While I am not a professional cook, I am quite serious about the culinary arts, and consider myself to be possessed of respectable knowledge and skill for a self-taught amateur with no classical training. That said, I am certainly not
executive chef material, and I typically assume it's a given that most culinary professionals, especially those who have had a classical education, have knowledge and skill that exceed my own. But from time to time, when I encounter a cook or chef (in real life, and on TV) who has somehow failed to acquire a basic skill, I find myself thinking "How on earth
could you have gone through culinary school and not learned how to do/make/use this skill/dish/ingredient?! Even I
know how to do that, and I'm not even a real cook!" I think the same when I see a pastry chef who can't cook a steak, or a chef who can't make a simple yellow cake; I have always felt that, even if a particular branch of the culinary arts is outside one's specialty, one should at least
have a knowledge of it's most fundamental techniques.
This notion, which has long floated around in the back of my mind, is something I've thought about a lot lately, ever since a close friend's recent announcement that she is going to "learn to cook" (and her subsequent request for pointers), led me to ponder the things that every professional, and serious home or hobbyist cook should (probably) know. The list would certainly included recipes, prep techniques, technical skills, general "trivia" knowledge, knowledge of/ability to use certain ingredients, tips/tricks, and so forth. Such a list would could well be beneficial to both the serious cook, and the casual cook who might like a new challenge next time they make dinner for their family. :)
While I can imagine many items that should be on such a list, I am but one person, and to boot, one with no formal training. So, I invite all the denizens of the DC forums to aid in the compilation of such a list. Any and all are welcome to contribute, but those amongst us who make their living in the culinary arts, and especially those who have had formal training are encouraged to comment.
The only guidelines I would put forth are thus: this is intended to be a list of CORE skills that a serious cook should either have mastered, or at least be very, very proficient at. Highly specialized, or esoteric skills do not apply, nor do skills that are exclusive to a professional cook (i.e., familiarity with the Brigade de Cuisine, et cetera). Please consider these points when making your contributions.
I've begun the list below, providing some random, wide-ranging examples. Obviously this list is far
from exhaustive, but this should convey the general idea. Lastly, some things may be "no brainers" to trained cooks (like, for example, the mention of poaching below), but some skills/techniques/recipes/etc that are very common in the professional culinary world, are rarely employed by the home cook.
Who knows? Even the most seasoned cook may pick up a tip or two from this list. :)
Every professional, or serious amateur cook should be able to....
....break down a chicken.
....break down small, and medium-sized fish (trout, salmon, et cetera).
....prep shellfish and crustaceans.
....properly clean and prep mushrooms.
....make stock, and broth (and know when to use one vs. the other, and why).
....name the different kinds of roux, and produce them all.
....name and make (and use!) all the Mother Sauces.
....demonstrate basic knife skills.
....tell the difference between "mince," a "dice," a "chiffon," et cetera.
....accurately define and produce a mirepoix.
Basic cooking methods that every professional, or serious amateur cook should have mastered include..
....searing, knowing when to employ it, and why.
....sautéing, knowing the difference between it, and the watch-me-toss-stuff-in-a-pan maneuver TV cooks do.
....deglazing, knowing what it is, what ingredients to do it with, and why pan selection is important.
....roasting veggies via direct flame, knowing for which veggies this technique is appropriate, and why.
....poaching, knowing how it differs from boiling, and why the distinction is important.
Every professional, or serious amateur cook should know....
....who Carême was, and why he was/is important.
....who Escoffier was, and why he was/is important.
....how salt works (in regards to it's effect on the palate/sense of taste).
....exactly what "caramelization" is, and how it works.
....where chocolate comes from, and how it is made.
....how cheese is made.
....how wine is made.
....how beer is made.
....who James Beard was, and why he was/is important.
....how the "star" rating system works, who awards them, and et cetera.
....naming conventions for French & Italian wines vs. wines from other places.
....the difference between "champagne," and "sparkling wine."
....what gluten is, how it works, and why it's important to the likes of bakers & pastry chefs.
....what eggs, arrowroot, cornstarch, roux, and et cetera have in common.
....why the above is important, and when it is appropriate to use one over the other.
....the difference between real balsamic vinegar, and the stuff one buys at a megamart.
....why fruits like apples and avocados turn brown when cut (and, thus, how to prevent it!)
....how yeast works, and why we treat it the way we do.
....how other leavening agents (like baking soda, for example) work.
....who Julia Child was (if you don't, please, whack yourself on the head with a cast iron pan for me?
Every professional, or serious amateur cook should be able to prepare a good, basic....
....loaf of white bread.
....loaf of wheat bread.
....French Onion Soup.
....Steak au Poivre.
....Duck a l'Orange.
....Coq au Vin.
....Pizza Napoletana (bonus points if you know it's regulatory body).
....Bolognese sauce (bonus points if you know the "correct" pasta with which it should be served).
....chocolate, white, or yellow cake.
Tips & Tricks
Little tricks every professional, or serious amateur cook should know include....
....using pasta water to adjust the consistency of a sauce in progress.
....spooning over a fried item some of the lipid in which it's being cooked (immediately before plating) aids in creating crispiness.
....cloudy eyes in squid indicate they are past their prime.
....onions which are to be eaten raw may be soaked in very cold water to reduce their potency.
....many veggies may be shocked prior to cooking to intensify/prevent loss of color.
....plating items with a sauce underneath them instead of over the top, prevents sogginess, and often looks nicer.
....pizza stones in an oven (even when not being used to bake pizza) help keep the temperature normalized as the oven cycles on and off.