How to build your cooking confidence in the kitchen

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Time, money, skills, and confidence are the main reasons people say they can’t cook at home. Luckily, you can build your cooking confidence. Let’s move beyond commonsense advice like “practice more” or “meal plan”. My goal is to highlight techniques to overcome your underlying fear and lack of confidence so you can reap the benefits of home cooking today.

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Last night, I stood in front of a refrigerator case in the supermarket and felt a shiver of fear run down my spine. The big sign said “Refrigerated Hispanic Food”. In tiny whispers, the sign told me, “You have no idea how to pronounce this food, let alone cook it. You should give up in case you accidentally poison Alex with your incompetent Mexican cooking.”

I lack confidence big time when it comes to Mexican and Tex-Mex cooking. You see, I grew up in New Zealand where Mexican food is an uncommon, high-end cuisine in Auckland. You go to a sit-down restaurant to order a $34 burrito or a $23 quesadilla. I tried one enchilada in my whole life before I came to the U.S.

When I moved to LA for university, I had several embarrassing moments when trying to order Mexican food with my roommates or debate teammates. From pronouncing the “J” in “Baja Fresh” (until someone took pity on me and explained it’s “bah-ha fresh”) to having humiliating flatulence problems in the 6-hour mini van ride to our debate tournaments (omg, the beans!), I now associate terror with Mexican food.

Over the years, I learned to eat and even enjoy Mexican food with mild trepidation (still never eaten at Taco Bell). But I’m too scared to cook Mexican food. It feels difficult, foreign, scary. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how to buy the ingredients. I worry about reading the food labels. It’s one of the few cooking areas that I won’t venture into.

How does this relate to your life?

Maybe you’re scared of cooking for your new boyfriend/girlfriend for the first time. Or staring down a 10-person Thanksgiving dinner having never roasted a turkey before. Maybe you’re moving into a new house, and you’ve got a functional kitchen for the first-time. Time to start cooking from scratch, right? Or maybe you’re trying to lose weight and know you’ve got to start preparing your meals to make real progress but you’ve relied on frozen meals for so long. Or maybe the pandemic is forcing you to cook because your usual takeout haunts are closed.

Many of us know the benefits of cooking at home: slimmer waist, fatter wallet, kindness towards the environment. But putting pan to burner is a different matter.

What if you could build your confidence in the kitchen? What if you could change your life by learning to cook most of your meals at home?


How can you be confident in cooking?

When you read the Internet’s advice on how to become more confident in the kitchen, you’ll find dozens of tips. Here is a brief summary of the most common advice I’ve read on websites and food blogs, plus several tips I’ve dished out over the years.

Tips for Kitchen Confidence

  1. Learn cooking techniques: Learn how to steam, stir fry, poach, braise, etc.
  2. Start simple: Don’t try advanced techniques like braising when beginning. Start with simple things like cup of noodles and recipes that require 10 ingredients or less.
  3. Memorize your favorite 5 recipes: Make them until you know them by heart so you can always succeed with these 5 recipes.
  4. Learn flavor profiles (and develop your own): Italian food uses olive oil, tomatoes, basil, and Parmigiano-Reggiano whereas Cantonese cooking using garlic, green onions, and ginger.
  5. Layer flavors: Add herbs, spices, sauces, or seasonings one at a time to avoid messing up.
  6. Have a well-stocked kitchen pantry: Having high-quality ingredients makes everything taste better.
  7. Have the right tools: Use the right appliances and tools to get the job done.
  8. Try a new recipe once a month: Build confidence by trying new things.
  9. Develop knife skills: Learn to cut with confidence so you can prep faster and overcome your fear of cutting yourself.
  10. Mise en place: Organize and measure out your ingredients so you aren’t missing any items. Prepped ingredients reduces the chance of burning your food as you’re not chopping while cooking.
  11. Meal plan: Know what you’ll eat and what to buy at the store ahead of meal times.
  12. Read the recipe: Know your steps so you can abort if the recipe is badly written or beyond your skills.
  13. No time limits: Don’t put yourself in a time pressure cooker where you feel rushed and anxious.
  14. Or give yourself time limits: Don’t allow yourself to cook a recipe that says 30 minutes for more than 90 minutes because you’ll feel too exhausted and scared to cook the next day.
  15. Google/YouTube it (research it): Pretty much any cooking technique, dish, or recipe has a video or blog post teaching you how to make it.
  16. Substitute foods: This tip puzzles me because you can’t substitute unless you feel confident in the kitchen. Substitutions require advanced knowledge of techniques, flavor profiles, and ingredients.
  17. Take a cooking class: Expert instruction can help you feel confident, especially about cuisines beyond your comfort zone.
  18. Cook with an experienced friend or family member: Like the benefits of a cooking class, you get to learn from an experienced cook.
  19. Have experienced cooks you can call or text at any time: My in-laws, mum, and Kari serve this role for me. It makes a big difference knowing you have cooking support.
  20. Taste as you go: You can feel optimistic when you taste the food and realize it’s edible and flavorful.
  21. Clean up as you go: This helps people who are overwhelmed by the process of cooking.
  22. Shop regularly: It’s normal to lack confidence in the kitchen if you don’t have any ingredients to cook. Picasso needed to have oil paints to make a masterpiece.
  23. Practice: There’s no way to get good at cooking except to do it. Even watching hours of cooking shows can’t teach you how to cook without practice.

This list of advice summarizes the skills you need to cook at home. No wonder you’re feeling intimidated!

You need to understand how to grocery shop, clean vegetables, measure ingredients, pair flavors, and use pointy and sharp tools! You could spend a lifetime devoted to cooking (and professional chefs do) and still have plenty of new concepts to master and skills to refine.

Plus, several tips are contradictory. Are you supposed to have no time limits or set a time limit?

My biggest problem with this well-meaning advice is that the tips are rational answers that don’t address the underlying emotional problem.

Lack of confidence is a feeling. The emotions manifest themselves as the inability to take action. Giving someone advice about how to take action doesn’t help when they (I) feel paralyzed.


The truth behind confidence

The solution to a lack of confidence isn’t to start simple or to meal plan. If that were true, I would be able to plan my way out of all my fears, like my dental phobia. Overcoming the lack of confidence is a story of overcoming fear.

As you know, few people are born naturally confident. You’re not born knowing how to dice an onion or how to deglaze a pan. Most people who are proficient in the kitchen learned through trial and error over thousands of hours of practice. They probably started cooking as children helping out parents in the kitchen, which allowed them to get hundreds of hours of practice before you even picked up your first spatula.

I’m also betting you’re an overachiever since you’re reading Garlic Delight. So you may have a tendency to set high expectations and compare your cooking results with the Food Network stars’ and find your results don’t live up to the professionally produced Instagram stories.

Luckily, the truth behind confidence is that nobody has 100% confidence 100% of the time. The only way to gain cooking confidence is by doing. Taking action. Cooking.

So, what can you do to muster up the courage to take action?

Mindfulness

Our goal is to take action. But we’re not entering into an easy fight with our brains and emotions. In this section, I’m outlining a few strategies that I’m trying, which have helped me gain confidence in and out of the kitchen.

When I read about how to build cooking confidence, I’m drawn to the advice from counselors and psychologists because they offer a toolset that goes deeper than the helpful but superficial tips above.

This Psychology Today article recommends using mindfulness to help you focus on the task at hand, whether that’s shopping for ingredients, chopping, or stirring.

The idea is that you become aware of your present moment and use your five senses to notice the ingredients as they change. If you can focus on these elements, you won’t be thinking negative thoughts like: “I’m a failure”, “I can’t cook”, or “This is going horribly wrong”.

A word cloud for mindfulness Pin

The Learning Filter

I’m a huge fan of rearranging feelings in the brain. But I find mindfulness hard. I’m not always able to focus on what I’m doing because my mind likes to wander. The fear of failure is a strong emotion. Often, mindfulness isn’t enough to overpower the negative thoughts.

An easier way to mindfulness is a filter that my mentor Sam introduced: The Learning Filter.

Sam taught me that whenever I’m facing something new or scary (often both), always ask: Am I learning?

Learning is impossible to fail at because you’re simply collecting data.

“What happens when I add cream to the tomato sauce? Oh, it curdles the cream. Can I still eat this pasta sauce?

The Learning Filter has two benefits:

  1. When you’re in observation mode, your curiosity easily overcomes the fear you’re feeling. This unlocks your paralysis.
  2. When your goal is to pick up knowledge, you focus on taking action to learn. So you feel encouraged to try new things without attachment to the outcome.

The Learning Filter is what Mark Bittman advocates too, according to this article from the Kitchn. He says that there’s no such thing as a kitchen disaster as long as you can eat the food afterwards. If you read the Kitchn article, you can glean more wisdom from his advice:

  1. Calibrate your expectations to food: You’re cooking to nourish your body. If you can eat it, it’s a success. You’re not cooking for royalty every night, and nobody will demand your head if the dish doesn’t come out spectacularly.
  2. You can fix mistakes: He mentions if the chicken is undercooked, you can put it back in the oven. If the chicken is dry and tasteless, you learn what not to do next time.

With the Learning Filter, there’s only winning!

How do you start cooking everyday?

What’s the point of all this work to build your cooking confidence?

Imagine the satisfaction of cooking a homemade breakfast to celebrate your partner’s birthday. Or the ability to share a dish you made from scratch with your friends at the next potluck. Or the amount of money you can save thanks to cooking at home — money that can go towards paying off debt or saving towards your next vacation.

There’s also the potential for cooking to evolve into a deep passion in your life. I have a friend who believed she couldn’t cook. She had to learn to cook when she became vegan because it’s hard to find vegan takeout 3 meals a day.

Eventually, she found momentum when she hit the “virtuous cycle” of cooking. That’s where you get enough reward from the process and enjoyment of cooking that the habit reinforces itself. It’s the beginning of developing a life-long skill rather than an unsustainable chore that you’ll quit in a few weeks.

A diagram showing the virtuous cycle between cooking and growing skillsPin
Our goal is to hit the virtuous cycle of cooking

What to do with your superpower

If you keep working on your mindset, you’ll overcome your fears of cooking and become a confident, proficient cook in the kitchen.

This is a worthy goal. Cooking and the resulting feeling of health and wealth is a worthwhile keystone habit to adopt. I first learned about keystone habits from Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit where he describes keystone habits as behaviors that carryover to help you form other good habits in your life.

Keystone habits work because they change your “self-image”. When you become a home cook who knows how to feed yourself with raw ingredients — no matter how simple the recipe or how little time it took you to make it — you begin to see yourself as a healthy person. A healthy person cares about food, how it’s grown, how much it costs.

Eventually, this superpower of cooking at home could help you save more, exercise more, dress better. Your superpower begins its domino effect of shifting other habits in your life. So, taking the time to cook tonight and persuading yourself to do it again tomorrow could be nothing less than life changing.

READ NEXT: The Power of Your Eating Mindset

Anna looking down chopping vegetables
About Anna Rider

Hi! I'm Anna, a food writer who documents kitchen experiments on GarlicDelight.com with the help of my physicist and taste-testing husband, Alex. I have an insatiable appetite for noodles 🍜 and believe in "improv cooking".

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