Teach yourself to cook

By Philip Brewer on 17 June 2009 (Updated 20 August 2013) 21 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

Everyone knows that cooking is cheaper and healthier than eating out. It's also better (i.e. more to your taste) than eating out, and easier than eating out (no driving, parking, standing in line, making reservations, waiting to be seated, dealing with hostesses, waiters, and busboys). Besides all that, I'm going to argue below that--even with shopping and cleaning up--it can also be quicker than eating out.

If you currently eat all your meals out (for example, you live in a dorm with meal plan), you probably can't save time by learning to cook--because going shopping for groceries is another whole task that you'd have to add to your schedule. But if you're already maintaining a kitchen but don't use it much, then the extra time to buy all your food (instead of just a fraction of it) is quite small.

Cooking, of course, takes time, as does cleaning up. But then, going to restaurants takes time as well. Fast food joints that cook ahead may serve your food quite quickly--but that's never going to be better or healthier than your own cooking, and even with a dollar menu it's not likely to be cheaper. It may be easier--if you think driving to the fast food joint and then standing in line is easy.

On the other hand, cooking lends itself to any number of simple efficiencies that restaurant eating doesn't, simply because you're in control of things like the number of servings you make. You can save a lot of time by cooking enough that you have dinner today and lunch tomorrow, without the complexity and waste of restaurant-sized portions that may provide leftovers, but rarely in the right amounts or right proportions.

Learning

Like with anything else, the way to learn to cook is to do some cooking.

With a few exceptions--confections and pastries, mostly--cooking is actually really easy. Anyone can learn to boil rice, bake a chicken, or grill a steak. Certainly anyone can learn to make a salad.

If you know even a little bit about cooking--what a saucepan is, what sauteing is--then you can start with recipes.

If you don't cook at all, try to get someone to show you how to cook--your mom, your wife (or husband, boyfriend, or girlfriend), or even a friend at work who brings in leftovers for lunch. If you can't manage that, there are plenty of cooking DVDs and internet sites with videos where you can learn the basics. There are also plenty of cookbooks that cover the basics (Joy of Cooking is the classic, but there are others--any number of cookbooks aimed at newlyweds, for example).

Once you know the basics, start by learning to fix two or three things that you particularly like to eat. Once you have those down, learn how to make one show-offy thing that you can use to impress a date, spouse, or the in-laws (or just to treat yourself, when you might otherwise be inclined to go out to eat).

Saving time

So, how can cooking for yourself save time? As I suggested above, mainly through efficiency--cook enough that you have leftovers and your next meal takes almost no time to prepare.

There are people doing extreme versions of this--cooking a whole month ahead, for example--which is fine if that's what you want to do, but not really necessary.

It also gives you extra control--you can decide when to fix something quick and when you've got time to spend preparing a special meal. (Ever gone into a restaurant for a quick bite that ended up taking two hours because the waitress was incompetent and the kitchen was unaccountably slow? I have.)

Of course, to save time you have to make that a priority right from the start. There are dishes that take large amounts of prep time--but since you're in control, you just don't cook those when you're pinched for time. There are lots of things that can be fixed quickly--and other things that at least don't require much time in the kitchen. (Crock-pot meals are the classic example of the latter. Personally, I don't have a crock pot, preferring instead to use a pressure cooker.) (See also: The 5 Best Pressure Cookers)

But you don't need to actually cook in some special way or follow some special process to save time--just choose things that can be prepared quickly: salads, sandwiches, stir-fry, pasta, roasted vegetables, poached seafood, grilled meats, etc. Breakfast dishes are typically quick to cook, and plenty of them (omelets, for example) are easily adapted for dinners.

Even when you optimize for time, cooking and then cleaning up takes some time--but so does going to a restaurant, ordering, and waiting for your food to arrive. Of course, cooking requires grocery shopping, but if you're already shopping, the extra time it takes to buy enough to fix most of your meals isn't much of an increase (unless all you're doing now is keeping your fridge stocked with beer and soda)--just be focused and efficient. Again, it's possible to take this to extremes as well--sort your shopping list into the order you'll find things in the store, for example--but that's not necessary either.

In fact, though, simple efficiencies like keeping staples on hand mean that you'll be able to shop less often, because you won't have to make special trips to the store due to running out of something. (Stocking up on cheap stuff also provides a huge financial return.)

Having it all

The core win of knowing how to cook is that it expands the range of what's possible. Just because you've learned to cook doesn't mean you can't eat a restaurant meal when you want to; it just means that you don't have to. Instead, you have a bunch of options that are all cheaper and mostly healthier and better.

For example, I rather like french dip sandwiches. I can get one at a good local restaurant; around here a french dip meal might run $15 a person plus tip. Or I can go for cheaper options. At a chain restaurant I might be able to get out for $8 plus tip (except that I'd probably buy a soda or a beer, adding a few dollars to the tab). The last time I got a french dip at a fast-food joint, I think I spent a little over $7 (which included fries and a soda that I'd probably have been better off without).

At the deli counter at the grocery store, roast beef tends to run about $9 a pound. I sometimes buy a package of sandwich rolls, and then get just enough roast beef to make one sandwch--for a total of about $3.50 (mustard plus a bouillon cube and some hot water for the dip will add a few cents to the cost). The sandwich rolls, though, come in packages of four or six, so once I've made my french dip I can make several more really cheap sandwiches (just the cost of the deli meat) over the next several days. (And they can be something different--chicken, turkey, and ham are all usually cheaper than roast beef.)

Which brings us, finally, to cooking. For not much more than the cost of one serving of deli meat, you can get a big hunk of raw meat--if you buy a cheap cut that's been marked down because it's approaching its sell-by date. Cook that in the pressure cooker (or roast it, if you happen to find a good deal on a nice cut). For example, last week my wife found a shoulder roast on sale for about $5. That plus $2 for the sandwich rolls and maybe 50¢ worth of onion and garlic made six sandwiches, so about $1.25 per sandwich.

I spent about half an hour cooking the meat: While I cut up the onion and a couple cloves of garlic, I browned each side of the meat in the pressure cooker pot over medium heat. Then I added two cups of water, put the lid on, brought it up to high pressure, and let it cook for 20 minutes.

I also spent a few minutes cutting the meat into thin slices for sandwiches and a few minutes more building the sandwiches--but I've waited longer than that to get served at a fast-food joint.

I don't think anybody disputes that cooking is cheaper and healthier than eating out. It's only better, I suppose, if you're a good cook--but you don't have to be a great chef to fix stuff exactly the way you like it, you just need to practice a bit. Is it actually faster than eating out? Well, it can be--if you stick to stuff that's quick to fix, or if you go to some effort to be very efficient, or (especially) if your basis for comparison is a nice restaurant rather than a fast-food joint.

I think it adds up to plenty of reasons to teach yourself how to cook.
 

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Guest

What a lovely post.

Guest's picture
Eden

I've turned cooking into a semi-serious hobby for many of the reasons you mention. I realized that I really enjoy food, but I don't enjoy much of the eating out experience, and certainly don't want to do that all of the time. I also found that I can make many things that taste better what I was previously going out to eat.

I'm doing most of my learning via the Food Network, Cook's Illustrated (online and print), AllRecipes.com, and a few quality cookbooks.

Guest's picture

couldnt agree with you more! thanks!

Guest's picture
Amy

I've always felt that cooking at home is way better, but never really looked at it from a time-savings perspective.

My fiance and I have planned and cooked 5+ meals at home each week since we started living together last December. It has definitely saved lots of money, especially since I am able to take leftovers for lunch on most days.

I have gotten to the point where I'm never really satisfied with meals we get at restaurants (aside from the pricey ones we go to once in a great while). I feel like "I could have cooked something better" in most cases.

Guest's picture

Rather than the big cookbooks, like Joy, which can offer the "paradox of 9too much) choice, I would recommend smaller books--or just ask a friend who likes to cook. You only need a handful of recipes to start. (One suggestion would be some of the books by Marian Burros--you can get most of these on paperbackswap).

On my blog, I've written about quick and easy and cheap recipes....like thai coconut curry with shrimp and 4 ingredient enchiladas. People have been surprised by how easy/quick/and, yes, inexpensive these are.

Guest's picture
Rosa

Me too, Amy! Not that we do fancy cooking every night (tonight: sauteed zucchini, mushrooms & asparagus w/some sort of noodles, because that's what veggies are in the fridge). But I feel like, if we *are* going to go out, it should either be something we don't know how to make or it should taste better than what we make at home. That keeps us out of restaurants so much we're actually trying to schedule more meals out (at least once a month) this year, to keep in touch with what's available in the neighborhood.

In my experience, cooking *something*, even if it's a scrambled-egg burrito or a salad w/whatever's in the fridge for toppings, is faster than ordering & waiting for a delivery pizza, too. And you can invite friends over to hang out at the same time and they'll usually be impressed.

The only exception was when we had a baby/young toddler who didn't ever want to be put down - then sometimes takeout was easier. But most families aren't in that state for very long, if at all.

Guest's picture
SE

For beginning cooks, a great idea is to learn how to fix a few "one-two punch" meals: an initial large meal that leads to an additional totally different meal or two. Probably my favorite such sequence is a roast chicken, then stock from the carcass for chicken soup or pot pie. I also love to braise a large beef roast (or cook it in the crockpot), leading to a second meal of shepherd's pie or French onion soup. Yum!

These things are not difficult, and they are SO much better than most restaurant meals.

Guest's picture

I think one way for people who are just starting to learn to cook to make their own meals is to use a slow cooker.

All you have to do is assemble a few ingredients, throw them in the slow cooker and let the cooker do all of the work.

An additional benefit is that you can use cheaper cuts of meat because the slow cooking process makes the meat fall off the bone tender.

They even make small slow cookers for single people along with cookbooks like "Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Recipes for Two: For the Small Slow Cooker."

Guest's picture
Karen

Another advantage of cooking is that you can cook things exactly the way you like it. I just moved and my pots and pans aren't unpacked yet, so I've been eating out a lot. Tonight I went to Chipotle and had a pretty decent fajita, but all I could think was "I would have sauteed the onions instead of serving them raw, and used fewer green peppers, and added some cumin to the rice". When you cook for yourself, you pick the ingredients and you decide how to combine them.

I had to teach myself to cook, since I never learned growing up and none of my friends cooked much. I depended on my Betty Crocker cookbook (which is a better beginner cookbook than Joy of Cooking, in my opinion). But I also learned a lot from watching cooking shows on TV, particularly America's Test Kitchen and Good Eats. Sometimes it's easier to watch someone doing something than trying to learn from a book. Also, many areas teach "extension" classes at night at the local school, and cooking classes are almost always offered, for very little cost.

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Jules

So what's the french dip recipe you use?

Philip Brewer's picture

@Jules:

French dip is an interesting example--in part because I don't have anything like a recipe.

If I cook the beef myself, I usually pressure cook it in a couple cups of water with an onion and a couple cloves of garlic.  Then I use the resulting broth as the dip.

If I buy roast beef from the deli, I usually just use a cup of bouillon as the dip (often adding some onion flakes or onion powder and some minced garlic--but I might skip that if I'm in a hurry).

If I've actually roasted a roast (rather than pressure cooking it), then I might get kind of fancy with the dip--because there won't be any broth that just comes along for free the way it does in the pressure cooker.  There will be pan drippings, though, which are the classic source of "au jus" for something like a French dip.  Pour off the drippings, then add a bit of wine (or broth or even just water) to the pan, and put it on a warm burner and gently scrape off some of the roasted-on stuff off the bottom of the pan.  (Called "de-glazing" the pan.)  Combine with the drippings and simmer in a sauce pan for a bit with some onion (or garlic, carrot, celery--whatever you like).  Skim off as much fat as you can and serve the rest as dip.  (This will give you a much better dip than the other methods.  But, since the roast meat will only be good if you start with a particuarly good cut of beef, it's only a frugal option if you can get a great deal on the meat.  We usually get a standing rib roast for our Christmas feast, but otherwise usually use one of the other options listed, unless we find a fantastic sale on roasts.)

Just lately I've seen some restaurants (especially fast-food places) thicken the dip almost like a thin gravy.  If that's how you like it, just take a teaspon (or so) of the fat you skimmed off, add a teaspoon (i.e. an equal amount) of flour, and stir it together in a pan over medium heat until every grain of flour is coated with fat.  Then, gradually add the broth part of the dip while stirring.  The result will be a thickened dipping sauce.

All these things are easier if you keep some broth on hand.  Anytime we cook anything with bones, we save the carcass and any trimmings and then boil them together (with some onion and a carrot and some celery leaves) to make broth.  (Refrigerate overnight, skim off any fat.  If  you don't need to use it within a day or two, you can keep it in the freezer for many months.)  Even though we always do that, we also end up buying canned broth sometimes.  (And, as I mentioned at the top, using an occasional bouillon cube, when we're in a hurry.)

Guest's picture
Jules

Thanks Philip!

Guest's picture
Debbie M

I have to say that learning the basics of cooking once you are already an adult is not easy. I know this because I have watched someone try. He bought a food processor for one recipe because he didn't realize there were other ways to accomplish the goal, for example. People who learned to cook as kids forget just how much is involved and don't always explain well.

Cookbooks are written in a sparse, abbreviated style with technical terms rarely used elsewhere. Those cooking show people have huge loads of expensive equipment, which is just not needed. And they don't even show how to measure anything--it's just magically waiting in unnecessary little bowls that they don't have to clean themselves. Who's going to tell you to pack the brown sugar down tightly, spoon in the flour lightly, and measure shortening by submerging it in a cup of water?

There may be some good YouTube videos now. But otherwise there's no substitute for actually watching someone doing everything. Including shopping!

I learned most of my cooking skills while camping with Girl Scouts, which has made me appreciative of having access to stove burners instead of a fire and a cheese grater instead of just a dull knife. And a can opener instead of just a dull knife. Hmm, wonder how those knives got so dull? I actually used one where the back of the blade was sharper than the front.

I also learned a few things from Mom (who let me in the kitchen only to earn my cooking badge and to load or unload the dishwasher) and from an 8th grade home ec class. I learned a lot more from various roommates. And I occasionally learn more from friends or cooking shows (where I learned how to stir things that needed to keep their air bubbles--you can do it a lot more thoroughly than I had feared).

Some cookbooks do try to be teaching cookbooks, such as _Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!_ Frankly, I still hate _Joy of Cooking_ which has recipes embedded within recipes embedded within recipes. I just want it all on one page.

You will also get conflicting information. My mom taught me that you need the meat drippings to get a flavorful gravy--the fat has all the flavor. My latest roommate taught me that you can put the broth you make from the drippings into the fridge so the fat separates and THROW THE FAT AWAY and you still can make a flavorful gravy from it.

However, my mom has a vegetable-oil-based pie crust that comes out flaky even though everyone else insists you have to have the little flakes of butter in there to make flakiness. So experiment and make your own judgments!

Mostly new learners should remember that they aren't as stupid as they feel. And it's good to specialize a bit at first, trying the same sorts of recipes until they get easier in order to build confidence. Charlie above recommends a slow cooker. I've heard of someone who stir fries. Many guys barbecue. There's also sandwiches, eggs, soups, muffins. I started with French toast and mixing various things into macaroni and cheese. Pick something you really love, try a bunch of versions of things, ask people questions, and experience success.

There may be some things you never get, though. My mom doesn't do cake from scratch even though she makes her own yeast breads and pies, which are harder! She says her cakes always come out too dense. My chocolate chip cookies always come out too cakey (but I haven't given up yet). Even giant black holes of knowledge don't keep you from being an admired cook, especially to yourself when you come home from work and have a lovely tupperware of pasta with actual whole grains in it and not even trace amounts of hydrogenated fats!

Philip Brewer's picture

@Debbie M:

All good points.  My mom showed me exactly the things you mentioned--sifting flour, packing brown sugar into the measuring cup--and more (how to identify the "soft-ball stage" while making fudge).  I agree that it would be hard to just figure that stuff out from a cookbook--which is why I recommended learning from a relative or friend who can show you that stuff.  (And recommend staying away from confections and pastries, unless you do have someone who can show you how its down.)

On the other hand, you can make rice knowing nothing except how to boil and simmer.  Once you know that, you can make soup as well, if you can cut things up into small pieces.  Stir-frying is something you can learn by trial and error, if you can tolerate a few errors (most of which will still be edible, even if not exactly what you wanted).  And so on.

The payoff from being able to cook is so huge, I think it's worth the cost of the occasional failure that comes of learning the hard way.  (And those of us lucky enough to have learned the easy way should stand ready to pass on the knowledge--and should be thankful for just how good we've got it.)

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Rosa

That's a good point, Debbie.

I pretty much had to teach myself to cook because I didn't want to eat the kind of things my mom cooked.

I'm a huge fan of kids cookbooks from the '60s and earlier. They don't assume you know what you're doing, they define terms, they offer measurements, and they usually have pretty clear directions. (instead of my mom's recipes, which use measurements like "a box of cottage cheese" and directions "cook until done" or "brown until looks right.")

If you get too late a publishing date, you get into the idea that kids only like junk food & aren't allowed to use the stove. But I had kids cookbooks from the '50s and '60s that taught me how to make a roux, how to saute, how to make a white or chocolate cake, which part of an orange is the zest - all the stuff that can stymie a new cook.

Guest's picture
Jim

As a retired meat cutter (40 years), I learned very early on that cooking and eating out are as different as driving a car or going for a walk.

We eat out because we're hungry, we cook because we have a cooking method we want to use, not necessarily for the end result.

When a customer would ask for a specific cut of meat I would always ask how they are going to prepare it, then proceed onto the cut.

For those folks who have issues with cooking shows or cookbooks, try the Pioneer Woman (online). She presents recipes in easy to follow, photo sequences.

Then there are also online recipe sites (RecipeZaar and AllRecipes) that let you search for ideas based on what ingredients you have on hand. I usually print 4 or 5 recipes from these sites and then ad lib. But last night my wife made me stick to just one recipe and it came out great. (Sometimes she says she isn't very hungry.)

Guest's picture
Sheila

I haven't made French dips in years. Guess what will be on the next menu plan?? Great reminder!

Guest's picture
Chris

One of my favorite sites is www.foodwishes.com run by Chef John. He gives 5 minute cooking videos that are both humorous, quick and quite good. He does videos on about.com as well. I have been cooking since before I was legally able to work but absolutely enjoy his cooking shows.

Guest's picture
Guest

Rob Cockerham over at cockeyed.com does a great series of scientific "experiments". One set involved eating out every single meal for one month, and then spend one month eating every single meal prepared at home. He compared the time spent, cost, and weight gain. It makes for enjoyable reading (and there are data in spreadsheets for you fellow nubmer-geeks):

http://www.cockeyed.com/science/eating_out/mar1.html
http://www.cockeyed.com/science/eating_in/feb1.html

Now, Rob was still a single guy at this point - so his eating at home menu included top ramen and other pre-packaged timesavers. Still he tried to cook too.

The month of eating at home, he spent $335 on food and drink, or $11.55 per day, including some booze. He went shopping 17 times and spent an average of 32 min cooking each day. Cleaning up added an avg 6.5 min per day.
Data: http://www.cockeyed.com/science/eating_in/feb_store_table.html
http://www.cockeyed.com/science/eating_in/feb_timetable.html

The month of eating out he spent a total of $622.43 ($20.08/day) including $34.55 in tips. Data is on the Mar28 page.

The big surprise, he says, was how long it took to eat out -- it was almost impossible to get food in under 8 min when eating out.

I'm surprised he didn't gain or lose any weight but stayed the same across the two months.

However, Rob concluded that it was way more fun to eat out. Given the description of what he ate at home (lots of tuna pasta) I can only guess that eating out tasted better too.

Being a better cook definitely would have helped improve the eating at home experience.

Guest's picture
Alex E

I recently had my girlfriend show me how to make sushi, a feat I never would have attempted solo. Neither of us are sushi chefs by any standard, so we made some amateur stuff. The next day we had some fish still leftover so I gave it a second go, remembering what gave us trouble and what we learned from the day before. I could hardly believe it when I made some pretty decent sushi myself.

I guess in the case of the more complex stuff, just don't repeat your mistakes and try try again.

Guest's picture

I enjoy cooking and creating my own concoction!