Some of my friends in college probably got all of their daily sodium intake from ramen noodle packets. These were some smart people, but their blood pressure test is one test they shouldn’t be scoring high in.
Learning to cook has a lot of practical benefits. Your health is going to be your greatest asset in life, and endless doctors will tell you the consequences of your diet on your health. Hot pockets, ramen, and kraft mac and cheese will kill you slowly. You’ll also get better value for your food. If you start grocery shopping and cooking on your own, you’ll start to notice how much restaurants are ripping you off. Food tends to be a lot cheaper than you expect. Mostly though, it’s fun. It’s liberating and awesome to know that you created something that tastes good by yourself. You’ll experiment with altering the salt content, or adding a new ingredient or two, and come up with something new.
When I say cooking, I don’t mean following recipes. In many ways, cooking is like painting. If you’re able to replicate someone else’s painting, that doesn’t make you a painter. If you can paint a house with a blank canvas and a palette, that makes you a painter. As a chef, you should learn to be able to work with a few given ingredients to create dishes you like.
That all sounds intimidating, but it’s only scary if you expect every dish to be perfection. When starting out, think of cooking as an experiment. Realize that you’ll make mistakes, and the food won’t turn out perfect.
Don’t follow recipes too strictly. Consider recipes as guidelines. Some will tell you to fry something for exactly 15 minutes, or add exactly 3 cups of an ingredient. As you learn, you’ll eventually develop an eye for this stuff. Break some rules, leave out ingredients, and add ingredients. If your dish doesn’t turn out as well as you’d like, try to find out why. Instead of trying to learn recipes, learn methodologies such as frying, boiling, sauteing, braising, etc.
Taste your food too. If I could only give you one piece of advice for cooking, this would be it. As you cook, the flavor profile of your food will change. Taste it to make sure you like it, and if not, adjust accordingly. Don’t taste raw meat tho. Use your judgement.
You really don’t need that much to cook. Most of the time, you’ll feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information out there on the internet. It’s ok to cook with only 3 ingredients, on a frying pan. A lot of recipes out there are pretty complicated, like trying to teach Shakespeare to someone with a third-grade reading level. It’s ok to not understand a lot of the recipes, and keep things simple.
I separated cooking levels to illustrate budget and skill constraints. These levels described various stages in my life.
You eat nothing but hot pockets and ramen. When you get home from school, you microwave a TV Dinner and consider that a full meal. You are well versed in pressing microwave buttons. You are also a culinary disgrace to your grandmother.
You start to realize you need to learn how to cook, and you’ve always been interested in it anyways. Unfortunately, you’re also on a budget, so you can’t be too extravagant. Level 1 is subsistence cooking. Cooking to both save money, and learn some basic skills.
The following ingredients are notoriously cheap in the U.S., and will run you a long way. Moreover, with the exception of chicken breasts, these items take a while to expire.
Vegetables: potatoes, onions, carrots, celery, beans
proteins: eggs, chicken breasts,
fats: canola oil
grains: pasta, rice
Other: salt, pepper, flavorings you like
Knife, stove, pot, frying pan
Boiling, stir-fry, basic knife skills, working a stove.
For Level 1, saving money and making passable dishes is the goal. Search for recipes that revolve around these ingredients, and don’t be afraid to leave out ingredients if you don’t have them. You’re not trying to become the next Gordon Ramsay, you’re just trying to get comfortable holding a knife and a pan.
Level 2 focuses less on cost, and more about consistency of good cooking. You want a steady rotation of ingredients in your pantry and fridge to keep around. Once you have a basic understanding of methods, you can mix and match ingredients with methods (replace chicken breasts with pork chops in a recipe originally for breasts, for example).
I’d usually keep a few ingredients from each category from this ingredients list, to ensure a constant variety of things I could make. Keeping all of these ingredients at once wasn’t practical for me.
Proteins: chicken breasts/thighs, salmon, eggs, ground beef, ground pork, pork chops
Vegetables: onions, potatoes, tomatoes, spinach, carrots, garlic, beans
Dairy: cream, milk, cheese, butter
Grains: pasta, rice
Other: chicken broth, olive oil, canola oil, sugar, flour, white wine, salt, pepper, lemons
As you start to develop better cooking skills, you might find it worthwhile to expand your flavor palate. These are the basic spice/flavoring bases for a few countries (courtesy of 4-hour Chef)
Italy: oregano, basil, olive oil
Southern Italy: olive oil, garlic, parsley, anchovy
Northeast Africa: powdered garlic, ground cumin, mint
Middle East: dried parsley, lemon juice
Mexico: lime juice, chili
Northern India: cumin, garlic, ginger
Greece: olive oil, lemon juice, oregano
Hungary: onion, lard, paprika
Nepal: ginger, chili, lime juice
Thailand: fish sauce, curry, chili
Vietnam: fish sauce, lemon
Laos: fish sauce, coconut oil
China: tamari, scallions, ginger
You want to learn how to eyeball things better. Instead of following recipes, develop an intuition on when something “feels” right, either by smell, taste, or looking at food. Try to break away from measuring stuff out, and start eyeballing your recipe quantities instead.
On Level 3, most of your ingredients will be either better quality, or more variety (going from plain salt to kosher salt + maldon salt + plain salt). You may also find yourself spending money on better equipment.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat
Overall, have fun while cooking, and don’t be afraid to try new things and see what works for you. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, and experiment as much as you can.