Cooking 101: Kitchen Basics

A newby to the kitchen? These tips will really get you cooking.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

I've been developing recipes and writing healthful cookbooks since 1989, and if there's one thing I've learned, it's not to assume that the recipe reader has a lot of cooking experience.

Gone are the days when you can just write, "add just enough flour to thicken." You need to spell out how much flour to add. You can't say "saute this" or "sear that," because most people don't know exactly what that means. The truth is, more and more people are now growing up without really knowing how to cook.

So just for the cooking beginner, I've assembled some basic information I hope will help as you bravely go forth into the wonderful world of recipes. I've started with a discussion of breads, chicken, and pasta. You'll also find a cook's dictionary with definitions of cooking terms (and a little advice sprinkled in).

Yeast Bread Basics

Most bakery products are made with yeast, baking powder, or baking soda. If you're following a recipe that calls for yeast, here's what you should know:

  • Yeast feeds on sugars and starches in the dough. When it grows, it produces carbon dioxide, which makes your dough rise with air bubbles.
  • Too much heat, sugar, or salt can kill the yeast, so follow recipe instructions carefully.
  • For yeast to grow, it needs a warm (but not hot) environment. This is why recipes often call for warm milk or water.
  • Yeast bread recipes usually call for some sugar, to feed the yeast, and salt, for taste and to help control the yeast's growth.
  • Bread-machine yeast and rapid-rise yeast are specially formulated for the bread machine. They become active more quickly and can be mixed in with other dry ingredients.
  • When using a bread machine, be sure to add the ingredients in the order recommended by the manufacturer or in the recipe.
  • In a bread machine, the mixing and rising take place inside the machine. The baking can also be done in the machine. Or, you can press the "dough" cycle and when the first rise is over, the machine will stop. You can then take the dough out, put it in a pan, let rise, and bake in the oven.
Quick Bread Basics

Quick breads are breads, such as muffins and biscuits, that are quick to make because they don't involve kneading or any rising time. Usually, baking powder or baking soda is added to the dry ingredients to create bubbles in the batter or dough as it bakes.

Here's how they work:

  • Baking soda is combined with an acid -- like cream of tartar, buttermilk, yogurt, or vinegar -- in the batter. Bubbles are produced from the carbon dioxide gas that results, allowing the dough or batter to rise as it bakes. Baking soda reacts immediately when moistened, so it's usually mixed with the dry ingredients before liquid ingredients are added.
  • Baking powder contains the acid (cream of tartar) and the baking soda together. Once moistened, they react to produce the bubbles of gas.
Chicken Basics

Here are some tips for buying, storing, and cooking this popular type of poultry:

  • Check the "buy by" date when buying fresh chicken to get the latest possible date.
  • Never leave cooked chicken out at room temperature for more than 2 hours. And don't leave raw or frozen chicken at room temperature, if you can help it. Use unfrozen raw chicken (stored in the coldest part of your refrigerator) within 2 days.
  • Thaw frozen chicken in the refrigerator, or, if you have to, use the defrost setting on your microwave and watch it carefully.
  • Rinse raw chicken pieces with cold water and pat them dry with a paper towel (which you then throw away) before you start your recipe.
  • Clean everything that comes into contact with raw chicken or its juices with hot, soapy water.
  • Chicken should always be cooked throughout. Check for doneness by making a slit in the thickest part of the piece of chicken piece, then look to see if it is cooked through to the middle. The juices from the chicken should run clear (not pink).
  • When marinating chicken, don't use the same marinade that was on your raw chicken as a basting sauce during cooking or a dipping sauce afterward. Put some marinade aside before adding the chicken to use for basting and dipping.
Pasta Basics

Cooking pasta is really the easy part; it's the sauces that can get tricky. The good news is that there are lots of convenient ways to dress your pasta these days; bottled marinara, store-bought pesto, flavored olive oils with pre-shredded Parmesan cheese, etc.


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