At the moment, taking COVID-19 seriously (and you should be) means spending extended periods of time cooped up at home. For some, that means a new challenge of cooking from scratch more than usual (if that’s you, you might find solace in this guide to cooking from the pantry or freezer). But for those who have always loved cooking as both a respite from the news and a creative hobby, hunkering down inside during a pandemic presents a unique opportunity to get cozy with finicky and time-intensive recipes and kitchen skills that have previously been hard to carve out time to try—the anti-InstaPot or 30-minute weeknight recipes, if you will.
All of what follows are kitchen pursuits that would still be edible even if you stumble your way through them and need a few tries to get them right—a poorly folded dumpling is still a tasty dumpling—or that require really minimal ingredients to try. It felt unwise to recommend, say, learning to poach an egg (which is unseemly in its trickiness, and unfixable if done wrong) at a time when running to the grocery store to replace ingredients is not only ill-advised but also difficult to do in areas facing temporary runs on stock.
This article also isn’t about productivity or usefulness, and it’s not about finding ways to fill your freezer for months to come (although some of these suggestions could unintentionally help with that). It’s about taking care of yourself emotionally in a time of uncertainty. If you’re someone who wants to stay in bed with Netflix right now, or work out in your living room, or clean the whole house, or do literally anything else, please do that! But if cooking brings you calm, and mastering new kitchen skills would offer a sense of control at a time of chaos, I hope these ideas help inspire you and bring you a sense of ease and comfort.
Learn to Fold Dumplings
There are nearly infinite ways to fill a dumpling, and just as many ways to seal their edges. Learning to master a few of them might be just the right kind of repetitive, meditative task for the times right now. It’s also an activity that kids could easily join in on, if you’re a parent who’s already running out of ways to occupy your cooped up child.
Recipes to Try: 15 Asian Dumpling Dishes
Finally Cultivate a Sourdough Starter
The allure of bringing your own sourdough starter to life and baking homemade bread with it is strong, but the barrier to actually doing it is that it’s a lot like having a pet. You need to stay on a strict, timed feeding schedule, and it takes days to come to fruition and be ready for use. Now’s your chance. Having a starter is of course not as comforting as having a dog who sits next to you when you’re stressed, but it might feel baseline good to have something small to nurture and take care of right now that also happens to yield delicious food. All you need is a little flour, water, and time.
Make All the Bread
There are so many varieties of bread requiring so many techniques that you could fill a year-long quarantine by learning about bread and still not know it all (though let’s absolutely hope it doesn’t come to that). There are flour-water ratios to master, doughs to proof, yeast to bloom, and a general by-feel know-how that can only come with practice. Some varieties of bread are quite difficult, if you’re looking for a challenge, and others are easily learnable, if you’re after instant gratification.
If you have decided to try your hand at making a sourdough starter, then sourdough obviously presents itself as a good place to start. It can take a full 24 hours to make a decent loaf, along with hourly kneading for part of that, so a normal work schedule wouldn’t usually make this an easy weekday pursuit, but again, now’s your chance.
If that doesn’t appeal: breads that don’t use sourdough starter are usually easier to work with and faster to rise. Try French baguettes, for an option that uses instant yeast, or Irish soda bread, which, as the name suggests, relies on baking soda as its raising agent instead. And a no-knead loaf is an exceptionally good place to start for beginners.
If you end up on a bread kick, and have more than you’ll ever eat in a few days, bread can last a while in the freezer, thaws quickly on the counter, and comes out tasting fresh. And hot tip: Bread that does require kneading is also an unintentionally good arm workout, while you’re staying away from crowded spaces like gyms.
Laminated Pastry Dough
Making puff pastry from scratch might be the Holy Grail of labor-intensive kitchen pursuits. Even the most fastidious recipes will usually call for the store-bought kind from the freezer section. That’s because, even though the ingredients list is short and simple (flour, butter, water, and salt), the grip it holds on your time is not. You need to be in and out of the refrigerator about every 30 minutes—rolling, folding, chilling, rolling, folding, chilling, etc. until you’ve done this six times. Each time is called a “turn” and each turn creates another layer of butter between layers of dough; the butter will ultimately evaporate in the oven, and push up the layers of dough as it does, causing the “puff.” But if you roll too aggressively, or cut corners on chill time, the butter can seep into the dough layers instead and create a flat, soggy pastry (it’ll still be tasty, though). If you get it right, however, it’s one of the most satisfying moments as a home baker. Learning this technique is the basis behind everything from tarte tatin to palmiers to croissants, with some slight variations in recipes depending on the dough’s ultimate destination.
If you take this time indoors as a chance to make a basic puff pastry while you can, but don’t really want to eat it yet, it can also be kept in the freezer for a few months to benefit you later when you do need it. If a recipe calls for “frozen puff pastry” you can experience the special pride of grabbing it from your freezer, homemade, instead of the grocery store.
Related: How to Master Laminated Dough
Homemade Condiments and Sauces
At home, you can make most of the shelf-stable condiments and sauces you’d normally buy at the store, and there’s something really gratifyingly self-sufficient about rediscovering that (of course generations past would laugh at this). If you’ve always grabbed your tomato sauce, hot sauce, mayonnaise, ketchup, or jam from the store, this might be a good time to find out that you can do it at home just as well—possibly even better, or more to your tastes, and definitely more cheaply.
Mayonnaise was a personal favorite of mine to learn to do at home because there’s something a little precarious about it—and thus, more satisfying about it when it does work. If you add the oil too quickly to the egg and vinegar mixture, the mayonnaise will “split” or fail to combine. But done successfully, it’s kind of magical watching it emulsify and thicken out of nowhere quite suddenly. Ultimately, tomato sauce keeps well in batches in the freezer, while the rest do pretty well in the refrigerator for a few months, especially in an air-tight container or canning jar with a tight lid.
Related: Step-By-Step Canning Guide
Try Your Hand At Fresh Pasta
I have written about this before, but having a pasta machine is not a prerequisite for making homemade pasta. You probably have a lot of objects lying around that could be used creatively to make interesting patterns and shapes in the dough. There are an estimated 350 different pasta shapes around the world, but if you try hard enough, you might even be able to invent a new one. This is also another great kitchen pursuit for kids to get involved with.
Chop It Up
Lastly, one thing you can sharpen up on while you do any and all other cooking throughout this time is knife skills. There’s time now to go slowly and learn how to efficiently and safely dice, chop, julienne, chiffonade, etc.