11 Essential Cooking Skills Everyone Should Master
You might wonder how some people can look at a pile of random ingredients and magically turn them into a delicious meal in less than an hour. The truth is, those people don’t have magic powers or unusual talent — they’ve just mastered basic cooking skills. Learning to chop an onion and roast veggies might not be the sexiest skill out there, but it’s these simple things that separate struggling home cooks from great ones.
Good news: It’s easier than you think to lower your kitchen anxiety. Work on the basic skills below and nearly every recipe is easier to follow.
KEEP YOUR KNIVES SHARP
It sounds counterintuitive, but you’re actually less likely to cut yourself with a sharp knife than with a dull one, since you don’t have to apply as much pressure, and the knife won’t slip as easily. Keep a knife steel in your kitchen drawer and when your knife feels dull, run the edge of your blade against it on both sides. While that realigns your blade and makes it feel sharper temporarily, you need to get your knives professionally sharpened at a specialty kitchen store a few times a year. The extra money you spend will be worth it when meal prepping.
MASTER BASIC KNIFE SKILLS
Once you have those sharp knives, it’s important to know how to use them. No one is going to learn how to perfectly dice an onion or filet a fish overnight, but there are some knife skills you can learn quickly to help you prep faster. Learn how to properly hold your knife and the food you’re cutting, and then master basic cuts like a thin slice, a dice and a mince.
COOK PERFECT PASTA
If you always read the instructions on a box of pasta before you cook it, that’s a great start. But if you want to make pasta dishes that are more flavorful, you need to learn to properly salt your water. Don’t add a pinch of salt to your pot — pour enough in so your water tastes noticeably salty, like seawater. Add the pasta only after your water has come to a boil. Stir occasionally, especially right after you drop the pasta in the water. Start testing your pasta for doneness (by taking a piece out, running it under cold water and tasting it) a couple of minutes before the box says it should be done, so you don’t overcook it. It’s also smart to save at least 1 cup of the pasta water when you drain the pasta, in case you need to add moisture to your finished dish or stop it from sticking to the pan. The pasta water has starch and flavor, so it’s more effective than regular water.
SCRAMBLE AN EGG
Anyone can add beaten egg to a hot pan and cook it until it’s done, but there’s a big difference between a perfectly creamy scrambled egg and a dry, rubbery one. First, beat your eggs thoroughly, and add up to 1 teaspoon of cream or sour cream per egg. (Don’t use milk, as it adds too much moisture and not enough fat.) Season with salt and pepper. Heat a non-stick pan over medium-low heat and add enough butter (or oil) to cover the bottom of the pan. When the butter melts, add the eggs. If your heat is low, they shouldn’t sizzle or start to cook immediately. Wait a few seconds, until you see the bottom start to set. Then, use a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, and stir the eggs constantly. Take them off the heat when they’re opaque but still a bit runny — they’ll keep cooking even after you take them out of the pan, so plating them just before they’re ready prevents them from overcooking.
WHIP UP PANCAKES
Pancakes are inexpensive, easily customizable and come together quickly on a weekend morning. If you’re still making yours with a boxed mix, it’s time to upgrade to something better. Try adding white vinegar to milk to mimic buttermilk in pancake recipes, which adds acid and helps activate the leavening powers of baking powder and baking soda. The result is airy, fluffy pancakes.
MAKE YOUR OWN STOCK
The best thing about making your own stock is you can often do it without buying a single extra ingredient. Save uncooked meat bones, vegetable scraps and herb stems that you would otherwise throw away by adding them to a gallon-size plastic bag in your freezer. Once the bag gets full, thaw the contents overnight in the fridge and then add them to a large stockpot with water. Bring everything to a boil, and then let it simmer for 2–4 hours. Strain the liquid, divvy it up into containers, keep a bit in your fridge and store the rest in your freezer for later.
ROAST A CHICKEN
Serving a whole roast chicken with crispy skin and tender meat is one of the most impressive things you can do for guests. Even better, it’s really not that hard. While some recipes call for stuffing, seasonings and rubs, you can get a perfect roast chicken by thoroughly drying the meat and skin of a 3- or 4-pound chicken with paper towels, seasoning it liberally with salt and pepper all over (including inside the body cavity and under the skin) and roasting it on a roasting rack in a 425°F (218°C) oven for 55–70 minutes, depending on the size. Use a meat thermometer to check the temperature at the 55-minute mark to avoid overcooking. Insert the thermometer in the thickest part of the breast and make sure it reads at least 165°F (74°C).
MAKE YOUR OWN SALAD DRESSING
Instead of store-bought dressings, which can be loaded with added sugar and preservatives, make your own dressing at home. Although the perfect ratio of oil to acid (vinegar, lime juice or lemon juice are easy ones) can vary based on your taste, start with 1:1 and increase the amount of oil you use if your vinaigrette tastes too acidic. Put your acid in a medium bowl and add the oil in a slow stream, whisking vigorously to emulsify the vinaigrette and prevent it from separating. Once all of your oil is added, and your vinaigrette is thick, add salt, pepper and any other flavorings you like. Chopped herbs, spices, honey, mustard, garlic or shallots are all great choices, but the sky’s the limit.
ROAST AL DENTE VEGETABLES
Do your roasted vegetables always come out either a little raw or a little burned — or both? The main culprits are often cooking at too high a temperature, or cutting your vegetables in different sizes. A good rule of thumb is to roast at 400°F (204°C) on a parchment-lined, well-oiled baking sheet. Cut everything the same size, whether that’s 1 inch or 3 inches, toss with enough oil to coat, season with salt and pepper, and spread everything out in a single layer. Avoid adding so many veggies to one pan that they pile up, which causes them to steam instead of crisp. Cook them until you see signs of light brown all around the edges, then remove a piece and test it. There’s no rule about how crispy or soft your veggies should be, so it’s up to you how long you roast them and what texture you prefer.
BAKE AT LEAST ONE TYPE OF BREAD
If you’ve tried and failed to bake sourdough, don’t be discouraged — there are so many other breads to master. For breakfast lovers, bagels are a forgiving place to start. The secret to bread that works every time is investing in a kitchen scale to measure your ingredients by weight instead of volume, to make sure you’re using the exact amount of each one. If you’re looking for an even easier recipe, try this gluten-free one-bowl banana bread.
BUILD A PERFECT CHEESE PLATE
Building a cheese plate doesn’t actually require any cooking, but that’s what’s so great about it. Knowing how to shop for and assemble the perfect cheese plate makes entertaining so much easier since you won’t have to spend a second in the kitchen cooking up an appetizer. Plus, most of the ingredients have long shelf lives, so you can store them in your fridge and pantry in case you have an unexpected guest. It isn’t rocket science — you simply need to put cheese on a plate with a few other things like dried fruit, nuts and charcuterie — but these five simple tips can help you build a healthier, gorgeous cheese plate every time.
Discover hundreds of healthy recipes — from high protein to low carb — via “Recipe Discovery” in the MyFitnessPal app.