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5 Essential Skills Every Amateur Chef Should Know

If you’re just getting started in the kitchen, you may feel overwhelmed or intimidated, but remember that cooking is like anything else: The more you practice, the better you will become. Feel like you’re too far behind to ever catch up? It’s never too late to tie on that apron and learn how to whip up a chunky flavorful soup or cheesy baked enchiladas. After all, Julia Child didn’t learn how to cook until she was in her 30s!

When you’re new to the world of pots and pans, paring knives and strainers, and peelers and spatulas, start by mastering these beginner cooking skills. From there, build your foundation and expand your culinary repertoire by experimenting with dishes and recipes that interest you. And for those who are seriously contemplating a career in culinary arts, we’ve rounded up several key considerations to think through. To upgrade your cooking skills at home, read on below.

Sourcing the Best Ingredients

It sounds like a no-brainer, but there’s actually an art to getting through the grocery store with ease and confidence. From the dairy aisle to the bakery, produce section to the butchery and canned goods aisle, familiarize yourself with all areas of the grocery store. Chat up the butcher and baker, or if you’re at the farmer’s market, pick your farmer’s brain. They’ll often have great tips for how to prepare whatever you’re perusing.

How to Read a Recipe

It might take patience and reading a recipe multiple times before you can begin to improvise in the kitchen. A well-written recipe is straightforward, easy to follow, and inspirational. Recipes have two sections: a list of ingredients and a list of steps that teach the reader how to make the dish. The ingredients are always listed in order of use in the recipe. If two tablespoons butter and 1/2 cup finely minced celery are the first two ingredients, you will use these two elements first when making the dish.

It’s always a good idea to read the recipe before you begin cooking, and I don’t mean five minutes beforehand—I’m talking the moment you decide you want to make the item. If you start to make a pork recipe that requires three hours of braising at 7:30 p.m., you won’t be eating dinner until 10:30. Or what if you’ve found a great recipe for fajitas and plan to serve them in an hour? Only when you get to step four of the recipe will you realize the meat must be marinated overnight. Avoid these novice mistakes by reading the recipe all the way through early on.

Making Pasta

Yes, you probably know that to make pasta. You bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and then you throw in the pasta and boil for the allotted time listed on the pasta package’s directions. But did you know that you should always cook the pasta in the sauce once it’s been boiled? This is the authentic Italian way of making pasta. Instead of straining the pasta, use tongs or a large slotted spoon to scoop the cooked pasta out of the boiling water. Dump it directly into the cooking sauce and toss everything together.

Properly Slicing and Dicing an Onion

Yes, there is a technique to it! This method can be used for other vegetables like shallots or potatoes. Understand it and you’ll feel comfortable using a knife. For the best results, use a super-sharp knife.

How to Season

Proper seasoning is essential to making food taste good. A liberal sprinkling of salt and healthy grind of fresh-cracked pepper should be added to virtually everything you make from pasta carbonara to roast tilapia. Don’t be afraid of experimenting with other seasonings: Ground nutmeg enhances white sauces and bitter greens, smoked paprika adds depth to soups and rice dishes, and cumin brings a Mexican flair to beans and meat.

How to Roast Vegetables

Some people prefer steamed or blanched vegetables as side dishes or tossed into salads, but a smart home cook knows that the most flavor comes from roasting. Preheat your oven to 400°F. Cover a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Place the vegetables (cut into chunks or broken into smaller pieces) on the parchment, and use your hands to simply toss with olive oil, salt, and fresh black pepper. Once every piece is lightly coated in oil, spread in one even layer on the baking sheet, and pop it into the oven. Vegetables like broccoli, onions, mushrooms, and peppers cook in 15 to 20 minutes. Heartier root vegetables like potatoes, Brussels sprouts, carrots, and butternut squash take longer to roast—about 40 to 50 minutes.

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