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

Updated 08/06/19
Young woman chops produce in a kitchen
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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 50s!

When you’re new to the world of pots and pans, paring knifes 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 learn how to become a chef, or at the very least upgrade your cooking skills at home, read on below.

Should You Go To Culinary School?

So, you think you want to be a chef. Maybe you're wondering whether you should go to culinary school, like the Culinary Institute of America or Le Cordon Bleu. Is culinary school necessary, and more importantly, will it help you kickstart a hospitality career? According to recognized chefs across multiple articles at food-obsessed websites like Eater and Chowhound, the answer is... maybe. According to these chefs, going to culinary school might help open some doors, but gaining real-world experience in the form of internships is probably a better bet (or, as it's widely known in the culinary world: Staging.)

Michael Mina, chef and restaurateur of multiple restaurants including multiple outposts of International Smoke, including San Francisco, Houston, San Diego, and Mina's Fish House on Oahu, explained to Eater in 2014, that in his restaurants, "Everyone starts off in prep, they need to be safe and fast with a knife, once they've proven themselves they go on to garde manger [where cold dishes are prepared], and so on — whether they worked in a corporate restaurant, a catering company, anything that really gives them a preview of what the energy is like in a restaurant kitchen."

Similarly, Suzanne Goin, chef and restaurateur of Tavern and A.O.C. restaurants in Los Angeles, also told Eater that finding mentors was invaluable to her culinary career. "I didn't go to culinary school, but I was extremely fortunate to work under talented chefs in restaurants that I revered. That training was the best education possible," said Goin.

While you ponder whether an internship or culinary school (or perhaps a combination of both) is the route you want to take, consider the basic building blocks of cooking you can learn in the comfort of your own kitchen. Especially with books, podcasts, and the internet at your fingertips, they include, but are not limited to:

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, why not learn and perfect the following skills below:

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.

2. How to Cook Pasta

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.

The sauce will coat the pasta, and everything will come together in the most scrumptious way.

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

3. How to Properly Slice and Dice an Onion

4. How to Season

Go beyond salt and pepper with these tips.

5. How to Roast 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

We like to add a bit of milk for extra fluff.

7. How to Serve a Whole Roast 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

A 1 cup rice to 2 cups water ratio is a good start.

9. How to Make a Warm Melt-y 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

Aim for a caramelized crust for full flavor and beautiful color.

11. How to Shake a 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 half way 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.

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