What are the top ten dishes everyone should learn to cook?
The animating philosophy behind my answer is to best equip the cook to go beyond the ten dishes. These ten were chosen so that mastering these ten will open up an entire universe of possibilities. But there are other reasons of secondary importance. So:
- Steak. Let's start simple. Cooking a good steak is as much an exercise in restraint as anything else. It's psychologically hard to just let something sit there in the pan, but that's what you need to do for best results - not just in steak, but in so many things.
- Scrambled eggs / omelets. Eggs are so many different things. This isn't their only appearance on the list. You should know what happens when you cook eggs slowly. Or when you cook eggs quickly. Or how to get them fluffy. Or not. Or browned. Or not...
- Eggs benedict. Back to the eggs... we haven't covered poaching yet. And eggs benedict gets us there. It also gets us an important sauce: hollandaise.
- Pasta carbonara from scratch. This is sneakily continuing the egg thing. Understanding how eggs work in dough, and developing the tactile sense of when dough is "ready" is a nice skill to have. I specify pasta carbonara, because mastering that gets you further to egg mastery. You have to be mindful of techniques like tempering egg mixtures, or using a double boiler, or getting something halfway to custard.
- Risotto. Since we're in carb-land for the moment, risotto is a nice dish with infinite adaptations. There are always other ingredients, but in my mind any risotto has its basic character defined by the liquid used, the fat used to toast the rice, and the cheese incorporated at the end. Start with something classic, like risotto Milanese: white wine/chicken stock, butter, parmesan. Change it up with mushroom risotto: red wine/beef stock, butter, asiago. Go Asian fusion: reduced coconut milk, coconut oil, no cheese. Beet risotto: white wine/vegetable stock, olive oil, goat cheese. The possibilities are endless.
- Roasting a whole bird (plus pan gravy). We've been on the stove so far, so let's move to the oven. I don't care if it's chicken, turkey, duck, cornish hen, whatever. If you're good at one, you can get good at the others. The gravy is important, because it's the first and only time using a roux shows up in this list. And knowing how to use roux is definitely a tidbit that pays dividends in other dishes.
- Pot roast. I include this for two reasons: first, I wanted braising on the list. Second, it's practical: a pot roast (or many braised dishes) involves taking a cheap cut of meat and making it amazing. And besides, it's not far from a pot roast to coq au vin or boeuf bourguignon.
- Eggplant parmesan. This is the first dish I mentioned that calls for carefully using salt to control the latent water in the vegetable. If you make eggplant parm naively (slice some eggplants, fry them, layer them in some sauce, top with cheese, and bake) you're going to end up with a watery mess. Best technique is to salt the eggplant heavily to draw out excess water, rinse briefly and dry immediately to remove excess salt, and then proceed.
It's also the first dish that calls for frying, which is an important technique.
- Lean meat, like chicken breast or pork tenderloin. Why? It's damn near impossible for an amateur to do this consistently and perfectly using conventional means. And I just had to shoe-horn sous vide cooking in here somewhere. This is the natural spot for it.
- Souffle. I haven't really included any desserts or baking on here (not that souffles must be sweet), so let's swing for the fences.
Well I guess it depends on the occasion. Do you want to cook something to impress your guests or just something quick and delicious. If you are planning a special dinner then it would be great to know how to make a few really delicious entrees. So these are the ones I chose to make the list and they are in no special order.
- Lobster Thermidor is a French dish consisting of a creamy mixture of cooked lobster meat, egg yolks, and brandy, and is made with a tangy, morish sauce that is stuffed into a lobster shell. It can also be served with an oven-browned cheese crust, typically Gruyere.
Everyone? That covers a whole lot of territory. I can't see telling Asians, who generally don't have ovens, to learn how to bake things. The ten dishes that have seen me through life will not be the same as yours, so I'd go with basic concepts, e.g. a primary ingredient or group of ingredients that everyone should learn to handle.
Rice - With rice cookers nowadays there's no excuse for not being able to make perfect rice. It's a staple through the whole world and the source of carbs for most people. But in the category of rice I'd include fried rice (re-cooked), pilaf, biryani,.... and there are incredible dishes that call for rice put into a dutch oven or special pan with cooked ingredients and allowed to cook in the oven. Master making rice. It will take you a long way.
Pasta - In this, I include all the pastas. We all know the legend of Marco Polo bringing back noodle-making from Asia, which is probably bunkum but the Asians have been boiling some flour (rice, wheat) and water mix for thousands of years. We have as many noodle varietals in Asia as we pasta varietals in the West. Learn to cook them if you buy them fresh or dried. Learn to make your own - it's not that hard. The most abused item in most kitchens is pasta. People overcook it and bury it in sauce. The pasta should be the feature, not the filler. Look at a well-prepared linguini in Italy. You don't see 200 ml of marinara or bolognese on top of it. If the pasta is well prepared, it's delicious unto itself.
Potatoes - Let's cover the other major carb while we're at it. If we're talking cooking basics, you don't need to know how to make every variation on potatoes, but you should master a couple of versions that you truly like. Boiled potatoes can be delicious but get pretty boring. But if you undercook them a bit so they pieces (say large cubes) stay firm, they can take the extra time to saute them up with some onion and garlic and make truckstop quality home fries or hashed browns. You can also put them on a grill or hot pan with herbs and olive oil and depending on your choice of herbs, call 'em "Mediterranean potatoes" or "tarragon potatoes" or "Lebanese potatoes". A completely boiled/cubed potato is ideal for the forty variations of potato salad you can make. (Hint: That big ol' jar of mayonnaise is less important than you think. Use other oil or make your own blender aioli. Make it for chilling or make it warm. Put some fresh steamed veggies in it.)
Pulses- legumes, beans, whatever you want to call ‘em. The single greatest source of protein, the world over. (I think pulses are basically just dried legumes so maybe this category should be legumes for a reason to become obvious, but I like the word pulses because it's a whole different category.) Throughout most of tropical Latin America you won't see a dinner plate that doesn't include a side of beans and rice. The beans can be any color and the preparation can be with all sorts of ingredients, but it's a staple on most dinner plates. And ask any southerner(USA) if they could get by without either red beans and rice or black-eyed peas. Hummus! The hundred and fifty different lentil and bean preparations you can find in South Asia (a.k.a. The Indian Subcontinent).
Tofu - the first cousin of the pulse. There are probably fifteen ways to make tofu, of different consistency/taste/quality, but it doesn't have to be that tasteless filler you forced down to impress the hippie chick at Martha's Vegetarian Eats in ‘68. Asians don't treat it as a meat substitute, but use it as an ingredient, quite often alongside/with meat. Ma Po Tofu, for the win. The taste of the tofu, itself, is part of the attraction; it's not just a delivery mechanism for the other flavors of the dish. Westerners: You are missing a lot by not knowing how to handle tofu in the kitchen.
Eggs - Tremendous renewable resource. One spring chicken makes one meal. Let it grow up to be a layer and you can get a hundred times the sustenance. Fry ‘em, boil ‘em, coddle ‘em, poach ‘em, baste ‘em. Hard boiled, soft-boiled. Over easy. Sunnyside up. Over not-so-easy(cook the yolk completely). Fritata. Omelette, classic. Omelette a la campagne. Egg salad. Deviled eggs. And if you break up the marriage between the whites and yolks? Custard! Flan! Creme Caramel. Meringue. Pavlova. All are surprisingly easy to make. To me, the difference between a competent cook and someone who cooks because they have to is that person who looks in the fridge and sees a half-dozen eggs and instead of thinking, "Well, I guess I can make some eggs if I don't feel like going to the store" goes "Oooh, what should I make??!!"
Greens - the cooked version. Stop boiling the hell out of them. You will be a happier person. It's common to hear pseudo foodies say that your greens should be "al dente". Wrong. They should actually have a little crispness to them. Get a steamer. You'll thank me. Or put 'em right on the grill, just remember to take 'em off. By the time that green pepper, or asparagus, or zucchini has a nice grill-char, they're ready to eat. If you can eat 'em raw (and you can) you don't need to turn them to mush. A little lemon juice, balsamic, seasoned salt...? You're ready to go. The flavor you're looking for is in the veggie, not the accoutrements.
Single Pan Dessert - Almost everyone likes a sweet. While I can make some awesome and complicated cakes and tarts, it's a pretty hard art to master. But anyone can make a crumble or cobbler with whatever fresh fruit is available in the market. There are also numerous single-pan cakes, brownies, etc... And if you've got kids to feed, you need that sweet at the end of the meal. And for the oven-challenged majority where I am? Most can be done in a countertop electric oven (not a microwave).
Meat/Poultry - This is a huge category and I'm not going to be specific as to which meats or which fowls. Simply learn which ones behave/react to cooking in different fashions. If you stew the hell out of beef cheeks for ultimate taste, don't think that a better cut eye of round is going to be even better. It'll taste like crap. Pork and chicken are probably the most versatile in this category and there at least two hundred ways to make each. If you're a meat eater learn how to prepare cuts from the most expensive to the cheapest.
Fish/Shellfish - Again, a huge category but still, if you watch "Guess Who's Doing the Dishes" and other reality shows, simply not everyone's cup of tea. But most people have one or the other species/category that they love, whether the ever ‘umble fish fingers (fish sticks to Americans), fish and chips, salmon steak, oysters on the half shell. Perhaps more important than knowing how to cook fish is how to shop for it. Make friends at the fish market, then let the internet be your friend and learn a few preparations that you don't merely tolerate but look forward to. Whether it's a grilled salmon steak, a whole stuffed trout, shrimp creole,.... they can be mastered. It takes some practice. (Protip: the best way to ruin prawns/shrimp is overcooking.)
Everyone should know how to cook enough to survive well, so should know the dishes with least amounts of effort and money, but which give you the nutrients and energy needed to survive. I'd call this a graduate student starter pack.
Notice that you'll need to season these well. Some such dishes can be-
- Rice - A very basic staple that you need to know how to cook well. Once you're comfortable with plain rice, try recipes for pulav, fried rice, biryani, etc for variety.
- Omelette - Easy, quick, hot breakfast
- Boiled egg
- Stir fry mix veg - once you get the hang of which vegetables to cook for how long, and which combinations taste good, you're set.
- A simple soup of your choice - for sick days with nobody to look after you
- Cooked lentils (daal) - nice accompaniment for rice
- Some version of cooked beans (chilli etc)
- One dish that is your comfort food, that you like to eat when you're feeling down, homesick or exhausted
- One sweet dish of your choice-cake/cookies/kheer, what have you.
- Roasted chicken etc if you eat meat.
If you master these, other, more complicated recipes stop looking as intimidating.
There is no such thing. Learning to cook is not about learning to cook specific dishes, it's about learning to use tecniques that alow you to cook whatever dish, or to improvise a dish (as simple as it is) from the ingredients in your pantry and fridge. Once you learn to use these techniques (basic knife skills, how to choose a pan, how to sauté, how to poach, etc.) you can produce whatever recipe in a recipe book with ease. And, yes: people who know how to cook use recipe books all the time. But you can also riff on your skills and create simple recipes. You have a handful of steamed broccoli, a garlic close, some chilli, oil, and pasta: YOu can fis delicious pasta with broccoli in minutes sauteing the broccoli in oil, and chilly, cooking some spaghetti and sauteing them too in the pan with the vegetables. You are out of broccoli and chilli, but you have a couple handfuls of green beans and some ricotta? No prob, you just sauté the green beans, add the pasta, then stir in the ricotta and you have a completley different dish that uses the same techniques.
Very good question, because I believe that everyone should be able to cook. I think that 10 main dishes are a bit small, but 15 would be enough to make you not think what you eat always the same. So here is my selection of main dishes(you can find a lot of information online what to cook):
- Roast chicken
- Basic roasted vegetables
- Fudgy Homemade Brownies
- Macaroni and cheese From Scratch
- Perfectly Seared Steak
- Killer Guacamole
- Chocolate chip cookies
- Slow-Cooked Pulled Pork
- An Easy Frittata
- Pan-Roasted Chicken Thighs
- Simple Sautéed Greens
- Fluffy Pancakes Not From A Box
- Mussels In White Wine Sauce
- A Good Burger
- Creamy Mashed Potatoes
And even much more recipes you can find on BuzzFeed. I always look there to find something new for myself. You can too!