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I am a student, and generally any cooking I do ends up being a disaster (unless it's cooking eggs or boiling dumplings in water), and I do want to get better. I don't know where to start. I can't attend cooking courses offline, since I have a job, and I am busy pretty much most of the time. And I have no wife or girlfriend to teach me.

It feels like I'm lacking very basics of cooking (like how hot water or pan must be, or how to know if my meat is cooked). How should I learn cooking from scratch? I don't want to eat pizza every day and die from liver cirrhosis at 30 :(

Thanks in advance

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    I agree this is too broad, it's a book topic. In fact, a book like Cooking for Dummies or some basics videos on the web are a good place to start, but that's just my view.
    – GdD
    Dec 6, 2022 at 13:56
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    I learned watching YouTube videos. An advice: write down your recipes in cards and keep them in a box. It's the only long term solution for keeping your recipes at hand, no matter what. Every other technological solution will eventually fail; touchscreens don't belong in the kitchen
    – Candid Moe
    Dec 6, 2022 at 14:22
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    When I was a student, my mother bought me a book called "How to Boil an Egg" which I can't praise enough.
    – Richard
    Dec 6, 2022 at 22:52
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    1. google 'beginner recipes', 2. pick an interesting one and try it out, 3. ask Seasoned Exchange about specific things that went wrong, 4. rinse & repeat. Eventually, you'll replace '3' with: research why specific things went wrong. :-D
    – mcalex
    Dec 7, 2022 at 4:21
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    @DavidP. Cards can be replaced when they get dirty, greasy, wet, but paper notebook not.
    – Candid Moe
    Dec 7, 2022 at 7:07

6 Answers 6

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Some general tips and pointers for your start:

  • In most contries I know there are one or two 'standard' cookbooks that have been re-issued and updated for decades and that usually explain and teach basic techniques from the scratch and in an easily understandable way. Get one of these, even if it might look a bit conservative at the first glance it will serve as a source for sound and reliable basics. Usually there´s a good reason why the latest kitchen hack from the web is not what your granny or professional chefs are doing.
  • Stock up your inventory with basic ingredients and spices you always will need like salt, flour, rice, ... so you wont have to worry about these when planning for a recipe.
  • Focus on one thing at a time and proceed step by step. Set your todays goal on perfectly al dente pasta while a convenience pesto will be good enough. Then make a sauce from scratch tomorrow.
  • Have a backup option in your shelf in case things fail completely. If they do, don´t get discouraged, at least you have learned how not to do it.
  • Take notes to keep your experiences. There are things like this specific, strange temperature offset of your oven beyond 250° that no book or tutorial will ever be able to teach you.
  • If you are short on time in your daily life look out for recipes that build up on each other. Something with a bechamel sauce on Thursday and something with a meat sauce on Friday, will make a great Lasagna on Saturday.
  • Stay curious.
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  • Good answer! Thanks for the tips. I wish I could accept several answers, but this one is definitely a win! Dec 7, 2022 at 11:23
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    An additional suggestion regarding cook books: There are some specifically for kids, which contain relatively simple recipes and may explain the basics in a bit more detail. It may feel a bit awkward buying one as an adult but I have one that I got ~20 years ago and still happily use it from time to time for some basic things (e.g. mashed potatoes or pancakes).
    – luator
    Dec 7, 2022 at 13:48
  • Also, subscribe to those meal kit services, even if just for a couple weeks. They provide nearly everything you need (except basics like oil, but they tell you what you need so you can prepare as needed), and instructions on how to prepare the meal. They will teach you techniques and habits that will lead to better meals over time.
    – SnakeDoc
    Dec 7, 2022 at 18:01
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(It's kind of an open ended question)

Watch cooking videos to get inspiration and some know-how (be careful, they don't always show everything).

Go to a bookstore or a library and look at some cooking book (again, be careful they don't always show everything)

Learn what things you like to eat, and look for recipes (youtube or books).

Start with simple things like pasta and rice dishes, chicken, sausages, salads of various kinds.

There is a lot of self-experimentation that you will need to do.

And don't BURN your food.

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    I did much of that as a student (not the videos - online video hadn't been invented and I still don't like video tutorials). Learn a few basic dishes and experiment. I suggest the goal is that nothing is ruined, everything edible even if you wouldn't make the same dish again.
    – Chris H
    Dec 6, 2022 at 14:03
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    I learned a lot from PBS in college (Nick Stellino, Martin Yan, Justin Wilson, Graham Kerr, etc) and had grown up watching The Frugal Gourmet… but I also learned to cook basic stuff when younger, and was cooking simple dinners (sauté some veg, add jarred sauce, cook pasta) for my family since middle school after my dad left
    – Joe
    Dec 6, 2022 at 16:02
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There are lots of ways to find recipes online, but not all are good ways to learn to cook.

The problem with cookbooks is that they don’t always explain the processes in any real detail, as they assume a basic level of knowledge. Cookbooks intended for kids might be better, but you have to find the right level so it’s not simply ‘assembly’.

There are cookbooks out there that are intended to be for college students, which may be better, as they assume inexperience, lack of time, expensive equipment, and that you’re not cooking for a large family.

Videos and cooking TV shows may help, but again, it’s a wide range. Some are more ‘recipe inspiration’ than how to actually cook. Rachel Ray’s first show (30 Minute Meals) appealed to this audience, but she still was cooking for a larger crowd with more equipment than someone starting out would have (I suspect it would also require 30 minutes of doing the dishes)

Food Network also had a show called “How to Boil Water” in which they had a professional working with an inexperienced person who would ask them why they were doing things. NHK’s “Dining with the Chef” uses this, but as with How to Boil Water, they’ve had the same pairs for so long that the hosts aren’t asking the basic questions as much these days.

If you have it, my suggestion would be to try to find someone who knows how to cook. Offer to supply ingredients in exchange for cooking lessons. Actually cooking with someone will mean that someone is watching you to catch your mistakes. Although in some cases, you have to be quick— I was teaching a friend’s son to make pasta, and he didn’t listen to the ‘stir from the middle’, and he turned it into a lump that I was unable to recover from easily. (I should’ve started over; luckily, we were making two batches)

It’s also worth mentioning that there are a lot of bad cookbooks and videos out there. Even Alton Brown has had to issue corrections for some of his recipes, like his fondue when he didn’t realize that he had developed it with an abnormally acidic ingredient, so it failed for others. He actually has a series where he went back and corrected many of his past shows (Good Eats Reloaded)

America’s Test Kitchen (on PBS) is another good show as they explain a little bit about why they’re doing things, and strive to make recipes that will reliably work.

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Most beginners just need to learn the basics (see the other answers), but some struggle because they need to know why we are doing things the way we do. In that case, you might like Cooking for Geeks by Jeff Potter.

See also this answer.

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I know you've already selected an answer, but here's what I did which was really easy and added minimum overtime and spending to my already busy schedule:

  1. Decide what I want to eat

  2. Google a recipe for it (or get it from someone who I know makes a good one, usually my mom). Make sure you have a way to quickly re-access this recipe. I usually copy it to a personal file so that if the website goes down I don't lose it.

I like to use written recipes online because they are visual, meaning I don't have to scrub through a video (time-consuming). The first time screenshotting the ingredients and directions can be frustrating and time-consuming because of the ads and bloat built in to recipe articles, but you only have to deal with it once if you copy it to a personal file.

If you get the recipe from a relative or friend, you might get a picture of an ancient and blurry index card. Make sure to read the whole thing and ask clarifying questions well ahead of time so you aren't waiting on answers once you're hungry. Make sure to copy any answers and/or the image to a personal file so it doesn't get lost in your text records.

I had one recipe that my mom made AMAZINGLY and she would not write it down. She said it was about "intuition." Well, I had to make it. So I called her and kept stopping her while she explained things to take copious notes. Now I've got her "intuition" down to an exact science and can replicate those magical mashed potatoes. If you have a family member who is willing to do this, take advantage of it. The best recipes are often stored in someone's head.

  1. Check what ingredients you have. Buy any ingredients you don't have. Within a few meals, you'll already have your staples built up without having to spend time figuring out what they are and making a trip to get them. Don't forget to go through the pantry and especially through the fridge at least once a month to toss out expired stuff. That builds up quickly. And make sure to put it in the dumpster right away when you toss it. Expired milk sitting in the kitchen trash until the bag is full smells bad FAST.

  2. Keep grooming your notes. Some stuff you make will be good. A lot will be mediocre. Occasionally you'll make something so disgusting the very memory of it makes you nauseous (for me that's crockpot chicken and dumplings with the nasty underbaked biscuit dough floating in the chicken broth...ew). Additionally, some recipes might be good but very time-consuming and boring to make. Keep your recipe notes clean and organized so that you don't have the gross or mediocre ones taking up both physical and mental space. In some time, you'll have a library of recipes that are all excellent and in which you are fully confident. I went from not being able to fry an egg to being able to make a jaw-droppingly delicious pot roast in about a year. I have several reliable recipes that I can now draw from with very little mental energy.

  3. Don't forget to make complete meals. A piece of honey garlic chicken is not a dinner. You need some rice or pasta or salad or bread with that. Maybe two of those.

  4. People will like you if you give them baked treats.

TIP: I use Microsoft OneNote to organize my recipes. Here's why:

  • It has apps for mobile and desktop and also comes with some free cloud storage. I can access my recipes anywhere. Invests in a good phone stand, too, and you'll be golden.

  • It has a very easy checklist function. Check off your grocery list right in the app.

  • You can quickly and easily paste in screenshots of websites with the recipe steps.

  • You can organize your recipes into different categories with "sections" and even have pages categorized under other pages. I have tabs for Dinner and Dessert, for example, and then under Dessert I have a Christmas Cookies page with subpages for Snickerdoodles, Sugar Cookies, etc.

ANOTHER TIP:

Don't underestimate the power of shortcuts. A rice cooker with a steamer basket + frozen meatballs and rice = a nice dinner of rice and meatballs with almost zero effort. Let that puppy cook itself while you relax. Total staple for me. Appliances can be really helpful. A crockpot is a must (make sure you have one with a timer because that's the entire point). Let that thing run while you're at work and come home to dinner done. And if you get into baking, a KitchenAid stand mixer is expensive but will help your poor tired arms survive the winter baking season.

Oh, and if you want to frost Christmas cookies, get the premade icing and do not try to slather that on with a knife. Get a cheap piping kit from Amazon, some disposable bags (washing that stuff takes too long), and take the extra time to pipe neat borders and fillings. It will look and taste SO much bett

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This answer is just an add-on to others, but one IMHO very important tip was missing from the other answers:

Start small and with low expectations

Cook basic Pasta. And then skip the store-bought sauce once and instead cook pureed/sieved tomatos (idk how they are called) with maybe(!) onions and an italian spice mix or so.

Further tips:

Generally start with spice mixes instead of a full-blown spice rack. Seasoning is an art in of itself and something to learn once you got the basics. Go hard on Umami (= MSG, maybe even buy it pure) and umami-containing flavorings like pre-made stock powder.

Also: Low expectations help. You can't expect a restaurant-quality meal at the beginning. Aim for "just above cheap premade meals".

Going vegetarian at first skips the risks from undercooked meat and if you can't stick to beef (or if that's too expensive pork) until you got a hang of cooking temps. Working with a stick-in thermometer (and a chart on what meat needs what temp) can keep you safe as well. Generally I'd wait with poultry (unless cut quite small) until you're somewhat experience, as larger cuts of it go dry quite fast.

Try experimenting with ready-made food like scallions (or regular onions) (or a bit more advanced: egg-whisks, a bit easyer: tomato concentrate for flavor) in instant ramen boosts this rather weak meal into almost self-cooked. Not nutritionally but in taste and for you mentally. This all helps you get used to onions / fresh produce /spices and how they affect flavors while giving you a satisfying or at least ok result in pretty much any case.

And at last: be prepared to fail. Keep a frozen pizza or instant ramen on hand for when a meal does go bad or burned. That way you're not stuck hungry in the end but can think about what went wrong (and what to do better) while eating your trashy-but-tasty instant meal.

This also helps with the next tip: Keep trying. You will fail at first, but you will get better as well.

I hope some of these are helpful and that you eventually do get to a cooking level you're happy with

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