10 Essential Cooking Skills That Every Cook Should Know

You may have been cracking eggs wrong all along…

Much like balancing your budget or keeping houseplants alive, cooking is a skill that requires both knowledge and practice. And while it might be a joy to attend cooking school, who’s got the time? We did the work and boiled the world of cooking down to 10 basic skills that will make your meals so much easier (and delicious!). Whether you’re a beginner or a pro, bone up on these 10 essential cooking skills.

water boiling in a pot

The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

1. Master the Art of Boiling

We know, boiling seems beyond basic; What could be more essential than filling a pot, putting it on high, and letting the water rip? Boiling water—and lower-temperature techniques like steaming and poaching—opens up tons of delicious meal options. When you learn to harness the power of boiling you can make delicious weeknight pasta dishes, make basic stocks and broths, poach eggs for brunch and fish for dinner parties. You can meal-prep basics like hard cooked eggs or steam simple vegetables like broccoli and sweet potatoes for the weeknight side. And how can we forget soup? Boiling is essential to soothing, budget-friendly pots of soup and beans.

Here’s what you need to know about boiling: For cooking, there are three types of boils: rolling, slow, or simmer. A rolling boil is the classic 212 F pot of rumbling, vivacious bubbles. A rolling boil is most often used for cooking pasta and hard-cooking eggs. Pro tip: Water will come to a boil faster without salt, so salt your pasta pot after it is actively boiling. A slow boil is approximately 205 F and most often used for making broth and stock. A simmer ranges from 205 to 190 F. You’ll want to know how to simmer for cooking dried beans as well as creating rich, meaty braises.

peeled onion on a cutting board partly diced, with chef's knife

The Spruce Eats / Julia Hartbeck

2. How To Cut an Onion the Right Way

Basic knife skills are essential to faster, easier cooking because when your onions (or carrots or chicken cutlets) are all about the same size they cook more evenly. An onion is almost always used as the example of proper knife skills because it is also the most basic aromatic for everything from everyday chili to holiday roasts. But the fundamentals of cutting an onion apply to other produce as well: Remove the stem and peel, cut into manageable pieces with a flat steady side and then cut it into smaller pieces methodically.

Here’s what you need to know about cutting an onion the right way: Cut basic white, yellow, and red onions like this: Trim off the top of the onion—leave the root in place to make cutting easier. Remove the peel. Halve the onion lengthwise. Then, working with one half at a time, position the onion cut side down with the cut top parallel to the knife. With your knife parallel to the cutting board, make ¼ inch slices of the onion working from the bottom to the top, making wide planks of onion, and stopping before you hit the root. Then hold your knife as you normally would and start cutting downward perpendicular to the cut top. Finally, turn the onion 90 degrees and slice through all those slices to get a finely chopped onion.

Rock salt

The Spruce Eats / Julia Hartbeck

3. Salt Your Cooking as You Go

Why learn to salt as you go? If you ever wondered why restaurant food tastes so much better than home cooked foods, here’s the secret: Chefs season food at almost every single step. That, partnered with more fat and acid, makes for incredibly flavorful food. Knowing the basics of salt, which to use when, and how to season your food from before you cook right up to serving is probably the easiest way to up your cooking game.

Here’s what you need to know about salting your cooking as you go: We recommend keeping three basic salts at home: kosher salt, fine salt, and flaky salt. Kosher salt is a kitchen workhorse and you can use it for everything from dry brining to preserving. Most recipes are written for kosher salt. Pro tip: Buy one type of kosher salt and stick with it. Popular brands like Diamond Crystal and Morton Coarse Kosher Salt have different grain sizes and salinity. Fine salt is mostly reserved for baking recipes, where its smaller grain size blends easily into batters and dough. Flaky salt is ideal for finishing dishes; as a bonus it looks and tastes great atop baking basics like chocolate chip cookies.

Cumin-Lime Vinaigrette Salad Dressing

The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

4. Make a Basic Vinaigrette

Don’t assume “vinaigrette” means that this essential cooking skill is all about leafy salads. While it will help you there, the fundamentals of building a dressing will teach you everything you need to know about emulsions so you can make more complex sauces like aioli and teach you a thing or two about balancing fat and acidity too.

Here’s what you need to know about making a basic vinaigrette: The classic French rule for vinaigrettes say you should have a 3:1 ratio of oil to vinegar, but more modern recipes call for a 1:1 ratio with the caveat that you’ll also be adding some other flavorful ingredients such as honey or mustard to balance out the two. Ultimately, your desired ratio might depend on how you plan to use it: A more acidic vinaigrette is ideal for bitter salad greens, while a sweet and balanced version is ideal for coating roasted or grilled vegetables.

roasted broccoli on a sheet pan

The Spruce/Bahareh Niati

5. Harness the Power of Roasting for More Flavorful Vegetables

Roasting makes everything taste better! With help from heat and oil, your oven can make vegetables caramelized and crispy. Roasting is also a great way to cook a lot of food quickly, use up the bits and bobs of your produce drawer, and is the basis of many sheet pan meals. But beware: Too low a temperature and you end up with steamed or stuck on vegetables; too high and your carrots are burning before they’re cooked through.

Here’s what you need to know about roasting: Roasting should be done between 375 and 425 F (don’t rush the preheat process unless you want sticky steamed sweet potatoes). Before you get your vegetables on a sheet pan, make sure they are cleaned, peeled, and even cut. Dividing your vegetables between two baking sheets—one for quick cooking vegetables and the other for heartier vegetables—will help with cooking times too. Before you put the veggies in the oven make sure they are coated with oil (we like canola or olive oil) and seasoned well. A good rule of thumb is a tablespoon of oil and a half teaspoon of kosher salt for every pound of chopped vegetables. You can always add additional salt before serving (see above!). Roast the vegetables for 10 to 12 minutes before flipping them and continuing to roast until caramelized.

scallops cooking in a pan

The Spruce / Eric Kleinberg

6. Create a Proper Sear

Searing is a method of cooking something hot and fast to create a brown and caramelized surface. Most people think of searing as strictly for steaks but searing has lots of tasty uses: creating juicier weeknight chicken, upping the flavor on basic ground beef, and building flavor in braises.

Here’s what you need to know about creating a proper sear: Proper searing is really about three things: letting your pan get hot before adding the food, ensuring the food is as dry as possible, and using a minimal amount of oil to prevent sticking. Cast iron and stainless steel are the best pans for searing. Before you begin make sure the pan is clean and debris free. Preheat the pan for several minutes while patting the food—whether it is a whole steak or cubed chicken—dry with paper towels. Add just a small amount of oil to the hot pan and immediately add the food. Be sure not to overfill the pan! There should be space around each piece of food for steam to vent. For the first several minutes of your sear, don’t attempt to move it. The food will naturally release from the pan when it is seared.

add butter to the sauce in the Dutch oven

The Spruce / Kristina Vanni

7. Deglaze a Pan to Make a Simple Sauce

Sauces are another secret to making your food taste more like a restaurant, but you don’t need to memorize classic French and Italian mother sauces to pull this off. A basic pan sauce is not only delicious, it’s helpful to clean-up!

Here’s what you need to know about deglazing a pan to make a simple sauce: Pan sauces start with deglazing, which really just means adding some flavorful liquid to a hot and dirty pan (like the one you just used to sear, above). Adding liquid releases the flavorful cooked-on bits of food (this makes cleaning the pan easier) and then you have pan juices to build a sauce from. From here you can add a bit of minced shallot or some fresh herbs for flavor. Then, off the heat, add fridge-cold butter, swirling and swirling the butter into the liquid until it thickens. Pour this pan sauce over the steak you just seared and you’ve got a restaurant-quality dish—and a nearly-clean pan.

Here’s a basic recipe: Pan Sauce for Chicken, Pork, or Steak

Perfect scrambled eggs recipe

The Spruce / Julia Estrada

8. Crack and Cook an Egg the Right Way

Eggs are incredible! At their most basic, eggs can make a quick meal out of pantry staples and at their most stunning they’re the centerpiece of stunning desserts like pavlova. Before you can get to whipping up an egg-white meringue though, you’ll need to know how to properly crack and cook them.

Here’s what you need to know about cracking an egg the right way: Most people crack their eggs wrong by using the edge of a bowl or cutting board to start the crackThis forces shell pieces into the egg white, which can be a pain but might also break the yolk and introduce bad bacteria into the egg. Instead, give the egg a solid thwack on a clean smooth surface like a counter or cutting board. Then you’ll have a nice even crack to open the egg from. Another pro tip: Eggs are easier to separate into their white and yolk when cold.

Here’s what you need to know about cooking an egg the right way: There are many ways to cook eggs — scrambled, fried, omelets, poached—and we suggest mastering your favorite first! But no matter the method you choose, keep the heat low and cook the eggs slowly to avoid overcooked and rubbery eggs.

Beat the cream to soft peaks.

The Spruce

9. Whip Cream and Eggs the Right Way

Sounds a bit like a dance move, right? But properly whipped cream or eggs can make you the life of the party in a different way. Knowing the difference between soft, medium, and stiff peaks is helpful for homemade whipped cream (lightly sweetened, it’s a nearly perfect dessert on its own) and whipped egg whites make for lighter batters for quick breads and baked goods such as the aforementioned pavlova, waffles, and pancakes.

Here’s what you need to know about whipping the right way: A couple of things to know about whipping: Cold heavy cream whips faster, but eggs whip better at room temperature. A little sugar helps both by creating more air bubbles to puncture the fat and add air to the mixture. Use a clean bowl and a big whisk (or hand mixer) to give yourself plenty of space for whisking. Soft peaks will form first and you can test for this by pulling out the whisk and seeing what the tip of the whisked blend does. If it slumps back onto itself immediately, you’ve got soft peaks. Medium peaks make a cute little curl at the top of the whisk while stiff peaks should stick straight up.

rinse the pinto beans and pick them over

Diana Rattray

10. Cook a Pot of Beans

Beans are an inexpensive and filling dinner staple that are a part of nearly every cuisine. Canned beans are wonderful for quick weeknight cooking but a sumptuous pot of beans cooked from dried will make you feel both soothed and accomplished. Plus, dried beans are cheaper pound-for-pound than canned.

Here’s what you need to know about cooking a pot of beans: Start by sorting and rinsing your dried beans—beans are an agricultural product so you may occasionally find small rocks or sticks in the bag. Soak the beans overnight if you’re able. The cooking time of dried beans varies depending on their size and age (as in how long they’ve sat on the grocery shelves or in your pantry); soaking helps shorten the cooking time. In a pinch you can use a quick soaking method too. After soaking, cover the beans with fresh water in a big deep pot and add a few aromatic ingredients like onion, garlic, and bay leaves and bring the whole pot to a simmer on the stove. After a few hours of cooking you’ll have a glorious pot of beans, delectable enough to serve to dinner guests.

Here’s a step-by-step: How to Cook Dried Beans

Refrigerator containers with labels.

The Spruce / Diana Rattray

Food safety comes down to a few need-to-know fundamentals. The fundamentals are to store food appropriately, avoid cross contamination, and then heat, cool, and reheat foods properly.

Here’s what you need to know about food safety basics: Safe food storage starts with a fridge and freezer that are set to the best temperatures and checked regularly. Refrigerated food must be kept at or below 40 F. The temperature of the freezer should be 0 F or lower. Be sure to periodically check the fridge’s display or keep both a fridge and freezer thermometer in place to monitor the temperature.

Avoiding cross contamination is as simple as keeping raw meats and eggs, and their prep, away from cooked foods. If possible, use a separate knife and cutting board on hand for raw proteins. You can also clean and sanitize these tools between prepping raw and cooked foods. Avoid eating raw batter and dough!

Lastly, use a digital probe thermometer to check the temperatures of everything from steaks to breads and ensure they are cooked properly before eating. After mealtime, keep foods out of the temperature danger zone by packing up leftovers and putting them into the fridge as soon as possible.

 

These essential cooking skills will make you a better cook without the time and expense of cooking schools or culinary degrees. Don’t stress about mastering all 10 at once. Spend a week working on your knife skills or a weekend whipping up meringues and cream and you’ll find yourself a more confident cook well before the end of the year.

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