Be Brave! As a beginner home cook and even as a more skilled cook, you will make mistakes, burn food, and throw away inedible meals. You can’t learn without mishaps. Learning to cook requires that you be brave and a little bit vulnerable, especially if you’re cooking for someone other than yourself.
Focus and attention to detail are important when following a recipe and learning to cook. Harness your ability to do both when you are in the kitchen. There’s a big difference between a teaspoon of cayenne pepper and a tablespoon!
Start with what you know. It is unlikely that you’ve entered adulthood without knowing how to cook something… anything… a salad, a sandwich, spaghetti noodles with jar sauce. Start with this dish and work on making it better. I’m ashamed to admit that I considered noodles and a jar of sauce dinner in my younger days. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but how boring! No meat, no veggies… just carbs and sauce. I started adding veggies and meat, experimenting with different combinations.
Use family recipes. Learn how to cook the food you loved to eat growing up. These recipes are generally family friendly and not too difficult (depending on the culinary abilities of your family I suppose). Unfortunately, I had to learn to cook a lot of these without the help of my family as both my mother and grandmother passed away when I was young. I still managed to learn (and am still learning) how to cook some of my favorites like potato salad, chicken soup, and tuna noodle casserole.
Don’t try to replicate restaurant food. On the flip side, don’t try to imitate restaurant foods. Fancy restaurants are just too damn good and food from chain restaurants is typically processed, and it is difficult to replicate processed food in the kitchen…and why would we want to, right? Also, I could never replicate (americanized) Chinese food. I make tasty asian style dishes, but they are never so good as the general tso’s from around the corner. I’m sure I’ll continue to try, but it’s not a good confidence builder for a beginner cook!
Use food blogs and Google searches. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve searched how long to cook a chicken breast and at what temperature. Chances are, if you have question, even a silly one, someone has asked it before. The internet is your friend. Food blogs are great places to look for recipes that real people enjoy and cook. That being said, not all food blogs are created equal.. You’ll want to look for recipes with specific directions. As a beginning cook, it is difficult to read between the lines.
Buy at least one good, sharp knife. If I could go back and give myself this tip! I’m still making do with basic knives, and I dream of buying a nice knife and learning how to keep it sharp. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to throw all my knives away as I’m trying to hack into a spaghetti squash. (Do they make kitchen axes because I’m sure they would work better…) Most of the equipment in your starter kitchen can be fairly inexpensive. You don’t need top of the line anything when you’re first starting out, but a knife is a worthy early investment.
Avoid gadgets. There’s nothing wrong with kitchen gadgets, but in my experiences, they aren’t always worth the money or the space they take up in your kitchen. Try doing things the old fashioned way before buying the gadget that makes it easier. This will also help you learn certain skills that, while not necessary, give you confidence. For example, I love to make homemade bread. I would love a bread machine or a Kitchen Aid Mixer to do the kneading for me, but it turns out kneading bread is fun albeit messy, and I feel more confident in my skill.
Focus on a couple dishes at a time, and work at them until you’re confident in your ability to cook them. Every long time home cook has their rotation of recipes that they go to because they are familiar and their family enjoys them. I wouldn’t say my rotation is fully developed by any means, but I have several go tos.
Don’t be afraid of a challenge. So many recipes say they are simple and easy and that can be good, but sometimes easy means tastes like cardboard, and when your food turns out to be kind of blah, it isn’t very encouraging. So try easy recipes, but don’t be afraid to try more difficult ones either!
Use spices! I avoided recipes with a lot of spices because I didn’t know if I liked them or not, and I was afraid they’d make my food taste too strong of a flavor I didn’t like. Of course, using too much a spice or a wrong spice can ruin a dish, but as long as you’re following a recipe and using proper measurements then the dish should be fine. Once you’ve tried the suggested amount of spice, you can adjust from there to your personal taste. There is a learning curve as you learn the flavors, but there’s no substitute for spices!
Keep the pizza place on speed dial. Like I said, there will be failures, but that is how learning happens. Just laugh it off and keep trying. You always hear stories (or at least I do) of people saying “I can’t cook. I tried to do… and I almost burned the house down.” But no one enters this world with an innate ability to cook. We all learn it one way or another. Failing once doesn't mean you can’t cook. It means you’re too afraid to try!