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Something I don’t talk about very often is my love for cooking. I enjoy cooking, because I get to try new things. Cooking allows me to create in a whole new way, and comes with the awesome byproduct of getting to eat something delicious. Cooking for each other is a way for humans to express love and generosity. I like cooking, because it allows me to get into an almost meditative state as I create something for my loved ones and me to enjoy.
Cooking every day, though, is not always like this. During the workweek or an especially busy weekend, it can become stressful and time-consuming. Some nights I can't even bear the thought of trying to make dinner, because I am so exhausted. Door Dash again it is! I am definitely not perfect when it comes to cooking, but I have come a long way from cooking frozen chicken on a broken George Foreman Grill my first year in college. I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learned over the years that have helped me learn to create different, delicious, not-burnt food, as well as save time and money.
Seasoning is everything.
This is something I learned while dabbling in Veganism in college. That time in my life is where I really built up my spice collection, because I tried to make non-meat taste like meat. I was bringing home new spices, herbs, etc. two to three times a week. The person who really brought this home for me is Lauren Toyota. Cooking her recipes definitely fueled my spice addiction. Here are some of my go-to FAVORITE seasonings/herbs: Paprika, Garlic Powder, Onion Powder, Chili Powder, Parsley, Thyme, and Oregano.
The most important of all of these, though, is SALT AND PEPPER! Salt and Pepper are your best friends, and should be added at nearly every step in the cooking process. There is such a thing as overdoing it, so make sure to taste as you go too. It will amaze you, though, how much proper seasoning will elevate your dishes.
You are in control of your stove top burner's heat.
I know this may seem like a no brainer for some folks, but it took me a LONG time to fully grasp this concept. I no joke would just put the burner on the highest heat every time I cooked until my roughly senior year of college! Most of the time this was just because I was impatient about waiting for the burner to heat up, but realistically it never made much of a time difference. It just made whatever I was making cook through inconsistently. It wasn’t until this Brothers Green Eats video that I really grasped the concept of controlling the heat. Sometimes I would get so in the zone that I would forget that turning down the heat, or even taking something completely off the heat was an option. When in doubt, just take it off the burner. It will be fine.
Garlic is your best friend.
Garlic is what makes most food taste good. Most dishes are not complete without it. My dad has a saying that the way to fix a dish that you have added too much garlic to is to ADD MORE GARLIC!! Obviously, this is something that has been ingrained in my head since childhood, but I really started to appreciate garlic, even more, when I started cooking for myself. Fresh garlic is an amazing addition to a dish, but I am not beneath the little jars of preserved garlic either. Whatever works for you, don’t be afraid to go ham on the garlic.
Tenderize your chicken (and properly prep it)
If you do not eat animal products, go ahead and skip this section. Learning how to properly prep my chicken has added SO MUCH to my cooking abilities. The first thing to note is that when I was first cooking, I would make way too much chicken. I have found that one full chicken breast will satisfy both me and my partner. All you have to do is slice the chicken breast in half lengthwise starting at the thickest end of the meat. It will take some practice to make the two pieces as even as possible, but it's so worth it. Some stores will sell chicken breast pre-sliced like this, but in my experience, you end up with less meat for more money. After you complete this, follow these steps:
- Use a meat tenderizer to even out the chicken. It should be the same thickness throughout to avoid cooking unevenly.
- Pat dry with paper towels. You want to get it as dry as possible.
- Season with salt and pepper (and any other seasonings you want) on BOTH sides.
- Let sit. The suggested time is about 10 minutes, but honestly, sometimes I am impatient and don’t wait quite that long. You want to at least wait till the moisture has risen to the surface.
- Pat dry with paper towels again.
Watch the video above for a more in-depth description of why you do this, but it always turns out AMAZING when I take the time to do this.
The type of oil you use actually matters.
In my beginner cooking days, I used olive oil for everything, even frying, because I thought it was the healthiest option. Olive oil has a low smoke point, and that smoke in your food doesn't taste great. If you’re already frying something, maybe don’t draw the health line at the type of oil you use. It NEVER ends well. Also, switching from traditional oils to sesame oil when cooking Asian dishes has made all the difference. Essentially, if a recipe calls for a certain type of oil, use that oil, especially if it's an oil you have never heard of. Trust me. I tried to make the above recipe with olive oil, and it was horrible!
Get the best quality that you can afford
The keyword here is “that you can afford.” There is never a need to put yourself in a bad spot financially to get the freshest and highest grade products. You aren’t a better, healthier, or more virtuous person because of the quality of food you can buy. Food quality is just something to keep in mind when you are making decisions on what to purchase. Higher quality ingredients to make food taste better. Homemade is always more delicious than store bought. Anyone who's watched way too much Kitchen Nightmares will tell you that. What I do sometimes is get produce from local farmers markets, both because it's delicious and it helps support our local farmers. Also, try to pick produce that is in season. I like to use this guide to help figure out what produce is in season.
Figure out where you can cut corners.
I’ve touched on this a bit in the previous section, but it's not always realistic to get the highest quality ingredients. You have to take into consideration what you can afford as mentioned before, but you also should take into consideration your time. If you have the time to make your own bread, go for it. Some of us are not so lucky. When considering where you can take shortcuts, you need to take your own tastes into account. For example, my partner and I realized we did not like those frozen bags of chicken. It never turned out the same. So we made room in our budget to always get raw chicken, and freeze it ourselves if we need to. For some reason, home-frozen chicken tastes so much better than those frozen bags did. On the other hand, we have discovered that pre-cooked shredded chicken doesn’t bother us at all. It is a great corner for us to cut when creating casseroles, enchiladas, soups, or any of those stupid “30-minute” meals that require half the ingredients to already be cooked before that 30 minute starts. Listen to your taste buds, and let them lead you. You may decide that freezer bag chicken is totally fine, but you hate canned green beans. So get that freezer bag chicken, and then splurge on the fresh green beans! It’s completely up to you.
This is NOT the same thing as Meal Prepping. For some reason, they always get mixed together. This doesn’t have to be for health purposes either. It can be for any kind of meal you’re having! All you're doing is planning what you are going to eat that week, and when. That way you know exactly what you are getting when you go to the grocery store. This has saved me so much money and time. Staying late at work? Schedule a less taxing dinner to make that night, or even get a frozen dinner! No judgment! Been craving something delicious, and you want to try making it yourself? Make some time during the week and look up a recipe! It's all up to you! Pinterest is the tool that’s helped me the most in planning out my weekly meals. There are so many recipes out there. Actually, start making them instead of just pinning them! If you need somewhere to start, just follow my Pinterest boards here.
Learn to adapt.
We already sort of touched on this in the burner heat section, but there are many more ways you can adapt. For example, just last night I was making fried rice, and I forgot a whole ingredient! Luckily, I was still able to make it work by adding it at the end. The fact of the matter is that you are going to make mistakes. You need to learn how to adapt to these challenges. Missing an ingredient? Do you have something to substitute for it that will work just fine? Or maybe the dish will be fine without that ingredient? It’s up to you to decide. Some days I’ve started a dish completely over to make up for a mistake, and some days we call it quits and order delivery. No shame in that! Don’t let mistakes keep you from trying to cook altogether though. It’s all part of the process.
Find a reason to motivate you to cook.
This is obviously going to be different for everyone. Essentially, if you really want to start cooking more, you have to find your reason. For me, it's the creativity of it. As I mentioned in the beginning, it is also a way for me to show my partner, or anyone I cook for that I care about them. There is also the saving money aspect. Your reasons don’t have to be my reasons. Maybe you want more control over what goes into your food/body. Maybe you are trying to learn a new skill. Whatever the reason, just be sure it's something that brings joy back into cooking. Or don’t! This is your journey, and you can go at it whatever pace you feel is right for you.