What to do if you think you can’t cook

A man in an apron cooks in a kitchen

Excuse me while I perch my glasses on the end of my nose, button up my best cardigan and go into Tough Love Aunty George mode. I’m here to tell you through pursed lips that you might say you can’t cook, but I really think you can cook.

If you’re a grown adult and you can’t cook a basic dish, that’s a really important life skill you’re missing. Being able to cook – and I don’t mean Michelin star-standard here – is important not just for basic survival. It can save you money and it means you can help others. Being able to confidently offer to cook a meal for a sick friend, for example, is a wonderful thing to be able to do.

But still some people will insist that they simply can’t cook. They claim they will burn water. Boiling an egg is beyond them. They’re lucky if they can make an accurate cup of tea, they say. But for many people who put themselves in the “I can’t cook” category, it comes down to confidence, to not getting intimidated by cooking programmes where it looks easy but there is usually a team behind the scenes to back up the on-screen personality and countless outtakes of burnt sauces and collapsed cakes. Or simply not getting intimidated by recipes or by friends and family who never seem to mess up a meal.

Here are my top 10 pointers for those who still really believe they can’t cook.

  1. Don’t be too ambitious to begin with. You probably won’t make a cake like the one Nadiya Hussein made when she won Great British Bake-Off the first time you try – but this still doesn’t mean you can’t cook.
  2. Cheat like mad to build confidence. I am a big believer in learning how to cook from scratch but there are ways to start with something store-bought and improve it to get a feel for flavours and what works.
  3. For example, try jazzing up a boring cheese pizza. You can get a basic cheese pizza from the supermarket pretty cheaply but it’s not the most exciting meal. To elevate it from being a giant, round cheese toastie, add a few things before you bung it in the oven. The only real limit is your imagination. Scatter on chopped onion, peppers or mushrooms (buy them pre-chopped, that’s totally fine if you’re not knife-confident), throw on some diced bacon lardons or diced chorizo (also available pre-chopped), scatter sundried tomatoes (they come in a jar, no preparation needed). Season to taste – the herbs and spices in little jars from the supermarket are fine here, especially dried basil and oregano – the kitchen will smell like a trattoria in no time. Add some extra grated cheese (again, buy it pre-grated if you like) – there’s never enough cheese on those damn supermarket pizzas. Garlic granules are another easy way to add flavour. Once you’ve decorated the boring pizza, put it in the oven for the recommended cooking time. You should end up with something much more impressive than the dull yellow disc you started with.
  4. Try a sweet sauce. Few of us have time to make ice cream from scratch every time we feel like it. This is why most of us buy ice cream from a shop. But it’s easy to throw together a simple sauce to pour on top. Click here for a raspberry sauce, click here for a salted caramel sauce, and click here for a chocolate sauce.
  5. Then try a savoury sauce. Keen Munching Matilda Twitter followers will know that I love to do fish and chips at home on a Friday night. But because I’m usually knackered by Friday night, I cheat. I use oven chips and cook the fish in the oven – most fish fillets from the supermarket cook in around the same time it takes for the oven chips so they can go in together. While it’s cooking, I’ll throw together a sauce with whatever I have in the kitchen. But if you’re not confident to make a sauce without a recipe, click here for Sam’s tomato sauce and here for mine.
  6. Relax when you read a recipe. If you think you can’t cook, you probably get overwhelmed at the mere sight of a recipe. This is understandable, especially if you’re not familiar with all the terms. And there are plenty of pretentious recipes out there that intimidate even experienced home cooks. Sam and I try to make our recipes as clear and accessible as possible – please get in touch with us using the form at the bottom of the homepage or tweet us if anything is unclear. When you read a recipe, get comfy, have a cuppa and take your time. If there’s an ingredient you’ve never heard of or a term you don’t understand, Google is your friend. And if there’s an ingredient you can’t access in your local shops or you don’t have it in the kitchen, Google for substitutes. One of the last things I Googled was “substitute for buttermilk”!
  7. Check out my food cheats. There are plenty of little tricks to add flavour without using a thousand ingredients, save time and generally make cooking easier. Click here and here for 20 food cheats that I use all the time.
  8. Ask for help. Now we can have friends and family over to visit again, why not invite a friend who can cook to give you some pointers? Keen cooks are usually happy to show off a few tricks and tips, unless they’re deeply selfish and unpleasant. I can only speak for myself when I say I can be a bit of a show-off when I cook. In my head, I am eternally filming my imaginary cooking programme. In real life, my audience is usually just my husband working at the kitchen table so I’m always happy to entertain and educate someone who thinks they can’t cook.
  9. Seek out recipes with easy ingredients. A great example is Sam’s special chicken pasta where the star ingredient really is a tin of cream of chicken soup. It’s delicious and a great one to get started with, thanks to accessible, tasty ingredients and an easy method.
  10. Plan. People who think they can’t cook often fear wasting ingredients. When you’re getting started, choose a simple recipe, make a shopping list and stick to it. Wherever possible, buy the cheapest version of the ingredient. For example, I never buy brand name salt, pepper, flour, butter, sugar, baking powder, or milk. The generic supermarket brands are fine for most things. Look out for ingredients that are on offer and then seek out recipes that use them. If you get some bacon on special, type “bacon” into our search function and it will bring up every recipe and blog post that mentions bacon.And, above all, have fun. Cooking can be a chore. Even Sam and I have days where we really don’t feel like pretending we’re Nigella Lawson but for the most part, we love cooking and we love to share our ideas with you. I like to crank up Absolute Radio 90s and pretend I’m still 19 when I cook – only back then, I wasn’t nearly as good in the kitchen as I am now. We all start cooking somewhere – at the age of 12 in my case when Mum and Dad were both back at work full-time – and we can all improve.  Even those who are convinced they can’t cook.

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