How to Cook


Cooking isn’t hard, but it’s extremely rewarding because it saves money, improves health, and creates near-instant results.

Cooking is chemically changing food in a controlled way.

Develop an intuition for how long to cook your food.

Note time and space limits.

Make sure you have the right utensils, though you won’t need most of them.

Keep a clean and organized kitchen space.

Practice food safety.

Use seasonings and spices to create your own style.

Maximize the shelf life of your food.

Make the cooking experience memorable.

Why learn to cook?

While not everyone needs to be a master chef, everyone should (and can) know how to prepare food.

Making meals is a basic human need, paying others to do it is expensive, and instant meals are usually unhealthy.

Cooking is a part-time job that pays immediately:
  • A few hours of batch preparation a week can give a week of healthy, cheap eating.
  • To their loss, many people (especially men) find cooking unpleasant.

Thankfully, cooking isn’t complicated:
  • Cooking is a creative activity of calculated trial-and-error.
  • Many well-known recipes came from a scarcity of resources (e.g., the Great Depression).
  • Experiment with various ideas to see what works, even if you waste some food for the learning experience.

Cooking chemically changes food

Heat transfers through direct contact (conduction), through a fluid (convection) or through radiating waves (radiation):
  • Proteins transform from liquids to solids (coagulate).
  • Starches thicken (gelatinize).
  • Sugars turn brown and change flavor (caramelize).
  • Fats melt and mix into everything else (infuse).
  • Water evaporates.

Most other non-heat foods like smoothies and salads are chemically known as mixtures, which are still the same foods but change the flavor when combined.

Fermenting certain foods (e.g., sauerkraut, yogurt) is permitting specific micro-organisms like bacteria to consume the food and their waste product gives the original taste.

Preparing dough is a minor type of fermentation, but instead the yeast’s waste product of carbon dioxide makes the dough fluffy.

Most people fear under-cooking or burning food

Food is sterile if the innermost portion of food reaches the temperature of boiling water (212°F), and the food can still cook even after you turn off the heat.

Most poorly cooked food is either from the wrong time or wrong temperature:
  • Too hot – well-cooked outside but almost raw on the inside.
  • Too cold – flavors and aromas don’t fully open up.
  • Too short – food isn’t cooked thoroughly and has a “raw” taste.
  • Too long – dry and brittle with very little moisture or flavor left.

Fix poor time and heat management:
  • Take everything off your burners, then observe each one as you turn up the heat to get a feel for your stove.
  • You’ll likely burn your food if you increase heat to save time.
  • Frequently stir your food to prevent anything caking on the bottom.
  • Most food burns after the water evaporates, so keep adding water if it gets low.
  • When you’re new to cooking, do not walk away from the cooking area or multitask.
    • When you’re ready, you can use more than one burner to multitask.

Note time and space limits

Save time by breaking apart cooking into batches:
  • Plan your meal prep and diet a week out.
  • Style your work as an assembly line to prepare the ingredients quickly.

Note the weather:
  • The oven and stove will heat up your home, so cook on cold days to save money.
  • Try to cook in the morning or evening.
  • The worst time to cook is in the middle of an extremely hot day.
  • When the weather is pleasant, open windows to allow ventilation.

If you have a small kitchen:
  • Place all your cooking items in easily accessible places.
  • Use your cutting board across an open drawer.
  • Always keep one surface area open for various tasks you forget to plan for.
  • If you’re preparing food for several people, cook and bake ahead of time.

Use the right utensils

Your selection of utensils is a bit like managing a toolbox, and depends on your cooking style and preferred ingredients.

Most utensils are completely unnecessary if you use them once a month, but critical if you use them daily.

When you’re starting off, you typically only need a few basics:
  • Set of pots and pans
  • Spatula set
  • Measuring cup and measuring spoon
  • One good-quality knife
  • A large cake pan

As much as possible, try to get utensils that have more than one use.

Keep your kitchen clean and tools working

Test containers before microwaving them:
  1. Place the container in the microwave with a mug of cold water and heat on high for 1 minute.
  2. The container is safe if the water is hot and the container is still cool, but don’t use it if the container is hot.

Use the two-bowl method to manage waste and dish-washing:
  1. A bowl to throw out scraps and garbage all at once.
  2. A container to soak dishes for washing together.

Avoid a massive pile of dishes at the end by cleaning as you go or rinsing/reusing them.

Care for your pots and pans.
  • Research to find out how to clean each cookware surface.
  • Never clean cast-iron with soap and water.
    • The caked-on “seasoning” is how cast-iron gets its flavor.
    • Pour oil and a handful of kosher salt into it, then scrub into the pan with an old rag or paper towels.

Keep staple items on hand that work for almost everything:
  • Pasta is a standard base for most dishes.
  • Rice is affordable and ubiquitous.
  • Canned vegetables help when you don’t have fresh vegetables and need them for a recipe.
  • Canned chicken and tuna make a quick meal.
  • Ground beef works with many simple meals.
  • Salsa is an excellent universal condiment.
  • Keep chicken and beef bouillon to quickly make gravy or broth.
  • You’ll want flour for thickening gravy, baking bread, and breading.
  • Butter adds flavor to almost any meal.
  • Store a wide variety of herbs, spices, and extracts.
  • Freeze leftover vegetables and meats (e.g., carrot tops, onion stems, celery ends, chicken bones, extra meat) for high-quality homemade stock.

While cooking, experiment with unknown seasoning in small batches. Plenty of food is ruined by over-seasoning, but bland food is still edible and you can always add salt.

Cook safely

Be careful around heat:
  • Keep oil containers far from heat sources.
  • Loose clothing could get caught on the heat source, so don’t wear it or tie it down.
  • Push a thumbtack into a wood clothespin to safely hold lids open.

Use knives safely:
  1. Grip the handle with the three back fingers and pinch the neck of the knife with your index finger and thumb.
    • Watch a video to learn a proper forward slice, back slice, tip-down rocking, and chopping.
  2. Dull knives cause most kitchen injuries, so keep them sharp.
    • Get a sharpening steel or stone.
    • Grind it against the bottom of a coffee mug or cut it through aluminum foil if you need.
  3. Buy a high-quality knife to reduce how much you need to sharpen it.

If you thaw meat to room temperature on the counter it’ll foster bacteria growth, so use a cold-water bath changed out every half-hour.

Create your style

Start with basic recipes, then expand from there.

Learn various tricks to improve your cooking experience.

When websearching recipes, always add “the best” to it to make sure it’s a good recipe.

Discover which herbs and spices combine well with specific cooking mediums, flavors, and oils:
  • Adding fat, salt, and sugar to your food isn’t healthy, but somewhat guarantees flavor.
  • Experiment openly to learn an intuition for what combines well together.
  • When cooking over an open flame, use fresh herbs instead of marinades or rubs.

If you ever over-salt food while it’s still cooking, drop in a peeled potato.

Cook with the correct oils, since some oils are flavorful while others are bland.

Use the correct ingredients

The quality of your prepared food depends heavily on the quality of what you use.

Make sure the food is safely within its shelf life.

Most food give hints of spoiling:
  • They taste strange.
  • They’ve changed color.
  • The ingredients aren’t as stiff, crisp or potent.

Generally, food spoils faster in warm or moist climates and storage.

Use common sense with decomposing food:
  • Eating spoiled food or using spoiled ingredients can sometimes be life-threatening if there’s enough bacteria in it and you’re unhealthy enough.
  • Throw it away if it smells or tastes odd, but you can still use it as a secondary ingredient otherwise.
  • However, if you can sterilize spoiled food with enough heat, you can still eat it even while it’s completely unpalatable.
  • Ignore dates marked on groceries.
    • On most packaged products, the expiration date is a “sell by” date, not an expiration date, and is still often perfectly fine for recipes.

You can also often find clever substitutes if you’re missing a key ingredient.

Store ingredients properly

Many foods that don’t need refrigeration will actually suffer from getting stored in the fridge:
  • Basil
  • Butter
  • Cake
  • Coffee
  • Eggs (if they haven’t been refrigerated yet)
  • Honey
  • Hot sauce, soy sauce, and fish sauce
  • Ketchup and mustard
  • Onions
  • Tomatoes

Close open food containers to prevent them from getting stale:
  • Store food in airtight containers and mason jars whenever possible.
  • Improvise a chip clip out of a pants hanger or a bobby pin.

Make bags airtight with water bottle tops:
  1. Cut off a water bottle top
  2. Unscrew the lid and run the bag through the bottle through the top
  3. Close the bottle cap over the bag’s plastic

  • Wrap bread in the bag it came in, a cloth napkin or a towel
  • Store pasta in Pringles containers
  • Store pancake batter in a ketchup bottle in the fridge
  • Make stale or hardened cookies soft again by placing a piece of bread with them overnight
  • Keep cake moist
    • Put a piece of bread on top of it overnight
    • Hold up slices of bread with toothpicks against the cut part of a cake

Meats & Cheeses
  • Protect cheese from mold
    • Wrap in a vinegar-soaked cloth
    • Rub the cut edge of cheese with butter
  • Cut a pack of bacon in half to store it more easily

  • Any fruits that release ethylene gas will force other fruits to ripen quickly:
    • Apricots
    • Avocados
    • Bananas
    • Cantaloupes
    • Honeydew melons
    • Kiwis
    • Mangoes
    • Nectarines
    • Papayas
    • Peaches
    • Pears
    • Plums
    • Tomatoes
  • Apples and watermelons are especially sensitive to ethylene gas.
  • Make bananas last 4-5 days longer by wrapping their tops near the stem with plastic wrap.

  • Some vegetables are especially sensitive to ethylene gas from fruits:
    • Asparagus
    • Broccoli
    • Carrots
    • Cucumbers
    • Eggplants
    • Green beans
    • Lettuce and other greens
    • Potatoes
    • Summer squash
  • Keep produce fresh for longer:
    1. Fill a large bowl with hot water
    2. Submerge the produce for 3-6 minutes
    3. Dry by setting on paper towels
  • Keep potatoes from budding by putting an apple with the potatoes.
  • Keep vegetables fresh for an extra day or two by placing a piece of stale bread in the crisper drawer.
  • Wrap herbs and delicate greens in moist paper towels and store in zip-type plastic bags.
  • Keep celery for weeks by wrapping in aluminum foil and refrigerating.

  • Microwave crystallized honey with the top off for 2 minutes
  • Restore spices’ aroma by microwaving for fifteen seconds
  • If sugar ever solidifies, place a cracker or slice of bread in with the sugar
  • Keep brown sugar soft
    • Put marshmallows in the container
    • Place a slice of apple in the container
  • Keep spices waterproof by placing in empty pill bottles or Tic-Tac containers

Maximize shelf life

Quickly cool and store leftover food after you’ve made it:
  • Once cooled enough, immediately put anything in the refrigerator with water in it to get it below 41°F.
    • Add ice cubes to soups or stews to speed up their cooldown.
  • Place the food on shallow, portion-sized dishes.
  • Use containers that transfer heat quickly (such as metal).
  • Set a Lazy Susan in the fridge to make more room.
  • Avoid overfilling your refrigerator to let air circulate properly.

Store many prepared meals at once in the freezer to cut down on cooking time:
  • Label items as cooked or uncooked and the date they were frozen.
  • Wrap thoroughly or store in sealed containers.
    • Freeze items flat and sectioned-off into a grid pattern to quickly thaw them as needed.
  • Pre-cook rice, sauces, legumes, and mashed potatoes, then freeze them for recipes later.
  • Watch for things you can’t freeze (e.g., eggs, soft herbs).
  • Be careful: refreezing defrosted food can cause massive bacterial growth.

Make cooking a memorable experience

After about 30 consistent meals, you’ll know your way around the kitchen.

Cooking is an artistic science:
  1. You’ll make adequate meals by following a recipe.
  2. Changing the proportions of ingredients and adding or removing ingredients creates new variations.
  3. With enough experience, you’ll be able to guess how a changed recipe might taste before you try it.

Find new ways to improve your cooking experience:

Additional Reading

The Sourdough Framework

The Sad Bastard Cookbook