If you’re new to the kitchen — or if you just need a refresher course — here are some “cooking basics” every chef should know.
1. Get a thermometer. Everyone overcooks meats. Everyone. Your mom, your friend, the pope—everyone overcooks meat. This results in that super dry chicken you’ve had at every friend’s house. Your meat and food being cooked to the correct temperature will ensure correctly juicy and yummy food and foodborne illnesses will be killed. Here’s a handy table for what temperature to cook foods to and how long to hold them at that temperature for them to be safe.
|Fish; seafood; veal; lamb; mutton; pork; pork roasts; cured pork; raw shelled eggs. (Exceptions are any meat and fish in the below boxes.)||145° F for fifteen seconds.|
|Ground beef; ostrich & emu (ratites); injected meats; ground fish or ground meat; raw eggs not prepared for immediate service; inspected game animals.||155° F for 15 seconds.|
|Poultry; wild game; stuffed fish; stuffed meat; stuffed pasta; stuffed poultry; stuffed ratites; any stuffing containing fish, meat, poultry, or ratites; any dish containing previously cooked foods.||165° F for 15 seconds.|
|All raw animal foods cooked in a microwave.||165° F. Rotate or stir food midway through cooking process, cover to retain moisture, and let stand covered for two minutes following cooking to allow post-cooking heat to rise.|
|Whole beef roasts, pork roasts, and ham.||Any of the following combos of time and temperature: 135° F for 36 minutes. (Low and slow cooking will do this.) 140° F for 12 minutes. 145° F for 4 minutes.|
2. Don’t make yourself sick. Adhere to the four-hour rule and remember the danger zone. The food danger zone is 41° F to 135° F, so keep your food out of this window as much as possible. After you have cooked your food, the resting temperature will fall into the food danger zone; this is fine for a period, of course. But do not let food remain in the danger zone for more than four hours. That means if you’re having a big holiday dinner, make a note to store leftovers before it hits that fourth hour so your leftovers aren’t in danger of foodborne illness!
Other related tips:
- Keep your workplace clean and sanitized.
- Clean anything raw chicken touches.
- When you are working with food, you can use hand sanitizer for quickness and ease, but every fourth time you use sanitizer the next time do a full hand wash!
- Clean as you go.
- Handle foods as little as possible.
- Thaw your frozen meats in the refrigerator.
3. Familiarize with basic cooking techniques:
- Simmer – to cook gently in water or other liquid that is hot but barely bubbling. (Use this technique for making broths.)
- Blanch – to cook partially by boiling. (Generally used with vegetables like asparagus and broccoli so they retain their bright color.)
- Braise – to cook covered in a small amount of liquid after first browning the item.
- Sauté – to cook quickly, uncovered, in a small amount of fat.
- Deep fry – to cook submerged in fat.
- Broil – to cook with high heat from above.
- Pan-broil – to cook in skillet, uncovered, without added fat.
- Roast – to cook (generally large cuts of meat/poultry) something by surrounding them with hot, dry air.
- Steam – to cook with direct contact with steam.
- Pan-fry – to cook in a moderate amount of fat in an uncovered skillet.
- Sear – the reaction that results from browning the surface of meat in a pan. (Generally done before moving on to the next step in the process of making a roast.)
4. Learn a basic breading station. (To be used for deep frying or the like.) Use tongs to make it easier to flip and dunk the product.
Here’s what you’ll need to make it happen:
- Beginning point, pan holding the product to be breaded, like chicken breasts.
- Flour with some salt added.
- Egg wash. (A few eggs beat with a bit of milk or water.)
- Bread crumbs, can be plain or seasoned.
- Pan to hold the breaded product.
5. Keep your knives sharp. If your knives are dull you will cut yourself. When your knives are dull you have to apply more pressure and you won’t hold your knife properly. Hone your knives before every use, via honing steel. Sharpen with a proper sharpener every month (you can find decent ones on Amazon for $20-30 dollars).
6. Season your product at every level. Use salt. Do not be afraid. Salt your pasta water. Salt your uncooked meats before you sear them. A well-seasoned finished product will always be better than a non-seasoned item. You don’t need to be heavy-handed with the salt but it does need to be used. Perfect the pinch!
7. Make it easier for yourself when possible. If you are constantly dicing vegetables to make stocks with because soup is your favorite food then you should invest in a food processor. If you are constantly beating cake batter by hand and baking cookies, invest in a stand mixer. If you are constantly craving bread, look at bread makers. You don’t need every kitchen appliance but knowing what you/your family likes and will use should guide your purchases!
8. Keep everything its place. “Mise en place” is a French term for “everything put in place will help in your kitchen endeavors.” Gather ingredients first, clean up, prep them, clean up, and begin cooking. When you are making a big meal determine which steps can be done in advance (like chopping the vegetables for your roast a day before). Determine how long each stage of cooking will take. After a recipe is done, reevaluate to see where you can improve being efficient and quality.
9. Always cut your vegetables the same size so they will be done at the same time.
|Cut||Measurements and type|
|Large Dice||¾ inch square|
|Medium Dice||½ inch square|
|Small Dice||¼ inch square|
|Brunoise||1/8 inch square|
|Fine Brunoise||1/16 inch square|
|Batonette||¼ inch x ¼ inch x 2 inch (matchstick)|
|Julienne||1/8 inch x 1/8 inch x 2 inch (match stick)|
|Fine Julienne||1/16 inch x 1/16 inch x 2 inch (match stick)|
|Circular Paysanne||½ inch round, 1/8 inch thick|
|Triangular Paysanne||½ inch triangle, 1/8 inch thick|
|Tourne||(Extra fancy) Football shaped cut: ¾ inch diameter x 2 inches, 7 even sides, with flat ends.|
10. Learn conversions.
- 16 tablespoons = 1 cup
- 12 tablespoons = ¾ cup
- 8 tablespoons = ½ cup
- 4 tablespoons = ¼ cup
- 2 cups = 1 pint
- 2 pints = 1 quart
- 8 ounces = 1 cup
- 4 quarts = 1 gallon
- 16 ounces = 2 cups
- 1 ounce = 2 tablespoons
- 1 tablespoon = 3 teaspoon
- ½ ounce = 14 grams
11. Build up your kitchen tool basics to start. This includes:
- Measuring cups and spoons
- Metal tongs, rubber spatulas, pasta spoon, slotted spoon, ladle
- Large stock or sauce pot
- 1 or two saucepans
- 1 or two sauté pans
- 9×13 pan, two 8 in round cake pans, 8×8 square casserole
- Roasting pan
- 1 or 2 nonstick cookie sheets (use these for cooking fries and chicken tenders too!)
- Instant read thermometer
- Vegetable peeler
- A small but good knife set, at the least it should include chef’s knife, boning knife, paring knife, serrated slicer, and a few steak knives. (Remember the honing steel!)
- Fine mesh strainer
- Box grater
- Food mill
- Pastry brush
- Off-set spatula
- Bench scraper
- Portion scale
- Ice cream scoop
12. Start with small tips and build upon your knowledge. Gather whatever cooking advice you can and keep that in your arsenal. You never know when you’ll need to use it! Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Chill onions and set up a fan that blows air away from you so you can avoid crying while cutting them.
- Fry bacon on low. Turning the heat up won’t get the bacon done more quickly, but it will get you bacon that catches on fire.
- Do not boil stocks. When beginning a stock with or without bones you’ll want to bring to a boil to bring the heat up then IMMEDIATELY drop the heat to a simmer. Boiling a stock is going to give you a cloudy, scummy finished product that’s pretty gross.
- Wear gloves while cutting peppers, especially jalapeños or hotter. Clean your cutting board and knife after chopping them, dispose of gloves, and wash your hands. (I’ve ignored this before and the next three days my hands wear burning with fiery evilness.)