Basic Cooking Skills for Rookies

man teaching kids cooking skillsIt’s easy to ignore your lack of rudimentary cooking skills when you order pizza or get takeout every night. When people switch to Primal or keto diets, they usually find themselves spending considerably more time in the kitchen. On the plus side, they’re better able to control ingredient quality and the macronutrient breakdown of their meals. For better or worse, this also forces them to confront their lack of culinary prowess.

Preparing two or three homemade meals per day can be daunting if you’re accustomed to mostly grabbing prepackaged or restaurant fare. As with any other skill, though, you learn by starting with the basics, practicing often, and building proficiency as you go. Your meals don’t have to be elaborate, your technique perfect, or your dishes artistic. They just have to taste good.

Today I’m going to nominate some skills and dishes that I think every beginner should learn. Chime in in the comments and let me know what else you would put on the list.

Where to Start

First, some basics:

Start by following other people’s recipes. Don’t try to wing it if you don’t know what you’re doing. Find one or two cookbooks or blogs you like, and work your way through them. To learn your way around a kitchen, Cook’s Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen books are tried and true. My favorite book for artful yet practical kitchen inspo is Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.

Get good knives and keep them sharp. Watch some YouTube videos to learn basic knife skills. Everyone should know how to chop an onion. Start there.

Season your food, for goodness sake. I have a theory that most people who think they are bad cooks are mostly just boring cooks. (That, and they overcook their meat, but we’ll get to that.) Salt is your friend. You should have a decently stocked spice rack. Tell me in the comments what spices you use most. Mine are cumin and turmeric.

Just go for it! As with anything else, you get better by doing it. Stick to simple recipes at first, then get more adventurous as you become more confident.

Chicken

I firmly believe that everyone should know how to roast a whole chicken. A fragrant, golden chicken feels like true kitchen mastery, yet it’s so simple. Ina Garten taught me (not personally, but you get it), or start with this Perfect Roasted Chicken recipe.

When you roast a whole chicken, you end up with a carcass. This is great news because you should also know how to make your own bone broth. It doesn’t matter whether you use the stovetop, slow cooker, or pressure cooker method. Either way, it couldn’t be easier to stock your freezer (no pun intended) with jars of homemade bone broth. Then you always have some on hand to make soups, stew, chili, or just to drink.

When it comes to making chicken breasts or thighs, I usually opt for thighs because they are more forgiving. Breasts have a tendency to become dry and disappointing. The secret is to brine your chicken breasts, especially if you’re baking them or throwing them on the grill. (You can also brine thighs or whole chickens, or indeed any poultry or lean meat, but it’s particularly life-changing with chicken breasts, in my opinion.) Here’s how I do it:

Step-by-step brining

  • Boil two cups of water.
  • Remove it from the heat and stir in 1/4 cup of sea salt until dissolved.
  • Transfer the salty water to a large glass bowl. Top it off with ice water to cool the solution so you don’t poach the chicken. Give it a stir. If you have any fresh herbs and garlic cloves on hand, you can throw them in now, but it’s not required.
  • Add the chicken, making sure it’s covered by water. Let it sit for 20-30 minutes on the counter (yes, it’s fine), or stick it in the fridge for up to an hour.
  • Remove the chicken and cook according to your recipe, but don’t add more salt!

Chicken recipes to try:

Devyn’s Grilled Marinated Chicken (MDA)

Cracklin’ Chicken (Nom Nom Paleo)

Mayo Roasted Chicken (Primal Kitchen)

Vegetables

Please, I’m begging you: unless you are making soup, don’t boil your vegetables. Steaming is acceptable, but for truly delicious cooked vegetables, sauté or roast them.

With both sautéing and roasting, avoid these three rookie mistakes:

  1. Not using enough fat or oil. Vegetables need lubrication to avoid sticking to the pan, and oil allows your roasted vegetables to develop those scrumptious crunchy bits. When sautéing, add enough oil/fat to just cover the bottom of the pan. For roasting, use enough to coat the vegetables when you toss them, but not so much that they end up floating in a pool of oil.
  2. Overcrowding the pan. Give the veggies room to breathe. Use multiple roasting pans or sauté in batches rather than allowing them to overlap, unless you’re stir-frying.
  3. Playing it too cool. Hot = browning, browning = flavor. When it comes to roasting, 375°F (190°C) is as low as I’ll go, but really, I rarely roast below 425°F (220°). If you’re roasting multiple types of vegetables at one time, it’s best to keep them separated in case they get done at different rates.

For masterful sautéing, preheat your pan over medium-high heat without any fat or oil. When it’s nice and evenly hot, add the fat, then add the vegetables. Sauté over medium to medium-high heat.

In general, I favor sautéing for softer vegetables and that cook more quickly—think mushrooms, zucchini, summer squash, fresh green beans, bell peppers—and roasting for harder vegetables like winter squash and the cruciferous Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, or romanesco. These aren’t hard-and-fast rules. You can certainly roast zucchini or peppers and onions, for example.

Two more tips:

  • Take the time to cut your vegetables into approximately uniform pieces so they cook at the same rate.
  • Don’t be too stir-happy when sautéing. If you want your vegetables to brown nicely, let them sit undisturbed for a few minutes before stirring and repeating.

Vegetable recipes to try:

Easy Roasted Winter Vegetables Recipe (MDA)

Grilled Greek Summer Veggies Recipe (MDA)

Balsamic Roasted Brussels Sprouts (MDA)

Also check out Mark’s 8 Tips for Cooking Vegetables

Steak

Steak lovers have strong feelings about how to cook the perfect steak. You’ll have to experiment with different methods and cuts to find what you prefer. I personally like to cook NY Strips on very hot cast iron, season my steak before cooking with only coarse salt, and flip it frequently. Other people swear by reverse searing, which is also fantastic. Still others will only cook steak on a grill, as in Mark’s Grilled Steak.

I’m not going to tell you how to cook your steak, but I will suggest that if you prefer your steak well done, you shouldn’t admit that aloud unless you want some serious ribbing. Just saying. Use a meat thermometer to check the temperature of the steaks and take them off the heat when they are 5 to 10 degrees below your target temp:

Rare: 120-125°F (45-50°C)
Medium-rare: 130-135°F (55-60°C)
Medium: 140-145°F (60-65°C)
Medium-well: 150-155°F (65-70°C)
Well: >160°F (>70°C)

Keep in mind, no matter what cut and method you use, you should let your steaks rest for 5 to 10 minutes before cutting into them. During that time, the internal temperature of the steak will rise 5°F or so.

Eggs

Omelets are always on lists of kitchen skills everyone should have, but I disagree. Omelets are fussy. Scrambles are much easier and just as delicious. In any case, though, I do think that Primal + keto eaters should have some egg skills in their repertoires. I’d start with the following:

Scrambled eggs. Here’s how to make the most amazing scrambled eggs:

  • Heat a skillet over medium-low heat.
  • Melt some butter in the skillet and crack the eggs into the skillet without stirring. (You can also separate the whites and yolks here, but it’s a more advanced maneuver.)
  • When the whites are about halfway cooked, start pushing them around with a spatula, avoiding the yolks.
  • When the whites are nearly done, take the pan off the heat, break the yolks, and fold the yolks and whites together. Keep stirring gently until the eggs are cooked to your liking. They should be creamy, but if you just can’t handle soft eggs, put the pan back on low heat and finish to your liking.

Hard-boiled eggs. The truth is, I never boil eggs anymore. For hard-cooked eggs, I either use the Instant Pot (easiest!) or steam them. You won’t lose eggs to cracking this way.

The Instant Pot 5-5-5 method is foolproof: Cook eggs for 5 minutes using the Egg or Manual function, let the pressure release naturally for 5 minutes, then release the remaining pressure and move the eggs to an ice bath for 5 minutes. Voila.

Or, boil a couple of inches of water in a pan and place a steamer basket inside. Steam the eggs for 7 to 10 minutes depending on how you like the yolk, then transfer them to an ice bath to cool.

Egg muffins. Like this recipe.

Egg recipes to try:

 

This should be a good start for any new cook. What else would you add? Which books are must-reads for kitchen beginners? Skills or dishes that everyone should have in their arsenal?

TAGS:  cooking tips

About the Author

Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior writer and community manager for Primal Nutrition, a certified Primal Health Coach, and the co-author of three keto cookbooks.

As a writer for Mark’s Daily Apple and the leader of the thriving Keto Reset and Primal Endurance communities, Lindsay’s job is to help people learn the whats, whys, and hows of leading a health-focused life. Before joining the Primal team, she earned her master’s and Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, where she also worked as a researcher and instructor.

Lindsay lives in Northern California with her husband and two sports-obsessed sons. In her free time, she enjoys ultra running, triathlon, camping, and game nights. Follow along on Instagram @theusefuldish as Lindsay attempts to juggle work, family, and endurance training, all while maintaining a healthy balance and, most of all, having fun in life. For more info, visit lindsaytaylor.co.

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

17 thoughts on “Basic Cooking Skills for Rookies”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Spices! Pick a few different cuisines that are pretty different, THEN buy JUST one or two spices THAT REPRESENT each.

    Bold Italian – Oregano and Basil
    Herbacious French – sage and thyme
    Earthy heat Mexican – Chili and cumin
    Spicy Complex indian – turmeric and ginger

    …then just mix them all up anyway 🙂

  2. My favorite steak seasonings are Adolf’s (because I like the taste of papain),pepper, garlic, and thyme.

  3. I love my Julia Child cookbook, she has taught me so much! I also suggest making compound butters to flavor everything, and salad dressings/marinades from scratch. my favorite herbs& spices are parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, nutmeg, dill, garlic and chives.

  4. My go to seasonings other than salt and pepper are oregano or dill. If not using the real thing, I also use onion powder and garlic powder. And sun-dried tomatoes which are not technically a seasoning but add an amazing punch to nearly everything.

  5. I also love The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters.

    Don’t be afraid to salt your food (with kosher salt preferably)!

  6. hi, i am woo from Sweden and i want to explain any thing about “pandemic”. Please ask me 🙂

  7. The way I cook is what I call: “Dump-a Dump-a Dump”

    You go to your spice cabinet take a few out, go over to what’s cooking on the stove and take the lid off of one, take a sniff of what’s cooking, then take a sniff of the first spice….. if you like it, dump some in….. do it until you have 2 or 3 good ones. VIOLA! It’s fun and it always comes out different.

  8. What about no cook “recipes”? Things like the Big Ass Salad, shirataki noodles, Primal N’oatmeal, chia seed pudding, and smoothies? These are great ways for people who may lack cooking skills to get more involved in meal prep and planning without the stress of adding heat 🙂

  9. Hi Lindsay, I just want to let you know that I tried making scrambled eggs the last two days the way you suggested, and you’re right; they ARE amazing! the yolks and butter are like a sauce for the whites, so good! Thanks for the tip!

  10. It’d be nice to have this as laminated cards for the kitchen. I guess I could just make them, but then I wouldn’t have the same laminated cards as everyone else.

  11. I’d love to know how to sear meat without smoking out my kitchen! Any time I’ve tried it, the smoke sets off the detector and I have to air out the kitchen.

    1. I don’t think there’s a good answer to that, other than better ventilation. Try preemptively opening all your windows and turning on all your fans. A nicely seared steak will be worth the trouble.

  12. I think soups and stews are the easiest way to cook for a beginner. Its pretty much a fool-proof way to cook anything you have laying around. Whenever I have something in the fridge I dont know what to do with, I get out the Dutch oven and get a stew going.

    In its simplest form you can just throw everything in a pot and still come out with something delicious and nutritious. Then you can work your way up to browning, deglazing, sweating, reducing, etc. And its a great way to play around with different seasonings.

  13. Sauces dressings & toppings would be my recommendation. I recently purchased this book and it has saved me from food boredom. It is hard to find bottled condiments that don’t include ingredients I should not eat. MSG is a major problem for people with migraines. It is poison to me and I avoid it like the plague. Sauces Dressings & Toppings by Mark Sisson is an excellent little book !

    Thanks Mark your book is a game changer for me!!!!!!

  14. This is a great post! I’ve loved cooking since I was a kid and I think a well- stocked spice supply is definitely key. I have a wide variety of dried herbs and spices but for the flavors I enjoy but aren’t my go-to, I like to buy spice blends, such as Chinese 5-spice, Berbere or Italian seasoning. It keeps me from overfilling my spice cabinet with things I won’t use! Sprinkle some on whatever meat and veggies you have on hand and you have yourself an awesome meal!! I’m also a huge fan of stir-fry style cooking. It’s quick and easy if you have an erratic schedule like we do sometimes. Throw some chopped/diced meat in your pan and by the time it’s done you can have all your veggies chopped and dinner is done in 20 min!

  15. When sauteeing or stir-frying, add seasoning in layers, a bit of salt, pepper, garlic powder, etc at each addition.
    For an easy and fantastic pulled pork, rub a pork shoulder roast (or similar cut) generously with salt and put in the slow-cooker along with some liquid smoke. Cook on low all day, then remove and shred. I often mix the cooking liquid into the pork as I’m shredding it to make sure all the salty-smokiness is captured in the meat. This freezes well and will feed a crowd if that’s what you need.