Student Cooking Tips: Things to Make and Chew

Food is confusing, so we'll keep things simple – here's our guide to the basics of food, from the right way to buy a chicken to how to stop your friends accidentally headbutting restaurant staff

Feature by Peter Simpson | 10 Sep 2015

So you’re all settled into your new digs, having rearranged the place to make space for that musical instrument you’ll probably give up on within the next few weeks. It’s hungry work, so it’s time for some food. But – and here’s the funny thing – you’ve got to deal with it yourself, rather than shouting the word ‘sandwich’ at any relative within earshot. Fear not, we can help.

If you’re going to cook, you’ll need some basic kit. Key words here are 'some' and 'basic'; not 'loads' or 'bizarre and multicoloured'. Essentially, your student cooking equipment list runs like this – a big saucepan (for pasta and soups), a little saucepan (for stuff that doesn’t need to go in the big saucepan), two frying pans (one big, one small), a couple of ovenproof dishes and chopping boards, a metal sieve (which can double as a steamer with a little rejigging) and little and large knives. That’s the lot; no ‘flavour shakers’ or ‘slap chops’ required.

Keep your kit list small, and spend reasonably on the stuff you do buy, and you’ll notice three things. Your equipment will last a while, because you went for the middle option in Ikea rather than trying to load as many cheap pans into one of those blue bags as possible. Your washing-up will never be more than a few pots and boards, so you’ll know straight away who’s taking the piss with the dishes (clue: it’s not you). And here’s the crucial bit – you’ll actually be able to take all your best cooking gear with you without giving yourself a hernia. You’ll probably move house every nine months for the next few years, and will thank us when all your pots and pans fit in one box.

So your cupboard is full of bits of sharp metal and plastic; time to get some food! To the shops! Simple rules to follow here – first is to buy things whole. For example, don’t buy bits of chicken, get a whole one and then break it into the bits you need. You’ll get some good use out of the knife and board from two paragraphs ago, you’ll save money, and you’ll end up with loads to eat now and plenty to stick in the freezer for later. Next, scout out your local shops and find out when they start reducing stuff to clear. If you live in any kind of vaguely studenty area then mini-supermarkets will be all over the place like a rash, so there’ll be plenty of opportunity to get half-price loaves of bread or family-size trifles for 20p. If you follow these two rules then you might just have some student loan left over to go to some of the lovely indie food shops your city has to offer; the kind of places that not only sell really nice stuff, but actually like to talk about it, and will even give you a bit of advice if you ask nicely.

As for cooking itself, there are a few basic building blocks and skills to familiarise yourself with. Explaining how to turn that chicken from earlier into ‘bits of chicken’ really works better visually than written down, so get on YouTube and check it out. If you’re making a soup or sauce, you’ll need a mirepoix – that’s two parts chopped onion, one part each of carrots and celery. Cook that for a while and you’ve got the base for a whole load of recipes. And don’t throw away the browned bits at the bottom of pans and dishes – chuck in some wine or some stock and you’re on the way to making gravy. You aren’t nearly setting the flat on fire, you’re deglazing. Go you!

Of course, sometimes you won’t want to cook, and that’s fine. After all, there is a whole world going on outside, so it seems remiss to not at least give it a chance. While the world of catering may not be entirely new to you, student life will probably be the first time you experience the grown-up embarrassment of having to wrangle a group of uncouth friends through a meal.

There are a couple of simple things to remember – most restaurants serve the diners from the right, so get everyone talking to the person on their left (thus avoiding any accidental waiter-headbutting); don’t leave your knife and fork or chopsticks crossed (it is variously bad luck and a sign that you’re still eating, even if there’s nothing there); and for the love of God, leave a tip (and try not to be a dick about it). And when you hit the pub, rest assured you’ll be greeted by a bewildering array of bitters, stouts, saisons, pales, porters and other drinks with non-sequitur names and branding. And you know what you should do? Ask the bar staff what they’d recommend – they spend their days behind the bar, so if anyone’s going to know what’s nice, it would be them. Or just pick the one with the nicest label – you’re students, you may as well experiment while you have the chance.