With COVID-19 forcing many of us indoors and cooking more (yes, this post took a little longer to go live than I planned), there’s never been a better time to really learn how to cook. I grew up not learning much about how to cook and taught myself as an adult. Over the last 5-7 years I went from someone who could do the absolute bare minimum (boil pasta, cook chicken breast, etc) to genuinely quite a decent cook. I can easily whip up dinner for 4-6 friends without stressing, cook healthy dinners at home most nights of the week, run a barbecue for 12 people, and have a small quiver of fancy dishes to impress friends, family, and my wife from time to time. This post is mostly about what works for me, but I’m calling it Cooking For Founders because I think it will resonate with a lot of entrepreneurs who think like me.
The goal of this post is not to teach you how to cook but to provide fairly comprehensive, but also minimum viable, roadmap for going from a cooking noob to solid home chef.
Why you should cook
Until I was about 25 or so I really didn’t cook much. I lived in places like NYC and London where restaurants were always open and ubiquitous and especially in these cities, it’s a perfectly reasonable position to just not bother learning to cook well. But I want to make the case that even if you have world class restaurants and food delivery services on demand, you should learn to cook.
Social: Home cooked meals are an awesome offer that people are very likely to take you up on and really appreciate. Cooking well is sexy and makes for an awesome date night. Dinner parties are fantastic well to meet new people and create a vibrant personal and professional network. Taking charge of a meal is a great way to bring your family together or impress your in-laws.
Physical Health: Even if you aren’t bothering with any particular diet (low carb, paleo, etc), cooking at home is almost always going to be more nutritious than food from restaurants. Getting actually healthy food from restaurants/delivery is almost always expensive. Cooking at home is an affordable way to get great nutrition.
Mental Health: This may be more specific to me, but I find cooking to be fantastic for my mental health. In my house I’m the one cooking about 90% of the time and I’m not into the mega meal prep strategies where you cook food for the whole week. So, most days, I’m cooking something fresh for dinner. The need to start cooking prep in time for a reasonable dinner puts a natural stopping point in my work day and then I get to switch to a very focused mono-tasking activity. This routine is, for me, a kind of meditation that separates the work day and let’s my brain process the events of the day.
Meta-learning Tips for Learning to Cook
Learning to cook is not exactly easy. There is an infinite amount of recipes, techniques, resources, diets, and on and on to consume. It can be overwhelming. Learning to cook is almost always laden with failures along the way. You’ll screw up some recipes, ruin some dishes, and get halfway through a complex recipe before realizing you’re missing some essential ingredient. Here are some lessons I’ve learned on how to learn.
Find your YouTube & TikTok muses
There is an infinite amount of cooking content on the internet, but when you find a particular chef or channel that really speaks your language, subscribe and binge their entire backlog. Lots of channels out there will skip essential explanations, use overly exotic ingredients, or complex unnecessary techniques so when you find one that consistently speaks to you, lock it in. Some ones I like:
- Helen Rennie (YouTube)
- Food Wishes (YouTube)
- Serious Eats (YouTube)
- @thatdudecancook (TikTok)
- @sad_papi (TikTok)
Have a backup plan
Learning to cook and feeding yourself can be two different things, especially when you are first starting out and failure rates are high. If you are going to try a new recipe for the first time on a busy week night that’s supposed to be your dinner that night (1) go for it! (2) have a frozen pizza or some other quick and easy back up plan ready in case you end up ruining the dish. It’s a really negative feedback loop to mess up a recipe and having to end up eating cereal for dinner, so have a backup plan.
Read/watch the recipe several times well before cooking
Read or watch your recipes carefully, several times, in preparation for trying a new recipe. It’s easy to miss, especially at first, that the recipe actually requires marinating over night, or needs buttermilk or some other ingredient you don’t typically have on hand. Don’t just plop open the recipe book at 7p and start with Step #1.
Stick to a few core cookbooks
Again, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the millions of cookbooks out there. Like YouTube channels, I recommend finding a few comprehensive cookbooks that work for you and sticking to them for years until you get very confident with a wide variety of techniques. With cookbooks, Kindle will work but having the physical copy can also be really helpful (or honestly I usually get both). Here are some that I recommend:
- How To Cook Everything, Mark Bittman
- Cooking For Geeks, Jeff Potter
- Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, Samin Nosrat
- The Four Hour Chef, Tim Ferriss
The books and channels above all have great introductions to all of these concepts so I’m not going to try to actually cover them here, but I think it’s useful have a few simple concepts to check off as you read/watch through the first few.
What heat does (chemistry)
Make sure you pay attention to the sections on the basic chemistry of heat. The vast majority of cooking is just different ways applying heat to food and it’s critical to understand what heat is doing to different kinds of foods. For the most part heat is either (1) denaturing proteins or (2) producing a Maillard Reaction. Denaturing proteins is the slow gradual cooking process that turns eggs from runny to scrambled or steak from rare to well done. Different foods have different kinds of proteins which denature at different temperatures and in different ways. The Maillard Reaction is browning (mostly on on meats and vegetables) and happens at very high heat and low moisture environments. Read up on these carefully. Cooking for Geeks covers these the best in my opinion.
Different kinds of heat transfer (physics)
Similarly to understanding what heat does, it’s really important to have a basic grasp of the various methods of applying heat to food. Baking, broiling, roasting, sautéing, braising, searing, sous vide, boiling, and so on, are all just different methods for applying heat. Some, like baking, use convection where the air is heated up around the food, and others, like searing in a pan, use conduction where the heat is transferred directly surface to surface. A cast iron pan takes a very long time to heat up and stays hot for a long time, whereas the air in your oven can dissipate its heat quickly. Understanding these basic concepts will give you the architecture for understanding for why you should keep the oven door closed as much as possible, dry your meat before searing, and pre-heat your heavy pans for longer than your light ones.
Keep it simple
When you are first learning to cook I recommend avoiding complex recipes in favor of simple two or three-part meals where each component is cooked individually. The vast majority of our home-cooked meals involve cooking (a) a protein like fish or meat (b) a vegetable cooked simply, like roasted in olive oil and (c) a starch like rice, potatoes, simple pasta. This let’s you build a healthy meal with simple individual components, master the same techniques with repeat practice, and minimize the risk of blowing up the whole dish.
Make it taste good
This may seem obvious, but it’s important that the food you cook actually taste good. Home-cooked food is almost always healthier than restaurant food, so don’t try to learn to cook and cook the healthiest possible version of each dish. Most veggies taste better roasted in a generous amount of olive oil than they do steamed, so roast them! Baste your chicken in butter. Salt your food generously. Learning to cook by producing dishes that just aren’t that tasty is a very bad feedback loop, so do what you need to to make it taste good.
Don’t cook everything evenly
This is a little more specific but I feel like it needs to be specifically counter-programmed. For some dumb reason a lot people (including myself 10 years ago) got the notion that food needs to be cooked evenly. That it’s really important to constantly turn and shake and rotate your food so that it’s cooked the same all the around and through. This is a great way to make gross food. Stop touching and turning your food. Most dishes are better with a substantial amount of difference in how cooked different sides of the food are: steak with a crunchy sear and medium rare inside, roasted potatoes with a waxy crust and fluffy inside, carrots or asparagus charred on side are all much tastier and mostly produced by having uneven cooking.
Baking is really hard
Really. Baking is much harder and less forgiving than any other kind of cooking. If you’re just starting to get into cooking, don’t start with baking.
Okay, obviously you can spend and absolute fortune and fill a kitchen with mountains of cooking gear. That’s part of the fun of getting into cooking, let’s be honest. But if all you’ve got is a crappy 10-piece Wal-mart cooking set you got as a wedding gift or a hodge podge you inherited from your roommates, and you need to build your kitchen from scratch, this is the minimum kit I think you need. (Disclosure: most of these are Amazon affiliates links. Don’t click them if that’s a thing that will make you mad).
Pots and Pans
The essential workhorses of cooking. Different kinds of pots and pans provide really different value for money, so I’ll specifically recommend below which ones I think it makes sense to invest in something great that will last versus just get something cheap and replace it every few years. I’ve got a bunch of Amazon links below but I also highly recommend looking up a local restaurant supply store, where you can find high quality equivalents, often for a lot cheaper.
- A large heavy saute pan. I love this 5.5-quart Cuisinart saute pan. I own two of them and use them in probably 75% of meals. Anything with high straight sides, a heavy base and a lid will do. You’ll use this for searing so it makes sense to get a high quality heavy one here, don’t skimp.
- A 12″ non-stick skillet (optional an 8″ one too). Non-stick skillets will not last you for decades so I recommend getting a decent quality cheap one. I like these ones from Tramontina. If you only get one, go for 12″ (you can always cook less food in a larger pan but not the reverse) but an 8″ can be useful especially for egg dishes and if cooking for one person.
- A 12″ stainless steel skillet. If you’re really going for minimalism you can use the heavy saute pan above for everything and skip this. But I find it’s frequent enough that you need to use more than one steel pan simultaneously so I recommend a good one of these. I have two of these from Tramontina.
- An 8-quart stock pot and 2-quart sauce pan. You need at least one big pot for boiling pasta and potatoes and making stews. Again go for 8-quart or more (if you’re cooking for family) since you can always use less of a larger pot. The sauce pan is slightly less critical but will be used often enough that it makes the cut for essential. This stock pot and this sauce pan, both from Tramontina, are probably a bit nicer and pricier than absolutely necessary but will last. You definitely don’t want tinfoil thin pots here but also there’s not much benefit to getting really nice brands for this.
- 2-3 baking sheets with wire racks. I use these constantly for roasting veggies, doing messy food prep (prepping a whole chicken is a lot easier in one of these) or for letting meat dry brine in the fridge. You don’t want to get super cheap ones here since they tend to warp which will make all your olive run to one corner when roasting veggies. I like these Nordic Ware ones which come with their own racks. I currently have 4 of these pans and 2 racks which is more than plenty. FYI, the “half sheet” size is actually the typical size that fits most ovens.
- Optional but cool: a cast iron pan. I think you can honestly skip cast iron when first learning. Cast iron is hard to take care of and can really hold its high heat too long for many beginner cooks. You can use the heavy saucepan above as a substitute for any recipe calling for cast iron. But if you want one, go for it. I have this 12″ Lodge which is cheap enough to just grab it even if it’s not strictly necessary.
This is the minimum viable set. No need to get anything fancy.
- 2-3 sets of stainless steel tongs. This is the essential tool most likely to be missing from basic kitchen setups. I use tongs for every meal and it’s infinitely easier to move food around with tongs versus pushing food around a pan with a spatula. Get at least two in case you touch raw meat with one you don’t have to stop and wash them mid-cook. These ones are fine but honestly anything will do that has this basic shape. I don’t bother with the square wire-shaped tongs which are useless. I also have a set with non-stick tips but there are tons of situations where only the stainless steel will be able to easily grab the food so prioritize those.
- Fish turner spatula. Not just for fish! Similar to tongs this is the most likely to be missing from basic kitchens and I use it all the time. Get stainless steel for scraping nicely browned food off stainless steal pans or baking sheets. I have this one.
- Basic set of wooden spoons and spatulas. Literally any of these sets will do fine but make sure there is a flat-tipped spatula in there. Mine is a hodge podge a hodge podge but here’s a decent set (I would add a soup ladle to this too).
- Micro-plane zester. Yes, you will use this all the time and it’s cheap so it’s in the essential list.
- Instant read digital cooking thermometer. You need at least one when learning to cook meats. I have this hand-held one and this “probe” style one that can be left in during long slow cooks.
Almost everything on this list, just get the cheapest version you can find.
- Stainless Steel Mixing bowls. Just get the most basic set possible. Here’s a ridiculous good deal that includes a bunch of the other items on this list.
- 4-6 “mis en place” prep bowls. Pre-chopping your ingredients is really helpful when you’re starting. I have eight of these but again the cheapest things you can find will be great.
- Measuring cup set and large heat-safe glass measuring cup. You need a full set of measuring cups and one of these glass pitcher measuring things (I have a set of 3 but if you only get one go for the 2-cup one).
- Strainer. You need at least one (I also have a few smaller ones). Get at least one that is large enough that you can lay it across your sink, giving you two hands to pour into it. This is a great one.
- A dozen or so bar towels. Having these on hand for clean up, drying, and a quick alternative to hot pads is indispensable and will really cut down on your paper towel use. I have, a lot, of these.
You need just a few knives but you should get decent ones.
- Chef’s knife. 90% of all knife work happens with this so get a good one. I have this 8″ from Global which is great and I also have the one from Misen, which is considerably cheaper and still pretty great.
- Pairing knife. Nice and small and useful when the Chef’s knife is too big and unwieldy. Again I have the one from Global but the Misen one is probably great (I don’t have that one).
- Serrated knife. You need at least one of these. Most folks recommend a bread knife but I don’t find myself cutting huge loaves of bread that often, so I have a serrated utility knife like this one. In general I think you can get by with a cheaper knife when it’s serrated vs a straight edge so feel free to substitute this for something cheaper and prioritize a nice chef’s knife.
- Honing rod. Get one of these. Learn how to use it. Straighten your knife’s edge before every time you use it. Ceramic ones like this are best.
- Large cutting board. Get the biggest one that you can reasonably use in your kitchen. There’s nothing more annoying than running out of cutting board space when prepping. I have a comically large one I got at IKEA that barely fits in our sink and it’s a game-changer. This one looks good to me.
- Smaller plastic cutting boards. Especially if you’re cutting and prepping meat, it can be nice to not have to wash your cutting board mid-prep. I have 3-4 of these.
Cooking means leftovers so get a good set of storage containers.
- I have a bunch of these Cambro containers because that’s what chef’s use and I’m a geek. But get any good set of 8-12 containers that nests well.
- Gallon ziploc bags. I try to avoid disposable things in my cooking but this is the one unavoidable tool for freezing and marinated.
Optional but great
Everything here is not strictly essential but if I had any room left in the budget this is what I would prioritize.
- Instant Pot. We use this at least once a week to make stews, chili, beans, or rice.
- Blender or food processor. We have this Vitamix which is about the most lux thing in our kitchen but it’s still going strong five years later and it absolutely handles anything we throw at it.
- Salt pig and pepper mill. Get yourself some Diamond Crystal Kosher salt and fill up this salt pig. I have no idea why it’s called a salt pig. Fresh peppercorns ground in your own pepper mill (I use this one) is a serious upgrade.
- Box grater. Handy but very single use so it doesn’t make the essentials list.
And that’s it. It can definitely be a daunting shopping list if starting more or less from scratch but that’s why I started this post with all of the life-long benefits of learning to cook. It’s worth it!
Some Essential Skills & Techniques
Once you have your essential gear, you will need to start practicing some essential skills that are the building blocks of most recipes. All of these are explained in the books I suggested but I wanted to quickly flag the best approach to the most important ones.
Chop & Prep
Don’t re-invent the wheel here. Basically every food item has a well-known best practice for how to chop or otherwise prep it. Just search them on YouTube and learn them one by one as they come up in recipes. Here’s a mega video on how to prep every vegetable.
Searing requires a Maillard Reaction which means very high heat plus low moisture. Learn how to properly dry your meat and veggies, how to pre-heat appropriately, and how salt interacts with moisture (it pulls it to the surface of meat which can prevent browning). Use high smoke point oils like grapeseed or avocado for searing, not olive oil. Pay special attention this as a good sear versus a mediocre one can make all the difference in some dishes.
I love roasting vegetables. Prep them to create flat surfaces that make direct contact with the pan. Minimize moisture so you get browning. Use enough oil. The outside edges of the pan are hotter than the middle so arrange the thicker pieces on the outside. This is a great video with tons of tips for veggies.
Pre-heat. Don’t crowd the pan. Learn to test the heat with your hand. Resist the urge to move or shake stuff once you put it in the pan.
Change your sponges regularly. Get some Bar Keepers Friend to deep clean your stainless steel pans. Get this little bottle brush which is made for baby bottles but comes in handy a lot.
That’s everything I know about how to get started cooking. Get your gear, buy some books, subscribe to some YouTube and TikTok channels and get cooking.