Mistakes Were Made
And lessons learned—25 tips from new cooks
Every new cook goes through the same trials and errors. CHOW spoke to a handful who have recently started cooking at home to find out what they’ve learned and how they learned it. You are not alone!
01Cooking with the burner on full blast won’t make food cook faster
“The brown rice kept drying out really quickly and I had to add water to it and it just wasn’t getting soft.”
» Try making Spicy Green Rice.
02Don’t leave stuff on the stove and walk away
“I like to braise—it’s more forgiving. But recently I was making braised oxtails, and it entailed an eight-hour cooking time. I attempted to just cook it overnight on the stovetop, and set my alarm. I had done something like that successfully once before. But I woke up and it was charred. My guess is that all the water evaporated.”
» Find out what Chowhounds are saying about braised short ribs.
03Grilling chicken is actually kind of hard
“The most difficult thing I did was barbecuing chicken drumsticks. I didn’t realize how long they took to cook. They were black on the outside but still raw on the inside.”
» Check out CHOW’s grilling tips and try this recipe for Oregano-Marinated Grilled Chicken with Charred Lemons. Plus, Chowhounds offer grilling tips for newbies.
04Get the Smoke Detector to Shut Off
“I’ve found that if you wave an LP cover in front of it while standing on a chair, it stops right away.”
Don’t fear the unfamiliar
05The Web can answer your dumb questions
“I had all these pears in the fridge that were about to go bad, and I had forgotten to eat them. I was thinking, ‘What can I do with them?’ I plugged into Google ‘recipes with pears,’ and I found a good-looking fennel pear salad. I bought the fennel but then had no idea how to cut it up. Which part do you eat? I had had it in restaurants, but it didn’t look anything like what I had bought. I found a video online that showed how to cut it.”
» Get your cooking/prepping questions answered with CHOW Tips on video.
06Trying new fruits and vegetables is easy and fun
“We get a CSA [community supported agriculture] fruit box at work, and nobody was eating the persimmons, because they didn’t know how. Then I read somewhere that you could eat them just like apples, and we did, and they were delicious. I recently made a persimmon pudding from Alice Waters’s dessert cookbook.”
» See what Chowhounds are saying about cooking with unfamiliar produce.
07The grocery store you usually shop at may not have everything you need
“Trader Joe’s didn’t have molasses and ground ginger when I was making gingerbread cookies.”
» Discover molasses with CHOW’s Gingerbread Cookies.
Use recipes, but don’t stress over them
08Read through the recipe and make sure you have everything before starting
“I tried to make ginger cake and ran out of vegetable oil. I substituted olive oil, which had a strong flavor.”
» Make CHOW’s Fresh Ginger Cake.
09When cooking, you don’t have to follow the recipe exactly
“I’ll often ‘vegetarianize’ stews and soups by just not putting the meat in if it has a lot of hearty vegetables already in it. I won’t try to put in a bean or meat substitute in its place, because it doesn’t seem like it’ll taste or feel like meat.”
» Try customizing CHOW’s basic chunky vegetable soup.
10When baking, do follow the recipe exactly
“I thought the dough seemed way too dry when I was mixing my pie dough, so I added more water to it. It turned out leaden and totally hard.”
11A new recipe will take longer to make than the instructions say it will
“That stupid Rachael Ray, her 30-Minute Meals book seems to be 30 minutes once you get all your ingredients prepped—i.e., 30-minute chicken parmigiana after you get your herbs chopped, your cheeses grated, and your chicken broiled.”
» Make CHOW’s easy Chicken Parmesan.
12Learn stuff from recipes, then ditch the recipes
“I don’t really use recipes that much, or I’ll look at one once and get the general idea or principle. Like, if I look at a recipe for something with curry in it, and you notice you only add a teaspoon of curry and not a tablespoon, then I remember, ‘OK, when you use curry don’t add a ton.’”
» Learn how to make this easy Pumpkin Curry, then riff on it.
Don’t be intimidated, it’s not as hard as it looks
13Fish is easy and quick
“A friend who’s a waiter at a fancy restaurant showed me how to make lightly seared tuna with pepper and sesame on the outside. You dip the fish [in the seasoning] once on each side, pan-fry it in a little oil in a nonstick pan, and it’s still raw inside. It’s so good.”
» Check out some tips on getting the freshest fish possible.
14Roasting a whole chicken seems scary but is simple
“We did a roast chicken a few weeks ago with rosemary underneath the skin and other herbs and stuff, and vegetables around it in the pan. I wasn’t scared about it, because my boyfriend had done it before. I would have been afraid if I’d been doing it on my own. He has a meat thermometer, but we were trying to remember what degree poultry’s supposed to be when it’s done.”
» Make CHOW’s basic whole roasted chicken.
15Try making stuff you had in restaurants
“My husband is obsessed with restaurants: He keeps a scrapbook about them with new places he wants to try, reviews, even matchbook covers. But I’m trying to get him to eat in more. He likes the whole French-bistro thing. So I found a low-tech version of coq au vin online. It wasn’t exactly low-cal, but it turned out really well.”
Learn to have fun when you cook for friends
16Timing dishes to all be ready at the same time is one of the hardest parts
“My Christmas didn’t turn out so well. Everything else was ready and the meat was still cooking, and I had to reheat the sides and one of them burned.”
17Start out with one-pot meals for your first dinner parties
“I was cooking with someone else, and we got overly ambitious with multiple dishes. Guests were waiting in between courses, and I’m saying, ‘I have to wash this skillet before we start the next thing, and you all have to watch me doing it!’ and people are saying, ‘Can I help you?’ It was really off-putting.”
» Make Mayan-Style Pit Pork for your next party.
18Keep an eye on stuff that’s in the broiler no matter how long the recipe says to cook it
“I tried to make bruschetta for a dinner party in the broiler, but I have one of those broilers that’s underneath the oven and it heated up a lot hotter than the recipe said. In five minutes, the whole apartment was enveloped in smoke.”
Know when to cut corners
19Prep in the morning, kick back at night
“Before work, I throw a piece of mahi mahi I got at Trader Joe’s in some store-bought marinade. When I get home from work and the gym, I throw it on the grill pan, make a little salad or some green beans steamed in the microwave, and my dinner’s ready.”
» Chowhounds exchange their favorite make-ahead dishes.
20It doesn’t all have to be from scratch at first
“I used a store-bought crust for my first attempt at quiche. I probably wouldn’t have made it at all if I hadn’t.”
» Make an easy berry cobbler that uses a store-bought crust.
21When the recipe says to grill something, you can usually broil it or cook it in a grill pan instead
“I make this mackerel recipe all the time from a Mario Batali cookbook where you broil the fillet with rosemary and hot pepper flakes on it, then you’re supposed to grill some eggplant, but I broil it.”
» Make this entire Grilled Greek Salad in your kitchen.
Get the right equipment
22Don’t put cold water on a hot pan
“When I first got my cast iron skillet, we didn’t really know what you were supposed to do with it. I heard you cleaned it by ‘just putting salt on it.’ So we had this hot pan and put salt on it and ran it under cold water, and the salt just caked on and turned brittle. We had to leave it for a few days and then go at it with a brush.”
23There’s something to be said for not having a lot of stuff
“I feel like you don’t have to have a lot of sizes of everything. You can make a little bit of food in a big pot, but you can’t make a lot of food in a small pot. So I just have a few large pots and pans.”
» Read CHOW’s story on Stocking the Minimalist Kitchen.
24Heat-resistant spatulas are really, really cool
“I didn’t realize that the cast iron skillet did not like my plastic spatula. I let it rest there, turned around for a second, and the handle melted into the rim.”
25It’s OK to improvise
“I was making a frittata, and it called for a 6-inch skillet. I only had a 10-inch skillet, so I didn’t make it. Later my coworker told me I could have used the 10-inch skillet and it just would have been flatter.”