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Cooking Basics

Before I started this blog, I knew next to nothing about cooking. Seriously. I could make some french toast, scrambled eggs, and heat up some soup, and that’s about it. As I dove into Paleo more and more, it became clear I was going to need to learn how to cook. It seemed daunting, to be honest. And it was a little bit… but that faded fast.

If you’re like I was, and didn’t know the first thing about cooking, that’s OK. Some people expect that everyone should be a French wiz in the kitchen, but the truth is, few people are, especially if you’re coming off a diet of fast-food or pre-made grocery garbage. We’ve all been there, done that. But now’s the time to learn some basic (and easy… trust me) cooking basics.


Food Safety

FoodAndSafety.gov is the official resource for food handling standards in the US. It’s an excellent resource for safe meat temperatures, as well as things like how and when to refrigerate something, or how to handle raw food without risking cross-contamination. It’s all excellent and easy to understand information.

There are too many scenarios to cover here, but some basic knowledge will keep you and your fellow eaters free from sickness (or worse).

Safe Temperatures

This is the chart from FoodAndSafety.gov outlining safe meat temperatures:

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There are some meat cuts where you can push the line of “safe” a bit (such as rare or medium rare beef steaks), but as for meats like ground meat, sausages or poultry, don’t risk it. That’s where things get dangerous if you undercook something. Don’t be in a rush, wait a few more minutes for it to cook through. It’ll save you a trip to the hospital.

Food Handling

In general, use common sense:

  • If you touch raw meat, wash your hands before touching anything else. There’s probably some bacteria on the meat already, and now you’ve just spread it to something that you might get you sick.
  • Don’t let any cooking utensils that touched raw meat touch any other food. Again, you’re potentially spreading bacteria around.
  • Wash your vegetables well. For starters, they were in the ground not to long ago, but more importantly, you don’t know what conditions they’ve been in from the farm, to the delivery truck, to the grocery store, to your table. Give them a good wash or better yet, try some natural food wash to really get them clean. Everything from lettuce to potatoes can potentially have E. coli. Wash it.
  • Don’t let cooked food sit out too long. They usually say you have about a 2 hour window where your food is still edible. For me, 1 hour is pushing it. So, I tend to put any leftovers in the fridge within 30 min or so after cooking. But that’s just me.

For more details on safe food handling, this good page is good. And so is this one.

Knife Handling

If it isn’t obvious, knives are dangerous! Still, many people make dumb mistakes that send them to first-aid kit too often. You’re going to need your fingers. Keep them safe.

Here’s a good video that explains safety and technique in a fast and easy way:

If you’re on a budget and can’t afford a good knife set, at the very least, get a nice, new, sharp chef’s knife. You can do nearly all the cutting you’ll ever need to do with just that one knife. If you’re ready for a professional set, you usually get what you pay for: an expensive set will be top-quality, an inexpensive set may not hold up as long.


Meats

Since meats (commonly referred to as “proteins”) will typically be the center of attention on your plate, let’s talk about them first. Beef, chicken, pork, lamb, fish. These will probably be the most common types of protein you’ll have access to on a regular basis (duck is one of my favorite, but hard to come by in southern California for some reason).

Here’s the biggest secret to making any protein taste fantastic. Are you ready? Master chefs have been keeping this a secret for decades: salt and pepper. Yep. There’s a reason salt and pepper have become the most basic “must-have” seasonings everyone has in their pantry. This magical combination will bring out the best in nearly every protein… some a little more, some a little less, but if you’re ever in doubt, salt and pepper it out. It’s nearly impossible to go wrong.


Vegetables

The easiest way to cook most vegetables is either to saute or bake/roast them (or grill if it’s a nice summer evening).

As a general rule, you don’t need to salt and pepper vegetables very much (or at all in many cases). Their flavor isn’t always enhanced the way it is with meat (of course there are plenty of exceptions).

Soft veggies like mushrooms, zucchinis or onions, for example, can be sauted (cooked on the stove-top in a pan for a short time) on medium to medium high heat. Some olive oil and maybe some seasoning is fine for a fast and easy veggie side-dish.

Conversely, roasting (putting the veggies in the oven) some carrots, squash, or even apples is a super easy too and usually tastes great (coating with a little olive oil works wonders). For instance, this butternut squash and chicken is a roasted dish where the vegetables and meat all cook together in one dish. You don’t need to be fancy to make a great meal.

Of course, these are very basic guidelines. Follow a few recipes to get familiar with cooking vegetables and you’ll get the hang of it in no time. And as a fall-back, you can always saute or roast just about anything and it’ll taste great.


Seasoning

Let’s talk about seasoning and spices. I happen to have collected a good deal of various spices, but honestly, there are only a handful that I use over and over again. Here’s what I think your pantry “must-have”:

  • Quality salt. Get some kosher or sea salt (or both!).
  • Black pepper. I buy whole pepper corns and put them in one of those hand grinders.
  • Thyme. Thyme is great on pork and chicken. When in doubt, I’ll toss a few dashes of thyme on my meat. Never goes wrong.
  • Rosemary. I always have fresh rosemary in my fridge that I mince up when needed. It will make any dish you make awesome. If you don’t use enough to justify keeping fresh stalks, at least get some dried rosemary to have on hand.
  • Oregano. This is good for anything Italian or Greek.
  • Chili powder. If you like it hot, you can always have some chili powder handy to spice things up.

And that’s about it. Really. You can make just about anything with this small handful of seasonings. If you’re just starting out, don’t go out and buy dozens of exotic spices you’ll never use. If a recipe you want to try calls for something you don’t have, most grocery stores have smaller, sample sizes you can buy instead of the larger bottles.


In my opinion, these are the bare-bones basics of cooking that I’ve learned over the last 2 years. It’s certainly not an extensive list, and there’s plenty more to explore, but I hope you’ve come away with the feeling that cooking isn’t that hard if you have the right gear and some basic knowledge at hand. Put a slab of meat in the pan, and a side of veggies. That’s basically what any healthy Paleo dish is about anyway.

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