller chunks, stirring and flipping frequently. As the meat cooks continue to divide the chunks smaller and smaller until the chunks are very small (smaller than a pea, typically) and no longer pink in the middle when you crack them open. You don’t want to your meat to get burnt when you do this, so you have to keep an eye on it. If your beef or pork starts turning a dark brown instead of the more neutral grey or light brown color you should stir more often. The same applies if your chicken or turkey start becoming tan.
As in, “Sauté the vegetables in butter.” Sauté refers to a form of quick cooking typically done in a pan, like a skillet, or occasionally in a pot. Sautéing usually requires some sort of oil or fat which keeps things from sticking to the pan (and often adds flavor). This is probably the type of cooking you see most often on cooking shows outside of baking. For the average sauté heat a tablespoon or so (your recipe will often tell you how much, but not always) of oil or select fat in the bottom of your pan (or pot) on medium to medium high heat. The exact oil or fat used will depend a little on the recipe, but I most often use olive oil or canola oil. If you’re not sure if your oil is hot you can add a small sliver of one of your ingredients: if the sliver begins to sizzle or the oil around it bubbles then your oil is hot. Add ingredients together in specified order and stir with your spatula or spoon often, to ensure they don’t burn. Typically sautéing is not the time to walk away from your pan as it is very active. You typically don’t want any one side of your ingredients to become too done. Note that if you’re sautéing garlic, ginger, or similar ingredients they cook very fast and will burn if you don’t stir them near constantly.
Cooking with Various Oils and Fats
When it comes to cooking your food there are a large number of different oils or fats that you can cook your food with, and it can be a little intimidating to branch out into something than your standard. The first time I cooked with coconut oil my meal came out so greasy and also stuck to the pan I refused to cook with it again for a very long time. This is a little guide to the various oils or fats you might find yourself cooking with and what, in my experience, they work best with.
Spray Oils of All Kinds
For the most part a spray oil can be used exactly the same way as its more liquid counterparts, but there is one very important thing to keep in mind: they make clean-up very unpleasant. Any sort of spray coating will make the surfaces it coats extremely sticky and will require a fair bit of scrubbing and detergent to remove afterwards. Spray oils tend to be bad for your cookware in the long term as well. I would suggest only using them for things like grills and never on your nice skillets.
Canola oil is kind of like the old standby. It’s not the healthiest of oils but it will work for almost any kind of dish without changing the flavor in any offensive way (so long as you don’t go overboard). I’ve found canola oil is best for dishes that require a high smoke point, which means dishes cooked at a sufficiently high heat you would probably burn (and cause smoke) your oil otherwise. This means stir-frys cooked in woks and similar. I also find myself using it almost any time olive oil would be an unacceptable oil, but there are better, healthier oils out there. It’s decent at frying foods but can make them a little greasy.
Olive oil is my go-to oil for almost every meal. It does have a distinct flavor, though, so it doesn’t work for everything. In particular it can be kind of odd to use in most Asian dishes that aren’t Indian, though it certainly won’t change the flavor so much as to make it inedible. It’s the best oil for any sort of Mediterranean dish and is usually the best oil to use when you need the oil itself to help impart some flavor. It’s definitely healthier than canola oil but it has a low smoke point, so it can’t be used to cost your pan when you’re cooking foods at really high temperatures. Olive oil is also often used to marinate meats or vegetables and in cases like that there’s really no substitute. It’s not a great idea to fry foods in olive oil.
Coconut oil is odd to work with. Depending on the temperature it might start out solid but it melts very quickly. If you’re not careful coconut oil has a way of making your food really greasy, though it’s pretty healthy as far as oils go. I’ve found it’s not particularly good at sautéing anything that is liable to soak it up, such as ground beef, but if used in moderation is good for other things like vegetables. After it has melted it can be used about the same way as any other oil. It has a relatively inoffensive taste so it can be used with most things. If you’re inexperienced with baking (or with coconut oil) I wouldn’t suggest experimenting with it in baking unless the recipe you’re using expressly calls for it. I’ve never tried to fry food in coconut oil but it doesn’t seem like a good idea.
Peanut oil is another pretty good alternative to canola or olive oil (though, again, not when a Mediterranean dish is involved), but it should be noted that peanut oil does have a flavor. (Also, it obviously contains peanuts, and as a result shouldn’t be used for anyone with a peanut allergy.) It’s a healthier alternative to canola oil and can work in pretty much any dish that had its own flavor. (It won’t work well with cauliflower by itself, for example.) It’s also good for frying things.
I don’t have a lot of experience with grapeseed oil but it is a very inoffensive oil. It has almost no flavor so it won’t overpower any food you might cook with it. It’s good for making sauces that require an unflavored oil. I haven’t tried frying anything with it but it would probably work fine.