Calling all beginner chefs! This how-to guide will teach you techniques for creating quick, easy, and healthful meals. It’s easier than you might think
All home chefs—even beginners—need the basics
- Utensils. You’ll need a peeler, tongs, whisk, slotted spatula, mesh colander, heat-proof rubber spatula, and fish turner.
- Chef’s knife. If your hands are small, choose an 8-inch knife; if your hands are large, go with a 10-inch knife. Pick one that’s made from high-carbon steel, which will retain its edge and shape the longest. Keep it sharp with a sharpener and a honing steel.
- Measuring cups and spoons. Sure, dry and liquid measuring cups are essential for accurately measuring ingredients in recipes, but they also help with portion control.
- Cutting board. Plastic is the most sanitary and easiest to clean. Look for one with plastic grips on the corners so it doesn’t slide around. Or simply wet a paper towel and place it under the cutting board to anchor it.
- Pots and pans. You’ll want a 10- to 12-inch nonstick skillet, also called a frying pan, sauté pan, or saucepan. Other must-haves in a well-stocked kitchen include a stock pot (soup pot), a sheet pan (aka baking or cookie sheet), a casserole dish (9-by-13-inch or 8-by-8-inch; glass is best), and a nonstick muffin pan.
Buy and Cook Fish
WHAT TO BUY
If you live near water and have access to fresh fish, you’re in luck. Freshly caught fish is the best quality and will have the best taste. For the rest of us, the easiest, most affordable, and highest quality seafood is “quick frozen” or “flash frozen.” Pick fish with the lowest sodium per serving. Look for the Certified Sustainable Seafood MSC seal. Both wild-caught and farm-raised come frozen.
HOW TO DEFROST
You can cook fish frozen, or you can thaw it first. Thawed fish cooks more quickly than frozen and lowers the risk of overcooking. A couple of things to keep in mind: Never thaw frozen fish (or any meats) at room temperature, which can pose food safety risks. And skip the microwave; it’s too easy to overcook.
In the Refrigerator: Most fish fillets need to thaw overnight, so plan ahead. If they’re vacuum sealed, remove the fillets you’ll be preparing, place them on a plate or in a food storage container, and loosely cover. Store raw fish on a shelf below any ready-to-eat foods (such as vegetables, fruits, lunch meats, and cheeses) so that juices don’t drip down.
Under Running Water: Short on time? Thaw under running water; it takes about 15 minutes. If the fillets are vacuum sealed, remove them from the packaging first to avoid food safety risks. Transfer them to a resealable storage bag, and place the bag in a bowl in the sink. Run cold (not warm or hot) water over the fillets for 15 minutes to an hour, or until the fillets are thawed. You can also soak frozen fish, in the plastic bag, in cold water. Change the water every 15 to 30 minutes.
HOW TO COOK
Rinse the frozen or thawed fillets under cold water, pat them dry with a paper towel, then lightly brush both sides with olive oil and seasoning. Try garlic powder, herbs, or a salt-free blend such as Mrs. Dash.
Frozen: Bake frozen fish in the oven at 425° F for around 12 to 13 minutes for thin fillets and 15 to 17 minutes for thicker ones. If the fish has skin on it, cook skin side down. You can eat the skin or discard it after cooking.
Thawed: Bake thawed fish at 375° F for 10 minutes for thin fillets and 18 to 20 minutes for thick fillets.
Fish should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145° F.
Mercury in Seafood
The American Diabetes Association recommends two servings of fish per week. Aim to eat mostly low-mercury fish, with no more than a serving per week from the higher-mercury list. Follow this guide when shopping.
High Levels: King mackerel, orange roughy, shark, swordfish, and tilefish
Low Levels: Anchovies, cod, flounder, haddock, pollock, salmon, sardines, and tilapia
Peel and Chop Garlic
Nothing compares to fresh garlic, but if you don’t have it on hand, you can always substitute ¼ teaspoon of garlic powder for each clove called for in a recipe.
Step 1: Separate cloves of garlic from the bulb and place them on a cutting board. Lay your chef’s knife on top of one clove, sharp end pointed away from you. Tap the knife with the palm of your hand until the peel releases from the garlic.
Step 2: Trim and discard the stem end, then slice each clove into thin rounds. Gather the rounds and rock the knife back and forth to chop or mince (a very fine chop). Chopped garlic will last about a day in the refrigerator. Store in an airtight container.
CHEF’S TIP: With a garlic press, you don’t need to peel the garlic. Just press through one clove at a time and discard the skin that’s left behind in the press.
Store and Slice Avocados
This darling of the produce section packs a lot of healthy fats. Use in salads and in place of mayonnaise on sandwiches.
HOW TO STORE
Keep unripe avocados (green and hard to the touch) on the counter at room temperature; ripe avocados (soft but not mushy to the touch) can go in the refrigerator. To store an avocado once it’s been cut, squeeze lime or lemon juice on the exposed flesh to prevent browning. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to two days.
HOW TO CUT
1. Place a ripe avocado on a cutting board. Slice lengthwise, until the knife hits the pit, then rotate the avocado with one hand while keeping the knife steady in the other hand to cut all the way around.
2. Hold the avocado in both hands and twist until it comes apart.
3. To remove the pit, place the avocado on a kitchen towel, pit side up. Hold it firmly, and then—very carefully—tap the lower part of the blade into the pit. Twist the knife and then lift the pit straight out.
4. Scoop out the flesh and slice, mash, or dice it.
CHEF’S TIP: Whatever you’re cooking, be sure to read the entire recipe before you start. That way, you’ll know what you need to do ahead of time, such as preheat the oven or thaw an ingredient.
Make Your Own Salad Dressing
Store-bought salad dressings are often full of fat, sugar, salt, and preservatives. You can make a vinaigrette using a simple formula. And by swapping a few of the ingredients, you can change up the flavor.
To make your own vinaigrette, grab a dressing shaker or mason jar and pour in: 1/4 cup vinegar (any type) or citrus juice plus 1/2 cup light-tasting oil, such as olive or canola
Add any or all of the following:
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
- Granulated sugar substitute such as stevia
- 1 Tbsp chopped fresh herbs (or 1 tsp dried herbs)
- 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
- Balsamic vinegar + olive oil + basil
- Fresh lemon juice + canola oil + parsley
- White wine vinegar + grapeseed oil + chives
- Fresh lime juice + olive oil + cilantro
Store any unused dressing in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Creamy dressings and those made with fresh ingredients such as shallots and herbs will last about a week. Vinaigrettes generally stay fresh for a couple of weeks.
Turn vinaigrette into creamy dressing!
Add 3 Tbsp plain Greek yogurt, light mayonnaise, or a combination of the two.
Though technically not a grain, quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”) is often recommended as a whole grain option. This superfood seed is a complete protein, high in fiber, and gluten free. Use it in place of rice, pasta, barley, or couscous in any dish. Quinoa cooks just like rice and is excellent hot or cold, sweet or savory, on its own or incorporated into a dish.
Types of Quinoa: White, red, black, mixture
1. Rinse. Raw quinoa has a natural bitter, protective coating (called saponin). Rinse uncooked quinoa in a fine mesh sieve or colander to remove it.
2. Pour. Add the rinsed quinoa to a saucepan with water or low-sodium broth, using a 2-1 ratio of liquid to quinoa (for instance, 2 cups of water for 1 cup of dry quinoa). The quinoa will triple in volume, so plan accordingly.
3. Cook. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a low simmer and cover. Cook for 12 to 15 minutes, until all of the liquid is absorbed. Turn off the heat and leave the lid on for 10 minutes to steam.
4. Fluff. Using a fork, fluff the quinoa before serving. Season with fresh herbs, salt, pepper, or a blend of spices.
Jennifer Bucko Lamplough is a professional chef who specializes in budget-friendly, healthy cooking, especially for people with diabetes. She’s the director of nutrition programs at Northern Illinois Food Bank in Geneva, Illinois; coauthor of The Diabetes Cookbook: 300 Recipes for Healthy Living; and author of the forthcoming Diabetic Cooking Made Easy: A Beginner’s Guide to Healthy Meals at Home, out in September.