My brothers are learning how to cook. Truth be told, they've been learning how to cook for a few years now, but that's only because they're slowly adding to what they know as they realize it's missing. So when you mostly make chicken breast and broccoli, solid knife skills aren't absolutely necessary. But when you upgrade to roast chicken, you need to know how to carve it. There are resources abound on essential culinary techniques. We spend plenty of time sharing them here on Kitchn, Mark Bittman has written a tome on them in his How to Cook Everything, but sometimes you need the bare-bones basics all in one place. Six Basic Cooking Techniques by Jennifer Clair does a good job of culling the canon to a set of essentials. It's the book I'm giving my brothers because it's just the really important stuff. We asked Jennifer to tell us how her approach to teaching the basics created the most popular cooking class in New York City and lead to a book on the topic as well. - Hali
Lack of confidence and being overwhelmed are the leading stumbling blocks between home cooks and their kitchens. I know this because I've been running a recreational cooking school in New York City for 15 years, and when students finally make their way into our classroom — whether in their 20s, 30s, 40s, or older — they often "warn" us what terrible cooks they are. But no matter how old you are or where you live, you will always need to feed yourself, so learning how to cook, at any age, is a giant step in the right direction.
Practice, Practice, Practice
To combat the emotional barriers that keep home cooks from fully embracing their potential, we remind them, over and over again, that cooking is no different than any other learned skill, which requires practice in the same way that playing tennis, learning Italian, or mastering chess do. At least with cooking, practice leads to a home-cooked meal.
When teaching beginning cooks, it is important to start slow, so as not to overwhelm them with too much new information. In our school's most popular class, Six Basic Cooking Techniques, we start with the culinary fundamentals, the ones that are basic enough to grasp through common sense and also answer the majority of home cooks' questions: how to properly hold a knife, cut an onion, mince garlic, use the right amount and right kind of salt, cook meat so it is neither undercooked or overcooked (two very paralyzing fears in a home kitchen), and how to choose the best quality of vegetables, meats, and cooking oils from among the ever-growing choices at the supermarket.
The 6 Basic Cooking Techniques
- How to use a chef's knife
- Cooking meat to perfection
- Making a good pan sauce
- Roasting vegetables
- Blanching vegetables,
- Cooking leafy greens
This covers most of the techniques taught in a professional cooking school that have actual practical applications for the home cook. The rest of the coursework primarily has merit in the restaurant world.
These techniques solve the majority of issues that generally plague new cooks, allowing them to prepare very good meals with just the right amount of new information.
Putting These Lessons to Paper
After teaching this class over 400 times and to thousands of home cooks, I decided it was time to turn this experience into a "cooking class in a book," so these culinary skills could have a life beyond our NYC border. I wanted to reach into the kitchens of home cooks across the country to offer my encouragement.
The benefit of creating a book version of this class is the sheer amount of extra information that could be included. While we cover each of these six techniques in our class, the number of recipes we can cook is constrained by time (2 1/2 hours) and the questions asked are limited by that handful of students (no more than 10 per class). But in the book, there are 30 different skill-based recipes (for practicing) and the aggregate of years of students' questions and our answers to create myth-busting "Students Ask" and "Chefs Say" sidebars throughout that answer common kitchen questions like "How often do I sharpen my knife?" to "When can I use a nonstick pan?"
While a book cannot replicate the smells, camaraderie, and hands-on experience that pepper live cooking, a good culinary manual is invaluable. When you're ready to greet your kitchen with a firm handshake, this book will be waiting for you.