Up your kitchen game by practicing these vital moves that might be intimidating you for no good reason.

By Stacey Ballis
April 13, 2020
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Many of us are currently spending a lot of time at home and cooking three (or seven) meals a day. And with that has come a ton of food media full of deep dives into baking and pantry recipes. But I believe there is another major culinary gift at hand: the time to learn some basic cooking techniques and skills that will serve you long after the crisis has passed.

So in between the banana bread bouts, enjoy (and profit from) this six-pack of invaluable home cooking classics. There's never been a better time to up your game!

Technique #1: Braising

Photo: Johnny Miller; Styling: Sarah Smart

Slow-cooking lesser cuts of meat like pork shoulder, chuck roast, lamb shank, chicken thighs, oxtail, and short ribs is a skill everyone should have. Budget cuts have never been more important than right now and will likely stay in your rotation, so know how to get the best out of them.

To braise anything without a recipe, keep these basic steps in mind:

  1. Sear on all sides to a deep caramelization, which will give flavor to your gravy.
  2. Saute your aromatics and vegetables in the fat from the searing—onions, carrots, celery, fennel, peppers, ginger, garlic—any and all are appropriate, so use what you have.
  3. Put your meat and aromatics in either a heavy Dutch oven with a lid, or your slow cooker.
  4. Season well with salt and pepper and throw in an herb spring if you want.
  5. Fill with water, stock, broth, juice, wine, or a combination thereof until the top half inch of your meat is sticking out of the liquid. Don’t submerge fully: That's poaching, not braising.
  6. Cover and cook low and slow until tender, either in your slow cooker on high, or in your oven set between 200-250 degrees.

Depending on the cut and temperature this could take between 2-12 hours, but you aren’t doing anything to it, so who cares how long it takes? Keep checking it until the meat is tender enough to break apart easily with a fork. Defat as best you can and check the sauce for seasoning. If it is too brothy for you, remove the solids and boil over high heat to reduce to a consistency you like. You can make any braise up to three days in advance and reheat covered in a 300-350 oven until hot enough to serve.

Technique #2: Temping and Resting Meats

Caitlin Bensel

There are a million ways to cook meats, but pretty much any recipe will tell you to look for a specific internal temperature to ensure that they are cooked properly, and then tell you to rest them before carving and eating. But these recipes tend to presume you know how to do that! Here’s how to get the methods down.

How to temp a piece of meat: For the most accurate reading, the tip of your meat thermometer needs to be in the center of the thickest part of your meat, and not touching bone.

  • For large roasts, you may want to go in sideways instead of through the top, so that you can properly judge the middle.
  • For cuts that are fairly even, you will want to take the temp in two to three locations, just to be sure they have cooked evenly, and you don’t have raw spots.
  • If you are doing a lot of smaller pieces, like chicken parts or small chops, you will want to temp each piece individually, and not assume that if one is done they all are!

Always pull smaller cuts off heat about 5 degrees shy of their target, and larger cuts 10 degrees shy, since carryover cooking will bring them up to temp while resting.

How to rest a piece of meat: Resting allows the last few moments of cooking to finish and allows juices to redistribute throughout your protein. Here’s what to do:

After removing from the heat source, tent the meat with foil for smaller pieces or leave uncovered for larger ones. (Don’t cover tightly, which will trap heat and condensation.) If crispy skin is important to you, or a hard sear, you can leave uncovered. How long to rest?

  • Small cuts like chops, burgers, and thin steaks: 10 minutes;
  • Bone-in chicken pieces, larger steaks and chops: 15-20 minutes;
  • Whole chickens and roasts: 20-30 minutes;
  • Turkeys and prime rib: 40-50 minutes.

Technique #3: Make a basic pan sauce

Photo: Jennifer Causey; Styling: Claire Spollen

One of the single best skills anyone can develop is making a pan sauce. If you have gone to the trouble of cooking some protein in a skillet, you should definitely take that next step to throw together a fast pan sauce to make it shine!

Start simple and build your skills from there. For the world’s easiest pan sauce:

  1. Cook your meat in a regular skillet (not non-stick; you want the brown bits on the pan!) until finished. While the meat is resting (see above), pour off any excess fat from your pan and return it to medium high heat.
  2. Add about a cup of liquid—stock is good, juice is fine, even water is really okay!
  3. Use a whisk or a flat spatula to scrape all the brown bits into the liquid so they dissolve (this is the basis of your sauce).
  4. Bring it to a hard boil and reduce by about half or until it starts to thicken slightly.
  5. Reduce the heat to medium and add a tablespoon of unsalted butter to the pan, swirling gently or whisking so that the butter emulsifies into the sauce and makes it glossy and thicker.
  6. Taste for seasoning and adjust with salt and pepper. Pour over meat when resting is complete.

Want to make that pan sauce a little less basic? Here are some fun variations:

  • Add chopped shallot or onion to the pan before adding the liquid and cook until translucent. Continue with basic recipe from there.
  • Deglaze the pan with half a cup of wine first and reduce almost completely to a syrup before adding stock or water, then continue as directed.
  • Before you add the butter, stir in something extra—a dollop of Dijon or whole grain mustard, some lemon zest, capers, chopped Calabrian chili peppers, a spoonful of red currant or onion jam, a splash of lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, sherry, or Madeira.
  • If you don’t have butter, you can use a splash of heavy cream, crème fraiche, or sour cream to finish. 
  • Finishing any pan sauce with some fresh herbs is always nice.

Technique #4: Make a pot of beans from dried

Photo: Jennifer Causey

Cooking dried beans is just about beans, liquid, and low, slow heat. That’s it. Here’s a surefire way to cook up a fanastic pot of the stuff:

  1. Grab that bag of dried beans, noting that you do NOT have to presoak most beans. That said, larger beans or ones of unknown origin can benefit from an overnight soak.
  2. Place your beans in a heavy-bottomed pot and cover by 2-3 inches with water (or with stock if you have it for a boost in flavor).
  3. Bring to a boil over medium high heat, reduce the heat to low, and cover. Cook 30 minutes.
  4. Remove the lid and add salt and pepper, plus any aromatics on hand—onion, bay leaf, a dried chili pepper, a carrot, whole garlic cloves, sprigs of herbs. Just dump them in there. Add a swirl of olive oil if you are feeling it. Or just season with salt and pepper and be done.
  5. Cover back up and keep cooking, checking every 30 minutes or so for doneness and to be sure there is enough liquid to cook all the beans. If you are going to strain the beans for use in salads, etc., keep them fully submerged, and keep the bean broth waterier. If you are making them as a soup or stew, let more of the liquid evaporate for a luxurious bean broth. Be sure that you taste test three to four different beans from different places in your pot before calling them done, as some beans will cook faster than others. Beans are done when they are fully creamy inside with no al dente bite or grittiness.
  6. Check seasoning one last time and serve however you like!

Technique #5: Make a basic no-canning jam

Photo: Antonis Achilles; Food Styling: Ana Kelly; Prop Styling: Prissy Lee

Jam-making might feel like a total Little House on the Prairie move if you aren’t someone who traditionally makes jam (or Laura Ingalls Wilder), but it is also the easiest way to salvage fruit that is past its prime.

And as long as you aren’t trying to preserve it for shelf-stability, it could not be easier. Even a single peach, a pair of plums, or one mangy mango makes a decent enough batch of jam to get you through a week of toast. Here’s how to pull it off:

  1. Wash and chop your fruit to a reasonable size and peel if appropriate.
  2. Put your fruit into a glass measuring cup to see how much you have. However much that is? That is how much sugar you need: The 1:1 ratio is pretty easy to remember.
  3. Put the fruit and sugar in a heavy-bottomed pot that that’s about 4 times bigger than what you think you need. In other words, a tiny batch with a half a cup of fruit and a half a cup of sugar should be made in a one-quart pot. Four cups total? Use a 4-5-quart pot, and so on. Why? Jam can really bubble up and you do not want to be cleaning burnt sugar off your stovetop.
  4. Bring mixture to a boil over high heat, reduce heat to medium low and simmer until a thermometer reads 220 degrees (the temperature at which jam will set). Some jams will set better than others, but frankly for this, you don’t really care. You aren’t entering your jam at the county fair you’re just making a small batch to use up fruit and enjoy this week.
  5. Pour into a heat-resistant container and store jam in the fridge, where it will last up to two weeks.

Spice things up with a few easy add-ins: a squirt of lemon juice, cinnamon stick, whole clove, or chunks of ginger. You can also make jams like this with onions and tomatoes for more of a chutney situation.  Once you know how, experiment!

Technique #6: Cook fish fillets 

Max Kelly

I cannot tell you how many people I hear from who love fish and never cook it at home. They feel as if it is a restaurant dish, or they are afraid they will smell up their house. But it is super easy to cook fish at home, and nearly foolproof if you use this method. Here we go:

  1. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees with a rack in the center.
  2. Heat a nonstick oven-proof skillet over medium high heat, with some oil or ghee.
  3. Season your fish filets or steaks with salt and pepper on both sides.
  4. If the fish has skin on, place in the pan skin side down; otherwise, put the filets in your pan with the side you want to serve up facing down.
  5. Cook until the skin is crispy, or the fish is golden browned, then gently flip over with a fish spatula.
  6. Once you have flipped the fish, slide it into the oven and cook about 4 minutes per half-inch of thickness. Thin fillets will be done in 4 minutes, slightly thicker in 6-8, very thick ones will be done in 10-12.

Congratulations! You are now a fish master!