If I were to decree from on high a single New Year's resolution for everyone, it would be to improve your cooking game in 2019.
For some people, that might mean to start cooking, period. For others (like me, too often), it might mean to stop eating out so much and get back into the kitchen. For still others, it might mean finally tackling that challenging recipe you've always meant to try but have never had the motivation or nerve.
Let me explain why cooking for yourself is so important.
Why should you cook?
Cooking is good. Cooking is pure. Cooking is one of those human things you can do that will improve almost every aspect of your life, and there's nothing quite like the feeling of having mastered some dish — be it a hamburger or duck à l'orange — where you know you could make it blindfolded if you had to.
For starters, just about anything you concoct in a kitchen is going to be healthier for you that what you might order in a restaurant, even if it's the cheesiest, most pepperoni-laden pizza you can dream up.
You control the portions and ingredients. You know exactly what's in there. And you can command exactly as many of the details as you want to — you can make both the dough and sauce, for example, to make them as healthful or as decadent as you like.
But I think the real benefits of cooking — if you'll excuse a descent into ooey-gooey granola territory for a moment — are spiritual. When you cook a meal, or use certain cooking techniques, you're connected to a rich, evolving human history, one that goes back to the very earliest days of human beings (or, rather, our ancestors) conquering fire.
If you're so inclined, you can read up on almost any cooking technique or implement and learn the history behind it, one that sometimes spans continents and migrations. Step into the kitchen with a friend or loved one, and you'll surely find yourselves in a beautiful, shared moment, one that can be almost meditative. Preparation of food is one of those things we carry around with us, and when we can do it well, it almost always feels a little bit like magic.
You can do this pretty cheaply
One great thing about cooking is that it doesn't even have to be that expensive. When I first really got into it, I was unemployed, and my wife was barely making enough for us to live on. Yet I quickly realized that cooking didn't require tons of cash.
You can find a lot of great advice online for free. Your equipment can last years — decades, even — and doesn't have to cost you all that much in the first place. (You probably have some of it already!) Cooking increasingly has a reputation as a leisure pursuit of the very rich, but it shouldn’t.
(Let me just state here that there are many American neighborhoods where it's difficult to find grocery stores, and if cooking itself doesn't have to be expensive, it's unconscionable that for so many people, the mere task of buying good, healthy food is. If I had a resolution for society, ameliorating this problem would be near the top of the list.)
Cooking, in most ways, is just applied science — it's about taking certain substances and combining them, or adding heat to see what happens. Once you know a few basic moves, you can start applying them to other foods. Sometimes you'll be met with disaster, but that's necessary to finding your next great meal.
The real expense is usually the stuff — and, admittedly, the pots and pans you'll need to pull off some of these miracles will set you back to some degree. But you can find good, affordable versions if you do some scouting. And here, too, you can start small.
Consider, for instance, the ever-versatile cast-iron skillet, essentially the only pan you'll need for most things you'll cook. (You can even make brownies in it.) About the only thing it doesn't do that well is boil water, and for that, a nice pot will do the trick. Grab a few cooking utensils and a good knife, and you'll be in business. Expensive isn't necessarily better, because so much of cooking involves you, the person actually making the meal.
If you are in the market for a semi-expensive kitchen gizmo that will improve your life, I have become an Instant Pot cultist in recent years. It’s an electric pressure cooker that will make the best soups and sauces you’ve ever tasted, while also helping you cook up rice, make your own yogurt, and provide an easy way to follow along with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s occasional Instagram livestreams where she prepares Instant Pot dishes. But most of what the Instant Pot makes easier can still be done with a standard pot and pan if you devote the time to it.
The same price advice goes for ingredients. Can you make a wonderful meal with fine cheeses and pine nuts and the freshest of fresh greens? Sure. But you can also do so with store-brand shredded cheese and sliced almonds and iceberg lettuce. Sometimes, the best ingredients are the cheapest ones.
The internet has everything you need
Strictly speaking, you don't even need a cookbook. If you're going to buy one, my top choice is Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat, which will teach you the basics of assembling great meals on your own, using the four elements in the title. (There’s also a great Netflix version of the book.)
Beyond that, pretty much anything by Mark Bittman is worth reading — particularly his Kitchen Matrix, which aims to provide you with a good idea of certain base foods you can learn to make and then build upon. I also greatly enjoy J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s The Food Lab, which delves deep into the science of food, and A New Way to Dinner by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, which might be your gateway into the wonderful work of meal planning, a.k.a. making almost everything you’re going to eat for the next several days during the weekend, then doling it out over the week to come. (Instant Pot owners should pick up either of Melissa Clark’s books, Dinner in an Instant or Comfort in an Instant.)
But like I said, you'll be fine without a cookbook. You already know a lot of ingredients that taste great together from years and years of eating food that other people have prepared. You can start there and work your way toward your own inventions.
Or, better yet, use any of the tons of resources the internet has to offer. There are sites like Allrecipes and Epicurious, which have huge stockpiles of recipes to choose from, often with helpful step-by-step instructions. You can also just hop on Google to start conjuring up a recipe you'll love.
And there are many, many food blogs out there, ones that will hold your hand through the early steps of your cooking journey, guiding you toward more difficult creations. One of my favorites is a site called Macheesmo, which taught me everything from the best pancake recipe out there to how to make cold-brewed iced coffee, but poke around on food blog compendium Food Gawker for a while, and you'll surely find something of interest. (Instant Pot fans should try the blog Pressure Luck Cooking.)
If all else fails — or if you come across a technique in a recipe you've never heard of — turn to YouTube, which contains an invaluable collection of videos for the cooking-inclined. I’m particularly a fan of Buzzfeed’s Tasty channel and the series Basics with Babish, but everything from old episodes of TV shows (often from the UK, which seems to have a surplus of great TV chefs) to amateur home-kitchen demonstrations will show you exactly how to, say, peel an artichoke or carve a chicken.
And as strange as it might seem, the challenge and accomplishments that cooking can provide might be just what you need. My life, at least, has been vastly improved by getting more involved in what I eat, and if you were to ask me for advice, I'd suggest that yours might be too.
(Remember, I was unemployed when I dove headfirst into this world. And now I'm not! Is cooking the reason I'm now gainfully employed? Maybe! More seriously, though, I have a much, much better understanding of food and even history, and cooking old family recipes has made me feel more connected to my own roots. I’m much healthier, too. I lost nearly 70 pounds in 2018 alone!)
Cooking doesn't have to be scary, and it doesn't have to be drudgery. You just have to find the part of it that's fun for you — and trust me, it's out there.