Kitchen Nightmare: 10 Cooking Questions Ami Is Almost Too Afraid To Ask

Heeeeeelllllllp!
Learning to cook

Winona: So Ami, I had this thought while I was making dinner last night. I really want to teach you to cook.

Ami: I would love that.

Winona: Because you hate cooking right?

Ami: I just don’t get it. I’m impatient and hate doing things I’m bad at.

Winona: As a perfectionist oldest child, I feel you, girl.

Ami: Plus, in my house growing up, no one cooked. Like nothing. It was cereal for dinner. I can cook eggs and chicken. That’s it.

Winona: But you watch more cooking shows than anyone I know. Where does that obsession come from?

Ami: My obsession comes from loving food. I feel like being able to cook is a powerful thing.

Winona: Oh my God, it totally is. It’s very empowering to be able to make your own food. My parents cooked a lot when I was growing up, but they made really bad food, and learning to cook for myself was such a revelation.

Ami: It’s a way in which I feel disempowered, and I want to be able to do it, but have no idea where to start.

Winona: I see so much potential in you, Ami. You are gonna be Luke Skywalker to my Obi-Wan, and eventually I hope to leverage our charming Jedi dynamic to get a Food Network co-hosting gig.

Ami: YES PLEASE. There are just so many questions I have about cooking, but they’re so basic I’ve been too afraid to ask anyone.

Winona: There’s no such thing as a stupid question. Let’s do this…

Ami: Whenever any friends or boyfriends have seen me chopping anything, they’ve immediately told me they’d feel more comfortable if I just sat down and had a glass of wine. I’m pretty sure my knife skills are abominable, but no one will teach me how to cut things. It’s a cooking catch 22. I know what kohlrabi is because I watch obscene amounts of cooking TV, but I have no idea how to chop something as simple as an onion. What’s the difference between dicing, mincing, and julienne? Do they require different knives?

Winona: I feel your pain on this one because for some reason I have amnesia when it comes to remembering chopping techniques. Like, I have probably chopped 3,000 onions in my lifetime, yet every time I go to cut an onion, I turn into Drew Barrymore in “50 First Dates,” with absolutely no memory of how to slice to create the shape I want. My advice: don’t be ashamed to use Google or YouTube. I seriously watch this video, titled “How To Chop An Onion,” like three times a week. You can Google or YouTube search the name of pretty much any food and see a quick tutorial about how to cut it into the shape you want. With a bit of practice, you’ll start feeling more confident with your knife skills, and maybe someday you’ll even be able to drink wine while chopping, without anyone trying to confiscate your knife in the name of public safety!

And here’s a quick breakdown of different chopping styles: dicing is cutting something into small cubes, julienne means long strips, and mincing is cutting it into very small bits that can be mashed into a paste (like garlic). It’s helpful to have a few different types of knives for different foods and cuts, but to get started, you can do pretty much everything with a basic chef’s knife like this.

Where do you get your cooking supplies from? They’re so expensive. Quite honestly, I’d rather spend my money at Sephora. What are the basic supplies and food staples that I need to start cooking?

I get almost as excited in cooking stores as I do in Sephora, but I know what you mean — that shit adds up quick! I have a few high-end cooking supplies (I love my fancy wood cutting board and bright red Chantal saute pan), but probably 90% of the kitchen stuff I own is from department store super sales or thrift stores. You can get awesome pots, pans, trays, graters, and utensils for like 2 bucks a piece at Goodwill.

As for the basic supplies and food staples needed to start cooking, I think that’s an awesome idea for a whole separate post, so stay tuned for that next week!

How do you know when a piece of chicken, beef, or fish is done? I see people using those thermometer things, but I don’t have one. When I’ve made chicken in the past, I’ve always cut it open to see if it was pink. My motto is, “If it’s not pink, I’m not going to die.” But I can only serve that butchered chicken breast to myself. Is there a better way?

Girl, you’ve gotta get a meat thermometer. Your “no pink = no death” equation is technically correct, at least for poultry, but you’re losing so many delicious juices by hacking into it to see if it’s done. A meat thermometer takes out the guesswork and makes the whole process a lot easier. You can use this chart to figure out the best temperature for each meat. When it comes to fish, many types of fish change color from translucent to opaque during the cooking process, and you can decide if it’s done based on how it looks. But as I’ve mentioned before, I’m just learning to cook fish myself, so maybe we can give each other tips on that one as we both get better at it!

Why can’t I use margarine or that spray butter stuff? Why do people who cook think it’s gross when I do? Is butter really all that amazing? I don’t get it.

My boyfriend is a professional baker, so butter is kind of like a deity in our house. Margarine is made of hydrogenated oil and often has other additives in it, while (good) butter is made with one ingredient: fresh cream. It adds such a pure, rich flavor to baked goods and creamy soups. If you want to cut down on dairy or fat content or make a vegan recipe, there are some good margarine options out there — Julie really likes Earth Balance. And as much as I love butter, for sauteing veggies, I usually prefer olive oil.

What’s a broiler and how does it work? It’s part of the oven, right?

Yep, it’s basically a grill affixed to the roof of your oven (or sometimes it’s a separate drawer underneath) that exposes foods to very high heat from above. You can use it to quickly brown foods after cooking them (my boyfriend always broils his baked mac and cheese for a few minutes after cooking it to crisp up the top — SO GOOD) or to cook thinly cut pieces of meat or veggies. It’s very, very easy to burn stuff while using the broiler because the heat is so high, so keep the oven door ajar when you use it and keep a close eye on whatever you’re broiling. I feel qualified to give this advice because I am the Champion Of Putting A Piece Of Bread Under The Broiler And Forgetting About It Until The Smoke Alarm Goes Off.

What’s the difference between braising and basting? Again, I know what sous vide is, but not the more basic techniques.

Braising is a two step process that involves first searing something over high heat, and then simmering it for a long time over low heat. The combination of high and low heat brings out a ton of flavor. Basting means using a brush or baster to take juices from the bottom of a pan and spread them over meat as it cooks to keep it moist.

What do people mean when they say “sweat the onions”?

This phrase always reminds me of a guy on my high school soccer team who would start smelling very strongly of onions a few minutes into our pre-game warmup, but the cooking definition is to cook them over low heat in a covered pot to release moisture. This method brings out a lot of flavor without browning the onions.

What’s a reduction?

It’s a way to thicken and bring out flavor by boiling something to literally reduce it down. You can make a reduction from pretty much any liquid (as is often proved by “Chopped” contestants and their crazy bacon Limoncello reductions), but it’s most commonly used for sauces, wines, soups, and juices. It also sounds like a super fancy professional technique, but I swear it is SO easy. Just boil and stir. Boom. Reduction.

How do you decide what you’re going to make for dinner on an average night? I’m never really home, so going out to eat or ordering takeout just seems easier.

It can be really tough to come up with ideas for dinner night after night and not give in to the siren song of takeout. Here are a few tips that have really helped me:

1. When I’m in that “absolutely no idea what the hell to make for dinner” headspace, I think What restaurant would I like to go to tonight? What would I order there? and whatever the answer is, I make a version of it at home. Sometimes that means I make a super simple plate of pita, hummus, and veggies, and other times it inspires me to make butternut squash gnocchi from scratch. Often this little exercise just helps me to narrow things down to a type of food — Greek? Mexican? Italian? American? — and I can figure out what to make from there.

2. Surround yourself with inspiration. You already watch cooking shows, which is a good start — try jotting down ideas or cool recipes you see on TV, follow some cooking blogs, buy a food magazine and tear out the pages that make you drool, search for recipe ideas on Pinterest, or (shameless self-promotion ahead) click through some Frisky Eats slideshows! Nick and I keep a folder of printed recipes in our kitchen, and I have even more ideas bookmarked online. I also keep a Google doc (nerd alert) called Dinnerz That R Good that I try to update whenever we make something awesome for dinner that I want to make sure to remember to make again.

3. Keep your kitchen stocked with basics. There’s nothing that will deflate an excited would-be chef quicker than realizing you’re out of olive oil and need to go to the — DUN DUN DUN — grocery store. Keeping a fridge and pantry full of cooking staples and delicious fresh foods will help inspire you to cook at home more often.

4. Don’t be afraid to keep it simple. Sometimes I’ll be in the mood for a Thai stir fry but I’m way too lazy to gather and prep all the ingredients, so I just make sauteed string beans with tofu (which takes about 10 minutes). Similar idea, but way easier.

5. Don’t get down on yourself if you do end up getting takeout. It takes awhile to get in the rhythm of cooking at home, and even though I love to cook, I still eat out a few times a week because hello, restaurants are delicious.

What’s the deal with recipes? I’m always a fan of just “eyeballing” stuff and seeing how it comes out. A recipe feels stifling to me. Do I need to use recipes?

I totally agree about recipes feeling stifling! Here’s my advice on using recipes: use them often, especially when you’re just learning to cook, but use them as rough guidelines instead of strict directions. Unlike baking, most cooking isn’t an exact science, and it’s so fun to just go wild with spices and stuff, but it’s important to get the foundation of a dish right before you start messing with it. Think of recipes as jumping-off points for your own unique culinary creations.

Frisky readers — do you have any other tips for Ami? Any easy recipes you’d like to share? Any cooking questions you’d like Winona to answer in an upcoming post? Let us know in the comments or email Winona at winona@thefrisky.com!

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