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This fall I'm starting my freshman year; because of this, I'm going to move out to my own flat. I've figured out that it's a wonderful opportunity to learn cooking. I know some really basic stuff about getting around in kitchen, gained mostly by trial and error.

My question is, what's the recommended way of learning principles of cooking (especially in such money-constrained environment a college student's life tends to be)? I want to expose myself to as many different cuisines as possible.

Thanks for your advice!

Cheers, Mike

PS. I couldn't set proper tags due to 150 rep cap

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Also see : cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/1580/… –  Joe Jul 19 '10 at 17:53
Please make this wiki. –  Aaronut Jul 19 '10 at 18:08
@Aaronut Can't someone do this besides the OP? Don't we have some sort of mod people? –  Adam Shiemke Jul 19 '10 at 22:50
@Adam: We haven't elected mods yet. We only have the admins and I suspect they don't check this that often (probably have their hands full.) So either everybody needs to do their part and help close the questions until they're wikied, or we fall back to the annoying wiki police gig... –  Aaronut Jul 19 '10 at 22:58
Revision3 has a beginner-level show called 'Food Mob'. –  derobert Jul 21 '10 at 8:13
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12 Answers

Watch Good Eats. Lots of them, or at least excerpts, are available online. Alton Brown teaches good technique, uses a variety of ingredients, and is refreshingly informative.

Various cookbooks can provide inspiration. I like ones with pretty pictures, just for ideas.

Learn good knife technique as soon as possible to avoid developing bad habits that so many occasional cooks have.

Hang out on here, you'll probably learn a lot.

You can find some resources for different types of cuisine. I would dedicate at least a year to learning about the food from a specific region to really develop a good understanding. Which regions depends on your availability (you don't want to try and cook Japanese if you live in the Midwestern US) and your personal tastes (do you like curry?).

Going to restaurants and attempting to duplicate their flavors is a fun exercise, but it probably a bit challenging to a beginner. You can still go and find food you like, then find recipes online afterwords. Look at several recipes and find common ingredients, and experiment with different combinations of the ones that vary between versions of a dish. This will teach you the flavor effect of different spices, ingredients and techniques.

I'd recommend a "food bible", something like Joy of Cooking or How to Cook Everything, see http://cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/396/what-cook-books-do-you-always-come-back-to for other. Google works as well, but its a bit more difficult to operate with messy fingers.

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+1 for Good Eats, it's a great show. Often I want to repeat what he did and many recipes are not that hard, even for a beginner. I always find it very inspiring to watch a professional cook. –  tobiw Jul 21 '10 at 5:24
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Apprenticing is the best method I've found to learn cooking -- so if you mom or dad currently do most of the cooking, help them cook dinner / breakfast / whatever.

update : For the alternate cuisines, you can also offer to help at friend's homes from other cultures.

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This is really in the vein of "advice to a young cook" more than principles per se, but here goes:

The most important piece of advice is very compatible with low quantities of money: cook! This is one of those things that is mostly learned through experience, so trial-and-error is likely to continue for some time. There will be times that it feels fruitless, but think of it this way: unless you screw up incredibly badly, at the end of the process you still get dinner.

Coupled with this is the second cheap piece of advice: taste everything you can before serving and consider the seasoning. The easiest way for most people to improve their cooking is just to taste and season better.

These two are good for other cuisines too ;-) Seriously, (interest) + (internet recipes) + (trial and error) = knowledge of other cuisines.

I found a basic recipe book like the joy of cooking incredibly valuable. The recipes aren't the greatest, but if you want to know how to do something new (carve a chicken, make a stew, etc.) the advice is usually pretty fantastic. J of C plus the internet have you pretty much covered if you're a little willing to improvise.

Equipment: you don't need a lot to get started. For a single person just starting out I'd get:

  • 8" chef's knife plus plastic cutting board
  • a medium-sized nonstick pot holding a gallon of water or so
  • 12" nonstick skillet
  • small roasting pan
  • silicone spatula
  • big honkin' wooden spoon
  • measuring cups/spoons
  • plastic strainer for pasta (also subs in as a strainer for other things)
  • big metal or plastic bowl; maybe a few of these
  • dinnerware

This stuff gets me through 90% of day-to-day cooking. There's other stuff you may want at some point (nonstick and heavier pans would be high on my list), but most things can be cooked with just this.

Key cheapness advice: buy inexpensive meat and learn to cook it well. Tough and cheap cuts of beef or pork in braises or stews, roasted whole chickens, etc. It's more work than nonthreatening chicken breasts, but it's more broadening and better on the wallet.

Lastly, links. You probably don't need me to tell you about epicurious or anything, so I'll stick with two:


has transcripts of every episode of Good Eats, a basic and entertaining cooking TV show. The transcripts walk you through cooking a few things in extreme detail and are always useful when you're trying new stuff.


is an ongoing series of columns about food science for the home cook. Interesting, cheap, and a good source for fun and easy projects.

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two questions -- why nonstick, and why a 12" skillet? If you're cooking for loads of other people (roommates, etc), sure, but if you're cooking for just yourself, something more modestly sized might be appropriate. (I don't even think I could've fit on 12" skillet on the 3-burner stove in my first college apartment) –  Joe Jul 21 '10 at 2:07
Switch from a plastic to metal strainer/colander and you can use it along with your pot for steaming veggies... (Though be careful not to scratch the nonstick pot; I'd suggest plain stainless) –  derobert Jul 21 '10 at 8:13
Well, I live in a tiny apartment and haven't had trouble with a 12". It's also great to be able to make enough of something to put it in the fridge for later. As to why nonstick -- eggs, mostly. Stick doesn't buy you much in a skillet, so really it comes down to either a heavy cast iron skillet or a light nonstick one. For ease of care plus ability to do more things (though not more things optimally), nonstick. And +1 on steaming, though I'm pretty sure my plastic one would do that too. I'd've been with you on the stainless pot, but if it's flimsy and cheap anyhow you can just get another... –  Dennis Jul 21 '10 at 16:37
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Buy a cookery book and experiment - it's far easier than you might imagine.

Maybe get someone you know to help you cook some meals for friends and family before you leave.

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There's a Simple Dollar post that addresses exactly this & gives two great book recommendations: thesimpledollar.com/2007/02/06/… –  JustRightMenus Jul 19 '10 at 17:57
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I think that sandwich's can be a great entry into great cuisine. These can be super simple, but incredible to eat.

Start with good quality ingredients, great buns, great cheese & meats. Add some homemade sauce (guacamole, cranberry, BBQ etc...) and you've got a great meal.

You can also get a sandwich press, this could be used for Panini's, gourmet grilled cheese (think gouda, or asiago or stilton on fresh organic whole wheat). The great thing about many of these grills is that they can also be used for waffles or pancakes, this is good when space is at a premium.

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You could try what I did in a similar situation. Go to the store, buy what's cheap for each category, go home and think what to make from it all. Remember to buy some form each category of carbs, protein, fatty-acids (B-vitamins), and fresh vegetables. Try to think back to things you've heard about or seen before. Chilli is a good start, not too hard, easy to fix, tasty and very cheap.

The next step is to work out what you want to eat, or experiment with, and then read about 5 different recipes from wherever you can find them. See what suits your means and skills best and fly from there.

In summation: it's easier than you think. It also helps if you don't mind failing occasionally, and getting food that is "meh" some of the time.

There are two rules that stick with me from when I was 16 and started to cook:

  1. Have fun with it. It matters more than you realize.
  2. Always, always, under-season and under-spice. You can add more later.
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Seconding the advice for Good Eats.

I would also suggest picking up some good reference materials. Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking (revised edition 2004) is absolutely indispensable. Off the top of my head, I'd also suggest picking up a copy of Larousse Gastronomique (but get an earlier edition, many of the recent ones are not as good. I have the 1973 and it's excellent), anything by Saint Julia Child of course, and (surprisingly) Jamie Oliver's books are very good, very naturalistic cooking.

In terms of actual dishes, my list of ten things everyone should know is posted in the thread that Joe linked above.

Focus on learning techniques as opposed to recipes. That is how most culinary schools work. You learn recipes of course, but each one tends to be focused on teaching a specific technique; once you know the technique you can swap out ingredients at will.

A few basics to know: - how to make a stock properly from scratch - how to make a roux - how to make a creme anglaise (which then means you've got french toast, creme caramel, creme brulee, flan, bread pudding all at your fingertips) - how to slice, chop, dice, julienne, brunoise - how to check for doneness, especially in the oven (hint: things are generally done or close to when they smell done, if that makes sense) - how and when to use different heating methods: saute, shallow fry, deep fry, roast, bake, braise - how to plan your meals so that leftovers (if any) get easily rolled over into another meal (e.g. today stirfry, tomorrow frittata!)

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My advice is to look for books that explain techniques (and maybe their history), as opposed to just listing recipes. Once you understand the techniques, make some recipes where you get to use those techniques in order to familiarize yourself first-hand with the techniques and ingredients.

Then just start experimenting. Once you understand how different ingredients affect the flavor of your dishes, and you understand how to use those ingredients, it becomes easy to modify existing recipes or create your own. Certainly you can get to this point just by experimenting, but I found that once I focused on the technique my rate of improvement grew significantly.

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The critical thing is to get a knives (1 GOOD Chef's, and 1 Paring at the minimum) and a nice large cutting board (as long as the chef's knife in all directions).

The thing that turns most people off of cooking is lengthy tedious prep. With a good knife, most prep is pretty quick, and cooking is enjoyable.

Watch this [http://www.goodeatsfanpage.com/Season11/knives/american_slicer_tran.htm][1]

Here, he gives the basics of cutting technique, and it's a pretty good tutorial.

Second, I can't stress the importance of a slow cooker for a college student. Buy cheap cuts of meat, chop some vegetables and add a bit of stock. Go to school, come home to a hot meal.

The only other gadget/appliance that might be useful is a rice cooker. It's not necessary, but it means you can cook rice without having to watch over it.

[1]: http://www.goodeatsfanpage.com/Season11/knives/american_slicer_tran.htm Good Eats, American Slicer

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There's a bunch of great advice here; to it, I would add that you request an electric knife sharpener as a present. They're pricey, but a sharp knife is a radically improved cooking tool over a dull one.

Also, it's obvious you could spend a lot of money buying cookbooks: I recommend Ratio by Michael Ruhlman. It's relatively inexpensive, and won't send you out constantly looking for expensive ingredients. Instead, you'll learn the basics of cooking a wide repertoire of french-american style food, and all the principles behind it.

Compared to all of your classmates, you'll be an amazing wizard in the kitchen in short order if you buy that book.

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Compared to all of your classmates, you'll be an amazing wizard in the kitchen in short order if you buy that book.

Considering his classmates will be on a beer and Doritos diet, yeah.

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Exactly! Also, the 'add comment' link is designed for non-answer conversation like this. –  Peter V Jul 22 '10 at 17:31
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Depending on what college or university you attend, they may offer a course in cooking, which you could take. When I was in college, I took "HADM 2290: Introduction to Culinary Arts", and even though I was a computer science major, that course remains the most valuable one I took in my college career.

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