“Food skills” refers to knowledge, skills, and techniques used to prepare food. This considers an individual’s ability to shop, plan, prepare, cook and store foods appropriately. It also covers the ability to make decisions about the foods to eat based on information about nutrition and healthfulness, as well as personal goals. There is no need to be a MasterChef to experience the benefits that come with learning basic cooking skills. These include being able to prepare healthier meals and having more confidence to prepare and enjoy meals that support your healthy eating goals.
What does the research say about food skills?
People with better skills and confidence to prepare foods and use recipes, are more likely to eat healthy foods from the nutrient-dense, core food groups. These include grains and cereals, meats and meat alternatives, dairy and alternatives, fruits, and vegetables. When you eat more foods from the core food groups, you end up consuming less saturated fat, refined sugars, and salt that is present in processed and takeaway foods. People who cook more also waste less food as they become more adventurous in using up leftover foods.
What cooking skills should you start practicing now and why?
The list of possible food and cooking skills you could learn is extensive. Don’t worry, we’ve wrapped up a few that we think are really useful for beginners:
1. Knife skills
A sharp knife helps you work faster and actually reduces the risk of kitchen injuries (you have to use more pressure to cut with a bunt knife). Knowing how to safely use a sharp knife helps with preparation of a wide variety of healthy foods and you can work a lot faster too. If you need to brush up on your knife skills, try these tips:
Keep your knives sharp:
A sharp knife will help prevent unnecessary injuries. Using a blunt knife requires more pressure to be applied to cut through a food, increasing the likelihood of you slipping and injuring yourself. Use a sharp knife to trim fat from meat, and to slice bread (remember to wash your knife in hot soapy water if you are swapping between foods).
If you need to sharpen the knives you have at home watch this video to see how to use a ceramic cup to sharpen knives.
Keep your fingers out of the way:
The safest and most effective hand position for chopping is called a “bear claw.” In this technique, one hand holds the food still while the helping hand is positioned with fingertips bent inwards (like a claw). You then use the knife to cut the food with your knuckles as the guide.
Keep your board steady:
When setting up a chopping board, place a damp cloth or paper towel underneath the chopping board to keep it from sliding around once you get started.
Grating can be used when you don’t have ready access to a sharp knife, or when you need smaller pieces that would be challenging to do with just a knife. Foods that are crunchy, or firm, such as cabbage, carrot, zucchini and potato, as well as onions and cheese are suited to grating.
Here’s a ‘how-to’ guide for grating vegetables:
- Prepare your vegetables by first washing them. You might want to cut larger items into smaller, more manageable pieces for grating.
- Set up your grater over a large mixing bowl or chopping board
- Place the food in your hand and at a 65-degree angle to the grater and drag the food across the blades (holes).
- Keep your fingers out of the way! Always be aware of how close you are getting to the grater to avoid injury
Try it out in this NMNT cauliflower rice recipe
Use blanching to create colourful, flavoursome vegetables that retain their crunchy texture. By very quickly heating and then cooling the vegetables, the enzymes inside them that would otherwise cause a loss in colour, flavour and texture are neutralised by the quick change in temperature. Blanching helps retain more of the vitamin content due to the shorter cooking time. Foods best suited to blanching are vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli, beans, and cauliflower.
How to blanch foods:
- Bring a large pot of water to the boil and in a separate large bowl, prepare water with ice
- Prepare your vegetables by trimming the ends or dry stalks as needed
- Place the vegetables into the boiling water and cook for 2-3 minutes, until the colour of the vegetables brightens
- Drain the boiling water from the food using a sieve or remove the vegetables from the water using tongs and quickly transfer them to the ice water to cool
- Once cool, drain the water and allow to dry. (You can use paper towel or a clean tea towel)
- Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 days
Try it out in this Healthy Asparagus and Potato Salad Recipe
4. Sealing and Browning
Sealing or browning meat first enhances the meat’s flavour, aroma, and changes the colour of the meat. For certain foods, naturally occurring sugars and proteins in the food come into contact with dry heat, from a hot fry pan, grill or toaster, and undergo a chemical reaction. This is called the Maillard reaction, which is also the reason that bread turns golden and crunchy when toasted, and why the crust that forms on a loaf of bread or a muffin goes brown when it is first cooked. Foods that are best suited to browning and sealing before slow cooking are tougher cuts of meat like chuck steak or lamb shank.
How to seal meat:
- Trim the visible fat from your cut of meat
- Heat a fry pan on high heat and add a small amount of olive oil
- Add your meat and sear on each side for about 1 minute (or until browned)
- Add into your chosen recipe.
Try it in this NMNT slow cooked beef stroganoff
5. Sauces from Scratch
The reason for the rich, mouth-watering smell that you get when you cook garlic and onions is the same reason that cheese tastes so good, and mushrooms develop a strong, rich flavour when cooked. These foods contain a compound called glutamate, which is responsible for that Umami flavour (or savoury taste). By using foods that naturally contain glutamate in soups, stews and sauces you can add a rich flavour and moreish taste to meals, without the need for salt.
Try it in this Healthy Red Lentil Minestrone Soup