Learning to cook has been one of my favorite creative outlets and sources of self-care in my 20s and 30s. As my friends became less interested in nights out at the bar and more interested in sharing stories over good food and wine, learning to cook became a central focus for my mid-twenties. I think most of those years I was playing dress up, trying to figure out what kind of adult I was, how I brought friends into my house, and who I wanted to be as a well-rounded adult human.
My mom is a great baker and loves to cook, but it just wasn’t something that we spent time doing together. I didn’t learn a whole lot about cooking or preparing meals as a kid, so I was starting out basically a beginner the first time I picked up a skillet.
Since so many of you might be in a similar boat and may not know where to start, I thought it would be helpful to put together a list of my most basic and used recipes that I turn to over and over again. Ideally, these recipes will serve as a great foundation for learning to cook and bake a variety of dishes that will not only teach you how to be a better cook, but will also allow you to serve something you made with love and care to the people you’re hosting.
Thomas Keller’s (3-Ingredient) Roasted Chicken
The hallmark of any good restaurant is how good their roast chicken is. What I like about starting with a roast chicken as the first thing you learn how to cook is that you learn a lot about temperature, cause and effect (in terms of what you add onto the bird), and how to properly prepare something so it cooks evenly—it’s a great way to start off as a beginner in the kitchen.
This roast chicken only requires 3 ingredients—1 roast chicken, salt, and thyme leaves—so it’s really important to follow the instructions that Thomas Keller puts together. Make sure you aren’t creating too much steam in the oven (this inhibits the crispiness and tenderness of the chicken) and that you’re trussing the chicken correctly, and understand that you probably need more salt than you’re used to using to get the chicken to the flavor you really want. I love to serve chicken with a little bit of dijon mustard, roasted potatoes, and a really great green salad.
Ina Garten’s Roasted Winter Vegetables
This second recipe is also an easy way to understand the power of using your oven, and the fact that a few ingredients can create amazing flavors. I chose winter vegetable ingredients because I think winter is the time when roasted vegetables truly come into play in our kitchens, and winter is when greens are truly out of season. This recipe involves carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, peppers, and some flat leaf parsley.
What you really want with roasted vegetables is a nice caramelized, crisped edge. To achieve this, it’s important that you coat the vegetables well with olive oil and bake until tender, only turning once, so they end up with the nice crispy edges along the side.
Winning Hearts and Minds Cake (Orangette)
This is the best cake I know how to make. I learned about it from Orangette, whose book I bought, and it’s essentially what she made for her wedding cake. It’s a flourless cake made from the best quality chocolate plus a lot of eggs. It’s one of those unifying dishes that everybody loves, and when you serve it with a little bit of ice cream, everyone kind of stops and rolls their eyes into the back of their head and goes into a little bit of a chocolate bliss.
This is a super easy cake to make; it looks fancy but isn’t necessary too hard, and it teaches you a bit about even baking, looking at different textures of cakes, and knowing when they’re done. Whether you’re looking to impress someone, have an important event to bring dessert to, or just want to treat the people in your life, this is a great cake to consider keeping in your repertoire.
Olive Oil Cake
The olive oil cake from Sunday Suppers is another go-to cake I make when I need to bring someone something lovely, or if I’m making cake for a brunch. It’s a really delicious, simple olive oil cake that’s fancy enough to be dessert, but also light and mild enough to be a great cake that you serve for breakfast or with tea.
This is one of the first things I learned in my new apartment. It was fall, and I needed a really great comfort meal, and there was something enticing about the ritual of continually stirring risotto, plus having the end result be a mix of simple flavors that really showcase the creaminess of the rice, mixed with Parmesan and butter. This dish is perfectly simple and requires only a little bit of technique and care, so it’s a great way to start your cooking ritual. It teaches you to love the process of cooking, versus needing things to be quick and easy all the time.
Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce
This is a classic red sauce that I learned from my friend, Dee. It’s a really basic recipe—essentially all it consists of is tomatoes. Because of that, it’s really important to use the right tomatoes—high-quality, canned plum tomatoes with no salt or extra herbs added. You just slap in 5 tablespoons of butter + 1 white onion cut in half and let it simmer for 45 minutes, and the end result is the best red sauce you will ever have. I can guarantee you will never want to buy jarred red sauce again.
Mark Bittman’s No-Knead Bread
The No-Knead Bread recipe from Mark Bittman is uber famous, and it was how I learned to make bread. All you need is flour, a little bit of yeast, some salt and olive oil, and technique. The technique really creates a wonderful, crusty bread with a bunch of air holes in it. The end result is a great kind of bread that is so fancy but also so easy to make—it’s a great way to up your game and really learn to enjoy the process of making your own bread by hand.
Cacio E Pepe
Again, this is another one of those risotto-type dishes, in that it’s all about comfort and simplicity. Most likely everyone has the ingredients that you need to make cacio e pepe, because the title literally translates to cheese and pepper, which is essentially all that’s on top of the dish. This recipe is another that’s all about technique, so it’s important to know how the ingredients work together, and then follow the instructions to a tee. If you’ve never had this dish before, order it at a great Italian restaurant to get a sense for the texture, then go home and make it yourself.
Jacques Torres’s Secret Chocolate Chip Cookies
Every cook needs a great chocolate chip cookie recipe. The Jacque Torres Secret Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe has been famous for a really long time. It’s a great place to start in terms of upping your game when it comes to chocolate chip cookies. I know there are a lot of excellent cookie recipes in the game, so if there’s another recipe you really like to use for your best chocolate chip cookies, let me know in the comments!
Ina Garten’s Mac & Cheese
I started with this Ina Garten recipe when I needed some really good comfort food, and it’s one I always go back to. It uses a béchamel sauce, which is super easy to make, plus really good cheese. This dish is one of those things that make me think, if you’re gonna eat the calories, you might as well do it well.
Steak with Garlic Butter
I’ve included a link here for perfectly seared steak, which comes together with only a few ingredients. This recipe is yet another that’s all about technique—making sure you’ve got the right pan at the right temperature, that the steak is at the right temperature, and resisting the urge to flip the steak before it’s ready.
Raw Tuscan Kale Salad
This salad is my go-to kale salad—it’s a definite crowd pleaser. I would bookmark it, try it, keep it—you will never need another kale salad recipe ever again.
Homemade Salad Dressing
It’s really important to learn how to make a good dressing—one part oil, one part vinegar. I’d encourage you to switch your dressing up with flavored vinegar, and to not really feel the need to go any more fancy than that. Once you realize how easy it is to make a good salad dressing, you won’t buy it from the jar ever again.
Frittatas are one of those things that look really fussy but are super easy to make. You can make it on a Sunday, slice it up, and keep it for quick breakfasts throughout the week. Additionally, frittatas are really pretty and elevated enough to serve as the main course at a brunch.
Knowing how to properly sauté greens can change the way that you bring greens to your plate. I’m a fan of switching out a traditional salad for a comforting sautéed greens dish—this recipe is an excellent option for that.
Lightest, Fluffiest Buttermilk Pancakes
Knowing how to make buttermilk pancakes (that aren’t from a box!) is a skill that can come in handy more often than you might imagine. We’ve got a delicious recipe here for really, really fluffy pancakes that are a good option to have in your back pocket for when you have guests, want to have an extra special morning on the weekends, or are simply looking to spend time in the kitchen with your kids or significant other.
The blueberry muffins from Gwyneth’s book, It’s All Good, are so delicious. This recipe calls for a little bit more sugar than other muffins that I’ve had, and it really packs in a ton of blueberries. It’s a little bit messy, but is a real treat to have.
Baked Fish (Without Stinking Up Your Kitchen)
For anyone who’s afraid that they can’t cook fish right, I’ve included a link for basic baked fish. I really do think that learning how to cook your own fish will change the way you look at this sometimes undervalued food category. It’s an entire healthy food group you can consider bringing into your diet with more frequency.
Anatomy of a Cheese Plate
These are 5 cheese plates that you can just blatantly copy, and keep in your back pocket for when you’re hosting an impromptu party and only have time to stop at a Whole Foods or a cheese shop. Bookmark this link, study it, and you’ll have a great resource for any future gatherings you host.
A Perfect Hard Boiled Egg
Lastly, this is a really simple recipe for how to boil an egg. You shouldn’t aim to just boil an egg to submission, which will leave you with a really chalky, tasteless yolk. It’s good to know how to boil an egg properly, as hard boiled eggs can be a really nice snack to keep in your fridge. And when the yolk is just done, but not too overdone, it’s glorious.
Let me know if there are any other recipes you think should be included in this roundup! I’m always happy to add to my own repertoire. And be sure to let us know if you end up making any one of these recipes. Add a picture, tag us—we’d love to connect with you on social media and connect with you on your journey to becoming a better cook.
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BY Kate Arends - May 13, 2019
Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.