It’s so easy to grab a meal at a drive-through or pop a frozen dinner in the microwave that you might have forgotten some of the basic cooking skills every cook should know. On the other hand, you may never have had the opportunity to learn how to cook in the first place.
That changes right now.
Certain terms, tools and techniques are essential to having kitchen skills you can rely on for the rest of your life. Don’t have time to attend cooking lessons or pay for a private tutor? No problem! These cooking tips and skills will help you make your family a nutritious breakfast, or wow your in-laws with your meal prep prowess.
To help you find what you need, each section of this article deals with a certain aspect of cooking: Before Meal Preparations, During Cooking/Baking Preparations, Cooking Terminology, During the Cooking Process and After Cooking.
What to Know Before You Prepare a Meal
They say you have to walk before you can run. You also have to have the right items on hand before you can prepare any meal — even the simplest one.
Getting the Proper, Correctly Sized Utensils and Culinary Tools
You would never try to grab some cereal armed with just a spoon, a gallon of milk and a box of corn flakes. Of course, you would have a clean bowl. In the same way, you should never start any cooking adventure without the right utensils and culinary tools.
Even the most barebones kitchen should include a working oven, stovetop, non-scratch saucepots, durable pans, baking sheets, a mixer, a blender and a slow cooker, if possible. Microwaves are great, but if you have a general understanding of how to make something from scratch, you don’t absolutely need a microwave to get by.
In addition to these items, you must have a good chef’s knife. Most have blades of about 8-9” and are made from heavy-duty stainless steel. Ideally, buy your knives individually, and get the best you can afford. Then, invest in a knife sharpener so you can get years of use out of your handy chef’s knife.
As a final note, you’ll also want measuring cups and spoons, tongs, a cutting board, a slotted spoon, mixing bowls, ladles, whisks, spatulas, a grater, a colander, oven mitts and a cooking thermometer.
Getting a Meal Done on Time
Does it feel like it’s impossible to get all your dishes on the table at the same time? Are you constantly burning something, undercooking something else or using the microwave to reheat certain foods that went cold while you were cooking others?
Getting a meal finished on time can be a challenge, but it doesn’t have to be! Good cooks learn to budget their time wisely and consider the full cooking length of an item, from preparation to finish. For instance, if you know you’ll have to cook a chicken breast in the oven for 30 minutes, don’t forget you’ll have to prepare it beforehand for five minutes, plus, you’ll want it to sit for a few minutes before putting it on the plate.
Just remember this: Foods that take longer to make should be started before other items.
Using a Slow Cooker
Slow cookers are great timesaving tools for your kitchen, but you have to remember that cooking in them isn’t like cooking in a pot on the stove or a roasting pan in the oven. You don’t need to use as much liquid as you normally would, because moisture doesn’t evaporate as much from a slow cooker. If you use too much broth, water or other liquid, your meal may taste watered-down.
What to Know During Cooking/Baking Preparations
Now that you have the tools necessary to get started in the kitchen, it’s time to gather a few hints about the actual cooking and baking process.
Reading a Recipe
Even knowledgeable chefs and bakers turn to recipes, if only for guidelines and ideas. As you read through a recipe, make sure you have all the ingredients and tools. Additionally, note anything that doesn’t make sense to you. The last thing you want to do is get to an important step and realize you don’t know what to do next.
Sometimes, you may not have all the items a recipe recommends. It may be possible to make substitutions, but be aware that a substitute can alter the taste of your final product. For instance, a simple substitution of margarine for butter may make a dish less flavorful, oilier and/or too liquidy.
Be cautious when seasoning, whether you’re using fresh or dried herbs. It’s easier to add seasoning later than to have too much at the beginning. However, if you over-salt a soup or stew, you may be able to reverse any damage by cutting a potato in half and adding both parts to the pot. Potatoes tend to soak up saltiness. When the potato is soft, remove it and throw it away (or keep it for a different recipe.) Then, taste your creation to see if your remedy worked.
Salting Water for Boiling
How much salt do you need to add to boiling water for pastas and other dishes? There really isn’t a rule. Some cooks prefer a pinch, while others say you should add at least 1.5 tablespoons per gallon. This is something you’ll need to experiment with in your own kitchen as you cook more often.
As you read the recipe books, you’ll come across a variety of cooking terms. Some of the most commonly used are listed here.
If your recipe calls for slices of an item, such as carrots, celery, potatoes or onions, be sure to use your cutting board and make even slices. The slices can be thick or thin, but their uniformity is important because you want them all to finish cooking at the same time.
When you dice a vegetable or fruit, you’re essentially cutting it into small cubes of the same size. Start by cutting your item into slices, then strips and finally blocks.
A seared piece of protein has a delicious flavor and texture because it’s been exposed to extremely high heat. To sear meat or fish, you have to get your pan or other surface excessively hot, and then place the item on it for a short amount of time. Searing food is designed to suddenly cook the outside of the food, but not the inside.
As a cook, you’ll have to sauté dishes from time to time. This involves cooking them for a short time in some type of fat substance, such as butter, olive oil or vegetable oil.
Have you ever made homemade salad dressing of oil and vinegar? As you know, the two don’t want to mix, so you have to emulsify them by whisking them speedily into a thicker, more viscous liquid and pouring them simultaneously onto your salad or other item before they have time to separate again.
Need cooked vegetables later but want to get the cooking out of the way now? Blanching solves your problem! Simply slice them, julienne them (slicing into thin strips) or dice them. Then, plunge them into boiling water with about a tablespoon of salt for up to five minutes. Every half-minute, plunge a piece into a bowl of water with ice cubes, then taste for the desired texture and doneness.
When your vegetables have cooked for an appropriate amount of time, take your slotted spoon and scoop them all into the bowl of ice water. This shocks them and stops the cooking process. At this point, they can be dried by placing them on paper towels, and then refrigerated or freeze them for later.
Making a Roux
A roux is a mixture of a type of fat (often butter) and flour. It’s the basis for many sauces, including some types of gravy. A roux is made on top of the stove, and requires all your attention so the flour doesn’t burn and take on an unpleasant flavor. However, it’s worth experimenting with roux, because it’s a useful kitchen staple.
Making a Gravy
As mentioned above, making a gravy can start with a roux base, to which liquid — like chicken or beef stock — as well as seasonings, are then added. The secret to a non-lumpy gravy is to incorporate the flour correctly. A roux base has already done this for you, but if you’re creating a gravy by adding flour to the drippings in a pan that has held a roasting turkey, chicken or duck, you’ll need to whisk the flour in by hand to a small amount of the drippings.
The result will be a thick batter, into which you can pour the rest of the drippings and then whisk the entire gravy to a smooth finish.
Who doesn’t love the smell of freshly baked bread? For millennia, our ancestors understood that the key to a perfect loaf of bread was the kneading process.
If you’re determined to have homemade bread, prepare to spend at least 15-20 minutes actively kneading. This will involve putting your dough on a lightly floured surface and pushing down on the mass of dough. Occasionally, pull the sides of the dough in, and then push the dough flat again. In no time, you’ll feel a workout in your arms thanks to the calorie burn!
Why all the pushing and pulling? It helps activate the yeast in the dough, as well as incorporates the flour, salt, yeast and other items into the liquids. A well-kneaded piece of dough will have no lines on it, and will feel smooth and shiny, but not too sticky.
Do you hate the taste of commercial whipped cream? Treat yourself to real whipped cream. It’s easier than you thought!
Simply place a metal mixing bowl and metal whisk in the freezer for about 15 minutes. When they’re ready to use, pull them out and pour heavy cream and sugar into the bowl. Then, whisk away until it forms stiff peaks.
You’ll be amazed at how fresh the flavor is!
Separating an Egg
Have you ever wondered how on earth bakers and cooks manage to separate the yellow yolk from the egg white? It’s a simple process that will make your life much easier when you need just one or the other.
Break an egg, and try to make sure the shell halves are about the same size. Move the yolk and egg white into one of the shells. Holding both shells over your mixing bowl or other culinary tool, pour the yellow yolk into the other shell, allowing the egg white to drip into your vessel. Continue moving the yolk back and forth until the egg white has been removed.
You can then use the yolk for some other purpose, such as making homemade aioli.
What to Know During the Cooking/Baking Process
Getting excited to take your newfound kitchen skills to the next level? Now comes the real fun! To assist you from morning to nighttime, we’ve added some helpful cooking tips for every meal of the day.
Yawn! It’s time to get up, and today you don’t need to have a boring breakfast, thanks to these tips.
Poaching an Egg
Poached eggs are lovely treats, and are super-easy to make once you get the hang of the technique.
Start by putting about an inch of water in a pan with higher sides. Then, place the pan on the stove. Turn the heat to a high temperature, but turn it down as soon as little bubbles start to move on the surface, indicating a simmer.
Add a teaspoon of salt to the water. Crack an egg into a measuring cup or small bowl, and gently pour the egg into the water. Let it cook for four minutes, then remove it with a slotted spoon and add salt or pepper to taste.
Scrambling an Egg
For perfect scrambled eggs, you’ll need a non-stick frying pan and a little butter. Put the butter into the frying pan under low heat. When the butter has melted, the pan is ready for your eggs.
In the meantime, put about four eggs and a quarter-cup of milk into a bowl. Whisk the two ingredients together by hand until they’re fully incorporated. If you wish, you can add salt or pepper.
Carefully pour the egg mixture into the center of the frying pan. As the eggs cook under the low heat, gently use a silicone spatula to move the outer cooked edges of the eggs toward the center of the mass. Continue until you no longer see any liquid.
When finished, you can enjoy with your favorite topping, or just as-is!
Frying an Egg
A fried egg is even easier than a scrambled one, and starts with the same buttered frying pan. However, instead of mixing your egg, simply crack it into a measuring cup and add it to the frying pan. Over low heat, watch as the egg white begins to cook.
When it has completely cooked, you can either remove it (the yolk will be slightly runny), or use a spatula to flip it over and cook for about two more minutes to completely harden the yellow yolk.
Boiling an egg
Boiled eggs might not be a staple in your house, but when you learn how to correctly master the process, you might just find that they become a regular ingredient!
Place all the eggs you want to boil at the bottom of a medium-sized saucepan. Then, slowly add cold water until it’s about an inch beyond the tops of the eggs. Turn the heat to high, and wait until the water begins to boil. When it does, turn off the heat and let the eggs sit in the hot water for around 15-17 minutes.
At this point, they should be properly cooked inside. Remove each egg with a slotted spoon and carefully place in a new bowl of ice water. They’ll be ready to peel in about 30 minutes.
Slicing a Bagel
Bagels are fast morning meals, but you’ve probably been cutting yours all wrong. First, always use a serrated bread knife. If you don’t have one, get one.
To correctly and safely cut your bagel in half, place it onto a cutting board. If you’re right-handed, use your left hand to hold down the bagel so it will not slip. With your right hand, hold your bread knife against the side of the bagel, with the knife parallel to the cutting board. Make a sawing motion sideways and begin to cut through the bagel.
This is a more secure way to get your perfect bagel halves than to stand your bagel up and try to saw downwards, which can end with a trip to the ER.
Whether you call it dinner, lunch or supper, your biggest meal of the day will likely require a little more cooking skill. But don’t worry! The following hints will be just enough to get you started.
Did you know you might be boiling your pasta all wrong?
Start with a very large pot that holds about four quarts of water. It’s necessary to have tons of room for the pasta to move and cook evenly.
Turn the heat on the stove to a high setting and let the water boil. Add a tablespoon of salt if you prefer. Some cooks also like to include a tablespoon of olive oil. Pull your pasta from the package and drop it into the boiling water. Immediately take a slotted pasta spoon and move the pasta around to dissuade strands from clumping together.
Most pasta that comes in a box will give you an idea of how long it should take to cook. If the package suggests 10-12 minutes, start testing individual strands at the 10-minute mark. Your pasta should be slightly firm in the middle. This is known as “al dente.”
When your pasta is finished, have a colander ready in the sink. Using oven mitts take the pot from the stove and slowly pour the water and pasta into the colander. Use the pasta spoon to serve immediately into dishes, and cover with your favorite sauce or toppings.
Roasting fowl, like chicken and turkey, always seems like it should be daunting, but it really isn’t. In fact, you can roast a chicken once a week and stretch it out for a few meals.
The key is to start with a roasting pan. Place the raw chicken in the roasting pan. Rub melted butter or margarine over the outside of the chicken. Season the chicken with about a tablespoon of salt and a tablespoon of pepper. If you want, you can add cut-up root vegetables like onions, celery and carrots to the inside of the chicken carcass to increase the flavor.
Without covering the chicken, place it into an oven set at approximately 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Cook the chicken for about one and one-quarter hours to one-and-a-half hours — until the inside reaches 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove the chicken and allow to sit for about a half-hour before carving and serving.
Turkeys can be roasted this way, too, which comes in handy for holidays!
Who doesn’t adore a grilled steak? Now, you can finally become a grillmaster!
The first key is to make sure your steak isn’t refrigerator-cold. Get it to about room temperature by putting it on a plate and allowing it to rest for 20 minutes before cooking.
As you wait, get your grill very hot. A hot grill is necessary to get the charring and caramelization you expect. When the steaks are no longer cool, drizzle-melted butter over them and apply a pinch (between your forefinger and thumb) of salt and pepper to each steak.
Use tongs to place each steak on the grill, standing back to avoid splatter. After about five minutes, turn your steaks over to heat on the uncooked side. In five to seven minutes, take them from the grill and allow them to rest on a platter for a few minutes. They should be ready to eat, unless you like a very well-done steak, in which case you may want to increase your cooking times.
Stir-frying can be extremely healthy, as well as economical. The next time you have a number of veggies in your fridge, get out your wok or deep frying pan as well as your carving board and chef’s knife. You can slice and dice your vegetables to any sizes you want, but make sure to separate them onto individual plates. For instance, all the broccoli florets should be on one plate, and the carrot slices on another.
Add about two to three tablespoons of oil to your wok or pan that can handle higher heat, such as vegetable oil or canola oil. Olive oil is not typically a good choice for stir frying, nor is butter or margarine. Turn your stove to a medium-high heat, and wait two minutes until the oil is hot.
One by one, add your vegetables to the wok or pan, starting with the vegetables that will take the longest to cook. In general, hardier vegetables require a longer period to cook than thinner, lighter or moister vegetables. As you add a new vegetable, use your spatula to push the still-cooking vegetables to the sides of the wok or pan. This stops them from burning, and gives you room to make additions.
After your final vegetables have fully cooked, stir the entire meal with your spatula and turn off the heat. You can then add seasonings, if you like, or a sauce.
Side Dishes and Sauces
What would a meal be without a few side dishes and accompaniments? You’ll feel like a pro when you cook these items with ease!
Aioli is basically a homemade mayonnaise sauce that’s useful for everything from sandwiches to salads. Because it uses raw eggs, it’s not recommended for children or those with compromised immune systems.
To create your own aioli, you’ll need to whisk together about a teaspoon of mashed garlic and an uncooked egg. Slowly add one cup of your favorite flavorful oil (e.g. grapeseed, olive) into the mixture by pouring it in a thin stream while whisking. Finish the emulsified aioli by mixing in two teaspoons of lemon juice and a pinch of salt.
As you become more accustomed to making aioli, you can try new flavors by adding unusual spices and seasonings.
Root vegetables like potatoes, beets, onions and turnips take on a sweet flavor when they’ve been roasted in the oven. Begin by gathering your root vegetables and cutting them into similarly sized pieces. Roasted vegetables are not typically bite-sized, so you can feel free to quarter a potato rather than slicing or dicing it.
Put all your cut vegetables into a mixing bowl and add about a quarter-cup of olive oil, a teaspoon of salt, a pinch of pepper and other spices you would like to try (consider a tablespoon of rosemary, oregano, basil and/or thyme). Stir all the ingredients so the vegetables are completely coated.
Place the vegetables in a roaster pan and then put into an oven at 475 degrees Fahrenheit. In about 40 minutes, they’ll be ready to serve!
Making Chicken Stock
Every good soup or stew begins with a chicken stock. The next time you roast a chicken, take the time to use it to make a robust stock that you can use later.
After you’ve removed all the meat from your chicken, don’t throw it out. Instead, place it in a deep sauce pot. Then, fill the pot with enough water to completely cover the chicken. You can also add slices of carrots, celery and onions, as well as a tablespoon of salt and a pinch of black pepper.
Turn the heat to high, and when the water boils, move the heat to low. This will allow the water to simmer, and the chicken and vegetables to slowly break down. Over the next four hours, keep an eye on the stock. If you need to add more liquid, add cool water one cup at a time.
After four hours, turn off the heat. Use a slotted spoon to remove all the chicken bones, skin and vegetables. Then, use a strainer to strain the remaining items into a large bowl or other pot. From that point, you can use the strained stock immediately to make a quick soup or broth, or you can refrigerate or freeze it. Just make sure if you’re keeping it in the refrigerator or freezer that you allow it to cool to room temperature before putting it in jars or containers.
In the mood for a dressing for your salad, fish or veggies? Make a quick vinaigrette by whisking together about three tablespoons of olive oil, one tablespoon of balsamic or white wine vinegar, a pinch of pepper and a pinch of salt. Feel free to vary the flavor by including a tablespoon of seasoning, such as oregano, rosemary, minced onion, minced garlic or even ground mustard.
It’s surprising that in a world where so many people eat rice regularly, many of us find it tough to get the texture right. Rice is definitely something that takes time to master, but you can do it with patience.
First, take one cup of rice (it doesn’t matter what kind), place it in a strainer and run water through it. This removes any starch clinging to the outside. Place two cups of water in a saucepot and bring it to a boil. Add the rice and a pinch of salt, then lower the temperature so the water is just simmering. Stir the mixture once to separate the rice. At this point, cover the saucepot.
In about 20 minutes, lift the lid and check your rice. Taste it to see if it’s firm and a little sticky, but not gummy or gluey. When it’s ready, turn off the heat, close the lid again and prepare your other dishes. Before you serve the rice, fluff it with a fork by stirring it a bit. This gives it a beautiful appearance and texture.
Ah, the favorite meal of most of us: dessert! It’s the time to indulge your sweet tooth after a long day. And it’s not too hard to whip up something memorable.
Using a Rolling Pin
We’ll start by mentioning another kitchen tool, the rolling pin. Rolling pins require a firm, even motion to work. When using a rolling pin, keep it dusted with flour or it will become sticky with dough and no longer work.
Making Pie Crust
Every cook should know how to make a traditional piecrust. Most piecrusts are created from a mix of flour and lard or butter. A basic recipe is to place two cups of flour in a mixing bowl, and massage about two-thirds of a cup of lard or butter into the flour. Use your fingers to pinch and rub the flour and fat together until the bowl looks like it’s filled with little grains.
Add one tablespoon of icy-cold water and mix it into the dough. Again, using your hands will give you the best results. Add more water, one tablespoon at a time, until the dough sticks together. At this point, you have enough water. Divide the dough into two even halves. Wrap each half in plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for one hour.
When you’re ready to roll out your pie crust, remove one of the cooled halves. Place it on a floured surface and use your floured rolling pin to roll to the desired thinness. From that point, you can cut your rolled pie dough into the right shape for your pie pan, and begin to put your homemade pie together!
Chocolate is wonderful when melted, but you shouldn’t simply place it in a pan on the top of the stove. That could end in disaster with a scorched, rather than sweet, result.
Instead, use a double boiler. The double boiler is a two-piece instrument that can boil water in the bottom pot. The heat then travels to the top pot, which usually contains an ingredient like chocolate. Your chocolate will melt evenly in the top of the double boiler, and will not burn.
Dipping Food in Chocolate
Everything tastes better when it’s been dipped in chocolate. From fruits and crackers to gummy candies, you can dip almost anything!
To make sure you evenly coat your items, use a skewer, fork or slotted spoon to dip the dried-off item into the chocolate. Remove it from the chocolate and let any excess drip back into the remaining melted chocolate. You can then eat the item immediately or place it on a baking sheet that’s been lined with wax paper or parchment paper to dry.
Testing Doneness on a Cake
How can you tell when a cake is done? Grab a toothpick and insert it into the center, then pull it out slowly. See batter or lumps of cake on the toothpick? Keep the cake in the oven for another five minutes and try again.
A thoroughly cooked cake will leave little or no residue on a toothpick.
What to Know After Cooking
Your meal is finally finished, and you’re ready to enjoy it and then move on to the clean-up stage. Some kitchen hints will help you here, too!
Although your home isn’t a fine restaurant, that’s no reason not to take plating seriously.
When arranging your foods, remember that less is more. Don’t heap huge amounts onto the plate. Allow plenty of space so your friends and family can see everything that’s laid out before them. Remember that sauces are there to enhance the dish, not to bury it. If guests want seconds, they’re more than welcome, but the original plate should look pristine and attractive.
Cleaning Dishes and Culinary Tools
No, the cook shouldn’t have to clean the dishes and culinary tools, but it sometimes happens! If you get stuck with dish duty and you’re doing them by hand, keep a few ideas in mind:
- You should start by soaking your pots and pans in hot water for about 10 to 15 minutes. This helps soften them for later scrubbing.
- Dishes should be cleaned, rinsed and dried in the following order: glassware, plates, eating utensils, serving utensils, preparation tools (e.g. mixing bowls, measuring cups) and then pots and pans.
Put Your New Skills to the Test!
See? That wasn’t so hard! With these cooking skills for beginners, you can soon achieve mastery with a number of delicious dishes to impress your family and friends.
Inspired to change the way you approach the art and science of cooking? Remember to follow our blog and bookmark this article so you have a handy reference the next time you’re ready to make something great in the kitchen!