July 9, 2022

The things I’ve learned as a home cook

I’ve been cooking at home for many years now and I think I’ve gotten pretty good at it. Turns out it doesn’t take much effort to become a better cook than most people. Here are some of the things I’ve learned that I think would be useful for someone who’s just starting out.

You don’t need much cookware

You know those big boxes of pots and pans they sell at big box stores? Those are scams. I got by for a long time with just a nonstick pot and an enameled dutch oven. (Plus a baking sheet and some other things you won’t find in a cookware set.) After a few months of that, I bought a large nonstick frying pan, and I eventually replaced the pot with a stainless steel one. I’ve thought of getting a stainless steel saucepan, but it’s not a high priority right now. I also bought a cast iron pan, but it’s just not that useful.

Frankly, you only need to be able to do a few things. You need to be able to boil water. And you need to be able to fry stuff on a surface that isn’t nonstick. More on that in a moment. And if you really want, you can get one nonstick pan, which is especially useful for eggs and other such things.

Don’t just buy nonstick stuff

You actually want things to stick sometimes. That’s how you get fond, which is essential for making pan sauces. And pan sauces are very important for home cooking. Here’s an easy dinner you can make any time:

  1. Fry a $meat.
  2. Make a pan sauce.
  3. Serve with $vegetable.

Add a $starch on the side if you want. This is so simple you don’t even need a recipe, as long as you know how pan sauces work. Just deglaze, REMOVE FROM HEAT, and stir in COLD butter until you’re happy.

Buy a kitchen scale

Get one that can measure things in grams, pounds, and ounces. It’s really useful and it’s often easier than measuring things with cups. But use cups for small quantities.

Use salt. Use fat.

There are some people who avoid using salt or saturated fat for health reasons. This is a huge scam. Salt makes things taste good. No salt makes things taste bad. If you’re not using salt then you might as well just starve because you aren’t really living. Same thing for fat, and especially saturated fat. Butter is good. Lard is also OK but not as good as butter. I never tried tallow or schmaltz but you get the idea.

With that said, olive oil can also be pretty tasty. It’s possible to get very good olive oil if you’re willing to pay for it. Not all expensive olive oils are good, but some are worth their price.

How can you put this knowledge to good use? Cooking asparagus. Here’s the recipe:

  1. Add a small amount of olive oil and butter to a frying pan (nonstick preferred).
  2. Chop off the woody part from the bottom of the asparagus. Cut in half if you want. Add to pan.
  3. Cook maybe 8 minutes or whatever. Add oil if it seems dry. Check for doneness by poking with a fork.
  4. Salt to taste. Add some pepper if you want, or garlic powder, or lemon, or …

X is a meme

Cast iron is a meme unless it’s enameled. Enameled cast iron like Le Creuset is very handy and maybe worth the money. But not if you’re just starting out, of course. And don’t even bother with regular cast iron. The only thing it excels at is retaining heat, which is not that important. I use mine for baking sometimes.

Pressure cookers are a meme. They actually don’t save you time because:

Plus they’re noisy and they’re generally a pain in the ass to use. I don’t know about crockpots though, since I don’t own one.

Meal prep is a meme. Find recipes that are easy and can give you a couple days of leftovers. Don’t try cooking a whole week of food at once. The results will be mediocre at best and you can do so much better with very little extra effort.

You don’t need a KitchenAid. If you want something to do your kneading for you, try a bread machine. You can probably get a cheap one from your local thrift store. And I mean like $15 cheap. Cheaper than a crockpot. They take up a lot of space though, so watch out. And don’t try to bake with them. You’ll get much better results using an oven or just buying from a bakery.

Don’t bother buying a whetstone or other knife sharpening meme. You don’t need to sharpen your knives often enough for it to be useful. Just take them to a professional once in a while.

MSG is good, but it’s probably not worth it to buy some for yourself. It’s part of some “seasoned salt” mixes, which I never buy. But I haven’t found any way to get a reasonable quantity of pure MSG. Also there are a few common ingredients that can serve the same purpose. Worchestershire sauce, fish sauce, and miso can work.

X is good actually

You’ll have a hard time making a better cake than what you can get from a box. Same goes for brownies. On the other hand, homemade pies are way better than storebought.

Fast food is overhated. A lot of fast food is stuff that’s annoying to make at home. Deep-fried foods for instance. Deep-frying at home is a hassle and I only do it once a year at most.

Salted butter tastes better than unsalted and it makes almost no difference when cooking.

Canned beans and microwave rice are way better than the dried version. You are not so poor you can’t afford these conveniences. If you absolutely love rice and eat it all the time then I guess buying a rice cooker might be worth it. But you’re fucking kidding yourself with your bag of dried pintos.

Those little spice mix packets are handy sometimes. This is because they usually contain corn starch in addition to the spices, which means it’s dead simple to make a thick sauce. Sure, you could add the starch yourself if you wanted to, but that’s annoying.

If you really like tea then switch to loose tea. After only brewing loose tea for a while, I noticed all bagged teas just taste like the bag.

Brand recommendations

Walmart brioche makes excellent toast. It’s the only baked good that’s worth buying at Walmart, and it’s the only frankenbread I ever buy anymore.

Golden Curry is good, but the “hot” kind is not hot at all. Even the “extra hot” is just a little up there.

Cholua is a pretty good hot sauce you can find almost everywhere. And it’s better than Tapatío. The habanero version has a flavor that is both unique and versatile, and it’s not very hot.

Häagen-Dazs is probably the only ice cream that’s worth buying at your local supermarket. It’s custard-based, which most supermarket ice creams aren’t, and it’s just high quality in general. If you think it’s too expensive then you eat too much ice cream. Their sorbets are pretty good, too.

Costco is useful mostly for things that aren’t food, unless you’re trying to feed a family. Gas is cheap. Paper towels, toilet paper, and plastic wrap are cheap. Their baked goods are sometimes OK to buy and then freeze, but you can do better. Their chicken thighs are good to buy and then freeze. If you love baking and do it all the time then their flour and sugar are good.

Recipe sources

On YouTube: French Cooking Academy, Chef John, and Adam Ragusea. If it’s not on YouTube then I just Google it and grab the first result that looks good.