Overcoming your fears in the kitchen

Eleanor Roosevelt is attributed as saying, “You must do the things you think you cannot do.” This quote could be inspiring in many aspects of living, but I found it to be especially encouraging when I was learning to cook.

One of the reasons I was hesitant to cook at home was I didn’t feel like I could make restaurant-quality food (which, I couldn’t at that point). Why would I eat at home when I could eat something better at a restaurant? It wasn’t until I quit my job to go to graduate school that I had to pinch pennies and stop eating out most every night. To keep from getting incredibly bored eating poor to mediocre dinners, I embraced Eleanor’s words and began trying to do the things I didn’t think I could do.

How did I do it?

  1. Become comfortable with failure. If you have a misguided notion that you’re going to get every recipe and every cooking skill right the first time you attempt it, your pride is going to take a hit. (Mine did. This was a lesson learned the hard way.) Cooking isn’t difficult, but many skills require practice.
  2. Identify your favorite meals you’ve had in restaurants. Recreating these meals at home is a good place to begin your journey. With just a couple tries, you’ll probably discover you can make better versions of these meals.
  3. Hang out with the recipes. Does the idea of making a souffle terrify you? Carry the recipe around with you for a week. Study it. Read it so many times you can recite it from memory. When you know what to expect, the process is less frightening.
  4. Research. Whether you get your hands on a copy of Jacques Pepin’s Complete Techniques or watch videos on YouTube, it’s always a good idea to see how someone else tackles a similar method. Even if your style is a little different, seeing another person do what you want to do reduces a lot of fears.
  5. Have a backup plan. Keep a loaf of bread and sandwich meat in the refrigerator for those nights when what you attempt is grossly inedible. You’ll feel a lot less pressure when you know you and your family won’t go hungry.

Let go of your fears and learn to clarify butter, trim a rack of lamb, emulsify a Hollandaise sauce, bake a loaf of bread, cut the spine out of a whole chicken, butcher a tenderloin into fillets, bread and fry tofu, or whatever it is you are currently afraid to do. You can do it, you should do it, even if you think you cannot.

4 comments posted

  1. Posted by Carson Chittom - 05/09/2011

    This is all good advice. I would only add: Don’t be afraid to use a big knife or a cleaver! (I’m always amazed by the number of people who are.)

    I didn’t start cooking until I was in my mid-twenties. So looking back, I’m actually a little surprised that it never even occurred to me to be afraid of my performance in the kitchen. I suppose it helped that, at home, as a man, I was expected to be bad at it—going hand in hand with your post on Unclutterer today about gender stereotypes—so when I did okay, I got praises all around. And at work, which was a restaurant kitchen, I had to be good (at least at the narrow range of dishes I prepared), or I’d be fired—so there’s motivation!

  2. Posted by Marc Roman - 05/09/2011

    I can attest to this story, that your first few steps into the kitchen should not involve any pressure. Start of with a dish that you really enjoy eating. In my case that was a goopy pasta carbonara. The joy and satisfaction you get out of mastering one of your favorites is priceless.

    I would add that it’s good to follow your intuition, when cooking. It’s the best way to gauge it. And if you make a mistake, that’s just another opportunity to see if you can find another way to correct it. And if all fails, you can just throw it out in the garbage. Also, try to pay attention to your nose and ears. The sound a steak makes, changes of the course of frying it. It’s helpful!

    As a last note, Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything” has been (and still is) a major help to me. It tells you the why of things, gives you essential recipes and techniques, and ideas for expanding on those basics. It’s really worth checking out, in my view.

  3. Posted by Julie - 05/09/2011

    As someone teaching myself to cook, I would also add: be prepared to ruin a few shirts and injure yourself occasionally. Even when things go well, I’ve had to deal with splattering oil, burns from accidentally touching the side of the oven when pulling something out, sudden shrieking of the fire alarm because of smoke, and huge messes. Thankfully I’ve never cut off my fingers (yay!), but you can’t let little setbacks keep you back.

    My favorite two mantras when it comes to learning how to cook:
    1. “Experience is what you get right after you needed it.”
    2. “Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgement.”

  4. Posted by Heather - 05/10/2011

    I just baked my first loaf of bread last night. I have had the recipe on my fridge for ages and always thought that I want to make it, but thought it would be hard. And I admit, I was scared. It isn’t pretty by any means, but it’s delicious and I’m really proud of myself.

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