10 Essential Recipes to Master in Your 20s

Regardless of how you feel about “growing up,” there are recipes that everyone should have in their arsenal. Feeding yourself is a fact of life, and it’s an easy thing to take pride in once you determine it’s worth learning a few things in the kitchen. There’s a definite independence to knowing that if you have a few ingredients on hand in your home, you won’t starve. Falling back on boxed or frozen food occasionally is fine, as long as you know how to pull together a few meals on your own. This is here to guide you.

By the time you’re in and moving through your 20s, you should start learning some basic knife skills and knowing which knife to use for each kitchen task. If you’re graduating or moving into your first apartment and have a good excuse to ask for a gift, ask for a chef’s knife and a slow cooker. You’ll need a fry pan, a roasting pan, a cutting board, and a few cooking utensils like a spatula and a wooden spoon, too. At that point, you will more or less be ready for any combination of these 10 recipes. They range from quick dishes to throw together for yourself to recipes you can fall back on when you have friends over to meals impressive enough to make for a date — but they’re all easy enough to becomes staples. And if there’s one thing you should do in your 20s that will serve you the rest of your life, it’s have a few excellent, home cooked staple meals.

French omelette, eggs

Source: iStock

1. Omelet

A good omelet is not only a great breakfast for you on any given morning that you have the 10 minutes to make and consume it, but it’s pretty impressive to say to a special someone, “Good morning, are you hungry? How about I make you some coffee and my special omelet?” The beauty of omelets is that once you’ve got the cook of the eggs down, you can add anything to it. Last night’s leftover sausage and some chopped peppers? Amazing. Some diced tomato and torn basil? Perfect. Almost any kind of cheese kicking around your fridge? Do it.

Omelets are best made in a nonstick pan with sloping sides, but not impossible in other circumstances. As noted in this recipe from Chow, a good omelet should be a pale yellow, fluffy, delicate bundle, not chewy or massively stuffed. This requires a little practice and attention to how the eggs are cooking, but as long as you don’t seriously burn it, even the rejects taste good.

Ingredients:

  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons whole milk
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh herbs, such as parsley, chervil, or chives, plus more to garnish

Directions: Whisk the eggs, milk, salt, and pepper in a medium bowl until pale yellow and the egg yolks and whites are evenly combined. Set a serving plate aside.

Melt the butter in an 8-inch nonstick frying pan over medium heat until foaming. Add the egg mixture and stir constantly with a rubber spatula, moving the eggs around the pan until they form small curds, about 2 to 3 minutes. Be sure you don’t overcook them at this step, or you’ll end up with scrambled eggs; they should still look “wet.”

Gently shake the pan and use the spatula to spread the egg mixture evenly across the pan; the top of the eggs should have a creamy consistency. Sprinkle all over with the measured herbs.

Remove the pan from heat. Using the spatula, fold a third of the omelet over and onto itself.

Gently push the folded side of the omelet toward the edge of the pan. Tilt the pan over the serving plate and roll the omelet onto the plate, seam side down. Garnish with additional herbs and serve immediately.

Source: iStock

2. Pancakes

The other great breakfast to have in your pocket is pancakes. Less complicated than French toast or crepes but more reliable for a crowd than eggs, pancakes made from scratch will make you a breakfast hero. The important thing to know about pancakes is that you need the pan to be the right heat, and that may take some practice. Too hot and you’ll get splotchy and burnt pancakes, but too cool and you’ll get pale, dry pancakes. Once you get a rhythm going, though, you’ll be a delicious pancake making machine. This easy recipe from Martha Stewart will show you the way.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, or vegetable oil
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • Assorted toppings, such as butter, maple syrup, confectioners’ sugar, honey, jams, preserves, sweetened whipped cream, or chocolate syrup

Directions: Preheat oven to 200 degrees Fahrenheit; have a baking sheet or heatproof platter ready to keep cooked pancakes warm in the oven. In a small bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt; set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together milk, butter or oil, and egg. Add dry ingredients to milk mixture; whisk until just moistened. Do not overmix; a few small lumps are fine.

Heat a large skillet, preferably nonstick or cast-iron, or a griddle over medium heat. Fold a sheet of paper towel in half, and moisten with oil; carefully rub skillet with oiled paper towel.

For each pancake, spoon 2 to 3 tablespoons of batter onto skillet, using the back of the spoon to spread batter into a round. You should be able to fit 2 to 3 in a large skillet.

Cook until surface of pancakes have some bubbles and a few have burst, 1 to 2 minutes. Flip carefully with a thin spatula, and cook until browned on the underside, 1 to 2 minutes more. If necessary, adjust the heat for future pancakes.

Transfer to a baking sheet or platter; cover loosely with aluminum foil, and keep warm in oven. Continue with more oil and remaining batter. You’ll have 12 to 15 pancakes. Serve warm, with desired toppings.

Source: iStock

3. Whole roast chicken

We’ll just dive right into it. If you eat meat, you should learn to roast a whole chicken. It’s one of the easiest but also most delicious and impressive meals you can make. If you’re cooking for company, it’s a no-brainer. If you’re cooking for just you, you’ll have plenty of leftovers for future meals. What should you do with leftover roasted chicken? Get as much of the meat off the chicken as you can and set it aside for either chicken pot pie, chicken salad, or chicken soup. To make chicken soup, use the carcass to make chicken broth and use every part of the buffalo, so to speak. The first night, though, you’ll eat a delicious, hot, crispy roast chicken.

This recipe from Thomas Keller via Epicurious is one of the best around. It constantly wins taste tests, it’s easy, and it only has 4 ingredients besides the bird itself. The secret to a great bird is really high heat and dryness. If your chicken is damp or wet when it goes in, it will steam, and that’s not what you want here. When it’s done cooking — and this applies to all (not ground) meat you will ever cook — let it rest off the heat for at least 10 minutes before you start cutting. Cutting into it too early will let loose all the juices and your succulent bird will be dry. Note: you’ll need to get cooking twine.

Ingredients:

  • 1 (2- to 3-pound) farm-raised chicken
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme, optional
  • Unsalted butter
  • Dijon mustard

Directions: Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Rinse the chicken, then dry it very well with paper towels, inside and out. The less it steams, the drier the heat, the better.

Salt and pepper the cavity, then truss the bird. Trussing is not difficult, and it’s an essential skill for achieving a great roast chicken. When you truss a bird, the wings and legs stay close to the body; the ends of the drumsticks cover the top of the breast and keep it from drying out. Trussing helps the chicken to cook evenly, and it also makes for a more beautiful roasted bird.

Now, salt the chicken by evenly sprinkling the top with about 1 tablespoon of kosher salt. When it’s cooked, you should still be able to make out the salt baked onto the crisp skin. Season to taste with black pepper.

Place the chicken in a sauté pan or roasting pan and, when the oven is up to temperature, put the chicken in the oven. Roast it until it’s golden brown, 50 to 60 minutes. Getting it just right may take some practice, but if you’re the kind who feels best with exact measurements, an instant read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the leg should read 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove it from the oven and add the thyme, if using, to the juices in the bottom of the pan pan. Using a spoon, scoop up the juices and thyme and pour a few spoonfuls over the chicken. Remove the chicken from the pan and let it rest for 15 minutes on a cutting board.

Remove the twine. Here’s how Thomas Keller describes the way to deconstruct, serve, and eat your bird:

Separate the middle wing joint and eat that immediately. Remove the legs and thighs. I like to take off the backbone and eat one of the oysters, the two succulent morsels of meat embedded here, and give the other to the person I’m cooking with. But I take the chicken butt for myself. I could never understand why my brothers always fought over that triangular tip — until one day I got the crispy, juicy fat myself. These are the cook’s rewards. Cut the breast down the middle and serve it on the bone, with one wing joint still attached to each. The preparation is not meant to be super elegant. Slather the meat with fresh butter. Serve with mustard on the side and, if you wish, a simple green salad. You’ll start using a knife and fork, but finish with your fingers, because it’s so good.

Source: iStock

4. Chili

There are, essentially, two different kinds of chili: all meat chili and chili that is not all meat. This chili from Eating Well is made with sweet potatoes and black beans because 1) you will likely, at some point, need to know how to cook a vegetarian meal that can feed a crowd and 2) this version is a lot cheaper than one packed with meat. Make a lot of this, because it’s great as leftovers and in things like omelets or macaroni and cheese.

This is one of the first recipes that really needs a stocked spice cabinet. If there’s one thing that can turn a dish from boring to amazing, it’s a good use of herbs and spices. Experiment and learn what you like, but don’t be afraid of flavor.

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium-large sweet potato, peeled and diced
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 4 teaspoons ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon ground chipotle chile
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2½ cups water
  • 2 (15-ounce) cans black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes
  • 4 teaspoons lime juice
  • ½ cup chopped fresh cilantro

Directions: Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add sweet potato and onion and cook, stirring often, until the onion is beginning to soften, about 4 minutes. Add garlic, chili powder, cumin, chipotle, and salt and cook, stirring constantly, for 30 seconds. Add water and bring to a simmer. Cover, reduce heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook until the sweet potato is tender, 10 to 12 minutes.

Add beans, tomatoes and lime juice; increase heat to high and return to a simmer, stirring often. Reduce heat and simmer until slightly reduced, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in cilantro.

Source: iStock

5. Tomato sauce

Though jarred tomato sauces abound, it’s truly worth it to know how to make your own from scratch. Not only are they typically healthier, but they also fall under the category of essential recipes good for a weeknight alone to to seriously impress a date. There’s one recipe that couldn’t be easier or better, and that’s Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce with onion and butter, coming your way via Smitten Kitchen. Besides a little bit of salt, those are the only ingredients: a can of good tomatoes, an onion, and a stick of butter. While many “grandma’s sauce” recipes aren’t truly done without hours and hours of cooking, this takes 45 minutes. The tomatoes break down over that time, the onion flavor is infused and sweetened in the sauce, and the butter creates a beautifully smooth, luscious mouthfeel in the sauce.

Try to use whole San Marzano tomatoes for this sauce. The quality of the tomatoes is crucial here, and whole San Marzano tomatoes are widely regarded as the best canned tomatoes around. No one else has to know that this 3-ingredient sauce came together in 45 minutes; as long as it’s already bubbling away when company comes over, it looks and tastes like you’ve been tending it for hours.

Ingredients:

  • 28 ounces whole peeled tomatoes from a can
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 medium-sized yellow onion, peeled and halved
  • Salt to taste

Directions: Put the tomatoes, onion, and butter in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Crush the tomatoes a bit with your hands. Bring the sauce to a simmer then lower the heat to keep the sauce at a slow, steady simmer for about 45 minutes, or until droplets of fat float free of the tomatoes. Stir occasionally, crushing the tomatoes against the side of the pot with a wooden spoon. Remove from heat, discard the onion, add salt to taste and keep warm while you prepare your pasta.

Serve with spaghetti; makes sauce for 1 pound of pasta.

Roasted vegetables, cooking, squash

Source: iStock

6. Roasted vegetables with fresh herbs

Much like how the chili shows the importance of a well-stocked spice cabinet, roasted vegetables show the importance of good, fresh herbs. Though roasted vegetables with nothing but a bit of salt and pepper are completely serviceable, they’re magically transformed into a side greater than its parts with fresh herbs. Roasted veggies are a perfect side dish to any meaty entree, but they’re also great for vegetarian meals; with the addition of white beans and a fried egg, you have a delicious and nutritious meatless dinner.

When you roast vegetables, the high heat of the oven begins to caramelize the natural sugars on the surface of the veggies. It’s a low effort, high reward preparation that, as long as you have the time and don’t let the vegetables burn or dry out, can’t go wrong. Always chop similarly dense vegetables the same size for even cooking: winter squash, carrots, and potatoes take longer and should be chopped smaller than, say, onion, summer squash, and broccoli to avoid over/under-cooking anything. This recipe from Food & Wine is a great introduction to the technique.

Ingredients:

  • 4 medium carrots, peeled and sliced ¼-inch thick on the diagonal
  • 2 large parsnips, about 1 pound, peeled and sliced ¼ inch thick on the diagonal
  • 1 medium head cauliflower, about 2½ pounds, cut into 1-inch florets
  • 1 small butternut squash, about 2 pounds, peeled, seeded and cut into 1-inch dice
  • 1 pound brussels sprouts, halved
  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 10 sage leaves
  • 5 thyme sprigs
  • 2 (6-inch) rosemary sprigs, cut into 2-inch lengths
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Directions: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. In a large bowl, toss the vegetables with the olive oil, sage, thyme and rosemary and season generously with salt and pepper. Spread the vegetables on 2 large rimmed baking sheets and roast for about 55 minutes, tossing once halfway through, until the vegetables are tender and golden. Scrape into a bowl and serve hot or at room temperature.

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

7. Slow cooker pulled pork

The slow cooker, or crockpot, is your friend. As long as you set it up for success, it babysits your ingredients all day and when you return, you have food. One of the most reliably successful way to make your own pulled pork — though it won’t be quite the same as a 14-hour slow smoke — is to throw pork and barbecue sauce into the slow cooker and let it do its thing. This also works for other pulled meat you want to cook, like chicken and beef. Cook in mole or salsa for Mexican food or in tomato sauce for chicken cacciatore. This recipe from Good Housekeeping has you create your own barbecue sauce (an impressive skill in its own right), but you could easily buy your favorite, dump it in with the pork, and call it a day.

Ingredients:

Pulled Pork

  • 1 medium onion
  • ½ cup ketchup
  • ⅓ cup cider vinegar
  • ¼ cup packed brown sugar
  • ¼ cup tomato paste
  • 2 tablespoons sweet paprika
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tablespoons yellow mustard
  • 1½ teaspoons salt
  • 1¼ teaspoons ground black pepper
  • 4 pounds boneless pork shoulder blade roast

Sandwiches

  • 12 soft sandwich buns or ciabatta rolls
  • Dill pickles, optional
  • Potato chips, optional
  • Hot sauce, optional

Directions: In 4½- to 6-quart slow-cooker pot, stir onion, ketchup, vinegar, brown sugar, tomato paste, paprika, Worcestershire, mustard, salt, and pepper until combined. Add pork to sauce mixture and turn to coat well with sauce.

Cover slow cooker with lid and cook pork mixture on low setting as manufacturer directs, 8 to 10 hours or until pork is very tender.

With tongs, transfer pork to large bowl. Turn setting on slow cooker to high; cover and heat sauce to boiling to thicken and reduce slightly.

While sauce boils, with 2 forks, pull pork into shreds. Return shredded pork to slow cooker and toss with sauce to combine. Cover slow cooker and heat through on high setting if necessary.

Spoon pork mixture onto bottom of sandwich buns; replace tops of buns. Serve sandwiches with pickles, potato chips, and hot sauce if you like.

Source: iStock

8. Pizza dough

Homemade pizza is not only cheaper than ordering out, it’s often healthier and a great activity for casual dinner parties. For tips on how to make homemade pizza as close to restaurant-quality pizza as possible, check out our 5 Secrets to Making Restaurant Pizza at Home. For a simple starter recipe for pizza dough, we suggest this one from The Food Network.

Bread dough is a foray into baking that isn’t quite as technical and precise (at this level) as baking a cake can be, but gives you a handle on how things like flour and yeast work. When working with yeast, there are a few things to know. First, you’ll almost only ever need active dry yeast or instant yeast. Yeast is a living (though, when refrigerated, dormant) organism that eats sugar and creates carbon dioxide, making the dough rise. To activate yeast, use warm water no hotter than 110 degrees Fahrenheit — if it’s too hot, the yeast will die; you want it warm but not hot to the touch.

This recipe calls for bread flour, which is a higher protein flour than all-purpose flour. This creates stronger gluten bonds, resulting in crispier and airier crusts. All-purpose flour would work just fine here, and you’d have a chewier crust at the end. Kneading the dough creates these gluten structures, and that’s what traps the gas that raises the dough. Here’s a tutorial on kneading.

Ingredients:

  • 3½ to 4 cups bread flour, plus more for rolling
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 envelope instant dry yeast
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1½ cups water, 110 degrees Fahrenheit
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus 2 teaspoons

Directions: Combine the bread flour, sugar, yeast and kosher salt in the bowl of a stand mixer and combine. While the mixer is running, add the water and 2 tablespoons of the oil and beat until the dough forms into a ball. If the dough is sticky, add additional flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough comes together in a solid ball. If the dough is too dry, add additional water, 1 tablespoon at a time. Scrape the dough onto a lightly floured surface and gently knead into a smooth, firm ball. If you don’t have a stand mixer, use a sturdy wooden spoon or your hands.

Grease a large bowl with the remaining 2 teaspoons olive oil, add the dough, toss the dough to coat in oil, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put it in a warm area to let it double in size, about 1 hour. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and divide it into 2 equal pieces. Cover each with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap and let them rest for 10 minutes before gently stretching into disks and making pizzas.

Macaroni and cheese, pasta

Source: iStock

9. Homemade stovetop mac and cheese

Using boxed mac and cheese is OK as long as, after a certain age, you learn how to make it from scratch. The great thing about making your own stovetop mac and cheese is that you get to choose the cheeses you like — and there’s none of that powdered stuff that gets clumpy and caught dry in the crevices of the shells. This recipe from The Kitchn departs from many others in that it doesn’t involve the step of making a roux, which is butter cooked in flour (pronounced “roo” and used to thicken the cheese sauce). Instead, it makes a slurry, which is flour whisked with milk and then added to the sauce. Whereas you can overcook a roux and diminish its thickening power, the slurry method is pretty foolproof. Once you have this down, feel free to experiment with adding exciting things to make a more substantial meal out of your mac and cheese.

Note: Mustard powder can be found in the spice aisle.

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound pasta, any shape
  • 1½ cups whole or 2% milk
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 to 3 cups shredded cheese, like cheddar, monterey jack, or colby
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon mustard powder

Directions: Bring about 4 quarts of water to a boil over high heat in a pasta pot. Add the pasta and a tablespoon of salt. Cook until the pasta is al dente, about 8 minutes. Drain and set aside.

When the pasta has finished cooking, prepare the cheese sauce. Begin warming 1 cup of the milk in a saucepan over medium heat. Whisk together the remaining ½ cup of milk and the flour until there are no lumps. When you just start to see tendrils of steam rising from the warming milk, whisk in the milk-and-flour mixture. Continue whisking gently until the milk thickens slightly to the consistency of heavy cream, 3 to 4 minutes.

Turn the heat to low and begin mixing handfuls of cheese into the milk. Stir in the salt and mustard powder. Stir until all the cheese has melted and the sauce is creamy. Taste and adjust the seasonings as desired. Remove the sauce from heat.

In a large serving bowl, combine the pasta and ½ of the cheese sauce. Stir to coat the pasta evenly. Add the second half of the sauce and any extra add-ins, like cooked meat or vegetables.

Serve the mac and cheese immediately while still warm. Leftovers will keep for up to a week and can be reheated in the microwave. If the sauce is a little dry after re-heating, mix in a splash of milk to make it creamy again.

Source: iStock

Source: iStock

10. Balsamic-brown sugar short ribs with garlic mashed potatoes

There will be times in your life where you will want or need to make a fancy meal. In those times, making this dish from Serious Eats has you covered on all bases. This introduces you to the concept of braising, which is a method of cooking that involved searing at high heat and then finished lower and slower in flavorful liquid, resulting in tender and flavorful meat. You’ll braise the short ribs in red wine, balsamic vinegar, and brown sugar to create a delicious glaze. The garlic mashed potatoes are a perfect base for the meat and sauce. When making mashed potatoes, take care to not over mix or mash, or the burst starch molecules will turn the potatoes gluey. Serve this with a vegetable or salad on the side.

Ingredients:

Short Ribs

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 (6- to 8-ounce) pieces boneless short ribs
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 large cloves garlic, smashed
  • ½ cup red wine
  • 2 cups low-sodium beef broth
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 (1-by-3-inch) strip of orange zest, white pith removed

Potatoes

  • 2 pounds red-skin potatoes
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • ¼ cup milk
  • ½ cup sour cream

Directions: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Coat a large Dutch oven with olive oil and bring to high heat. Season meat with salt and pepper. Working in batches to avoid overcrowding, which would steam instead of sear the ribs, add short ribs and cook without moving until well browned on first side, about 4 minutes. Flip short ribs and add onions and garlic. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until short ribs are browned on second side and onions and garlic are softened but not completely browned, 2 to 3 minutes longer.

Add red wine to pan. Bring to a boil and let it simmer for a minute before adding beef broth, Worcestershire, vinegar, brown sugar, bay leaves, and orange zest. Return to a boil, cover, and transfer to the oven to cook until meat is fork-tender and sauce is rich and full of depth, 2½ to 3 hours total, flipping meat once during cooking.

When the meat is almost done cooking, bring potatoes and garlic to a boil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Cook until tender when pierced with a fork, 20 to 25 minutes. Drain, return to pot and add butter, milk, and sour cream. Season with salt and pepper, and mash with a potato masher or a fork.

When short ribs are done cooking, discard bay leaves and orange zest. Season salt to taste with salt and pepper. To plate, place a mound of mashed potatoes on each of four individual plates. Top with a short rib, and spoon with sauce. Serve immediately.

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