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Basics of Home Cooking

Basics of Home Cooking 101: 12 Skills and Techniques for Beginners

Have you mastered all of these essential cooking techniques?

15 min read

Whether you need a crash course on cooking for beginners or just want a little refresher on a few cooking techniques that you still haven't mastered, it’s always a good time to get back to the basics. Consider this your Cooking 101 class, where you’ll learn the tricks and techniques that’ll help you make every meal even better.

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Basic Knife Skills 

Most recipes require at least a little slicing and dicing. If you're nervous about using kitchen knives (or get daunted watching chefs perfectly chop a butternut squash in 10 seconds flat), don't worry. With a little practice, anyone can master good cutting techniques. 

The first trick is to learn the proper way to hold a chef's knife. These are the long, heavy knives that are the MVPs of the kitchen. To hold a chef’s knife properly, wrap your middle, ring and pinky finger around the handle, and pinch the top edge of the blade between your thumb and forefinger. This will give you a lot of control, especially when you’re chopping tough-to-cut items like hard squashes or meat.

When you’re a beginner cook, figuring out what to do when a recipe calls for mincing instead of chopping can be half the battle. Here’s a rundown of how to manage the most common chopping techniques:

Slice Slicing means cutting an ingredient into thin, flat pieces, as in a slice of bread or an apple slice. 

Dice As the name suggests, dicing is cutting food into small squares that look like dice. You can dice a vegetable into large pieces (3/4-inch square) or small (1/4-inch square).

Mince Mincing cuts the food into even smaller pieces than dicing—think tiny bits that would be hard to pull out of the finished dish. Recipes often call for minced garlic or onions.

Chop Chopping is similar to dicing and mincing food, but results in larger pieces—like the chunks of potato and carrot in a stew.

Julienne Also sometimes called the "matchstick" cut, this slices a vegetable into long, thin strips. 

Chiffonade This technique is used to finely cut herbs or leafy vegetables for a dish. To chiffonade, you make a small stack of leaves, roll them into a tight cylinder, then slice thin rounds from the roll to make ribbons. 

For more detailed instructions on knife skills, see our guide for the best kitchen knives for different tasks.

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Stovetop Cooking Basics

Your stovetop is a crucial part of your cooking arsenal, and many meals—from pastas to stir-frys—are fully or partly made on the stove. If you're not up on all the cooking technique terms, here’s what a few of the most common ones mean:

Sear This fast, high-temperature cooking method quickly browns the outside of a cut of meat, helping to seal in the juices. 

Sauté A French cooking term that literally means “jump,” sautéing involves cooking your food with a little fat (such as butter or oil) at a high temperature, and stirring or even tossing the food in the pan to help keep it moving. 

Stir-fry Stir-frying is very similar to sautéing—you just use a little more fat than you would to sauté, and you cook the food at a higher temperature. This is one of the most essential beginner cooking techniques, which you can use for veggies or for tender, quick-cooking cuts of meat like chicken breast.

Steam When you steam food, you put it in a basket or colander and set it over (but not in!) a pot or pan of boiling water, to allow the steam from the water to cook the ingredient. It’s a healthy way to prepare veggies like broccoli, cauliflower and green beans, and is also great for seafood like shrimp, mussels and clams.

Poach One of the most underrated ways to cook meat and seafood is poaching. You simply bring a cooking liquid (like broth or wine) to a simmer, and let your main ingredient cook in it until it’s done. Poaching cooks the food without drying it out, so you get moist, perfect results every time. Poached meat and seafood also makes a flavorful, protein-rich ingredient to add to other dishes. Use shredded poached chicken in tacos, or poached shrimp in salads and grain bowls. Master the simple technique for poaching chicken, shrimp or salmon.

Learn more about these stovetop cooking techniques.

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How to Roast Chicken and Vegetables

Roasting can be one of the easiest (and tastiest) ways to cook just about any meat or vegetable. Just throw your ingredient of choice onto an oiled or parchment-lined pan, add your favorite spices, and pop the pan in the oven

Fortunately, certain cooking techniques and tricks can make roasting even simpler and more delicious. For instance, roasting a chicken can take a few hours—but if you butterfly or spatchcock the chicken first (i.e. make a few cuts and flatten it), you’ll reduce the cooking time and still end up with a juicy, flavorful bird. Learn how to roast a spatchcocked chicken using this simple technique. Love roasted veggies? You can get better results with a few key moves: Get tips on how to roast any vegetable, including faster-cooking ones like asparagus and zucchini, medium ones like broccoli and eggplant, and slower ones like potatoes and beets. If you want to perfect your squash game, find out how to peel, cut and roast butternut squash. No matter what vegetable you’re roasting, you'll be able to tell when it's ready by sticking a knife into the center of a piece. If the knife goes in easily and the edges of the vegetable are a nice golden brown, it’s done.

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How to Grill

You can take advantage of this popular cooking technique even if you don’t have a backyard: Grill up a feast outdoors on a charcoal grill or indoors on a grill pan on your stove. Either way, lightly oil the grill grates, heat the grill up until it’s sizzling, then put your meat, seafood or veggies on. The heat will help caramelize the outside of your food and give you that irresistible grilled flavor.

If you're not sure when your meat is ready, the best grilling tool is a thermometer, which can tell you exactly when a steak is medium rare, or if your chicken still needs a few minutes to reach the right temperature. If you want a few more grilling basics to help you master the technique, check out these grilling tips from The Food Lab’s J. Kenji Lopez-Alt and unique grilled side dish ideas.

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How to Cook Eggs 

Eggs are among the most versatile ingredients in the kitchen—they’re essential for baked goods, and they can be served up dozens of different ways, from scrambled and fried to hard boiled or poached. The cooking techniques for eggs are definitely worth mastering. You can start with the basic ways to cook eggs, then get into some of the fancier options, like meringues and deviled eggs.

Hard boiling eggs to perfection is all in the timing—cook them for 11 minutes exactly, then throw them in an ice bath to stop the cooking. (You can dip them back into hot water to make peeling a little easier.) 

And if you like poached eggs, you can use an egg poacher to get that silky, cloud-like effect you’ve seen in brunch dishes like Eggs Benedict.

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How to Cook Grains and Pasta

There’s no need to master a slew of techniques for cooking every kind of grain imaginable. Here’s an easy way to cook a variety of whole grains—including farro, barley, brown rice and quinoa (which is actually a seed). The basic idea is simply to boil them—but no matter which kind of grain you’re using, there’s more to cooking it properly than simply throwing it into a pot with some water. Rinsing the grains beforehand removes excess starch, so they end up less mushy after cooking; toasting the grains gives them extra flavor. 

Cooking pasta can be as simple as following the package directions for how long to boil the noodles (unless you’re using fresh homemade noodles). Still, one of the most common mistakes when cooking pasta—as well as grains—is using a pot that's too small. If you’re boiling pasta, make sure your pot gives you room to add as much water as you’ll need (you should have 4 to 6 quarts of water for every pound of pasta). For grains, you’ll need a pot that has enough room for them to expand as they cook. 

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Stocking Your Kitchen for Cooking Success

Having the right kitchen tools and equipment on hand will help you get the job done correctly and efficiently, no matter which recipe you’re tackling. But you don't need to invest in a huge rack of knives or a super-deluxe set of pots and pans to make great food. With just a few key pieces, you should be set for just about any dish you'd want to make. 

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Cooking for Beginners: Kitchen Tools 

When you’re stocking a kitchen, keep in mind that more isn't always better. Sometimes all you need are a few high-quality tools that’ll work for every dish you make. For instance, you really only need three knives: a chef's knife, a serrated bread knife, and a paring knife. Here’s a good primer on how to stock your kitchen with all the cooking basics.

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How to Store Leftovers Safely

When you're saving an extra serving for tomorrow's lunch, or you’ve chopped up extra veggies for the next day's dinner, you're going to need to know how to store your leftovers safely

You might want to stock up on a few different types of containers for leftovers. Reusable silicone lids can be used with your own bowls and plates—and make a more eco-friendly and secure seal than plastic wrap. Smart Seal containers are great for packing up tomorrow’s lunch, and come in a variety of sizes. If you only used half of an onion or tomato for a recipe, save the rest for your next dish with a Cut Produce Keeper—and consider GreenSavers to help extend the life of fresh herbs and other produce.

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How to Clean and Care for Your Cookware and Bakeware

Once you've invested in a quality cookware set, be sure to follow the proper guidelines for how to clean your pans. For instance, some of our non-stick pans can be put in the dishwasher (but certain kinds can’t, so check the specifications for each pan). In general, using a nylon dish brush will help get stubborn stains off most cookware (though you may want a specialty cast iron brush to keep those pans clean without destroying the seasoning). Taking good care of your essential cooking equipment is the best way to make it last, so you can keep honing your skills and producing tasty food.


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