16 Kitchen Skills Every Home Chef Must Know
From our (test) kitchen to yours, more than a dozen cooking tricks you need to know.
How to Sear Meat Like a Pro
You know that irresistibly crisp crust that comes on a steak or a pork chop on TV? You can get equally impressive results at home. Here’s how:
Step 1: Take the meat out of the refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking so it can come to room temperature. Pat it dry with a paper towel.
Step 2: Get your skillet (not nonstick) good and hot—a drop of water should sizzle on the surface. Add a splash of oil. Season the meat just before adding it to the pan. (Salt will pull juices from the meat if sprinkled on too early.)
Step 3: Cook the meat and wait until it releases easily from the pan before turning it. (It will release once a nice crust has formed.) Don’t tug. If there’s any resistance, let it cook for an additional minute before checking again.
Checking a Thermometer for Accuracy
There’s only one sure way to know if meat is done: Take its temperature in the thickest part of the cut. But if your instant-read thermometer is off, you're cooked. Check its precision in a glass of water mixed with enough crushed ice to be slushy. (Be sure the tip isn’t touching the sides or the bottom of the glass.) The dial should read 32° F after about 30 seconds. If it doesn’t, the thermometer needs to be recalibrated. Here are two easy methods:
For a Digital Thermometer
For models that you can recalibrate, submerge the thermometer probe into the ice water and hold down the Reset (or Calibrate) button (if it has one) or the On-Off button for 6 to 8 seconds, until the display reads 32° F.
For a Dial Thermometer
Submerge the thermometer probe into the ice water and, using pliers or a wrench, turn the nut just under the dial until the dial points to 32° F.
Cutting Roly-Poly Vegetables Safely
To keep your fingers intact, use this technique on wobbly vegetables, like potatoes and beets.
Step 1: With a sharp knife, cut a thin slice along the length of the potato (or other vegetable) to create a flat side.
Step 2: Turn the potato cut-side down on the cutting board. Slice, stopping when the end of the potato becomes unsteady and difficult to grip.
Step 3: Turn the potato so that the broad, flat side from which you made the last cut is face-down on the board. Continue to slice.
Reviving Wilted Produce
As vegetables lose moisture, their cell walls start to sag. That's why they go limp. To get them firm and crunchy again: Fill a large bowl with cold water and ice, add the vegetables, and let them soak for 15 to 20 minutes. Dry thoroughly before using. This method works with everything from fresh herbs and lettuce to carrots and radishes. (Slice first for maximum water absorption.)
How to Pit an Avocado
It’s as easy as a firm whack and a twist of the wrist.
Step 1: Using a sturdy knife, slice into the avocado lengthwise on one side. With the blade resting on the pit, rotate the knife around the avocado to create 2 halves. Twist the halves to separate them.
Step 2: Rest the avocado half containing the pit on a folded kitchen towel. Give the pit a whack with the knife, aiming straight into its center. Holding the avocado half in the towel, rotate the knife to loosen the pit. Lift the pit off while it’s still wedged on the blade. Knock the pit on the edge of the sink to dislodge it.
Step 3: Use the tip of the knife to slice or dice the avocado flesh within the skin. Scoop out with a large spoon.
The Easiest Way to Segment an Orange
Don’t let the pith leave you bitter about using citrus in salads and desserts. Get clean, juicy segments with these easy steps.
Step 1: With a sharp chef’s knife or serrated knife, cut a slice off the top and bottom of the orange. Stand it upright on one of the cut ends.
Step 2: Working from top to bottom and following the curve of the orange, remove strips of the peel, including the white pith, to reveal the orange flesh.
Step 3: Working over a bowl, hold the orange in one hand. Make a cut on both sides of each segment along the membrane. Release the segment into the bowl and repeat, making your way around the fruit.
Getting Soft- and Hard-Boiled Eggs Just Right
Trying to determine when a yolk is slightly runny, or firm but still creamy, can make any cook crack.
Don’t start the eggs in cold water; otherwise it’s tricky to know when to start timing. A few bubbles? Full-on boil? Instead, lower the eggs into gently simmering water. Then start the clock right away. (It takes only a minute to miss the mark). The deviled egg is definitely in the details, so use this chart to get your favorite every time.
This is the ultimate soft-boiled egg: a warm, runny yolk with a just-set white. Slice open (a butter knife works) and eat right out of the shell with skinny toast sticks (which the Brits call soldiers) for dipping.
The yolk is starting to set at the edges, and the white is firm. The shell is peel-able, but the yolk still oozes when sliced.
The yolk is set but still creamy and slightly runny in the very center. Best for adding a protein boost to green salads or for hollowing out to make deviled eggs.
The yolk is uniformly set and light yellow. This is the hard-boiled egg that you need for chopping into an egg or potato salad. Also makes a sturdy on-the-go snack.
Slicing Brownies and Bars
If you want neat squares or rectangles, a spatula won’t cut it. Do this instead.
Step 1: Before baking, coat the bottom and sides of the baking pan with softened butter.
Step 2: Line the pan with a strip of parchment, leaving an overhang on two sides; press down so it sticks. Brush with more butter and line with a second strip of parchment, perpendicular to the first (also with an overhang).
Step 3: Add the batter to the pan. Bake and let cool as directed. Then, gripping the paper overhangs, lift the brownies or bars out of the pan and transfer to a cutting board.
Step 4: Using a large serrated knife, cut into squares or rectangles, as desired, then lift off the parchment.
Mastering Whipped Cream
Getting soft peaks—and not going too far (oops, butter!)—is easy if you use these three tips.
Start with the right ingredients.
For fluffy, stable whipped cream, use cartons labeled “heavy cream,” “whipping cream,” or “heavy whipping cream.” (Save the light cream for coffee.) For sweetness, add 2 tablespoons granulated sugar per cup of cream before beating.
In a chilled bowl, with an electric mixer on high, beat the chilled cream and sugar until the beaters leave visible lines when drawn across the cream. Reduce mixer speed to medium-low and continue to beat until soft peaks form. (When you hold up the beaters, the cream should stand up, then flop over.)
If you do overwhip, don’t panic.
Add a splash of fresh, unwhipped cream to the curdled lumps and fold it in with a rubber spatula. Repeat as needed until the mixture smooths out.
How to Create and Use 3 Types of Zest
The aromatic oils in the skins of citrus fruits are the secret ingredient in countless dishes, from pastas to cakes. Zest adds bold flavor without the extra acidity found in the juice. The key is removing the outer skin while leaving behind the bitter white pith. Depending on the type of zest you need, one of these tools will do the trick.
Y-Peeler: Use a vegetable peeler to create long, 1-inch-wide strips; cut away any white pith. Toss the peels into braises or martinis—anywhere you want flavor but not a mouthful of grated citrus.
Zester: This tool makes narrow, curly strips that add an assertive bite to pastas and sauces or that can be used as a garnish. (You can also create julienne strips by thinly slicing a larger piece of peel.)
Microplane: You'll get fine shavings, with little chance of unwanted pith, that disappear into dressings, cookies, cakes, and pie fillings.
Holding a Cutting Board in Place
A board that slides around the counter while you're chopping is an accident waiting to happen. Keep yours anchored with a cut-to-fit piece of rug pad or shelf liner. (The added cushioning also helps stabilize a slightly warped board.) Wash in the top rack of the dishwasher as necessary.
You Go, Grill! The Ultimate Multitasker
It can do much more than churn out burgers. To cook an entire meal—say, steak, vegetables, and bread—all at the same time, divide the grill into three zones: a direct, high-heat area for searing and fast grilling; an indirect, medium-heat area for big pieces and long-cooking items; and a low-heat safe zone, where you can toast bread and move food to if there’s a flare-up. It’s simple enough with a gas grill’s nuanced settings, but it’s just as easy with a charcoal one. Follow these five steps.
Step 1: Light the coals and let them burn for at least 10 minutes. They’re ready when glowing and covered with light gray ash.
Step 2: Spread two-thirds of the lit coals in a double layer over a third of the bottom grill grate. This is your hot zone, for direct-heat grilling.
Step 3: Spread the remaining coals in a single layer over the center third of the grill grate. This is your medium-heat zone, for indirect grilling.
Step 4: Leave a third of the grill grate coal-free. This is the safe zone, where you can move juicy burgers and skin-on chicken pieces that are flaring or foods that need to be kept warm.
Step 5: Attach the top grate and get grilling.
Making Your Own Chicken Cutlets
Trim your food budget by turning boneless, skinless chicken breasts into cutlets. It’s quick and easy, and it can save you up to $2 a pound.
Step 1: Place a boneless, skinless chicken breast on a cutting board. Hold it flat with the palm of one hand and, with a chef’s knife or long boning knife in the other hand, carefully slice it in half horizontally (parallel to the cutting board).
Step 2: Open the breast like a book and, if necessary, make a cut to separate the 2 halves. Trim any ragged edges.
Step 3: Place one hand over the other. Use the heel of the bottom hand to press down and flatten each piece to a 3/8- to 1/2-inch thickness. Voilà! Neat, quick-cooking cutlets worthy of your best chicken Parm.
How to Chop Garlic
With these three actions, you can prep a clove in no time.
Trim: Use the tip of a chef's knife to slice off the hard root of each clove.
Crush: Place a clove under the flat side of the knife, with the blade facing away from you. Press the heel of your palm or your fist down on the knife until you feel the clove give way. Discard the skin.
Chop: Gather together the peeled cloves, hold your knife by the handle, and place your other, nondominant hand on top of the blade. Rock the knife up and down through the cloves. (The tip stays on the cutting board.) Chop until the garlic is the size you desire.
For foolproof, fluffy eggs, you need to be patient—and follow this step-by-step method.
Step 1: Whisk the eggs (two per person) in a large bowl to break up the yolks.
Step 2: Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a nonstick pan over medium-low heat. Add the eggs and cook (don't touch!) until just set around the edges, about 1 minute. Push the eggs toward the center of the pan with a heat-safe rubber spatula. Tilt the pan so any uncooked egg flows back across the pan's bottom.
Step 3: Keep pushing the eggs across the pan until still slightly runny. (They will continue to cook off the heat.) Transfer to a plate. Season with salt and pepper.
Why Quarter-Sheet Pans Are Kitchen VIPs
Measuring a trim 9 by 13 inches, quarter-sheet pans—sometimes called small jelly-roll pans—are handy for roasting foods with different cooking times. (Two sheets fit side by side in an oven.) Here's what else they can do:
Corralling recipe ingredients. Gather meat, vegetables, and other perishables the recipe calls for on a quarter-sheet pan in the refrigerator in advance to make for quicker cooking later.
Catching drips in the oven. To hold the oozy overflow of baked pastas and pies, place them on a quarter-sheet pan. Bonus: This leaves space on the oven rack for the rest of the meal.
Making deep-dish pizza. Lightly oil the interior of a quarter-sheet pan, press the dough into the bottom and up the sides, then pile on your favorite toppings for a Chicago-style pie.
Freezing cookie dough. The pan's slender size makes it ideal for freezing drop-cookie dough (or berries). Slide the pan directly on top of the ice cream cartons (no need to reorganize the freezer to make room). Transfer the items to a container once they are firm.