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Back to basics: Chefs encourage home cooks, professionals alike to refocus on technique

Local chef Phillip Edwards finishes cooking meat in the oven. Carrie Snyder / The Forum1 / 3
Local chef Phillip Edwards says the skillet should be hot when cooking meat. Carrie Snyder / The Forum2 / 3
After cooking, let the meat sit so the juices will soak in before cutting. Carrie Snyder / The Forum3 / 3

FARGO - Before you get too excited about the duck-fat confit or watermelon gazpacho you saw on the Food Network, it’d be wise to master the basics, like grilling a chicken breast or pan-searing a fillet of fish.

Good places to start, whether you’re relatively new to home cooking or able to whip up a five-course dinner for 12, are two of the food world’s walking encyclopedias: New York Times food writer Mark Bittman and TV host Alton Brown.

Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything” series (the first came out in 1998 and was revised for its 10th anniversary) is considered one of the must-have, go-to cookbooks that should be in every home kitchen. There are even “How to Cook Everything” apps.

In his “Good Eats” Food Network series, Brown breaks down every aspect of food, cooking and eating, complete with the history of each food item and practice. His corresponding books also make great references.

Two local chefs, Phil Edwards of Harvest Catering and Eric Watson of downtown Fargo’s Mezzaluna, couldn’t be more excited to share their knowledge of the basics, which are often overlooked by overeager chefs.

“They want to skip the basics and go right to the trendy stuff, and they eventually have to come back and relearn the basics five, six, seven years down the road,” Watson says.

Plus, he says, with more “civilians” watching cooking shows and reading tips from the experts, professional chefs have to stay on their toes, which means starting any dish with a perfectly cooked main protein.

So, whether you’re training to become a professional chef or you just want to get it right before getting it onto the table, there’s a lot to be said for refocusing on proper technique before trying fancier fare.

In his intro to “How to Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food” (2006), Bittman writes:

“Anyone can cook, and most everyone should. It’s a sorry sign that many people consider cooking ‘from scratch’ an unusual and even rare talent. In fact, cooking is a simple and rewarding craft, one that anyone can learn and even succeed at from the get-go.”

Edwards agrees.

“I think that any home cook can become quite an impressive cook if they master the fundamentals, practice and check their work with a thermometer,” he says.

Here, this group of local and national food experts share their methods.


Edwards, who teaches a class at Creative Kitchen in West Acres mall called “Chicken 12 Ways,” says learning how to properly grill a boneless, skinless chicken breast is a must. Once you can do that, the possibilities are endless.

His instructions:

  • Don’t start with a frozen breast. But if you’re pressed for time and you must, thaw it in a bowl under cold, running water.
  • Blot it dry. You don’t want water or ice dripping off the breast when you put it in the pan.
  • Season with salt and pepper. Edwards keeps a little dish of kosher salt and black pepper in a 7:1 ratio next to his range. “You can grab a pinch and throw it on chicken breast or sautéed vegetables,” he says.
  • Get your skillet hot. “This is where a lot of people go wrong – they don’t get the pan hot enough. It doesn’t have to be ‘screaming’ hot, but it should be in the 400-degree range, at least,” he says. He recommends using a cast-iron skillet, because they don’t lose temperature like the thinner, cheaper ones when you drop the meat in.
  • Once the pan’s hot enough, add a little vegetable or olive oil – just enough to barely coat the bottom, and cook on one side until it no longer sticks to the pan and it’s nice and brown.
  • Then, instead of flipping it over and continuing to cook it on the stovetop, he recommends transferring it to a 350-degree oven. “That’s a very common practice in restaurants,” he says. “You’ve got heat coming from all directions instead of just from the bottom. It’s going to cook more quickly.” If you’d prefer to stick with the stovetop, add a couple tablespoons of water to the skillet, put a lid on top of it, and finish cooking it that way.
  • When the juices run clear, that’s a good indication that it’s done, but Edwards recommends using a probe thermometer to make sure it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees in the thickest part of the meat.
  • Let the meat “rest” before you cut into it, five to 10 minutes (up to 15 minutes for steak). “When it comes out of the oven or out of the skillet, all those strands are very tight together, so they’re not very conducive to holding liquid, but if you let it rest, those protein strands start to relax, and their absorptive qualities are still intact,” he says.


TV host Alton Brown chose steak for the pilot episode of his Peabody Award-winning “Good Eats,” and for good reason. He calls it the “uncontested quintessential American meal,” but laments that most Americans couldn’t cook one properly to save their lives.

“It’s all technique,” he writes in “Good Eats: Volume 1, The Early Years.” “In fact, good technique (not to mention the right pan) can salvage a mediocre steak, and bad technique can ruin a great one.”

The instructions for searing steak are similar to searing chicken, and, of course, there is more than one way to do it. Here’s Brown’s:

Pan-Seared Rib-Eye Steak

2 steaks, to serve 2 to 4


2 1½-inch-thick boneless rib-eye steaks (about 15 ounces each)

1 teaspoon canola oil, to coat

1 teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground


1. Allow steaks to come to room temperature for 1 hour.

2. Position rack in center of oven. Crank to 500 degrees and slide in a 12-inch cast-iron skillet.

3. When oven hits temperature, carefully move skillet to cook top over high heat for 5 minutes.

4. Lightly coat steaks with canola oil, then liberally sprinkle with the salt and pepper, place carefully in pan, and don’t touch for 30 seconds. (You should use a kitchen timer.)

5. Flip the steaks with tongs and cook for another 30 seconds.

6. Move skillet back to the oven for 2 minutes. Flip the steaks and cook for another 2 minutes.

7. Remove skillet to a heat-safe surface. For medium-rare, the temperature of the steaks should be between 130 and 140 degrees.

8. Rest in resting rig* for 5 minutes. Rest and serve.

*To create a “resting rig,” set the steaks in a colander, cover the colander with a pot lid, and set it in a metal bowl.

Note: There’s going to be smoke. Turn off your hood (if you have one) and open a window. I even take the battery out of the smoke detector.

Recipe from “Good Eats: Volume 1, The Early Years” by Alton Brown


Although some of the techniques for searing a fillet of fish are similar to those for grilling chicken and steak, Watson says it’s a much more delicate protein, so it should be treated as such.

“It requires a gentle hand,” he says. “Be patient and don’t fidget with it and try to flip it before it’s ready to flip, because then it just breaks apart.”

Bon Appetit shares the five commandments of cooking fish:

1. Use a hot pan.

2. Dry the skin.

3. Coat with oil.

4. Press once for crisp skin.

5. Flip it at the end.

Memorize them!

Pan-Seared Fish With Buttery Herbs

Yield: 2


1 clove garlic, finely minced

¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

¼ cup chopped fresh basil

2 teaspoons capers, rinsed, dried and chopped

2 teaspoons zest from 1 lemon

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons juice from 1 lemon

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon canola oil

2 skin-on white fish fillets (like snapper or hake, about ¾ pound)

2 tablespoons butter


1. Combine garlic, parsley, basil, capers and lemon zest in small bowl with olive oil. Add lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. Stir well to combine and set aside while you cook the fish.

2. Dry fillets well and season with salt and pepper. Heat canola oil in sauté pan or skillet large enough to hold the fillets comfortably over high heat, until almost smoking. Add fillets skin-side down and cook without moving until the skin is crisp and golden and easily releases from the pan, 3 to 5 minutes. Carefully flip the fillets over and cook for an additional 2 to 4 minutes, depending on the thickness of fillets (center of fillet should register 140 degrees on instant-read thermometer).

3. When fish is a minute away from being finished, add butter to pan. Allow to melt and begin to take on golden color, then add herb mixture. Spoon juices over fish as it finishes cooking. Serve fillets with more pan juices spooned on top.

Recipe from

Meredith Holt

Meredith Holt is a features/business reporter for The Forum who covers topics in health, mental health, social issues, women's issues, arts and entertainment, food and more. She also writes a column on health and wellness, body image and media representationShe was a copy editor/page designer for six years prior to joining the features team in March 2012.

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