And the recipes to use to learn the best versions.
1. A Deliciously Melty GRILLED CHEESE
Serious Eats has a great step-by-step slideshow of how to make the ultimate grilled cheese. The key tip is that you should toast one side of each slice, sandwich the cheese between those toasted sides, then toast the other sides. Directions here.
2. A Truly Perfect ROAST CHICKEN
The only roast chicken recipe that really matters is Thomas Keller’s. (It’s true — we tested a lot of them side by side in a tournament.) Keller’s recipe calls for super-high heat, three ingredients — chicken, salt, and pepper — and teaches you essential techniques that will last a lifetime. Instructions here.
3. Basic ROASTED VEGETABLES
Set the oven to 450°F, toss veggies with oil and kosher salt, spread out on a baking sheet so they aren’t too crowded, and roast until they look/taste good. The only trick is that you sort of have to understand which veggies take a little longer to cook — harder veggies like carrots, potatoes, broccoli, etc., take longer than soft mushrooms and tomatoes — so you’d cut those into smaller pieces so everything cooks at the same rate. Follow a couple of recipes and you’ll get it no problem after a few times. Get a basic recipe here.
4. Fudgy Homemade BROWNIES
Get the above recipe from One Sweet Appetite. A lot of people also love Smitten Kitchen’s recipe.
5. MACARONI AND CHEESE From Scratch
You don’t even need a recipe.
6. Perfectly Seared STEAK
Pat it very dry, season it, cook it over very high heat in the right kind of fat, let it rest. As for doneness — buy a thermometer, poke it with your finger constantly, and practice makes perfect. Here’s how.
7. Killer GUACAMOLE
Authentic guacamole doesn’t have garlic or tons of lime juice in it. (Personally, I think tons of lime juice makes it heavenly, so I add it anyway.) The most important thing is to choose avocados that are super ripe and salt aggressively. Follow this recipe from Roberto Santibanez to make really great guac.
8. Easy Homemade TOMATO SAUCE
Tomato sauce is just canned tomatoes with some kind of seasoning that you add cooked together for a while to let the flavor develop. Marcella Hazan’s famous tomato sauce recipe just has you simmer canned tomatoes with a butter and an onion cut in half. That works. So does sautéing a chopped onion, maybe some garlic, then adding the tomatoes and simmering for a while, like this recipe from Bon Appetit. You can also get more complex by sautéing even more veggies (carrots, celery) and adding red wine and meat by following this guide rather than a recipe.
9. The Best CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES
The New York Times did a great story in 2008 where they tested and retested different chocolate chip cookie methods to “assemble a new archetypal cookie recipe.” The results indicated that letting your dough rest overnight before baking is essential. Here’s the recipe.
10. Slow-Cooked PULLED PORK
This is very easy with a slow cooker (aka Crock-Pot) — here’s the recipe. If you don’t have a slow cooker, use this recipe to do it in your oven and leave yourself lots of time.
11. An Easy FRITTATA
This really comes in handy when you have big group of people to serve breakfast to, or when you have a lot of vegetables and you’re not sure how to use them quickly. Just sauté veggies, pour in whisked eggs, cook it on the stovetop for a while, then stick it in the oven for a few minutes. Recipe here. Once you’ve graduated from basics, try a frittata that has potato in it — YUM.
12. Pan-Roasted CHICKEN THIGHS
This recipe is hands down the cheapest and quickest way to make chicken that’s delicious — way better than anything you do to chicken breasts, trust. Follow this basic recipe. You will use it a million times.
13. Simple SAUTÉED GREENS
Vegetable oil in pan, get it nice and hot, push chopped greens around in there for a while, season with salt until you like the way they taste. Works for spinach, kale, collards, mustard greens, anything. You can sauté shallot, garlic, or onion in the pan before you add the greens if you want, but you don’t have to. You can add lemon or vinegar and some red pepper, but you don’t have to. Get the recipe.
14. Fluffy PANCAKES Not From a Box
Knowing how to do this will make you a Sunday morning hero so many times in your life. Get the recipe.
15. MUSSELS in White Wine Sauce
You’re going to be shocked by how easy it is to cook mussels — and clams work exactly the same way. Add crusty bread and you’re in heaven. Get the recipe.
16. WHIPPED CREAM
A very simple thing that is insanely delicious: Put heavy cream in a bowl, whip it (with a whisk — you can do it, don’t give up, it doesn’t take THAT long; or with an electric mixer) until it thickens, then add a little sugar. Pair with strawberries for the best simple dessert of all time. Here are instructions.
17. A Good BURGER
A big part of this will be learning how to clean and fire up a grill, when the grill is hot enough, how to control the heat, which just takes research (i.e., watch a bunch of videos online) and practice. But start now with this very basic recipe for burgers.
18. Creamy MASHED POTATOES
To make mashed potatoes, you cut raw potatoes into equal-size pieces (you can peel the potatoes or not), cover them with an inch of cold water, bring it to a boil and cook them until they can be easily pierced with a knife, then drain. Meanwhile heat some butter and cream (or milk, or half-and-half) together in another pot, combine that with the cooked potatoes and lots of salt and mash it all together. You can add more milk, butter, and salt until it tastes good if you need to. Lots of people add things like garlic, spices, sour cream, even cheese to the butter/cream mixture for extra deliciousness (like this restaurant-style garlic mashed potatoes recipe). But if you want to just start with the very basics, use this recipe.
19. Basic BLANCHED VEGETABLES
This is the most common way restaurants cook vegetables; it can be done to nearly any vegetable. Do not be scared by this. It is easy and awesome. To blanch means to put a vegetable in rapidly boiling salted water until it’s just cooked, usually only one or two minutes — you will know because your mouth will know when you taste one — then immediately stick it in ice water to stop the cooking. It is an essential basic technique of cooking that you should master ASAP.
Step 1: Bring a big pot of water to a boil.
Step 2: Salt the water.
Step 3: Once the water’s really boiling, put a couple handfuls of one kind of vegetable in the water for about 1–3 minutes (depends on the veggie how much time you’ll need). Be careful not to crowd them/add too many vegetables at once. If you’re cooking a lot of vegetables, work in batches; you want the water to stay at consistent boil the whole time.
Step 4: Taste one of the vegetables after a minute. For bigger veggies like broccoli, if you don’t want to taste it you can insert a small knife into the thickest part of the stem — if the knife slides in and out easily, it’s done.
Step 5: Remove the veggies once they are cooked using tongs or a slotted basket or spoon. (You probably don’t want to just dump the veggies into a colander and lose all your boiling water, because you can cook several batches of different different kinds of vegetables — green beans, then asparagus, then peas — in the same pot of boiling water and make one hell of a delicious vegetable salad. So cook the smallest thing that you wouldn’t want to fish out with a spoon last — like peas — then you can dump the water.)
Step 6: Immediately “shock” your cooked veggies: Put them straight from the boiling water into a bowl of ice water — use lots of ice — right away to stop the cooking and so they stay green and bright. Try this recipe for practice, although if you can’t find fava beans (and they are annoying to peel anyways), just use snap peas, snow peas, or green beans.
20. RICE on Your Stovetop
Use this recipe. The Kitchn also has great step-by-step instructions for a basic pot of rice plus tips to cure your fear.
21. Healthy BAKED FISH
If you’re really scared of cooking fish, it’s best to do it in a little pouch made of foil or parchment because that’s the most forgiving method. But making a marinade/sauce and baking it straight up like the recipe in the photo above is great too.
22. Hearty BEEF STEW
This is a good recipe to learn early because it teaches you the basics of braising: Sear meat on all its sides in a hot pot, take it out, sauté some onions in that pot, add a little liquid (broth, wine, whatever) and scrape up brown stuff, put the meat back in with lots of stock and some wine and maybe herbs, and simmer on low for a while. Add vegetables like potatoes, carrots, and peas (that you want to retain a certain bite) toward the end so they cook until just tender and don’t get mushy. Follow this classic recipe from CHOW or this very similar and amazing one from Gourmet.
23. A Simple CAKE for Special Occasions
To make a cake, you need an electric mixer and some kind of baking pan. The easiest cake in the world is a loaf cake because it’s just, like, a loaf, but it absolutely still counts as a thoughtful gesture if it’s someone’s birthday or something. And they are delicious. Here’s a great vanilla loaf cake recipe from Dorie Greenspan, queen of baking recipes (she also provides a chocolate sauce for it here), and Nigella Lawson’s dense chocolate loaf cake.
24. Basic FROSTING
Buttercream frosting is your basic cupcake/cake frosting that spreads around like magic and tastes creamy and delicious. Most frosting recipes call for a stand mixer (because it takes a while to beat the butter so it’s nice to be able to walk away), but you don’t really need one if you have an electric hand mixer. The basic thing is that you’re going to beat butter for a long time in the bowl and then add powdered sugar. Here’s a vanilla buttercream frosting recipe, a classic chocolate buttercream frosting, a slightly creamier, super-fudgy frosting, and a cream cheese frosting.
25. Easy SALAD DRESSING
You know when you’re at an Italian restaurant and there’s a bowl of olive oil with a little floating pool of balsamic vinegar in it for you to dip your bread in? That’s basically salad dressing that hasn’t been whisked. Once you know the basics, you can truly make any salad dressing recipe, and the basics are:
• The ratio is more or less 1 part acid to 3 parts oil. Acid means vinegar or lemon juice, usually.
• You start with acid then whisk in oil.
1. Start with a large bowl or a jar with a lid.* The bowl should be large because whisking in a small bowl is stupid and annoying and you will have to whisk pretty hard to get the dressing to emulsify/thicken.
2. Then start with an acid. The acid can be lemon juice or lime juice or a combination of citrus juices. You can use vinegar instead or in addition to citrus — white wine vinegar, red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, champagne vinegar, rice vinegar, or sherry vinegar will give you a nicer flavor than just straight white vinegar or apple cider vinegar, which are kind of harsh.
Measure the amount of acid you use because you will want to use three times that amount when you measure your oil. Remember if you use vinegar + citrus it still needs to be a third of the oil amount.
3. Slowly whisk in olive oil as a tiny drizzle. So if you use one spoonful of lemon juice, use three spoonfuls of oil. If you used 1/4 cup of lemon juice and/or vinegar, use 3/4 cup olive oil.
If you’re using a jar with a lid you can just unceremoniously add the oil all at once and screw on the lid and shake. If you are making this in a blender, same thing. (Blenders are especially awesome when you have stuff like shallots or garlic in a salad dressing because they get pulverized and taste great.)
4. Add lots of kosher salad and pepper to taste.
(Once you’ve graduated from the basics: If you want to add other flavors, add them to the vinegar or lemon juice before you add any oil. SO — minced shallot, minced garlic, minced ginger, honey, soy sauce, hot sauce, fish sauce, whatever, put any or all of these in the bowl with your acid in whatever amount you think will taste good. Another great ingredient to add to your acid before you add oil is mustard because it does double duty: Mustard adds flavor but it is also a great emulsifier, meaning it will help the oil and acid blend and thicken into a proper dressing. Herbs can kind of go in whenever.)