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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Toler

Top Tips for the Aspiring Home Chef

Here are my top tips for new cooks, amassed after 25 years of cooking classes, burnt meals, recipe-writing, and catering events from 5 to 125 people.

1. Cooking is a skill, not a talent.

Do it often to sharpen your skills. It’s through actually cooking that you learn to do it well. It’s okay to mess up; we’ve all done it! That’s how we learn. It’s the cultivation of skill that allows you to be creative in the kitchen. Eventually you’ll go from left-brain (following recipes) to right-brain (cooking intuitively).

2. Invest in yourself and in your kitchen.

Knowing how to cook is becoming a lost art but our health depends on it! Cultivating this skill will equip you for a lifetime of healthy meals and self-sufficiency.

If you are unaware with the issues with the food supply, specifically the artificial fillers and preservatives used in processed and prepared food and the chemicals used to grow conventional meat and produce which result in all-too-common illnesses we see today like cancer, heart disease, IBS, fibromyalgia, and even behavioral problems like ADD and Bi-polar disorder. It’s a harsh awakening but if you are prepared to learn more, check out this article. Home cooking is one of the best forms of self-care and will keep you clear of unavoidable diseases and disorders. Invest in and learn to cook with healthy cookware like stainless steel, glass baking dishes, and cast-iron. Most of the cheap cookware available today also contributes to illness through the use of toxic chemicals and cheap metals. Invest in good ingredients like organic spices and produce, grass-fed and pasture-raised meats, wild-caught fish, and extra-virgin (unrefined) oils. Not only do they taste better but they are *significantly* healthier for you. Your health is the best investment you can make. Health is the greatest wealth.

3. Start with easy meals.

Certain meals are so easy to cook and you should have them as your weeknight go-tos: cod & baked veggies, anything in a crockpot, grass-fed beef burgers with baked fries and lots of condiments, pureed soup with a salad.

4. Read the recipe before you start cooking.

Even the best recipe writers make mistakes and may forget to include an ingredient or mix up the order of a couple steps ~ if you read it ahead of time not only are you better prepared, you know what you’re getting into and may be able to save time or avoid mistakes. The notes often offer options or may contain important information that will help you better understand the recipe.

For example, you may not have all the necessary equipment and you’ll have to figure that out before you end up in a time-sensitive space without a plan.

5. Be flexible.

Your potatoes may not be the same size as the recipe writer’s and so you will have to make judgment calls like using 5 very large potatoes, when a recipe calls for 7 potatoes. You may also have to adjust the other ingredients in the recipe to accommodate this. For example, if you were making mashed potatoes, you may need more or less salt than the recipe calls for since your potatoes were a different size. That's why we taste & adjust.

You can also modify recipes to your own tastes… If you already know you hate the flavor of cilantro but the rest of that salad recipe otherwise looks good, swap it out for something you do like or leave it out altogether.

6. Set a Timer.

This is so important that it should probably be the number one tip! Always set timers. Do not rely on “remembering” to do something. While cooking, you're often multi-tasking and it’s easy to lose track of cooking times. In just one of infinite examples: while the rice is cooking, you might move onto making a stir-fry. That rice still needs to be turned off at 20 minutes regardless of where you’re at with the stir-fry. Burned rice is the worst, and so avoidable. Set a timer.

7. Preheat Your Pans.

This is especially important when cooking anything runny like pancake batter or eggs that will not set up well, meat or fish which will end up dry without a good sear, or potatoes which will stick more to the pan.

8. Do not overcrowd your pan or baking dish.

Overcrowding will affect cooking times and the overall quality of the food. Veggies may not get as well done as they should, your cookie tray may turn into one large cookie, you may end up with too much moisture in the pan resulting in soggy rather than crispy food. Cook in batches if you have to.

9. Salt Your Food.

This is not about making food “salty”. Salt enhances savory flavors, balances sweetness, and helps diffuse bitter tastes like in broccoli and olives. Salt helps release molecules in food that help increase aromas and bring out more flavor. I’ve even read that it activates taste buds so you actually taste more of the food! Salt your water when making any type of grains like pasta, rice, quinoa, or millet. They will taste MUCH better. So will mushrooms. I can always tell an unsalted mushroom in meals ~ how bland! Oi. I’ll even add a sprinkle of salt in sweet foods like my (almond cacao cookies) or homemade hot chocolate. It doesn’t make it salty; it makes it flavorful. If it’s salty, you simply went too far and that’s how we learn! In cases like this, see tip 14 for what to do.

10. Use Good Salt.

Do not use table salt. It is heavily processed with heat and chemicals and like all heavily processed foods, it’s just not good for you. It’s denatured and altered from its original form. Eating too much refined table salt can create thyroid disorders, high-blood pressure, and kidney disease!

Invest in salt that’s actually good for you, whole and balanced while containing more trace minerals. I love Pink Himalayan Salt, Celtic Se Salt, and Real Salt.

11. Be Conservative.

You can always add more, or do more to your recipes but you can never go back. You can always add more spice after you’ve tasted it and it’s bland or cook it for longer if it’s not done enough. Err on the side of less is more.

12. When Cooking Meat...

  • Start with room temperature meat

  • Don’t cook wet meat (wash it and then pat it dry)

  • Don’t overcook it. Use a meat thermometer to be sure. Over time, your intuition will develop and you will not need the thermometer.

  • When it’s done, let it rest so the moisture disperses throughout the meat. If you cut a steak right away, the juices will run out and the meat will end up drier with less flavor.

13. Don’t burn it!

This goes back to “set a timer”, but also ~ just don’t cook on high unless you’re boiling water. Rarely do I cook on high ~ it’s an easy way to burn food. Take your time in the kitchen.

If you have to step away. Turn off the burner and remove the pan from heat. You can turn it all back on again when you return to the kitchen.

Be especially careful when cooking with fresh garlic and seeds like mustard, cumin, or fennel.

  • Garlic burns so easily ~ it’s usually one of the last ingredients I’ll add in a saute or stir-fry and I’ll cook it on a lower heat setting and only until just fragrant. If it’s cooked into a soup or sauce, you can add it in earlier to diffuse flavor since it will not be on direct heat and will not burn that way.

  • In Indian recipes, seeds are usually cooked in fats at the beginning of the meal to integrate their intense flavors early on. That’s why their meals are so flavorful! To me, cooking this way is a bit more advanced than this list is targeted for, but just remember to use low heat and go slow. Burnt seeds are the worst and will ruin the entire meal.

14. Taste & Adjust.

Cooking is not the same as baking. You do not need exact measurements. You need to taste & adjust. If your sauce is still too thick, add water. If it tastes too sweet, ground it with more black pepper. If it lacks excitement, you may want to add more salt. If you’re unsure how to adjust the flavors, check out tip 15.

15. Consult the Internet.

Remember, your canned tomatoes and the recipe writer’s canned tomatoes may have a different acidity or your sausage may not be as spicy as theirs and it will affect the overall meal. We'll often need to make adjustments to other people's recipes and the internet can help. Google it if you need to.

The internet will tell you how much corn starch you can sub for arrowroot since you don't have any or how to counter the saltiness in a soup when it's too much. I once had a chowder turn out *way too salty* and that’s when I learned from Google that I could add a little vinegar to reduce the saltiness. It’s through making these mistakes that I’ve learned how to be a skilled chef. YouTube is also a great resource for learning techniques like how to poach, steam, or sauté.

16. Be Safe

Last but certainly not least… Be safe.

  • Turn handles out of the way / away from the walkway. You do not want to accidentally knock over a hot frying pan, or God forbid, a child runs into it and knocks it over.

  • Use oven mitts.

  • Have safe landing spots for hot food before you move it.

  • Don’t use dull knives.

  • Cut with the blade of the knife away from you.

  • Pay attention to what you’re doing.

Of course, I’ve had a few burns and minor cuts that feel almost inevitable when working in the kitchen a lot. I have learned the hard way but you can avoid this by being conscientious. Be aware in the kitchen.

Got tips you'd like to share? I'd love to hear them. Feel free to message me or comment below.

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