When I was thirteen, I picked up a guitar for the same reason most teenage boys do: to get girls. (Cooking gets girls, too. Just wait and see.) I started by learning the riffs to popular songs, apparently in the belief that playing the first four bars of “Come As You Are” by Nirvana at a house party would earn me legions of adoring groupies. (I was shocked to discover that this was not, in fact, the case.)
But as I kept playing I began to learn chords and scales, and the rudiments of musical theory; within a few years, I could figure out a song simply by listening to it, and improvise along, and even write my own music.
Keep On Cooking
Cooking is like that too. You start by slavishly recreating recipes, but you don’t really know why you’re adding this ingredient or using this level of heat. You’re just following instructions. But after awhile, you start to be able to think on your feet, to extend your recipes, and finally to discard them altogether. You’ll be able to walk into any kitchen and make a meal out of whatever happens to be in the fridge and the pantry.
You may not ever become Anthony Bourdain or Alton Brown, and there’s nothing wrong with that; after nearly 25 years playing guitar, I’ve accepted the fact that I’m never gonna get asked to join the Foo Fighters. But I can sit in with a bar band any night of the week…and, likewise, I can get around in a kitchen well enough to make a great meal for myself, a date, or a group of friends. You can too. And over the years, I discovered that ladies are usually far more interested in a man who can cook for them than a man who can play guitar. At the very least, you’ll never get stuck sadly munching on a frozen Hungry Man meal ever again.
Tools Of The Cooking Trade
Cooking is like carpentry or auto mechanics: you don’t want to be working against your own crappy gear. You need the right tools for the job, starting with your stove.
Gas vs. electric.
Gas burners are far more even and give you far more control over your heat than an electric range. Not everybody’s got a gas stove or even a gas line in your place to hook one up, but if you’ve got the choice, definitely go with gas.
The most important thing you need is a single, well-balanced, non-serrated, razor-sharp chef’s knife. Don’t even bother with a whole knife set — if you learn how to use your chef’s knife, the rest of your knives will never leave the block. You can go all out and get yourself a Henckels that costs as much as a big-screen TV, but, honestly, a good $40 or $50 knife from Target will work just as well. As long as you keep it sharp, a good knife is your best friend in the kitchen.
Aside from the knife, invest in a good set of bamboo spoons and spatulas. Bamboo is less porous than wood, so it harbors less bacteria, and it’s also stronger and more renewable. Plus bamboo spoons look cooler. You don’t want metal or hard plastic utensils, because they will scrape the lining off of your non-stick pans, rendering them useless.
You also want the usual contingent of serving ladles, slotted spoons, measuring cups, whisks, etc. Luckily, a lot of home supply stores sell these pretty cheaply in one big-ass kit, and unless you’re doing extreme cooking, they’ll last forever.
As a beginner, you’re going to need, at minimum: two large pots for boiling water or making soup, one large skillet, one medium saucepan, a casserole dish, a broiling pan and a cookie sheet. As you start getting more complex with your cooking or getting into baking, you’ll find yourself jonesing for a really good set of ramekins or a soufflé pan…but we’re not there yet, tiger.
You’re going to want your stovetop pans to be non-stick and made of relatively thick stainless steel. Don’t skimp here — a thin aluminum pan won’t heat evenly and will get too hot too quickly, burning your food and in some cases actually melting through. Steel is your friend.
There are different schools of thought on cast iron pans. I love them, but they require a level of regular upkeep and maintenance that can be tricky for the beginner. I’d recommend you wait a while before buying a cast iron pan. And stay away from copper. Copper in the hands of a beginning chef is like giving a ten year old a samurai sword.
In my next installment, we’ll learn about the stuff you’re going to put in the pans: the food itself!
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