So you want to start cooking at home, but have never done it before?

The good news is that cooking is just like any other acquired skill: you don’t need to be born with natural talent to become good at it.

Though cooking is often tricky at first, the truth is that anyone can become a great cook. All it takes is a little knowledge—and plenty of practice!

In this post, I’m going to teach you the X most essential cooking skills for beginners, so that you can fire up the stove and get started with your first salads, fried eggs, and browned steak.

So keep on reading if I’ve got you curious.

Table of Contents

1. Know Your Appliances

Your stovetop is best for boiling water, cooking pasta, making fried eggs, browning steak, and pan-frying vegetables. Though retailers will try to sell you expensive cookware sets, the only two pieces of cookware you’ll need for 99% of your cooking are a frying pan and a pot.

Use the oven for baking bread and pizza, as well as roasting meats and vegetables. Unless the recipe states otherwise, always preheat your oven for 15-20 minutes to the desired cooking temperature. You’re going to need a few baking sheets. Those of you who want to learn baking should probably get a baking stone (also known as a “pizza stone”).

You can’t really do much cooking with a microwave. But it definitely comes in handy whenever you want to quickly reheat leftovers or make popcorn.

2. Kitchen Hygiene Basics

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there are 48 million cases of foodborne illness every year in America. As a home cook, understanding and following the basic rules of kitchen hygiene is a must if you don’t want to get sick.

Foodborne illness at home is often caused by cross-contamination. “Cross-contamination” is what happens when you transfer harmful bacteria from one food (or surface) to another. The two tools involved in that process are usually your knife and your cutting board.

Your knife and cutting board are the workhorses of your kitchen. You’ll use them to chop, slice, dice, and mince every ingredient for every meal in your daily cooking. As functional as they are, they can also get very dirty, very easily—from raw meat juices to bits and pieces of veggies and fruit.

Clean your knife after every use. And never cut produce with the same knife you used for cutting raw meat, poultry, or seafood unless you’ve washed it.

There are two ways you can go about cleaning your knife: by hand with soap and water, or in your washing machine.

Use separate cutting boards for meat and produce. One of the best ways to avoid cross-contamination in your home kitchen is to use one cutting board for red meat, poultry, and seafood; and another for vegetables, fruit, bread, and nuts. That way, as long as you clean your knife between uses, there’s no chance of bacteria from one coming into contact with the other.

Clean each of your cutting boards after every use. No matter if you’re using a plastic or wooden cutting board, give it a good scrub with a soft sponge dipped in soapy water after every use. Don’t let your cutting board air-dry. Instead, pat it dry with a paper towel or lint-free cloth before hanging it in your kitchen or storing it in one of the cabinets.

3. Choose a Good Frying Pan

My 10-inch stainless steel frying pan

A well-made frying pan is durable, versatile, and affordable. It has a heavy bottom and heats evenly and comes with a metal handle so that you can put it in the oven. But head to the local department store or look for one online, and you’ll easily get overwhelmed by the choice.

How to select the right brand, size, and material for you? Focus on the brand, size, material, and handle.

Buy your cookware from brands that you can trust.

Your food comes in direct contact with the pans and pots you use on a daily basis. You want to be sure that they contain only the metals and materials it says on the label.

The higher the quality of your frying pan, the easier it is to cook great food with it. No matter which material you end up going for, look for a pan with a thick and heavy base that won’t warp easily and that allows it to heat up evenly.

Some of the best cookware brands are All-Clad for USA-made stainless steel, Lodge for USA-made cast iron, and Mauviel for French-made copper.

Frying pans tend to come in four sizes: 8″ (20 cm), 10″ (25.4 cm), 12″ (30.4 cm), and 14″ (35.6 cm). To determine the right size for you, think about the number of people you cook for.

If you live by yourself and friends or family don’t come to visit all that often, an 8″ frying pan will have enough space for your daily cooking. If you frequently cook for others, don’t hesitate to get a 10″ pan—you’re going to need the extra room whenever you have guests over.

Home cooks who live in households of two should consider getting a 10″ or 12″ frying pan. In a Chowhound thread on the topic, most of the participants swear by the latter. My 2¢? When it comes to pans, it’s better to have a little more space than you need than no space at all.

If you have a big family and you cook for a crowd every day, a 12″ pan is still an option, but one with a diameter of 14″ is almost always the better choice. As the saying goes, “buy it nice or buy it twice.” Cheap pans this size are prone to heating unevenly and having too many cold spots.

Need more help picking the right size for your needs? Check out my recent post, “What Skillet Size Is Right for You (8, 10, or 12 Inches)?” 

There are five types of frying pans: non-stick, stainless steel, cast iron, carbon steel, and copper. Here’s how to choose.

Non-stick frying pans are typically made of aluminum coated with a non-stick cooking surface made of PTFE or ceramic. They’re the best type of pans for preparing eggs, fish, grilled cheese sandwiches, and pancakes.

Stainless steel frying pans are made of multiple layers of stainless steel, sometimes clad around an aluminum or copper core for improved heat conductivity. Their shiny surface is ideal for searing steaks, sautéing mushrooms, and making the most delicious pan sauces.

Cast iron skillets are made by smelting iron ore and pouring it into single-piece molds. They’re virtually indestructible and hold on to heat really well, which makes them great for steak, pork chops, and salmon. But they’re very heavy and shouldn’t be used to cook acidic foods, like tomato, vinegar, and wine sauces.

Carbon steel skillets have all the advantages and drawbacks of cast iron but are lighter and thinner than it. Since they’re easier to lift, hold, and toss, some professional chefs and home cooks prefer carbon steel over cast iron as a material for skillets.

Copper pans are extremely responsive to heat. They heat up quickly and cool down just as fast, giving you unrivaled control over the cooking temperature. They’re also heavy and expensive. If carbon steel and cast iron skillets are the workhorses of a kitchen, copper pans are the Ferrari sports car parked in the garage.

Generally speaking, pans with a bare metal handle are more functional and durable than those with a handle made of (or covered with) wood, plastic, or silicone.

If you need help picking and want to see my top picks, check out my frying pan buyer’s guide.

4. Select a Good Steak at the Store

Unless you’re planning to butcher a cow, great steak starts with your trip to the grocery store or butcher shop. Too much choice at the store can easily stress you out, so here’s what to look for.

To pick a good steak, look for well-marbled meat that’s 1 ½ inch thick. Marbling is the streaks and patches of white fat that builds up between the muscle tissue of the cow. When cooked, it makes your steak smell beefy, gives it a succulent taste, and contributes to the tenderness of its texture.

The best cuts of beef for steak are tenderloin, ribeye (bone-in or boneless), T-bone (when sold without the bone, it’s also known as “filet mignon”), rump steak, and skirt steak. They come from different parts of the cow—and each of them is juicy, aromatic, and flavorful in its unique way.

Bone-in steaks are typically more savory and mellow than their boneless counterparts, but they’re also harder to pan-fry. If you’re a beginner in cooking, start by making boneless steak till you feel ready to graduate to bone-in.

USDA Prime, Choice, or Select?

Readers who live in the United States know that packaged cuts of beef are labeled with one of three USDA-regulated grades: Prime, Choice, and Select. What do they tell you as a consumer?

  • USDA Prime is the best-marbled beef that comes from young, well-fed cattle. It’s the steak you’d usually be served when eating at a good steakhouse or the restaurant of a high-end hotel.
  • USDA Choice is beef that’s still of high quality, but usually has less marbling than you’d find on USDA Prime. If you want to buy a good steak without needing to break the bank, go for this grade of beef.
  • USDA Select is for beef that has a very little amount of intramuscular fat. Steak from this grade of beef comes out tough and dry, which is why you should avoid it.

Steak is one of those purchases where splurging makes sense—and saving doesn’t. 

I don’t know about you folks, but I prefer to eat a tender and juicy steak once or twice a week than rough and dry steak every weeknight.

Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed Beef

How a cow is raised and fed determines the quality of the steak you get.

Grass-fed cows eat a natural diet of grass and forage. Not all grass-fed cows are pasture-raised. Cows confined in cages who spend their whole lives inside the barn can still be fed with grass. Pasture-raised cows were allowed to go outside, roam pastures freely, and eat by themselves.

Grain-fed cows eat an unnatural diet of corn and soy. Compared to grass-fed beef, grain-fed beef is fattier and more caloric. The fat is brighter and whiter, with more marbling because of the carbohydrates and oil in the grains. This makes for great steak with a slightly buttery flavor.

Choosing between grass-fed and grain-fed beef comes to your personal preferences.

Some prefer grass-fed meat from pasture-raised cows, since they’ve been fed their natural diet and have been raised in a humane way. They also get significantly more movement and exercise for their food, making their meat leaner than their grain-fed counterparts.

Grain-fed cows are on a high-calorie diet and don’t move around all that much. They gain weight quickly, which makes their meat marbled with more fat and more tender compared to grass-fed cows. So some BBQ masters swear by the steak they get from grain-fed beef.

Which kind of beef do you prefer—and why?

5. Cook Steak on Your Stove

You can make chef-grade steak in your frying pan

Equip yourself with a good skillet and the techniques that you’re about to learn—and you’ll be able to make pan-fried steak just like the pitmasters at BBQ joints do.

To make great pan-fried steak, select a cut that’s about 1 ½ inch thick and season it generously with salt and freshly-cracked peppercorn 40 minutes before cooking. Pan-fry the steak in a preheated skillet for 3-4 minutes on each side (for medium-rare) and let rest for 10 minutes before serving.

When it comes to beef, the fat is where it’s at.

Fat melts and adds to the aroma, flavor, and texture of your steak when cooked. A tasty and juicy steak comes from a thick cut of beef that’s marbled with plenty of white fat between the red muscle tissue.

Season the steak with kosher salt and freshly-cracked black pepper for 40 minutes before cooking.

During that time, the salt will draw out moisture from the meat, forming a salty brine that makes your steak more flavorful.

The salty brine will also break down the structure of the proteins in the meat, which means your steak will come out noticeably more tender.

Cook steak in a skillet made of cast iron, carbon steel, stainless steel, or copper.

Skillets with a thick and heavy bottom heat up more evenly than their thin and lightweight counterparts. Don’t pan-fry red meat or poultry in a non-stick pan. The slick coating can’t produce the crispiness and browning you’re aiming for.

Preheat your skillet over medium-high heat for 2-3 minutes before cooking the steak with it. 

Some pans heat up faster than others—and not all stovetops are made equal. There are home cooks who rely on their senses to tell when their skillet is hot enough.

Others go the scientific route and point an infrared thermometer to the surface of their pans. When pan-frying steak, the surface temperature you’re aiming for 425°F (218.3°C).

The key to making a great pan-fried steak is knowing when to take it off the heat. Tender cuts of beef don’t take all that much to cook.

Here’s a list of the cooking times for each degree of doneness for the typical 1 ½ steak:

ThicknessTimeInternal TemperatureResult
1 ½ inch1-2 minutes per side125°F (51.6°C)Rare
1 ½ inch3-4 minutes per side135°F (57.2°C)Medium-rare
1 ½ inch5-6 minutes per side145°F (62.7°C)Medium
1 ½ inch8-9 minutes per side150°F (65.6°C)Medium-well
1 ½ inch11-12 minutes per side160°F (71.1°C)Well

Once your steak is done, take it off the heat and let it rest for 10 minutes. During that time, the residual heat will finish cooking it to perfection. As a result, the beef will lose less juice once you start cutting it.

6. Tell If Eggs Are Fresh

Without a doubt, eggs are one of the most versatile ingredients in your kitchen. You can cook them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You can fry them, turn them into an omelet, and even bake a frittata with them.

But how can you tell if they’re fresh?

Start with the date on the carton. Commercially-laid eggs start their life with a “best by” date, which is typically 30-35 days from the date of packing.

Here’s the thing: sometimes, you don’t have that date available to you. If you’re like me, then you like to take the eggs out of the package as soon as you bring them home, and place each of them in the dedicated egg holder on the fridge door.

Happily, there is a way to tell if an egg is fresh without knowing the “best by” date. Use the so-called “float test.”

As an egg gets older, the water that’s contained inside it will evaporate—and gradually get replaced by small pockets of air. The older the egg, the more air contained inside it.

To tell if an egg is fresh, carefully place it in a tall glass of water. A fresh egg will sink like a stone; an egg that’s gone bad will rise up quickly to the surface.

The float test is so simple, yet so precise, that it can almost help you determine the exact age of an egg.

Here’s what it tells you:

  • If the egg sinks to the bottom of the glass and lies horizontally, it’s fresh. It’s not older than 1 to 3 days;
  • If the egg sinks to the bottom of the glass and lies diagonally, it’s likely up to 7 days old.
  • If the egg sinks to the bottom of the glass and stands up straight, it’s probably up to 14 days old.
  • If the egg floats, it’s already gone bad. Discard it immediately.

Since learning this method, it’s never failed me. Try it out for yourselves and let me know how it worked out for you.

7. Boil Eggs Perfectly

Boiled eggs can be a pain to perfect. In any case, you’re looking for tender whites that won’t break when they come in contact with your fork, and a yolk cooked precisely to your taste—runny, creamy, or firm.

Here’s how to get boiled eggs right.

Fill your pot with water, set the heat on your stove to high, and bring the water in the pot to a rolling boil.

A “rolling boil,” also known as a “full boil,” happens when water reaches its boiling point of 212°F (100°C). At this stage, big bubbles start to vigorously appear, move around, and burst in the water.

How much time it takes for the water in your pot to reach a rolling boil ultimately depends on the size of your pot, the amount of water you’ve filled it with, and your stove. As a general rule of thumb, this typically takes 10-15 minutes.

In a hurry? Bring the water to a boil in a kettle and transfer it to your pot. You’ll be able to shed 10 minutes off of the cooking time with this trick.

Gently place each of the eggs in your pot using a spoon. Bring the heat on your stove down to medium-high, changing the state of the water to a so-called “gentle boil.”

Start timing your eggs:

  • For soft-boiled eggs with runny yolks, remove the eggs in 3-4 minutes
  • For medium-boiled eggs with creamy yolks, remove the eggs in 6-7 minutes
  • For hard-boiled eggs with crumbly yolks, remove the eggs from the water in 9-10 minutes

As you boil more and more eggs over the course of time, you’ll gradually come to the best time for the way you like them.

Approach the exercise like a mathematician would approach an equation: your constant is heat and your variable is cooking time. To find the perfect timing for your preferences, experiment with the variable. Boil 2-3 eggs and take them out at different times, approximately 1-2 minutes apart.

Write down the cooking time for the one whose taste and texture you liked the most, and follow it every time you make boiled eggs.

Once the eggs are done, allow them to cool down before peeling them or place them under cold running water for 30-40 seconds. They will have accumulated a lot of residual heat and you can burn your hands just like that.

8. Hold a Chef’s Knife

The chef’s knife is one of the most essential tools in your kitchen. And learning how to hold it properly will help you stay safe, prep easier, and cook faster.

How to hold a chef’s knife?

Grab the knife by the handle firmly in the palm of your dominant hand. Hold on to the handle with your middle, ring, and pinky fingers, gripping the opposite sides of the blade with your thumb and index fingers.

This knife-holding technique gives you complete control over the knife’s weight, position, and angle—making it the easiest and safest way for cutting food.

It’s also where most cooks make mistakes. They wrap their entire hand around the handle and don’t grip the blade with their thumb and index finger; They hold the handle halfway or loosely, giving them little control over its movement.

9. Make Pasta Like an Italian

The first time I ate pasta in Italy, it was a revelation. Everything that had the audacity to call itself pasta, which I had eaten prior to that day, turned out to be a lie.

The pasta noodles were tender and cooked through on the inside, yet firm to the bite and with a slight crunch on the outside. The tomato sauce was rich and comforting. As soon as I tasted it, I knew authentic Italian pasta would become one of my favorite things to eat and cook.

In the next few paragraphs, I’m going to share my techniques with you. Try them out for yourselves and travel with me back in time to that day in Verona, a beautiful city in northern Italy’s Veneto region, where delicious pasta is the norm and opera is sung in Roman amphitheaters.

In its purest form, an authentic Italian pasta dish has three components: the pasta, the sauce, and the cheese.

Boil the pasta and cook the sauce simultaneously on your stove. Shortly before both of them are done, take the pasta pot off the heat, strain the noodles or shapes from the water, transfer it to the frying pan, and finish cooking it with the sauce.

All you’re going to need is boxed pasta, extra virgin olive oil, 2-3 cloves of garlic, canned tomatoes (whole peeled plum tomatoes are best), and coarse sea salt.

As long as you have these five ingredients handy, here’s how to make pasta like an Italian.

Prep the ingredients for your sauce

Open the can, pour its contents in a bowl, and crush the tomatoes by hand. Those of you who like their tomato sauce creamy, but not chunky, should use an immersion blender at this step.

Peel and mince the garlic. How finely you chop the garlic is up to you. I like mine somewhat fine but chopped into small pieces that I can still feel in my mouth.

Set the hand-crushed tomatoes and minced garlic aside for the time being.

Continue to the next step.

Boil the pasta noodles

Generously salt a pot of water (Italian chefs like to say that pasta water should taste like the sea) and, over high heat, bring it to a rolling boil. This typically takes 10-15 minutes.

Once the water is up to a boil, add the dried pasta to the pot and give it an initial stir.

Cook the pasta 2-3 minutes less than the recommended time in the instructions on the back of the package. Don’t worry; as you will see in the next steps, you’re going to finish cooking it in your frying pan, on the stove.

While the pasta is boiling, make a tomato sauce in your pan

Preheat your pan over medium heat for 1-2 minutes.

Drizzle 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil, allow it 10-15 seconds to heat up and add the garlic. Pan-fry the garlic, stirring frequently, for 20-30 seconds. Professional chefs call this technique “sautéing” garlic.

Pour the hand-crushed tomatoes from the bowl into the frying pan. Season the sauce with a pinch or two of sea salt. Let cook, stirring occasionally.

Approximately 2-3 minutes before the pasta is done, take the pot off the heat, strain the pasta from the water, and add to the sauce in your frying pan, stirring.

Finish cooking the pasta with the sauce for 1-2 minutes, stirring occasionally and gently. By doing so, you’re allowing two things to happen:

  1. Tiny bits and pieces from the sauce will hide inside the nooks and crannies of the noodles, and the rest will cling on to their surface—packing a burst of flavor in every bite.
  2. The pasta will cook through on the inside and come out al dente.

Al dente, which translates literally as “to the tooth,” is a term that professional chefs use to describe the state of pasta when it’s nice and tender on the inside, but still firm to the bite and with a very slight crunch on the outside.

Take the pan off the heat, plate the pasta, grate a small block of hard Italian cheese on top, and serve.

Buon appetito!

10. Assemble a Salad

Salads are one of the simplest ways to add vegetables to your diet. But don’t let their simplicity fool you—they can be as flavorful and as rich as any other dish!

A delicious and nutritious salad consists of several building blocks:

  • Leafy greens
  • Fresh or grilled vegetables
  • Legumes
  • Fruit or dried fruit
  • Cheese
  • Grilled or cured meat
  • Nuts, croutons, tortilla chips, or pasta shapes
  • The dressing

Combine at least three of these building blocks when you’re assembling a salad, and it will come out as if it were delivered to you from your favorite restaurant.

Some of the best leafy greens for salad include lettuce, iceberg, kale, arugula, radicchio, romaine (also known as “cos”), baby spinach, radish greens, and escarole. For a tasty and healthy salad, combine multiple greens of different colors together.

Common ingredients for salad include tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, bell peppers, mushrooms, olives, capers, baby radishes, red beets, and avocado. Some home cooks like to add a touch of sweetness to their salad with apples, prunes, raisins, and dried berries.

Adding protein to your salad is an excellent way to make it more nutritional. Some of the most popular sources of protein for adding to salad include browned bacon, grilled boneless chicken, roast beef, and tuna, as well as beans, lentils, and tofu for vegans.

Add quinoa, rice, croutons, tortilla chips, pita chips, and pasta to add carbs to your salad. And don’t forget sources of fatty acids like almonds, cashew, and walnuts.

For a Mediterranean salad, add cubes of Greek feta cheese, shreds of savory Parmigiano-Reggiano or gamey Pecorino Romano. Spanish queso, French brie, and Italian gorgonzola are good additions to sweeter salads with raisins and dried berries.

Last but not least, a great salad is tossed with great dressing.

11. Mix Up Homemade Salad Dressing

I know what you’re thinking… “Salad dressing?! What’s the point?”

If you don’t dress up your salad with a few extra flavors, all that wonderful fresh produce will come out tasting bland.

Don’t fall for the ready-made salad dressings in the store. They’re full of ingredients you don’t want in your body. And, frankly speaking, making your own dressing at home won’t really take you all that much.

In a bowl, mix ½ cup extra virgin olive oil; 3-4 tablespoons apple cider vinegar; 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard (those of you who don’t like Dijon mustard’s hot kick can substitute with New York deli-style honey mustard); 1 clove garlic (finely chopped); 1 teaspoon maple syrup, honey, or cane sugar; and ½ teaspoon fine sea salt.

Incorporate the ingredients of your salad dressing with a whisk or a fork, using just like you’d do when whisking together eggs for an omelet.

Drizzle 2-3 tablespoons on each plated salad—and serve.

Homemade salad dressing will keep for up to 2 weeks in the fridge. Dress your everyday salads with it and I guarantee you that you’ll be blown away by the difference in taste.

12. Tell If Fish Is Fresh

A fishmonger once told me that the best way to tell if a fish is fresh is to look for four things: (1) fresh smell, (2) shiny skin, (3) firm flesh, and (4) clear eyes. If all of these are present, that’s how you know that your fish was just caught.

Since, I’ve created a system of my own to test fish for freshness at the grocery store or fish market. Just follow these four simple steps, and you’ll never be tricked into buying last week’s catch.

Step 1. Lean your head toward the fish and sniff it. You want it to smell fresh like the sea or lake, and not have a bacterial odor of decomposing flesh.

Step 2. Shiny and metallic skin with saturated colors is a sign that the fish you’re looking at is fresh. Dull, grayish, or discolored skin indicates it’s old.

Step 3. With your index finger, give a light touch to the fish. If the skin springs back up right away, it means that it’s fresh. If it leaves a mark, it’s a sign that it isn’t.

Step 4. The fish should have clear eyes. If they’re cloudy and foggy instead, then it’s most probably past its prime.

In Conclusion

Who says you need to order out or go pick up takeout? With these cooking skills, it’ll be like having your own personal chef in the comfort of your home kitchen.