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Apr 20, 2010 12:07 AM

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