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While you’re in a college dorm, keeping distractions at bay for long enough to throw something on top of some instant ramen feels like a major achievement.
But the world has reached a point where you might not be able to hit up your favorite eatery. (Thanks, COVID. You asshole.) Your home cooking skills are about to be tested, “American Gladiators“-style.
Cooking really isn’t hard (most of the time). If you find stirring pasta sauce on the stove as intimidating as doing your own taxes, we’ve got some step-by-step instructions that will wean you off frozen dinners.
Plus, getting comfortable with the stove may bring you some mindfulness benefits. A 2018 review of 11 studies found that cooking might lead to “psychosocial benefits,” meaning that it makes you feel better and get along better with others.
Once you check these 11 cooking basics off your bucket list, you might even be ready to sauté that tax return on your own too. (Putting food together is actually fun, by the way. Taxes never become fun.)
Let’s make cooking less taxing, shall we?
Keep a few things in mind as you embark on your kitchen adventure.
Firstly, take your learning slowly. It’s better to get your prep methods right and give yourself a platform to tackle lots of dishes. Prepare to fail so you don’t fail to prepare.
If you learn one of these techniques, hundreds of dishes will be at your disposal. And if you learn all of them? You’ll never need to visit a restaurant again. (We know, we know. We miss them too.) Be kind to yourself while making mistakes, and have fun.
Most importantly, have food safety in mind at all times. Have a look at our guide to food safety — especially before cooking meats, which can cause food poisoning if you don’t follow guidelines for prep and storage.
Knowing your onions isn’t the same as knowing how to put them to work.
Build your home cooking library and pump out brilliance. The great thing about cooking is that you can surprise yourself every day, and you’ll only have to change the ingredients to generate a completely new experience.
1. Making smoothies
A really good smoothie might be more than blended fruit and yogurt, but don’t worry — it’s not as hard as it sounds.
A good rule of thumb is to combine the following:
- 1 cup fruit
- 3/4 cup liquid
- a spoonful of nut or seed butter (or 1/4 of an avocado!)
- that handful of spinach we swear you can’t even taste
For a thicker smoothie, add half a frozen banana. For a sweeter smoothie, mix in a spoonful of honey or maple syrup. Blended breakfast magic awaits.
Isn’t this better than dropping eight bucks on the “mean green lean machine” at your local juice shop? (Smoothie joints: Stop calling them that. It sucks.)
These simple guidelines lay out how to make that perfect smoothie.
2. Boiling pasta
Pasta is actually as easy as 1-2-3:
- Boil water with a few pinches of kosher salt. (Why? Adding salt during the boil seasons the pasta internally as it swells in the water. Neat!)
- Pour in pasta, give it a stir, and cook according to package instructions.
- Drain pasta in a colander and douse with a little olive oil to prevent sticky noodles.
Bonus tip: You can cut back on your water consumption by filling your pot only halfway. You don’t need gallons of water to sufficiently revive dried noodles — just enough for the pasta to absorb.
With less water in the pot, your stove is on for less time, and less water is poured down the drain. If you and your roomies try it this way from now on, your energy bill might be smaller next month.
But it’s also possible to use too little water. If you’re left with a sticky mess of noodles, that means there was too much starch for the amount of water you used, so add more water next time.
Learn the nitty-gritty details of how to perfect your pasta and sauce skills.
And now that you’re pasta point of no return, you’ll want to make all of these (plus, they need only four ingredients — simple!).
Still feel a bit fu-silly about the shapes of pasta and where they all fit in? This guide will help you become self-taught-erllini.
3. Boiling eggs
Boiling eggs isn’t hard if you have a timer.
While there are a lot of different ways to boil an egg, we think this one is the best:
- Place an egg in a pot and fill with water until egg is covered.
- Add a good pinch of salt and a splash of white vinegar (eggshells are made of calcium carbonate, and the acid in vinegar will break down the shell while it boils, making peeling easier).
- Bring water to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for no more than 12 minutes (for a hard-boiled bad boy) and no less than 3 minutes (for a very soft-boiled confirmed good boy with a silky white and runny yolk).
- Immediately submerge cooked egg in ice water for at least 5 minutes to ensure easy peeling.
We took a deeper dive into the humble art of the boiled egg.
Add a boiled egg to slow-cooker ramens and curries for that protein power.
4. Making vinaigrette (and other dressings)
Dressing is important both before leaving the house and while nailing a salad. It can transform a pile of greens into an appetizing and rewarding dish that fills you up to the brim with awesome nutrients.
Put down the bottle of ranch and DIY your salad dressing to heck and back. A simple vinaigrette is a mixture of oil and an acid, such as vinegar or lemon juice. Salt, pepper, and herbs often season the mix.
To get dressing to emulsify (translation: not separate into weird oily bubbles and balsamic), stick with a ratio of 3 parts oil to 1 part acid. Add a spoonful of mustard as well — this helps keep that the smooth dressing from breaking.
The simple vinaigrette is a gateway dressing. Knowing this technique means you can get fancy with other emulsifiers and seasonings, such as:
- miso paste
- maple syrup
- chili powder
- chopped shallots
Want even more inspiration for super-simple, healthy dressings? Look no further.
5. Constructing exciting salads
If your idea of salad is balsamic over lettuce, it’s no wonder you’ve romaine-d skeptical about chomping on a salad at lunch. But if it’s good enough for these guys, it’s good enough for you too.
Get creative, starting with different greens (Arugula! Spinach! Shredded kale and brussels sprouts! Expelliarmus!). Add raw or roasted veggies, maybe a handful of nuts or seeds, and even a few slices of fruit.
And since you’re now the world champion of making vinaigrette, why not drizzle it over your salad? See? It all comes together.
But if you’re looking for leafy love, you best add some extras — otherwise it’s not a meal.
6. Making guacamole
Put the olé into guacamole — it’s really not hard to make. Leave the packaged guac on the grocery store shelves and start mashing your own avos.
All it takes is:
- lime juice
- chopped red onion
- maybe a little jalapeño (or a lot of jalapeńo, if you’re a hothead)
Smoosh it all together — lumps are encouraged, chips are optional. ¡Fácil!
7. Cooking chicken
Cooking chicken is probably the simplest skill on this list. Who doesn’t love a tender cut of chicken? (Well, vegans and veggies, for a start — our plant-based pals might want to head to number 9 on this list.)
We’re big fans of pan-searing since it doesn’t require preheating the oven. But if baking is more your bag, you need only the following steps:
- Preheat the oven to 400ºF (about 200°C) and line a sheet pan with parchment paper.
- Place chicken breasts or thighs on the parchment, drizzle them with oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Flip them and repeat that business.
- Bake away until chicken reaches an internal temperature of 165ºF (about 75°C). (If you don’t have a meat thermometer, they’re available online.)
- Start checking how it’s doing after 20 minutes (“Hey, Mr. McChickenface, how you getting along?”). But it usually takes 30–40 minutes to finish.
Note: Raw chicken carries Salmonella, so it’s important to clean every surface you touch using lots of hot water and soap.
8. Baking fish
When getting the hang of cooking, you’re going to want to perfect your fish prep.
Much like baking chicken, baking fish is a snap (not to be confused with a snapper, which is a fish):
- Preheat the oven to 425ºF (about 220°C) and line a sheet pan with parchment paper.
- Place fish on the parchment, drizzle with oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Flip and repeat.
- If fish has skin and scales, place it skin side down.
- Bake for about 20 minutes, or until fish flakes when poked with a fork.
For more specific baking instructions, with GIFs and everything, try out our guide to baking salmon.
Want to graduate from simple baked fish? Here are 41 other ways to prepare it.
9. Making a pot of grains
A warm pot of grains can save a meal or snack — and we’re not talking about that instant stuff.
Most packages of grains, like rice, quinoa, buckwheat, farro, and millet, include instructions. But you won’t truly perfect the art of grain cooking unless you practice. Starting right now.
A good rule of thumb for quinoa or rice is a ratio of 1 part grain to 2 parts water or other liquid. Too much water and the grain will be mushier. Too little and it will be chewy. Adjust according to your preference. You’ll work it out — we believe in you!
Boil water, add grain, cover, and simmer until the grain absorbs water. BOOM. Grains.
Note: These and most other grains can also be cooked like pasta: Boil water, add grain, and boil until grain is tender.
10. Roasting vegetables
There’s nothing like a pile of roasted veggies to make you feel infinitely full and cozy.
- Heat your oven to 400ºF (about 200°C) and start chopping.
- Douse the veggies with oil, salt, and pepper.
- Bake until tender and just starting to brown.
That’s literally it. You can make every meal more delicious with minimal effort (aside from the chopping).
Want more details? This guide to roasting vegetables breaks it all the way down.
11. Making the best chocolate chip cookie literally ever
Like beauty, a perfect chocolate chip cookie is in the eye of the beholder.
Like ’em chewy? Add an extra tablespoon of butter and two egg yolks to your favorite cookie recipe and underbake the cookies by a few minutes.
In the mood for a crunchier experience? Replace most of the brown sugar with white and bake a few minutes longer.
And folks who have special dietary needs, we didn’t forget you. Everyone deserves cookies. Yes, even if you’re not Santa.
For vegan cookies, replace butter and chocolate chips with dairy-free versions, and make a flax egg (1 tablespoon ground flaxseed + 2.5 tablespoons water).
Our gluten-free friends can replace flour with a starchy alternative, like tapioca or potato, and a bit of xanthan or guar gum to add that moist cookie factor.
For specific measurements and more tips, have a look at our guide.
Cooking can be as simple or difficult as you prefer. But regardless of the skill it takes, it also takes a skillet. And a wooden spoon. And a measuring cup. And…
You get the idea. An ill-equipped kitchen means you’re not armed for the war against burning and blandness.
If you’re just getting started in the kitchen, you’ll need some basic gear.
For when you need to make your food’s butt warm.
- Saucepans. Get a range of different-size saucepans so you can have some premium curries, stews, sauces (duh), and chilis simmering away and boil the heck out of your veggies, eggs, and ’taters.
- Frying pan. If it’s fried, it probably comes from here. From mushrooms to meat feasts, a nonstick frying pan could be your new best friend.
- Wok. Asian cuisine lovers should never be without one. A specialty Chinese supermarket should be your port of call for the best woks, but they’re also available online.
Bowls, cups, and boards
For when food needs to be inside something else before it’s inside you.
- Measuring cup. Measure carefully, because too much of anything can be a bad thing.
- Mixing bowls. Whether you’re combining veggies, whipping up a marinade, or baking up a storm, you’ll need a large, sturdy bowl to create the carnage.
- Colander. You should drain your cooking — not the other way around. Use this to rid your potatoes, rice, pasta, or veggies of water after a boil.
- Cutting board. It’s way more expensive to replace a kitchen counter. Just make sure to give your cutting board a good clean after each chopping frenzy.
Handheld kitchen toys
For when you need to find yourself an eligible spatula.
- Can opener. They open cans. What more can we say?
- Grater. Sometimes your cheese is too big, and you want it to be smaller. Why eat one big piece of cheese when you can have thousands of tiny ones? Wait, what? You can grate garlic and ginger too? And zest citrus fruits? We’re in.
- Whisk. Sometimes it’s worth it for the rewhard (sorry). More for the budding bakers, whisks can still play a role in making marinades, dressings, and sauces.
- Wooden spoon. It’s vital in baking, but you can also use it to break up ground meat, stir risottos, and combine foods. Wooden spoons tend to hold on to smells, though. So unless you want a chocolate cake that has a light odor of garlic, it’s a good idea to buy more than one.
- Spatula. Fold cake batters and mousses and lift fried foods to let fat drain off — just not with the same spatula.
- Immersion blender. When things just aren’t mushy enough, blend away. Minimal effort, maximum zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzsh.
- Potato masher. Add a little elbow grease and get mashing.
- Knives. From the phrase “I want something that cuts something else” sprang an absolutely bewildering range of kitchen knives. Get a range of sizes so you’ve got the right tool for everything from fruit and veggies to huge cuts of meat.
We know kitchen knives can be intimidating. Using them safely means you’ll have roughly the same number of fingers after you prepare the meal as you did before. Here’s how to get the most out of your knife without the danger.
HA! Trick question! No takeout for you.
Once you learn your way around a kitchen, you’ll be able to provide joy and nourishment for your friends, your family, and yourself. The basics are easy. Not Instagramming every single dish is the hard part.
If baking is something you want to conquer instead (and who doesn’t?), here’s our guide to nailing it.