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Family Fun: Culinary tips for teens

UPDATED: Sun., March 21, 2021

Recipes can sometimes read like a foreign language, with unfamiliar techniques and ingredients. It can be overwhelming to the uninitiated.

But cooking can also be fun, something for friends and family to enjoy together.

For teens interested in learning more cooking skills, two local instructors suggest just diving in.

“You have to start with no fear, and, from there, it’s creating and building on it,” said Julie Litzenberger, a culinary arts instructor at Spokane Community College.

Hillary Ginepra, a culinary instructor at North Idaho College, agrees. “It’s OK to make mistakes,” she said. “I make mistakes all the time.”

Cooking requires constant practice, she said. Each time you make something, the goal is to be a little better.

But it’s the finished product that is the reward, especially when sharing it with others.

“That’s what lights the fire” for new cooks, Litzenberger said, “the first time somebody takes a bite of something you’ve cooked and goes, ‘Wow!’ “

Here are some tips Ginepra and Litzenberg shared to help teens get comfortable in the kitchen:

Mise en place. The French phrase, which means “everything in its place,” is a mantra in the culinary world. “What it is, is your physical and mental preparation,” Ginepra said. “It comes from doing your research.”

It starts with reading the recipe completely before starting – several times. Then, Ginepra suggests writing a mise en place list, with all the ingredients and equipment needed for the recipe.

“When you write it down and you have a list, your mind is organized, and you feel more confident,” Ginepra said.

Get out all your ingredients before your start cooking. And, if there’s something in the recipe that you don’t recognize, figure it out before you start.

“Sometimes, they like to use fancy words when they don’t need to,” Litzenberger said.

The internet can be great for tutorials on different techniques. “YouTube is a great resource, especially for hobby cooks, because you get to actually see someone do it,” Ginepra said.

Start small. Litzenberger suggests starting out with something with which you’re familiar, like spaghetti. First, learn how to cook the pasta correctly so it’s al dente. Then start building more skills: making a sauce with canned tomatoes, next with fresh, then a different kind of sauce, like pesto.

After mastering a sauce or two, try making the pasta. “For a young person to taste the difference between fresh pasta and store-bought pasta is mind-blowing,” Litzenberger said.

“That’s the beauty of cooking. As long as you lose that fear and start small, you can’t screw up,” Litzenberger said. “You’re always going to learn something and try it different the next time.”

Understand the science. Making food – especially baking – is scientific. It’s also mathematical and an art.

In baking, “all those ingredients serve a purpose,” Litzenberger said. It’s a formula, with certain amounts of different ingredients required to achieve specific results. For instance, yeast, baking soda and baking powder are leavening agents that serve to make baked goods rise; flours provide structure; fats bind the ingredients; and sugars provide sweetness, as well as browning and tenderizing.

But you can’t necessarily swap out one sugar – or fat, flour or leavening agent – for another. For instance, white sugar will make a cookie crisper, while brown sugar will make it chewier.

Once you understand each ingredient’s purpose and the ratios, then you can play around with it, Litzenberger said.

With cooking, you have a lot more leeway, she said. Most of the ingredients are about the flavor instead of having a specific task to do.

Learn the basics. There are certain skills that make cooking and baking easier, including how to hold a knife and how to measure accurately.

“No one is born with great knife skills,” Ginepra said. “It really does take practice, like everything.”

Holding a knife properly gives the cook more control. And, a sharp knife is safer than a dull knife.

As for measurements, weights are more accurate than measuring cups. And, there’s a difference in cups for measuring liquid and dry ingredients.

Another fundamental to learn is how to use heat. A pan needs to be hot before you start cooking on it, and the same for an oven.

Trust your senses. Ginepra said one thing she’s often asked is, “How do I know when it’s done?”

“You know how to tell, you just have to trust yourself,” she said. You can tell by the smell, the change in color, the change in shape, the hollow sound when you tap a loaf of bread.

The cooking time in a recipe “is just kind of a guideline,” she said. “Cooking is all about sense. Trust your judgment on that.”

She also suggests tasting the food as it cooks to see how it evolves – and hold off on the salt until the end.

Practice good hygiene. Wash your hands, of course. But also clean the counters, cutting boards and any tools regularly to prevent cross-contamination.

“It’s a wonder more people don’t kill themselves,” with food contamination, Litzenberger said.

Stay in the kitchen. To increase skills, Litzenberg suggests classes or watching food shows. The competition shows – including some featuring kids – can be lots of fun to watch, she said.

For adults with teens who are interested in cooking, she recommends helping them out by making sure they have the right tools. And, letting them experiment.

For teens who find a passion for cooking or baking, there are lots of career opportunities.

“It can be a great career, and, if not, it’s an amazing life skill,” Litzenberger said.

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