Searing meat is what separates wannabes from real cooks. The secret lies in a crazy-hot pan with a thin coat of oil that has a high smoke point (think vegetable oil or grapeseed oil, but ideally not straight olive oil). This recipe asks you to set the meat on a rack in the fridge for a few hours before cooking. The idea there is to dry it out so it develops a crispy crust while cooking. It also asks you to make a compound butter (butter mixed with/flavored with herbs, salts, spices), which is a great way to add flavor to any dish, and can be done way in advance of the cooking.
Know this: The second the meat hits the pan, it should sizzle loudly. If you don’t hear anything, the pan was no where near hot enough. Always generously season the meat first. Once you’ve got a nice brown crust on each side, toss it in the oven until a thermometer tells you it’s at 130°F.
If you have a jar or some Tupperware — basically anything with a lid — you can make this. Most salad dressing recipes ask you to slowly pour oil into acid (usually vinegar or citrus juice) and whisk vigorously to combine. Shaking the ingredients is a way to cheat the emulsion, so your next salad gets dressed in half the time.
Know this: The ratio for salad dressing is 3:1 oil to acid. Any other ingredients you add to a salad dressing are meant to increase flavor (like worcestershire) or bind the oil and vinegar (like mustard.)
A good scramble is a must in any cook’s repertoire. This recipe calls for mascarpone cheese (another cheat) to make them extra light and fluffy. Mascarpone could probably make a scrambled shoe taste like heaven.
Know this: The best way to scrambled eggs is over low heat, with salt, butter in the pan, and constant agitation until they’re cooked. Oh, and a splash of cream (or in this case, mascarpone) — especially if this is a breakfast-in-bed scenario.
4. Roasted Broccoli with Smoked Paprika Vinaigrette and Marcona Almonds
This recipe is easy enough to make every night and unusual enough to save for special occasions. The smoky, paprika-infused vinaigrette complements the broccoli’s natural sweetness.
Know this: A drizzle of olive oil, sprinkled salt, and a hot oven work magic on produce every time. Tomatoes, carrots, parsnips, potatoes, kale — you name it.
5. Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter
Everyone needs a red sauce in the bag, and this is the best version around. Butter softens the acidity of the tomatoes as a simmering cut onion adds depth of flavor. Plus you probably have the three ingredients necessary on hand.
Know this: The different between good pasta and great pasta (we’re talking dried pasta, not fresh) is in the way you sauce. (It’s also important to season your pasta water generously with salt. It should taste like the ocean.) After boiling the pasta, remove it to a saute pan set over medium-low heat. Immediately add sauce, a little butter, and some starchy pasta water if necessary. Mix to emulsify the ingredients, and season with salt if necessary.
6. Barbara Kafka’s Simplest Roast Chicken
This recipe isn’t about tricks or even a specific method, and that’s because roasting a chicken isn’t rocket science. You just have to do it a couple of times to get the hang of it.
Know this: Drying the bird as much as possible with kitchen towels or paper towels will make it get crispy as it cooks. You can stuff the cavity with whatever you want — try different herbs, onions, or even something like orange wedges.
Don’t be turned off by this recipe’s long ingredient list. Once you get everything in the pot, it can happily hang out in the oven for hours while you fall asleep on the couch. This recipe, from New York chef Dan Barber, braises short ribs in a rich, aromatic broth for four hours until the meat is so tender it slides off the bone. Make these for a dinner party, and serve proudly.
Know this: This recipe goes back to the searing technique. You have to develop a nice brown on the meat before it braises. Once the meat’s seared, out of the pot, and you’ve softened your vegetables in there, you’ll also learn the method of deglazing — pouring in liquid and scraping the pan to loosen all the brown bits that formed when you seared meat. That is where all the crazy-delicious magic happens.
8. Porcini and Rosemary Crusted Beef Tenderloin with Port Wine Sauce
Now take the deglazing method one step further to make a pan sauce. This recipe calls for some fancy ingredients to enrich the sauce — port wine, porcini mushrooms — but it’s the concept that’s really important, so don’t get hung up on them.
Know this: This method of “1. sear meat, 2. remove meat, 3. add chopped onion/shallot, 4. add liquid, 5. scrape pan, 6.simmer, 7. strain, 8. reduce” is how any good sauce is made.
Baking is a separate world of techniques. If there’s one easy thing to learn first, it’s how to whip cream. Added to a bowl of berries, piled on chocolate ice cream or storebought pie, whipped cream adds a touch of fresh homemade-iness to any dessert.
Know this: You don’t need a recipe. Just put heavy cream in a bowl, add a little sugar (and a few drops of vanilla if you’d like), then whip with an electric beater (or by hand with a whisk, hot shot). There’s no rule about when to stop — just get it to whatever texture you like.
One last thing to know: This post leaves out a lot of important techniques — cooking grains, searing fish, grilling, blanching vegetables. So really, it’s just a start — but a great one.
Food52 is a community for people who love food and cooking. Follow them at Food52.com and on Twitter @Food52.