If you have absolutely no confidence in your own ability to cook tasty food beyond a peanut butter sandwich, I feel you. I moved out of home (and to another country) at the age of 19, and committed so many atrocities in my ignorance of proper food preparation that it's a wonder I'm still alive. I've burned plastic in the microwave, undercooked chicken, made tarts so soggy the bottom reverted back to raw again, and refused to shift away from the three or four things I did know how to cook, in case I accidentally caused a nuclear explosion. My dude, by contrast, had done an Italian cookery course and is one of those jerks who can see five things in the fridge and make a casually delicious meal without a recipe or any apparent sweat.
But, weirdly, a strange thing has begun to happen. I've started experimenting. I now know what a quenelle is, and what onions look like when the recipe says "translucent". I actually whipped up a pearl barley, butternut squash, sage, and feta risotto last night by modifying another recipe, and nobody died. I have become one of those weird people who can actually, sort of, most of the time, cook. As nobody has, to my knowledge, hypnotized me, I seem to have done this feat all by my lonesome. Yes, part of it is practice (you're never going to get better at cooking by reading cookbooks and staring with terror at actual pots and pans), but there are other psychological tricks to help you mastery better confidence in the kitchen.
I'm not going to make you Julia Child, but if the person who once emptied an entire house with the smell of her accidental burning disaster (all three stories) can turn into a vaguely competent cook, you can, too.
1. Focus On Technique, Not Weird Flavors
A lot of people seem to think that "better" cooking involves being insanely complicated, having an achingly full spice cupboard, and obscure ingredients with strange textures. If you actually talk to real chefs, though, they'll tell you that technique always comes first. Many world cuisines are about the combination of fresh, simple ingredients: proper Italian is a case in point. What really matters is knowing what to do with what you get.
So if you want to improve, get your techniques right. Figure out how to roast, how to use a wok, how to deglaze a pan (something I only just learned!), the right basic ways to grill and chop and slow-cook. Then you can adjust the skills to the needs of the recipe, which will often assume that you know what "sautéing" means without an explanation. Don't be afraid of stupid mistakes, either. No home chef has ever had a career without at least one burned, hideous disaster.
2. Get Yourself A Flavor-Combinations Resource
My main issue has always been a confidence one; I was never let near the kitchen as a kid, and didn't know a lot about what flavors worked together or what I liked. That sort of thing stands in the way of trying new recipes or experimenting with old ones; was I sure that this substitution or alteration would work?
My husband, meanwhile, has a vast encyclopedia in his head of things that he knows work together. Get yourself one of those, in book form if necessary. The best option if you really struggle is something like Niki Segnit's Flavor Thesaurus, a brilliant book that explores hundreds of flavor pairings and how they work. An ingredient-based cookbook is another bet, or an online resource that allows you to type in various ingredients and see if they "go" together (BBC Food is a good one for that). Eventually you'll have an elementary knowledge of what flavors run well and what should never meet on a plate ever.
3. Shamelessly Copy What Works
Ain't no shame in finding a salad on a menu or a favourite dish at a local cafe, loving the flavors, and setting off to do something similar. How else would you discover that you love fettucine alfredo, Thai curry, the combination of sweet potato and bulgur wheat, or the texture of feta cheese? If you like something, add it to your "things to try" list, even if it's just the combination of flavors or a certain spice.
But a word of warning: don't try to produce exact copies. An Australian magazine called Gourmet Traveller has a fascinating section where people can write in to request the recipes for their favorite dishes from five-star restaurants. The restaurants oblige, but the results are often pages long, involving sixteen ingredients and techniques borrowed from NASA. Lesson? Real restaurant cookery is a profession for a reason; if you're just starting out, you're not going to be able to do the full enchilada at home (so to speak). You're gathering inspiration for your own kitchen, not setting yourself up for failure because you don't have three sous chefs.
4. Find Simple Recipes With Step-By-Step Visuals
I found this immensely helpful for baking, but it's a worthwhile idea if you want to be reassured on your way through a dinner recipe, too. If you don't know what something should look like, whether in texture or in color, it's a great boon to have the recipe itself possess visual aids that demonstrate it for you. You're not supposed to have an innate, instinctive idea of what a perfectly-poached egg looks like; you learn. And if you don't learn it at your mother or father's elbow, you just cheat and look it up.
5. Make Youtube Your Friend
Sometimes the best possible option for anything is to see somebody else do it. Multiple times. Rewinding and pausing if necessary. If you're lacking in confidence about techniques and timings, work from recipes that are explicitly given as run-throughs on Youtube or other video channels, or on cookery shows. They're designed to give you a bunch of procedural tips and explanations, from equipment to timings, but make sure you watch the whole thing through first (or read the accompanying recipe). And don't work with any TV or Youtube chefs that inherently annoy you.
6. Remember That Texture And Taste Are More Important Than Looks
Presentation is the priority for Michelin-starred restaurants. But be reassured that home chefs are not meant to produce white, gleaming plates with perfectly formed morsels, neatly arranged peas in lines and artistically smeared dollops of sauce. Visuals can conceal a multitude of sins, and massively tasty things can look seriously peculiar when they end up on your plate (I think creme caramel looks ridiculous). Don't focus on whether what you're doing will look good at the end; focus on doing it properly, getting textures and flavors correct, and making a tasty thing. No, don't run away screaming from the word texture: if you cook things properly, their texture (crunchy, gelatinous, smooth, creamy) will be an excellent part of the dish. Technique's your friend on that one.
7. Select Your Audience Carefully
Frankly, if you're not confident as a chef, it's a good idea to start out cooking for one and build up your skills until you're ready to showcase them to other people. And when you do, don't pick friends with hugely high standards who spend all their time supping at elite places and won't spare your feelings about your risotto. Avoid dinner parties and high-pressure cooking environments; as you're learning, cook small dishes, low-maintenance stuff, and simple flavors, and take on board suggestions about spicing or other issues.
Also, remember that people have different tastes; if you love the taste of your curry but somebody at your table would prefer it spicier, that doesn't mean you're wrong. Stick to your guns when you love something; you can experiment to see if a tip improves it, but it very well may not.
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