Early last year, a friend of mine was offered the opportunity to work in the newsroom of a radio station interstate for two weeks. However, there was one problem – having never lived on his own, he had never needed to know how to cook and he was about to fend for himself. This problem left him with three options: to starve, to live on take away food or to learn how to cook.
I wasn’t prepared to let my friend live in ignorance, so I took it upon myself to write him an absolute beginners cook book and to give him a crash course in navigating through a supermarket, one week before his departure date. A couple of weeks later, he came out of the experience with a great addition to his resume and, more importantly, the ability to cook.
So, if you’ve never cooked before, pay attention, because here are five tips to get you by.
1. Don’t be afraid to experiment or to trust your gut
I once had a food technology (home economics) teacher tell me, ‘unless you are a nonna that has been cooking for fifty years, you absolutely must follow a recipe exactly – no exceptions’; that was one of the first times I disobeyed my teacher’s instructions.
Cooking is like art – there is no right way.
What you create might taste disgusting to you, but there is probably somebody, somewhere who will happily eat it. My sardines and pineapple is your peanut butter and mashed banana. If you make a mistake, you learn from it and know not to do that again.
You know what food should taste like, you also know what food should smell like – trust your senses and your instincts will often guide you well. Cooking is about the experience as much as it is about the finished product; don’t over think it.
2. Don’t underestimate the power of a microwave
You can roast a potato in the microwave, you can steam vegetables in the microwave, and you can cook rice in the microwave. The microwave is the thing you use when you’re too scared to use anything else because apart from making a mess, it’s difficult to go wrong with cooking in the microwave.
To cook rice, for one person you will need half a cup of dry rice and one cup of water (1:2 ratio for dry white rice to water, 1:3 ratio for dry brown rice to water). Place these two ingredients in a microwavable bowl and heat on high for seven minutes in microwave. If there is still water visible, cook for another two minutes. Once water has completely absorbed your rice is ready. To add flavour, try adding some dry stock to the water before cooking (refer to package instructions for quantities), or a pinch of salt. You can also dice or shred some vegetables and add it to the rice with water before putting the bowl in the microwave.
To steam vegetables put vegetables in a microwaveable bowl with the amount of water you would use to rinse them with. Place the bowl mostly covered, with only a small air vent, in the microwave, and heat for approximately 5 minutes.
To bake a potato, prick potato a few times with a fork and heat in microwave for approximately 5 minutes, depending on size. If you can cut through it easily, it is cooked – if it is still hard, keep it cooking for longer, checking at 1 minute intervals. You can eat this on its own or you can try adding condiments to it such as sour cream, shredded cheese, corn kernels or even bacon bits.
3. The backs of packets have instructions but when all else fails, good things come in jars and cans
Foods such as pasta often have cooking instructions on the back of the packet they come in – its a good idea to read them. For example, to cook spaghetti for 1 person, add the diameter of a ten cent piece worth of dry spaghetti into a pot of boiling water for 15 minutes for spaghetti that is not too hard but not overly soft. Make sure the water boils before you add the pasta – don’t add pasta to cold water and heat from cold. If you notice that the pot is bubbling too much, lower the heat. To increase the boiling point of the water, thereby making it hotter and reducing to cooking time of your food, add salt.
You can’t go too wrong with a jar of pasta sauce – just heat it up and serve over pasta. If you want to add meat, grab some mince and cook it in a pan over a stove until you see a complete colour change; there should be no red or pink or red in sight. After the meat is cooked, add the sauce and cook until it is hot.
Tinned beans and vegetables are also great resource because they are quick to prepare, requiring little effort beyond opening a can. They’re also cheap, which is always a plus!
4. The internet is your friend
If you want to cook something and don’t know how, look it up online. There are thousands of video tutorials, recipes and detailed guides to cooking for the complete novice to the seasoned professional. If it is a favourite recipe from home you’re after, pick up the phone and get advice from the family. They might even workshop your meal with you.
5. Have fun
Cooking doesn’t have to be scary. By giving it a go you will most likely impress yourself. But, while you’re at home, it doesn’t hurt to pay attention to what the person cooking your meal is actually doing – they’ve kept you alive this long, surely they’re doing something right!
Chani Unger is a third-year Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University and is one of upstart’s staff writers. You can follow her on Twitter: @chaniunger