17 Kitchen Skills You Should Master by the Time You're 30
When you're younger, it's perfectly acceptable if your kitchen skills are limited to hitting a couple buttons on the microwave or asking mom what's for dinner. By the time you're 30, though, it's time to step it up by mastering a few legitimate skills. Specifically, these 17, which can help you at least pretend some part of you is a grown-up contributing member of society.
Do pasta rightThe difference between rookie- and restaurant-quality pasta is just a little pasta water, salt, finesse, and maybe butter (OK, often butter.) Your pasta-cooking water should taste like the ocean: salty. This seemingly obscene quantity of salt is crucial, as it will flavor your noodles. Cook your pasta al dente (meaning it still has some bite to it). Before you dump it out, save some water: it's loaded with all the beautiful starches from your pasta that will naturally make any sauce you add it to creamier. Finish off your pasta in a sauté pan with whatever sauce you desire, plus some of that pasta water. This way the sauce will be creamier and will better bind to your pasta. And adding a little butter at the end never made anything worse. Once you've got the basics down, try these ridiculously easy weeknight pasta dinners!
Know three ways to cook eggsEating fried eggs every morning can get boring fast. But once you can scramble (recipe here!), poach, soft boil, hard boil (recipe here!), or make an omelet (recipe here!) or frittata, no day will be the same. You probably know how to scramble or fry an egg, so we recommend mastering poached eggs and the omelet. They are the two most sophisticated egg form,s and you'll be sure to impress any date or friend if they're lucky enough to find themselves at your place for breakfast or brunch.
Make pan saucePan sauces are a quick and easy way to take your roasted chicken or pasta to the next level. If you've roasted or seared a piece of meat, the little brown bits at the bottom are solid gold. Hit them with a little wine, garlic, and chicken stock and within minutes you'll have a ridiculously delicious sauce. Other quick sauces can consist of tomatoes, basil, and olives; white wine, shallots, and tarragon; or the classic lemon, capers, and brown butter. Add a dab of cold butter at the end, off the heat, to emulsify your sauce and make it extra delicious.
Make a vinaigretteStore-bought salad dressings are for punks and stars of Cool Hand Luke. They are loaded with sugars and so many unnecessary ingredients that allow them to sit on the shelf for ages. Instead, make your own. Vinaigrettes have two basic components: acid and fat. Acid is usually a vinegar or citrus and the fat is often a type of vegetable oil. They work on a 1:3 ratio of vinegar to oil, or 1:2 for milder acids such as lemon juice. Throw in some salt and pepper and you have basic a vinaigrette. Add mustard to help bind the mixture and add some flavor. Then get creative. Mix up the vinegars and oils, add honey, shallots, ginger, soy sauce, and herbs. Consider Newman owned.
Sharpen knivesFun fact: dull knives are more dangerous than sharp ones, and are more likely to slip when cutting because they don’t have a defined edge. So don't keep dull knives. There are three main ways to handle sharpening: use a sharpening stone, use a manual or electric sharpener, or send your knives out. The pros all use stones, but it requires some technique and time. A sharpener is easy enough to use, but if you are super lazy, just send them out. Warning: professional sharpeners tend to take a lot off the knife, so your knife's lifespan may decrease. Not sure if your knives are dull? Carefully run the blade over your thumb nail. If it catches, you have a sharp knife. If it glides right over, it's dull as hell. Now go and sharpen it.
Handle a knifeBasic knife skills are an integral part of cooking. Yes, you may say you can avoid any knife work by buying pre-made sauces, soups, or the like, but then you ain't cooking and it's not fresh and you're no better than an 18-year-old college boy. Learn how to hold a knife properly so you don't cut off your fingers and then start slicing and dicing. Cutting up onion is a great place to start. Congratulations, you are now an adult.
Make a chicken cutletThe chicken cutlet is like chicken fingers for grown-ups. And who doesn't love chicken fingers? The proper breading technique requires four steps: 1) season your chicken; 2) dip it in flour; 3) dip it in eggs; 4) dip it in breadcrumbs. Then fry or bake it. If using a chicken breast, we recommend either pounding it or slicing it in half to ensure a crispy-yet-moist cutlet. Personally we prefer skinless, boneless chicken thighs, but that's your call.
Once you've mastered this basic principle, countless variations are at your disposal. You can substitute chicken with almost any protein, from pork and beef (think chicken-fried steak) to fish and even tofu, and serve it over rice or salads, in wraps, sandwiches, and more. With a few simple variations and help from your foreign-language buddy, you can be cooking up Milanese, schnitzel, or katsu (here's a Cap'n Crunch Chicken Katsu recipe for the bold). Sounds fancier than just a cutlet right?
Properly wash vegetablesUnless you exclusively buy triple-washed baby kale, chances are your vegetables and lettuce are dirty. No one wants to bite into grit or sand, so clean them well. Fill two big bowls with cold water and then let your veggie of choice take a dip. Swoosh it around well, then lift it up. All the dirt will sink to the bottom. Transfer your greens to the other bowl. Dump out the dirty water and refill with fresh water. Repeat this process until your water is crystal clear. For quick and efficient drying, indulge in a salad spinner. Voila.
Make some baked goodsYou're almost 30, and let's face it: those PTA meetings and bake sales are right around the corner. Don't be that parent who brings in cardboard donuts from the gas station. Instead, master at least one baked good and make it your go-to. Cookies are great because you can keep all of the ingredients in your pantry and refrigerator for a long time. Banana bread, pumpkin bread, and brownies (try this recipe) are other easy crowd-pleasers. Bonus: baking makes your home smell amazing.
Roast vegetablesWhen vegetables surpass 280 degrees, something beautiful happens. Thanks to Maillard reactions and naturally occurring sugars and amino acids, the vegetables start to brown and develop a beautiful, more intense flavor. And the best part? To roast vegetables, all you have to do is preheat your oven to around 425 degrees, chop up your vegetable of choice, toss it with some oil and salt, and pop it in! We recommend using parchment paper or a silicone mat on your baking sheet for easier clean-up. And remember, water boils at 212. Therefore wet vegetables can never brown, so keep those veggies nice and dry!
Season foodIn the culinary world "season" means to salt. Properly seasoning your food is crucial to locking in flavor and making your food tasty. It's important to salt your food throughout the cooking process, not just at the end. Big pieces of meat such as thick steaks and roasts require a ton of salt to help develop that golden crust we so love. But be careful: you can always add more salt at the end, but you can never un-salt your food.
Sauté stuffThe art of the sauté is quick, insanely flavorful, and fun. To do it successfully, put your pan on the burner, turn up the flame as hot as hell, add your oil, allow it to heat up, and don't crowd your pan with too many veggies. Ignore any of these tips and you'll never attain that golden sear you so desire.
Shock and blanch vegetablesVegetable cookery is vast, filled with so many possibilities: shocking and blanching your greens opens you up to so many of them. The concept is simple. Bring a pot of salted water to a roaring boil. Add your vegetables, making sure they are more or less of the same size and type to ensure even cooking. Cook until they're tender with a little bite (adjusting to your preference) and then, using a strainer or tongs, immediately place them in a big bath of ice water. This polar bear plunge abruptly stops the cooking process and locks their color and texture in place. From here you can enjoy a lovely vegetable salad or go on to dry and then sauté your vegetables, making them crispy yet tender. This technique works great for herbs if you are making purees and want them to be green.
Thicken saucesNobody likes a runny sauce. In fact, the general desired consistency for a sauce is "nappant," meaning "coating": you want your sauce to coat your food and your mouth. There are many ways to thicken up a sauce, but here are our favorite three techniques: 1) reduce; 2) use a cornstarch slurry; 3) add beurre manié.
- Reduce: Reducing your sauce works best when one of its main components is animal stock (i.e., chicken or veal). Over time the natural gelatin in the stock will cause it to thicken and become glorious. Veal stock is higher in gelatin than chicken and makes for the richest sauces. Reduce your sauce slowly, over a gentle simmer, and be sure to skim it for any impurities on the surface. Be careful not to over-reduce or it may become too salty or too thick, almost like glue.
- Cornstarch slurry: A slurry is a fun word for a semi-liquid mixture and is a classic American go-to for thickening sauces. To make a slurry, combine regular cornstarch and cold water. Add equal parts water to the corn starch, mixing it well with a fork or small whisk to ensure no lumps. Slowly drizzle your slurry into your sauce, while whisking it over heat until it bubbles, thus activating the thickening agents. Usually you want about 1 tablespoon of slurry mixture per cup of liquid you want to thicken. Be sure to adjust your seasoning as you've slightly diluted your sauce. And yes, this method is gluten-free.
- Beurre manié: Beurre manié is like a roux but made with your hands (it literally translates to kneaded butter). Work very room-temperature butter with equal parts flour, until you make a paste. Drop this concoction into your sauce and whisk very well, letting it come up to a boil, activating the thickening agents, while cooking out the flour flavor. Now you have a thickened and buttery sauce. And, once again, butter is a good thing.
Make chocolate sauceStrawberries dipped in a rich chocolate sauce is the classic sexiest dessert and it happens to be the easiest one. To make your own chocolate sauce, you need chocolate pieces or chips, heavy cream, and a double boiler. To create a double boiler, take a small saucepan, add some water to it, and cover it with a metal or glass bowl (plastic will melt, obviously). You want there to be some space between the bowl and the water. Bring the water up to a light simmer. Add the chocolate and heavy cream and stir until melted. And that's it.
Cook three basic mealsIn the process of learning the previous skills, you've probably picked up a dish or two to work on. Master three basic meals and you'll be set for dinner parties, potlucks, and general entertaining while still keeping it exciting for yourself. Once you've truly become comfortable with the techniques necessary to execute the dishes, you can start to experiment and get creative. Now you're cooking.
Keep your kitchen safe and cleanAccomplishing everything above is great, but worthless if you can't keep your kitchen clean. The best way to maintain a healthy and manageable kitchen is to clean up as you go. Always wipe down surfaces and appliances after use. There are all sorts of antibacterial soaps and bleaches at your disposal to spray as you go. Distilled vinegar is a wonderful natural disinfectant and is incredibly versatile for all your cleaning needs. When handling raw meats and fish, try to wear gloves and make sure to thoroughly wash and disinfect your cutting boards and knives. Don't forget to regularly clean out the refrigerator and wipe it down as well. Lord knows it's time to throw out that half-eaten yogurt from two months ago.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.
Julianne Feder is a freelance writer for Thrillist. She is also a private chef and will gladly help you master any of the above skills. Follow her @TheGastroNerd or watch her at YouTube.com/c/Juliannefeder to get more nerdy food insights and to learn how to conquer your kitchen.