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10 Culinary Milestones/Challenges? Weigh in with your own list!

Watching Master Chef last night, with the losing team condemend to creating pasta under pressure, and maybe also influenced by a couple of Top Chef [master] Quickfire Challenges, I was wondering what I would consider the basic culinary skills I, as somone who claims to be a good cook (and indifferent baker) should have. In other words, what 10 things should I be able to do at a moment's notice, without needing a recipe?

The following list is subject to editing, but I offer it as a starting point to solicit opinions from others:

1. Make pasta from scratch (can't without recipe)
2. Make (yeast) bread from scratch (haven't tried but probably could)
3. Make pie dough (not good at this so would at least need correct proportions)
4. Make choux pastry (or should a couple of pastries be lumped together?) (can't)
5. Break down a chicken into serving pieces (can, but not yet mastered wishbone removal trick)
6. Filet fish (can, but doesn't it depend on the fish?)
7. Make a soufflé (understand basic technique but no idea of correct proportions)
8. Make mayonnaise/aioli/Hollaindaise (would risk on a dare)
9. Make béchamel (can)
10. Make a convincing bolognese or ragù (probably could)

This may not be a good selection, but as I said, it's a start. What would your list look like?

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  1. Not sure how much baking, other than a pound cake, one should be able to do sans recipe. I can also make basic cookie dough without one. Michael Ruhlman's book on Ratios provides the basic formulas for a wide range of baked goods and other dishes.

    I don't often crack open a cookbook. I make lots of different soups, stews, and braises simply by winging it. No recipes for meatloaf, pasta sauces, bechamel, rice, pilaf, eggs any style, cheese sauces, bread pudding, crepes, stratas, quiches.

    I can break down poultry and clean&fillet fish/seafood. Asian stir-fry. Pasta from scratch, check, but I'd need a reference for your baking tasks, souffle,and mayo.

    Other additions to the list, IMO, would be cooking a medium rare burger and steak, roasting a whole chicken (with and without stuffing), and making stock/broth from parts, bones, and carcasses. Roasting root vegetables. Vinaigrettes. Fruit compotes. Hot cereals.

    1 Reply
    1. re: greygarious

      Interesting question! Here's my list:

      1) Breaking down poultry, lamb, beef.
      2) Making mayo, hollandaise, and other butter based sauces.
      3) Making vinaigrettes.
      4) Making stock, reductions, and roux.
      5) Making bread and doughs.
      6) Knowing how to cook meat and fish to desired temps.
      7) Making pasta (which I've not done).
      8) Working with chocolate, especially tempering it.
      9) Sauteing and stir frying.
      10) Braising meats.

      I'm loving Ruhlman's book "Ratio" also.

    2. To tell you the truth. I suspect my goals and accomplishments are different than most here. I am interested in knowing how to cook but have no desire to be a chef or gourmet. I have no real desire to explore strange and exotic cuisines. I know what I like. It doesn't bother me that I may miss something really good. If it is really really good, I will keep hearing about it and will investigate. So far, I have no interest in what hummus tastes like.

      I added my reactions to your list then added my own list. Will continue to expand my skills and repertoire but maybe not in the same direction as a lot of cher's.

      1. Make pasta from scratch (Don’t care the stuff in the package is fine)
      2. Make (yeast) bread from scratch (haven't tried but probably could) (Me too)
      3. Make pie dough (never tried it but would like to)
      4. Make choux pastry (never tried it but would like to )
      5. Break down a chicken into pieces (can, but not yet mastered wishbone trick) (Me Too)
      6. Filet fish (can) (Me too)
      7. Make a soufflé (I did that. Followed directions..worked fine)
      8. Make mayonnaise/aioli/Hollaindaise (I did that. Followed directions..worked fine)
      9. Make béchamel (can) (Me too)
      10. Make a bolognese or ragù (never tried..not that interested in ragu I’m sure I could)

      My list of accomplishments.

      1. Can make great chocolate truffles.
      2. Can make a great breaded pork chop.
      3. Can make a great pork tenderloin.
      4. Can make a great meatloaf.
      5. Can make a great pot roast.
      6. Can make a great pulled pork sandwich.
      7. Can do a stir fry from whatever is in the pantry.
      8. Can make a good pasta dish from whatever is in the pantry.
      9. Can make a good stock.
      10. Can make some very good sauces.
      11. Can butcher and or bone poultry well.
      12. I can follow a recipe when it is needed and modify a recipe on the fly and have the sense to know when I can.
      13. Have mastered the basic cooking methods and techniques.

      1. I may never reach 10, so I'll go with what I have:
        1) When my luckless friends hit an even more luckless deer and damage their car right up to the deductible, I can provide a nice venison dinner for a fairly large group a couple days later. 3 so far.
        2) My cream of poblano, sweet corn and pink shrimp soup has actually been made and enjoyed by others.
        3) Sam and I collaborated to perfect the Lincoln Log Chicken.
        4) Roasting large animals - pigs, goats, oxen
        5) As a tall blond blue Yankee, my mexican is pretty good for having lived there a lot, especially Yucatec pit baked redfish in banana leaves with trigger fish livers and achiote.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Veggo

          #2 is AWESOME and I usually loathe that word!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It's the main reason I've de-kerneled a whole bunch of white corn and froze it. I'm gonna be eating that soup all winter. Go, Veg.

        2. Partially copying Hank, here's my reactions to the original list, then the list of things I'd like to do/do better.

          1. Make pasta from scratch
          (me too, since I actually have a pasta maker)
          2. Make (yeast) bread from scratch
          (Pizza dough, in the past, about to try it again; bread in machines; but handmade bread, not so good at)
          3. Make pie dough
          (I make terrible pie dough and would very much like to change that)
          4. Make choux pastry
          (No idea what that is, not sure I care)
          5. Break down a chicken into pieces
          (I have been able to do this since I was like 8)
          6. Filet fish
          (I can, but I don't like fish, so I haven't since I moved out on my own. Can clean them too)
          7. Make a soufflé
          (I've done it, don't care for souffle though)
          8. Make mayonnaise/aioli/Hollaindaise
          (Been there, done that, no problem, but not much interest either)
          9. Make béchamel
          (Basically white gravy, can do, don't care for this kind of thing though)
          10. Make a bolognese or ragù
          (Not sure I see what the big deal is though I probably wouldn't care for ragu either)

          What I would like to do:

          1) Learn some Greek dishes
          2) Expand my Asian regional cooking into Vietnamese, Korean, and more Thai
          3) Expand my Indian cooking as well, though it's already fairly broad
          4) Learn to make pie dough
          5) Learn to make bread/yeast rolls
          6) Pep up my pasta repertoire - I don't go for pasta much but my son seems to have picked up a taste for it
          7) Actually use the pasta maker I've been toting around as I moved from coast to coast over the years
          8) Get back into the habit of making puri and chappati - badly out of practice!
          9) Perfect my dosai, and learn to make rava dosai
          10) Make ICE CREAM!

          1. Concur with greygarious that some of these responses---while fine enough reading---miss the point of the question. It's not "what are you good at?" It's "what do you think as a good home cook you should be able to execute without consulting anything beyond your own skills and knowledge?"

            Imagine you're with three friends in a remote cabin with a fully stocked kitchen. We're talking meat in need of some butchering, whole chickens, whole fish, veggies and fruits galore, a loaded pantry, and all the cutlery, cookware, and electrics you could ever want. If you gave your friends a week they couldn't figure out how to fry a single egg between them, but they have plenty of requests for dinner and breakfast. No cookbooks, no internet, no cell phone, and no land line. You're on your own. Your friends are going to ask for some things you have no problem saying you have no idea how to make (puff pastry and most involved desserts for me). They're also going to request some things that will make you excuse yourself to the bathroom so you can have a little cry about how silly you were for ever thinking of yourself as a good home cook (off the top of my head...crepes and nicely shucked oysters for me). So, what do you feel are the essential skills you should have as a good home cook---whether or not you have them now? It's kind of an odd question, but it's intriguing because the replies are likely so subjective---and because it asks Chowhounders to likely admit they lack skills they consider basic...buahaha!

            (Apologies in advance, k mocha, if this is actually not what you were asking.)

            3 Replies
            1. re: eight_inch_pestle

              You have perfectly articulated what I meant, 8"p. A lot of the things on other folks' lists, while good to know, are not really about being able to create a specific thing or, in the case of chicken butchering/fish skinning/fileting, doing a task requiring some knowledge as a prerequisite to cooking something. There are 50 different theories about how to roast a great chicken, and thousands of ways to flavor it, but in the end it's about a couple of simple principles that you don't have to think too hard about to execute. Similarly, give me any protein, or even leave it out altogether, and I can sauté some aromatics, brown the main deal, roast or braise or stew it in water/stock/wine, add herbs and spices as appropriate. Burger, steak, fish? Let them get close to room temperature, pre-salt if apropriate, sear in really hot pan, for the appropriate amount of time, with or without incorporating pan juices into a sauce subsequently. You may not get it right, but it's not hard to understand the theory of what is *supposed* to happen. How imaginatively and well one approaches such a task is one measure of a good cook, but that's not what I was talking about.

              Say you have, not a wonderful pantry brimming with fresh ingredients, but a fridge full of leftovers and veggies that will go off if you don't use them today. Just about anybody can concoct an omelette, or a frittata, or some kind of fried rice or pasta sauce. But say you want to make a pot pie? You can't do it unless you can make the crust and probably a béchamel, as well (maybe you could fake a sort of dumpling/biscuit topping). Same with a savory soufflé, or some kind of Russian salad. Anyone can put together a vinaigrette of sorts, but mayonnaise you have to *know* how to make, including at least a basic idea of the proportions.

              Those of you who follow Top Chef will probably remember a lot of drama when the contestants have been asked ot make a dessert. There's a lot of whining: "I'm not a pastry chef." And some Chowhounds have responded, if you *are* a chef, how hard is it to learn to make a paté brisée or any other kind of crust that can act as a shell for a pie filling? That's the kind of thing that got me started thinking about this and realize how lacking I am generally in the baking department (except for bread, which I love doing). I can't even make a simple biscuit kind of cake come out level at the top (or gently swelling towards the middle, which I suppose is the true ideal).

              So making the list was kind of a way to push myself towards acquiring the skills I lack. I've been focusing a lot on Indian food techniques lately (just because my decision to stop buying CAFO meat means any meat I *do* buy will be lots more expensive, thus a need to think of more delicious ways to make various kinds of pulses), but I'd like to kind of "round myself out" as a cook and learn to do at least an acceptable job with some of these other basics.

              The choice of bolognese or ragú was kind of arbitrary, meaning maybe any "go to" main dish type meat sauce you could use on rice or spaghetti when your mental cupboard is bare. (@cowboyardee, from what I understand, particularly after reading 7/8 of Bill Buford's book, every village in northern Italy has a "right" way to do bolognese that is different from all the other "right" ways.)

              My bolognese probably wouldn't even be that--my go-to dish from the pantry that I know friends will love and that I no longer need a recipe for is puttanesca.

              @Veggo, am in awe of your number 1) and where's the recipe for 2)? ;-) And can we hear more about the Lincoln Log deal?

              @HankHanover: "The hardest thing of all... make a 3-4 dish meal and have it all finish at the same time." Not in the spirit of what was on my list, but boy oh boy are you right about that!

              @cowboyardee again: Before I got a rice cooker, someone taught me a trick for making rice that worked really well: when the rice, butter, salt, and hot liquid are all in the pot and you've got it turned to a simmer to finish cooking, tie a dish towel (kind of like a turban) on the pot lid, with the knot on top where the lid handle is. I don't know exactly what it does, absorbs some of the steam I guess, but the rice came out perfect every time.

              1. re: kleine mocha

                I wasn't quite sure what you were looking for but it seemed to morph into "What are skills a good home cook needs to know/". If that isn't what this thread is about, we ought to post that thread.

                Because your thread is reasonably close, post this other thread. You might as well get whatever credit there is for it.

                1. re: kleine mocha

                  Brief follow up: my soup and the Lincoln log chicken are somewhere in the bowels of CH archives a couple times; when I'm not feeling so lazy I could re-post them.
                  As to the road kill venison dinners, it's safety first. One must carefully examine the vehicle damage for broken headlamps to determine how many missing glass shards one must be on the lookout for while prepping the deer.