It’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.
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:
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!
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:
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.
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.
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 ones 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.