Student cooking (KITCHEN SKILLS 101)

Student cooking (KITCHEN SKILLS 101)

As a student, you’re going to be cooking your own meals. If your kitchen skills start and end with taking something out of a box and placing it in the oven or microwave, your diet is going to be boring, expensive and unhealthy.

Don’t think that you have to live on a limited diet because you don’t know how to cook. Cooking isn’t some deep mystery that takes a lot of time or effort to figure out; it is just the process of applying heat to food in a controlled way. You certainly don’t need to be the next Gordon Ramsay to be able to make a decent meal.

This article outlines the basic cooking skills that will help you find your way around a kitchen and have a healthy student diet. Use them in combination with our meal ideas and recipes and you’ll be enjoying tasty, healthy, Instagram-worthy meals in no time.

There are four main tools for heating food; the hob, the oven, the grill, and the microwave. Microwaves are useful for defrosting and reheating food but not good for actual cooking, so let’s not waste any time discussing them. (Except for a polite reminder that putting foil or any form of metal in the microwave is a big no-no, unless you want a fireworks display in your kitchen, which you don’t, no matter how much fun it sounds.)

Cooking techniques


Sautéing is just a fancy word for shallow frying in a pan on the hob. This technique cooks food quickly and is healthier than deep frying as it uses less oil. It is particularly good for cooking chopped vegetables and stir-fries.

Simply cut whatever you want to cook into small to medium-sized pieces so it will cook evenly, then fry it in a medium-hot frying pan with a small amount of butter or oil. Sautéing browns the food as it cooks, which crisps up its outside surface, creating excellent flavour.

You can sauté diced potatoes as a healthy alternative to chips. Sautéed potatoes with diced onion and chopped bacon are a great snack.

Sauteing roughly chopped vegetables with a small amount of oil until it starts to lightly char is a wonderful cooking technique that creates firm, crunchy vegetables with bags of flavour.

You can also quickly cook chicken breasts using this method. First, you need to “butterfly” the breast to make it thinner, so it cooks evenly all the way through. To do this, slice through it from one side, carefully stopping before you cut all the way through the other side, so it remains in one piece. You can then fold out the chicken breast like butterfly wings and place it in the pan. Cook it for a few minutes on one side before flipping it over and finishing for a few minutes on the other side.  

When sautéing, avoid using too much heat. Use a medium heat setting and stir or turn your food occasionally with a spatula so it doesn’t stick to the pan and burn.



This is a healthy, almost fool-proof, way to cook vegetables. It avoids the hassle of roasting or the soft tasteless mush you can end up with when boiling them. And it works great with broccoli, carrots, and green beans.

To use this cooking method, you need a metal steamer with a glass lid that will fit on top of your saucepan. Steamers look like saucepans with smaller handles and have holes in the bottom that the steam from the boiling water in the pan below travels through to cook the vegetables. You can buy ones that stack on top of themselves in a tower-like formation, so you can cook lots of veg at once, for £5-10.

Just put your steamer full of chopped veg on top of a pan of boiling water for a few minutes and you will have tender, crunchy vegetables with almost no effort. If you are boiling rice, pasta or potatoes as part of your meal, you can place your steamer on top of the pan they are in for efficient cooking. Use medium heat and make sure the pan of water doesn’t boil dry.



Boiling is a simple cooking method, but it removes a lot of flavour and nutrients, especially from vegetables, which end up tasteless and mushy. Only use this method for new potatoes, pasta and rice.

Cooking pasta and potatoes

Put the pasta or potatoes in a saucepan with a generous amount of salt. Boil a kettle and pour the boiling water into the pan until it covers whatever you are cooking. Cook using medium heat. Pasta will takes 10-12 minutes using this method, and potatoes will take 15-20 minutes. Once your food is ready, drain it using a colander and serve immediately.

Cooking rice

Rice is a cheap staple food that goes well with curries and stir-fries, but if you’re not careful you can end up with a sticky mess. The trick to cooking nicely textured, fluffy rice is to measure the rice and the water. Use half a mug of dry rice per person and twice the amount of water (i.e. one mug of water per person).

Pre-boil the water in a kettle then put the rice and water in a saucepan with a pinch of salt, leaving plenty of room for the rice to expand. Loosely cover the pan with a lid and cook on the lowest heat your hob can be set to without turning off. White rice will take 12-15 minutes and brown rice will take 20-25 minutes.

Do not stir the rice – this releases starch, which makes it sticky. Trust in the process and set a timer on your phone so you know when the rice is done. Follow this method exactly and you will have perfect rice every time. It won’t even need draining.



Roasting is the process of cooking things with dry heat in the oven. Almost everything from chunkily chopped vegetables (cauliflower is particularly delicious) to good old traditional Sunday chicken can be roasted, making it a versatile cooking method that creates mouth-wateringly complex flavours.

There are two keys to roasting food – temperature control and timing. Using lower temperatures results in juicer food while using higher temperatures browns the food’s exterior, which improves flavour but risks drying it out when cooked for too long.

The sweet spot for cooking food is between 140-180°C. This range allows it to cook at a rate that is not too fast and not too slow, so it doesn’t end up raw on the inside or burned on the outside. As a rule of thumb, the bigger the thing being cooked, the lower you want the temperature to be; and the longer something cooks, the drier it becomes.

Most food benefits from being patted dry with a kitchen towel and rubbed with some cooking oil and salt before being roasted. This little trick helps to quickly crisp up the outside surface of food, prevents it from drying out, and improves its flavour.

When roasting, place your food on the middle shelf of the oven – this is where the temperature is the most consistent, which helps your food to cook evenly. Always use a baking tray that has been lightly oiled or covered with foil to prevent your food from sticking to it.

If you roast something large, like a whole chicken or joint of meat and it is not cooked through to the centre but is in danger of overcooking on the outside, wrap it in foil and turn the heat down. This will allow it to cook for longer without burning the outside surface or drying out.

To make homemade chips, cut potatoes lengthways into chip-sized pieces and place them on a baking tray. Brush lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with a small amount of salt before placing them on the middle shelf in the oven. Add some garlic paste (this is a secret weapon for student cooking), paprika and oregano to make them even tastier. They will take about 20 minutes and should be turned once or twice during cooking. They will be cheaper, healthier and tastier than any kind of pre-made oven chip you might be tempted to buy.

For the perfect jacket potato, set your oven to 180°C. While it is heating up, prick your potato with a fork several times then place it on a piece of kitchen towel in the microwave and cook on full power for seven minutes. Transfer it to a baking tray, brush with oil and sprinkle salt on it, then place it in the centre of the oven for 20-minutes. You will now have a beautifully soft potato with wonderfully crispy skin.



Almost everything that can be fried can also be grilled – burgers, fish, bacon, vegetables, etc. Grilling is a healthy alternative to shallow frying as it uses less fat.

Grilling pumps out a lot of heat, making it a quick method of cooking – food can go from not quite done to burned to a crisp in just a couple of minutes. The grease that comes out of fatty food like sausages can easily catch fire under the heat of a grill – so use a medium setting and don’t wander too far from the grill while you are using it. Grilling food often creates a lot of mess in the bottom of the grill pan, so line it with foil to make cleaning up a lot easier.


If you start to find your meals a bit bland or boring, try spicing things up with a bit of seasoning. You can buy pre-mixed packets of seasoning like Mexican chilli powder mix, Chinese spice mix or Indian curry spices, which are cheap ways of making your food more interesting.

The simplest way to use spice mixes like these when cooking on the hob is to mix them with the oil in your pan on low-medium heat for a minute or so before you add any other ingredients. When roasting, mix the spices in a bowl with a little cooking oil then brush this mixture over your food.

If you want to get fancy, you can marinate your food before cooking it. Marinating involves letting raw food stew in a spice and oil mixture so that the flavour penetrates the food prior to cooking. It gets better results, especially with meat, as it enables the flavour of the spices to soak into your food, but it requires planning ahead.

To do this, mix the spices and oil according to your recipe instructions. Then rub the resulting concoction all over your food and place it in the fridge, either in a zip lock bag on a plate, or on a tray covered with cling film, for a few hours (ideally overnight) before cooking it in the oven or pan.


Bonus tips

These basic student cooking skills should hopefully get you started in the kitchen. To finish off, here are a couple of bonus tips we’ve learned through experience that will make cooking easier and less stressful.

Chopping an onion

Onions are used in so many recipes, but they are kind of awkward to chop. This technique makes it easy to chop an onion as roughly or as fine as you want – just adjust the spacing between the cuts to end up with the desired size of onion pieces.

First, place the onion on a chopping board and cut it in two from the tip to the root. Peel back the papery skin from the tip of each onion half and tear it off at the root. If the top layer of the onion is dry or rubbery, peel and discard this too.

Place the onion halves flat side down with the root to your left and the tip to your right (reverse this if you are left-handed). Slice off 1cm from the tip but leave the root intact. Rotate the onion halves so that the end you have just sliced is facing towards you and the root is facing away from you.

Working on each half of the onion separately, right to left, make vertical slices close to one another that go all the way through the end where you have removed the tip but stop just before cutting through the root at the back of the onion. This keeps the onion in one piece, making it easier to chop.

You should end up with thin strips of onion still connected at the root. Now rotate the onion back 90 degrees so the root is again on your left-hand side, then slice across these strips. The onion should fall apart into small pieces ready for cooking.


Chopping boards

Use wooden or plastic boards only–other materials can blunt your knife. When scraping chopped food off your board into your pan, use the back of the knife instead of the cutting edge – this helps to keep the blade sharp, extending its life.

Chop vegetables first and meat or fish afterwards. Chop raw meat last of all and don’t use the chopping board for anything else after raw meat – that can lead to food poisoning. Plan the order you chop things in carefully and wash the board and knife after they have been in contact with raw meat or fish.


Washing up

Cooking from scratch with whole foods can use lots of kitchen equipment and quickly make a mess. To prevent your kitchen from looking like a hurricane has just passed through it, fill your sink or washing-up bowl with hot soapy water before you start preparing food. Then you can wash up as you go, starting with the least dirty items and leaving greasy pans until last.

Brush all your food scraps onto your chopping board once you have finished preparing food and transfer them to the bin in one go, then wash the board.

Spray the now clear kitchen surface with anti-bacterial spray and wipe it down while your food cooks. That way, the kitchen should look just like it did before you started cooking and the only thing you’ll need to wash up once you’ve eaten is your plate and a couple of pans. Easy.