It’s not uncommon for people to think that you need good cooking skills to be a good home cook. I mean, of course, right?
But after working with home cooks with minimal natural cooking skills and even less desire to cook, I found that this seemingly obvious truth is not necessarily so. Rather, there’s one simple skill—that has nothing to do with wielding knives or slinging pans—that can help even the least experienced home cook whip up a great home-cooked meal:
Knowing how to choose the right recipe.
With an awe-inspiring number of recipe resources available online and in print, there is no dearth of great, simple recipes for home cooks to rely on.
Sure, there are duds out there (lots of them), but there are just as many reliable recipes that are well-tested, written clearly, and can successfully walk the least experienced cook through making a simple but impressively delicious meal. You just have to know how to pick the right ones.
1. Find reliable sources.
When looking for reliable recipes, the first thing—and this goes for all home cooks—is to stick to reliable sources. Which publications and blogs have you successfully cooked from before? Return to them!
Just keep in mind that if it’s a site with multiple contributors, you may have more success with certain authors than others. Take note and return to the sources, bloggers, and authors that work for you most of the time.
2. Keep your goals in mind.
Even when perusing a trusted source, ensuring that you choose the right recipe requires you to match the recipe with your meal goals (#mealgoals #forthewin).
Start with what the recipe is for: Have you cleared your schedule to cook something elaborate for a dinner party? Do you want to take on a challenging baking project to pass the time on a rainy weekend? Or will you only have 20 minutes to make something after work?
Regardless of your cooking skill level, you’ll cook differently for that dinner party if you’ve set aside the whole afternoon to cook than if you’ve got only 45 minutes to pull together a dinner for 10.
It’s the difference between an elegant meal and a big pot of meat sauce (or lentil Bolognese!). Both can be great, as long as you’re honest about what you can pull off and choose recipes accordingly.
Here are some quick guidelines for choosing the right recipe for the circumstance:
Choose recipes based on your cooking skill, as much as for appeal.
Don’t get attached to the idea of a recipe. There are millions of recipes out there, and plenty will fit your style, skill, and taste.
Look at the number of ingredients.
When you need to go fast, choose recipes with fewer ingredients. Period.
Survey the number of fresh versus pantry ingredients.
You can make fresh, nutritious meals using pantry ingredients, especially if you start thinking about your freezer as part of your pantry. When you shop for a specific meal that you’re sure you’re going to cook, such as for a special occasion, go all out on the fresh ingredients.
Otherwise, consider looking for recipes that pair a handful of fresh ingredients with affordable pantry ingredients that don’t go bad, including canned chickpeas, frozen spinach or peas, tomato sauce, and rice or other dried grains.
Consider the active cooking time.
Unless you have very good knife skills, recipes will always take longer than they say.
Determine how much chopping you’ll need to do.
Quickly scan recipes to assess the amount of chopping you’ll need to do, keeping in mind that some aren’t written in a way in which you can tell how much chopping will be required just by looking at the ingredients. If you need to go fast, less chopping is better.
My new cookbook, Make It Easy, offers recipes to make incredible homemade meals with everything from scratch and weeknight on-the-fly solutions so that getting dinner on the table in 15 minutes is actually possible. Both options. In the same cookbook.
With the right recipe in hand, you’ll be amazed at the meals you can throw together, whether for a get-together or a quick weeknight. And, yes, even if you think you’re a terrible cook. Because, with the right recipe, nobody’s that bad.