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?
A lot of those things are things that if you cook a pretty standard repertoire you will do them over and over and they will become engrained and, more importantly, you will develop an appreciation for what works and why. For example, I make mayonnaise often and I have learned some basic things like if the eggs are cold, wait. I'd like to master some of the things I have never done, like mille feuille, some of the things I tried once or twice, like babas au rhum and some of the things that sound like crusades for perfection, like the thread on caneles.
For those who dismiss making pasta because the stuff in the box tastes fine, I agree, it is fine. But fresh is different and goes really well with some things, like home made papparadelle with Bolognese. For those who put Bolognese on their lists, try adding a little toasted ground nutmeg and fennel seed.
re: tim irvine
re: c oliver
I grate the nutmeg with a microplane and toast it in a dry iron skillet with the whole fennel seeds and then crush it all into oblivion with a mortar and pestle.
BTW, my "go to" pasta recipe for papparadelle is 1 cup AP flour, 1 cup of Bob's semolina, and four eggs...process, wrap and chill well, keep it lightly floured in the rolling process.
Except for specific baking items (e.g. a cake or certain types of bread), I don't cook with recipes. Never use recipes. Never have, never will.
Master basic techniques, and you can cook anything and just about everything.
Even certain baked items -- like basic bread dough or pie crusts -- can be made sans written instructions.
re: c oliver
Perhaps this is an issue of semantics -- i.e. technique versus recipe.
But to tease this out, lets use this example: grilling meat.
When I say I understand the "technique" of how to grill meat, I mean that I understand, for example, that I should have two heat zones on my grill - hot and medium/hot -- and to first sear my meat on both sides on the hot side and then finish off on the medium/hot zone.
When I say I have a "recipe" for grilled meat, it might be something like, add 2 tablespoons of soy sauce with 1 tablespoon of mustard, along with some olive oil, and marinade the meat for 2 hours, then shake off excess marinade before grilling ... etc.
I think there is a difference between the two. I don't consider a "technique" to be a "recipe".
What a great, and timely, idea for a post! While watching this round of Master Chef I have had the continuing thought: "I'm not worthy" :-)
Okay, my ten...
1. Make pie crust from scratch without a recipe (I make decent pie crust but still need to refer to a recipe)
2. Ditto for bread
3. Ditto for any kind of cake
4. Ditto for fresh pasta
5. Know how to cook all cuts of meat, poultry, seafood etc.
6. Know how to break down a chicken
7. Filet a fish
8. Make standard sauces: hollandaise, mayonaisse, bernaise etc.
9. Know how to cook the perfect egg
10. Know how to make a soufle
Going to add one more...
11. Have a good uderstanding of flavour profiles and seasoning.
I've got a terrible memory so I have to keep consulting my recipes, even if I've made something many many times. I make great pie crust, but have to crack the book everytime.
One real milestone for a cook is knowing enough to prepare a holiday meal by yourself. So, how to roast a turkey, make and cook the dressing, make gravy (actually a complex process), make the beloved side dishes of your family, and make a dessert. There's time management and organizational aspects to this, as well as cooking the dishes.
Another milestone is developing the ability to make something based on what you know it should taste like - kind of the opposite of needing to look up a recipe. I made a Thai dish once and knew that it needed a dipping sauce so I put mixed together peanut butter, soy, ginger, fish sauce, garlic, other spices, and made a pretty tasty and appropriate sauce on the fly. My children were stunned.
You should be able to identify produce and herbs when fresh and not labelled in jars.
I think there is editing and they do have access to recipes or something. No way a guy who has never baked a cupcake could pull out a winning one without a recipe somewhere. I am actually amazed at the various levels of experience in the contestants left. I was also amazed at the lack of knowledge in identifying ingredients in last weeks pressure challenge. But then again I am sure I would botch something and get kicked out quickly : ).
If you are on a Gordon Ramsey Show...
3. Properly cooked meat
4. Properly seared scallops
5. Have good taste buds (lots of taste challenges)
Recently my small kids participated in a iron chef kids challenge. It was interesting to try to figure out how to prep them.
I like eight_inch_pestle's list, but I would say have a good understanding of global flavors so you can improvise.
Alrighty, here's my list...
1. Eggs. All the basic treatments: scrambled fast or slow; sunny-side up; over-easy; poached; shirred, soft-, medium-, and hard-boiled. (Yes)
2. Veggies. Same as above. Nothing complicated, but can you take anything you can find in the typical American supermarket and give it fundamental preparations: sauteing, roasting, steaming, boiling, baking, turning into a gratin or casserole? (Yes.)
3. Meat, poultry, fish. If you're walking down the aisle and someone throws you a package from this section, can you cut and cook it well without a recipe, regardless of what they throw you? (Hmm...mostly, have to admit I've never roasted a whole duck, cooked a live lobster, worked terribly much with whole crab, or shucked oysters enough that I stopped cutting myself and cursing the whole time, and I've surely lost my touch with true indirect heat bbq ribs the last few years, although I can of course still knock out baby backs. And I can technically break a fish down into steaks or skinless fillets, but cooking for two I've never done it enough to become efficient or guarantee beautiful results. I've also never so much as looked at a duck confit recipe, for some reason.)
4. Breads: cornbread, muffins, biscuits, sandwich, french, pancakes, waffles, French toast? (Yes to cornbread, biscuits, French, French toast, and pancakes, no to sandwich bread, muffins, and waffles.)
5. Grains and legumes. Maybe it's so basic as to not merit mentioning, but can you take the most common ones, from black beans to rice to bulgur, and turn out a nice side or entree without help? (yes.)
6. Make from box and scratch and be able to improvise a variety of tasty sauces? (Yes.)
7. Sauces: Roux, bechamel, pan (deglaze and reduce), mayo, hollandaise, bearnaise, etc., and thicken through a variety of techniques (beurre manie, corn starch, butter, egg yolk)? (Yes to all except hollandaise, which I was very excited to learn how to make many years ago before realizing it was basically a delicious lemony creamy golden heart attack.)
8. Stocks: veggie, fish, shrimp, chicken, beef, pork, veal? (Yes to all but veal, which I don't touch unless it's in a petting zoo.)
9. Dessert? (No, no, no. I can make a good pie crust, just because I have a knack for remembering simple weight ratios and make quiche now and again, but other than sweet potato pie I'd have no idea how to fill that crust without a recipe. Cakes, brownies, ice cream, etc? Nope. Not without recipes.)
10. K mocha's go-to, whatever it may be for you. (Yes.)
11. Something global or "ethnic," whatever it is you're into via heritage or interest: a Thai or Indian curry, a great Sichuan dish, Ethiopian food, tacos with homemade tortillas, whatever---so long as it speaks to something particularly you and you don't need a recipe.
EDIT: 12. Something you invented. Doesn't have to reinvent the wheel because, you know, people have been cooking for awhile, but something you put together in your head as you strolled the aisles or sat on the train on the way to the store and that turned out well enough you committed it to memory and could now cook in someone else's kitchen.
I don't watch Top Chef, k mocha, but my girlfriend sometimes watches it while I'm cooking and I overhear lots. The thing that always got me about the "but I'm not a pastry chef" complaint is that while I myself am not much of a dessert guy, you better believe that if I applied to be on a popular national show called "Top Chef" I would figure out how to make a freakin' pie dough and some pound cake sometime in the several months between being accepted and the beginning of the dessert challenge.
Wow. You're an amazing cook if you can do that (with or without a recipe). Here's mine (from memory if not otherwise indicated):
1. Make pie dough
2. Make meat cutlets
3. Sear meat and make a pan sauce
4. Make a vinaigrette
5. Make meatballs in sauce (easily adaptable to making meatloaf)
6. Roast a chicken (no way can I break it down without mutilating it)
7. Make mayonnaise/aioli/hollandaise
8. Make choux paste
9. Bake cookies
10. Make a meringue/pavlova
I think making a distinction between using a recipe or not is hazy. If you make something enough times, you no longer need to LOOK at the recipe necessarily but that doesn't mean you're not using a recipe. I'd say for an amateur cook, everything you and some others mention are recipes and you would not be able to create it out of whole cloth. And there's nothing wrong with that and most of us fall into that category. I like the idea of the Momofuku pork buns. I've eaten them but would not have a clue how to make them. But with Chang's recipe in hand, I could and perhaps if I made them ALOT I could do them without looking at the recipe.
I'll also add that I'm a recipe user for that reason. I like to have the "big boys" teach me :)
re: c oliver
Oh, I agree! But I'd like to be able to master a basic recipe for, say, pie crust, and *then* also be able to "wing it" if circumstances required.
This will show my age, but remember the original Sabrina, with Audrey Hepburn, I think, and was it William Holden? They are in his bachelor apartment and all he has is some crackers and some eggs. (Well, I guess he must have had some cheese, too.) She whips into the kitchen and conjures up a perfect soufflé.
That's what I'd like to be able to do.
Anyhow, all responses have been interesting, and I now have a new to-do list for the kitchen. ;-)
re: c oliver
You are right. If you make a dish from a recipe enough, you will memorize it and you are still making it from a recipe. As you become more familiar, you feel more comfortable with experimenting with it.
When you are reading a similar recipe, you go.."Hey, I've done this before." You end up making several dishes with the same techniques. I don't know, when does this technique become yours? When does this recipe become yours?
Perhaps, never. Perhaps as soon as you say it is yours. It is your kitchen.
You darn right, I want to learn something. As you well know, I certainly don't agree with everything I see but I am always learning. That's why we are here.
re: c oliver
You're right, of course. There are principles you understand and can use to make many creations of varying-but-intentional effects, and there are recipes that one has committed to memory.
However there is always at least the pragmatic distinction that if you've committed grandma's piecrust to memory, you can make it whenever and wherever you want without pulling out an ancient lard-streaked notebook. At least for me, I've found it useful to be able to cook in other people's kitchens beside my own without bringing along the library.
Necessary kitchen/cooking skills. Hmmm.
Good knife skills.
How to make a good pan sauce.
Knowing what needs to be stirred a lot and what needs to be left alone.
How to make a basic bread, cornbread or biscuit from scratch.
How to select produce (I hate watching folks pick up tomatoes, peaches, etc. and bruise them up squeezing squeezing squeezing "is this ripe?") Why do you think all those maters have five little bruises going around them? People like YOU, squeezer! (sorry, a particularly peevey peeve of mine).
I think any one person's list will probably wind up being too specific to apply to everyone - a fantastic Indian cook might not even know what a bolognese or ragu is, for example, but that hardly detracts from their skill. Some basic techniques (knifework, different methods of applying heat) should be familiar to EVERY decent home cook, but that's about it.
Still I think it is useful to know how to cook things without relying on a recipe. So I'll check myself against your list and then list some things that I've either found especially useful or that I'm still working towards.
1. Make pasta from scratch (I do this every once in a while, not hard once you get a feel for it)
2. Make yeast bread from scratch (don't think i've ever tried not using a recipe. Good chance I'd botch it, though I can make a basic pizza crust without a recipe)
3. Make pie dough (i do this all the time - very useful. Allows you to make all kinds of desserts without knowing much pastry)
4. Make choux pastry (I don't remember it being all that hard, but i'd probably mess it up without a recipe. No huge deal for me since I don't use choux much)
5. Break down a chicken into serving pieces (yep)
6. Filet fish (I've done trout, bass, salmon, porgies, a few others. But there are A LOT of different fish with different anatomies. I sure wouldn't want to try Fugu)
7. Make a soufflé (I'd almost certainly screw this up)
8. Make mayonnaise/Hollaindaise (yep - very useful, not hard to learn, highly recommended)
9. Make béchamel (I can)
10. Make a convincing bolognese or ragù (I can make a ragu. I suppose someone from Bologna might have some bones to pick with my bolognese)
Other things I can do without a recipe that I've found especially useful
2) Crepes (It's hardly a universal basic skill, but it comes in handy. People just like crepes)
3) Fruit compotes, sauces and fillings (what's the point of making a good pie crust if you don't know how to fill it?)
4) Pan sauces
5) Vinegrettes and other simple emulsions
6) Quick pickling
Important things I need to work on:
1) Making rice well (my rice is really quite inconsistent. It's embarrassing. I'm working on it)
2) Bake a decent cake or cupcake (there's one chocolate cake I've made a dozen times, and I still can't remember it without a peek at the recipe)
3) Get my barbecue sauce for pork spareribs right (I've been trying for 10 years to recreate from taste/memory one of the few barbecue sauces I actually like. Still not quite right)
I couldn't think of any more right now. It's late and I've rambled enough.
There are necessary skills and then there are dishes that a good home cook should be able to do.
Basic knife skills.
All the basic cooking methods but especially sweating veggies, pan searing, roasting, frying, braising, sauteing and stir frying.
Butchering & deboning poultry.
Make a pan sauce.
Compose a decent casserole with a variety of meats, veggies, binders and starches.
Make a stock and a few basic soups.
Make a pot roast.
Pan sear and roast a steak and also be able to finish it in the oven.
Compose a decent stir fry with whatever is in the pantry and fridge.
Oven roast veggies
Fry and scramble eggs for a group.
Make 3-4 pasta dishes.
Make a roux and a bechamel and consequently a cheese sauce
Don't care if you can filet a fish but be able to cook fish a couple of different ways..
The hardest thing of all... make a 3-4 dish meal and have it all finish at the same time.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.