HOME > Chowhound > Home Cooking >


home cooking basics everyone should know

I have a younger relative, just graduating from college and moving into his own place for the first time. He hasn't done much cooking up to this point -- just ramen, burnt grilled cheese, scrambled eggs, the usual. But he's gotten pretty money- and health-conscious lately, and wants to start.

I'm trying to compile a list of cooking basics to help him out. I'm not looking for recipes so much as instructions on basic techniques everyone should know, or foods he should always have in the fridge, freezer, or pantry.

Any suggestions or instructions? I'm looking for ideas that are
1. very basic
2. not too expensive
3. pretty healthy (what? no more meals composed entirely of pasta and grated cheese?)

To give you an idea of what I'm thinking about, here are the first few things I thought of:

How to steam and serve broccoli

How to make a hard-boiled or soft-boiled egg

Something to always have in the pantry: a tin of tomato paste

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. If he's getting money-and-health-conscious (good for him!), I'd suggest he learn how to cook dried beans and lentils--he can do soups, veggie chilis, etc. He can toss them with pasta and veggies (I do this frequently for quickie weeknight meals--lentils cook up in about 1/2 an hour and I often make a big batch to get several meals worth). In fact, a favorite of mine is barbequed lentils (really just cooked lentils seasoned with a tasty BBQ sauce) over a sweet potato.

    Another tip--if he's able to, he could grow a few herbs in pots. Herbs in those little plastic tubs at the supermarket are awfully expensive! Sometimes you just need a little bit of parsley or basil to tart something up, but buying the tub often means that the leftover herb goes bad before it gets used. If he's not able to grow his own herbs, he might want to learn how to prolong the life of any purchased herbs (e.g. wrapping leftover cilantro in damp paper towels and then placing in a ziploc bag with the air squeezed out keeps it pretty good for a while).

    1. First step is to stock your pantry & fridge -

      olive oil
      black pepper
      crushed chiles
      curry powder
      PAM spray for sauteing and frying
      nuts of choice
      a decent balsamic vinegar
      all purpose flour or whole wheat flour
      brown sugar
      some pasta, rice or couscous
      cans blackbeans, chick peas, stewed tomatoes
      healthy snack crackers
      fresh garlic, onions
      chicken, beef broth or bouillion

      1. I'd get him a 10 inch cast iron skillet, tell him how to keep it seasoned, and teach him how to make a kicka** steak (for his special occasion dish, everyone needs one!) or Deborah Madison's amazing cornbread in it. He should learn how to caramelize both veggies and meat (mmm that crust!) in it.

        If I'd had a crockpot in college, I would have been the queen of cheap & healthy chili dinners, I think.

        How about teaching him to roast veggies? Like roast asparagus, rosemary potatoes, winter squash gratin with lots of garlic and parsley and EVOO...

        2 Replies
        1. re: Vetter

          When I graduated from college in the early 1990's, an aunt gave me a copy of a cook book that was published in the late 1970's -- Pierre Franey's 'The 60 Minute Gourmet'.

          She told me that the recipes were easy, tasted good and they really took less than 60 minutes to make.

          It quickly became the book I went to time and time again to try to cook something more ambitious than scrambled eggs because my aunt was right -- even for a beginning cook the recipes were easy, tasted good and did not take long to make.

          Now I am a working parent with little time to cook and I still use recipes from 60 Minute Gourmet.

          1. re: Vetter

            Ah, Vetter, you took my suggestion with the roasted vegis. Roasted asparagus to me is just like candy and all I put on it is EVOO, s & p. I also do roasted cauliflower and broccoli (alone or together) but toss it first in a bag with EVOO, thinly sliced garlic, s & p. Sometimes I will just make a big cookie sheet full and my husband and I will nibble off of it for dinner!

          2. He should learn how to make a basic white sauce, so he can make his own mac & cheese and replacement for those canned soups--plus he can make gravy for his biscuits (teach him how to make those, too; WAY better than those things in the can). And he should learn how to braise, because then he can make delicious meals out of cheap, tough meat.

            1 Reply
            1. re: revsharkie

              I second and third this one !! White sauce is basic to soooo many dishes, and was one of the first things i learned how to cook...it made it into one of my first tries, cod au gratin. I use it in that dish, scalloped potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and it's helpful in technique when doing stuff like bechamel or other thickened sauces.

            2. How to stretch a whole roasting chicken for the week.
              How to make a proper stock.
              How to make gravy and bechamel.
              How to make biscuits.
              How to saute.
              How to properly sear meat.
              But above all, if he is just starting out it is imperative that he knows how to put out a kitchen fire.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Lenox637

                That is an excellent response. Stock, gravy and bechamel will take you far. And people underestimate biscuits - the technique for biscuit dough will also give you, beyond biscuits: dumplings for soup, cobbler topping, scones, and a nice top crust for chicken pot pie.

                I would add the basic stewing/braising technique. (Brown meat/poultry. Remove. Cook aromatics in fat. Add meat and liquid and simmer on low). Also, basic knife technique - how to chop an onion or mince garlic. Finally, baked custard. Easy but impressive desserts, quiche (buy the crust for now), strata, bread pudding are all yours once you've learned a simple custard. Also, a couple very basic glaze or sauce recipes can be very helpful for a beginner to snazz up grilled or roasted meat. I'm thinking of stuff like the Epicurious dill-mustard sauce for fish - just fresh herb, mustard, a little oil, a little cream, but it's delicious and will make a beginner feel like he's able to produce very good food right away.

                I knew one beginner cook who really liked making salads. At first, I couldn't see the appeal, but gradually I came to understand. There was limited cooking involved (which is to say, limited application of heat), but he was improving his knife skills and learning about flavors. Mixing salad dressings was easy, and that gave him a sense of accomplishment. As he grew more comfortable, he started making salads with grilled meat or fish, roasted vegetables and so on, which opened up a range of techniques. It was a pretty good approach.

              2. I suggest he get a small crock pot because it is hard to burn anything in it and the flavors of soups, stews, braised meats, spaghetti sauce really blend great with the long time cooking and taste better than stove top.

                And, suggest he try some stir-fry since he's already got ramen down pat.

                If he wants to move on to actually boiling pasta, show him the little secret of adding a tablespoon of oil into the water to lessen the "foam". And, after the water boils hard, you can turn down the heat to a simmer and still get good results.

                Important "first of all" to stove top cooking is use a pan bigger than you think you need. Example, for pasta, the water should not be higher that 2/3rds WITH the pasta already in it. The directions will say how much water to pasta - better to add more water than not enough.

                And, if he wants to make rice (and if we can afford it in the future !), show him the secret of covering at the boil, immediate turn to simmer, remove from heat entirely after 2 minutes and keep covered tightly for the next 20 minutes. Rarely can burn rice that way and if accurate measure from packaging is used, a no fail plan.

                If you live close enough, invite him into your kitchen when you are cooking. Make him your sous chef let him get creative with your guidance in the room. Then, have a great meal together. IMO, learning by watching and helping is a great way to go.

                Or, if he likes to read, here is a free website offering the basics for graduates. http://web.archive.org/web/2006051017...

                And, teach him where to shop. Often a Farmers Market will yield better produce for a lower price. And, Trader Joe's has lower prices without having to buy bulk.

                And, for budgeting, get real. I saw someone in the grocery store the other day complaining about the price of spices. $5 bucks for 3.2 oz?!?! Remind him that there are 6 teaspoons in an ounce, so for $5 bucks, he can probably use it more than 20 times; that's just a quarter each use.

                See, http://www.ez-calculators.com/measure...

                Ask him to write down foods that he likes and to keep in touch with this website when your not available.

                1 Reply
                1. re: kc girl

                  never, never, never oil in the pasta water. it's fascinating how much this myth has caught on. all oil does is coat your pasta and repel the sauce away from it. definitely do not teach your new to cooking relative this "basic."

                  salt the water. no oil. ever.

                2. In college I often purchased these plastic one-page sheets to study off of -- they were available for science classes (basic formulas and laws), english classes (rules of grammar etc), language class (basic conjugation)... and then i discovered that they were available for cooking too! Definitely nothing for the gourmet or even the foodie, but maybe useful for your relative. They have things like "basic guide to stocks and sauces" etc. and it's very high-yield. i tried to find them online but don't see them... they're usually available on a rack in a major bookstore, especially if you're in a big city or near a college campus.

                  1. I guess there are a few quantum levels needed:

                    Level I. (some knife technique needed here)

                    1. Prepare starch and water: pasta, rice, boiled potatoes, couscous, polenta, ...
                    2. Prepare eggs in all forms
                    3. Steam (rather than massacre) vegetables
                    4. Cook legumes: beans, lentils, dried peas, and the like.
                    5. Make basic red and white sauces (for everything)
                    6. Grill & bbq

                    Level II.

                    1. Stir fry
                    2. Roast (chicken and beef)
                    3. Bake (start with muffins and cornbread)
                    4. Salad dressings, uncooked salsas, mayonaise, and salads
                    5. Cakes and pies

                    Level III.

                    1. Fish and seafood, including fish full prep--cleaning , filleting..
                    2. Stuffed things--chicken, grape leaves, ravioli, won tons, lumpia,...
                    3. Stocks
                    4. Real sauces (!!)
                    5. Deboning chicken
                    6. Braising
                    7. Making pasta
                    8. Breads

                    Level IV.

                    1. Making complicated, technical stuff that is really good
                    2. Making super simple stuff that is really good
                    3. Reproducing at home what you've tasted and liked eating out
                    4. Mastering flavors from combos of spices, herbs, and techniques from around the globe.

                    1. Julia Child's "The Way To Cook" brings all the basics together in one book. It has recipes, but mostly focuses on techniques, from steaming vegetables to cooking eggs to roasting fowl. I can't recommend it highly enough.

                      1. My first thought was to have basic techniques for making soup. Soup is always healthy and all season and filling and goes well with any sandwich and doesn't require much equipment and....on and on.
                        A good book for technique and recipes is James Patterson's Splendid Soups.


                        1. For very basic -- how to properly handle a knife for basic food prep. I'm not even talking fancy speedy knife skills -- just safe, useful cuts. Then he won't be intimidated by using more fresh foods. Saving the money from prepared will win out if he knows how to handle them.

                          Depends on him personally, but friends, family, husband I've seen through this phase need to take baby steps. Some of the ideas here are great -- but a long way off for where he may be now. Just moving to dealing with fresh, raw meats and veggies and starting with the most basic cooking is a great start. The rest comes with some time and confidence.

                          1. Put him on the "no eating out diet".

                            Tell him he has to too cook everything he eats ... everything, from the bread to the soup to the beans to the deli meats for sandwiches. Nothing out of a box, can or bag.

                            Make him buy all fresh produce, meat, etc. Then just tell him to go at it.

                            Nothing like going hungry to make a person learn how to cook very quickly.

                            In other words, I've never been a big proponent of teaching someone how to cook. Cooking can be, and should be, developed independently using the innate culinary skills we all have.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: ipsedixit

                              Haha, my "innate culinary skills" once led to me screwing up boiling water. My brother made "fried rice" using instant rice and...a microwave (and wondered why it didn't taste right!) Some of us require a little more direction :)

                              That said, one of the best things that ever happened to me was learning how to just experiment. If you're not doing anything with integral components (like a souffle) where something can go horribly wrong...well, why not try it? Ask him what flavors he likes, and go from there- plan a visit to a decent spice store and pick up an ounce of almost everything he might need. Once you know your way around a good lentil soup, and you learn that throwing in an extra pinch of this or that is often an awesome idea, he should get the confidence to start understanding recipes as an opinion, and not a fact.

                              Oh, and Bittman's How to Cook Everything. Good, basic techniques and it'll let him think about what flavors he'd rather see, what's missing, etc.


                              Ingredients for making chocolate chip cookies (it never fails- plus, come on, chocolate, butter, eggs, flour- good things to have!)
                              Canned beans
                              Decent frozen vegetables
                              Long term storage vegetables- onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes....
                              Good spices, that he actually likes the flavor of
                              Herb garden pots
                              Eggs- breakfast, lunch, dinner; savoury to sweet; still mundo cheap!
                              Olive oil

                              Going off something below- maybe a description/picture guide of when common things are done and how to tell? Like, stick a fork in baked goods- no crumbs, this is what a too-starchy potato feels like, these are overdone broccoli spears, true al dente pasta, that kind of thing.

                            2. A "go-to" cookbook would be helpful, something that has all the basics. My mom got me a Betty Crocker cookbook when I moved away from home and it has the basics - pancakes, biscuits, a chart of how long to cook each veggie by a variety of methods, etc.
                              How about copying down some of the easiest of your favorite recipes to start? They are probably familiar to him, and if he hits a snag you are just a phone call away.

                              A crockpot is great, although I have not found a great crockpot cookbook.

                              Pantry items I always keep on hand:
                              powdered or canned milk
                              Canned tomatoes - diced and crushed
                              Dry pasta
                              Canned beans

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: aryqalyn

                                I haven't found a great crock pot cookbook either. But, many stovetop soups (like pozole) or stews (like lentils, carrots and ham hocks) or spaghetti sauce can be done better in the crockpot. It's easy to brown the meat, then put it in. Maybe he can experiment on weekends and get confident the temperature can be set on low, left 9 hours or so safely while he's out working. High heat would produce a good blend in about 4-5 hours, depending on the size of ingredients. So a soups, stews, braising and/or sauces cookbook would be very valuable as a "crock pot" cookbook.

                              2. There's some really excellent advice here.

                                I would add that I really recommend the Joy of Cooking. It was my first cookbook (gift from Mom) and covers all the basics, plus the classics, from boiled eggs to bearnaise.

                                One thing I would add to the OP's list: how to bake potatoes. Seriously. I still remember a call from my brother who had moved out for college and was trying to figure out what kind of potatoes he bought by mistake as these appeared to be the 'exploding' kind.

                                As a younger cook, I also really struggled with figuring out the timing on things - such as, it takes 1 hour 20 minutes for a roast chicken, and how long before its ready do I boil potatoes for mashing, and how long to steam veggies, etc. So perhaps a kind of timing, step by step guide for a couple of the more common meal plans (such as roast chicken,or a pot roast, or spagbol, etc).

                                3 Replies
                                1. re: MrsCris

                                  LOL the "exploding" kind of potato !

                                  I totally agree that The Joy of Cooking is still a standard favorite and very useful.

                                  And, good note on timing of entire meal preparation. Oh, how do you teach that easily?!

                                  On another point: IMO, it is so much more efficient economically to just buy a roasted chicken at the grocery store or Costco (Costco flavor is the best since Albertson's changed their technique). Figure $2.50 pound for a raw chicken (usually more than 2 pounds), spices, butter or oil, good roaster pan and heating costs and clean up and you've already spent the $5.99 for a ready made and very tasty chicken. This is the only item I can think of that is tastier and more economical than most can do cooking at home.

                                  1. re: kc girl

                                    Well, cake mixes are awfully good these days. Not canned icing, nonono. But cake mixes are handy to have around. A beginner probably wants to make a sheet cake and learn how to make a simple icing.

                                  2. re: MrsCris

                                    The timing part is really only something you can get through experience. I started learning it during the short time I worked in my dad's restaurant, although since it was a cafeteria, the timing wasn't as critical there; but it was then that I was introduced to the idea that you have to think this through, not just start the entree first because it's the entree.

                                  3. I think it's fantastic that he is interested in learning how to cook....that in itself is THE basic in this equation. That interest is what graduated me from a university student who could barely boil water, into a pretty good cook today !!

                                    Don't overwhelm him with "proper" techniques, and let him learn on his own.....the K.I.S.S. technique goes a long way at the entry stage ! (keep it simple stupid ;) )..i'm thinking at this point, he probably doesn't need to know how to season a pan or sharpen his own knives etc.

                                    Set him up with a subscription to a youthful/funky cooking magazine where his interest can grow and he can hopefully also learn more about interesting ingredients, maybe even gift him with a cooking class where he can network with others at the same stage.

                                    While I love my cookbooks and have many favorites, being a bit of a computer geek, i tend to consult them less and look for stuff online...this age group seems to favor technology....so i'd point him in the direction of websites

                                    When i was a university student, we always said we'd never starve as long as we had pasta, eggs, milk and butter. Pasta primavera was a basic I also learned early and can be done healthy.

                                    I used to keep a jar of rose sauce in the cupboard for a cheater recipe that i would add smoked salmon, green onion, garlic etc...and feed a crowd....not necessarily so healthy though.

                                    -garlic and onions are a necessity, as long as he likes them. I always have boullion in the cupboard, and until he gets used to picking out things for various recipes, those cubes of cilantro, basil (or pesto) in the freezer. That way, they don't go bad. And while not perfect, i always have bags of asian stir fry vegetables in the freezer.
                                    -because he knows how to cook eggs at least somewhat, he could try a spanish tortilla or a frittata with very inexpensive ingredients.
                                    -he could also graduate from grilled cheese to panini....great bread, cheese, basil and tomato could be a good start.

                                    1. Something I keep going back to and would like to consolidate this into one place if possible is various cooking time and liquid measurements for various grains--oatmeal, quinoa, couscous, rice (white and brown), millet, barley, etc.

                                      Maybe simple marinades (for meats, etc) and dressings?

                                      Cooking times and temps for various meats and seafood?

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: anzu

                                        Biggest hangup was how LONG it took the pasta water to boil, especially on an inadequate (apartment) stove top!

                                        1. re: anzu

                                          I think (I could get up and go look but I'm lazy) there's a chart like that not just for grains but also for beans in The Enchanted Broccoli Forest by Mollie Katzen. And the More-with-Less Cookbook has directions for white sauce of varying thicknesses, including how to use the basic white sauce recipe to make the equivalent of canned soups. A basic book, like Betty Crocker, has the information on cooking times and temps for various meats.

                                          I sent the post from (I think) Sam F., the one with the various levels of cooking skills, to my mom. She told me that a number of those are dealt with in the old Meta Given books.

                                        2. Get him a copy of Lora Brody's Kitchen Survival Guide. I keep posting this recommendation when the subject comes up. She wrote the book for her sons as they were growing up and abandoning the family nest. There is all sorts of good info from oven cleaning to grocery shopping, stocking the pantry and cooking. Oh, BTW, forget the tin of tomato paste, introduce them to the stuff in tubes. Keeps a long time in the fridge and is invaluable.

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: Candy

                                            Definitelly the stuff in the tubes! Best thing since sliced bread.

                                          2. Your question brings back memories of cooking healthy meals for one when I was in college. I was lucky to live near a fresh market that was open seven days a week. Healthy food begins with very fresh ingredients with no or minimal processing.

                                            Anyway, the essential kitchen tools for me are:
                                            1. stovetop grill (I've got a rectangular Le Crueset one and it's so easy to clean!)
                                            2. measuring spoons
                                            3. measuring cups
                                            4. several sizes of mixing bowls and glass bowls
                                            5. rolling pin (doubles as a meat tenderizer!)
                                            6. food processor/blender
                                            7. shallow glass rectangular baking dishes (great for marinating meats)
                                            8. chopping board
                                            9. sharp knives
                                            10. wok
                                            11. Heavy skillet for making pancakes, crepes, and fritatas
                                            Prepare all ingredients first before you start, just like in cooking shows. This way, you don't forget anything nor do you overcook anything because you forgot to measure 10 tablespoons of soy sauce or something!

                                            Pantry/Fridge essentials:
                                            1. Miso paste
                                            2. Soy sauce
                                            3. sea salt
                                            4. dry herbs
                                            5. spices (paprika is one of my favourites, and some combinations such as lemon and herbs; Cajun spices, etc.)
                                            6. mixed salad leaves
                                            7. ready-made or your own vinaigrette salad dressing that goes with most things
                                            8. baking soda
                                            9. tofu
                                            10. dried seaweeds
                                            11. honey - we use this a lot in place of sugar

                                            Being a big fan of the grill, a bit time saver for me is to marinate the meats the night before then grill the next day.

                                            I agree that soups are nutritious and easy to make. Choose ones that can be made ahead and frozen then reheated so you can make a big batch when you have time.

                                            I suggest that he watches lots of cooking shows and videos as there are heaps of tips given there. The Food and Drink Section of Video Jug (http://www.videojug.com/) has heaps of useful cooking videos.

                                            Sandwiches and Wraps (using tortillas or pita breads), mix and match fillings such as canned tuna, grilled or roast chicken or beef, different kinds of cheeses (gruyere, edam, cheddar, feta), different types of salad greens, tomatoes, carrots, sprouts (alfalfa, broccoli, etc.), capcisums, mushrooms and drassings. I very rarely use cured meats due to the additives and preservatives in them that are linked to various deadly diseases!

                                            Also a big fan of fritatas! Make them with a combination of meats and veggies, including the veggies mentioned above plus broccoli, potatoes, celery, cauliflower, zucchini....

                                            Salads - potato salads, garden salads, Thai style salads are all easy to assemble

                                            Stir-fries - any combination again with tofu and sauces (homemade or store-bought without artificial additives and preservatives


                                            Pasta tossed with olive oil and steamed veggies, seasoned with black pepper and sea salt. Choose quality pasta if you don't make your own because then you don't need to rely on elaborate sauces to make the dish taste good. I'm sure you can get artisan made pastas.

                                            Soda bread - very easy as they don't require a lot of kneading. Use the authentic Irish recipe that doesn't involve yeast!

                                            Sushis and miso - it's not difficult to master the art of making sushi. Video Jug has an excellent video on how to make them.

                                            1. I know several people recommended cook books. I usually give Pam Anderson's "How to Cook Without a Book" to recent graduates or those otherwise setting out on their own. Some good suggestions for learning the basics and some simple straight-forward recipes.

                                              1. In college I lived off pasta and parmasan cheese, and microwaved perogies with salt...

                                                No one taught me to cook. I learned out of dire need. One can only consume so many white carbs...

                                                Experimenting, having huge successes and huger failures, and figuring it all out is what made cooking fun and exciting. This is why I still love to cook today. Im not afraid to try new dishes or techniques, because Ive made so many mistakes already...