Breakaway Cook

The Beginner's Checklist To Becoming An Outrageously Good Cook

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I‘ve said it before, and I’ll say it forevermore: it’s EASY to become a great cook nowadays. In stark contrast to just a few generations ago, today most of us can cruise out our doors and find quality raw ingredients, we have access to the world’s great cuisines just by visiting some ethnic markets, and we can order just about anything on earth with the click of a button and a credit card. The earth continues to radically shrink, and home cooks continue to be the beneficiaries of it.

The flip side: it’s also easier than ever to buy packaged crap and frozen just-heat-up crap, to get take-out crap, and to eat crappy meals in restaurants. It’s almost as if the “work” of feeding ourselves has been outsourced to those that can do it the cheapest and who can make it the most convenient.

What’s missing in all this convenience, however, is the concept of “taking ownership” of what you put into your body. Huge food processing companies have figured out ever-more profitable ways of manipulating a few basic –and heavily subsidized — staples like corn, wheat, and soy, tarting them up in increasingly bizarre ways with increasingly bizarre ingredients no one can pronounce, let alone understand, adding way too much salt and fat, and packaging it all in consumer-friendly designs, colors, and materials to entice us to just outsource the whole business of eating to them.

This is nuts on so many levels one doesn’t know where to begin, other than the beginning: feed yourself! It’s easy if you follow these three superbasic guidelines:

1) It’s not about the gear! Some of the most inventive, knowledgeable cooks I know have the crappiest kitchens. Good cooks can make a lot happen with very little (check out Mark Bittman’s bad kitchen). That said, quality stuff is, of course, nice, and will last longer than crappy gear. But don’t rush out and buy a set of something. Avoid sets like the plague. Just buy what you need, and nothing more.  Cast iron is my favorite, and it happens to be the cheapest. See also this post on cooking well in a minimally equipped kitchen.

2) Use good salt, and pepper, wisely. Undersalting, and using crappy salt (that is to say, iodized table salt) are major obstacles to good cooking. Get yourself some kosher salt, some good sea salt, and some good whole black peppercorns; “good” doesn’t necessarily mean expensive. And for the breakaway leap into salts as culinary nirvana, begin to adapt flavored salts into your cooking. For lots of juicy details, check out my essay, “On the Massive Importance of Salt.”

3) Be fearless. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes! A good friend recently told me, “the best cooks are those that make the most mistakes.” It’s true — there’s no better way to learn. It’s also the best way to get to know your own palate. By varying and playing with levels of salt, sweet, herbaceousness, acid/tart, and umami, you begin to learn what lights up YOUR taste buds. No one else’s matters! Play and learn. You get to practice three times a day for the rest of your life — you WILL get this right. And the quicker you make your mistakes, the tastier and healthier your food will be for the rest of your life. Start simple, and start now. Today.