Have you ever wondered how to be a better cook? Contrary to what some celebrity chefs would have you believe, you don’t need to have had an Italian nonna teaching you how to roll pasta when you were still in nappies; and you don’t need to have done ten years’ hard labour under a Michelin-starred French chef in Paris. You just need a willingness to learn. The rest can be taught.
But where to begin? The sheer volume of books, programmes, online recipes, and guides to cooking for beginners can be overwhelming. And everybody’s reasons for learning are different. Some people are starting from scratch, learning how to cook for themselves for the first time. Some have young families to cook for. Some want to learn show stopping recipes to impress their friends. Perhaps you are wondering if it’s possible to learn everything you need to know about cooking before heading off to uni next month. Whatever your level, we have some easy cooking tips that will teach you how to improve your home cooking.
21 Home Cooking Skills That Will Improve Your Home Cooking
1. Collect Skills, Not Recipes
Home cooks should aim to develop a repertoire not only of tried-and-test recipes but of skills. Once mastered, they can apply them across any number of different recipes. What are the five basic cooking skills? Every cook should be able to make an omelette (it should be ‘baveuse’, with a very small amount of underdone egg through the centre). They should know how to cook a steak to various degrees of doneness. They should be able to make a sauce whether a simple pan sauce or classic gravy. They should know how to make shortcrust pastry. And they should know how to chop an onion.
2. Emulate Professional Chefs and Always Do Your Mise-En-Place
Here’s how to be a better cook at home: by emulating the professionals. What home cooks call ‘being organised’, pro cooks call ‘mise-en-place’, the French term for having all the ingredients and equipment at the ready before you even start cooking. You can tell if someone can cook just by looking at their kitchen. Everything’s where it should be and as it should be: clean, stacked, labelled, organised. They keep their kitchen area clutter-free, clean as they go and always have a time plan for cooking. When people pose the question “how can I be a good cook at home”, quite often the answer starts with organisation. Not reading the recipe through from start to finish is a rookie error. A poorly written recipe will often surprise you midway through with “marinate for an hour”, “soak for eight hours”, or the dreaded “leave overnight”.
3. Invest In Your Equipment
Spend as much as you can reasonably afford on a really good set of kitchen knives. They should be comfortable to hold and a good weight, but not too heavy to manage. Store them in a knife block, not in a drawer, and always wash by hand. A starter’s selection might include a large cook’s knife for most food prep, a paring knife for greater control when cutting small ingredients, a long, serrated knife for cutting breads and cakes, and a sharpening steel. Hone your knives on the steel every time you use them to maintain their cutting edge. Sharper knives are safer. Don’t overlook chopping boards. You’ll need at least two for raw and cooked foods.
4. Choose Gadgets and Utensils Wisely
You won’t find gimmicky gadgets cluttering the shelves of a professional kitchen. Instead, you’ll very likely find all of the following labour-saving appliances: a free-standing electric mixer, a stick blender, a spice grinder, a food processor, a pasta machine. A mandolin, meat thermometer, kitchen tongs and a Microplane grater are ‘nice to haves’. When it comes to saucepans and frying pans, choose heavy-based ones (always with lids) as they provide even heat and retain heat longer. A steamer, wok and griddle pan will also earn their keep.
5. Taste, Taste, and Taste Again
Learning to taste and adjust seasoning is one of the most important chef skills. It’s an indispensable skill you can practice to improve your home cooking. A pinch of salt, a squeeze of lemon or a sprinkling of chilli flakes is often all it takes to lift a dish. Take care when using salted butter in cooking and baking as it can result in over-seasoning; most chefs use unsalted butter. When using pepper for seasoning, you might like to use white pepper in lighter coloured dishes as black pepper, coarsely ground, can look unattractive. Don’t forget that sweet dishes need seasoning too, whether with a pinch of salt with chocolate or caramel or extra sugar to balance the acidity of tart fruit.
6. Understand the Maillard Reaction
Browning meat before stewing, braising it, or even roasting it caramelises the surface sugars and adds richness and colour to the meat. This is called the Maillard reaction. Always brown meat in small batches so you don’t overcrowd the pan and end up stewing the meat. Take care not to overcook it at this stage or it will toughen. Season just before browning or you’ll draw the moisture out of the meat.
7. Source Your Ingredients with Care
The secret to cooking is sourcing the best ingredients you can find. Familiarise yourself with the seasonal growing calendar, so you only use fruit and vegetables at their peak. Choose vegetables without wilted or discoloured leaves, bruising, or other signs of damage. When it comes to buying fish, look for fish that smell of the sea. The eyes should be clear and prominent, not sunken; gills should be pink or red, not grey, or brown; the body should be shiny and firm. In the case of fillets, the flesh should be firm; a finger pressed to the flesh should not leave an indentation.
8. Know Your Onions
How to improve my cooking in one easy step? By learning how to slice and dice onions correctly. Watch the professionals on cookery shows or spend a few minutes watching an online tutorial. A recipe may ask you to “sweat” chopped onions. Do this by cooking them gently in a pan with a tight-fitting lid in a little butter or oil. You can lay a greaseproof paper ‘cartouche’ (a disc of greaseproof paper) dampened with water on top to minimise evaporation. The onions are ready when they become translucent and taste sweet and mild.
9. Start with Whole Spices
Ready-ground spices go stale and lose their aromas over time. It is preferable to grind whole spices yourself. Use a pestle and mortar or spice grinder. Most spices are added at the start of the cooking process to give the flavours time to develop and permeate the dish. Often, they are toasted in a dry frying pan or sauteed in oil to further enhance their flavours. Don’t ‘guesstimate’ quantities; follow the recipe carefully or risk over-spicing.
10. Dress the Perfect Green Salad
You can tell a good cook from a bad cook by the way they assemble a salad. A punchy green salad is the perfect foil to rich roast chicken, baked pasta, or steak frites. Choose salad leaves that are fresh and crisp, not limp or discoloured. Wash them leaves with care, so they don’t bruise, then dry them thoroughly in a salad spinner. Excess water will dilute the dressing and prevent the dressing clinging to the leaves. To perk up wilting salad leaves, you can immerse them in a bowl of cold water chilled with a handful of ice cubes. When making a vinaigrette, balance the oil and acidity in the dressing to suit the salad ingredients. Tip: add seasoning at the start so it permeates the whole vinaigrette.
11. Make Stock from Scratch
Stock, whether from meat, poultry, fish, or vegetables, is a vital component of many recipes. The success of a finished dish depends on the flavour and clarity of the stock used. Slow, gentle simmering is key: from 30 minutes for fish and vegetable stocks, to as long as 5-6 hours for beef and lamb. For meat stocks, fresh bones are ideal; you can use leftover bones from a roast but the flavour will be weaker. Tip: don’t add salt when making stock; adjust the seasoning when you come to use it.
12. Start with a Classic Sauce Then Learn How to Adapt It
Learn the method for making silky lump-free white sauce. It’s very versatile. Classic white sauce is based on a roux, a half- half mixture of flour and butter cooked with liquid that is slowly added over medium heat. Once you’ve mastered white sauce, you can make its derivatives including béchamel, Mornay sauce, and parsley sauce. A recipe may require the sauce to have “coating consistency”. This describes the way the finished sauce coats and clings to a wooden spoon.
13. Learn How to Save a Split Sauce
Split sauces are not uncommon, but you can often use your chef skills to save them. When hollandaise splits, start with a fresh egg yolk in a medium bowl, a little of your vinegar reduction, and remake the emulsion using the broken sauce. Similarly, when dealing with split mayonnaise, start with a fresh egg yolk, and slowly add the curdled mayonnaise until the emulsion reforms. Splitting usually occurs when the oil is added too quickly so take it drop by drop.
14. Get Experimental with Ingredients
How do chefs stay motivated? By exploring new cuisines and new ingredients that inspire their creativity. For the home cook, that might mean picking up an unfamiliar vegetable at the farmers’ market or experimenting with a new ingredient from the deli. A novice cook might take one familiar recipe and play around with variations. Every recipe you read, every restaurant you go to, could be the source of a new idea.
15. Learn How to Stir-fry
Stir-frying is a super-fast method of cooking over a high heat, usually in a wok. A deep frying pan will do the job too. Make sure the ingredients have plenty of room in the pan. If you overcrowd the pan, the ingredients will stew, not fry. Keep moving them constantly to ensure even cooking. Add firmer vegetables first, more tender vegetables last, as cooking times vary.
16. Achieve Perfect Poached Eggs Every Time
The humble egg is the perfect ingredient upon which to practice all your newfound cooking techniques. There are so many ways of cooking an egg, whether by boiling, scrambling, poaching, or frying. It’s common to hear of people who can’t “boil an egg”; but poaching is the more common concern. When poaching eggs, use fresh eggs, and poach them in water that’s not quite simmering. Look out for a few small bubbles rising and breaking the surface of the water. Swirl the water to create a whirlpool and, just before it subsides, pour the egg into the middle. The swirling water wraps the white around the yolk. Trim away any straggly strands of white.
Whether online or IRL, there’s no better way to learn how to be a great cook than from experienced, professionally trained teachers. An online course allows you to learn from the comfort of your own kitchen. A good beginner’s course won’t just teach you recipes, it will teach you time and money-saving tips and tricks; it will teach you how to organise your kitchen like a professional chef, how to plan recipes, and how to put the finishing touch to dishes with simple presentation techniques. It should also provide the mentor and peer support you need to keep you motivated. Look for a modular course that will demonstrate how to cook for beginners, then help you progress to a more advanced level.
18. Learn How to Make Pastry
Don’t believe the myth: making pastry is not that difficult. It can be done with great success in a food processor. Temperature is everything. The key time to chill pastry is after shaping and before baking. When the butter firms up, it sets the pastry case into the desired shape. If not sufficiently chilled, the butter metals during cooking resulting in greasy, misshapen pastry. Most pastries need at least 30 minutes in the fridge to chill until firm to the touch (you can put them in the freezer if you are short of time).
19. Perfect Your Roast Potatoes
Perfect crispy potatoes call for floury potatoes such as King Edwards, parboiled in salted water (they’re ready when you can easily pass a knife through the outer 1cm of potato). Be sure to steam-dry the potatoes in the pan for two to three minutes after draining; then shake them well to break up the outside to guarantee a crisp exterior.
20. Practice Makes Perfect
How is it that your local chip shop fries the crispiest fluffiest chips, your barista makes the smoothest lattes, and that Italian nonna makes the best spaghetti al pomodoro? Because they do it again and again and again. That’s how to be a better cook, by repeating recipes until you’ve cracked them. Practice really does make perfect.
21. Learn How to Deglaze a Pan
What we call ‘pan sauces’ capture the wonderful flavours leftover from browning meat or fish in a frying pan. They couldn’t be quicker or easier to prepare. ‘Deglazing’ the pan involves the addition of a cold liquid to a hot pan. The liquid, (often water, sometimes wine, stock, or vinegar) comes to the boil and lifts the sediment from the base of the pan. The result is a simple but flavoursome sauce that can be completed within the few minutes it takes for the meat or fish to rest.
Where to Start?
Leiths Online Cookery School’s Absolute Beginners Course is a hands-on, entry-level course that can teach anyone how to be a good cook in just eight weeks. It focuses on all the recipes you should learn to cook as a beginner: those family favourites, international classics and greatest hits that will delight your guests while taking you through the top cooking skills you need. The teachers leading the online course are the same teachers who are training the next generation of professional chefs at Leiths’ School of Food and Wine in London. Every student has their own mentor to support them on their journey as they learn how to be a great cook. They also have a virtual community of like-minded learners with whom to share their culinary journey.
It’s never too late to learn how to be a better cook.
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