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Basic Kitchen Skills

Every so often, I come across comments concerning a worrisome lack of these. This thread is just for educating culinary amateurs.

What ARE the basic cooking skills, and how do you do them?

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  1. To me, basic skills would be cutting, slicing, dicing and chopping vegetables, meats, poultry and fish. in other words, all the prep work needed before actually cooking the ingredients.

    1 Reply
    1. re: flylice2x

      While I agree that watching some people try to prep a carrot is simply heartbreaking, I cannot agree that basic cooking skills begin and end with prep work.

      I think that the question is far too broad and general to lead to a productive discussion but I will point out that basic reading skills and the ability to follow instructions are perhaps the most important capabilities.... well either that or a decent computer system and the ability to find, view and follow video lessons.

    2. cutting skills.

      knowing how to saute and braise

      1. other than knife skills --- I would add making and understanding the basic 'mother sauces" such as Bechemel, Burre Blanc, Velote, Hollandaise, and Espangnole (brown sauce) and tomato. Also understanding the techniques of frying, sauteing, roasting, braising, steaming, broiling and the differences between them. A food processor can cut up the veggies.... it can't make a hollandaise.

        1. I am a big knife guy - but I am hesitant to emphasize knife skills as a basic technique since most home cooks, even excellent ones, don't have any. There are very few people who never worked in a pro kitchen that can handle a chefs knife with any real skill (most people's knives are far too dull, for starters). Being able to use a knife without much hesitation or outright fear is enough for 'basic skills' IMO. Sharp side, dull side, practice for a while until you're no longer scared of it - you're already as good as my mother ever got, and she's no slouch in the kitchen.

          I agree with JRCann that basic skills should include an understanding of the difference between cooking techniques - braising, baking, sauteing, frying, steaming, poaching, etc. You don't have to know the minutiae of hot or cold smoking, but you should understand the effects each technique would impart on your ingredients and when each might be appropriate.

          Basic sanitary technique should be included - if you just had both hands in the rear end of a raw chicken carcass and you then go to hand-toss a salad, your basic skills are lacking.

          Preheating pans for stove-top cooking (usually with oil) is a big one. So is using salt - generally add some as early in the cooking process as possible without unwanted drawing of water from of your ingredients (also be careful with any liquid you are reducing down), and then adjust as you go. Taste your food.

          Basic understanding of heat is important as well. Trying to sear over a low flame, sweat onions over a high flame, bake a cake at 500 f, or bake a flatbread at 225 f seems obviously wrong now, but when I started cooking I wouldn't have known any better.

          Most of all, I think basic skills should include an understanding of and familiarity with some ingredients. What those ingredients are depends on the cook. But if you can't use any ingredients, you can't cook. So if you cook Italian-American, you should be familiar with cooking down tomatoes; you should know to add salt to pasta water and use a large volume of water for a comparably small amount of pasta; you should know how different garlic can taste if it is raw or roasted, crushed or minced or left in big chunks. You should know that tomatoes, garlic, basil, and olive oil like to hang out together. That's obviously just a start. So many 'basic' techniques are specific to the ingredients you are using. And while it might not be important to a cook who loves Japanese food to know how to clarify butter, it would be severely lacking for a non-vegan cook of Indian food not to know how to make and use ghee. Knowing how to use your ingredients, whatever those ingredients are, to a specific effect is the essence of cooking.

          8 Replies
          1. re: cowboyardee

            Definitely agree on the knife skills part. Most common problem I see is truly fear rather than lack of skills. Very few home cooks I know even own a proper chef's knife these days, some of them say my 7.5" santoku is "too big" and they only use a cheap utility knife for everything. A bigger knife doesn't make it more dangerous.

            Sorry JR but I disagree with the importance of the basic sauces. Essential for a pro but certainly not a home cook. In fact I would rank sauces as one of the least important aspects for a homecook's skill-set.

            Now that I think about my novice days I wish I could've told myself something very simple: cooking is just ingredients + heat + time. Don't undercook it, don't overcook it, don't hurt yourself, and taste as you go, everything else is just details and knowledge.

            1. re: Inkou

              I agree with the summary of "just ingredients + heat + time". I just started trying to get my teenager working more in the kitchen, and realized what a gap there is between someone who has never really cooked and someone who is comfortable there. Just the idea that the exact amounts (for a fajita filling) weren't that important ("you like corn, then add more corn...." I even, forgive me, quoted the first Pirates of the Caribbean... "it's more of a *Guideline*"), that you don't just start following the directions...("I need to put the oil in the pan" "No you need to first get out the red pepper, the corn, the onion, and start chopping them up") and "How do I know when it's done"..... I now realize a lot better how hard it can be to "start". And wow, sauces? No I don't think the classic sauces are at all important for the vast majority of family cooks.

              1. re: DGresh

                Completely agree. Most newcomers treat cooking like a lab experiment (better follow the directions exactly!), but (for the most part) it's fairly lax about quantities and timing. Stuff is not going to spontaneously combust if it's on the stove for an extra minute or if you put in an two "dashes" of seasoning. It's not like anyone's going to be cooking with Chlorine Trifluoride:

                1. re: hye

                  that has to be the funniest link ever on CH

                  1. re: hye

                    On the other hand, there are some things where quantities and timing matter much more, such as how much flour or cornstarch that is needed in a sauce, or how much time to cook fish without overcooking it. And, yes, for each of those those there are many other instances where we can be lax where it does not matter much. This is what makes cooking enjoyable and fun.

                    However, I reckon that many beginners will not be able to tell the difference between what matters more and what does not. I recall in my very first cooking lessons where a written recipe with some demo was presented before we attempted the dish ourselves. I was baffled why the instructor would freak out if we did not follow certain things to the letter, but turns an obvious blind eye with other things such skipping the wine in the recipe. Eventually I clued in, that some things matter, while some others do not. This one certainly takes some experience, getting a sense of how much you can stretch certain aspects of a recipe!

                  2. re: DGresh

                    I agree with the summary of "just ingredients + heat + time".

                    There is a nice, unintimidating simplicity to this statement. One of my favorite quotes on cooking (by Neil Gaiman, of all people):

                    'One takes basic ingredients, and by the application of a knife, heat, and some judicious mixing, transforms them into something miraculously other.'

                    1. re: cowboyardee

                      and mario batali, speaking of chefs with big egos

                      we have to remember that however great a thing we make, tomorrow it's poop

              2. Knife skills

                understanding cooking times and/or temps for ingredients (eg meats)

                knowing how to use spices and herbs - either individually or in combo

                not being afraid to taste and sample as you cook

                1. basic skills I taught my daughters, peeling, chopping and slicing but more importantly used the right knife size and type of knife eg bread knife is only for bread. Then boiling, scrambling and frying eggs, basic white sauce, cooking pasta and rice, roasting a chicken, stews, meat and tomato sauces for pasta. Chicken soup, basic creamed soups, mashed, boiled and roasted potatoes. Using garlic and herbs, basic pie crust, how to make a quiche, knowing how to cook chicken breasts, when chicken is cooked, basic sponge cake recipe from scratch, greasing pans for cakes, pies and cookies. How to follow a recipe.

                  My daughters have been able to do these in increasing amounts since they were about 4 years old and can manage all of these now in their late teens early twenties.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: smartie

                    Smartie that sounds great, I'm planning to put together a basic homecooking workshop for college freshmen. I was talking to some friends the other day (4th year university) and one of them could barely make Kraft Dinner! I thought there isn't anything the school is providing, why don't I do it?

                    I figure it'll start with selection of cookware, then stocking your pantry, basic ingredients, basic recipe, then resources on looking up recipes.

                    But seriously I was quite shocked there are that many 20+ who can't boil water.

                  2. For starters, how to use a recipe. Read it all the way through a couple of times, decide if you want to make any changes, gather the ingredients and tools, go ahead and peel/chop/slice/grate stuff, then start cooking.

                    "Knife skills" aren't essential, but basic knowledge about using a knife is. I went on a backpacking/kayaking trip last weekend and watched a college freshman struggle to cut a bell pepper into strips. One of the guides, also an undergraduate student, tried to help but he didn't know what to do either.

                    1. Timing - how to get everything out at the same time without taking hours.
                      Meal Planning - What goes well together, and when to decide to wait until spring, tomato season etc.

                      1. I have a quick follow up question for mehtare.

                        The title of the post says, "Basic Kitchen Skills"

                        The body of the post asks for "What ARE the basic cooking skills ..."

                        Which is it? Kitchen skills or cooking skills?

                        To me, the two are not interchangeable, much the the same.

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: ipsedixit

                          Not sure why they wouldn't be interchangeable, but for the sake of clarity, I'm asking for basic cooking skills.

                          How do *you* differentiate the two?

                          1. re: mehtare

                            Kitchen skills are things like how to store herbs and spices, how to wrap things for freezing, how best to store veggies in the fridge to keep them crisp and fresh, knowing to washing a cutting board after cutting raw meat, etc.

                            Cooking skills are things like knowing how to combine spices, knife skills, cooking temps for meats etc.

                        2. Don't mind cooking skills ... they are not _that_ important for home cooking, which is true about 99% of the people on earth.

                          Just make mistake and remember them and try not reproduce them; that is what we call learning from experience; contrary to cooking schools (pro-level) we have time to improve and are not graded on the size of the mirepoix every day of the week.

                          Enjoy yourself and make people around you happy when you cook; that is enough for me.

                          1. knife skills. the only people who will tell you that knife skills aren't important are the ones who don't even realize the extent that their own cooking repertoire is limited.

                            how to measure ingredients. mise en place. how to make rice in a pot, not a cooker-- same goes for other grains. how to follow a recipe. how to complete multiple dishes at the same approximate time. how to approach a kitchen work area w/o being scared or intimidated-- omg it's an onion/chicken/pair of tongs/chef's knife/saute pan! what do i do with it? how does it work?

                            7 Replies
                            1. re: soupkitten

                              knife skills. the only people who will tell you that knife skills aren't important are the ones who don't even realize the extent that their own cooking repertoire is limited.

                              I must respectfully disagree. Sort of. Or at least clarify my position.

                              I won't argue that knife skills aren't important. Since I've developed mine, I can do a lot more in the same amount of time, work effectively with a wider variety of basic ingredients (whole fish, daikon, artichokes), better preserve flavors and textures, and enjoy cooking more. But are they really basic? I cite as an example the thousands of Italian grandmothers who kick ass in the kitchen and may well work with a knife as an extension of their hand, but who never developed a single knife technique or skill beyond what their own decades of experience has taught them. Or an infamous incident on Top Chef where a competitor in a speed prep contest tried to mash through half a dozen onions with a dull bread knife, but apparently continues to work successfully as a professional chef.

                              Part of the issue is that most people seem to think that knife skills are synonamous with knife speed, whereas it is actually accuracy that is really important. Speed will come with time. I think of knife skills as being like the ability to touch type - it makes things much easier, but the important thing for a beginner is that they hit the keys they mean to hit. Learning to use a pinch grip and to rock-chop and to hold your non-dominant hand in the claw position would be like learning to keep your fingers on the home keys in this analogy. They are useful skills that will certainly help you out later, and I see no problem with teaching them to someone who is ready and wants to learn. But for someone just beginning to write, I would emphasize spelling and grammar and just applying butt to seat first. Because these things are strictly necessary to producing good results whereas ideal form is not.

                              1. re: cowboyardee

                                i don't have any problem with grandmas of any ethnicity who have the capability to process a 1/2 acre's fall's harvest with a paring knife against the ball of their thumbs, or for that matter the average backwoods hunter who can butcher a whole animal with a buck knife. these folks *have* knife skills, whether these skills would fly in a french kitchen or not. I'm talking about the folks who have no idea what to do with an onion when you toss it to 'em. consciously or not, these folks steer clear of recipes involving veggies that don't come pre-chopped and frozen. if one needs a slap-chop to feel comfortable in the kitchen, or can't conceive of cooking with real, whole produce-- or, if one eats meat, cutting up a whole chicken-- then one is certainly lacking basic skills, and is limiting oneself.

                                basic knife proficiency is not like typing-- because someone who types poorly can still express her/himself, it just takes longer, with more reliance on the spell-check.

                                it's more like playing a musical instrument-- if someone lacks basic technique, a person might be able to bang out chopsticks or muddle through twinkle twinkle, but s/he won't have the technique to get through a more ambitious piece of music, won't be able to play in ensemble with others, will have a much less cohesive and deliberate product, & they will always have a modest and limited set of tunes to play.

                                it's a huge problem that so many folks think they can cook thanksgiving dinner for 20 before they know how to chop an onion. i see it all the time in the cooking classes i teach. can't run before you can stand up. start with the basic technique, and everything's simpler and easier to understand from there on out.

                                1. re: soupkitten

                                  The food processor has sounded the death knell of knife skills, unfortunately.

                                  1. re: ipsedixit

                                    i don't buy it ipse. the said the telephone would end face to face conversations, too

                                    1. re: ipsedixit

                                      Sometimes I use my younger brother (he's 11) as my food processor -- I think my knife skills are still ok.

                                    2. re: soupkitten

                                      I was trying to finish reading through this sub-thread before piping in, because I knew someone would sooner or later mention the importance of knife skills as related to the preparation of vegetables, an important part of home-cooking, which is also my stance on why knife skills are important.

                                      Sure there are always food processors and pre-cut fruits and vegetables (none of which could usually be found at my place, by the way). But, say, if you are travelling, stranded or working out of someone else's less equipped kitchen, then again, your repertoire of dishes will be reduced if your knife skills are limited.

                                      Nice analogy comparing touch typing with proficient knife skills. However. The key is to be able to efficiently type, within a reasonable time frame. If you could only type with two fingers then sure you can write an email for communication, but in two hours instead of 15 minutes. You will not be able to get very far if you wish to do that every day. Instead of being able to communicate on a daily basis, you might be able to only do that once every week.

                                      Likewise with proficient knife skills. Speed (and safety, of course), is essential. Actually, to be precise, it is more about using the proper techniques that will affect how fast you can cut-prep the food. If it takes you one hour to dice some onions instead of 10 minutes, because you do not know the proper technique, you would still be able to make that dish. But then, you will not likely be able to afford cooking on a constant basis. You might end up being a weekend cook or a holiday cook. Those vegetables might end up rotting in your fridge, or you might be put off by the idea of cooking because instead of thinking in minutes, you have to think in terms of hours.

                                    3. re: cowboyardee

                                      I have to agree with cowboyardee. I know some pretty good home cooks that have very basic and limited knife skills. Knowing the basic cooking techniques. I don't consider knife prep work cooking. It's prep work. Granted I think my dishes have excelled in part do to my meticulous prep work. Not only is it visual but it's textural as well. Would it taste just about as good if the dice was sloppy. Yes.

                                      I learned to cook without recipes and find cooking intuitive. It allows me a lot of flexability with recipes and to adapt them to what I have or hand or to change the flavor profiles to match my whim. Not sure exactly how to teach that but I think that most cooks can develop that with experience.

                                      One thing for sure I am not up on the basic mother sauces. I can make a pan sauce without thought but find the 5-6 basic mother sauces not of high importance to a home cook.

                                      I think knowing your ingredients is more important. Not just proteins but veg and grains as well. Being able to communicate with the meat or fish guy at the market, knowing fabrication and portioning. There are so many things that make up an accomplished cook

                                  2. Excellent posts all! Let's keep this going. :)

                                    Perchance even giving instructions on how to do these things, or would that be too tedious?

                                    I might add: learn the different cuts of beef, and how to prepare/cook them.

                                    I agree on the sauces being a bit too much, but maybe defining the differences between steaming, broiling, frying, etc. would be in order.

                                    1. To me, the most important kitchen skill is the ability to follow a recipe, and then the ability to know when (and how) to tinker with a recipe.

                                      1. Using a can opener. Seriously, my brother called me one night a couple of years ago asking how to use a can opener, and he was almost thirty.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. One I work on with my kids... Clean as you go - including the sink - so that you always have a clear prep space for whatever is coming next. No fun when you need to drain pasta or potatoes *right.now* but have to clear stuff out of your way first.

                                          Oh, and when a recipe advises to "cook and stir occasionally over medium heat..." no, you cannot substitute "cook on high heat for a shorter period of time."

                                          1. 25 years ago when I was about to married and begin a happy lifetime of cooking for VIckie and our boy Ian, I would have talked about "knife skills" and "sauteeing" and frying and such.

                                            Now? I think i'd concentrate on understanding menu planning -- from the standpoint of knowing what foods and flavors and colors and textures and seasonings go together and which clash, but also from the logistical point of view -- how is this meal going to be assembled? What do I do when?

                                            (I remember the first time I cooked dinner for my not-yet-wife; I had a sheet of paper with a schedule for the baked potatoes, steak, salad, and garlic bread, down to the minute.)

                                            This means that you educate your palate and learn about balance -- no baked breast of chicken accompanied by mashed potatoes and rice, as was once suggested to me. You learn, as Justin Wilson once put it, "you ain't gonna put that sawmill gravy on those prunes."

                                            But you also learn to pace yourself. Julia Child's introduction to "The Way To Cook" is really a great approach; do a simple chicken saute with a deglazing sauce, accompanied by nothing more than some green beans and fruit or ice cream for dessert.

                                            The skills, the technique will come with practice. And when they do come, you'll enjoy cooking a lot more if you've learned what goes with what and what goes into the oven when.

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: jmckee

                                              excellent points. My husband (who no longer cooks, as I took over the task 20 years ago) made me laugh when he would cook-- boiling the water for the pasta, putting the pasta in the pot, and THEN starting the rest of the dinner! One track mind does not work well with cooking.

                                            2. I consider basic kitchen skills as in basic cooking skill. I don't count dish washing and floor mopping as part of the essentail kitchen skills.

                                              Basic cooking skills are necessary technqiues to transform raw foods into cooked foods. These consist of two major skills: knife skill and cook skill. Knife skill is extremely important because all cooking starts with it. However, it is also unimportant because only a basic knife skill is required for cooking. Additional knife technique has little impact on the final products. This is like driving skill for holding a job It is extremely important to have a basic driving skill to able to get to work, but any additional driving skill has little impact on the job performance.

                                              As for cook skill, the most important aspects are assessment and timing. A cook need to able to assess if the cookware is too hot or too cool, if enough oil is added. A cook also need to know has a good timing. How long the food need to be cooked? When to add the salt and when to add sugar?