Before you head off to the store to shop for a recipe you need to pick an appropriate one. If you are truly a beginner in the kitchen you may not know what to look for. I am going to assume that you have got your hands on one of the books I recommended that every beginner should have on hand. Decide first what type of recipe you’re interested in making: a vegetable dish, a meat dish, dinner recipe, dessert? Once you know what you have in mind look at the index of your all-purpose cookbook. Most cookbooks are arranged by type of dish: meat, sides, mains, vegetable, grains…you will be able to see how it is arranged by reading through the index. Open to the section most likely to have the type of dish you’re interested in.
A few pointers on picking a recipe:
- Look for a recipe with fewer ingredients. Fewer ingredients usually means a simpler recipe. Try to find one with 6 or fewer ingredients for the first one you try.
- Skim the instructions. If the instructions have 25 steps to them, it is probably not a good recipe for a beginner to start off with. Look for simple instructions. Simple instructions are only a few paragraphs long.
- Pick a dish that you are already familiar with eating and love. This is important for two reasons: if you learn to cook all your favorite foods first you will have a much more rewarding cooking experience and will want to learn more and if you start off making dishes you are very familiar with you will be able to tell if you have made them well. You will know what it should look and taste like.
- Choose a dish with easily found ingredients. As you become more experienced some of the excitement of cooking (for me) is to locate interesting sometimes exotic ingredients. Trying new things is great- but when you’re at the very beginning of this adventure you should first stick with ingredient lists that can easily be found at your grocery store.
Once you’ve picked the recipe you want to try you need to take a quick inventory of what you have in your cupboards before dashing off to the store. When I was a very beginner cook I didn’t have many staples in my cupboard because I mostly ate things like toast and boxed pasta and I also ate out at cheap diners quite a lot. So I found myself having to buy a lot of basics for my “pantry” (which was nothing more than a couple of cupboard shelves). Acquiring pantry items as you go along is the only way to do it. I will (at the end of this lesson) list what I consider to be the bare bones basics of any pantry but every person who cooks has individual preferences and tastes that will directly affect what herbs and spices you will need to have on hand and what kinds of oils, condiments, and vinegars you might need.
My co-headmistress here at The Farmhouse Finishing School (Mrs. C) loves to cook Indian and Mexican inspired dishes and so she keeps more curry and exotic seasonings like tamarind paste on hand than I do. You are more likely to find things like corn husks and masa harina on her pantry shelves than on mine where you will find more dried thyme than in anyone else’s pantry because I can’t get enough of thyme as a seasoning. My preferred style of cooking is Mediterranean so I keep a lot of polenta, Kalamata olive, and pasta on hand. So don’t buy a lot of things for your pantry ahead of time. Build it slowly based on what you find you like to cook as you learn to make what you love eating.
Here are some tips on shopping for recipes:
- Always make a list of what you need before you head out to the grocery store. This is especially true for beginner cooks. I remember when I first started shopping for recipes I was going to try and when you’re not buying crappy boxed food anymore a whole crazy world of choices opens up. It was so exciting and fun to me but also sometimes overwhelming. I remember standing in front of the salt choices feeling stunned that there were so many kinds. Having a list with you will help you focus on what you actually need and prevent you from forgetting essential items or overspending on things you don’t actually need.
- Buy herbs and spices in small quantities until you find yourself using them frequently enough to run out of them. Buy them from the bulk section of the grocery store. If the store you shop at doesn’t have a bulk herb section, change where you shop! Only buy enough for the recipe you’re planning to make plus a little extra in case you need to remake the recipe or if you find your personal tastes demand a little more.
- Even if it’s much cheaper to buy an ingredient in a larger quantity, don’t do this unless you know for sure it’s something you’ll be wanting to use a lot of. It is easy to get excited about saving some money but if you don’t use what you buy then you’ve actually wasted money.
- When choosing produce: be choosy!! Wait, let me say that again: be very choosy!! How can you tell if the produce you’re looking at is at its freshest and highest quality? It can differ from item to item but there are some universal guidelines to follow. If an item of produce has any of these: soft spots in an otherwise non-soft produce item, discoloration such as browning, sunken spots on the surface, limp to the touch, dry appearance, mold, insects hanging out on the surface, or a withered appearance- don’t buy it. If all the produce in the store you shop at looks like I have just described- find a new place to shop.
- Choose organic everything whenever you can afford the option. I (like so many I know) cannot afford to buy everything organic. It is my opinion that everything should be organic in the first place but since it’s not and since organic can be very costly, start with your produce. I am terribly fortunate to have a very reasonably priced organic CSA that is generous with their weekly portions. If there is a farmer’s market where you live- shop there. You can usually find organic producers and sometimes you can find producers who don’t have an organic certification but don’t spray. Ask farmers about their practices. Farmer’s markets are one of the very best places to shop for produce because what you will find at them is ALWAYS seasonal and fresh.
- Read ingredient labels. If you’re going to bother cooking food for yourself you should choose the best quality ingredients you can afford. Quality means the least amount of processing necessary for any given food item. The following is a list of ingredients you should avoid bringing home to your kitchen:
1. Artificial flavorings
2. High Fructose Corn Syrup, Corn Syrup, Dextrose, etc. (stick to plain sugar).
3. MSG I’m not allergic to it myself, though many people are, but I still avoid it because good quality food doesn’t need this flavor “enhancer”.
4. Preservatives. There are a few preservatives that aren’t harmful but most of them are.
5. Unnatural coloring. (no real food is bright blue, not even blueberries)
6. Any “ingredient” that could only be replicated in a factory setting.
- Be careful with sale items. If you are on a budget and need to try to save pennies wherever you can, just be sure to check expiration dates on packaged foods, avoid old “clearance” produce (not usually worth the savings), and be sure that nothing has compromised the item such as a hole in the packaging or a banged up appearance, or dents in canned items.
If it would be helpful for you to have the above pointers with you while you’re shopping, print this article out and bring it with you. These are the kinds of things I would be telling you if I could go with you to shop for your first few home cooking adventures.
As I mentioned earlier, a pantry is a highly personal thing. Building it up should be gradual and reflect how you like to cook, however there are a few items that nearly everyone should have on hand. I will list them below, but keep in mind that this is my opinion only and every experienced cook will have different items they consider essential. As always, if you have a really experienced cook helping to teach you then you should listen to them rather than me. Having someone experienced at your elbow is the best possible way to learn to cook.
Pantry Staples (the bare necessities list):
Vinegar (or rice vinegar if you prefer)
Salt (I prefer a grey salt or a kosher style salt with no additives but plain table salt is fine)
Pepper (it’s best if you have a grinder and can grind it fresh, but preground is fine)
Baking Powder (non aluminum kind is best)
Soup Broth (home-made is best but canned/boxed or bouillon is fine)
All Purpose Unbleached Flour (a couple of pounds of it to begin with is adequate)
Cane Sugar (a pound is enough to begin with)
Honey (8 oz jar is enough to begin with, make sure it’s raw)
Mrs. C’s particular pantry recommendations:
If you missed the first lesson in the series “Cooking For Beginners” here it is:
Cooking For Beginners: Cookbooks and Equipment