It’s been an idea in my head for years. Maybe it was because of the people I happened to know, like college kids who couldn’t care enough to buy food that wasn’t premade and frozen. Or maybe my own experiences, being on my own for the first time and realizing I could either learn to feed myself, or surrender to the unhealthy, lazy ways of nonperishable and premade food. But I always felt like there needed to be a very basic guideline for people to cook.
I’m sure this exists. Cooking basics and such. But I’m confident that given ten seconds to think, everyone can name at least one if not many more people they know personally who refuse to learn to feed themselves. And I get it.
When something becomes hard to think about, we stop trying to think about it. And cooking is a vast, expansive, overwhelming subject. Where do you even start? How do you just cook, without giving into over complicated recipes? How is it that our grandparents seem to be able to reach into a cupboard and pull out a three course meal, when we spend an hour trying to cook anything by referring to the recipe constantly? I think I’ve managed to break it into bite sized pieces. So if you hate cooking, if you have no knowledge of food, if you hate to even imagine yourself in front of a stove, I think I can help.
This is a very basic guide. Seasoned chefs will probably disagree with some of it. But this isn’t for chefs. It’s for everyone who has never even scratched the surface of cooking before. Who is overwhelmed, frustrated, and lazy about recipes. This is how to cook.
What to Eat
Balance. Balance. Balance. It isn’t about measuring your carbs to protein to veggies. Unless you’re a body builder or trying to somehow fluctuate your weight, the basic is to make it even. I think of a plate in three groups. Meat (or whatever protein), produce, carbohydrate (the filler).
Meat: Chicken, pork, beef, seafood. Pick one. This is the most expensive thing to buy so buy in bulk and freeze what’s left. You will eventually eat it, so don’t feel bad about buying more than you need at this moment. It all ends up as your nourishment.
Produce: Any type of veggie. You should make half your plate veggies. It doesn’t matter which, but your plate should look pretty. It should be colorful. It should look rich and lush and satisfying. Brocolli, carrots, greens like cabbage or spinach, roots like radishes or parsnips, cauliflower, onions, bell peppers. You get to pick your favorite, no one will make you eat one.
Carbohydrate: Bread, potatoes, rice. Pick one to be the cost efficient part of the meal. Or skip it entirely if you want a more lean and fit meal. But if you feel like your meals are missing some satisfying piece or you just need there to be more of it, use one of these fillers. Rice is always a good option. Just make sure it isn’t the majority of the meal. It’s like an easy way to stretch your dollar. Eating just chicken may leave you hungry, but chicken and rice fills you up for a few more pennies. Carbohydrates are often the vessel for your food, like tortillas, pasta, etc. It isn’t something you need necessarily, but it can help to have.
What you need
You need very little. But what you need, you cannot cook without. Not in a way that’s well rounded and healthy, anyway. And by the way, this sort of healthy is waaaay cheaper than trying to buy premade frozen food.
- Salt and pepper. (Maybe more spices later, but you need these two for everything)
- Oil. (Or butter. Something to be the medium between your food and whatever you’re cooking it on.)
- A glass 9 by 13 inch dish (this is the size of a generic casserole dish that goes in the oven)
- A skillet (to use over the stovetop)
- A sauce pot (small pot with a handle for heating liquid)
- A Dutch Oven (a large pot with two small handles)
- A slow cooker (visit a thrift store for tons of cheap options. Trust me, you need one.)
I’m actually willing to bet this is all that most people need and use on a daily basis. Anything more is getting fancy. But I’ll break these down more specifically to explain why you need them, and only them.
Salt and pepper: It doesn’t matter what you’re cooking. Chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, fish, vegetables, potatoes, casserole, bread, soup, rice. Salt and pepper bring out the best in your food. It goes from one star to four stars. And don’t measure it; just use enough. My rule of thumb is a very light dusting over the entire surface area. So if you’re making scrambled eggs, take your salt and pepper and sprinkle a light layer over the surface area. If you’re baking chicken, dust the entire surface in salt and pepper before you cook it. This is what makes food taste good, and all other spices are just adding a bonus flavor. If you don’t want to learn about spices you don’t have to, but use your salt and pepper.
Oil: All oil serves the same purpose in basic cooking. When you heat something up in a pan, only a little bit of it is actually touching the hot surface of the metal. Oil is added so that the oil heats up, and then the oil touches a bigger portion of the food. So if you’re making fish on the stovetop, adding oil is how you get all of it good and heated. The other purpose is to keep it from sticking to the metal of the pan; without oil, your fish will burn to the metal and get stuck. With oil, it remains movable and happy. Any oil you use is your choice. Butter, vegetable oil, olive oil, coconut oil, canola oil, animal fat, lard, they all serve this purpose. It’s a matter of preference. If you don’t know, just use olive oil.
Glass 9 by 13 inch casserole dish: This is how you cook things in the oven, and most things can be baked in the oven. Any meat can be baked. And vegetables can be roasted. If you’re new to judging what’s safe to eat, then follow a recipe. But to avoid recipes, here’s how to tell what’s fully cooked:
- Meat stops looking like dead animal. It stops being red, the blood turns clear, and the meat should look like strips. Chicken will look like you can shred it into strands. Beef may be slightly pink, but it will not be translucent at all. Shrimp will no longer be translucent. Fish will flake and no longer be translucent. Cooked meat does not look mushy, shiny, or bloody. If you’re concerned, use a meat thermometer.
- The higher the temp, the faster the OUTSIDE will cook. It’s like this: the amount of time given is how much the inside of the meat cooks. The temperature is how much the outside burns. Slow cooked meat is fully cooked for a very long time at a low temperature and isn’t burned at all. Roasted meat is cooked at a high temperature for considerably less time to get a browned outer layer.
- The basic formula is 350 degrees at 45 minutes. Thin strips of chicken? 350 at 30 minutes and check it. Thick pork chops? 350 at 50 minutes and check it. 350 is your magic number for temperature. Want it crispy? Up to 375 or 400. Want it slow cooked? Drop to 325 and add more time. Everything is some logical step away from 350 at 45 minutes. This takes practice to learn. For the sake of your safety, follow some basic recipe when figuring out how long to cook meat. But eventually, this is how people cook without a recipe. And if it needs more time, just check it every 15 minutes till it’s done.
A Skillet: The same basic principle of the oven follows. Cook it till it’s done. The difference is you need oil for anything that won’t make its own juice. Pork is usually fatty enough to make its own grease, but add oil to anything else. The general guideline is to cook at medium high heat until it’s done, moving it around now and them to make sure it doesn’t burn. The higher the heat, the more you burn the outside. The lower the heat, the more time you need. Consider combining your methods: Throw fish onto a very hot skillet for just a couple of minutes, then reduce the heat to cook it all the way through. This is called searing, and it’s how you get a good crunchy outside with a fully cooked inside. Consider searing the outside, then moving to the oven for slow cooking. You sound like a professional already!
Sauce pots and Dutch Ovens: Essential for pasta and frying things. To boil water, only use as much water as you need to cover whatever you’re boiling. Once it’s boiling, it physically can’t get any hotter. So feel free to use high heat. Then reduce the heat to keep it from bubbling over the walls of the pot. Boil things until they’re soft. Pasta can be taste tested. Vegetables should be easy to pierce with a fork. Potatoes should be pierced with a fork, then able to simply fall off the fork. Trust your own instinct. How soft do you want a vegetable to be when you eat it? Still a little firm? Practically mushy? Trust yourself. You decide when it’s done.
A slow cooker: Please lean to use a slow cooker or a “Crock pot”. The idea is meat + liquid + veggies = entire meal that lasts days. Cheap meat that’s unpleasant on its own like chicken thighs and tough cuts of pork can be made excellent by slow cookers. And they’re safe enough to leave on while you’re out. Imagine it. In the morning you remove a piece of meat and a bag of vegetables from your fridge. You put them in a slow cooker and fill it halfway to the top of the meat with water (and a dusting of salt and pepper). It takes about three minutes and requires no skill. You come home from class and you have meat and vegetables perfectly tender waiting for you and your home smells delicious. Hamburger meat plus a bottle of bbq sauce makes sloppy joes. Chicken and water makes shredded chicken to add to literally anything. Pork shoulder and bbq sauce makes pulled pork sandwiches. And with zero skill and minimal effort. And it makes so much food you can keep it for days.
Hopefully that was a simple enough first lesson. These are the actual kitchen essentials. My hope is that reading this page has made cooking seem less frightening, and more like common sense. And though I address college kids, the truth is many adults are missing out on these basics as well. Adults who feed their families primarily pizza or corn dogs or order take out. There’s nothing wrong with these, but your everyday meals need to be home made. That doesn’t mean they need to gourmet. It does mean you need to put in the time, however. Everything takes at least 30-45 minutes to cook. But really, you would have used that time to heat your oven then bake frozen food anyway.
If you stick to the edges of the grocery store, the dairy, produce, bread, and meat sections, you will find a cheaper and healthier (and simple) way to feed yourself. Ask any questions or leave any comments below, I’d love to hear them!