By Amanda Baker, CSP Mentor
Cooking, like math, is one of those things that people love or hate. Sometimes they think they cannot do it, or it is too complicated. I am here to tell you that anyone can cook and to provide a few tips to help you along the way.
Before we start with any cooking tips, I would advise you to choose two things you really like. Then, go find a recipe for each. Make it a few times; each time you make it, you will understand the flow a bit more. In addition, you may even start to experiment by adding spices or vegetables, making it with sides, etc. This will give you confidence in the kitchen for when you try something new or are confronted with something different. It will also make you the master of that dish, which is great because it is something to share with others!
Tip 1: Prepare everything in advance.
Take your fingers off that stovetop or crock pot knob! First, prepare all the ingredients you will need. This includes pre-measuring spices, liquids, and doing all of the chopping. While it may seem a little tedious at first, believe me, this will alleviate a lot of stress. When you are in the kitchen, you never want to be frantic or rushing. This can cause injuries or recipes not to turn out how we would like them.
Tip 2: Cutting tips.
Always make sure you are cutting with a sharp knife on a cutting board. Cutting with dull knives will make your life infinitely harder. A cutting board also provides a sturdy surface while providing a great texture for your knife. I am a lefty, so I cut with my left had, and keep my right had over the knife. I make sure all fingers are out of the way, but use my right hand as a guide to ensure I am cutting the size pieces I would like. If you are a righty, do the opposite. Everyone has their own style so as you start cooking more, you will find your own rhythm. One last thing: never cut towards you!
FYI: They sell cutting boards with grips on the bottom to prevent sliding. I personally do not use them, but they do exist if that will help you.
Tip 3: Cooking meats.
Whether you are cooking ground beef, chicken, turkey, or something else, each meat has a feel to it before and after they are done cooking. If you are cooking on a stovetop, let your meat have a bit of time (20-30 minutes) before cooking to slowly come to room temperature. This will help more moisture stay in your meat which will help the taste. If you do not have time, no worries.
After you’re all ready, place the meat in the waiting pan. I would advise using a little dash of butter or oil to help things not stick to the bottom. If you are following a recipe, normally they will tell you approximate cook times. Use this as a guide, and adjust depending on how you feel. I honestly cook things a little longer sometimes just to be sure. I use a wooden spoon most of the time to feel what is in the pan and to help push or flip it. Here are some great tools to help you flip and ensure your food is to the proper temperature:
Normally, you cook meat at medium low to medium. Medium low ensures a slower, more controlled temperature. You can raise it to medium once things are heated and cooking nicely, if desired. Remember to check on it frequently, but give it a bit of time to sit and heat. If I use thinly sliced chicken breasts for example, I will wait two to two and a half minutes before flipping. Then, I will flip again and give them at least another ninety seconds.
If you are cooking with ground meat, use your wooden spoon to break up the meat. I will sort of push everything to one side and slowly break it up, pushing the broken pieces to the other side of the pan. I repeat this process, too. This helps me ensure I don’t miss any large pieces. In the first 2-3 minutes of cooking, you can sometimes still use your fingers to touch the tops of the meat. Be careful though and use your judgement.
Tip 4: How do you drain pasta?
Draining the water from pasta is one of those things that seems a bit difficult at first, but is actually quite easy. I always dump my pasta directly into a strainer to ensure I do not lose everything I just created. They actually also have a special pot with holes on the top and a locking lid for this very reason.
My one warning with this pot is it can be a bit hard to stir the pasta once you put the lid on; this is why I like the strainer method. I can also more easily check on its doneness.
Any strainer will do, you can find one at your local Target, Walmart, Bed, Bath and Beyond, or wherever you like to build your household products.
Tip 5: Using the oven.
How can you tell it is the right temperature? If the oven has a dial, I will add bump dots to needed temperatures such as 350, 40, 425, etc. Sometimes, you can just remember by envisioning the temperature area of the oven as a clock face. If it is digital, I use either Seeing AI, Be My Eyes, or AIRA to help. Family and friends are always an option as well.
If I am cooking something like a lasagna, I like to place a cookie tray under my pan. This makes it super easy to lift it right out of the oven. This goes for roasts, too. I would advise not using this method on cakes or other baked goods. This could change cooking temperatures and effects the results. For dinner items though, this method is great.
A must-have is solid oven mitts. I make sure the oven mitts come up my arms a bit to provide protection on my forearms. This will alleviate some of the fear of being burnt. Fear is a good thing, it creates caution, but do not let your fear get the better of you because you are very capable and can do it!
I also like to feel the oven before I start cooking. I will judge how far apart the shelves are, how wide the oven is, how far from the top of the shelf to the heating elements. This will give you familiarity with your workstation and help you feel more confident.
Tip 6: Feeling safe at the stove.
Yes, it is a bit scary to be near heat, especially if you are short like me! The above tips will ensure your safety. If you are nervous, ask to cook with friends or family the first few times. Especially in college, friends love to do these things together. You can even start a weekly or monthly cooking club!
Comfort comes with experience. Think about learning a new route, the first few times you are uncertain and perhaps a little timid. As you become accustomed to it though, you get more comfortable and even venture out of your comfort zone! Cooking and baking is the same!
Some other tools you might find helpful:
They come in different colors too! They also feature large print.
They also come in different colors and should have large print.
These are great to mark your microwave, important areas on the stove dials, and more.
Here are a few of my favorite recipes:
Honey Garlic Chicken
1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken cut into bite sized peices
3 cloves garlic, minced (chopped very finely)
1/3 cup honey
1/4 cup water
2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 1/2 tsp to 1 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp butter or oil (olive oil is preferable to vegetable oil, canola oil will also be ok)
Salt and pepper to taste
- Cut your chicken into bite-sized pieces, then salt and pepper to taste. I like to put spices in my hand and then sprinkle on top. This helps me control how much I put on. Feel free to use a measuring spoon if you feel more comfortable this way.
- To mince garlic: first, with the outer paper layer still on, take your knife and place it flat side on top of the garlic with the blade facing away from you. Carefully, place your palm on top of the flat side of the knife and push. The garlic will crack but also easily remove the paper. Pull the paper away. Now, use your fingers and you will feel two ends to the garlic. One is a little rough, and one is pointed. Slice the ends off from each side and discard. Now, cut the garlic into slices. Push them back together and continue cutting until they are small pieces. It does not need to be perfect! Just try your best.
- Measure your honey. Here is a trick. Take a paper towel and use it to gently coat the inside of your measuring cup with oil before adding the honey. This will ensure it does not stick to the sides and makes it easier when you have to pour.
- Measure the water, soy sauce, apple cider vinegar and honey.
- Please most of the butter or oil in a frying pan and turn the heat to medium. Using your wooden spoon, push the butter around until you feel it is all melted. If you are using oil, just wait about 90 seconds. If you would like to test if your pan is hot enough, get a little warm water in your hand and splash the drops in the pan. If it sizzles, it is ready!
- I like to place my chicken pieces on a plate so I can easily pour them in the pan. Cover the pan and let cook 3-4 minutes stirring once they get into the pan, and then giving them a few minutes.
- Next, add the garlic and the remainder of the butter. Stir this around because you do not want the garlic to burn. Stir constantly for 30 seconds.
- After about 60 seconds, add the water, apple cider vinegar, soy sauce and stir. After you have stirred and coated the chicken, add the honey. Pour the honey around the pan and stir constantly for 45 seconds. I save the honey for last so there is liquid to capture the honey. Stir and lower to medium low heat.
- Let cook 5-7 minutes. Keep an eye on it and stir occasionally. If you hear it getting too hot, you can turn down to low. I have to do this often the last two or so minutes of cooking.
This is great served with white rice. When you start getting used to this recipe, some great additions are carrots, red peppers, and black beans. I would double the sauce recipe if you are adding more veggies or meat. If using carrots, cut into thin pieces to help with cooking.
I also like this recipe – Turkey Meatballs! It’s great with pasta, served alone, or with zoodles!
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