Whether you have trouble boiling water or you know your way around an immersion circulator, there are some foods that everyone should know how to make, either because they're delicious, they're easy, or they require skills that will benefit you as you learn your way around the kitchen. We asked some professional chefs (and the Lifehacker team) what you should be able to make, no matter who you are, and how.
Chef Anthony Thomas: Roasted Garlic and Spaghetti Sauce
Chef Anthony Thomas, of Fresh and Natural Food Service, points out that a basic spaghetti sauce is a great way to practice the basics in a fun and family-friendly way. He also explained that if you're making spaghetti but also planning garlic bread and a salad, for example, you'll need to learn to multi-task, time your food and prioritise: all very important skills for any cook. When you perfect it, you'll understand some of the fundamentals, and you'll be able to cook something delicious for you, a guest, or your family.
Even so, Chef Thomas warned me about the temptation to cling to recipes. He writes: "When I think of what a person should be able to make, I lean toward not the what but the how. I am a firm believer that you should learn the basic techniques rather than recipes. For example: searing, grilling, braising, poaching, simmering, roasting… Now rather than identifying these techniques and perfecting them, end users tend to cook recipe after recipe blindly, not soaking in the basics that underlie the recipe."
He continues, "Now if you were to take braising itself and learn the basics, (like adding your veg and starch, browning, adding tomato paste and flour making your roux and simmering the product until it is heavenly tender,) you will learn not just a recipe but a technique, and you'll be able to add protein, vegetables and starches and make it your own. A lot of what I see in recipes is that the user is so focused on following the recipe they do not focus on the important basics. I think this is how real creativity and cooking is born; it is also the corner stone on which all culinary students are taught."
Chef Shaya Klechevsky: Basmati Rice
Chef Shaya Klechevsky, of At Your Palate and author of the At Your Palate Blog, knows his way around the professional and the home kitchen. He competed on an episode of Food Network's competition cooking show Chopped, and is a personal chef in the New York metro area as well as a food writer. When I asked him what food he thinks everyone should be able to make, he reminded me of one of the most important gains on earth: rice.
Chef Klechevsky wrote: "I think that everyone should know how to make rice. Every culture has a distinct starch "backbone" to their diet, and growing up in a Middle Eastern home meant not only lots of rice, but a variety of them. The family is split between Carolina rice — a starchier long-grain rice, and Basmati rice — a thinner long-grain rice which tends to maintain its own individual character once cooked. I'm partial to Basmati (grown in India or Pakistan and means "fragrant" in Sanskrit) rice, since when cooked right, is light, fluffy and delicious. Unfortunately, rice seems to be very difficult for a lot of people to prepare, and I think with a few easy steps and principles could make the process a lot easier. Rice is such a versatile ingredient and goes well with almost any dish and almost anything could be added to it. It's great plain, as a pilaf with nuts and dried fruit, mixed with fresh herbs, great for stuffing... the list goes on."
I personally prefer Basmati rice as well, and after walking me through his preferred preparation (more on this in a moment,) he explained that rice is incredibly versatile. "There are many different ways you can cook it, and it's limitless in its possibilities," he said. "Of course, there are different varieties of rice: white, brown, red, long-grain, short-grain... they all have their own unique flavours and characteristics, but their cooking method is about the same. One particularly interesting tradition in rice cooking is with the Persians/Iranians where they purposefully burn the bottom part of the pot so that the rice gets all toasted and dark. They call this tahdig and is crunchy and has such a depth of flavour and is usually presented to the guest first as a symbol of honour."
Chef Chris Whitpan: Simple Tomato and Cream Sauces
Chef Chris Whitpan is the man behind The Kitchen Hacker, a site we love and have referenced before. He's also a 20-year veteran of kitchens and the restaurant industry. To say he knows how to make the most of short time and big expectations is an understatement. When I asked him what he thought every cook, whether they're a home cook just starting out or someone who wants to take their kitchen skills to the next level should know how to make, he, much like Chef Thomas, pointed to a pair of simple sauces as the bedrock of good cooking.
"If I had to pick one thing I would want to teach someone I would say it is how to make a basic sauce, like a tomato or cream base," he explained. "The reason I say this is because it is what takes cooking from basic preparation in the home to the next level. The skill you learn from making a good sauce will benefit you for years to come."
He continued: "As chef's one of the first things we are taught to cook is stocks and sauces, and with good reason. It is the base of all good cooking. A good sauce will take a basic piece of chicken, say, and will make it so much more. It takes jarred or prepared sauces out of your life, and with it, the sodium and preservatives giving you a healthier product. It gives you control over your food, that you don't get by opening a can or popping something in the microwave."
"I would have people learn two basic sauces a light tomato and a rich cream. Being able to make these two sauces, which take less time than you may think, will give you a great base to work from."
Doug DuCap: Fried Seafood
Doug DuCap knows a thing or two about seafood. After all, he's the Fish and Seafood Cooking Guide at About.com, the editor of HuggingTheCoast.com, and the author of The Knack Fish and Seafood Cookbook: Delicious Recipes for All Seasons, the cookbook from which his favourite recipe is taken. All that said, it's no surprise that DuCap thinks everyone should know how to prepare and enjoy some basic fried seafood.
"I think fried seafood, properly made, is a truly glorious thing," he told me. "Yes, a broiled flounder or a grilled salmon steak or a platter of raw oysters can be very delicious and satisfying, but a heaping basket of crunchy fried shrimp or crispy fish & chips really widens my eyes. And let's not even talk about calamari, oyster po-boys, cornmeal-crusted catfish, fried clams, etc, etc."
Mouth-watering aside, DuCap went on to share some tips to make perfectly fried seafood without wrecking the flavour and texture in the process. "Frying seafood can seem intimidating — and frankly, seafood is just too expensive to make mistakes with. But just by following a few simple tips, anyone can make light, crisp, non-greasy fried seafood:"
- Use a high temp oil like peanut, grapeseed, soybean, sunflower or canola.
- Use an oil thermometer — they're inexpensive and they save guesswork. Generally speaking, 180C is a good choice for most seafood.
- Fry in small batches so you don't lower the oil temperature too much. Low temp = greasy results.
- A good rule of thumb for fish fillets is five minutes total cooking time per half-inch. Shrimp, oysters, and other small items require just a couple of minutes.
- Ditch the paper towels: draining on a rack placed over a baking pan helps fried foods stay crisp. Plus, you can keep it in a warm oven while you fry the next batch.
DuCap explained that the most popular recipe in his cookbook is also one of his favourites to make, and it's also one of the easiest. It's perfect for families with kids or people who just want one of those recipes where everyone asks how you did it but you can keep the secret close to your chest: Butterflied shrimp in a crunchy golden crust made with cheddar-flavoured Goldfish snack crackers:
Bartender Jeremy Tuite: Easy Drinks
Vodka lime soda image from Shutterstock
It's all well and good to have a list of dishes that everyone should know how to prepare, but when it comes time to serve those dishes, you'll want something to wash them down with. I spoke with former bartender Jeremy Tuite about what drinks he thought anyone should be able to make, whether they have experience tending bar or they just want a few drinks in their back pocket to make for guests, and he came up with three solid suggestions:
- A simple cocktail: "For an elegant cocktail hour add a splash of a nice French dry vermouth, such as Noilly Prat, to Russian Standard vodka (dollar for dollar my favourite) over ice in a rocks glass," he explained. "Throw in three (good luck) nice green olives. These should be bought fresh. Places such as Whole Foods have an olive bar that is a best bet; jarred as a last resort. Mellow it out with a tablespoon or two of water. No need for shaking or martini glasses. Give it a stir and go."
- Vodka and soda: "For the perfect vodka and soda, mix it the way you like over ice in your favourite highball glasses. Squeeze in big quarter wedge of fresh lemon or lime. Pour the entire thing into a pint glass, then back into the highball. Serve." Photo by Dana Robinson.
- A good hangover cure: "My hangover favourite isn't the bloody mary, it's the michelada," Tuite told me. Now we're speaking my language. "Fill a pint glass to the brim with ice. Pour a mexican beer to the 3/4 mark. Squeeze in an entire lime Top off the glass with good tomato juice. Add three drops of Tapatìo hot sauce. Prepare a second (serving) glass by rubbing the used lime around the rim. Salt the rim by setting it upside down onto a saucer of salt. Pour the mixture into the salted pint glass, garnish with a lime wedge, serve.
While none of us at Lifehacker HQ are professional chefs, we all share a mutual love of food. I asked the team what they thought any home cook should be able to make, and why they thought so, and got a couple of great responses.
Adam Pash: Fried Eggs
Pash responded with a simple dish that's easy, fast, and yet all too often it winds up all wrong by the time it gets to the plate: fried eggs. He explains: "It wasn't until earlier this year that I decided I really needed to learn to fry an egg — a skill that previously had always left me baffled. It's one of those things that's really easy to do once you understand the basics, but is easy to mess up until you take the time to learn and practice one of the simple methods. I'm a fan of eggs over easy, but the same basics work whether you're cooking the eggs over easy or over hard."
Adam Dachis: Lentils, Mashed Potatoes and Guacamole
Adam answered the call with a battery of some of his favourite recipes, all of which were delicious, nutritious, and many of which are perfect for those nights when you've just finished up a long day at the office and you don't feel like cooking, but you don't want to waste money ordering out.
Among Adam's suggestions are some basic lentils and beans (which he says too many people hate because they don't know how to make them taste good — this is a fact I can corroborate,) a basic guacamole, simple mashed potatoes, and-wait for it-fresh pasta.
Alan Henry: Grilled Romaine Salad (w/ Bacon)
As for me? I think the recipes that everyone should be able to make, no matter what, are the ones from your childhood. If you have any treasured memories of a family member or sibling in the kitchen making something that you always looked forward to, those are the recipes you should learn and carry with you so you always have access to those memories. Call me nostalgic, but even if it's something incredibly difficult to make, it'll bring you joy when you make it.
To that end, I would love to suggest my father's baked macaroni and cheese, but even I don't know the entire recipe yet (and I'm the first-born son!) so instead I'll settle for another easy-to-make recipe that's healthy (probably healthier than the mac and cheese) and delicious: grilled romaine salad.
Melanie Pinola: Chicken Soup
Melanie called dibs on chicken soup pretty early in the game, and there's no getting around the fact that it's a healthy, tasty meal suitable for cold days, or even a warm spring day when you're not feeling so well. She says "Chicken soup is nourishing on so many levels, and good even in the summer. You can throw in whatever vegetables you have on hand, really." Photo by Brandi Jordan.
"I usually just take leftover roasted chicken (with bones) and stick it in a pot with some chicken stock (if I'm lazy and don't have any on hand, from a box, otherwise, something like this soup base from All Recipes.)Throw in some carrots, chopped onion, celery, and a bay leaf, and simmer for about half an hour (or longer). Sometimes I add potatoes or corn or frozen peas or whatever else I have on hand. The celery is probably the only vegetable I require every time."
What about the noodles? She explained: "I make the noodles/rice separately so when I store them in the fridge they don't get too mushy in the soup and I can switch it up for each serving. There's nothing like homemade chicken soup to comfort and sustain you!"
While there are certainly simpler recipes that everyone should probably start out in the kitchen with, like hard boiled eggs or proper pasta, some of the most important and fundamental cooking skills can be attained by trying something that seems more daring at first than it really is. Learning some simple sauces, a few basic dishes, and a couple of drinks, all of which you can keep in your pocket for guests or a nice meal at home alone or with your family, will take you farther towards eating better and living healthier.
Chef Anthony Thomas hails from California and works for Fresh and Natural Food Service
Chef Shaya Klechevsky is the owner of At Your Palate and the author of the At Your Palate Blog. He competed on an episode of Food Network's competition cooking show Chopped, and is a personal chef and food writer in the New York metro area.
Chef Chris Whitpan is a 20-year kitchen and restaurant management veteran, and the author of The Kitchen Hacker.
Doug DuCap is the Fish and Seafood Cooking Guide at About.com, the editor of HuggingTheCoast.com, and the author of The Knack Fish and Seafood Cookbook: Delicious Recipes for All Seasons (Globe Pequot Press, 2010).
Jeremy Tuite was a bartender for two years, knows a lot of useful tricks, and can still make a mean cocktail.
All of these gentlemen volunteered their expertise and experience for this post, and we thank them.