Things No One Tells You About College: Food

Pot noodle has the nutritional value of cardboard, and the sodium content of those salt licks you used to give your gerbil. Man cannot live on coffee and Taco Bell alone. If you're going to go off to college on your own, you are going to have to devise some way of feeding yourself that doesn't result in a trip to the student health center for scurvy.

There are a number of different ways you can handle this, but the one I recommend is learning to cook. You don't necessarily have to learn how to cook well, you just have to learn how to follow a recipe without courting disaster. Food is a kind of currency, in the dorms. If you're even a halfway-decent cook, people will spontaneously come up to you and offer to pay for all the ingredients if you just stand there and show them how to convert a miscellaneous pile of groceries into a meal. One can only eat so much microwave popcorn before one starts craving things like casseroles.

And if that doesn't convince you, you might want to consider that your university dining services is likely run by an outside food service/catering company, and that company landed the contract be being the lowest bidder. Unless it's a branded outlet like Starbucks or McDonald's, the people behind it are the most callously penny-pinching corporation your school could find. The people running things at my alma mater lost the contract one year for health code violations, and got it back by promising to work even cheaper. Good luck with that there burger, champ.

Your dorm may or may not have cookware that you can borrow from the front desk. It's easier to bring your own. You can buy a set at most any department store; they don't have to be fancy, as the likelihood of all of them surviving dorm life is pretty low, but you should have the following:

  • A large saucepan with lid, suitable for boiling enough rice or pasta for two people
  • A small saucepan with lid, suitable for heating single cans of soup
  • A measuring cup, ideally plastic or Pyrex, and with a 2- to 4-cup capacity
  • A set of measuring spoons
  • A mixing bowl that will hold at least 4 cups of liquid with enough room to stir
  • A spatula
  • A slotted spoon
  • A non-slotted spoon
  • A 9"x 13" cake pan
  • An 8" or 9" square casserole dish with lid
  • A cookie sheet
  • A 12-14"cast iron skillet
Most of that is pretty self-explanatory, I think. You need pots to boil things in, cups and spoons to measure things with, the mixing bowl to stir it together, and the spatula and spoons to prod it while it's cooking. The cake pan, casserole dish, and cookie sheet together should fulfill all of your dessert-baking and meat-roasting needs, although probably not at the same time. A 4-cup mixing bowl will hold a standard batch of pancake batter, manufactured as specified on the back of the Bisquick box. It really doesn't matter what any of these are made of; Pyrex casseroles heat and cool at about the same rate as ceramic ones and are equally safe to microwave, and there's not much difference between consumer-grade cookie sheets.

Why a cast iron skillet, you ask? Well, they're nice for cooking, firstly; the heat distributes itself evenly through the thick metal, which makes it more difficult to burn things, and a properly-oiled skillet is just about as non-stick as Teflon. You can use it in the oven as well as on the stove. It looks like serious cooking equipment, so there's also a decent chance it'll impress at least some members of the gender(s) you're hoping to see naked someday. But probably the most important thing to most college students is that you do not wash iron skillets. Never ever. You do not soak, scrub, soap, or scour a seasoned iron skillet. It destroys the finish. You wait for it to cool down, wipe any remaining food bits out of it with a wad of paper towels or a lightly damp dishcloth, and then you leave it the hell alone. If you could find stylish, functional, stain-proof pants that you were never supposed to wash, you would buy nine or ten pairs, so go cadge one of the good skillets from an elderly relative or cough up at the local Goodwill already.

Other cooking accessories you'll need:
  • A large knife
  • One to three smaller knives
  • Two plastic cutting boards
  • A large number of cheap hand towels
  • Liquid dish soap
  • A supply of scouring sponges
The knives are for the obvious, as are the dish soap and the sponges. The hand towels, if you have enough of them, are for drying dishes before putting them away, and if you layer them up enough, can also be used for holding pot handles, or as oven mitts and trivets (those things you put under hot dishes to keep them from scorching or melting whatever is underneath). You want two plastic cutting boards because I know full well you're not actually ever going to bleach them, and you don't want to be chopping vegetables on the same board you use for raw meat.

You're also going to want things to eat off of. I suggest bringing service for four -- that's four dinner plates, four cereal bowls, four mugs, four forks, four spoons and four butter knives. You can add four smaller salad plates if you like. Not because you're routinely going to be feeding four people, but because the time it'll take you to go through service for four alone is, under most circumstances, about as long as you can leave dishes unwashed in the sink before they start getting grotty. Also, service for four fits fairly neatly into a single milk crate, padded with blankets.

Tupperware-style storage containers are also essential, but are probably best bought piecemeal once you've moved into your new home. Feel free to buy the nice kind if you're conscientious about washing things; if you're not, buy ones you won't feel too bad about throwing out once they smell odd and have been stained orange with tomato sauce.

If you're intelligent and particularly lazy, you will also want to look into ways to avoid washing these things whenever possible. Aluminum foil is your friend whenever you're baking things on a cookie sheet. (Although not when you're using the iron skillet. A roommate of mine once did that on a skillet that had been put away wet and developed rust spots, and inadvertently discovered the recipe for Porkchops Thermite. I got to spend about an hour out in the courtyard, babysitting a sneezy rat, until our apartment no longer reeked of flash paper.) Parchment paper will also work for things that aren't too wet, like actual cookies, or pizza with a reasonably solid crust. If you want to be truly fancy, you can buy silicone liners for things like cookies, biscuits and scones; they go between the food and the cookie sheet, and are wipe-down clean when you're done.

Get an electric kettle. You can also go for a drip coffeemaker, but resist the temptation to make your actual coffee in it, and use a French press instead. The French press is easier to clean, for one thing, and for another, hot water on demand is useful for much more than just coffee. Even if you don't drink tea or instant cocoa, you can cook a lot of things that normally require boiling by pouring boiling water over them, slapping a lid on, and waiting five or six minutes. It works for brick-style instant ramen, for dissolvable instant foods like miso or onion soup, oatmeal (even non-instant kinds. Really!), bouillon cubes, and those waxy blocks of Japanese curry. You may want to shake the container, to make sure it all dissolves evenly, so be sure the lid goes on tight.

You will also, for obvious reasons, want a microwave. You probably already thought of that; I don't think I knew anyone who turned up to school without one.

Other things no one has thought to tell you about cooking:
  • You can cook pasta in the microwave. The box will tell you how long to boil it. Put the pasta in a microwave safe container, fill with water until the pasta is entirely submerged and then a bit, add a couple pinches of salt, and microwave it for half the recommended time. Take it out, prod it with a fork so that none of the pasta sticks together, then finish cooking. 
  • You can strain pasta without a colander by using a container that has a snap-on lid, putting the lid on loosely (don't snap it to form the airtight seal), and holding the lid in place on the left and right. Tip it gently over the sink so the hot water drains out the bottom center. If you do it right, all of the pasta stays put, and all of the water comes out.
  • Cake mix cooks fine in the microwave. Better, in fact, since it sets fast enough that none of the air bubbles have time to collapse in on themselves. Fill a coffee mug about a third full and nuke it until it looks like cake, usually 2-3 minutes. It may mushroom out over the edge of the mug, but by the time it does the surface will be firm enough that you get a cupcake top instead of a mess.
  • Scrambled eggs also cook fine in the microwave, although they need more attention. Scramble them, optionally with a bit of extra milk or water. Drop in vegetables, meat, or cheese as desired. Do not add salt, or the eggs will get oddly tough. Microwave them in 30 second bursts, fluffing them with a fork in between bouts, until they're cooked to your satisfaction. Make sure you use a container that extends an inch or two above the surface of your eggy mix, because it puffs up even more ambitiously than the cake mix.
  • Don't pry meat off the bottom of the pan. When burgers, steaks, chicken, pork chops, etc., are done searing, they'll scootch over when you poke them with a spatula. If you have to scrape them loose, that means the proteins on the underside aren't fully denatured yet, i.e., it's not done, so leave it alone for a minute.
  • Instant foods that call for milk or a combination of milk and butter (macaroni and cheese, for instance) can also be made with a few spoonfuls of sour cream, adding extra water if necessary. They may also be acceptable when made with plain yogurt. I know this because milk comes in gallon jugs, is heavy, and goes off relatively quickly, whereas sour cream comes in 8 oz tubs, does not care if it gets turned upside down in the shopping bag, and stays good for weeks. As a side effect, people think you're fancy.
  • Powdered milk is disgusting if you try to drink it like real milk. On the other hand, you can't tell the difference when you use it in cooking or baking. Canned coconut milk also works in very nearly anything that requires dairy as a binder, although it may taste a little odd in a savory dish. Foods that use whipped heavy cream as a binder, like French silk pie, also work well with silken tofu.
  • Always thaw your frozen vegetables in the microwave before dumping them into casseroles or skillet dishes. Otherwise the extra water from the melting ice crystals can throw things off.
  • Bailey's can be substituted for up to half of the milk in any given dessert before disaster strikes.
  • You can skip all of the faffing about with ice when you make daiquiris by just dumping frozen fruit into the blender with your sugar and rum. Likewise, there's no need to thaw the limeade concentrate before using it to make cheap margaritas.
  • Beer is good for deglazing pans. Of course, you only need a little beer for this. What you do with the rest of the bottle is up to you.
  • Never use Popov vodka for anything other than industrial solvent. Ever.