Eat This List: 6 kitchen skills I have yet to master
January 24th, 2013
09:00 PM ET
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This is the sixth installment of "Eat This List" - a regularly recurring list of things chefs, farmers, writers and other food experts think you ought to know about.

I'm a good cook. I'd go so far as to say I'm a damn good cook - not fussy or haute, but you could tell me that a James Beard-nominated chef was coming over to eat and I wouldn't panic. (They have, and I didn't.)

I also write about food for a living, which leads a lot of of people to infer that I've mastered a lot more in the kitchen than I actually have. I'm adventurous and fearless, but I still have a lot to learn. So, in the spirit of honesty (and letting the rest of you feel like Alton Brown in comparison), here's a handful of common cooking tasks on which I'd grade myself a C-minus or worse.

1. Poaching eggs
Yes, we ran a tutorial on egg poaching a while back and yes, I've gone through a few cartons and half a dozen methods in pursuit of egg-cellence. I still can't manage more than one credible specimen in a batch.

Perhaps the rest of humanity poaches weekday eggs as easily as I stand at the counter eating cold cereal. In my world, poached eggs signal a fancy weekend breakfast for two or more hungry humans, and I doubt they'd all care to divvy up the single one that doesn't look as if it came from behind a hatch on the "Alien" ship. For now, I'll stick with scrambling.

2. Deboning poultry
I can quickly and competently butcher a chicken or duck into serveable parts, and in theory, that's good enough. But in my rich, inner fantasy life, I'm able to whip out a sassy ballotine or turducken to my guests and be all, "Oh, this? No big deal..."

In reality, I end up with orphan flecks of pink flesh on the bone, the knife and wherever else it happened to land, and if there is one thing I hate more than feeling clumsy, it's wasting food. This one could likely be mastered with an abundance of practice, but first, I'll need to break the news to my husband that we'll be having chicken for dinner every night until the end of the fiscal quarter.

3. Making pancakes
I have no excuse here. The first one is greasy, the second one or two competent, and the rest scorched and entirely unlovely. I take this as a sign that the universe wants me to go out for brunch.

4. Keeping herbs fresh
I grow herbs. I use herbs. I have at some point written or edited an article on how to store herbs. Somehow, I always end up with sprigs of dried thyme hanging out by the cutting boards or moldy. brown rosemary in the door of the fridge. Perhaps one of these days I'll have a crisper stacked with moist, meticulously-rolled paper towels or bundles of fragrant cilantro propped up cunningly in water-filled mason jars and my kitchen will look like Pinterest sneezed all over it. That day is not today. I don't know why.

5. Decorating cakes
I have some complicated emotional issues around cake. On one hand, I earned a BFA in painting, inspired in large part by my obsession with Wayne Thiebaud's cake works. On the other, I always end up feeling like a jerk the second I stick my fork in and ruin a perfectly piped icing rosette or wreck my friend's face on one of those creepy photo cakes.

Perhaps this issue would best be addressed with my therapist, but I feel really strange about devoting a great deal of time to the appearance of an item that's just going to end up in my stomach. Or maybe I'm just trying to find an excuse for the fact that my cakes tend to look as if they were frosted by a five year old who's wildly overshot her naptime.

6. Rolling pie crusts
My pie crusts taste delicious. My pie crusts look like patchy, wonky hell. I've sat down with books, spoken with pros, plunged my hands in bowls of ice water and thrown down so much flour it looked like Scarface had partied in my kitchen. Still, they rip.

Perhaps my dear, departed Grandma Kinsman is taking me to task for not having spent enough time learning the craft at her side. I'd regret that even if my pie crusts looked like Martha herself had borne them from pin to plate. For her, (Grandma, not Martha), I'll keep on rolling until I get it right.

What's the kitchen task you haven't mastered and want to admit to aloud? Or, tell me what I'm doing wrong with any of my half-dozen blunders. Either way, I'd love for you to weigh in below.

Previously - Failure is totally an option and Eat This List: 4 ways to combat food waste at home (and save a little cash while you're at it)

soundoff (181 Responses)
  1. gness2013

    Most herbs don't need to be refridgerated. I have a little swanky swag glass I use as a vase and what ever woody herbs I don't use get stuck in the jar. Do not add water. Any little vase or baby food jar or little conainer will do, but something pretty to set on the counter is nice. A teacup and saucer works nicely. Rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, marjoram all dry beautifully and can be used dry. Put a saucer or plate under to catch the little thyme leaves as they fall. Purple basil dries pretty, but tasteless. Only the more delecate ones need to be refridgerated- parsley, cilantro, basil, and they do fine just thrown in the crisper, in the plastic bag they came in. Just like you would lettuce. No need for anything more complicated than that. Cilantro and parsley will keep one or two weeks, and I suppose basil lasts about a week, but no matter how much I get at the market or produce in the garden, it is used up in a week! Dill can dry or be refridgerated.

    March 8, 2013 at 9:19 am |
  2. Petert

    Use vinegar when poaching eggs. It keeps the egg whites from spreading out away from the yoke

    February 6, 2013 at 10:14 am |
  3. songman

    The pressure cooker!
    Turkey, chicken, pork, and ham have all been fabulous in the pressure cooker. I can cut each of them with a fork when my wife makes meat or poultry in the pressure cooker. Never comes out dry (looking at YOU, pork and turkey!) and hardly takes any time at all, either.

    January 29, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
  4. ab

    Oh man. What my husband learned in a class was that you heat the pan before you spray it with no stick spray – that was worth the price of the class for me.

    As for me, I guess I could practice cracking eggs on flat surfaces (and get that down). I could watch the food processor dvd so I could learn how to use it and make good pie crust (it was over 2 or 3 birthdays ago that I got it). In the mean time, I will continue to try to add at least one recipe a week to the nights I cook so I can add to my fall back menu list.

    January 28, 2013 at 8:36 pm |
  5. stephen48739

    When I debone a chicken or a turkey, I set aside two bowls, one for white meat, the other for dark meat. I use a short steak knife and a six inch long pair of metal tongs. The tongs hold the fresh-cooked bird so I don't burn my fingers. Using the tongs, I'll pull the wings, thighs and legs off, holding them and using the knife to cut away the useable parts. I'll toss the bones and the gristle in the trash bin using the tongs. Using the tongs and the knife, I'll gently separate the breasts apart from the breast bone. I'll cut the large pieces crosswise into smaller pieces. Once the bird has been deboned, I'll cover the bowls with foil to keep the moisture in, and set the bowls in the fridge. Apologies to all those vegans out there in advance.

    January 28, 2013 at 8:21 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      Well, OK. But deboning normally refers to a completely different procedure, where the bones are removed from a raw bird without separating it or breaking the skin, leaving an intact, but boneless, end product. It's a tricky procedure that's difficult to do well, but not so hard to do adequately with a little practice.

      January 29, 2013 at 3:13 am |
      • Zoo

        Chef Pepin on Amazon Prime and Im sure on other sites; has a video that shows him completely deboning a whole chicken. I tried his method and it worked pretty well for me.

        January 29, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
  6. aubrie

    God knows how I've tried to master southern fried chicken. Can't do it... Tried everything... It's either burned or it's nice on the outside and raw near the bone... Can't seem to work with yeast well either...mystifies me....

    January 28, 2013 at 5:32 pm |
  7. Gwen

    To poach eggs, boil a large pot of water so the temperature doesn't go down too much when you add the eggs. Only do 2 at a time since the timing is critical. Carefully break each egg into a small bowl and then pour into the simmering water. Don't walk away! Cook for 3 minutes: no more, no less. Remove with a slotted spoon and blot the bottom of the spoon with the egg on it on some paper towels to remove the excess water before putting the eggs on toast. They really are worth the extra trouble.

    January 28, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
  8. Charlotte

    Yeast bread. Mine always comes out like a brick. Most everything else I ever have call to do, I have a grasp on, but I cannot make bread to save my life. Luckily my boyfriend is pretty good at it, and we have a couple of really good bakeries locally, so I'm not going to lose any sleep over it.

    January 28, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
  9. Conrad Shull

    I don't have a problem with any of the tasks in the article, but I'd sure like to be good at braising. Never quite get that right.

    January 28, 2013 at 11:55 am |
    • Mig/Tig

      Just gotta get the right mix of solder to nitrogen to length of flame.

      Oh. My bad. This is a food blog.

      January 28, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
    • geoff

      It's all in the sear. Good braising requires a very deep sear. This first and crucial step is the one people most often rush. Braising is a labor of love so take your time.

      January 28, 2013 at 8:21 pm |
  10. SilentBoy741

    I can't do that Benihana flip without getting the cleaver stuck in the cabinet behind me - or worse.

    January 28, 2013 at 11:28 am |
  11. GALiz

    I cannot for the life of me cook white rice....I know, I know, I shouldn't be eating white rice in the first place, but there's no replacing it as an accompaniment to red beans. Sorry folks, I'm a traditionalist in that sense. I try and I try and it's always sticky and overcooked. I've tried every rice cooking method known to man and perfect rice still alludes me....I've given up trying to make it and usually get the boil in bag rice.

    January 28, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • edwin

      Buy a rice cooker! Beleive me it's money well spent.

      January 28, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
    • mike

      I teach Foods. White rice: 2:1 ratio of water to rice. Bring water to a boil, add rice. Turn down to Low simmer, COVER and don't peek. 12-15 minutes later turn off heat and let sit for 5-10 minutes COVERED. Perfect rice and little clean up.

      January 28, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
    • JP

      I had an issue with absorption method of rice. I don't cook it often enough to merit a rice cooker. I cook rice like pasta now. Boil a pot of water, pour in the rice and some salt and boil for about 10-12 minutes and drain. I get separate, fluffy grains of non-sticky rice. It makes my life easier and is a bit quicker too.

      Making fried eggs in anything other than non-stick pans frustrate me quickly. I am trying to get away from non-stick!

      January 29, 2013 at 10:14 am |
    • LinSea

      Try baking it. Put one cup of rice in a greased baking pan or casserole dish with 2 and a half cups of water, a couple of tablespoons of butter and a little salt. Cover and bake for an hour at 350. I got a rice cooker as a birthday gift so I use that now, but until the rice cooker came along, the baking method worked brilliantly.

      January 29, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
      • Nancy

        I've made rice this way for decades – never fails and will hold forever – very forgiving. Tip: if you use boiling water it only has to be in the oven for 30 minutes!

        January 29, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
  12. Dean

    Washing dishes.

    January 28, 2013 at 10:47 am |
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