Essential Skills for a Home Cook

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My feeling is that if you take this list in the sense in which we mostly agree it's intended --- see BDL's remarks above --- I'm basically fine with it.

I don't think making an omelet is so important, though I agree it's a fun thing to know how to do; the fact is, most Americans have never had a classical French omelet and I'm not so sure most would want one, so learning the old bowl-of-the-fork shake method isn't so necessary. In a restaurant, yes, but at home? I'd replace this with making crepes, myself, but I know many would disagree.

As to roasting meat without a thermometer, I think it's worthwhile but not essential. The point, as I read it, is that you should be able to tell when red meat (including pork) is done by feel, at least within a certain range of tolerance. If he means you shouldn't use a good thermometer when one is available, that's stupid, frankly.

I'd add the ability to cut up your own chicken. Chicken is inexpensive and constantly available in US supermarkets, but people spend inordinate amounts buying badly pre-cut chicken that has usually sat on the shelf too long anyway. If you cut your own, you have whatever cuts you want, when you want them, and of course bones for stock, fat for rendering, and so on. Since I take it the point of the list is in part to liberate the home cook from the tyranny of what supermarkets want you to buy, I think cutting your own chicken is extremely valuable.

Making stock: KYHeirloomer notes that most people don't make their own, but I'd read that differently --- they ought to. If we all made a point of saving our scraps and trimmings and turning them into stock on a regular basis, our food would be better and we'd save a lot of money. Surf around on the web, and notice how often you see home cooks blogging about their first foray into the magical world of stock-making, treating it like some sort of mystical journey. If you know how to heave stuff in a pot and cook it properly to produce a clean stock, you're well ahead, it seems.

I agree with others who've put stir-frying on the list. I think probably Bourdain mentally includes that in his vegetable cooking heading, in the sense that it's basically how to toss a high-heat pan, but nevertheless it's worth noting.

Steaming lobster and crab: well, I live in Boston, so I'm pretty sympathetic on this one, particularly since lots of people boil the s**t out of the things. But I think the notion that this is an absolute skill is silly. How about broadening it to steaming in general --- how to steam corn, for example.

One more thing to add: I think everyone should have some basic thing they know how to do using offal, giblets, organ meat, whatever. Not so much because we all eat this all the time, but because you should be able to distinguish between the extremely narrow range of things we are pushed to eat and the much larger range of possibilities available. My thing is to weigh equal parts of chicken liver and chicken fat, mince the fat and render it, cook minced shallots or onions in that, add the liver and cook until just done, puree, work through a sieve, and chill packed into a ramekin --- quick, easy, nearly free if you buy whole chicken, and delicious.
 
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       I do agree with some of the items Bourdain put in his list of skills that a home cook should have.  But let it be known that I'm not sticking up for Bourdain's list because I'm a fan of his, I'm not. I've tried to watch various shows of his and can't stomach them at all.  A friend of mine has mentioned that I should read some of his books to get a feel for who he is and how he writes.  I don't know, I can't stand his shows and therefor choose not to read his books.  
 
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Making stock: KYHeirloomer notes that most people don't make their own, but I'd read that differently --- they ought to.

They ought to? For sure. They also ought to eschew frozen entrees, throw out their microwavers, and eat more raw vegetables. Those things aren't going to happen real quick either.

The world is as it is, Chris, not the way we want it to be. And the fact is, the typical American home cook is not going to make stock, cuz Swanson already does it for them; is not going to make their own mayonaise, not so long as Hellman's remains in business; is not going to do without frozen dinners, not while Marie Calendar remains the greatest chef since Escoffier.
 
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The world is as it is, Chris, not the way we want it to be. And the fact is, the typical American home cook is not going to make stock, cuz Swanson already does it for them; is not going to make their own mayonaise, not so long as Hellman's remains in business; is not going to do without frozen dinners, not while Marie Calendar remains the greatest chef since Escoffier.
I'm two out of three here.  Haven't eaten a frozen dinner in years.  When I'm poaching up a bunch of chicken,  I might also make broth, but Swanson is my "go to" otherwise.  I made mayonaise routinely when I was demonstrating blenders in a kitchen store,  so I do know how,  but I enjoy the ease of just opening a jar.   
 
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The idea here was not to say that everyone on this forum should have all of these skills. I just wanted to see what people thought about the list that Anthony Bourdain had come up with. I think we can all agree that it's a bit overzealous, but I can appreciate the fact that he believes that all people should have some vestige of cooking ability. To what degree people are able to cook is dependent on many factors, including time, money, and actually physical abilities. But I think we can all agree that the public has a lot of room to improve in the culinary category.
 
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I agree with the list for the most part.  There's probably little need for a home cook to learn to cook a lobster if he lives in North Dakota, especially given the state of the economy.  I love lobster but don't reliably eat it even every five years (I say with regret).  The only thing on the list I have any serious issue with is the requirement to be able to roast meats to temp without a thermometer.  Even seasoned pros have difficulty doing that!  I'd never consider it nowadays.  It's pretty easy to cook steaks, chops & chicken breasts that way but you can't seriously expect me to believe you can poke a steamship round and tell me how done the middle is.
 
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The idea here was not to say that everyone on this forum should have all of these skills. I just wanted to see what people thought about the list that Anthony Bourdain had come up with. I think we can all agree that it's a bit overzealous, but I can appreciate the fact that he believes that all people should have some vestige of cooking ability. To what degree people are able to cook is dependent on many factors, including time, money, and actually physical abilities. But I think we can all agree that the public has a lot of room to improve in the culinary category.
My reading is that he's saying somewhat more than that. My sense is that he thinks the public has very little fundamental sense of what cooking involves, notably the fact that the skills are not magic or automatic or a question of memorizing recipes. People do not actually understand, for example, what happens when they cook their meat --- not in the sense of protein and coagulation and such, but the way it firms up and tightens, then relaxes when rested, and so on. I think Bourdain thinks if people actually kinda knew these things, they would eat better, be more intelligently critical about restaurants, and appreciate good food more fully. I think his list does, in general, point to these things, though I have some minor disagreements.

This is why I think KYH is off-base here: Bourdain's point is that the world may be what it is, but it should not be. Yes, people eat junk and don't care, but they should make stock, just as they should do all the things he describes.
 
I agree with the list for the most part.  There's probably little need for a home cook to learn to cook a lobster if he lives in North Dakota, especially given the state of the economy.  I love lobster but don't reliably eat it even every five years (I say with regret).  The only thing on the list I have any serious issue with is the requirement to be able to roast meats to temp without a thermometer.  Even seasoned pros have difficulty doing that!  I'd never consider it nowadays.  It's pretty easy to cook steaks, chops & chicken breasts that way but you can't seriously expect me to believe you can poke a steamship round and tell me how done the middle is.
The point about the roasting is something I think Bourdain carries over from a time when it was somewhat more accurate than it is today. The extreme example is chicken: how many times have you read, in up-to-the-minute cookbooks, that chicken must be cooked until the fluids are perfectly clear without a trace of rose? That's not true any longer, because the chickens we get in most markets are far too young and their bones haven't firmed: if you cook them that far, you'll be cooking to 185F or more, way overdone. If you have a very consistent supply of local, farmed meats, and you cook them day in and day out professionally, you really can tell when a chicken is done just by hearing it spray, by looking at the bleeding of a big roast and prodding with a finger. Read Jacques Pepin's memoir, for example, and there are other sources: it can be done. But now our meat doesn't come this way, especially as home cooks, and thus this just isn't reasonably possible any more. The point Bourdain is making is a good one: you should be able to tell roughly how cooked it is by feel, because you should have a sense of what raw feels like, for example. But use a thermometer if you want decent food.
 
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As previous posters have noted decent list, few I could go without. Couple skills I would add. First- understanding of spices; what good are perfectly cooked veggies/meat if you can't season them. Second- acceptable substitutions/ommisions. I know I will often start a recipe and find I don't have one ingredient. Now some things just can't be substituted but often one can find something. On a side note why are so many Americans afraid of flavor. Any Mexican recipe that calls for only 1 tsp of cumin or 1 clove garlic is an automatic do not try in my book.
 
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First- understanding of spices; what good are perfectly cooked veggies/meat if you can't season them.  
Spices really don't have much to do with seasoning per se. However, you bring up another skill that is so rudimentary, that I assume Bourdain didn't even see fit to include it. And that is properly seasoning food. Keep in mind that salt and pepper are seasoning. Cinnamon and cumin are spices. It doesn't matter what spices you add, if your food isn't properly seasoned (with salt and pepper), it will come out flat and boring.

Chris, I think you're on to something. The list is more about understanding techniques than being able to produce a certain dish. If you understand how to roast meat properly, then you can prepare hundreds, nay thousands of dishes.  
 
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Any Mexican recipe that calls for only 1 tsp of cumin or 1 clove garlic is an automatic do not try in my book.
So you think every Mexican dish has or should have cumin and garlic? I think Rick Bayless would beg to differ. From his website, a recipe for Cebiche Verde de Sierra.
[h4]Ingredients[/h4]
1 pound halibut, cut into a small dice
1/2 cup lime juice
1 pound tomatillos, peeled and rinsed, cut into a small dice
12 green olives, chopped  (manzanilla olives work well)
1/2 large white onion, finely diced
1 jalapeno, finely diced
1 avocado, cut into a small dice
1 cup chopped cilantro
1/2 cup olive oil
Salt
 
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Okay it was a generalization, I don't put cumin in my guacamole. Just making the point that as a rule new home cooks are afraid to spice and season sufficiently.
 
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The challenge of becoming a good home cook is more the willingness to acquire the basic skills discussed in this thread and possibly a few additional attributes, to possess the skills alone is not enough. 

A good or general food sensibility or food common sense, for the pro his many years of experience allows him to operate on automatic and get it done, most of the time reasonably well.  However for the home cook, ingredients, equipment, even available time, may present an obstacle to setting a great tasting dish on the table, that is where sensibility and common sense have to kick it to get it done.  Further are we just talking about producing classics or special event meal or every day cooking with the stuff we have in our fridge and pantry.  For me I want to cook a great tasting dish every time, not just for special occasions. 

The final missing basic skill for today's modern home cook is............   Basic computer skill to use the internet, including google search.  I sometimes use the internet while I'm cooking just to brush up on a technique or look for an idea to kick up a dish, or I create a dish on the fly that everyone loved and use the internet to find similar recipes to fine tune the recipe.  Recipes, videos on technique, well written descriptive how tos, the internet has made me a better cook, without having to spend a lot of money practicing.
 
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Okay it was a generalization, I don't put cumin in my guacamole. Just making the point that as a rule new home cooks are afraid to spice and season sufficiently.
I understand. However, I think perhaps the most important skills listed above are the ability to shop for proper ingredients. Choosing the right ingredients doesn't make a dish automatically delicious, but choosing bad ones almost guarantees mediocrity.

That's where flavor comes from. Not spices.
 
 
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Well, but I think the point is well taken about spices. Some people are afraid of spices: 1 tsp of this or that in a huge bucket of gumbo isn't going to cut it. Some people over-spice in order to cover up absence of flavor generated by things like proper handling of a mirepoix, caramelizing meat, and so on. The spice cabinet is a good thing, but you've got to have some idea what to do with it.

For me, I learned a lot from Paul Prudhomme, who uses complicated mixtures of spices at many stages and layers of a dish. In many truly great Prudhomme recipes, if you taste as you go along, you keep getting these dramatically shifting balances of flavors. Only when you get to the end does it all come together coherently --- and brilliantly. Many of his chicken dishes, for example, are "kick-your-butt-hard-spicy" until you complete them, because the chicken fat and juice sweetens everything just that little bit that pushes it over into the "gee-that's-spicy-I-think-I'd-better-have-more" zone. Hard to explain unless you've eaten a lot of Cajun food, I suppose, but this is something Prudhomme is amazingly good at.
 
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Some people over-spice in order to cover up absence of flavor generated by things like proper handling of a mirepoix, caramelizing meat, and so on.
For me, I learned a lot from Paul Prudhomme, who uses complicated mixtures of spices at many stages and layers of a dish. In many truly great Prudhomme recipes, if you taste as you go along, you keep getting these dramatically shifting balances of flavors. Only when you get to the end does it all come together coherently --- and brilliantly. Many of his chicken dishes, for example, are "kick-your-butt-hard-spicy" until you complete them, because the chicken fat and juice sweetens everything just that little bit that pushes it over into the "gee-that's-spicy-I-think-I'd-better-have-more" zone. Hard to explain unless you've eaten a lot of Cajun food, I suppose, but this is something Prudhomme is amazingly good at.
There's a lot more to Paul Prudhomme than many realize. He's not just a happy, overweight guy that wears a funny hat and talks strange. He really brought Cajun cuisine to the masses and exposed many people to food that they would never have eaten otherwise. The man is a genius when it comes to spices, as you mentioned. But some of his recipes, especially when working with seafood, are remarkably refined and delicate. His cookbooks are among my favorites to read.

 
 
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Thank you all for a fascinating thread! I'll be sure to keep up with this one.

I'm a home cook. I learned most of the skills above while learning from my mom and grandmother. Well... maybe not omelets! But I can make soup, braise, etc. Knife skills I learned more on my own for a good reason: my mom never used a cutting board to dice onions; she cut them in her hand using a paring knife. I don't remember that she cut herself very often, either!

I've been doing some thinking lately about what basic skills a new home cook would find most useful. My niece, a 20-something with a demanding job, wants to learn two things: how to use chicken breast cutlets to make simple dishes; and how to make casseroles like mac and cheese. I decided she needs to know how to debone a chicken breast and slice it into cutlets and how to make a white sauce. She can make chicken marsala or chicken picatta (for starters) with the chicken breast lessons. Knowing how to make white sauce will keep her away from those ghastly cream of whatever soups when making homestyle casseroles. For her, these are the most useful skills.

I'm opening my kitchen to a person as a prize in an auction for my temple. I'll probably go with the same two skills if the winner voices no preference for what they want to learn. In listing those two skills I'm not diminishing the value of the list above- although I do think that making a bechamel sauce could be on there- or how to use a roux.
 
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Well, but I think the point is well taken about spices. Some people are afraid of spices: 1 tsp of this or that in a huge bucket of gumbo isn't going to cut it. Some people over-spice in order to cover up absence of flavor generated by things like proper handling of a mirepoix, caramelizing meat, and so on. The spice cabinet is a good thing, but you've got to have some idea what to do with it.
That was my original point, though I think you stated it better. Having an experience base with a wide range of spices and availability of those spices greatly enhances ones repertoire. Knowing from experience what flavors will work in combination is something that comes w/ practice. When a home cook starts leaving the measureing spoons in the drawer, when recipes become ideas to be improved upon rather than strict blueprints. - that's a good sign they have that comfort.

Thomas Moser (a rather accomplished cabinet maker) defines handmade as something built with a high level of risk based on the skill of the craftsman. If one uses a bunch of jigs (or needs to) to cut dovetails it becomes cookie cutter reproducible and therefore limits value. If the dovetails a precisely hand cut, much greater risk, greater value both monetarily and asthetically.

When the home cook can transition from cookie cutter to doing by feel, smell, taste, sight. It becomes homemade, unique and their own.
 
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It is important to know which spices complement what foods,  and/or one another,  and how much of each to use for a good balance in the flavor profile.  However, individual tastes vary,  so what one person regards as essential,  another my not wish to taste at all.  Case in point, since Mexican cuisine was mentioned:  Cilantro seems to be an ubiquitous ingredient,  with everyone raving about how important it is.  yadda yadda.  But I can tolerate the taste only in very small amounts.  I don't use it,  yet no one who has ever eaten my enchiladas, guacamole or chile con carne has ever said "you forgot to add cilantro".   And in general,  a pox on all those who think "if some is good, more must be better".   I cringe whenever I see one of those food show celebs (I refuse to call any of them chefs) grabbing a huge handful of the stuff,  chopping it and adding it to the salad or whatever is on the stove/img/vbsmilies/smilies/mad.gif. 

Stepping down from my soapbox now. 
 
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my mom never used a cutting board to dice onions; she cut them in her hand using a paring knife. I don't remember that she cut herself very often, either!
My grandmother never used a cutting board, either!  She always cut onion, apples and neary anything else that would fit directly from her hand to the pot. 

As for the list, I don't have even half that down.  I'm reading the list thinking, 'Wow, I suck'. 

However, I like that such a list exists.  It gives me something to aspire to.  I don't know nearly as much about the physiology of food as I should.  I don't have proper technique in probably more areas than I care to mention.  I don't have knife skills.  I'm entirely clumsy and my arsenal of cutlery includes two knives from Pampered Chef and some paring knives. 

On my side I have taste and a genuine love of learning and doing.  So that's where I am.  I'll set out to tackle each item on that list and once I've done that, I'll learn something else. 

I hope you folks are ready.  You shall be questioned and consulted.  You shall be witness to my mistakes, successes and growth.  Be afraid.  Be very afraid.
 
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