Essential Skills for a Home Cook

477
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Joined Aug 6, 2010
In his new book Medium Raw, Anthony Bourdain lays down a set of cooking skills that he believes all people should have. While I think everyone should have some cooking skills, it may be a bit extreme to expect every single person to possess all of these skills. So let's limit this discussion to what skills a home cook should have.

The skills that Bourdain suggests everyone should possess are:

1) Basic knife handling, sharpening and maintenance, ability to dice, mince, and slice

2) Ability to make an omelet

3) Ability to roast a chicken (and to do it well)

4) Ability to properly grill and rest a steak

5) Ability to cook vegetables to a desired doneness

6) Ability to make a standard vinaigrette

7) Ability to shop for fresh produce, know what's in season, and know when produce is ripe

8) Ability to recognize a fresh fish, and be able to clean and filet it

9) Ability to steam a lobster or crab

10) Ability to roast red meat to desired doneness without a thermometer

11) Ability to roast and mash potatoes

12) Ability to make rice, both steamed and pilaf method

13) Ability to braise

14) Knowing what to do with bones, particularly making stock

15) Ability to make standard soups

16) Ability to maintain a small repertoire of dishes that can be made on the fly and executed properly every time

I would add to this list the ability to cook pasta al dente. Nothing is more disappointing than digging into a beautiful dish of pasta, only to find that it has been cooked to mush. I would also include the ability to make some sauces. Maybe not all the mother sauces, but at least a good gravy.

What of these skills do you agree or disagree with, and what skills do you think a home cook should have?
 
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I find it amusing that, in each case, there have been contestents on top cooking competition shows who serious lacked that skill.

I'd certainly question 14 & 15 for the home cook. Most do not make their own stocks. And I'd be hard pressed, myself, to list the "standard" soups. The ability to make soup, however, should be one of every home cook's abilities.

I don't disagree with 13. Just wonder why, of all the kitchen techniques, he choose to focus on that one.

10 is nonsense. If you have a tool, why not use it? May as well say something like, "...carve a turky without a knife.

9. Another silly one. If lobster and crab are among the things you cook, then you know how to do it. If not, not.

2. Gimme a break. I can't remember the last time I made an omelette. And Friend Wife has never made one. Reckon that makes us culinarily illiterate.

#1, on the other hand, is #1. It is the one, basic skill that anyone who calls themself a chef must learn.

Overall, I think his list is overly specific. The home cook needs to learn general techniques, it's true. Braising, for instance, is just one of moist-heat applications (others include steaming, poaching, simmering, etc.). In the same vein, there are dry-heat techniques; grilling and broiling techniques; roasting & baking techniques, and so forth.

The key to good cooking, whether at home or in a restaurant, is to apply good techniques to good products.
 

kcz

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Taken as a whole, if a home cook mastered everything on that list (plus tyler's pasta addition), s/he could make a lot of good meals.

#7 is becoming a lost art and I'm glad to see it on the list.  Walk around your grocery store's produce dept and just see how many shoppers and store employees, incl those who work in the produce dept, can't identify fruits and vegetables nor recognize when they're spoiled. 

And I would add some baking and dessert-making skills to that list....kneading dough, recognizing when cookies or cakes are done, understanding different kinds of flours and leavening agents, using a whisk, etc.
 
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I agree with moist points but:

9) Who can afford lobster anyway? /img/vbsmilies/smilies/tongue.gif

13) Braising is very handy for the home cook.  You get to use cheaper, more flavourful cuts of meat, but it can go horribly wrong if you don't get it right, e.g. keep it too far above a simmer.  You end up with unchewable lumps of meat.  But a braise well done and well executed can be soooo good.

14) Is another good bit of advice.  It is economic, avoiding waste, and can be done while you sleep.  Resulting in, if you get it right, a much better version than store brands.  I personally do not like store stocks, and will use only in an emergency.  I find it relaxing and really satisfying making a good chook stock overnight on a Saturday night into Sunday morning.  Ok, I'm wierd /img/vbsmilies/smilies/biggrin.gif

10) I agree totally with KYH on this one.  Yes, you *can do it without a thermometer, as in sticking a  knife in, seeing if it's still bleeding, testing the temp of the knife on your bottom lip etc etc.  I started using a thermometer only 5 years or so ago, and I prefer it greatly.  Not just for red meat, but especially for chicken and pork.  Much safer.
 
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Joined Aug 6, 2010
Let me clarify that I don't necessarily think these are all necessary as a minimum. Some of these are a bit advanced. But I definitely think some of these techniques are underrated for the home cook, and are things that everyone should know.
 
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#2 is out for me.  I don't care for eggs.  If I have no desire to eat it, I don't have any reason to prepare one.  Of course, I CAN, but my point still stands.
 
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As for #10 i do have to agree, One of my current teachers uses his had to tell the doness of red meats. Usually steaks, then you dont have to worry about poking the meat and losing all the delicious juices. i am still trying to get a hang of it but it seems to work great. I was wondering if any of you use this method or whether i should stick to a thermometer most of the time
 
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As for #10 i do have to agree, One of my current teachers uses his had to tell the doness of red meats. Usually steaks, then you dont have to worry about poking the meat and losing all the delicious juices. i am still trying to get a hang of it but it seems to work great. I was wondering if any of you use this method or whether i should stick to a thermometer most of the time
I use the hand method. I'm not an expert at it but I'm getting more accurate. I don't like using thermometers because I prefer to develop cooking skills that I can use in any situation. I would love to be grilling steaks at a friend's house and not be able to judge of their doneness because he doesn't have a meat thermometer.
 
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The point, Jolie, wasn't that one way was right and the other wrong; only that if you have a tool, why not use it?

As for steaks: If you cook a lot of them, the learning process is considerably shortened. Most of us do not cook enough steak to really get good at the touch test. But here's a trick:

Using your off hand, gently touch your thumb to your index finger. Don't put any pressure on it, just have them kiss. Now, with your good hand, touch the ball of flesh at the base of your thumb. That's what a rare steak feels like. Move the thumb to the middle finger, and you have medium. To the ring finger and you have well done. If you're cooking for my brother, go on to the pinky, and dose it with ketchup. But that's a whole nuther story.
 
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3) Ability to roast a chicken (and to do it well)

4) Ability to properly grill and rest a steak

10) Ability to roast red meat to desired doneness without a thermometer  

I agree with other posters on topic 10, such nonsense. I would like to watch Mr. Bourdain himself performing that over and over again, and, always do it right.

It's all about roasting and grilling meat. How about panfrying a steak, pork or lamb chops, tenderloin, a chickenbreast? Pork and chicken are probably the most used products by homecooks. Both are notoriously difficult to perform well without drying them out.
 
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I'm not disagreeing with anyone here. I think some of the skills are a bit unnecessary for a home cook. But imagine if every adult had at least half of these skills...
 
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If you could master and produce this list, you could get a job in a restaurant. Why? Because 1/4 of the people coming from the schools can't when confronted with these task. I would hire you in a minute.
 
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Skills can be mastered... but not necessary needed for a home cook. Certain skills can be learned by experience or by watching repetitive action on video etc...

Regard the 'Cooking a Steak' there are plenty of tricks & tips one can master at home. The fingers method is one of them. Index with the thumb (rare), Middle finger with thumb (medium) & small Finger with thumb (well done). Always touch just below your thumb when using this method.
 
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Joined Jul 28, 2006
The first time my daughter decided to host Thanksgiving at her house,  she called me a month or so in advance and wanted me to teach her how to roast a turkey.   I advised her to practice on chickens.  Because they are smaller, easier to manage and on sale, cost much less than turkeys,  she could play around with chickens without feeling overwhelmed.  I helped her with the first one,  and after that she was on her own.  She made one a week for 3 weeks.  When the big day came she was very proud of herself!  So, while this might sound like a silly thing to put on the list,  the fact is that it is a very useful skill. 
3) Ability to roast a chicken (and to do it well)
 
477
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Joined Aug 6, 2010
The first time my daughter decided to host Thanksgiving at her house,  she called me a month or so in advance and wanted me to teach her how to roast a turkey.   I advised her to practice on chickens.  Because they are smaller, easier to manage and on sale, cost much less than turkeys,  she could play around with chickens without feeling overwhelmed.  I helped her with the first one,  and after that she was on her own.  She made one a week for 3 weeks.  When the big day came she was very proud of herself!  So, while this might sound like a silly thing to put on the list,  the fact is that it is a very useful skill. 
That's great that she practiced. I don't understand when people try to make something they have never made for a big occasion. That's just setting yourself up for disaster. Every time I want to make something for an event or get together, I always practice it at least once, just to make sure I know what I'm doing. And if it's something I haven't done in a while, I give it a practice run as well.
 
 
929
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Joined Jul 28, 2006
That's great that she practiced. I don't understand when people try to make something they have never made for a big occasion. That's just setting yourself up for disaster.

I'm reminded of a few years ago,  a friend invited me to her St. Patty's Party.  She never had made corned beef before.  I offered to come early and hang out with her in the kitchen.   When I got there,  it was after 5 but she had not started the corned beef yet.  YIKES!  I said unless you plan on eating after 9,  we have to get aggressive!  I ran home and came back with my large pressure cooker.  Saved that one...it was perfect. 
 
 
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At the moment, I am certainly in agreement that home cooks should know how to properly braise.  Inspired by the discussion in another thread I braised some beef short ribs the other night, had some more for dinner tonight.  They were done low and slow, not boiled to death.  I cooked them in a beef broth with lots of onion, some red Thai curry paste and about a 3" piece of lemongrass stalk.  I would have liked to toss in a couple of bird chilies but my wife isn't into heat like I am.

Braising is a fairly simple technique that can result in some fantastic food, but as DC said, it can go horribly wrong.  Of course, any technique improperly used can go horribly wrong.  A number of the original points can be grouped into the "Know how your food reacts to heat and act accordingly"  category.

mjb.
 
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It's a mistake to take the guy whose name was on the Les Halles cookbook too seriously.  He's something of a snob isn't he?  We're not all French and we all don't eat European style food.  On the other hand, he was pretty close in the sense that being a good home cook home cook requires competence with the basics to have a reasonably large repertoire and be able to improvise. 

Bourdain's dishes emphasize very basic skills, like cutting, roasting, using a hot pain, cooking with low heat, etc., and doing them well.  The way I read his list the emphasis is more on quality than on doing anything fancy, and it makes sense that way.

A braise is a case in point.  Four or five things set a good cook apart from someone who is following a recipe without understanding.  One is hitting seasoning levels; another is not under or over-cooking the protein.  Overcooking to stringiness and/or much is so common among home cooks, as is rushing the process and ending up with something dry, tough and tasteless.  If you can put a plate of tender meat with the right amount of salt and pepper on the table, you've gone a long way towards competence.

The thing is to have a standard that some people meet and other people -- like Whitney, the young woman who won "Master Chef" -- don't.  Otherwise the term "good" doesn't have much meaning.  It's also important not to be so in love with a particular cuisine so as to exclude the others.  For instance there are some GREAT Korean home cooks who couldn't cook most of what Bourdain thought was essential.  But being a lip-shooter is a big part of his charm.

BDL
 
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I think that every single skill on that list can be cooked around in todays kitchen.  Well, if the only goal is to eat food. There are pleanty of canned, and frozen vegetables. Cheese can be gotten chopped and greated. Besides, I've seriously known 1 person who knew how to hold a knife right who hasn't been to Culinary (they all do now, 'cause I showed them.). for cooking at home, I would say that  knowing how to operate mixing spoons, stoves,  ovens combined with being able to follow a recipe, would be all that's required for the home cook. After all he was in the days of Mac and cheese-that comes in individual packages and is microwavable.
 
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Joined Aug 6, 2010
It's also important not to be so in love with a particular cuisine so as to exclude the others.  For instance there are some GREAT Korean home cooks who couldn't cook most of what Bourdain thought was essential.  But being a lip-shooter is a big part of his charm.
You're spot on. I think everyone is inherently influenced more by a particular cuisine, and some cling to one, but you have to be able to appreciate other cultures and their cuisine as well. Look at Mr. Bourdain, for example. Although he was classicly trained, cooked in several French restaurants, and is undoubtedly more French than most American chefs, if asked what his favorite cuisine is, I would imagine his answer would come from Southeast Asia: Vietnam, Thailand, etc. If he had been writing this book for an Asian market, I would suspect many of these skills would be replaced with things such as being able to make a proper stir fry. All in all, it's an interesting list to analyze.
 
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