Gaining Confidence in the Kitchen


Gaining Confidence in the Kitchen

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When I was a kid, in Wyoming, I played a lot of sports. That may be because my dad liked sports, or because I was a competitive person, or because there was really nothing else to do in Wyoming.

Looking back, some sports had built-in moments that could crush a player’s confidence: spine-chilling moments. These were plays where the weight of the whole team’s success would be on your shoulders. The best example I can think of is taking a penalty kick in soccer.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with soccer, let me give you the breakdown. For most penalties that happen within 18 yards of the goal, the attacking team gets to take a penalty kick. This, more or less, should be a free goal. A soccer goal is 24 feet wide and 8 feet high. The penalty kick is taken from 12 yards out. With just an average kick, there’s no way that even the best goalkeepers can stop it.

If you’ve ever seen a penalty kick, it might seem like it would be stressful to be the goalkeeper, but trust me, it’s not that bad. All the stress is on the kicker because it should be a straightforward goal.

When you miss a penalty kick, it’s crushing. More than once, I have missed the goal entirely. It’s pretty sad to miss a 24 foot wide target… I remember once being inconsolable for days because of a muffed game-winning penalty kick.

The only real way to restore confidence after one of these mishaps is to try again. In fact, my coach had a rule that if you missed a penalty kick, you had to take the very next one. My coach was a good guy. And it worked. Once you make one, you forget about the mess-ups.

What does this have to do with cooking?

Confidence has a huge roll in the kitchen. One of the top reasons I hear for why people don’t want to cook is that they don’t feel comfortable in the kitchen. The entire meal is depending on them getting it right? If you’re cooking for a crowd, it can be a lot of pressure.

But here’s the important thing to acknowledge: You’re going to fail. At some point every soccer player has missed a penalty kick and every master chef has burned pasta. It happens. It’s happened to me. And it will happen to you. And I’m far from a master chef or professional soccer player, so I fail even more. You probably will too.

Building Confidence

Given that you are going to have mishaps, I find it’s helpful to have little successes here and there to counteract the failures. Think of these almost like practice.

Below are three things that I make a few times a week that are quick confidence builders. They’ll also give you some building blocks for other dishes.


Practice with Pasta

Here’s an experiment: When you dump your dried pasta into the boiling water next time, set a timer for one minute. Take a strand of pasta out after each minute and taste it. How does the texture change? Is it saltier? When is the texture just right? When is it mushy? What happens if you add more salt to the water? Less? Olive oil? What happens if you start with less water? (McGee says it’s fine to start with less. My grandmother would disagree.)

This will help you get really comfortable with pasta, but also it will get you into the habit of tasting dishes as you cook them which is maybe the most important thing you can do in the kitchen. If the first time you taste a dish is when you are eating it off a plate, you might have some issues.

Master the Marinara

If I had to guess, I’d say Betsy and I ate some sort of pasta 8-10 times last month. We probably have a serious pasta dish twice a week at least. That said, I never opened a jar of spaghetti sauce. Making a quick pasta sauce is a great way to practice some basic chopping and cooking techniques. Not to mention, it’s an easy way to use leftovers and save money.

And making this quick pasta sauce takes almost exactly as long as it takes to cook pasta, so time isn’t a excuse here people. Here’s my base:

Quick Pasta Sauce
For one pound of pasta

1 medium onion, diced
– 2 cloves garlic, minced
– 1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
– 2 Tablespoons olive oil
– Salt and pepper

Optional ingredients: Parmesan cheese, basil, pine nuts, spinach, mushrooms, diced asparagus, kale, lemon juice, and the list goes on…

Start out by heating your oil over medium-high heat. Add your onions and any other substantial veggies you might be using (except spinach, add that near the end). Saute for a few minutes then add garlic and cook for a few seconds. Next, add tomatoes. Cook it down for 10 minutes. Add cheese, basil, pine nuts, and/or lemon juice, and a good pinch of salt and pepper.

When your pasta is done, add it straight to your sauce and mix it all up! Once you get the hang of it, you’ll never buy jarred pasta sauce again.

Dressing for Success

Ok. My headers are getting a little out of control. This isn’t about aprons. It’s about salad dressing. Instead of reaching for the bottled dressing, try this simple vinaigrette and then start experimenting with variations. It’s really fast and you can customize it to your tastes.

Simple Vinaigrette
Enough for two large salads or 4 smaller salads

2 Tablespoons vinegar (balsamic or red wine work best)
– 1 Teaspoon mustard
– 6 Tablespoons olive oil
– Salt and pepper

Optional ingredients: minced shallot, honey, dried herbs, molasses, pureed fruit, fruit preserves, tarragon, boiled egg, cornichons, get the idea?

Honestly, I never really measure this recipe when I make it. I add some vinegar to a bowl, whisk in a bit of mustard, and then drizzle in olive oil while whisking until it looks like the right texture. Then hit it with some salt and pepper! What’s the right texture? Well, for once, I’m not going to show you. :) You’ll have to try it. Drizzle slowly and taste as you go! No matter what, if you put this over some greens with a bit of cheese and some basic salad ingredients, it’ll be delicious.

You can do this

I have full faith that anyone who can read this post can figure out how to do any of the three things above. Also, I really think that anyone who tries these three things, just once in awhile, can make huge strides in the kitchen. Hollandaise sauce isn’t far from a vinaigrette. Bolognese is just a few steps away from the quick pasta sauce.

And if you fail, no big deal! Get back in the kitchen tomorrow and try it again!

Photo courtesy of Liber.

7 Responses to “Gaining Confidence in the Kitchen” Leave a comment

  1. @Nick – If you only knew how many mistakes that I made coming up to where I am today. I mean, there was the exploding pate (Always remember the vent holes… they are important!), The first time I tried to make Smarties icecream for my wife… etc.

    One important thing about mistakes is you NEED them for experience. The key is LEARNING from your mistakes. I know that you need a vent hole for a pate, because I spent a good hour cleaning the oven. Believe me, I never repeated that.

    Good on you. I believe that we all have it in us to cook. Some people approach it as an art. Bullcrap. It is an experience thing.

    Now, go out there and experience it!

  2. Nick you are so right! Cooking is all about having confidence in the kitchen.

    At I advise beginner cooks to start small. Perfect one dish at a time and make that YOUR signature dish!

    Plus do not expierment on new recipes with company… :)

  3. Excellent post Nick. Like any task or skill, practice makes perfect.

    The only thing I’d like to add is that your success rates will go up once you learn some basic cooking skills and techniques.

    Cheers, Joe
    Co-Founder Rouxbe

  4. When I make vinaigrette dressing, I pour all of the ingredients into a small ziplock bag or tupperware-ish container. Then you shake it a ton! This is really fun for kids…they get to shake it as hard as they can for a little while. All of the ingredients incorporate beautifully and you don’t have to dirty a whisk or fork.

  5. When I have zero time to cook but I want something more nutritious than simple pasta with tomato sauce, I add a half-pound of frozen spinach in the pasta water one minute before the pasta is done. It is a really good and easy way to make pasta feel more like a full meal.

    Also, I definitely agree with your lemon suggestion. Nothing brightens up a tomato sauce like lemon.

    On another note, have you seen Jonathan Saffran Foer’s book called Eating Animals? I wonder what you would think.

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