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Dear Food52: How Do I Even Cook Anything?

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Dear Food52,

How do you cook anything? Like, I get how heat and knives work, but the steps in front of me for making anything more complicated than a grilled cheese seem completely overwhelming. There's figuring out what you want to eat, for starters (I eat black beans with hot sauce most nights because this question stresses me out). There's getting the right ingredients. Learning to improvise when those things go wrong. Cutting things. Timing things. Cleaning up things, for the love of god. So much cleaning. I'm horrible at literally all of these things. Even when I cook a grilled cheese, I just let it go until it is black on both sides and don't clean the pan.

I'm not proud of being bad at these things! I would really like to entertain and host guests for lovely dinner party-type things, but I feel even having a single person, let alone two or three, over for food that I make myself is a world away. Again, I ask: How do you cook anything?

Arrested Development

Is this grilled cheese beyond you?
Is this grilled cheese beyond you? Photo by James Ransom

Dear Arrested,

As someone who is "good at cooking" (I have been regularly preparing my own meals for the past five years or so and was once an editor at the Internet’s Number One Cooking Site), I still struggle with this question of how to cook anything at all.

There is no one perfect or obvious answer here, and to regularly dedicate yourself to the act of preparing your own food, even if it is a grilled cheese or a salad, is to resign yourself to a good bit of frustration, and disappointment, and mess, and anxiety.

Baked pasta is your friend.
Baked pasta is your friend. Photo by Linda Xiao

Despite what a lot of food media tries to tell you, cooking food requires work, and practice, and inhabits a very large and potentially anxiety-ridden intersection between practical thinking and introspection: What do I want to eat? What will make me feel satisfied, both physically and mentally and perhaps emotionally or even morally/spiritually? And then: What can I cook that will most effectively meet my needs and wants? What do I have in my fridge or my pantry? If I don’t have what I need or want, am I stubborn enough to put on pants and shoes and get myself to a store to buy more ingredients? Do I know how to cook this thing that I so desire? Do I have the tools and the time? Do I have the energy?

And then you cook it, which takes anywhere between a few minutes and a few hours. If you are alone, the act of eating this food may take just a fraction of the time that it took you to prepare, and you might not have anybody to talk to about it, or about anything, between bites. Maybe there’s just a phone or some street noise to keep you company. You might spend 30 minutes preparing the meal, 5 minutes eating it, and 15 minutes cleaning up. Was it all worth it? We have all stared at a dirty kitchen and an empty plate and felt the existential crisis of: Why even try?

Photo by Mark Weinberg

And yet we do try, the stubborn hungry things that we are. We want to feed ourselves, for many well-documented reasons. Because we want to feel self-sufficient; because, despite what Seamless wants us to think, making things with your hands is inherently satisfying; because it is a way to entertain and nourish other humans that you have warm feelings for or want to impress. Because it may not relax you completely, but it is likely to calm the tizzy that you’re in after a day of whatever. Because it is a financially sound choice. Because we love eating. Because we remember being fed, and feel nostalgic about our grandmothers and their wooden spoons.

As I see it, there are two ways to learn to cook: Fumble around in the dark for a few years until you realize you’ve learned how to turn the light on, or tackle one dish at a time.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

I chose the former about five years ago. I spent all my time reading food blogs but rarely cooked recipes from them; I prepared my dinner every night of the week but often found the process inefficient and emotionally unrewarding. All of these bloggers were writing at length about the joy that cooking gave them; for me, cooking felt less like a passion and more like a habit I couldn’t kick. I usually enjoyed thinking about it more than I actually enjoyed doing it.

But I kept going, and learned by default. If you keep cooking for yourself and stay curious, you are bound to learn. You’re bound to fail, too, but then that’s just an ugly sort of learning.

Photo by James Ransom

The more efficient option is to tackle one lesson at a time. Try frying an egg. If you fail, try again until you’re happy. Keep doing it until you’re optimistic about your future egg-frying endeavors. Then move onto the next thing. Pasta, maybe. Learn to aggressively salt your pasta water, learn to make tomato sauce. Learn to roast vegetables and turn them into dinner. Learn to make a good vinaigrette. Learn to roast a chicken.

Decide what you want your building blocks to be—keep them simple, like beans and grains and the vegetables you like eating when other people make them—and then tackle those. Maybe try cooking a more complicated recipe once a week; try recipes from a number of different writers, and you’ll have a number of different teachers walking you through their own building blocks. Find sources you trust, not just sources that do best on Google.

Photo by James Ransom

With each stint in the kitchen you’ll familiarize yourself with the different bits that add up to a mass of knowledge. You’ll learn to clean as you go—this is a helpful tip. You’ll learn that frying a grilled cheese over very high heat burns your bread before your cheese has any shot at melting. Maybe next time you’ll turn things down, or finish your sandwiches in the oven. You’ll learn that in-season produce (e.g. the stuff you can find at the farmers market, stuff that doesn’t come from a different hemisphere) tastes better. You’ll learn that sometimes dinner is just good, and doesn’t have to be any sort of revelation. That was a big one for me.

Photo by James Ransom

You’ll learn what you like, which is most important. Perhaps the best cooking advice I’ve ever read comes from Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal: Food is done when it tastes good. Buy this book, by the way—it’s the most straightforward, thoughtful, beautiful treatise on how to cook at home, and simply, that I’ve found. She has recipes for you, too.

The good news is, most of us don’t know what we’re doing, but somehow, we wake up tomorrow and cook again, and at some point, it begins to make sense.

Yours in grilled cheese,

What advice would you give the person who wants to cook but can't? Share it in the comments.

Tags: Long Reads, Advice