Cooking Basics

Our mission is to help you make a delicious dinner with ingredients that are good for you and not too hard to put together.

You’ll find a pattern to preparing most dishes, especially those with meat. You’ll brown the meat in a pan or casserole in oil or butter over fairly high heat, then remove the meat and sauté aromatic vegetables (chopped onions, celery, carrots, garlic, peppers and so forth) and herbs or chilies in the same pan. You’ll add various liquids like wine, stock, tomatoes or water, scraping up all the tasty brown bits to add another layer of flavor while the meat simmers slowly and absorbs all the wonderful flavors. Since many dishes require the same preparation, we’ll give you some easy tips for prepping some of these essential ingredients.

Chopping Onions and Garlic

You should always have a few medium size yellow onions and a whole head of garlic on hand because they store well and you’ll use them often as a flavor base. To chop an onion, set it on its head on a cutting board and slice in half length-wise. Peel the skins off both halves with your fingers. Put each onion half on the cutting board and make two or three slices with your paring or cook’s knife along the length of the onion, being careful to leave the end intact so the onion stays together. Make several slices from the top down, along the length on the onion, and then when you cut across the onion all the diced onion will fall neatly into place.

To prep the garlic, just separate one or more cloves from the head of garlic and lay it flat on your cutting board. Put the flat of your knife against the clove and slam down with the heel of your hand. That will split the skin and make it easy to remove. Then just mince the garlic with your knife and you’re ready to go.

Prepping Carrots, Celery & Peppers

Carrots are easy. Just cut off the ends and shave the skin with your potato peeler. Hold the carrot steady on the cutting board and make a slice or two lengthwise. Then make slices across the length of the onion from the top. Now you’re ready to cut cross-wise to dice the entire carrot. Celery works the same way. Just remove a stalk, wash and dry it and make the same slices lengthwise. Then slice across the stalk with your knife to make small dice.

Different types of pepper are just as easy to prep, although you have to be careful not to touch hot chili pepper seeds with your hands. With a traditional bell or California pepper, slice it in half lengthwise and pull off the top with the handle. Scoop out the seeds, rinse and dry the pepper. Then make ½ inch slices lengthwise on the cutting board, turn the pepper and slice across the pepper to make dice the size you want.

Seasoning Food

Like most guys, we like well seasoned food, so here are a couple of tips for getting there. When you’re cooking a flavor base of onions, garlic and other vegetables, you’ll want to add a good pinch of kosher salt and a few grindings of black pepper. Seasoning at this stage really draws out the flavors from the veggies that are going to be the base of your meat dish or sauce. When adding braising liquids like stock or broth, wine or tomatoes, for instance, you can add your herbs if you haven't already sauteed them with the vegetables. When you bring the liquid to a brief boil, it will stimulate the herbs and spices to do their thing.

Here’s a caution about seasoning meat or fish. It’s fine to sprinkle some ground pepper on meat, poultry or fish as part of your prep process before cooking. But don’t use salt until you are just ready to cook or grill because salt will draw out moisture and that will make your meat or poultry tougher. If you’re marinating a piece of meat, poultry or fish, you’ll want to do this at least 30-60-minutes before cooking or grilling so the flavors can get into whatever you’re cooking. Here are a couple of simple marinades you can mix up in a matter of minutes:

Simple Marinade for Chicken & Fish
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Simple Marinade for Meat
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The suggested portions for these marinades are about right for a couple of steaks or chicken breasts, so if you’re cooking for a bigger gang, just expand the amounts. Barbecue sauce is another matter. There are probably hundreds of different commercial options. We’ve discovered some excellent pre-mixed barbecue sauces: They tend to be locally made in small batches and have mostly natural ingredients. If you want to buy a commercial sauce, check the ingredient label and discard the products that have a lot of chemical or process-heavy ingredients. If you want to make your own barbecue sauce, here’s a place to start – a family recipe you can add to if you wish:

ChowGuys Barbecue Sauce
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Cooking Meat & Fish

The First caution when handling raw meat, poultry, or even fish, is to make sure you wash your hands with soap afterward to remove any possible contamination. We like to rinse raw chicken under cold water and pat dry before cooking. Always make sure your meat or fish is dry, otherwise it may not brown and sear the way you'd like it to.

The trick for cooking meat or poultry is to make sure you have some oil on the cooking surface and to brown the flesh quickly so the moisture is seared inside the meat. The best way to sear the surface is to let the meat (or fish) sit in the hot pan or grill without moving it. Fight the tendency move the meat around with your spatula or tongs because it will keep the meat from getting seared and may actually cause the meat to tear. Let it sit. When one side is done, turn it over and repeat. Try to avoid cutting into your meat to test for doneness. This will release some of the juices that make the meat so tender. Instead, press your finger or tong into the top of the meat (or fish). If it’s firm, you’re probably close to being done; if it’s spongy you may want to cook it a bit more. You’ll get a feel for how much time it takes to cook a piece of meat or fish to the degree of doneness you want. A few principles will help point you in the right direction: A boneless, skinless chicken breast will cook much quicker than a one with skin and bone, in fact, about half as much time. Obviously, a thicker piece of fish or steak will take more time to cook than a thinner piece. Again, you’ll get the hang of this pretty quickly.

Cooking Pasta

We love Italian food so you’ll find lots of pasta dishes at ChowGuys.com. When cooking pasta, always make sure you start with lots of boiling water, add a good pinch of salt and give the pasta a quick stir early on so it doesn’t stick together. You can follow the cooking time suggested on the package, but you’ll get to the point where you can pretty well tell when it’s about done. And, you can always pull out a piece to taste for doneness. Drain the pasta but always save a little of the hot pasta water to add to the finished dish. This will help make a creamier, silkier sauce when everything is blended together for the last few minutes in the sauce pan over a low heat.

Other Cooking Tips

In ChowGuys recipes, you’ll often see cooking instructions like simmer, boil, sauté, brown, and so forth. Simmer and boil refers to the intensity of heat you want to apply to the liquid you’re cooking. Simmer means having enough heat so your liquid is just slightly bubbling at the surface. You often simmer a dish for a long time, so the liquid helps the meat to break down its connective tissue so it becomes very tender over time. A boil brings lots of bubbles to the surface and creates waves in your pot. You’ll boil liquid to cook pasta or to quickly release the spices and other flavors in a sauce. You’ll almost always want to brown your meat under high heat to create a brownish crust and sear the meat so all the juices are captured inside. You’ll sauté onions, garlic and other vegetables under medium heat so they gradually wilt, get soft and release all their aromatic flavors into the pan.

Check out all our tips including great videos on some key techniques.

If you have any questions at all about prepping, cooking or the recipes themselves, just ask by posting a note on the ChowGuys.com Help Desk. We’ll respond as fast as we can.