In September of last year, I started making pizzas from scratch. I’m a Friday Night Pizza Night guy and have been for over a decade. I really love my Friday night wind-down with family, friends, pizza and a nice drink. Last summer though, I was getting pretty bored of the delivery and pick-up pizzas that local restaurants had to offer. Plus, the better restaurants make their pizzas really, really salty and I was looking for a way to cut down on my Friday night salt intake.
Starting with Pizza
My plan was simple: make pizza from scratch as an experiment to see if I could reduce the salt take while avoiding turning Friday Night Pizza Night (FNPN) into some cooking fiasco or burdensome exercise. While the first few Friday nights were definitely experiments in getting the crust right, within a few attempts I fell into a rhythm that allowed me to make reasonably tasty pizza while not becoming a pain in the neck for me. (Perhaps I’ll write about that process in a future post.)
The Mother of All Challenges
As September rolled into October and October in November, I began to experiment with breads, pie crusts and other forms of cooking and baking. As I progressed both in terms of skill and enjoyment, I decided to attempt the mother of all cooking efforts: Thanksgiving dinner. I am really pleased at how well it turned out. No, I am not about to start challenging leading chefs for their jobs, but the meal was tasty, well-rounded, nicely presented and all made from scratch.
Five Thoughts to Make Cooking from Scratch Enjoyable
Now, with five months of cooking under my belt, I thought I’d share a few thoughts with others about my own lessons learned. Let’s be clear though: I am not about to share top tips for cooking and baking from scratch. I am hardly qualified to do that. What I can share is some ideas on how to making cooking fun and how to work our way up to more challenging meals and recipes.
(1) The goal of cooking is edible food
Humanity has been heating raw and uncooked foods over fire for thousands of years. The basic goal of cooking and baking is to make something edible. That’s a pretty low hurdle. Millions of people have cleared that hurdle. If so many people can make food that is edible, palatable and life-sustaining, then so can we. Understanding this goal helps reduce the stress of trying to get the recipe perfect.
(2) Cooking is not hard
Now, don’t get me wrong here. Making a beautifully presented meal where all the dishes are done at the same time and are then elegantly presented on the plate is not an easy task. That is tough. But baking a roast, boiling and mashing potatoes and baking a loaf of bread from scratch are not. Each task, taken alone, is reasonably simple and straightforward. The real challenge comes at trying to get all of them done right and at the same time. To avoid becoming overwhelmed in trying to get everything right at once, start by focusing on one dish at time. Get the preparation right for each one — then try to coordinate concurrent preparations.
(3) Set the right environment in the kitchen
For me, a big part of the enjoyment I get from cooking comes from the atmosphere in the kitchen. On Friday nights, it’s music playing the background, a glass of wine or pint of beer on the counter and chatting with my family and friends about their day and week. It’s a relaxing way to prepare a meal. If I’m cooking on Saturday afternoon, then it’s the English Premier League on the radio. For a Sunday afternoon roast, it could be football (soccer) or maybe jazz.
(4) Build up your kitchen arsenal
In the first month or so of getting into cooking, my pantry was woefully unprepared for the effort. I lacked many of the must have ingredients and spices. Equipping a pantry from scratch, on a single trip to the grocery store would be really expensive. It would be especially so if after two or three FNPN, I decided that I prefer to order pizza from a restaurant. So, I built up my supplies over time. A few spices this week, a few more the week following. I’m still adding some of the more advanced (read less used) ingredients to my pantry. While my pantry is by no means fully stocked, it can handle most meals without a last minute dash out to the shop to complete the recipe.
(5) Take your recipe to the store
A few days into the work week is when I start thinking about what I might like to bake over the weekend. I let my imagination stew over the recipe, enjoying in my mind the likely smells and flavors that I’ll enjoy at the week’s end. As I know what I want to cook, I’ll then bring the recipe with me to the grocery store to make sure that I get whatever ingredients I don’t already have at home.
I hope these few thoughts help others take up cooking too. Yet what tips or ideas might you have to encourage your friends and colleagues to give cooking a go? Let me know on Twitter.