How to Cook

Joined Jun 11, 2011
Cooking has come a long way from when our ancestors roasted wild game and local vegetation over an open fire. We've discovered an infinite number of ways to prepare and season food, but the nature of cooking remains the same: Apply heat to make food taste better. The rest is really just details that can be learned from an inquisitive spirit, creativity, and trial and error.

Find recipes.  This is optional, of course, but is the recommended route if you're learning how to cook. Unfortunately, not all recipes are created equal. Some recipes don't break things down well for beginners, and some just aren't good. Get recipes from friends and family for dishes that you've tried (and loved). The benefit of doing this is that if you don't understand something in the recipe, you can call them and ask! If you look online, choose recipes that have received good reviews or comments. Look for dishes that you have tried previously (perhaps, made by a friend, or when eating at a restaurant) so that you may be able to appreciate the flavor to judge the finer nuances of the dish.

Gather the ingredients and tools for the job.  If you're just starting to cook, don'tsubstitute. The ingredients might interact in a way that you're not aware of, and substituting what you think is a similar ingredient might ruin the entire meal. When you become more experienced, you'll have a better idea for predicting how introducing a different ingredient will affect the cooking process and the final flavor. Otherwise, get the right ingredients (as fresh and as high quality as you can afford) and in the right amounts (no, don't eyeball it; become friends with your measuring spoons and cupsand invest in a kitchen scale).

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    Prepare the food to be cooked. The practice of getting all of your tools and ingredients together, prepared, and measured is called "mise en place"  by professional chefs, and is considered essential to efficient cooking. Your "mise en place"  should be ready and close at hand before the stove is turned on.

    • Wash and clean the food. Most food needs to be cleaned somehow, and usually just rinsing with water will suffice. Foods that are peeled should be washed before peeling to decrease chance of transferring chemicals and dirt from unpeeled area to peeled area.

    • Cut the food into uniform slices or pieces so that they cook evenly. There are a wide variety of cutting techniques--chopping, dicing, cubing, slicing, julienning, etc. The bigger the pieces, the longer they'll take to cook. To complicate things further, some types of food cook faster than others; since zucchini cooks faster than carrot, for example, you might want to cut the carrot into smaller pieces if they're going to be thrown in at the same time so that they're both finished cooking simultaneously.[sup][1][/sup]

    • Add salt, pepper, herbs, or marinade as called for in the recipe (or to taste). Any number of herbs or spices can be used to increase the flavor of whatever you are cooking. These may need to be added before or after cooking. Just be sure to add a little rather than too much. You can always add more later. Be especially careful with salt; it is very difficult to fix a dish that is too salty.

    • Ferment. This is NOT recommended for beginners. Fermentation (e.g. leavening) is a complicated technique that can result in wonderful baked goods, but it's the domain of experienced (or at least intermediate) cooks who understand how to control and direct this biological process. You need to be exact with baking (until you understand how each ingredient and method works, then you can switch around to your own tastes), especially since what goes in the oven can't be added to.

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    Preheat as needed. There are some small details in this step that are often overlooked.

    • Heat the water. Poaching, simmering, and boiling  are slightly different techniques. Poaching is very gentle, reserved for delicate foods like eggs, fish, and fruit. Simmering is a little hotter, with a few small bubbles rising to the surface, and is often used for items that need a long time to cook. Boiling is when the water gets as hot as it's going to get and begins to evaporate into steam. The exact temperature varies by altitude, so be mindful of this if you're in a high altitude area. Get the water to whichever state the recipe calls for and keep it there. Don't place a lid on the pot if you're poaching or simmering because the heat may increase to a boil.[sup][2][/sup]  Remove from heat if necessary if the water starts to get too hot.

    • Preheat the oven. Don't get impatient, or else you will most likely throw off your cooking times, since recipes are written assuming the oven is preheated.[sup][3][/sup]  It usually takes an oven about 15 minutes to get to 350°F or 176°C, but every stove is different. Some models will beep or make a noise when the temperature is reached; otherwise, you might need to calibrate your oven to determine how long it takes for it to preheat to a certain temperature. Put a thermometer in the center of a rack set in the middle of the oven and turn it to the desired temperature; after 10 minutes, check the thermometer every 5 minutes until the desired temperature is reached and remember how long it took to get there.[sup][4][/sup]

    • Heat the pan before adding oil. Heating the pan alone causes the metal to expand, opening up tiny scratches so that oil can get in there. Also, if you add oil to a pan that is already hot, it'll get hotter faster, which give it less time to break down. After you add the oil and cover the entire pan, wait for it to start smoking before adding the food. If you toss your food in before the oil has heated sufficiently, it'll soak up the oil rather than cook in it. This applies to butter, as well. Butter will brown slightly once hot enough and get a nice nutty smell. But don't let the oil or butter burn (keep in mind that butter and olive oil burn faster than other oils.[sup][5][/sup]
      • Keep an eye on the pan. If it overheats and catches fire, turn the burner off and cover the pan completely with a metal lid, Damp Tea Towel or Fire Blanket (or smother it with baking soda). Never throw water on burning oil, and don't use a fire extinguisher--both can make the fire spread. Leave it for at least half an hour to cool.

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     Fresh snap beans with potatoes
    Start cooking with water  (boiling, poaching, simmering, and stewing, to name an approachable few). It's easier because you have a greater window of opportunity as to when the food is "done". If you cook the food for a little too long, the result is usually still edible, whereas if you miss that narrow window of opportunity with other techniques (frying, roasting, baking) you could end up with a ruined, burnt piece of food (perhaps raw in the middle) that's inedible. Stick with water-based cooking until you get a feel for judging when various types of food are done. For instance, learn how to boil, poach, simmer and stew broccoli until you know exactly how a perfectly cooked head of broccoli feels when you stick your fork into it.

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     Roast beef
    Move on to "dry" cooking.  This includes grilling, roasting, toasting, broiling, and baking. Now that you know what certain foods feel like when they're cooked, you need to be able to control the cooking process with your application of heat. This is really where you need to be attentive and patient. If you apply too much heat, the food will burn. If you apply too little, the food will be raw.
    • When you arrange the food in relation to the heat source, center it so that all the food gets cooked evenly; rotate it in the middle of the cooking process if you must.
    • Try to minimize opening the oven door or grill cover, as this lets heat escape and will make the cooking take longer (and may also interfere with the cooking process in other ways).
    • If you have a recipe, follow the directions exactly (allow the oven to preheat completely, turn the heat up or down when it says to, and pay very close attention to your timer). If you don't have a recipe, start off with a low amount of heat and see how long the food takes to cook. Next time, add a little more heat and see how long it takes to cook. Repeat until you determine the maximum heat the food needs to cook in the shortest time without burning.

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    Advance to frying  unless you're on a diet, in which case you might be better off not knowing how to coat your food in a layer of fat! If you do want to master this technique, however, it can produce amazing results that aren't easily achieved through other methods, like caramelizing onions  so that they taste sweet, or sautéing vegetables  so that they snap  when you bite into them. It's a little more difficult than cooking with water or in an oven because you need to juggle timing, heat, and  flipping/stirring.
    • Lower the food carefully into the oil, as the oil can splash up and burn you. Use tongs or a wire basket.
    • If sautéing or stir-frying, use a non-stick pan to prevent the food from becoming one with the pan. Pour just a thin layer of oil--pour it into a spoon, then into the pan (sometimes the oil comes out of the bottle faster than we'd like it to). The hotter the oil, the more you'll need to stir whatever you're frying so that it doesn't burn or stick.
    • If shallow-frying, in which one third or one half of the food is immersed in oil, the oil is typically used only once.[sup][6][/sup]  If you're deep-frying, however, you may be able to use the oil more than once.

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    Write your own recipes.  As you get better at cooking, you'll experiment and make some discoveries of your own. You'll know you're officially a good cook when people start asking "How did you make this? It's delicious!" Keep your cooking skills sharp by experimenting with new ingredients and techniques, likecooking on your car's engine!

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    Make cooking an art form. Make cooking come alive with beauty and with texture by following some simple rules. After all, taste is governed not only by taste buds, but also by scent, texture, and the visual. First, buy vegetables with colors that compliment one another nicely. For a guide on how to achieve this to a perfection, use and understanding of the color wheel can be a helpful asset. For instance, reds, oranges, and yellow vegetables may nicely offset a plain colored main dish. Also, purchase colorful plates and cups, and buy food items with colors that go well together with the colors of the plates you choose. Second, buy a variety of textures. For instance, spiky leaved lettuce will go nicely with a soft main dish and a hard side dish. Make your cooking an art form, and in doing so, improve your dining experience. Foods can taste better that look and feel better! A nice aromatherapy with a complimentary scent, music, and a candle can also improve the creative and taste quality of the food experience.

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    Buy the freshest of foods. When shopping for your delicacies, be certain to take the time to ensure that the texture, colors, and quality of the food you buy is the best in the batch. This little touch can make the dining experience more robust and satisfying.
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