Cooking 101: Kitchen Basics

A newby to the kitchen? These tips will really get you cooking.

8 min read

I've been developing recipes and writing healthful cookbooks since 1989, and if there's one thing I've learned, it's not to assume that the recipe reader has a lot of cooking experience.

Gone are the days when you can just write, "add just enough flour to thicken." You need to spell out how much flour to add. You can't say "sauté this" or "sear that," because most people don't know exactly what that means. The truth is, more and more people are now growing up without really knowing how to cook.

So just for the cooking beginner, I've assembled some basic information I hope will help as you bravely go forth into the wonderful world of recipes. I've started with a discussion of breads, chicken, and pasta. You'll also find a cook's dictionary with definitions of cooking terms (and a little advice sprinkled in).

Most bakery products are made with yeast, baking powder, or baking soda. If you're following a recipe that calls for yeast, here's what you should know:

  • Yeast feeds on sugars and starches in the dough. When it grows, it produces carbon dioxide, which makes your dough rise with air bubbles.
  • Too much heat, sugar, or salt can kill the yeast, so follow recipe instructions carefully.
  • For yeast to grow, it needs a warm (but not hot) environment. This is why recipes often call for warm milk or water.
  • Yeast bread recipes usually call for some sugar, to feed the yeast, and salt, for taste and to help control the yeast's growth.
  • Bread-machine yeast and rapid-rise yeast are specially formulated for the bread machine. They become active more quickly and can be mixed in with other dry ingredients.
  • When using a bread machine, be sure to add the ingredients in the order recommended by the manufacturer or in the recipe.
  • In a bread machine, the mixing and rising take place inside the machine. The baking can also be done in the machine. Or, you can press the "dough" cycle and when the first rise is over, the machine will stop. You can then take the dough out, put it in a pan, let rise, and bake in the oven.

Quick breads are breads, such as muffins and biscuits, that are quick to make because they don't involve kneading or any rising time. Usually, baking powder or baking soda is added to the dry ingredients to create bubbles in the batter or dough as it bakes.

Here's how they work:

  • Baking soda is combined with an acid -- like cream of tartar, buttermilk, yogurt, or vinegar -- in the batter. Bubbles are produced from the carbon dioxide gas that results, allowing the dough or batter to rise as it bakes. Baking soda reacts immediately when moistened, so it's usually mixed with the dry ingredients before liquid ingredients are added.
  • Baking powder contains the acid (cream of tartar) and the baking soda together. Once moistened, they react to produce the bubbles of gas.

Here are some tips for buying, storing, and cooking this popular type of poultry:

  • Check the "buy by" date when buying fresh chicken to get the latest possible date.
  • Never leave cooked chicken out at room temperature for more than 2 hours. And don't leave raw or frozen chicken at room temperature, if you can help it. Use unfrozen raw chicken (stored in the coldest part of your refrigerator) within 2 days.
  • Thaw frozen chicken in the refrigerator, or, if you have to, use the defrost setting on your microwave and watch it carefully.
  • Rinse raw chicken pieces with cold water and pat them dry with a paper towel (which you then throw away) before you start your recipe.
  • Clean everything that comes into contact with raw chicken or its juices with hot, soapy water.
  • Chicken should always be cooked throughout. Check for doneness by making a slit in the thickest part of the piece of chicken piece, then look to see if it is cooked through to the middle. The juices from the chicken should run clear (not pink).
  • When marinating chicken, don't use the same marinade that was on your raw chicken as a basting sauce during cooking or a dipping sauce afterward. Put some marinade aside before adding the chicken to use for basting and dipping.

Cooking pasta is really the easy part; it's the sauces that can get tricky. The good news is that there are lots of convenient ways to dress your pasta these days; bottled marinara, store-bought pesto, flavored olive oils with pre-shredded Parmesan cheese, etc.

Here are my tips for pasta meals:

  • Make sure to cook the pasta in plenty of water in a large saucepan or stockpot. Pasta needs lots of space to move around. And bring your water to a full, rolling boil before you add the pasta.
  • You can add a tablespoon of oil to the water to help keep the pasta from sticking together, but it isn't mandatory.
  • Adding salt to the water is optional, too, but it can add flavor and help the pasta absorb sauce better.
  • Only add one type or shape of pasta to your boiling water. If they're different shapes, they will probably have different cooking times, too.
  • Pasta should be tender but still slightly firm to the bite (this is called al dente). If you cook the pasta beyond this, you can still eat it. But it will be softer and potentially mushier.
  • Drain cooked pasta in a colander in the sink. Rinse only if you're making a cold pasta salad. The starch that is sitting on the outside of your pasta can help the sauce stick better. When you rinse your pasta, the starch rinses away.
  • Make pasta a meal by using a sauce and adding vegetables and/or cheese. You can also add grilled or roasted chicken or other meat. Try frozen cooked shrimp -- just defrost in the microwave, and they're ready to add to your dish.
  • Stuffed pasta, like ravioli and tortellini, is an easy way to make your pasta dish seem more like a meal. Just cover with sauce and you're good to go!

Here's a cheat sheet to help you figure out confusing words you may come across in recipes.

Al dente: Italian phrase meaning "to the tooth," used to describe pasta or other food that is cooked only until it offers slight resistance when bitten into.

Au gratin: A dish that is topped with cheese or a mixture of breadcrumbs and butter, then heated in the oven or under the broiler until brown and crispy.

Au jus:French phrase describing meat that is served with its own natural cooking juices.

Au lait: French for "with milk."

Bain-marie: A water bath used to cook certain dishes.

Baking powder: A leavener (which helps a dough or batter rise or become light in texture) that contains a combination of baking soda; an acid (such as cream of tartar); and a moisture-absorber (like cornstarch).

Baking sheet: A flat sheet of metal, usually rectangular, used to bake cookies, biscuits, etc.

Baking soda: Bicarbonate of soda. Baking soda is used as a leavener in baked recipes. When combined with an acid like buttermilk, yogurt, or vinegar in a batter, it produces bubbles from carbon dioxide gas that allowing the batter to rise as it bakes.

Blackened: A cooking method in which meat or fish, usually rubbed with Cajun spices, is cooked in a very hot cast-iron skillet.

Broth/bouillon: A liquid made by cooking vegetables, poultry, meat, or fish. The flavored liquid is strained off after cooking.

Braise: A cooking method, on top of a stove or in the oven, in which food is browned in fat, and then cooked, tightly covered, in a small amount of liquid, at low heat for a long time.

Broil: To cook or brown food by placing it under the broiling unit in an oven. The broiling unit is usually at the top of the oven, but older ovens may have a broiler drawer underneath. Recipes often call for placing the food 4-6 inches away from the broiling unit.

Brown: To cook quickly over high heat, causing the surface of the food to turn brown while the interior stays moist.

Brush: To apply a liquid with a pastry brush to the surface of food.

Caramelize: To heat sugar until it liquefies and becomes a clear syrup ranging in color from golden to dark brown.

Convection Oven: An oven equipped with a fan that provides continuous circulation of hot air around the food.

Cut in: To mix a solid, cold fat (like shortening or butter) with dry ingredients until the mixture takes the form of small particles. It can be done with a food processor, a handheld tool called a pastry blender, a fork, or two knives.

Dash: A very small amount of seasoning added to food. It's somewhere between 1/16 teaspoon and a scant 1/8 teaspoon.

Dice: To cut food into tiny cubes (1/8 to 1/4 inch).

Dilute: To reduce a mixture's strength by adding liquid (usually water).

Dollop: A small glob of soft food, such as whipped cream.

Dredge: To lightly coat a food with flour, cornmeal, or breadcrumbs before frying or baking.

Dust: Lightly coating a food with a powdery liquid, such as flour or powdered sugar.

Egg Wash: Egg yolk or egg white mixed with a small amount of water or milk. It's brushed over baked goods before baking to give them gloss and color.

Pinch: The amount of dry ingredients you can hold in a pinch (between your thumb and forefinger). It's equivalent to 1/16 teaspoon.

Puree: To mash a food to a smooth, thick consistency.

Sauté: To cook food quickly in a small amount of oil in a skillet or sauté pan over direct heat.

Spatula: A flat utensil. Some are shaped to scrape sides of the mixing bowl; others are shaped to flip foods, or to stir ingredients in a curved bowl.

Sear: To burn or scorch a food with an application of intense heat.

Simmer: To cook food gently in liquid at a temperature low enough that tiny bubbles just begin to break the surface (around 185 degrees).

Steam: A cooking method in which food is placed in a steamer basket over boiling water in a covered pan.

Stir-Fry: To quickly fry small pieces of food in a large pan over very high heat while stirring.

Whisk: A utensil with looped wires in the shape of a teardrop, used for whipping ingredients like batters, sauces, eggs, and cream. The whisk helps add air into the batter.

Zester: A utensil with tiny cutting holes on one end that creates threadlike strips of peel when pulled over the surface of a lemon lime or orange. It removes only the colored outer portion of the peel (zest).