Onions are your friends: 11 tips for new cooks

Guest post by Sunny

So ready for this to all be DINNER already. #obhfoodI LOVED the fabulous cooking challenge series earlier this year! It was an inspiration to me to get my daily cooking groove back on. I have this tendency to go all or nothing — either I am creating these elaborate meals with dozens of ingredients (I resist using even premixed curry powder!), or I am too exhausted to cook and thus either go out or rely on frozen veggie potstickers on a healthy day, and frozen pizza on a bad one. So I took the challenge to submit my own attempt at staying out of a restaurant and away from premade meals for a week while keeping it simple! And while doing so, I tried to pay attention to what things make cooking easy and fast. I’m happy to report I’ve been back in the kitchen a lot more ever since.

Here are my tips for new cooks:

Forget the fancy kitchen gadgets until you have stocked the boring basics: a good 4 quart pot (preferably a tri-ply pot; I like Cuisinart Multiclad Pro), an 8″ or 10″ nonstick anodized skillet or ceramic coated skillet (I use Cusinart Green Gourmet), a good 6″ or 8″ cook’s knife and sharpening steel (I use Wüsthof Classic), and a bamboo cutting board. With a little creativity, you can manage a LOT with just these items.

Prewashed greens that can be either cooked or eaten raw are an awesome, healthy timesaver. For example: arugula, spinach, arugula/spinach mix, or my favorite: OrganicGirl Super Greens. When I’m cooking well, my partner and I will go through 1 to 1½ pounds of greens a week. That’s a LOT. They will seem expensive compared to a head of lettuce, but you can throw them in anything: salad, pasta, quesadillas, sandwiches, quiche… with no prep. Ultimately you will save money, rather than eating out or buying a salad for lunch.

Onions and garlic are cheap and make almost everything (well, everything savory) taste better. You will discover that if any guest walks into your house while you are sautéing onions and garlic, they will assume the food tastes awesome because it SMELLS awesome. They are really good for you, too!

Scared of that onion? [Megan’s note: yes!] I promise you, when you are faced with something you don’t know how to do, there will be a video for it. Particularly, learn how to dice an onion here.

Eggs are excellent, healthy, cheap protein and can be made in a million ways. Ditto for beans.

Start with easy vegetarian recipes That way you can take your time learning about all the food safety issues you have to be aware of when cooking with meat, especially poultry and fish.

Choose and acquire 2-3 quality spice mixes that you can experiment with until you know spices better. Quality is sometimes more expensive, but you will not waste it because it tastes good. I especially like: Penzey’s Mural of Flavor (awesome in eggs, tuna salad, salad dressings), and Penzey’s Maharajah curry powder.

Pasta is easy, inexpensive, and fast. Try whole grain or quinoa pastas to increase the nutritional content. Always read the instructions, since cooking time varies pretty radically, and never forget to salt your water. Don’t forget couscous — a super easy, super fast pasta.

Eat the rainbow. Not every day, but during the course of the week, try to get foods with a variety of colors. Those colors often indicate specific nutrients!

Frozen veggies are not the same thing as frozen pizza. They are inexpensive, flash frozen almost immediately after picking, and keep their nutrients better than fresh foods that have been sitting in your fridge for a few days. So have a few bags in your freezer and don’t be afraid to use them!

Always read the whole recipe carefully before you shop, and again before you start cooking.

So, what’s YOUR one best tip for new cooks?

Comments on Onions are your friends: 11 tips for new cooks

  1. One tip I’ve come to on my own is, don’t get overly measure-ey with your spices when making savory foods. Sure, the first time you make something, like an ethnic dish or something you’re completely unfamiliar with, follow the measurements closely, but once you’ve made something a couple of times, or when you’re throwing something together, just wing it on the spices. When I make guac, I don’t measure anything, I just toss, mash, taste, toss, taste, etc. until I like it. It will help you figure out which flavors you like best and which ones you can do without and still eat something that’s delicious to you. It stresses my husband when I tell him to make the guac and he asks how much of each spice to put in and I just say, ‘However much you think.’ Just get crazy with them spices!

    • The “add spices then taste, then add more if needed” approach doesn’t work that well with raw meat though! 🙂

      If your memory for these things is as bad as mine, maybe a sticky note next to the recipe with a tip like “was too hot – try halving chilli powder” would help?

    • I was also taught to always crumble your spices. Shake the amount out in your palm, then rub it together in your hands to break it up. I think the increased surface area helps release more flavor.

  2. Chop up your veggies the night before. Sometimes looking at the bag of carrots or head of cauliflower is overwhelming, and out come the Hot Pockets.

    If I cut up the veggies, then all I have to do is add some olive oil, garlic (I’ve been using jarred that I got at Aldi’s) and roast those suckers for 25 minutes in a 450 degree oven. Best veggies ever! And since they’re already chopped up, hardly any time goes into prep when I get home!

    Also, parchment paper is your friend! If it’s going in the oven, you probably want to use parchment paper and cut way down on clean-up.

    • When I buy peppers, I pre-slice them and freeze them. They don’t rot before I eat them, and then when I want to cook with them, I can just grab a handful out of the freezer and go. They’re especially great for putting on that frozen pizza to add SOME health value, or making chicken fajitas (which is just sauteed onions and peppers with chicken).

  3. “Always read the instructions, since cooking time varies pretty radically, and never forget to salt your water.”

    I never salt the water for my pasta, and I cook pasta all the time. What is the reason behind salting pasta water? Most people get enough (or too much) salt in their diets as is and pasta can already have a fair amount of sodium in it depending on the brand you are using.

    • Your only chance of flavoring the pasta itself is while it’s cooking, for most people that just means salted water. I personally prefer to use a creole seasoning mix that has salt in it. I have cut salt out in so many other areas that I don’t worry about the salt in the pasta.

      • I prefer to add pasta sauce, butter, or even cinnamon sugar (particularly for rice pasta) after cooking. I don’t find pasta that my pasta needs extra salty flavor.

      • Exactly. For most folks, a little salt while cooking means a lot less at the table, too. My pastas tend to have super low sodium content, so if I don’t salt while cooking, they are tasteless. If you don’t need it, perfect, just remember, you can’t really add after cooking.

      • This is exactly what my Italian friends have said. I’ve watched them not eat dishes because they could tell the pasta water wasn’t salted. To them, it tasted like a hunk of carby blandness. But that’s also the intense foodie opinion.

        • It’s all in what you are used to. Pasta doesn’t taste bland to me because my taste buds aren’t expecting a blast of salt. If you train your taste buds to expect that then I suppose it would taste bland without it. I think that would be a shame, because then the pasta wouldn’t be as appreciated by itself.

    • A huge portion of the sodium in a (at least N.American) diet comes from pre-packaged foods. Cooking your own meals will reduce the amount of daily sodium. Adding a pinch or so here and there really makes food taste great! (Also why pre-packaged food tastes so good).

      Salt also allows the water to be boiled at a higher temperature; this means you can turn down the stove (saving energy, w00t!), and it cooks faster.

      • I do cook my own meals, and also I try to avoid added salt in my cooking when it is not needed to make sure my sodium intake stays as low as possible. I’m happy with the amount of time it takes me to cook pasta and the energy savings would probably be negligible, so I see no need to add salt.

      • I am a salty-pasta person, probably because my brother worked in restaurants in Italy for awhile, and was taught that pasta water should be “as salty as the sea.” I don’t go to that extreme, but some salt definitely makes a difference – if my pasta’s already got some flavor, I’m less likely to overdo the olive oil and table salt.

        • I’ve never added table salt to already cooked pasta. Olive oil I have added, but there is only so much that can stick to the pasta so it is difficult to overdo that without ending up with an oil lake.

    • It’s a sometimes-repeated myth that salt changes the boiling point (it does, but the effect isn’t particularly useful, since it actually RAISES the boiling point… some people theorize that it makes a better pasta, but you’re probably working with boxed stuff–do we really need to go culinary pro on it?) or prevents the pasta from sticking (it doesn’t. not at all. PS don’t use oil to try this, either.)
      It does change the flavor of the pasta, but the pasta doesn’t absorb all the salt. Some people do lemon juice. Myself? I think the effect is totally negligible and any sauce worth its salt (ha) doesn’t need flavored pasta, but I also happen to love pasta for its pastainess.

    • We don’t use much salt while cooking in my house, instead leaving it to individuals to add salt to their plate if they want. We are used to the taste of our low-salt cooking. My parents use heaps and heaps of salt, so I always find my Mum’s cooking too salty for me.

      The advice “always salt your pasta water” will come from someone who always does that, and they won’t be used to the taste of your saltless pasta!

      • “The advice “always salt your pasta water” will come from someone who always does that, and they won’t be used to the taste of your saltless pasta!”

        Exactly! It is all a matter of personal preference. I’ve never been one to add a lot of salt to my food.

    • Absolutely- especially because spice freshness impact strength. BUT beware – baking is different. It often relies on chemistry, so quantities are important!

  4. Great tips! Here are a few other things I’ve learned over the years that have helped me a great deal in overcoming my former kitchen phobias.

    Taste constantly to adjust for seasoning. Start by adding a little and then increase the amount as needed. Remember: you can always add more later. This tip has kept me from over-salting the shit out of things!

    I find having some sort of cast-iron (and enameled if possible) cookware that goes easily from stovetop to oven invaluable. A Dutch or French oven or a deep pan with a lid that’s oven safe is a gift–you can saute, sear, fry, boil, simmer, braise, broil, and bake all in one vessel. The enameled stuff is super easy to clean. This stuff is expensive and heavy but is an investment–will last for years. (Bonus: when it’s enameled, you don’t have to worry about seasoning the pan.)

    Lining your pans with silicone mats, foil, or parchment paper if you’re making something greasy or messy is a life-saver when it comes time to clean up.

    Time and temperature are key ingredients. Sometimes cooking things at a lower temperature for a longer time is just the right way to do things, sometimes it’s hot and fast. Scrambled eggs and tough cuts of meat benefit from the low and slow method. Stir fries and fried chicken need the hot and fast method. Read enough recipes and cookbooks and soon you’ll know what to do when and for how long.

    Keep your knives impeccably sharp.

    A meat thermometer will ensure a perfectly cooked piece of meat or poultry every time. Rest your meat for a few minutes after cooking so it will retain its juices and flavors.

    Invest in one “bible” of cooking that explains all the basics of food selection, preparation, and safety. I find “How To Cook Everything” by Mark Bittman absolutely essential–it has answered pretty much every question I’ve ever had about how to cook things and the recipes are great.

    • “Keep your knives impeccably sharp.”

      Amen! Can’t tell you how many times I have cut myself on someone else’s dull blade.

      Tips for keeping them sharp:

      – Don’t put them in the dishwasher
      – Hone them before putting them away (every time)
      – Sharpen them regularly yourself or take them to a local shop that provides a sharpening service

      • SO TRUE: dull knives are DANGEROUS knives. It may seem counterintuitive when you are new in the kitchen, but a sharp knife is safer, because you have more control. I have a sharpening steel, but I’ll confess, I often use a sharpener like this one because it is just so easy to use (you just pull the blade through those little v’s).

  5. lower the heat!

    of course, as with any “rule”, that’s often bad advice (in broiling, boiling and stir-fry, for example) – but if you’re just getting started cooking it’s a good thing to keep in mind. under low heat your food will absorb flavors better, stay moist, and burn less easily (perhaps most important for getting started without giving up). plus, caramelized onions.

    my second piece of advice is a lot more specific, but if you would rather eat grains than pasta (for health or taste reasons), most grains can be cooked just like pasta. that is, add way too much water, boil ’till cooked and drain. it’s not as “foodie” as adding the perfect amount of water and cooking the exact amount of time (the texture is going to be, well, wetter and less fluffy/chewy), but it mostly eliminates the danger of burning grains to your pan or the need to hover over it – making it totally efficient and less intimidating.

  6. I worked at a kitchen store for two years and have cooked for YEARS..yeah I owned that easy-bake oven..I MADE my own mixes for it! 😛 People think you have to be a chef to make it in any kitchen and you DON’T. I’ve even taught pre-teens how to make everything from pasta to making their own omelets. It always helps when you have a great teacher. (Luckily I had an organic bound grandmother vs. southern cooking for an army grandmother. Got the best of both worlds! Though I will NEVER touch a brownie made with coconut flour from my organic grandmother ever again..)
    Seriously though, invest in classics, especially cast iron and a couple of nonstick pans and skillets, and a good 8-24 qt pot to do the big jobs. Knives need to be taken care of and regularly sharpened. If you have an upscale kind of knife like Wustof or Hinkle, the brands do allow to be shipped to the company to be professionally cleaned and sharpened, or you can go to your local gun/knife shop and have it done there for cheap or free. (or get the old fashioned pvc and wood sharpener, works jus the same at home. )
    Season cast iron often with oil (or the die-hards can use lard..whatever.)
    Oh and invest in ACTUAL vintage pyrex dishes! This is HIGHLY important for baking because the new ones are made with a different glass that reacts to a fast change in temperature by EXPLODING..you tube it..seriously.(It reacts like that just by putting it on a trivet or counter right after baking) The old ones are a lot more durable and even dishwasher safe. (I use a glass pot often for tea and have NEVER had it shatter on me. My pride and joy!)
    Oh and one last thing stainless steel, in the years I’ve used it and sold it to customers, is NOT what its cracked up to be. (I’m saying this with the brands I’ve sold) You have to oil it to make sure it doesn’t stick (not so with good nonstick like anodized.) and if it doesn’t have a double bottom, it will not heat evenly as well.
    And as always with most thing America buys, you get what you pay for. The 9.99 nonstick skillet from Hamilton beach will NOT last as long as the coating on something from Cuisinart or Circulon.
    I really am rambling..Sorry! I just REALLY love cooking and all that goes with it. I actually collect fondue pots too..haha. Mainly though, I do agree with your post. I love how you do make it easy for a lot of people to understand that they don’t have to be gourmet and live in france to be able to cook good stuff. I wish i could share more but I don’t want to take up bandwidth on yall.. >_< Wonderful post!
    PS Invest in spices! Don't know how many times White Pepper and Thyme have made me feel like I could be a line cook somewhere fancy..haha

  7. Stuff doesn’t have to be totally from scratch to be “home-made”. I buy low-sodium broccoli cheese soup, and add my own potato, extra frozen broccoli, and more cheese. One can of soup is bulked up, has more nutrients from the added veggies, and tastes better than just plopping the can of soup in a pot. It’s also much, much easier than making the whole damn soup from scratch. Think pre-packaged muffin mix you can add fresh fruit to, soup mixes to bulk up, etc. Baby steps, my friend.

    • I love doing the combo of homemade and store bought. Particularly when I get a lazy moment and I don’t want to go to a heap of effort to make dinner. I always keep a jar of plain tomato pasta sauce in the cupboard for times like this. That way I just cook up the pasta, and when it comes to the sauce I can customise it. Heat up the sauce and add whatever is in the house. Grated carrot, spinach, garlic, dried herbs… quick and easy meal!

    • Oh yes, I even add veggies and spices to frozen pizzas to make them healthier. (And yummier. Once I forgot to add spices and thought, “Man, this pizza tastes awful.”)

  8. Think about investing in cast iron. Cast iron has to be loved, but it returns that love in crispy, wonderful foods. Seriously, baking in something cast iron is fucking intense. We made dressing one year for Thanksgiving in a cast iron casserole dish. You can’t imagine how fabulous it was.

    Don’t be afraid of the dark leafy greens! A lot of people have an “eww, I’m six years old and I’m not eating that” thing about them, but dark greens really don’t impart that much of a flavour on your food, they’re a visual enhancer (aka, a bland looking dish looks a lot more enticing with a pop of green), and they’re good for ya.

    • “but dark greens really don’t impart that much of a flavour on your food”

      That depends on the greens. Collards have a stronger flavor than most dark leafy greens and thus are not quite as interchangeable. They were a little too intense for a recipe I made that included raisins and pine nuts.

      On a semi-related note, if you’re hesitant about dark greens, spinach and chard are good starters and cook fairly quickly.

    • Oh, yes. I throw a 10oz. frozen package of spinach in at the end of pretty much every soup I make, no matter the type. Spinach is very mild, so the flavor difference is almost negligible, but the nutrient difference is huge. But, yeah, collards are an entirely different creature.

  9. If you’re just learning to cook, buy a cookbook aimed for children/teens/college students. I find these cookbooks have solid recipes, helpful photographs, easy-to-find ingredient lists, and clear directions. Most also offer good troubleshooting sections. The kids cookbooks may have some “fun food” type recipes, but I still love them.

    My faves: College Cooking by Megan and Jill Carle, Starting Out by Julie Van Rosendaal and Kids Cooking by Kids Can Press. The first two are my go-to cookbooks, and I just love Kids Cooking for its retro illustrated awesomeness. Plus it comes with spoons and makes a great gift!

    • Another great cookbook in the college cookbook genre is The (Reluctant , Nervous, Lazy, Broke, Busy, Confused) College Student’s Cookbook by Joshua N. Lambert. The writing is amusing, it has good basic recipes and useful things like a chart of what different spices do and what basic foods you might want to keep stocked in your pantry. Its only big flaw is most of the recipes tell you to cook things longer and at a higher temperature than is wise, but if you turn down the oven a bit and check earlier than they say to you should be fine.

      • That’s sort of hilarious. I wonder if they’re assuming college students have cheap apartment ovens that don’t heat right? (I lived with several, plus one that ran ridiculously hot).
        Relatedly, tip: remember not all stoves or ovens heat the same way. Oven thermometers are handy, but trial and error works too.

        • That might be exactly what they are assuming, or perhaps their test oven was just way off. I never thought of it that way.

          I agree that it is very important to find out how your oven heats. Here’s a tip I picked up for figuring out if your oven is too hot without an oven thermometer. It involves baking cookies! If your cookies have burned edges and middles that are properly cooked, your oven is probably running about 25 degrees (Fahrenheit) too hot. If the edges burn while the middles are still gooey, your oven is probably running about 50 degrees hot.

  10. Oh how I wish I could eat Onions without wanting to Vomit….

    I agree witht the others though. When I first moved out my parents bought me an amazing set of Pans as a housewarming present and I couldnt do without them!

  11. Definitely agree about the onions and garlic! If you don’t feel up to chopping them (or don’t have time), you can buy onion and garlic powder (Penzy’s has an amazing toasted onion seasoning), though I personally don’t like it quite as much as fresh. You can also get pre-minced garlic and keep it in the fridge. A little goes a long way, and the stuff lasts forever.

    For fresh, throw some slices of onions and a little minced garlic in a saute pan with some fresh veggies, like asparagus or sugar snap peas or bell peppers, and cook until the onions get a little bit browned and the veggies are warm but still a bit crispy. It’s a great, easy, fancy-looking side dish.

  12. Sometimes instead of chopping onions, I’ll just grate them. If you do this, you still get the onion flavor but the onion pretty much dissolves into the rest of the dish. This is an especially handy trick if you want onions, but you have one holdout in your family who insists she/he hates them. My dad will refuse to eat a dish with discernible pieces of onion in it, but he will happily shovel down the same food if the onion is grated.

  13. Ask friends and for recipes, and specify that they be “easy.” Some of the most valuable lessons I have learned about cooking, and some of the most exciting base recipes that I have learned to riff on over the years, stem from a collection of notecards and printed out emails from people whose cooking I have tasted and enjoyed in the past. Plus, if you don’t understand something or mess something up, you know who to call for help!

  14. Another cookbook recommendation: The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters.

    I especially love it because:
    It focuses on in-season ingredients and whole foods.
    It actually TEACHES you the basics, like how to poach, steam, saute, etc.
    It gives you blueprint-type recipes with ideas for variation so you can explore and experiment.
    It’s not fancy or show-offy at all but the food I have been inspired to make using her advice is often so, so good.

    My one piece of personal advice not mentioned above would be that a quick toss in olive oil and seasoning before cooking makes almost anything amazing. Zuchinni+peppers+olive oil+montreal steak spice on the BBQ? Potatoes+olive oil+garlic+salt+pepper in the oven?
    Mushrooms+olive oil+oregano+salt+pepper in the skillet? All delicious! Options are endless. My examples are veggie-biased because I’m vegan but my boyfriend applies similar principles to chicken breasts and steaks, just less on the olive oil more on the seasoning.

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