So you’re really, really into food. You also have no idea how to cook it. I get it, I’ve been there. There are more of us than you might think: Younger Americans grew up in a system awash in convenience foods, while our parents were working longer and harder and had less and less time to cook. Then, when we became adults, time and money were scarcer still, and restaurants became the places we gathered with our friends.
When I taught myself to cook at home, I immediately discovered most recipes aren’t written for anxious beginners. Instead, they assume the cook is already competent and looking to level up or add another dish to their repertoire. The rewards and demands of social media virality have only supercharged recipes’ emphasis on novelty and visual beauty. As someone who now knows how to cook, I love reading about a hack for cooking short ribs or a surprising use for my rice cooker. But back when I barely knew how to boil water, recipes telling me which tweak or technique yielded ideal results made turning on the oven feel high stakes. All that emphasis on aspiration and perfection made it way too hard to get started.
I’ve been cooking at home for a decade now, and to be honest, I’m still pretty basic. I sometimes feel embarrassed that I haven’t moved on from roasting chickens and simmering beans, but right now, basic-ness isn’t a crutch — it’s useful. With that spirit in mind, I’ve put together a series of recipes, and notes on recipes, that get really, really basic. Think of it as a roadmap to kitchen competence, a few pages from the grammar manual of home cooking from the dialect I speak.
The most important thing about learning how to cook is to resist perfectionism and redefine what a home-cooked meal is. That was true before we were sheltering in place and limiting our grocery outings to the bare minimum, and now it’s essential. Chicken thighs roasted with salt and olive oil, alongside some root vegetables cooked in the same pan? Highlight of the week. Rice and an egg and maybe some kimchi from the back of your fridge? Delicious. Cheesy pasta? Hell yes. Beans on tortillas or over some toasted stale bread? Dinner once a week for me.
How to Read (and Pick) a Recipe
Every guide like this starts out with the same advice: Read the recipe all the way to the end before you start cooking anything. That’s because even if it feels like kind of a cop move to read and follow the recipe, actually doing so removes much of the stress you might associate with cooking — which often happens when the pan is searing hot and you realize you need soy sauce right that second. Read the ingredients list too! It tells a story, and all too often hides some of the prep, like chopping onions or grating cheese or even entire sub-recipes (maybe skip anything with sub-recipes). If there’s a term you don’t understand, google it. Almost every mysterious recipe term has been clearly defined online now.
Do your best as a beginner to follow the recipe, but also give yourself permission to deviate if the current situation means you don’t have an ingredient or piece of equipment on hand. Every recipe not written during World War II or in spring 2020 assumes a certain American bourgeois abundance. There’s been a run on garlic? Your tomato sauce will lack some pleasure, but it will still be tomato sauce. Only a few things will utterly wreck a non-baked good: burning it, undercooking it, oversalting it, or, in certain cases, depriving it of moisture. Undersalting will make things taste flat and disappointing, but you can still eat them. Oil plus salt plus fire is as basic as cooking gets, and if you have those things and something you can cook, you have a meal.
The internet is chock full of free recipes and advice, but the cooking internet stuffers from misinformation as much as any other. A good rule of thumb is to use recipes from publications with test kitchens and bloggers who have proven the test of time, though you may have to pay for those recipes. A few publications have also made serious investments in teaching the fundamentals (though all of them mix in somewhat fussier recipes with the true basics): the New York Times’s How to Cook; the Washington Post’s round-up of recipes and techniques; the LA Times’s ongoing recipe series How to Boil Water; Bon Appetit’s Basically vertical; and Serious Eats’ coronavirus cooking guide. (Your local paper could really use those subscriptions right now if it has a cooking section.)
If you’ve got the money, order a cookbook or two or ten. You don’t have Salt Fat Acid Heat? Buy or borrow Salt Fat Acid Heat. No cookbook explains better the whys and hows of cooking, and the fundamentals of technique, while being refreshingly empowering. Thanks to that book, I (mostly) salt my food appropriately, and in friends’ eyes I became a 50 percent better cook.
When to Cook
Assume it will take you 60 to 90 minutes to prepare and clean up after any meal that’s not scrambled eggs. I don’t care if the recipe says 30 minutes. You’re new to this, and some of us are just slower in the kitchen. Play some music, catch up on a podcast, and, if you’re not sheltering solo, make a roommate or loved one help. If you don’t want to spend an hour cooking, choose a recipe that takes a long time but requires little from you, like baked potatoes or a pot of beans, so you can get other things done.
Equally important is knowing when not to cook. More than half my social-distancing meals are not meals I’ve cooked, but repurposing of leftovers I cooked previously. I wouldn’t try to cook three meals a day from scratch right now (or… ever?). Trick yourself into thinking something is a different meal by plopping an egg on it or putting it in a tortilla instead of over rice.
Assemble Your Tools and Stock Your Pantry
Need a definitive guide to stocking your pantry and refrigerator for a week or two of cooking from home? Eater has that for you right here.
Not sure where to buy groceries right now? Restaurants are turning into markets, and lots of farms are offering CSA boxes. Fresh produce and meat and eggs from small producers taste more like themselves and make simple meals tastier, and if you can afford to support small producers right now, it’s a great way to help the entire food system.
And as far as tools go, head over here for some products that make your kitchen an easier place to cook.
What to Cook
You know what you can do with any type of vegetable you wouldn’t eat raw, and some that you would? Toss it with olive oil and salt, drop it on a sheet pan, and roast it. The only important thing is not to crowd what you’re roasting, so every piece gets nice and crispy. I like to roast at 425 degrees. Don’t want to chop? Roast a potato or sweet potato whole.
- The Kitchn: Emma Christensen’s “How to Roast Any Vegetable”
- New York Times: Melissa Clark’s “Roasted Vegetables”
- Lucky Peach: Peter Meehan’s “Roasted Sweet Potatoes”
Vegetables that don’t make sense for the oven, and even a few that do, are also great cooked super hot in a pan or wok. There are all sorts of ways to saute, and stir-frying is one of the best for achieving flavor, both in terms of hitting the food with tons of heat and making the pan sauce part of the dish. This is also a simple way to use up ground meat and leftover rice (fried rice!).
- LA Times: Genevieve Ko’s “The Easiest Way to Stir-Fry Vegetables”
- Serious Eats: J. Kenji López-Alt’s “Wok Skills 101”
- The Woks of Life: How to Make Stir-Fry the Right Way
You will never be disappointed to have a batch of cooked greens in the fridge. “Greens” is a broad category, ranging from chard to kale to dandelion to bok choy; they can be added to every type of meal for a shot of color and pleasant bitterness. There are a few basic ways to cook them:
- For leafy greens, Lukas Volger’s recipe for braised greens from his new book, Start Simple, is great and versatile.
- If your pantry is a bit better stocked, try the Grandbaby Cakes recipes for collard and mustard greens.
- This LA Times story on greens mania from 1986 (!) has a variety of braising options (time to bring back creamed kale?).
- World’s Best Braised Cabbage from Taste is not lying.
- If you don’t have time to cook the greens, try Toni-Tipton Martin’s recipe for wilting them.
If you put an egg over roast vegetables or cooked greens, or drop it into soup, or plop it on top of rice, it becomes dinner. The two easiest ways to make the egg are to fry it up all crispy, or boil it until its yolk is still slightly soft. Cannelle et Vanille has an olive oil fried egg recipe from 2014, which likely helped kick off the trend. It’s a good one. The LA Times has two ways of looking at the ubiquitous jammy egg; Bon Appetit’s recipe calls for an ice water bath, which is super useful for quick peeling.
I rely on a rice maker; they can be pretty cheap and are usually easy to buy at grocery stores — at the moment I’m sure it’s much less predictable. If you can’t get a rice maker or don’t want one, it’s very possible to make rice on the stovetop. Also, rice in its creamy porridge form is another great platform for a meal or turning leftovers into a meal.
- New York Times: Tejal Rao’s “How to Make Rice”
- Tasty: “How to Cook Perfect Rice Every Time” [Video]
- Serious Eats: Shao Z’s “How to Make the Silkiest, Most Comforting Congee”
- Just One Cookbook: Nami Hirasawa Chen’s “Japanese Rice Porridge (Okayu)”
Cooking dried beans is maddeningly simple. The recipe can be as minimal as: Put the beans in a pot, glug a generous glug of fat on top, cover with water, add salt, and simmer for an hour or two. There’s a lot of tinkering and competing wisdom and differing culinary traditions behind this simple recipe, and it’s worth reading up. Warning: Not all these recipes agree with each other. Pick one that works for you. Or keep cycling between them and cross referencing, because that’s what I do. I’m sure having a clay pot is great; I promise you don’t need one. Canned beans are always worth having around, and easy to doctor up.
- Washington Post: Joe Yonan’s “Beans are good for the planet, for you and for your dinner table. Here’s how to cook them right.”
- Rancho Gordo: “Cooking Basic Beans in the Rancho Gordo Manner”
- NY Times: Tejal Rao’s “Cannellini-Bean Pasta with Beurre Blanc”
- Isabel Eats: Isabel Orozco-Moore’s “Easy Refried Beans”
Beautifully burnished birds have become fetish objects on restaurant menus, and wrangling a whole four- or five-pound carcass might feel like more trouble than it’s worth. But don’t let the $70 “for two” chickens of the past fool you; a roast whole chicken is an economical leftovers machine much greater than any sum of chicken parts. There are perfect and less perfect ways to do it, but you don’t need a cast-iron pan or string for trussing or butter under the skin. You just need a chicken, some salt, and a hot, hot oven.
- New York Times: Mark Bittman’s “Simplest Roast Chicken”
- Epicurious: Thomas Keller’s “My Favorite Simple Roast Chicken”
- Taste Cooking: JJ Goode’s “How to Roast a Chicken? The Answers Are Horrifying.”
- Salt Fat Acid Heat: Samin Nosrat’s Buttermilk-Marinated Roast Chicken
Stock and Soup
Homemade stock is another dish that sounds intimidating but is dead simple and tastes so much better than canned. The only major investment is time. The recipes below call for a few more ingredients or using chicken wings (also great), if you can get them, but basic techniques here will work with whatever you have on hand, including only the picked-over husk of that chicken you roasted. Vegetarian stocks are easy to make with the root vegetables in your fridge or dried mushrooms. Pick up dried kombu, a type of seaweed, and bonito flakes at an Asian grocery store, and you can make dashi.
- The Kitchn: Emma Christensen’s “How to Make Homemade Chicken Stock”
- Smitten Kitchen: Deb Perelman’s “Perfect, Uncluttered Chicken Stock”
- China Sichuan: “Basic Chinese Chicken Stock”
- Just One Cookbook: Nami Hirasawa Chen’s “How to Make Dashi”
- The Kitchn: Emma Christensen’s “How to Make Vegetable Stock”
- 101 Cookbooks: Heidi Swanson’s “10 Minute Instant Pot Mushroom Broth”
Now that you have stock, you have yet another way to use up that leftover chicken, beans, greens, rice, and whatever still needs cooking in your fridge. Clean-out-the-fridge soup is definitely a thing.
There are many, many pasta recipes out there. The thing I wish someone had told me about pasta much sooner is how to sauce it. If you ever wondered why dumping some marinara sauce or butter on noodles always felt a little disappointing, it turns out there’s a very simple way to fix it! Toss the noodles hot in the sauce. Check out Serious Eats’ guide to saucing for more details.
I bought a box of brownie mix on a recent grocery store run, and I think you should too. That said, if you think baking from scratch will cheer you up, here are a few ways to get started.
- Taste Cooking: Odette Williams’s “A Cake to Snack On (and On and On)”
- King Arthur Flour: “Chilling Cookie Dough”
- Eater: Dayna Evans’s “Everyone’s Making Sourdough Now — Here’s How to Get Started”
A word on kitchen safety: Much of it is common sense, but it’s good to brush up on. Here are the FDA guidelines, and here’s a good rundown on how to deal with all those sharp objects and open flames. That expert hand washing and disinfecting you’re doing will help you keep your kitchen and food safe, too. There is currently no evidence of foodborne transmission of the novel coronavirus; here’s how to grocery shop safely. If you are afraid of cooking meat, here’s how to conquer those fears.