Things Every Professional or Serious Amateur Cook Should Know

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Washing Up
Jul 19, 2006
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. :)


Prep Skills
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). the different kinds of roux, and produce them all. 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.
....make dough. cetera

Cooking Skills
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. cetera.

History/General Knowledge
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. 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. cheese is made. wine is made. beer is made.
....who James Beard was, and why he was/is important. 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!) yeast works, and why we treat it the way we do. 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? :wacko:)

Essential Recipes
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.
....grilled steak.
....Steak au Poivre.
....Duck a l'Orange.
....Coq au Vin.
....Pizza Napoletana (bonus points if you know it's regulatory body).
....roast chicken.
....fried rice.
....Alfredo sauce.
....Bolognese sauce (bonus points if you know the "correct" pasta with which it should be served).
....Tarte Tatin.
....Crème Brûlée.
....chocolate, white, or yellow cake.
....buttercream frosting. cetera.

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. stones in an oven (even when not being used to bake pizza) help keep the temperature normalized as the oven cycles on and off. cetera
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I am a retired executive chef and can answer about 90 % of your questions.
But let me mention that it took me many years to learn all of them. and I don't know of many chefs that are working can recall all of your list as most of them are concentrating on their particular job and not the whole world of cuinary arts. My two cents worth
ooh, just what we needed.

middle management! :-p

just kidding, surfy.

i could answer about 80-90 percent of what you've mentioned, mostly from reading a lot of cooking sites and watching a lot of cooking shows. i've probably only actually performed about 40 percent of these things, however.

does that qualify me as a serious amateur cook?

what if i just try to look serious? :chef:
Gosh, we are such a diverse group of people on this board. Thankfully, we have a core of generous professionals and ex-professionals who are willing to patiently teach the rest of us. Some of us, like me, are ordinary people who love cooking for friends and family and who have acquired self-taught skills over the years. Others are just starting out and have turned to this board for guidance. Your list is more than daunting. Perhaps you should have taken some time to learn the unique culture of this board before you posted it.
What about Chinese, Indian, Thai, American South, Northeast, Persian, Spanish, Chilean, Vietnamese, German, Russian, Polish, Welch, Irish, Mexican, American Southwest or Pacific Northwest, Vegan or Vegetarian, Jewish, South African, Moroccan, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, BBQ ... I'm sure I'm forgetting quite a few cousines.

It's great that you're passionate about provential and italian cooking. You'll have a welcoming ear here. I personally would amend your opening statement, though.

A serious amateur cook should possess the drive to learn the skills to pusue his/her passion, whatever it is, and to continue to grow and learn from his/her peers and resources.
(what, are you kidding?) wine is made beer is made
....French wine, Italian wine
...."champagne", "sparkling wine".....

Who Cares... Just fill up the darn glass already.

Sounds more like a headmaster/mistress from the 1800's than real world, taking care of the family and enjoying it, without confining ourselves to the "MUSTS" kind of rules someone without years of real world practice and necessity

Try your rules with limited time, money, product availability. All the skill/knowledge above won't help that.
Creativity and desire and years of practice - without TV stars telling me "THE ONLY CORRECT WAY" mean more than all that nonsense.

Try making a good slab of ribs, or the best burger imaginable and an ice cold beer with those rules. What are you kidding?
Give me a break.

Sorry. But I hear the word "SHOULD" pertaining to cooking and already I know I'm turned off.

Cooking is like a beautiful piece of music. It takes more than notes on a piece of paper.
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Let me amend your statement for you Surfrider. I will not talk to what a professional chef should know as that is up to his/her boss or clients who pay him/her. I will only speak to the serious amateur cook should know.

The serious amateur cook should know that they have the love and passion and want to cook food, period.

Who cares if they know who Escoffier was? That will not enable them to cook a better steak. I could not care if they know the correct way to break down a chicken. If they want to buy chicken pieces from the supermarket and use that instead of breaking down a whole bird then who the heck cares?

Sounds to me like you are taking things a bit too seriously. Lighten up and have fun instead of being so concerned with what you feel others should or should not know. You will live longer.
This list looks like a 2-year culinary course syllabus.

Things that were obviously missing from your list:

... how to make cornbread
... how to butcher a hog and render the lard, and cure and smoke the hams and bacon
... how to can fruits and vegetables
... how to make blackberry jam without added pectin
... how to make a peach cobbler
... how to pick and properly cook poke
... know the recipe for Brunswick Stew
... how to make the proper gravy for fried chicken or chicken fried steak
... knowing that you don't pour gravy over fried chicken
... how to use Coke, Dr. Pepper or Root Beer to glaze a baked ham, and why
... know the difference between a yam and a sweet potato
... how to cook okra without it being slimy
... three methods to churn butter by hand
... how to catch, kill, and pluck a chicken
... how to BBQ a half beef
... know why you add an egg to a pot of boiled coffee
... when, and why, to leave a golf ball in a nesting hens box

And, that's just a quick "off the top of my head" list.

Walk into my Grandma's kitchen and tell her she wasn't a serious cook because she couldn't pass that list - and you would probably have found yourself being ushered out of her kitchen, house, and off her property on the end of her cooking fork! :LOL:
Now you're talking serious home cooking, Michael! And I have a feeling that being ushered out of your Grandma's kitchen would leave someone with a very unpleasant, empty feeling...hunger. For all the good eatin' they missed.
Welcome to DC, Surfrider...

that's quite the list, but i daresay there are MANY serious home cooks here at DC and elsewhere who don't know all that stuff, and maybe don't care.

I know my Grandma would have thought your culinary education incomplete if you couldn't make great Knaidlach, Kreplach, Gefilte Fish, Tzimmes and a whole assortment of delicious Kugels. Her sister Sadie would have added Rugulach, Hamentaschen, Passover Sponge Cake, Challah for Shabbos dinner.

As for me, I've been in the business for many years, still don't know how to make sushi and don't care. When I want some, I'll go out for it. ;)
LOL - IC ... I left off the real test of a "serious" home cook/chef ...

... name 12 SPAM recipes that someone will want to eat a 2nd time!
True test of the serious home cook or professional to me is: is the home/restaurant clean and do I believe either is following safe food handling techniques of some type. Cause if not, I'm not eating there or coming back.

Call it saute or pan fry, follow Julia Child or Fannie Farmer or Mrs Maguilicutty...are your hands clean? is your kitchen clean? and is your food cooked properly.
Oh Robo, I have been in so many spotlessly clean and sterile kitchens where the food tasted the same...sterile and flavorless. I agree that kitchens should be clean, but that would NEVER be my first criterion.
Oh Robo, I have been in so many spotlessly clean and sterile kitchens where the food tasted the same...sterile and flavorless. I agree that kitchens should be clean, but that would NEVER be my first criterion.

Mine either. Just think of all the great street food you would miss out on. Those Jamacian meat pies on the side of the road are not prepared in the best of conditions, but I will keep eating them and just pray I do not get sick.
LOL - IC ... I left off the real test of a "serious" home cook/chef ...

... name 12 SPAM recipes that someone will want to eat a 2nd time!

Ok, 12 huh?

1. SPAM Fried Rice
2. SPAM and cheese omelet
3. Spicy SPAM Arrabiata
4. SPAM Ramen
5. SPAM Chow Mein
6. SPAM Benedict
7. SPAM and onion sandwich
8. Oysters SPAM-sino
9. Teriyaki SPAM musubi
10. SPAM Kelaguen
11. SPAM Curry
12. SPAM Tamales
Spam tamales! What a concept - Mexicans do eat tacos made from hot dogs, but I've never seen them with Spam. The other day when I was at the supermercado, they were selling mayonnaise (Hellmans) with a free can of Spam. I bought the one without the free Spam.

And GB?
Mine either. Just think of all the great street food you would miss out on. Those Jamacian meat pies on the side of the road are not prepared in the best of conditions, but I will keep eating them and just pray I do not get sick.

I completely agree with you. We are enthusiastic consumers of street food and have never been sick. We're just getting ready to go downtown to the plaza, where there is music and dancing (the whole family) and fireworks and wonderful tacos al pastor and fresh corn every Sunday night. Yum.

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