The Beginner's Guide to Cooking
Learning to cook can help you live a healthier life, save money, and possibly lose weight. Some even say it’s a fundamental life skill. Plus, cooking can help you understand different cultures and customs.
“Knowing how to cook is the most beneficial skill one can learn because it affects one’s life in so many positive ways,” explains registered dietitian Ranelle Kirchner, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES. “Most importantly, it will improve your health and relationship with food by allowing you to take control over what you eat.”
Cooking takes time to fine-tune. Get started now with this beginner’s guide to cooking.
5 Basic Cooking Skills for Every Beginner
While there’s no definitive list of cooking skills you “have” to learn, we chose five that will help you whip up simple, healthy meals at home. Start with these, or sign up for Openfit’s nutrition plans, which offer cooking tips alongside recipes. Plus your entire personalized menu easily fits your dietary goals.
1. How to Make a Salad
Making a healthy salad usually starts with a base of mixed greens. Then make sure you have balance. “Typically you want fresh vegetables, something fruity, a cheese if it is part of your diet, nuts for a crunch, and a vinaigrette that pairs with your toppings,” says Juan Muñoz, an executive chef based in San Francisco and New York. “When using a heavy green like kale, use a heavier amount of dressing, and for light greens like mesclun, use a light amount.”
Get started with: Southwestern Salad.
2. How to Cook Fish
When it comes to fish, Muñoz says salmon is good for beginners, as it’s easy to cook and forgiving. While there are many ways to cook salmon, he likes a combo of searing and baking.
- Start with a skinless fillet, and preheat your oven to 300°F.
- Add a teaspoon of avocado or olive oil to an ovenproof pan set over high heat.
- Place the salmon in the pan. Once it starts to turn golden-orange, flip it to the other side and place in the oven.
- Baking times will vary, but estimate 10 minutes per inch of thickness. Cook until firm to the touch. If you notice that the fat is coming off in small clumps, you overcooked the salmon, but it’ll still be tasty.
Get started with: Sesame Salmon with Fennel and Orange Salad.
3. How to Roast Vegetables
In addition to being a fairly healthy way to cook vegetables, roasting them concentrates their flavor and adds yummy sweetness. You can roast just about any vegetable. Just cook the starchy ones (such as potatoes and winter squash) separate from non-starchy ones. (Starchy vegetables will take longer to cook.)
- Cut everything to a uniform size to ensure even cooking, then preheat your oven to 400°F.
- Toss your vegetables with a teaspoon of olive or avocado oil, plus any seasonings. Transfer to a baking sheet, avoiding overcrowding.
- Roast until soft and golden brown, which should take 30 to 45 minutes, depending on your vegetables.
Get started with: Roasted Brussels Sprouts
4. How to Scramble Eggs
For perfect scrambled eggs, keep the heat low and be patient. “Often scrambled eggs are overcooked because the pan is too hot,” explains registered dietitian Julie Harrington.
- Whisk two eggs in a bowl with a tablespoon of your milk of choice and a pinch of salt until frothy and light.
- Lightly coat a nonstick skillet with cooking spray.
- Place the skillet over medium-low heat.
- Once warm, add the eggs.
- Cook, stirring often using a spatula, until the eggs are barely set. For large, fluffy curds, use the spatula to gently pull the cooked eggs from the outside of the pan to the center.
- Serve immediately, with fresh herbs if you prefer.
Get started with: Hearty Omelet with Mushrooms, Tomato, Bacon, and Cheddar
5. How to Cook Chicken
Tired of rubbery or dried-out chicken? “Cooking a juicy, delicious chicken breast is easier than you think,” Muñoz says. It’s a healthy, easy protein-packed addition to any meal.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Season chicken breast(s) with salt and pepper.
- Place an ovenproof skillet over high heat.
- Sear one side until nicely brown.
- Turn over the chicken breast and place the pan in the oven.
- Cook until the chicken reaches an internal temperature of 165°F in the thickest part (about 10 to 12 minutes for medium chicken breasts).
- Remove from oven and let rest for 7 to 10 minutes on a plate or cooling rack before cutting. (This step keeps your chicken from drying out!)
Get started with: Chicken and Vegetables with Ricotta
What Should a Beginner Cook?
You get to decide what to cook first. Make whatever sounds good to you. (Perhaps one of these quick and easy dinner recipes.) Or try the beginner-friendly expert suggestions below.
“The biggest thing to note is that you will make mistakes,” Muñoz says. “It’s OK. Chefs do it all the time. It’s the best way to learn.”
Grains and Legumes
Sheet Pan Meals
Maxine Yeung, MS, RD, CPT, owner of The Wellness Whisk. loves sheet-pan meals. They’re a balanced meal on a single baking sheet that saves time and makes clean-up a cinch. Start with one of these 10 sheet pan recipes. They’re perfect for your busy schedule!
A simple vinaigrette is good for more than salads. Use as a sauce for your favorite grain bowl, sheet pan meal, or roasted vegetables. Muñoz suggests whisking 1 teaspoon each Dijon mustard and honey with 1 tablespoon champagne vinegar, and a pinch each of salt, pepper, and chives. Slowly add a teaspoon of olive oil as you whisk.
Veggie-Packed Pasta Sauce
“You really can’t get this wrong,” Yeung says of this kitchen shortcut. Start by steaming or stir-frying any veggie you like. (Try mushrooms, cauliflower, broccoli, peppers, or kale.) Drain excess water, then add a jar of store-bought pasta sauce. Let simmer a few minutes longer while you cook your favorite healthier pasta noodles. Pair with chicken for a healthy, simple meal.
The Best Beginner’s Cooking Utensils
No beginner’s guide to cooking would be complete without a list of kitchen tools! The right equipment will make all the difference in the kitchen. Skip the fancy gadgets and focus on these items.
1. Silicone or Heat-Proof Spatula
“The flexibility makes it the ideal tool to gently scramble eggs,” Harrington says. You’ll also use this to scrape bowls or blender jars, saute, stir, and fold omelets.
2. Chef’s Knife
Chop veggies, meat, and more with a good chef’s knife. Muñoz recommends one that is light and fits your hand well, because you’ll use it often.
3. Paring Knife
Cut smaller items or make more detailed cuts with this small knife, Yeung says.
4. Cast Iron Skillet
Use this on the stovetop and in the oven. “It’s relatively affordable and, if you take care of it properly, will last a very long time,” Harrington says.
5. Baking Sheet
“Baking food is one of the easiest and simplest ways to cook,” Yeung says. Use these versatile trays for sheet pan meals, roasting vegetables, and more.
Turn meat or kebabs, toss salads, pull large items (like corn on the cob) out of water, and move baked sweet potatoes without burning yourself with tongs.
7. Cutting Boards
Big, sturdy cutting boards will be favorite kitchen items. You should ideally have two: one for raw meat, poultry, and seafood and another for vegetables, fruit, bread, etc. Always make sure to use separate cutting boards to avoid cross-contamination.