What are delicious easy recipes to try cooking when you are just learning how to cook?
Do an online search for "recipe 5 ingredients." Because of the low number of ingredients, they're relatively simple most of the time. The assumption is always that you have salt & pepper on hand and some pantry staples like sugar and flour, as well as cooking fat - oil, butter, ghee, schmaltz - but the rest is in the 5 or less ingredients.
The easiest and most delicious recipes are always the ones with very few ingredients but you have to use the best ingredients you can get and afford. I grow lots of tomatoes (without chemicals), for the purpose of freezing them so I have something fresh all winter and spring. I cut an "X" in the bottom and drop them in boiling water for barely half a minute and immediately remove to a huge bowl of ice water with a slotted spoon (don't want that hot water in the ice bath). Once cooled a bit, I make room for the next batch. Then they're peeled and the seeds are removed (only because I don't like the seeds and the jelly goop) and put into quart-sized freezer bags. I press out as much air as I can (or suck it out with a straw) and freeze flat - sometimes using a baking tray to make sure they stay flat. They stack easily in the freezer, or slide along the sides. This way, I always have the beginnings of a great easy pasta sauce.
When I want a fresh pasta sauce, I take a bag out of the freezer and thaw it in warm water for about 10 minutes. It doesn't have to be all the way thawed, just pliable enough to crumble into a pan. While it's thawing, I start my pasta, big pot of salted water on the boil, once boiling the dried pasta goes in for about 8–9 minutes or so until just done "al dente" - fresh pasta takes about 2–3 minutes, so work on your sauce first and time accordingly. Heating the water and the cooking of the dried pasta takes about 15 minutes altogether, so about halfway into the pasta cooking time the tomatoes are ready to go into the pan. First I put in a little oil and mince up 1 or 2 garlic cloves and 1/2 an onion and cook until the onions turn translucent. The tomatoes go in next to warm up the rest of the way. I add in about a tablespoon of tomato paste (I usually have this in my pantry too, in a squeeze tube) to thicken it up but it's still great without, and add in some fresh or dried herbs - basil or oregano or both - I grow this in my garden and dry it and store in jars in the pantry. You can even use a generic "Italian seasoning blend" from the spice aisle of the grocery if that's easier, too. By this time the pasta is done - drain and add it to the pan, give it all a stir, and you're ready to eat. So here's 5 ingredients: pasta, garlic, onion, tomatoes, herbs (omitting the tomato paste). You can always make a blonde roux using your pantry staple flour after you cook the garlic & onions before you add the tomatoes to make it a little thicker or you can double batch the tomatoes and patiently wait for them to cook down and get much of the moisture out.
Another easy one is spaghetti al olio - spaghetti with garlic oil. Cook your pasta like above, and as it's cooking warm some really good olive oil in a pan. Use the good stuff because all your flavor is in the oil and the garlic only, don't skimp. While your oil is warming, slice a few cloves of garlic as thinly as you possibly can and add it to the oil. Keep the oil just on warm, you don't want to toss in your garlic and have it brown right away - a low simmer will cook it through so it's fragrant. Burned garlic is very bitter and you have to start over with fresh oil and garlic - fresh oil because the burned garlic will flavor the oil. When the garlic is cooked through, just barely starting to turn beige, take the pan off the fire, add in the drained pasta, a generous sprinkle of grated parmesan or romano cheese, and a pinch of red pepper flakes if you like heat (I don't do this I don't like the flavor). Your 5 ingredients are again the pasta, good olive oil (we won't assume you keep this in your pantry for regular cooking), garlic, cheese, red pepper flakes. In place of the red pepper flakes I use minced parsley (again from my garden).
Both recipes teach beginners knife skills (cutting garlic and onions into the proper size) the right amount of salt in pasta water (as a famous Italian chef once said, "It should taste like the sea" - yes please taste your water too!), and the balance of seasoning (a really difficult thing to do sometimes to get the balance of bright acid - tomatoes are acidic, but think citrus or vinegar too in some recipes - salty from the cheese, sweet - like some onions - bitter and sour (though these 2 examples aren't particularly bitter or sour). Season the recipes you find and make often to your taste, you don't have to stick with a written recipe if you like it spicier, or not as salty, or if you're like me and absolutely hate nutmeg. These examples also teach beginners timing of the cooking - both of these recipes can be cooked in about 15–20 minutes if you're prepared.
The best advice I can give to a beginning home cook is to not get frustrated or discouraged when a dish doesn't come out quite right, as easy as some may seem. Just chuck it out, call for pizza delivery that night, and start experimenting again the next day. Making a delicious cheese omlette - 2 ingredients plus your pantry salt/pepper/fat - may seem easy, but the best ones take half an hour or more. Oh, invest in a few of good knives (not those knife block sets you really won't use half of them anyway), my 3 necessary knives are a chef's knife, a long serrated knife, and a small boning knife. With these 3 I can easily do most kitchen prep and serving. And invest in an instant-read meat thermometer, it's the best $20 I ever spent to make sure all meat that I cook is the right temperature.
Then when you're confident, try this 7-ingredient recipe of mine - beef bones, beef broth, onions, wine (you can leave this out for a 6-ingredient dish), herbs, bread, and cheese. It is relatively easy, just takes a long time.
Cooking meat in a pan is something that I often see people not quite get right and it's very easy to do and delicious.
It depends whether you mean easy as in low skill, or easy as in low effort. I will start off with the easiest easy and the hardest still-easy things I know, followed by some in between options. I hope at least one sounds fun and tasty.
- Most simple thing I can think of, that's also extremely versatile, is steamed rice. Fill the bottom of a pot with rice until you can't see the bottom but no more than that. That should be a single serving of rice in a normal size saucepan. Then add water that is an inch deep (until it covers your first knuckle of your index finger, if you don't have a ruler on hand). Then bring that to a high boil and as soon as it boils, turn down the heat to a simmer and leave it covered for 12-14 minutes. Do not open it up for any reason. Just let it sit. Trust the rice. After simmering, open it and fluff the rice with a fork just a little. Voilà. Prep time 1.5/10, skill level 1/10.
- Shepherd's pie is quite complex, so don't do it if you're a complete novice, but nothing about it is necessarily a hard task. It is made of 5 basic components: a roux, a gravy (which stems from a roux), a stir fry, mashed potatoes, and a casserole. It's only technically shepherd's pie if it has lamb, which can be prohibitively expensive, but if you have ground beef you can make a cottage pie, literally the same recipe but with beef. Cook the ground beef or lamb in a pan alongside veggies, sauteeing them (keeping them moving continuously while cooking instead of letting them sit. set them aside while you make a gravy. A roux is done by taking fully melted but not sizzling butter, and adding flour little by little while stirring, until it forms a light yellow paste. What turns a roux into a gravy is the left behind meat fat stirred into it, and additional moisture. Usually that moisture is milk or cream but red wine is what makes this dish distinct. So when you have your red wine lamb/beef gravy, add the meat and veggies back in, and cook a little longer while stirring. Let the flavors get to know each other. Put the gravy with the meat and veggies into a casserole dish when you think they've melded nicely. Keep a lid on meanwhile; don't let it reduce (evaporate moisture away while leaving the solids behind) too much. You're going to want to have your mashed potatoes going during this process but thankfully they don't require a lot of interaction until the very end. Chop potatoes into one inch cubes and place in salted water. Boil softly, make sure the water is moving but not threatening to spill over, for a long time. At least an hour. When potatoes crumble under potato masher, drain the water and mash thoroughly. You can use a fork too if you don't have a masher. The mashed potatoes are to be the crust of the pie but they should be applied as one would the icing on a cake. They should be warm and smooth so they're easy to spread on top of the meat and veggies in the red wine gravy without mixing them together. We want distinct layers. You can pipe them on in fancy designs if you have icing applicators but that isn't necessary. Bake the casserole at 350 F until the potatoes are golden brown at the peaks and ridges but still the normal off white of mashed potatoes elsewhere. Prep time 7/10, skill level 3.5/10.
- Make your very own homemade butter and buttermilk by putting heavy cream in a food processor and spinning it until it begins to separate. The thick stuff is butter and the thin stuff is buttermilk. Drain off the buttermilk thoroughly. If you want to add herbs or salt to it to flavor the butter, go right ahead. If you use fresh herbs the butter will turn a lovely green from the chlorophyll. Prep time 2/10, skill level 2/10.
- A recipe I think is overplayed as something only pros can really do is chicken cordon bleu. You just need to cut your chicken about 70% of the way through its thin side, hammer it flat between two sheets of plastic, put the cheese against the chicken, put the ham on top of the cheese, and fold it. You don't have to use any particular tyoe of cheese, just as long as it melts. The ham can be in slices or tiny cubes. The chicken should stay closed like a book, with the first and last pages being cheese. Toss it gently in seasoned flour (can literally just be flour, salt and pepper but go wild with your seasonings as long as it's at least mostly flour). Dip that in beaten eggs, and coat the top of it with bread crumbs. No need to buy panko, just toss some toast in the food processor or even crumble it with your hands and chop it a bit more finely with a knife. Cook it in the oven until the bread crumbs turn a rich golden brown. Prep time 6/10, skill level 3/10.
- Crepes are fairly easy too. It takes a bit of trial and error in the beginning to get the consistency of the batter (of from scratch) and the timing before flipping right, but while it takes a while to Get Good At, there's really nothing stopping you from becoming a crepe master in short order. Prep time 4.5/10, skill level 4/10.
- Try to make a pan sauce! It feels really nice and fancy but it's super simple. You sear your protein on high heat, wait for it to brown on the bottom before flipping, and do that to the level you like it cooked. Then you turn down the heat and deglaze your pan, that is, get all that fond off the bottom with a splash of fluid. It can be water, alcohol, juice, broth, anything. If you marinated your protein definitely incorporate that but you can add whatever you like to dilute it if it's really thick and not good for deglazing on its own. A marinade might have raw meat juices in it and be unsafe for consumption unless it is put into a hot pan for a pan sauce. Use your spatula to help scrape it all off and dissolve. Reduce the liquid. Add oil (usually I use butter but use anything you like) once it's reduced to the consistency you like and stir quickly. Pour that over your protein and bam! It is delicious. Prep time 1/10, skill level 3/10.
- Another thing that's good for beginners is to make your own croutons for salad. Literally just cut bread into cubes, season them, oil them lightly and bake them until hard and a soft yellow (not quite golden brown). Very easy and satisfying. Prep time 5/10, skill level 1.5/10.
In cooking, as in most skilled arts, I think that one needs to learn some fundamental things and work up from there. And to learn something useful one should start with simple, not easy.
So, for example, it is useful to learn how to brown meat. Make a hamburger. Cook's Illustrated magazine and The Food Lab take on this task in some detail. The goal here is to make the outside very brown without drying out the inside of the meat. The general approach learned here will extend to cooking steak, fish, chicken and turkey. Preheat the pan over medium heat. For each 6 ounce burger mix in a teaspoon or two of sautéd chopped onion or mushroom, a little garlic salt and pepper. Maybe a dash of dried thyme. Form the burgers. Turn heat to high, turn on the exhaust fan. Put some olive oil into the pan, and cook the burgers two or three at a time, Try cooking three minutes per side, turning once. Then when they are still bright pink in the middle, remove them to a warm plate, cover lightly with foil, and let rest for three minutes before putting in a bun.
Learn how to make sautéd spinach that you like. Most of us do not eat enough greens, and a good spinach dish will complement most fare made from meat. It's just spinach, olive oil, garlic, and salt. And it's best done quickly so that the spinach is only just wilted.
Learn to make a crock pot stew that you love. I make one with chicken thighs (2 lb), garbanzo beans (1 can), black olives (1 cans), artichoke hearts (1 can), marinara sauce, onion (1), celery (4 ribs), garlic(3 cloves) and fennel (2 tsp). Fill the pot in this order: sautéd onions, lightly browned chicken thighs, marinara, celery, fennel seeds. Include the liquids from two cans. Cook for about three hours, It fills the house with the smell of garlic and fennel, and melts in the mouth.
Learn six ways to cook eggs outside of baked desserts and custards (scrambled, fried, boiled, baked, poached, omelets, egg-foo-young) . Eggs are an almost magical food: fast, cheap, nutritious, and delicious if cooked well.
Learn to make dishes that have integral sauces. So, for example, a meat sauce for spaghetti or lasagne will start with browning meat, but the crucial step for making the dish taste rich and yummy is the part where you deglaze the pan with a good stock, lifting the browned meat flavor from the surface of the pan into the sauce. It's a technique one uses in making lots of dishes, including a favorite, chicken piccata. The simplest recipe for spaghetti sauce is browned meat + marinara sauce. Maybe some added basil or fennel seed. Or sautéd mushrooms.
Learn how to steam and how to roast vegetables. Steaming preserves flavor and nutrients. It's fast, and you can actually do it pretty well in the microwave. Roasting develops browned flavors which work really well in both root vegetables and green vegetables like broccoli. For steamed vegetables you will want to learn a few easy sauces. A simple mix of lemon and butter will do wonders for a host of vegetable dishes. I put a head of cauliflower in the microwave with two tablespoons of water, cover with wrap or an inverted bowl, and cook for twelve minutes. Then I put the cauliflower in a food processor, add butter, boullion, salt, and pepper, and puree it. I find this way better than mashed potatoes. And it has a lot fewer carbs. I generally serve it with a meat sauce, but I have sometimes made pancakes out of it.
As for making rice, I agree that it is simple, but I do not believe it is easy. Perfect rice is fragrant, lightly toothsome, never soggy, never hard or tough, never starchy. And as with riding a bike, it seems simple once you've been successful a few times; but it can frustrate until then. Use a good brown rice or a good jasmine rice (NEVER INSTANT). Follow the instructions carefully regarding how much water to use, usually 2 to 2 1/2 times as much water as rice. Bring the rice to a boil for a few minutes. Cover with a tight fitting lid, reduce heat to low. Let it cook for the time indicated in the instructions, usually about 45 minutes. And don't look. Taking the lid off even once can cause it to lose to much heat. Stirring can make it sticky or starchy. Leftover rice can be reheated. I love to use it in omelets.
Try recipes that don't require a great deal of precision. Also, take advantage of the variety of convenience products on the market that will help make the simplest recipes look more challenging than they really are.
Meatloaf is a great family style meal. Mix ground beef with a quarter pound of ground veal or ground pork to make it more flavorful and juicy. Add minced onion, minced green or red pepper, minced garlic, grated celery, and bind together with an egg or two and breadcrumbs. Form into a loaf and bake in a buttered/greased baking dish.
Roast chicken is pretty easy as long as you don't overcook it. Ditto for roasted turkey breast.
Pasta with red sauce - cheat and use a bottled red sauce, but spring for refrigerated pasta and don't overcook it.
There are so many great digital magazines and blogs related to food. Spend some time looking at them for inspiration.
One cookbook I recommend is The Joy of Cooking
There are a lot of recipes and most of them are easy to read, understand and follow.
YouTube has hundreds of videos. Pick a meal you want to have. watch the video. If you understand it try it. If you start to get confused, put a bookmark in it and come back to it another time.
As you cook more you will gain confidence and become more adventurous.
The most important thing is to get good kitchenware. spend more on your pots, knives, and other utensils. You don't have to buy everything at once. Buy the basics and build as you grow.
Don't give up. It is a learning experience. I won't say how many times my meals didn't turn out the way I expected. Just relax and keep at it.
Best of luck.