(Yes, You Can) Learn to Cook
Most of us know from learning about personal finance that reasonable DIY work saves money. And I say “reasonable” to sidestep the whole discussion of “oh, you can't perform neurosurgery on yourself, it's best to go to a professional.” Sure, we agree. Same thing with condemned water heaters and jet engine maintenance: Just let the pros do it.
I believe, however, that reasonable DIY yields the greatest returns when it involves food preparation. Unlike mowing the lawn or cleaning gutters, which only happens in suburbs or rainy climates, food is universal. Most of us eat every day, do it multiple times a day, and spend fortunes on it over our lifetimes. With the high cost of restaurants, and tips, and delivery charges, cooking at home makes a lot of financial sense.
Still, many people will say: “Oh, I can't even fry an egg,” and eat out or get delivery three times a day. Funny thing: My friends who do that are invariably broke and fleeing from creditors, even if they eat at cheap places. (And I'm not saying you or your friends are broke from this — only mine.)
I'll spare you the sermon about the health sense of cooking at home and instead give you a couple of more immediate incentives:
- Good cooking will make you an attractive and popular person. It's a guaranteed path to seduction, it induces feelings of love and affection in those around you, and it is the foundation of a happy family life.
- You shouldn't need more incentive at this point. But consider that, as other pleasures fade away in our old age, the pleasure of eating is the more likely to remain a loyal companion. Good cooking can help ensure that our twilight years are happy ones.
Okay, enough for the introduction. This is how you do it.
Unless you're really motivated or slightly deranged, fancy magazines and weird complicated recipes will set the bar too high. Start instead with something that will give you immediate satisfaction, like learning to grill a burger or making a decent batch of cookies — whatever it is you like to eat on a regular basis, and it's simple to cook, try to cook it.
Take bacon and eggs, for example. They go great together, and there's an art and a science to cooking them just right, and yes, you can do it better than a diner, but you need practice. And what better incentive to practice than delicious eggs and bacon?
Yes, instant gratification is your friend at this point. You want to make that tasty self-sufficiency into a habit, and you want to learn that you don't need to pay others to make your meals fun. Once you learn there are rewards for this behavior, you'll be able to justify the patience that's required of all growth. But first, you need to get hooked.
So do it.
Go buy some good bacon (or vegan sausage, or whatever you like) and learn not to turn it into ashes.
Minimize the Pain
Cooking requires cleaning up afterwards, which can make people like me recoil in terror. I can't remember which carryout chain had a commercial that showed a family buying their product so they could keep a clean kitchen (which in my opinion beats the purpose of having a kitchen in the first place). But yes, cleaning can be a pain, though for some people it can be relaxing.
In any case, keep things simple and organized, or partner up with someone to clean after you, and this will make it a lot more fun to eat those sloppy joes afterwards.
Think of Building Blocks
You can go all over the map and try to cook 1000 things at a time, but I've found it more productive to learn one or two things, get good at them, and move on to the next one.
Recently I was learning to make bread — specifically, “no-knead” bread. Making it is so easy it's a joke. But it takes a little bit of focus, and there's trial an error, and flour to clean up. If you have a busy life, don't try to learn everything at once. Once I mastered the basic loaf, I started playing with variants. Now I can make it in my sleep.
How to Make No-Knead Bread
You could approach things by seasons:
- Learn to grill meat and veggies this summer.
- Experiment with cooking beans this fall.
- Try out some stews in winter.
Or you might want to approach your cooking methods one by one: grilling, roasting, sautéing, frying, poaching, stewing, baking, and so on. Or specialize in an ingredient, or a cuisine, or a specific meal: become an expert on beef, or tofu dervish, or the demigod of pancake breakfasts, or a professor of sandwich making. Better to be good at one thing than being terrible at everything, right?
Learn to do one thing right, then move on to the next one.
Don't Succumb to Food Porn
The objective of “food porn” is to make you feel inadequate so you buy things you don't need.
You don't need a knife collection — I'm very happy with a $50 chef knife from Target and a serrated knife I inherited from a friend. You don't need a set of sixteen pots: you need maybe a couple of decent pots and a frying pan to start, and then you can add things as you need them. And unless you're a real asparagus aficionado, and have a lot of cupboard space, you don't need an asparagus cooker.
Think of the Long Term
Learning to cook is much like investing and compound interest: The longer you do it, the greater the returns. I know I suggested you go for instant gratification at first, but as you improve your skills you might start to set larger goals and seeking new challenges, like taking your date to your kitchen table, or making pancakes for your kids at breakfast. Those are great and worthy goals and as close as it gets to buying happiness.
So, to all rookie cooks: Do you have any questions? And for the experienced among you: Any wisdom you'd like to share? Easy recipes? Have any suggestions for essential tools? Good techniques? Encouraging stories? Share in the comments below!