I miss a lot of things about the pre-pandemic world, but eating in restaurants is definitely in the top three. I miss sitting at the bar and sipping a cocktail. I miss sharing meals with friends and trying foods I might never think up at home.
However, if the pandemic has had one big bright side, it’s that many of us have had to cope by attempting some of that restaurant creativity in our own kitchens.
I’ve absolutely loved watching my friends and colleagues pick up a new hobby these past ten months. My Instagram feed changed overnight from shots of buzzing restaurant interiors to a wealth of daily home cooking successes. But despite all of this new (albeit forced) inspiration, not everyone can simply turn on the stove and feel confident enough to whip up whatever recipe is trending that week.
The good news is, practice makes perfect. And you don’t even need to get all the way to perfection when it comes to cooking (baking is another story, but we’ll discuss that another time). A few simple tips and techniques will help make cooking faster, easier, and more fun. Master these, and you’ll be able to cook just about anything.
That’s right—don’t just flip through their pages for tonight’s recipe. Keep them by your bed and read the forwards, the recipes that look appealing to you, and any descriptions of technique. I also recommend seeking out unfussy chefs when looking for cookbooks. Reading is just more fun when the author doesn’t take themselves too seriously. Six Seasons: A New Way With Vegetables and The Food Lab are a great place to start.
Watch cooking shows on Netflix and YouTube.
Tough homework, right? The Great British Baking Show can be more than a guilty pleasure. You can learn a lot from people who cook and bake more than you do—from the mistakes they make to their successes. Not to mention, Paul and Mary usually have some good tips and tricks to share.
I also recommend watching YouTube and Instagram videos created by cooks from different cultures. Many of us were raised in the U.S. by parents who spent the 80s and 90s making very similar beige dishes with the same techniques. When you learn from other cultures, you’ll not only experience new foods but also new ways to cook.
Recreate your favorite restaurant meals.
I don’t know about you, but I haven’t sat in a restaurant in months. And I miss it…a lot. If you’re looking for inspiration for a good salad or weeknight meal, look no further than your favorite restaurant’s menu. Look at the ingredients they use and make a guess as to measurements. It may not turn out exactly the same, but it’s good practice and can help build your intuition. Just don’t forget to support the restaurants with some takeout as well. We want them around when this thing is over.
Don’t compare yourself to others.
One of my best friends is an incredible cook. I mean, incredible. I will never, ever be as good as her.
I also hate baking. I watch people make beautiful cakes on Instagram and think, I should try that! Then I do, and it does absolutely nothing for me.
Food should bring joy, and you should be making things that you and your loved ones enjoy eating. If you can do that, you can consider your dish a huge success.
Despite being a pretty competitive person, I’ve learned to let that go in the kitchen. I like cooking to be a release at the end of a long day, not one more thing that adds pressure. Food should bring joy, and you should be making things that you and your loved ones enjoy eating. If you can do that, you can consider your dish a huge success.
Buy one or two good knives and sharpen them regularly.
Chopping fruits and vegetables with a dull knife can make any cook want to flee the kitchen. You don’t need a whole set of knives to be a great cook. A good chef’s knife and a paring knife will get you through most recipes. Others are just extra (and honestly don’t need to be expensive).
Stock your kitchen.
Cooking is easier when you don’t need to run to the grocery store every day. We like to have the following on hand at any given time so when inspiration strikes, we can get cooking. We like to buy most of this in bulk at Costco.
Pantry: Lots of olive oil and canola oil, apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, canned tomatoes, pasta, a variety of canned/dry beans, garlic, onions, bread and tortillas, canned anchovies, potatoes or sweet potatoes, honey, salt and pepper, red pepper flakes, lots of dried spices, everything bagel seasoning
Refrigerator/freezer: Butter (refrigerated and room temp), celery and carrots for soups, kalamata olives, a variety of shredded/sliced cheeses, feta, lettuce, tomatoes, lemons
Learn how to correctly season your food.
Salt and pepper are your best friend when it comes to cooking. You can make or break a dish with these two simple ingredients. Underseasoned food is bland, while overseasoned items can taste way too salty. Just remember these two tips: Taste your food while you’re cooking it—not just after. And you can always add more salt. It’s a lot more difficult to remove it from the dish.
Don’t worry if you f*ck up.
The only way to become more confident in your cooking is to make mistakes and learn from them. That wealth of knowledge will build over time, and before you know it you’ll be wowing your friends and family on the regular.
In a very fitting end to a disastrous year, the last thing I made in 2020 was a tiramisu. It took five hours, and it sucked. But I now know what went wrong, and won’t let it happen again. The only way to become more confident in your cooking is to make mistakes and learn from them. That wealth of knowledge will build over time, and before you know it you’ll be wowing your friends and family on the regular.
Maggie is a marketer and writer based in Minneapolis. She has a husband she met on Twitter, and spends her free time cooking, thrifting and watching stupid TV shows. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @MaggieLaMaack.