Archive for June, 2008
The first part of this post listed three basic rules for beginning home cooks: keep a clean kitchen, store your food appropriately, and put away and use leftovers promptly. Here are a few more basics to help you work more easily and safely in your kitchen.
4. Know your kitchen utensils. A knife is for cutting, not stirring. A spatula is perfect for flipping that burger, but not for beating eggs. Using the right tool for the job at hand makes that job easier and safer.
Keep your utensils in good shape. Sharp knives are safer because it takes less force to cut and the blade is less likely to slip and go where it isn’t intended to go (for instance, into your finger!). Keep pots and pans clean, and if they have handles that attach with screws, make sure those are tight. You don’t want a handle to fall off as you’re carrying a pan of boiling pasta to the sink. If you use a blender or food processor, make sure blades are sharp and keep them clean (but be careful as you wash them). Make sure all the pieces fit together as they should before you use any equipment. If you’re not sure, ask someone who knows, or avoid using that tool until you’re sure it’s safe.
5. Read through your recipe before you begin. Unless it’s a recipe you’ve made so often that you know it by heart, always read through your recipe and make sure you have the ingredients, equipment, and time to finish it. If something needs to cook for 30 minutes and you need to be gone within 20, choose something else for that meal. Undercooked meats, especially, are a health hazard. Read through the recipe’s instructions to make sure you understand the process for putting the recipe together, because there are times when things need to be done in quick succession. Also remember to keep the recipe nearby as you cook so you can refer to it as needed.
6. Pay attention when you’re cooking. Don’t get involved in an online game or sucked in to a movie when you need to be watching something on the stove. If you have a tendency to be distracted, use a timer to remind you when something needs checking, and set it as often as necessary until your meal is finished. You don’t want the smoke alarm going off to tell you the meatloaf is done.
With these few common sense rules, you’ll be safer and more efficient as you begin learning your way around the kitchen. If you have small children in your home, you may also want to set some rules for them, for safety’s sake. For instance, when my daughters were young, whenever I needed to open the oven, I made them stand against the refrigerator so they were out of my path as I carried hot pans to the counter. They also knew never to turn on a burner if I wasn’t around to help. A few simple rules like this can help everyone feel more comfortable in the kitchen!
If you’re going to work in the kitchen, some basic guidelines are helpful. Don’t be put off by a few “rules” — these are intended to keep you from getting ill or hurt, and will help you get things done quickly and efficiently. I’ll break these tips into two posts to keep them from seeming too overwhelming.
1. Keep your kitchen clean. This isn’t as difficult as it sounds. Wash dirty dishes and utensils as soon as you reasonably can after using them (or rinse and load them into your dishwasher, if you have one). Doing dishes right away really is easier: Just once, try to clean a pan that sat overnight with dried mashed potatoes, then honestly tell me it wouldn’t have been easier to do it right after dinner. Same with eggs, pasta sauces, and lots of other foods. Just do the dishes. You’ll thank me in the morning.
Remember to wipe off your counter tops, stove, oven, and the floor when needed. Do you want nasty bugs running around your kitchen and getting into your food? No, you do not — but a dirty kitchen is one of the quickest ways they’ll find you. And once they’re in, they’re hard to get out. Prevention is key, and keeping a clean kitchen is the best prevention.
2. Store food appropriately. If you buy something that says “Refrigerate after opening,” do it. If something comes with a lid, use it. If you have flour and sugar, once the bags have been opened, either fold over the tops tightly and fasten them with a rubber band, or buy separate canisters with covers that seal tightly to keep those staples fresh and free of any pests.
If you buy something in bulk to freeze (for instance, a large package of chicken pieces), wrap each packet tightly in plastic wrap or foil before putting it into a resealable plastic bag (expelling as much air as possible) or other container for the freezer. Label and date the bag so you can tell what this chunk of “stuff” is in a month or two. Use frozen meats and leftovers within six months.
3. Store and use leftovers promptly. Leftovers can make your next evening’s meal a breeze. But they have to be refrigerated promptly — within an hour — and used within a few days. Leftover meat should cool slightly and then be stored in a clean container (not the one you cooked the meat in), covered tightly, and refrigerated (or frozen if you won’t be using it within a week). Leftover vegetables should be covered and refrigerated, and anything dairy needs to be kept cool at all times.
Next: More ground rules for your kitchen
Seriously. With the abundance of fast food, deli food, frozen packaged food, and restaurants all around, why go to the trouble of learning to cook at home?
The answer for most people is that they don’t know how. They don’t know what ingredients to buy or what pans to use. They’ve watched other people struggle to put a simple meal on the table that ended up being inedible. The lessons learned in “home living” or “home economics” classes have long been forgotten. They don’t have a clue where to begin.
Take heart, and come on in to the kitchen. It’s really not a scary place at all.
Even if you haven’t set foot in a kitchen for years — to cook, that is — don’t worry. Even if you can’t remember the last time you read through and finished a recipe, that’s all right. Even if you have no time, no fancy pots and pans, no patience, and no experience, I promise you can do this. Yes, you.
But why bother? There are as many reasons to learn to cook as there are fast food franchises at your local mall. For starters, it’s far cheaper to cook at home than it is to buy take-out or eat at restaurants night after night, especially once you’ve gathered some basic ingredients. If you find a few recipes that appeal to you, make a list, and buy only what you need, you can make a week’s worth of dinners for about the same amount of money you’d spend in a mid-range restaurant for two or three meals. Check out a restaurant menu online and add up the costs: entree, drink, tip. Times two. See?
Another reason: cooking for yourself, generally, is healthier. You control the amounts of fat, sodium, carbs, or any other substance. You can buy fruits and vegetables in season and at their peak of flavor and nutritional value rather than settling for browned lettuce or fruit that tastes like cardboard. Portion control is as easy as deciding how much food to put on your plate, eliminating the temptation to eat all those fries that came with your restaurant burger.
Cooking for yourself allows you more flexibility than using prepared foods or ordering at a restaurant. We all know at least one picky eater who drives us nuts whenever she orders at a restaurant: hold the mayo, no onion, extra cheese, medium rare but not too pink…you know the type. At home, if you don’t like black olives in your pasta, don’t use them. If you like extra basil, add it. You can use olive oil instead of butter, or soy milk instead of dairy. The choices are limitless, and your meals are suited to your tastes, every time. What restaurant can do that for you?
Finally, cooking at home can be faster than going out. Add up the time spent driving to a restaurant, waiting to be seated, waiting to be served, eating, paying, then driving home again. You could have fixed something simple and tasty much faster and been more comfortable in the process — shoes off, favorite music on the stereo, relaxing in your own home.
Learning to cook doesn’t mean you will never eat out again. Of course you will, and you should! But when you decide to go out, it will be on your terms: when you can afford it, when you have the energy, and when you have the time.
Next: Kitchen Basics for the Beginning Home Cook