The 5 Basic Cooking Techniques That Every Healthy Chef Should Master

Photo: Stocksy / Santi Nunez
Sure, you’d like to think your famous chocolate chip cookies rival anything Gordon Ramsay has ever made. But, let’s be honest—most of us aren’t regularly making Top Chef magic in our kitchens. At the end of the day, we’re lucky if we have a few basic cooking skills up our sleeves to whip up something healthy and call it a night. (Shoutout to chickpea pasta, a weeknight hero.)

But just because you're not competing on Food Network doesn't mean that you can't enjoy creative, delicious meals at home. That's why we talked to experts to find out the essential techniques that every healthy chef needs in order to level-up their home cooking game. You’ll be making stove-top magic in no time.

1. Master basic knife skills

Why it matters: Whether you're meal prepping or just trying to make dinner for really, really need to know how to cut up the foods you're trying to prepare. "Start with a high-quality chef’s knife and learn basic knife skills—this will completely transform how you cook at home!” McKel Kooienga, RD, founder of Nutrition Stripped, recently told Well+Good. Having proper technique will help speed up the prep time on your recipes (meaning less time cooking and more time eating!) and reduce the risk of injury.

How to do it: CarefullyStart with a good knife that's actually sharp, find a few onions, potatoes, or other cheap vegetables, and follow along with video tutorials. Some of the basic cuts: rough chop (where you're cutting things into large chunks), dice (small, equally-sized chunks), mince (tiny, tiny pieces), and chiffonade (cutting leaves and herbs into strips). Nail these methods, and your dinner prep will get so much faster.

Some types of foods require specific knife techniques—cauliflower and broccoli need to be cut into florets, for example, and fruits with pits like avocados and mangos need extra care to avoid injury.

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2. Learn how to stir fry vegetables

Why it matters: Want to make a healthy dinner while also keeping your dishes to a minimum? Try a stir fry, which typically includes oil (or another cooking fat) and your favorite veggies all tossed into a wok or sauté pan. Richard LaMarita, a culinary arts chef and instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education, says the age-old technique is perfect for making “great textured, perfectly cooked vegetables.”

How to do it: To create your own stir-fry, heat your cooking pan on high heat, then drizzle with oil. Toss in cut veggies, which LaMarita recommends cutting into matchsticks or half-moons for quick cooking.

He recommends stirring the vegetables throughout until they appear done, but “still have a bit of crunch.” Depending on the type of vegetables you choose (e.g. broccoli will take longer to cook than onions), your cook time will be approximately six to 10 minutes.

If you want to add diced chicken breast, ground turkey, or another animal-based protein, add those ingredients prior to adding the vegetables since they take more time to cook. Cook until the protein is lightly browned before tossing in your produce of choice.

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3. Get comfortable with herbs and spices

Why it matters: This one feels like a given, but, then again, how many times have you made a dish only to find it lacking flavor? “I know you are not using them enough," LaMarita says.

“Herbs and spices make food healthier as they are medicinal,” he says. “Plus, they make food taste better and add flavor.” Meanwhile, “spices will add depth and complexity to your cooking."

How to do it: Stock your pantry with essentials like turmeric, cinnamon, ground ginger, cumin, and other flavors you love. Spice blends, which combine multiple dried herbs and spices to create a specific flavor profile, are also easy ways to quickly add flavor (like taco seasoning or herbes de Provence).

Then, try incorporating these flavors into some of your favorite dishes—like using them as a rub on grilled salmon or sprinkling them on roasted vegetables. You can play with the amounts called for in recipes, too—if you know you like heat, add more chili flakes or chili powder than what's recommended in the ingredients list.

There are slightly different ways to handle these ingredients, says LaMarita, to help you get the most flavor possible out of them. When cooking with dried herbs (like dried oregano you'd keep in your pantry), add them in at the beginning of the cooking process so they have time to release their flavor, he says. Fresh herbs, like basil or mint leaves, are best added at the end to preserve their fresh flavor. (They also make for great salad dressings and sauces, as seen in the video below.) As for spices, LaMarita recommends dry toasting them in a pan until the fragrance is strong and their color changes—that's how you start to release their flavor.

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4. Make your own nut milk

Why it matters: This one sounds complicated, but it really is one of the easiest kitchen staples to DIY. The average nut milk recipe involves a blender, about three to four ingredients, and the flick of a switch. Plus, as LaMarita points out, nut milks, like cashew or almond milk, “are great, lower fat alternatives to dairy milk” and a solid choice for dairy-free peeps. They can serve a variety of purposes in your cooking, too—pour nut milk over breakfast cereals or porridges, mix it into cream-based sauces, and, of course, add them to your favorites smoothie.

How to do it: To make nut milk, LaMarita recommends pouring boiling water over your nuts of choice (e.g. almonds, cashews, macadamias, hazelnuts), allowing them to soak for 30 minutes. Place nuts in a high-speed blender with water and maybe a pinch of salt or dash of vanilla extract. After blending, you’ll want to use a fine-mesh sieve or a nut milk bag to strain the milk and avoid small, leftover pieces.

Recipes for homemade nut milks typically follow a one-to-one ratio, meaning that you’ll use one cup of water for every cup of nuts you place in the blender. Store nut milk in the refrigerator in a resealable jar or container for two to three days.

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5. Get your grill on

Why it matters: If the idea of firing up the grill has you running the opposite direction, you’ll want to sit tight for this one. LaMarita loves grill because it is a solid way to enjoy a “relatively low-fat product with a deeply caramelized exterior and tender interior.” (Okay, how delicious does that sound?)

Grilling isn't a summer-exclusive thing, either—a grill pan (essentially a cast-iron pan with raised grooves built-in) can help you turn your stove-top into a barbecuing paradise, all year round.

How to do it: “When grilling vegetables, cut veggies on the larger side and toss in a marinade of oil, vinegar, and herbs,” he says. “Grill both sides until done.” You can put them directly on your grill or wrap them in a foil packet for easier cooking.

If protein is on the menu, LaMarita recommends marinating it in your sauce or seasoning of choice (whether that's a healthy barbecue sauce or more of a dry spice rub). Time varies depends on size and cut, but a general rule is for at least two hours or overnight in the fridge. After marinating, LaMarita recommends patting the surface of meat to clean up any excess marinade, then grill until done. Chicken, for example, will take five to seven minutes each side (internal temp should be 165 degrees); a steak can take anywhere from four to 10 minutes, depending on how well-done you prefer your cut.

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Looking for more healthy cooking tips? Here's how to chop kale and other tough leafy greens like a pro. You might also want to check out our "Cook With Us" Facebook community, too.

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