8 things every new (or nervous) cook should know

Read the recipe. Twice.

Published May 19, 2018 5:29PM (EDT)


This story first appeared on Food52, an online community that gives you everything you need for a happier kitchen and home – that means tested recipes, a shop full of beautiful products, a cooking hotline, and everything in between!

This story first appeared on Food 52, an online community that gives you everything you need for a happier kitchen and home – that means tested recipes, a shop full of beautiful products, a cooking hotline, and everything in between!

Food52Dorie Greenspan has written a dozen or so cookbooks, plus her latest, "Everyday Dorie," which will be out in October. She has baked countless dozens of cookies, including the double-chocolate World Peace Cookies that truly live up to their name. She is, to put it lightly, a food world legend.

I got to spend an afternoon with her in Paris, where she made us a gorgeous summer vegetable tian using the Emile Henry ceramic pie dish we carry in our Shop. (Recipe video coming this summer, when you, too, can buy your eggplants at the outdoor market.) Hunched under the window of her small, humble Paris kitchen, hot sun on the back of my neck, I chatted with her about everything from olive oil to Japanese denim, and realized I can no longer blame my reluctance to make pie crust on my small humble Brooklyn kitchen. I know, I know; I'm not Dorie, and neither are you. But she makes cooking the most magnificent-looking dishes seem doable, and more importantly, fun.

So I had to ask her: What advice do you have for new — or shy! or underconfident! — cooks? What she said will stay with me long after I conquer my pie crust anxiety.

(As told to Nikkitha Bakshani)

1. Read the recipe. Twice. This is good advice whether you’re just getting started in the kitchen, or whether you’re an old hand. Knowing the recipe and getting a handle on what you’re going to have to do, when and how quickly—or slowly—sets you up for success. Knowledge is power, even (maybe especially) in the kitchen.

2. Don’t skip the mise en place. Doing a mise en place is the follow-up to reading the recipe. Mise en place is French for "putting in place." It might as well be translated as "timesaver," and "dinner-saver" to boot. Measure out all of the recipe’s ingredients and have them laid out on the counter in the order in which you’re going to use them, like in a cooking show. A mise, as chefs call this, will save you from that panicky moment when the recipe calls for buttermilk and you discover that you don’t have any. Once, I was buttering a cake pan and preheating the oven when the phone rang. I took the call, and when I went back to my un-mised recipe, I forgot to add the sugar. Had it been on the prep tray, the (disastrous) mistake could have been avoided.

3. Be fearless. Or, at least, don’t be afraid. Being a beginner cook doesn’t mean that you should cook only the basics. I think you become a better cook, faster, if you cook the foods you’re craving and the ones you’re excited about learning to make. Just remember #1 and #2 before you set out fearlessly. Here’s the thing: Most mistakes are edible. Some are even really tasty. A lot of times, what looks like a mistake is really about appearance. Focus on flavor. And speaking of flavor...

4. Season, season, season. I love this quote attributed to an anonymous chef: “The only difference between my food and yours is that I use more salt than you do.” Seasoning your food as you cook is really important. Taste as you go and season as you taste. Keep salt and a pepper mill at hand. Use fresh herbs for extra depth in a dish: For example, in a stew, cook the herbs, and then add fresh herbs on top when you’re ready to serve. Always have a lemon or three in the house—the freshly grated zest and juice add pop to so many dishes, like pasta, fish, grilled chicken, beans, and green vegetables, especially if you add these boosters at the end. I even season the pan. When I’m roasting or baking vegetables, fish, chicken, or meat, I start by building a layer of aromatics in the bottom of the pan. I’ll pour in a little olive oil, season it with salt and pepper and then scatter over some pieces of garlic and fresh herbs. Everything that goes on top of this will have more flavor because of this little landscape you created at the start. Remember, cooking is a construction project. You start with nothing and end up with dinner.

5. Take pleasure in every step of the process. Give yourself the time to enjoy every part of cooking — the prep, the sizzle and bake, the plating, the serving, and the sharing. I love that when I’m cooking, and especially when I’m baking, I’m creating something with my hands, and that very basic ingredients are being transformed into something delicious. It’s magic and I’ve never lost the wonder of it. There’s pleasure to be found in every step. Well, maybe not the dishes — but the good news is that my husband finds it kind of zen. It's not the only reason I married him.

6. Have a party — but keep it simple. I got married (to the dishwasher) when I was 19, and my only previous culinary experience involved burning down my parents’ kitchen. I had a lot to learn and I was excited about learning—so excited that within a month of getting into the kitchen, I had my first dinner party, hors d’oeuvres, starter, main course with two sides, homemade dessert, and all. The food wasn’t so bad. People forgave the kind-of-tough London broil that I was trying to get ready at the same time as the (frozen) peas, but I was a wreck. Sometime in the middle of the first course, I found myself wishing that everyone would go home so that I could go to bed. The moral of this tale is simple: Go easy on yourself. Remember, no matter how good a cook you are, the most important thing about a dinner party is the conversation around the table. Keep it simple so that you can be part of that conversation.

7. Gear up. Good tools are a big help in the kitchen. Slowly build up your kitchen tool chest. Gear can be expensive, but when it comes to things like pots and pans, big machines (stand mixers, blenders, processors) and knives, if you buy good stuff, you’ll have it forever. (I’ve still got knives from my early days; a stand mixer, too.) Make sure you’ve got the basics and then have a little fun. I like to shop for tools at the hardware store. It’s where I got paint brushes to use for basting. It’s also where I got three of my most unusual tools: a rubber mallet (for banging on a knife so that I can cut through tough things); a pair of pliers for pulling pin bones out of fish; and a screwdriver for handling big blocks of chocolate. I put the chocolate on a cutting board, position the screwdriver against the block, give it a bash with the mallet and presto, chocolate chunks!

8. Don’t forget the music. The rule in our house is, whoever is doing the cooking has control of the sound system. Since I’m the cook in the family, I get to choose what I listen to while I work. I don't use headphones, because hearing burbles and snaps is a part of cooking. Since I love classical music, I bake to Bach. Whatever kind of music you like, make it part of your process. You’re going to be in the kitchen for a while, so set the beat and enjoy every bit of it.

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