Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Basics of Cooking and Kitchens

A basic understanding of cooking and how to handle a kitchen can go a long way in keeping you healthy, saving you money, and impressing your company.  Unfortunately, many people are afraid of the kitchen simply because they're unfamiliar with it.  A person who is inexperienced in the kitchen will often think that there is some special trick to cooking.  There isn't really.  You don't have to be a professional chef to make really good food at home and enjoy it.  This article is written to take some of the mystery out of the kitchen and cooking.  Consider this Cooking and Kitchens 101.

Time

Cooking can be time consuming if you don't know how to plan.  Personally, I advocate cooking in bulk on the weekend or a day off, freezing ready made meals in microwave/freezer safe containers and pulling them out one at a time all week.  You can label them or surprise yourself.  If you're really good with time management, you can leave certain things to cook themselves while you get your weekly housework done.  If in half a day, you have a clean house and all your meals ready, you are awesome!  While everyone else you know is wasting money eating out and trying to fit in housework, you are enjoying your time off with a nice home cooked meal.  Bonus, you can come home from a long day at work and eat a hot meal without having to cook.

It's important to remember that if you're new to cooking, everything will probably take you a lot longer than it otherwise would.  Stick it out.  Soon, you will become more confident and find more efficient ways to do things and learn to multitask.

Cookware

Non-stick pans are great as long as you take care of them.  Do NOT use anything metal on them, ever.  That includes forks, knives, spoons, metal spatulas, tongs, steel wool, etc.  There is no point to have non-stick pans if you wish to destroy them.  As soon as the Teflon gets scratched and starts to come off, you're eating it every time you cook.  Don't.  Plastic or wooden spatulas work great for everything.

If you like to cook, stainless steel cookware is nice and lasts a long time if you take care of it.  I have some.  They're a good deal more expensive, so remember that it's not worth it if you're not that into cooking.  Whatever you decide to buy, make sure at least a few things have lids.  You should be fine with a medium sized pot or two and two pans, hopefully medium sized or one large.  Little pots and pans are often useless unless you want to cook one small thing frequently.  You can scramble a couple of eggs on the medium pan and it's fine.

Regardless of what kind of cookware you have, do NOT ever run cold water over a hot pan.  The quick temperature change can warp the shape of your pan.  Also, most pans are constructed in layers, especially non-stick pans.  A quick temperature change can start to separate the layers (like remove the Teflon).  Metal utensils and cold water on hot pans are the two major cookware crimes that you must never commit (unless you like to waste money and eat Teflon.

Speaking of hot pans, do not place them on your counter top.  Use something made for putting hot things on.  If you don't have anything like that, just put it back on the stove over a cold burner.

Spices

Everyone has a different taste in spices.  Stocking a spice rack is something you shouldn't put too much money into.  Don't buy something unless you need it.  If you do buy it, buy something you will be able to use more than once.  The little individual packets are a rip off.  I'm happy if my spice rack has sea salt, cinnamon, cumin, 21 seasoning, basil, vanilla extract and lemon pepper.  Sometimes I will use a powdered garlic or onion, but I prefer the fresh onion and the pre-minced garlic that comes in a jar and goes in the fridge.  Some people can't live without curry.  Pick out whatever it is that you really like and keep just the basics.

Cutting Boards

They sell these great hard plastic cutting boards that are dishwasher safe.  I suggest getting one for cutting vegetables and one for cutting things like meat and fish or sea food.  Do not cut meat on a wooden cutting board because the meat juice soaks into the wood grain, meaning it's never really clean.  I know some people are really into glass cutting board, but they dull your knives.  Plates do, too.

Knives

Knives are expensive, so whatever you buy, take care of them.  Do not cut on top of hard surfaces like metal, ceramic, or glass.  I have a nice set of Henkels that I got for a good price from Costco.  They come with steak knives, which I use.  I bought a minimal set because I mostly use the tomato knife, the bread knife, and the large meat knife.  I honestly am perfectly fine with using a sharp steak knife for all kinds of food jobs.  If you live alone or don't cook very often, all you really need is one medium to large knife for preparing meats, and some good steak knives.  You will use these anyway, but they are great for vegetables and peeling fruits or potatoes if you have nothing else, because they're very sharp and fit in your hand.  Also, they are serrated, so they work well on bread.  The most important thing is that your knives are sharp and straight, and that the handles don't jiggle.  Keep them that way by not using them to pry anything or to cut anything they shouldn't be cutting.

Cleanliness

It's your food.  Keep your kitchen clean.  The easiest way to do this is to try not to make a mess and to clean things up as they get dirty.  For example, try to cover things in the microwave so that they don't explode all over the place.  Try not to let things boil over your pot on the stove.  Try not to splash a lot when you stir things.  There is really no point.  Most of the time, you just need to mix the food and keep the bottom from burning.  Because of the high heat, both of these things tend to require scrubbing, which is better avoided.  Along those lines, avoid frying things and letting the oil splatter all over.  Be extra careful not to spill things that need extra sanitation, like milk, chicken juice, fish juice, egg, steak blood, etc.

Once you leave something to cook itself for awhile, use that time to start putting away things you are no longer using and start cleaning up things that were spilled.  If you are getting a lot of dishes dirty, now is the time to get a few out of the way (or start loading the dishwasher) before they start to pile up and look like a task you don't want to tackle.

Wear gloves.  This is a good idea when dealing with special contaminants (like chicken, fish, steak or sea food) and things that just stink a lot (like onions and garlic).  I hate getting these things on my hands because I feel like they're difficult to get off.

Preparing Meals

As mentioned before, I truly advocate cooking on day per week.  Once you're making a mess in the kitchen, you might as well get it all done.  Come up with two or three things you want to eat for the week.  Make sure you're having some kind of vegetables in with your meat.  It's a good idea to make use of those black beans and rice and have one vegetarian option for those lighter days.

For example, let's say you want to have a Stuffed Chicken Alfredo Over Pasta (coming soon) for one option and black beans with rice, vegetables, and corn tortillas for the other option.  Start your black beans first and let them cook while you prepare your chicken.  Put it in the oven and let it cook itself while you clean up the chicken stuff.  Start the rice and then start the vegetables.  While those are cooking, start the pasta.  This way, things will finish cooking around the same time, so you can put them all into meals and freeze them.

Once you put the meals into the containers, let them sit out with the lid skewed (to let out the heat) before you put them in the freezer.  Once they're not hot, freeze them immediately.  Stick one or two in the fridge for today and tomorrow.  When you reheat your meals, you can eat them as is or with a fresh salad.

Freezing ready made meals gives you excellent portion and budget control.

Actual Cooking

Steak
The secret to a good steak is to sear both sides on a hot pan right away.  Once you do that, you have the freedom to cook it a little longer without worrying about it getting too dry.  Put whatever you want on it (salt and garlic are a good start), but that one special trick is what makes it stay juicy inside.

Chicken
You can cook chicken in so many ways.  If you're cooking it on a pan, the steak method works great.  Make sure you cut a slice in the thickest part to check for pinkness if you're not sure.  Raw chicken is not good for you.

Oven chicken is excellent.  Make sure you use some kind of oil or marinade to keep it from drying out.  Cook it with a high temperature so that it happens faster and has less time to dry out.  Make sure it's not so high that the outside burns too fast.  It helps to cover it with aluminum foil at first to help keep the heat in and keep the top from burning.  I suggest a glass Pyrex for easier cleaning.

Fish
You cook fish more or less the way you cook chicken.  If the fish comes with the skin still attached, don't worry about it.  Cook it like that in the oven with the skin side down.  Once it's cooked, the skin will separate easily with any spatula.  Fish is ready when you can stick a fork in it, twist it, and have it separate easily (or "flake") along the grain.

Rice
You can do anything with rice.  There are different kinds of rice and they're all good.  Most of them cook in more or less the same way.  You can get creative with it and try different spices and vegetables.  Mix in a little wild rice (the black stuff) for a change in texture and flavor.  You can add chopped onions and you don't have to saute them first if you don't want to, they will boil.  Lentil also cooks well in rice.  Arborio rice is an exception.  It is a little more expensive and it's used for making risotto, which is excellent.

Pasta
There are so many kinds of pasta to experiment with.  Some are standard, some are whole grain, some are rice...  I strongly suggest adding a couple of drops of oil to the water so the pasta doesn't stick together.  If you add oil after it's cooked, you will have to add too much.  I like my pasta slightly undercooked, which is called "al dente".  This gives it a texture you can actually chew.  Sometimes I like fully cooked pasta, depending on what I'm eating it with.

Vegetables
Cooking these varies depending on what exactly it is.  If I want to make a stir fry with zucchini and broccoli, I will have to start the broccoli first because it takes longer to cook.  If not, my zucchini will be soggy by the time the broccoli is ready.  I like to cook my vegetables covered most of the time because the steam helps keep them from drying out, keep them from burning, and cook them faster.  I also like to cook them minimally because I like them a little crunchy.  It's all up to you.

Recipes

If you're new to cooking, I suggest going online and looking for some nice, free, simple recipes with minimal ingredients.  Don't try to tackle anything too complicated with too many steps.  Too many ingredients can be costly, especially if you're not sure how it's going to turn out.  It's important to remember that recipes are estimations.  I don't measure when I cook for the most part.  I've estimated for my recipes.  Also, cooking times and temperatures vary from stove to stove, oven to oven, altitude to altitude, and desired outcome.  You will learn to feel these things out as you go.  For now, following a recipe is a good way to get some cooking experience.  It's also a good way to find patterns in how certain things are generally cooked.

Don't feel bound by what is written in a recipe.  You are perfectly free to add a little more of this or less of that.  If you like more garlic, add more garlic.  If you don't like pepper, don't add any.  Usually, it doesn't really effect the outcome all that much other than flavor, which is personal taste.  The food will still cook just fine.

The exception is baking, which is usually more of an exact process.  Even then, I usually cut the butter and sugar in half and substitute for something else if I have to.  Most classic baking recipes were invented in cultures that like greasy and sugary food a lot more than I do.  It usually makes me feel weighted and thirsty.  A decent understanding of how recipes and substitutions work gives me the freedom to control what I do and do not put in my body.


So get started!  Choose a day when you have plenty of time.  Find a simple recipe with good instructions.  Read it a couple of times before you start and make sure you understand the process.  Buy your ingredients.  Invite a friend over who is also new to cooking and have fun with it.  It's a nice change of pace from the typical friend activities and it makes prep time and cleanup twice as fast.  As a reward, you both get a home cooked experiment and a new way of bonding.  Many people start cooking this way and find out they really enjoy it.  Maybe you're a chef at heart and don't know it yet.  Happy cooking!

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