Credit: Molly Collins
When I cook a new dish, I’m so proud of myself that I feel the need to document the moment by photographing the food. The novelty still hasn’t worn off in the two years I’ve been off the college meal plan. Because like many college students, I just don’t cook that often. Instead, I find myself eating out, eating frozen dinners or eating lazily thrown-together meals. It’s not that I don’t want to cook—I do! But finding the time is difficult, and the real issue is this: I don’t know what to do once I’m in the kitchen.
So let’s start with the basics.
Invest in cookware.
Serious Eats has excellent suggestions for a kitchen starter kit: Santoku and paring knives, wooden utensils, a spatula, tongs, a frying pan, a cast-iron pot, and some stainless steel pots and pans. The cast-iron “Dutch Oven” is probably unnecessary for a baby chef, but the rest will be very useful. I would add some of the more basic tools like measuring cups and spoons, a cutting board, a baking sheet, a large mixing bowl, a colander and a baking dish, especially if you’re a fan of casseroles.
Stock your pantry and fridge.
When I move to a new city, the first trip to the grocery store always drains my wallet because I have to stock up on all the basics. There are plenty of lists out there that can help you get started. Having moved six times in the last two years, I have my personal list down to the bare minimums: olive oil, salt and pepper, garlic, butter, eggs, milk, onions, frozen peas, tomato sauce, pasta and rice.
Beyond the basics, Shelley Young, owner of Chicago cooking school The Chopping Block suggests certain meats, vegetables and starches if you’re cooking for yourself. These ingredients are usually available in small quantities and can be cooked in a hurry:
- Meats: steaks, chops, filets of fish and chicken breasts
- Vegetables: carrots, tomatoes, parsnips, mushrooms, spinach, lettuce, peppers, zucchini and other summer squash
- Starches: couscous, beans, potatoes, corn, lentils and sweet potatoes
Learn the basic techniques.
I’ve asked my parents for advice on how I should cook something, perhaps a chicken breast, and they’ll usually list a few herbs and say, “Just broil it.” But what does “broiling” mean? Here’s a quick cheat sheet for cooking vocabulary:
- Boil: Liquid is hot enough that there are large “rolling” bubbles (and a lot of steam)
- Simmer: Tiny bubbles just begin to break the surface of the liquid
- Broil: Cook food (usually meat) directly under high heat in the oven for a short period of time
- Roast: Bake in an open dish
- Fry: Cook food in a pan at lower temperatures so that the outside (of the chicken breast or steak, etc.) doesn’t overcook before the interior
- Sauté: Similar to frying, but food is cut up and cooked at higher temperatures
- Steam: Place food (usually vegetables) in a steamer basket over boiling water in a covered pan
- Stew: Cover food in liquid and simmer for a long period of time
From here on out, just try recipes. If you don’t know what something means, look it up. Once you’ve made that dish, you’ll have learned a new technique and may have a favorite new dish. There are plenty of cookbooks out there to suit any taste. Here are some resources that might help those of you cooking for one or on a tight budget: