8 Basic Cooking Techniques Every Beginner Should Know
You'll be able to get dinner on the table—no matter what you have in your fridge.
Being comfortable in the kitchen is less about the recipes you use and more about the techniques you master. Brush up on these eight basic cooking techniques and you'll be able to get dinner on the table no matter what you have in your fridge.
Keep these tools on hand to help you turn up the heat.
1. A collapsible stainless-steel or silicone steamer basket, for steaming vegetables. You can also use a pot with a steamer-basket insert.
2. A large, heavy, oven-safe pot with two handles and a tight-fitting lid, sometimes called a Dutch oven, for braising.
3. A cast-iron skillet, which conducts heat exceptionally well, for searing and skillet roasting.
4. An instant-read thermometer, for checking doneness of meat and poultry.
5. A large rimmed baking sheet, for roasting.
This method cooks food quickly in a small amount of fat in a skillet over relatively high heat while stirring or tossing constantly. The term sauté comes from the French verb sauter, which means "to jump." This technique is best for tender, small pieces of food, such as sliced chicken breast, sliced steak, shrimp, and mushrooms
Sauté mushrooms: Heat 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil over medium-high heat in a large skillet. Once a drop of water sizzles when it hits the oil, add 1 lb. halved or quartered cremini mushrooms. (Do not crowd the pan or the mushrooms will stew, rather than sauté.) Cook, tossing or stirring the mushrooms, until they are beginning to brown, about 8 minutes. Add 1 minced garlic clove and cook, tossing or stirring, until the mushrooms are tender and browned, 1 to 2 minutes more. Season with salt and pepper and garnish with chopped fresh parsley.
Roasting cooks foods by surrounding them with hot, dry air. This is done in an uncovered pan in the oven. Vegetables fare well by this method because roasting brings out their natural sugars and produces crisp edges. Sheet-pan dinners, which roast a protein alongside vegetables on a baking sheet, use roasting to make convenient, healthy meals on a single pan. Best for: Nearly anything! Meat, chicken, fish, and vegetables, or a combination
Roast root vegetables: Preheat oven to 425°F. Toss diced (3/4-inch) root vegetables, such as carrots and parsnips, with a bit of olive oil until lightly coated, then spread in a single layer on a large rimmed baking sheet. (Do not crowd the pan or the vegetables will steam instead of roasting.) Roast, stirring several times, until the vegetables are lightly browned and tender when pierced with a knife, 30 to 40 minutes.
Boiling & Blanching
Both of these methods cook food submerged in liquid that is bubbling vigorously (at sea level, water boils at 212°F). Blanching involves dipping food briefly into boiling water, then cooling it quickly in ice water. Blanching is often used to prepare food for canning or freezing. With no added fat, boiled foods may be bland, but you can season them with olive oil and lemon juice or vinegar after cooking. A rule of thumb is to add green vegetables to rapidly boiling water, but start starchy vegetables like potatoes in cold water and then bring the water to a boil. Best for: Blanching is great for loosening peach, tomato, and almond skins, and for cooking vegetables like green beans that will be reheated later, used in salads, or frozen. Boiling is best for vegetables (like green beans, broccoli, and potatoes) and pasta.
Blanch green beans: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Meanwhile, prepare an ice bath: fill a large bowl with ice cubes and water and set it near the stove. Add trimmed green beans to the boiling water. Boil the beans until tender-crisp, 3 to 4 minutes; transfer to the ice bath, using tongs or a slotted spoon. Reheat the beans by sautéing them in a little olive oil.
Steaming cooks foods by surrounding them with vapor. It is a go-to method for cooking vegetables because it preserves water-soluble nutrients better than boiling. Best for: Quick-cooking vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower; small cuts of fish
Steam broccoli or cauliflower: Set a steamer basket over about 1 inch of water in a large saucepan (the water should not be touching the basket). Bring to a boil. Add broccoli or cauliflower florets to the basket. Cover and steam until the vegetables are tender-crisp, 4 to 6 minutes. Using a glove or oven mitt, carefully lift out the steamer basket and transfer the vegetables to a serving bowl. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt, pepper, and lemon juice, if desired.
Simmering & Poaching
Poaching and simmering are related techniques that submerge foods in liquid at a lower temperature than boiling. While simmering, the liquid bubbles very gently and maintains a temperature of 185-200°F. During poaching, the liquid may shimmer, but not actually bubble and the temperature should not exceed 185°F. One benefit of poaching is that the liquid becomes a flavorful broth that can be turned into a soup or sauce. Best for: Tenderizing tough cuts of meats; cooking delicate foods like chicken, eggs, and fish; coaxing flavor out of soups, stews, and sauces
Poach boneless, skinless chicken breasts: Place chicken in a deep-sided skillet or soup pot and cover with water. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Skim any froth. Reduce heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Turn the chicken over and cover the pan. Cook until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part registers 165°F, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the chicken from the poaching liquid with tongs.
This method browns food quickly over high heat in a skillet, on a grill, or under the broiler. The goal is to get the surface well browned, which creates additional flavors. This is due to the Maillard reaction, a complex chemical reaction that takes place during browning and results in hundreds of different flavor compounds. Best for: Steaks that may be eaten medium-rare; thin cuts of meat and poultry, scallops, larger cuts of meat prior to braising
Sear scallops: Pat 1 lb. "dry" sea scallops thoroughly dry (excess moisture will prevent them from browning) and season with salt and pepper. Heat 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil in a heavy skillet, such as cast-iron (do not use nonstick) over medium-high heat until a drop of water sizzles when dripped. Add the scallops and cook, undisturbed, until browned on the underside, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip and cook, undisturbed, until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes more. Do not crowd the pan, as that can cause the food to steam rather than sear.
Skillet roasting is a combination of searing and roasting; after searing food in a skillet, you transfer the skillet to the oven to finish the cooking. You get the best of both worlds: searing improves browning and enhances flavors, while the uniform heat of the oven cooks the food through and ensures a tender result. If you don't have an ovenproof skillet, you can brown the food in a skillet and then transfer it to a baking sheet to finish cooking in the oven. Best for: Chicken breasts, thick fish steaks, and pork tenderloin
Try It: Skillet-Roasted Chicken & Broccoli with Mustard-Rosemary Pan Sauce
Active: 25 min. Total: 40 min.
Equipment: 10-inch ovenproof skillet
The one-two punch of searing and roasting results in perfectly browned, moist, and tender chicken.
2 ½ cups broccoli florets (1¼-inch pieces) and sliced peeled stem (1 large head)
1 small red onion, diced (1 cup)
1 Tbsp. olive oil
¼ tsp. ground pepper, divided
1/8 tsp. salt
2 tsp. whole-grain mustard
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
2 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary or thyme, or ½ tsp. dried
1 tsp. maple syrup or honey (optional)
8 oz. boneless, skinless chicken breast
2 tsp. canola oil
2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
2 Tbsp. water
1 tsp. unsalted butter
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Combine broccoli, onion, olive oil, 1/8 tsp. pepper, and salt in a medium bowl; toss to coat. Mix together whole-grain mustard, Dijon mustard, rosemary (or thyme), and maple syrup (or honey), if using, in a small bowl.
2. Pat chicken dry and season with the remaining 1/8 tsp. pepper. Heat canola oil in a 10-inch cast-iron or other ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and cook until the underside is nicely browned, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat. Turn the chicken over and brush the mustard mixture over the top. Scatter the broccoli mixture around the chicken. Transfer the pan to the oven (see Tip).
3. Roast the chicken and vegetables, stirring the vegetables once, until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the chicken registers 165°F and the broccoli is tender and browned in spots, about 15 minutes. If either the chicken or vegetables are done before the other, remove them. Transfer the chicken to a clean cutting board and let rest for a few minutes. Transfer the broccoli mixture to a small bowl; keep warm.
4. Meanwhile, place the skillet over medium-high heat and add vinegar and water. Bring to a simmer, stirring and scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Simmer for 30 seconds. Remove from the heat. Add butter and whisk until melted.
5. To serve: Slice the chicken ½ inch thick and divide between 2 plates, along with the vegetables. Drizzle the pan sauce over the chicken and vegetables.
Serves 2: 3 oz. chicken + ¾ cup vegetables + 1 Tbsp. pan sauce each
CAL 338, CARB 16g (fiber 4g, sugars 8g), FAT 17g (sat. fat 3g), PROTEIN 28g, CHOL 88mg, SODIUM 370mg, POTASSIUM 726mg.
Tip: If you don't have an ovenproof skillet, transfer the chicken and vegetables to a rimmed baking sheet before roasting.
See the recipe for Skillet-Roasted Chicken & Broccoli with Mustard-Rosemary Pan Sauce (coming soon).
This starts by searing the main ingredient, followed by sweating aromatic ingredients and finally simmering everything together in liquid-—think dishes like stew and pot roast. Braising tenderizes tougher (aka budget-friendly) cuts of meat, and the cooking liquid becomes a flavorful sauce. Most braises require a long cooking time. Best for: Stew beef, pork shoulder, lamb, chicken thighs.
Try It: Braised Chicken Thighs with Fennel, Orange & Olives
Active: 25 min. Total: 1 hr. 5 min.
To make ahead: Refrigerate for up to 2 days. Reheat on the stovetop or in the microwave.
This technique sears chicken thighs before braising. Serve this vibrant chicken dish with rice or cauliflower rice.
4 tsp. fennel seeds
4 large bone-in, skinless chicken thighs (1¾-2 lbs. total), trimmed
¼ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. ground pepper
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped (1 cup)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/8 tsp. crushed red pepper
2 tsp. orange zest
½ cup orange juice
1 15-oz. can no-salt-added diced tomatoes
1 bay leaf
2 Tbsp. coarsely chopped pitted Kalamata olives
1. Place fennel seeds on a cutting board and crush with the bottom of a small saucepan. Set aside.
2. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-
high heat. Add the chicken and cook, turning as needed, until browned all over, 5 to 7 minutes total. Transfer to a plate.
3. Add onion to the pan and cook, stirring often, until softened and starting to brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Add garlic, crushed red pepper, and the crushed fennel seeds; cook, stirring, until fragrant, 30 to 60 seconds. Add orange juice and bring to a simmer. Cook for 1 minute. Add tomatoes and bay leaf; return to a simmer. Cook for 1 minute, mashing the tomatoes with a potato masher.
4. Return the chicken and any accumulated juices to the pan. Adjust heat to maintain a simmer. Partially cover the pan; cook until the chicken is tender and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh without touching bone registers at least 175°F, 40 to 45 minutes. Discard the bay leaf. Stir in olives and orange zest.
Serves 4: 1 chicken thigh + about 1/3 cup sauce each
CAL 311, CARB 14g (fiber 3g, sugars 7g), FAT 15g (sat. fat 3g), PROTEIN 30g, CHOL 151mg, SODIUM 425mg, POTASSIUM 710mg.
See the recipe for Braised Chicken Thighs with Fennel, Orange & Olives (coming soon).
When is it done?
Whether you are following a recipe or cooking free-style, it's always important to check that foods are properly cooked.
An instant-read thermometer is the most reliable way to tell if meat and poultry are done. Stick the probe into the thickest part of the meat, without touching any bones. Pull meat off the heat when it reaches its safe minimum temperature (below). Allow beef and pork to rest for at least 3 minutes before serving; the temperature will continue to rise. (Note that braised dishes often involve cooking tough cuts of meat well beyond these temperatures, to ensure tenderness.)
- Beef, pork, and lamb steaks and roasts: 145°F
- Ground beef and pork: 160°F
- Poultry: 165°F
- Fish and shellfish: 145°F
For vegetables, grains, and legumes, the best indicator of doneness is tenderness. Taste several grains or legumes to make sure they are tender throughout. Check vegetables by piercing with the tip of a paring knife or fork. Starchy vegetables like potatoes and winter squash should be completely tender, but not mushy. You may prefer vegetables like broccoli and green beans cooked just until tender-crisp.
These tips and tools will help you step up your cooking game. Mastering these techniques will make your vegetables delicious and will allow you to make a meal from whatever you have on hand. For more beginner cooking tips, check out our Healthy Cooking How-To's.
This story originally appeared in Diabetic Living Spring 2020.