If you’re anything like me, you’re probably way better at eating than you are at cooking.
As you can imagine, my first foray into feeding myself after moving out of my parents’ house was less than pleasant. After botching one too many mind-numbingly simple meals, I hit the books to figure out what I was doing wrong. (As it turns out, that was just about everything.)
If you’re off to a rough culinary start, learning these 20 basic skills will do you a world of good. Keep in mind that these aren’t hacks. They will not teach you how to use a piece of yarn and someone’s left shoe to make a pork roast. They will, however, help you tackle delicious dishes from this point forward.
1. Make a roux.
Sick of using jarred sauces for everything? Same. That’s where the mother sauces come in. Before we get to those, however, let’s address the almighty roux.
This mixture of fat and flour serves as a thickening agent in three out of the five mother sauces. All you have to do is warm up one cup of butter over medium heat. Add a little under two cups of flour to the butter and mix until it forms a paste. Cook for five minutes, or until you can no longer taste the flour.
2. Master the mother sauces. First up, tomato.
Known by fancy people as sauce tomat, this is pasta’s best friend. Learning grandma’s recipe was my only option, but if you don’t live in fear of being disowned, you can find plenty of recipes online.
3. Next on the list is espagnole.
Your roux mastery will come in handy when making this classic brown sauce. Add some tomato puree, beef stock, and seasonings to the mix to create the perfect accompaniment for that bangin’ roast you’re about to make. I have faith in you. Check this recipe out!
4. Become one with béchamel.
Do you love mac and cheese? Of course you do. That’s why making a killer béchamel sauce is the key to culinary success. Bust out that roux again to create the base, stir in some milk, bring to a boil, and add fistfuls of cheese. (That’s definitely an accurate measurement.) This video will show you how it’s done.
5. Embrace all things yellow with a little help from hollandaise.
If you’re a lover of poached eggs (more on those later), then you’ve probably experienced this mother sauce in all its golden glory. With butter, egg yolks, lemon juice, and some spices, you can seriously up the fancy factor at your next brunch. Find more details here, and check out this microwave version, because who doesn’t love microwaves?
6. Last but certainly not least, we have velouté.
Although it sounds like the sauce equivalent of someone who reads Tolstoy for fun, velouté is pretty simple. Employ your roux magic once again, but this time, invite a little stock to the party. Finish with salt and pepper, and voila! Here’s a step-by-step guide.
7. Now that you have the sauces down, it’s time to get crackin’ on a few more kitchen skills. Let’s talk about poached eggs.
First thing’s first. I can’t do this to save my life. I just know that if I could, my brunch experiences would be exponentially better than they are right now. Don’t let my abysmal failures hold you back! You got this. The key here, according to people with actual skills, is to start with fresh eggs.
Bring some water to a simmer, add a splash of vinegar, create a gentle whirlpool, and drop the egg in. After pulling off that epic spin move that I cannot get a handle on, cook for three minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and bask in the fact that you’re officially better at adulting than I am.
8. Hold your knife the right way.
Do you keep your index finger out straight on the knife while you’re chopping the day away? Stop. I cut that nonsense out the second Rachael Ray made fun of everyone who does it on her talk show that I don’t like but can’t stop watching. Check out what the guy in this photo is doing. Choke up on the handle and form a sturdy grip by keeping your index finger tucked in. Make Rachael proud, okay?
9. Melt chocolate like a pro.
A long, long time ago (read: up until about November of last year after 24 years of life), I thought that throwing chocolate in the microwave was a totally reasonable way to melt it. It’s not. Don’t be like me. Use a double boiler instead.
Grab a small pot, a glass bowl that you can rest on the rim of the pot, and some chocolate. Add a layer of water to the bottom of the pot that doesn’t touch the bowl and bring it to a simmer so that the steam heats the glass, effectively melting the chocolate in the bowl without scorching it. This video should help!
10. Control sodium and avoid nasty additives by making your own stock.
Go nuts with this one and make any flavor of stock your little heart desires. If you want to make chicken stock, for example, all you need to do is fill a 12-quart pot with water and add vegetables, herbs, and a good ol’ chicken carcass to the mix and let it simmer for a few hours. You can find awesome recipes here, here, and here.
11. Slay the roast game by making gravy.
Whether you love brown gravy a la espagnole or prefer the hearty country stuff, you can steer clear of the mystery ingredients found in those store-bought gravy packets and make some from scratch. This one by Queen Ina Garten (which I’m pretty sure is her official title) looks like something I’d be more than happy to drown myself in.
12. Separate egg yolks.
The first time I saw a recipe that called for egg yolks, I scoffed and said, “Silly recipe. That’s not how eggs work.” I later figured out that the cookbook was not the silly one in that situation. If you need to separate an egg, gently crack one and pull it apart. Over a bowl, pass the yolk between both halves of the shell until the white separates.
13. Peel a whole head of garlic in under 30 seconds.
If there’s one thing that makes me feel like an absolute crazy person, it’s peeling garlic one miserable clove at a time. Sure, you could smash the hell out of each one with the side of your knife like all those cooking wizards on TV do, or you could try this.
Grab two bowls that are roughly the same size. Throw all the cloves you need to peel in one. Place the other on top and shake the living daylights out of them for 20 seconds. All of your garlic will be peeled and your hands won’t smell horrible for the rest of the night. Check this out for a full demonstration.
14. Make a vinaigrette.
Instead of relying on Paul Newman for all your dressing needs, start making vinaigrettes at home. They’re usually much lighter and more refined than anything you’d find in a bottle at the grocery store. Take a look at this list for more details!
15. Don’t waste all the goodness in that pan.
After searing any form of protein in a skillet, use the drippings left behind to create a pan sauce in minutes. Remove the meat and add things like oil, wine, and shallots to the pan. Stir that goodness around until the flavors marry and blow your guests’ minds with your restaurant-worthy ways. Head over to this site for more info.
16. Impress everyone you know with soup that you made in a blender.
Does anyone else feel like making soup takes 37 years? I feel like it takes 37 years. While airing my grievances one day, a friend told me about blender soups. If you’re like me and you bought a blender to make smoothies for breakfast every day and have done no such thing, put it to good use by pureeing cooked veggies into soups that look way fancier than they actually are. Check these recipes out!
17. Sauce your pasta like a real adult person.
Stop plopping cooked pasta on your plate and adding a dollop of sauce on top. Instead, leave your sauce in the pan and add the pasta. Toss that carb-filled goodness around with a large spoon or some tongs to coat every noodle before plating.
18. Step away from the sink with that cooking oil.
If you don’t want to create a drain-clogging monster in your kitchen sink, dump cooking oil into a disposable container and put it in the trash.
19. Learn when to use different kinds of butter. You can’t have it all.
When it comes to salted and unsalted butter, there’s a time and a place for both. Although most of us love all butter equally, we can’t just use the two varieties interchangeably depending on what’s on sale at the store because life isn’t fair.
For cooking and baking, stick with unsalted butter to control flavors across the board. Salted butter is good for spreading on toast or melting on top of veggies because who cares about health, anyway?
20. Frost a cake like the superstar you are.
Much like my inability to poach eggs, my glaring lack of skill in the cake department is pretty embarrassing. You know how it’s usually cute to make your loved ones cakes when their birthdays roll around? It’s 100 percent offensive when I do it. If you’re better at existing than I am, you should definitely add this skill to your arsenal. Let this video be your guide, because I certainly can’t do it.
Although these skills aren’t as cool as all those crazy food hacks floating around out there, they will help you out way more in the long run. Just remember that if I can do it, you can, too.