Does the “joy of cooking” sound like an oxymoron to you? Do you want to make your own meals but just don’t know where to begin? Whether you’re a veteran vegan who knows how to make the most of her veg-friendly restaurant circuit or a newbie to the plant-based diet with a fear of pots and pans, worry not! You, too, can become a Good Cook.
1. Have faith. Basic cooking is completely learnable—yes, even for you! Making excellent dishes doesn’t mean that you need to have some inherent talent for DIY spice medleys. You simply have to believe that you’re capable of navigating the grocery store and following instructions.
2. Start with simple recipes that require ingredients you recognize. You can build your confidence and skills by starting with recipes that don’t require anything too elaborate (including an excessive amount of time in the kitchen). Maybe a pasta dish with some roasted veggies tossed in oil—or a colorful salad with a homemade dressing.
3. Get comfortable reading recipes. It’s usually a good idea to read an entire recipe before jumping in. Figure out if there’s prep you can do to make the recipe easier once you’re in the heat of things. For example, if you’re making a stir-fry with several vegetables, you can go ahead and slice all the veggies, even if you have to add them at during stages of the cooking process.
4. Be mindful of timing if you’re making more than one recipe for a meal. For example, say you want to make sautéed veggies with a side of freshly cooked rice. The rice may take around 45 minutes, but the veggies only 15. If you start them at the same time, the veggies will be cold and less fresh by the time the rice is ready. Sometimes I use my iPhone timer in conjunction with the oven timer to keep me organized.
5. Don’t be afraid to mess up. I hate wasting food, and when I was first learning to cook for myself, my inexperience cost me some perfectly good ingredients. Case and point: I managed to utterly char these gorgeous, organic heirloom tomatoes because I didn’t realize that tomatoes don’t need a full hour to roast at 400 degrees! I was crushed—but it was a valuable lesson: Check on your food periodically! For as much as I cook, the few times I messed up (and sometimes still do!) have been worth it. Consider it an initiation fee.
6. When you’re just starting out, don’t try too many substitutions in the same recipe (especially when baking—in cooking, substitutions are usually less risky). Another mistake I made a few times was when trying to bake a gluten-free recipe by simply subbing in a random, gluten-free flour for the regular, all-purpose flour that the original recipe called for. And I probably tried an egg substitute in the same recipe. Ugh. Quel disaster. Confession: just recently I found a recipe for a non-vegan chocolate zucchini bread. I wanted to veganize it and surprise my husband with it. Well, I was low on zucchini, so I subbed in banana (even better, right?), and I didn’t have canola oil, so I used my standby, coconut. THE THING NEVER COOKED. Two hours later, I was still left with a gelatinous “bread.” It tasted great, but the texture… If you want to make a vegan xyz, then do your best to find a vegan recipe.
7. It’s okay to go half-homemade—be creative with combinations of pre-made things and things you make yourself. Most grocery stores carry delicious boxed soup—I love using these as a side dish or as a sauce for rice and veggies. Also, even though I enjoy making my own salsa, I’m perfectly happy to buy a nice jar of it from the grocery store and serve it with homemade guac, which, let’s face it, is always better homemade.
8. Get really good at one thing, and learn variations on it. My signature recipe is risotto. I’ve memorized my mom’s recipe, and I can make it in my sleep. Now that I’m confident making it, I can change it up—curry risotto, risotto with millet, risotto with quinoa, rice risotto with lemon juice instead of wine, butternut squash risotto…
9. Get inspired! Make recipe boards on Pinterest, or buy a few cookbooks with mouth-watering photos. Remind yourself that you—yes, you—can create those things, too!
10. Make a weekly meal plan. It’s such a crummy feeling to get home from a long day of work and have no clue what you’re going to eat for dinner. Decision making takes precious energy, which is why life is a little easier when you lay out a plan for the week. Cooking on a given night won’t seem so daunting when you know what you’re going o make—and that you’ve already purchased all the right ingredients! Here’s more on the benefits of meal planning.
Do you have any vegan cooking tips for newbie chefs?
Related: 10 Super Useful Kitchen Tricks
What a Vegan Nutritionist Really Eats in a Day
8 Ways to Curating Your Vegan Cookbook Collection
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Photo: Mary Hood Luttrell