Food writer Jocelyn Doyle shares the lessons she learned on her way from burning toast to being a confident home cook
Food is one of the great loves of my life. If I’m not dreaming of a future dinner party or planning the next week’s worth of meals, I’m reading about the history of butter or challenging myself to learn a new culinary skill.
I let my stomach lead me through a Masters in Food Culture and into a career that would allow me to think of little else. I spend frightening amounts of time staring at the menus of restaurants I’m not visiting. My dairy addiction is unstoppable, despite the milk allergy my doctor assures me that I have. I believe in second breakfast. I crave new flavours, textures and experiences, and there’s almost nothing I won’t try. I spend a serious chunk of my income on good ingredients, and wines to match. Eating is my passion; cooking is both my love language and my daily meditation.
With all this in mind, people are often surprised to learn that cooking did not come naturally to me – despite being the latest in a long line of women who were excellent cooks, and despite being raised in a house where absolutely everything was made from scratch. I was genuinely awful: clumsy, forgetful and unsure of everything. I burned toast. I broke delph. I looked on, confused, as sauces curdled and split. We definitely got our money’s worth out of the smoke alarm as I destroyed my mother’s pans with unplanned burnt offerings. My sister still brings up the time I tried to crack an egg and somehow ended up with the shell in the bowl and the yolk sliding across the floor. It was as though some petty witch had placed a small but specific curse on me.
For a long time, I was largely unbothered, more than willing to take a slagging about the omelette that clung to the bottom of the pan in blackened, withered shreds. It was almost a badge of honour, one that fit easily with how I presented myself to the world. I’d always been a tomboy, but as I grew up and learned the hard, unspoken lesson that girls weren’t particularly valued in our culture – especially back then, in the god-awful mid-2000s – I leaned into that side of myself. By the time I was in my late teens, I was deeply mired in toxic, I’m-not-like-other-girls bullshit, and not being able to cook was just another facet of my armour.
I come from a family in which food is very much equated with love. Food is used as comfort, as medicine, in celebration and commiseration, as a touchstone that keeps us connected. Growing up, there was always a homemade dinner waiting for us at the end of the day, and we always ate it together at the table. As I moved into my twenties (and began – slowly, slowly – to see my internalised misogyny for what it was) something shifted, and I found myself yearning to feed the people in my life, to use food as a way to express my love and strengthen our bonds. I started small: baking a Camembert when the girls came over; making dubious date night dinners for my then boyfriend. When Santa gave me Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food cookbook – rather generously, seeing as I was 21 – I used that as my beginner’s guide, cooking my way through every recipe that interested me. And once I really got started, I couldn’t stop.
No matter what background you’re starting from, I guarantee that you can learn to cook. While I’m no chef, I am a very good home cook, and an adventurous one at that. I can bake my own bread, pickle my own onions and sear scallops to perfection. I have the culinary confidence to tackle any unfamiliar ingredient and have successfully dished up everything from rabbit to goat to lobster. I can follow any (good) recipe without problems, and have even spent the last eight years being paid to develop my own recipes in a professional capacity. Preparing meals is now a pleasure, not a panic. In short, I have evolved into a happy, capable cook – and I’m here to tell you that this is possible for you, too. The lessons I learned on my determined trek through sad, soggy rice, tough beef and leaking quiches can be learned by anyone.
Read the recipe
I cannot stress this enough. Before you embark on any culinary journey, read the recipe fully. Read it again and make sure you can visualise every step. Read it a third time and think about your equipment, right down to which bowl you’ll use to combine those ingredients. The last thing you need is to be surprised halfway through, to miss something important because you’re feeling frazzled or overwhelmed, or to realise after Step Four that you don’t actually own a cake tin, after all.
Read the reviews
If you’re looking online for inspiration – as so many of us are – choose carefully. There’s a big difference between a recipe written by a chef, a food magazine or a well-seasoned cook and one written by some random lady named Geraldine who has a few notions about her shepherd’s pie. I’m not besmirching food bloggers, by the way – plenty of them have perfectly good, working recipes that result in fantastic meals, if you can make it past the details of their cat’s operation. However, I would urge you to exercise caution and read the reviews before choosing a recipe to follow; not only will they indicate if it’s worth cooking in the first place, but they can also often supply helpful information gathered from those who have already ventured out on this particular culinary journey, like “this needed an extra 100ml stock,” or “it was ready after 20 minutes, not 30.” If there are no reviews, it’s best to look elsewhere.
Get your shit together
The French call this mise en place, and it’s all about having everything prepped and ready to go before you start cooking. Pull ingredients out of the cupboards, chop what needs to be chopped, get your pots and pans onto the hob. I cannot over-emphasise how much this reduced my stress levels in the beginning; suddenly needing to peel and crush a load of garlic cloves or realising the roasting tin I needed was in the sink, dirty, would send me into a tailspin. Once you’re more practiced and comfortable in the kitchen, you’ll begin to find that you can prep more as you go, but in the beginning? Do yourself a favour and get it all ready before you jump in.
Follow baking recipes to the letter
I’m a big advocate for creativity and using what you have to hand. If your recipe calls for tomato passata and you only have tinned tomatoes, you should always feel empowered to make the swap and save yourself a trip to the shops. Fresh rosemary would be nice, but dried will work. No wholegrain mustard? A smaller amount of Dijon should do the trick. One area in which this does not apply, however, is baking. Where cooking is, in many ways, an art, baking is a science; every ingredient in your bread, cake or dessert recipe serves a specific purpose, and they’re balanced in a particular ratio. Unless you’re a literal baking expert, follow that recipe.
Google if you aren’t sure
Some recipes are very good at explaining what they mean; others aren’t. I’m never NOT thinking about the scene in Schitt’s Creek when David and Moira attempt to make enchiladas together, and Moira keeps instructing a perplexed David to “fold in the cheese. Just… fold it in!” with increasing urgency and zero clarity. (If you haven’t watched Schitt’s Creek, DO YOURSELF A FAVOUR.) If your recipe is full of culinary jargon, don’t be afraid to Google what, exactly, the author means by “cream together” or “julienne”. Most of these terms refer to perfectly straightforward, achievable things, but you’ll never get it right if you don’t know your sweat from your sauté.
Relax about timings
When I first started cooking, I was a bag of nerves all the time, and a big part of that was trying to get the timings right. If I had multiple components of one meal – say, chicken, potatoes and a mushroom cream sauce – I would fret the entire way through the process in case they wouldn’t all be ready at the exact same moment. Here’s a secret: they probably won’t be, and it won’t matter.
The day I realised that food doesn’t need to be served the exact moment it’s ready was a revelation. Most foods will sit quite happily in a low oven or over a low heat on the hob with an occasional stir. Meat, in particular, needs resting anyway in order to be at its juicy, succulent best when you dish up, and it really doesn’t make a lick of difference whether your chicken rests for the 10 minutes you’d planned or for 20 while you fry your forgotten mushrooms – just make sure it’s covered in foil to keep warm, and maybe lash a clean tea towel over that for some extra insulation. If your roasties get an extra five minutes in the oven, no biggie; reduce the temperature or move them down a shelf (the top of your oven is always the hottest). Realising this genuinely felt like taking a big, deep breath of cool air, and gave me the freedom I needed to cook a full meal without stress-crying.
Find the patterns
Once you’ve been cooking for a while, you’ll start to notice that certain steps appear again and again in the same types of recipes. Braises and stews will almost always require meat to be browned, for any sticky bits to be loosened from the bottom of the pan with a liquid, for flour to be added, for the meat to be cooked slowly at a low heat for a long time. Nearly any pasta dish worth making will call for a splash of the pasta cooking water to be added to the sauce. Notice – or research – what purposes these familiar steps are serving. The more you pay attention to these patterns, the more information you have available – and this is what will eventually give you the real freedom to make a recipe your own or even create a dish from scratch.
It’s all practice
The phrase “practice makes perfect” is annoyingly applicable. You can read cookbooks and magazines, watch endless Nigella or Jamie programmes or even sign up for cooking classes, but the only thing that will really, truly help you become a better cook is – yep, you guessed it – cooking things, in your own kitchen, again and again.
Treat it as mindful time
Disclaimer: this will not always be possible. If you’re just in the door and you’ve got a few hungry, grumpy kids hovering around you and the kitchen is a state and oh shit, why is the dog puking – this is not your moment. Where possible, though, try to sink into cooking and make it mindful. If you practice yoga or are familiar with mindfulness in general, this will sound more familiar. Pay attention to what you’re doing – real attention – and notice how every tiny moment greets your senses: how the knife feels in your hand as it slices through the onion; the smell of the butter as it melts in the pot; the sound of the onions as they begin to sizzle.
For me, cooking midweek meals feels like a bridge. I start on one side, tired and dragging the heavy stresses of my work day along with me. As I walk over that bridge, I focus on the little tasks at hand – slicing those carrots, browning that meat – and this process allows me to throw that heavy load over the side, little by little. By the time I reach the other side, I am lighter and happier – and it’s time to sit down and enjoy my dinner.
Try and have fun – even when you fail
Look, I know this is easier said than done, and if you’re breaking out in a sweat at the sight of the oven then it’s going to take some work. This isn’t just a platitude, though – it’s as important a tip as the others. I’m not a good cook when I’m stressed or overwhelmed. I spill things, drop things, cut myself, burn things… you get the picture. There is much cursing and zero craic. Even PMS brings a high rate of cuts and burns for 3-4 days. I am at my very best in the kitchen when I feel chilled, when I’ve got some good tunes or a podcast I love playing and a cup of tea or glass of red on the go. Not only am I less likely to harm myself, but the end results are better. If you fuck up, take a deep breath. Nobody died. (Hopefully.) Figure out where you went off the recipe rails, and take solace in that fact that you won’t make that mistake again.
Switch off to eat
This is technically not a tip on learning to cook, but I’m adding it anyway because it’s important. You’ve found a recipe that makes your stomach rumble. You’ve gone to the shops, bought whatever you need, and worked your way carefully, painstakingly, through the steps provided. You’ve done it. You’ve made a meal. Now, take a photo of it if you want – and then PUT YOUR PHONE AWAY. Turn off the telly. Stop side-eyeing that iPad. Whether you’re eating alone or with family, friends or your oddball roommate, pay attention to your food, not your screen. Maybe light a candle or put on some music. You are the last in a line of people responsible for bringing this food to your table, from farmer to driver to retailer, with however many steps in between. You, personally, have brought a handful of ingredients together and turned them into an actual, real meal. It’s bloody magic. Take the time to appreciate all of that work and to savour what you’ve created. This delicious moment is what makes it all worthwhile.