Learn How to Cook: Every Amateur Chef Should Know These Crucial Skills

chipotle salmon

Half Baked Harvest

If you’re just getting started in the kitchen, you may feel overwhelmed or intimidated, but remember that cooking is like anything else: The more you practice, the better you will become. Feel like you’re too far behind to ever catch up? It’s never too late to tie on that apron and learn how to whip up a chunky flavorful soup or cheesy baked enchiladas. After all, Julia Child didn’t learn how to cook until she was in her 30s!

When you’re new to the world of pots and pans, paring knives and strainers, and peelers and spatulas, start by mastering these beginner cooking skills. From there, build your foundation and expand your culinary repertoire by experimenting with dishes and recipes that interest you. And for those who are seriously contemplating a career in culinary arts, we've rounded up several key considerations to think through. To upgrade your cooking skills at home, read on below.

Sourcing the Best Ingredients

It sounds like a no-brainer, but there's actually an art to getting through the grocery store with ease and confidence. From the dairy aisle to the bakery, produce section to the butchery and canned goods aisle, familiarize yourself with all areas of the grocery store. Chat up the butcher and baker, or if you're at the farmer's market, pick your farmer's brain. They'll often have great tips for how to prepare whatever you're perusing.

In addition, chefs and home cooks know to keep certain (read: versatile) ingredients stocked at all times. Think: Plain yogurt, canned chickpeas, and beans to add texture and protein to salads, chilis, soups; citrus to brighten any dish; sea salt and fresh herbs for finishing; olive oil; shallots, garlic, and fresh black pepper, for example.

Basic Knife Skills

Another aspect to honing your culinary skills is all about proper knife skills. From maintenance know-how (like keeping your knives sharp regularly) to how to best hold a knife, and then learning the various cuts you'll turn to on a regular basis, knife knowledge is key. For starters, we rounded up the most popular knife cuts you should know, according to a chef, from chiffonade to julienne.

Then, you'll also want to study up on kitchen tools essentials. Do you know your chef's knife from a paring knife, or when to use a serrated knife over a cleaver? Every knife, just like the myriad kitchen tools out there, has a purpose.

The Four Elements of Cooking

In addition to expertly navigating the grocery store and farmer's market, as well as learning to properly wield your knife and other essential kitchen tools, mastering the various ways to apply salt, acid, fat, and heat during the cooking process creates a solid foundation to take your cooking skills to the next level. For an approachable tutorial on these core cooking elements, look to none other than cook, author, and teacher Samin Nosrat of the Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat cookbook, and Netflix series. The cookbook description explains the importance of these elements, writing, "Master the use of just four elements—Salt, which enhances flavor; Fat, which delivers flavor and generates texture; Acid, which balances flavor; and Heat, which ultimately determines the texture of food—and anything you cook will be delicious."

It also can't be overstated that time spent in the kitchen practicing your craft is directly related to how well, and how quickly you'll improve. And if you're looking for some guidance on where to start, these are the skills you need to know.

1. How to Read a Recipe

It might take patience and reading a recipe multiple times before you can begin to improvise in the kitchen. A well-written recipe is straightforward, easy to follow, and inspirational. Recipes have two sections: a list of ingredients and a list of steps that teach the reader how to make the dish. The ingredients are always listed in order of use in the recipe. If two tablespoons butter and 1/2 cup finely minced celery are the first two ingredients, you will use these two elements first when making the dish.

It’s always a good idea to read the recipe before you begin cooking, and I don’t mean five minutes beforehand—I’m talking the moment you decide you want to make the item. If you start to make a pork recipe that requires three hours of braising at 7:30 p.m., you won’t be eating dinner until 10:30. Or what if you’ve found a great recipe for fajitas and plan to serve them in an hour? Only when you get to step four of the recipe will you realize the meat must be marinated overnight. Avoid these novice mistakes by reading the recipe all the way through early on.

2. How to Cook Pasta

a pasta dish
Playful Cooking

Yes, you probably know that to make pasta: You bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and then you throw in the pasta and boil for the allotted time listed on the pasta package’s directions. But did you know that you should always cook the pasta in the sauce once it’s been boiled? This is the authentic Italian way of making pasta. Instead of straining the pasta, use tongs or a large slotted spoon to scoop the cooked pasta out of the boiling water. Dump it directly into the cooking sauce and toss everything together.

If the sauce needs thinning, add some of the leftover pasta cooking water.

3. How to Properly Slice and Dice an Onion

Yes, there is a technique to it! This method can be used for other vegetables like shallots or potatoes. Understand it and you’ll feel comfortable using a knife. For the best results, use a super-sharp knife.

4. How to Season

Proper seasoning is essential to making food taste good. A liberal sprinkling of salt and healthy grind of fresh-cracked pepper should be added to virtually everything you make from pasta carbonara to roast tilapia. Don’t be afraid of experimenting with other seasonings: Ground nutmeg enhances white sauces and bitter greens, smoked paprika adds depth to soups and rice dishes, and cumin brings a Mexican flair to beans and meat.

5. How to Roast Vegetables

roasted vegetables
Salt and Wind

Some people prefer steamed or blanched vegetables as side dishes or tossed into salads, but a smart home cook knows that the most flavor comes from roasting. Preheat your oven to 400°F. Cover a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Place the vegetables (cut into chunks or broken into smaller pieces) on the parchment, and use your hands to simply toss with olive oil, salt, and fresh black pepper. Once every piece is lightly coated in oil, spread in one even layer on the baking sheet, and pop it into the oven. Vegetables like broccoli, onions, mushrooms, and peppers cook in 15 to 20 minutes. Heartier root vegetables like potatoes, Brussels sprouts, carrots, and butternut squash take longer to roast—about 40 to 50 minutes.

6. How to Scramble Eggs

There are five basic preparations of eggs: poached, boiled, baked, omelette, and, finally, scrambled (the simplest of the methods). To make scrambled eggs, crack eggs in a bowl and whisk until very frothy. Cook slowly in melted butter over medium heat, stirring often. Be creative when it comes to mix-ins! Use cheese (cheddar, gruyère, goat), vegetables (mushrooms, tomatoes, red peppers), cooked meats (sausage, ham, chorizo), and fresh herbs (parsley, thyme, chives) in countless combinations.

7. How to Serve a Whole Roast Chicken

a roasted chicken
Stuck in the Kitchen

One of the most impressive dishes a home cook can and should master is roast chicken. It’s a comforting dish that almost everyone loves, and it truly is very uncomplicated to make. Start by buying the best chicken you can afford. Make sure it’s dry, and season it generously with salt and pepper. Rub it with butter or oil, and place in a pan. If you’re concerned about presentation, tie the legs together with kitchen string, and throw some rosemary, garlic, and lemon into the pan. Roast for an hour to 90 minutes at 400°F. After an hour, stick a thermometer in the chicken; it’s cooked at 165°F. Remove, and let rest for 10 to 15 minutes. Carve and serve.

8. How to Cook Rice

For both white rice and quinoa, bring a saucepan filled with a certain amount of water (the amount depends on the quantity of rice or quinoa you are cooking) to a boil. When it’s boiling pour in the grain, stir, and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cover and cook for 16 to 18 minutes (rice) or 12 to 15 minutes (quinoa). When all the liquid is absorbed, fluff and enjoy. Brown and wild rice varieties take longer to cook. Most packages have easy-to-follow instructions with water to rice ratios and cook time.

9. How to Make a Warm Melt-y Sandwich

a melted cheese sandwich
How Sweet Treats

There’s nothing worse than a grilled cheese sandwich that doesn’t have gooey melted cheese—it’s practically a crime! There are two important factors to making a good melted sandwich with crisp bread on the outside and hot melted cheese on the inside. The first is to use grated cheese instead of sliced; grated cheese simply melts better and quicker than sliced cheese. The second is to cook the sandwich over medium heat. This ensures that the bread won’t get too crispy before the cheese has melted. Like with scrambled eggs, think big when it comes to fillings: Virtually any cheese, meat, or vegetable can be layered into a melted sandwich. Note that this technique can also be used to cook quesadillas.

10. How to Sear Protein

Searing steaks and certain types of seafood, like scallops and salmon, in a skillet over a high temperature yields a flavorful crust and scrumptious skin. Heat oil in a skillet until just smoking hot. Add the steaks and leave them in the pan. It’s crucial that you do not move them around. Place them in the pan and do not touch them for a few minutes. Once the meat is seared, it will gently pull itself away from the pan and be ready to flip.

11. How to Shake a Cocktail

a punch cocktail
Foodie Crush

When making a cocktail, always measure out the ingredients and pour into a cocktail shaker, and then add ice. If you add the ice before measuring out the spirits, your drink may become diluted—especially if you get distracted by a phone call or text conversation halfway through making the beverage. After you’ve got the ice in the tin, shake vigorously for at least 30 seconds until there’s condensation on the outside of the tin. Strain the liquid into a glass, and enjoy immediately.

Article Sources
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  1. Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy & Culinary Arts. 100 Years of Julia Child.

  2. Nosrat S. Salt Fat Acid Heat. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster; 2017.

  3. Food Network. How to Cook Italian Pasta: A Step-by-Step Guide.

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