The Basics of Cooking

How at-home cooks can stock their pantry with vital ingredients, avoid bad kitchen habits, and make better meals.
  • Transcript


Question: What are some basic techniques that novice chefs can use?

Mark Bittman: Well, let's just distinguish between chefs and cooks because I think this is important.  A chef is a person -- I know the word is thrown around a lot but a chef is a person who runs the restaurant.  So, people who cook at home are cooks.  There's nothing wrong with that.  People who like to cook are cooks and I think that's a word that's been sadly denigrated and I think it’s a lovely word.  It's an important word.  So what are the most experienced -- what are the most important techniques for shall we say novice cooks?

Well, reading I think is probably very important technique because probably the best way to learn how to cook remains getting a couple of decent cook books and working your way through them and paying attention to what they're asking and learning a few of the terms and it's such an easy – it's so much easier than playing tennis, for example, that it's just a matter of starting to do it and then doing it over and over again until you kind of get it. 

So it has more – it's presented as a highly skilled occupation and indeed for real chefs or people running restaurants or people doing demonstrations on Food Television it's not that easy.  But for most of us it's not any harder than driving a car, it just needs a little practice.

Question:  What ten ingredients should everyone have in their kitchen?

Mark Bittman: Well, off the top of my head without looking at my pantry, garlic, olive oil, that's two.  It's sort of a hard question because do you want to count rice and pasta?  Do you want to count vinegar and lemons?  Do you want to count onions and eggs?  Maybe that gets you close to ten.  The thing is that there are – I'd there are probably 30, somewhere between 25 and 50, but say 30, ingredients that should be in pretty much every kitchen all the time.  Ten is not going to do it.  You can't do much with 10 but if you have 30 you can start doing serious cooking and if you have those 30 and you stop at the store and pick up the piece of meat and fish and some vegetables, something fresh, you're completely in business.  You can cook half of what there is to cook in all of the world.

Question: What are common bad habits of at-home cooks?

Mark Bittman:  That's an interesting question.  People don’t use high enough heat and people don’t preheat their pans and their ovens and things like that enough.  If you really want to put a crust on something, the pan needs to be hot, the butter or oil needs to be hot.  I mean, these are things that trained people learn.  Home cooks are a little afraid -- tend to be a little afraid -- or beginning home cooks tend to be a little afraid of high heat.  So that's a mistake people make.

Having lousy knives is a mistake people make and it's not that they don’t have expensive knives, it's that they don’t have sharp knives.  On the other hand, spending too much money on cooking equipment is a mistake a lot of people make because you don’t need to spend a lot of money on cooking equipment.  What else can I think of?

Well, attitude.  Attitude is interesting because people tend to be intimidated by cooking and there's nothing to be intimidated about it.  As I said at the beginning, it's really pretty simple.  So the right attitude is the attitude of I'm going to get something done and it's going to be good.  It's not, "Oh, I'm afraid of this," but nor is it, "Oh, I'm going to be Bobby Flay and do something breathtaking."  It's just going to be I'm going to try -- just like my grandma cooked for my mom I'm going to try to cook for my friends or my kids or whatever, which is normal food, the food you like.

Question: What ingredients and spices are unappreciated?

Mark Bittman:  Well, spices in general go under appreciated by American cooks.  I mean, the spices that most Americans used in cooking tend to be the sort of you might call them warm spices or sweet spices like the kind of stuff you put in Apple Pie: cinnamon, all spice, nutmeg, cloves, ginger a little bit.  Chilies are certainly becoming more and more popular and that's great. 

Mild chili powder is a wonderful ingredient that's still not fully appreciated.  Pimenton, which is mild smoked paprika, which is a form of chili, so mild smoked chili powder is Spanish ingredient, really fabulous.  All the Indian spices or Asian spices, however you want to call them, tend to be under-appreciated and these are really simple things to use.  I think part of the problem is when you add four or five spices to a recipe, it makes the recipe look long.  It makes the ingredient list look long and no one wants to see a long ingredient list.

So, when writing recipes one has to be careful but, you know, spices are really -- if you replace them every now and then so that they're fairly fresh, they're there, they're easy to use, it's not a big deal and they make a huge difference.