August 20, 2014

15 Tips to Be A Better Cook

During my almost 2 years as a food blogger, I've watched as many cooking shows as I could watch and read as many books about cooking as I could get my hands on. I learned how to make a perfect omelet, I undercooked Bon Appetit's Caramel Chicken and threw it in the trash in a fury. I made two attempts at homemade pad thai and I broke a couple of bottles of vinegar on the kitchen floor. Everyday I learn a new tip and right my culinary wrongs.  I think I've come a long way and I still have a long way to go.  But, here are some of my favorite tips for becoming a better home cook...

Salt Your Water
When you're boiling water for pasta, vegetables or grains, add salt to the water beforehand. The water should be as salty as chicken soup; taste it to make sure.  This will gently salt the ingredients so that they're tasty and ready to be tossed with your other ingredients.  Use a lot of water when cooking pasta to avoid gumminess.  Don't let Scott Conant catch you with your pasta jammed into a little pot with a thimbleful of water.  And while we're on the subject of pasta, remember to cook it a minute less than the package suggests and finish cooking it in your sauce for maximum flavor.  Also, don't put oil in your water to keep pasta from sticking to itself, because all that does is keep sauce from sticking to your pasta; a larger pot, more water and a gentle stir will take care of any sticking.
Use a Chef's Knife
If you want the cooking process to be as long and arduous as yard work, then cut your ingredients on a dinner plate with a paring knife. I've seen people do this and it's torture. Small knives are good for the dinner table, or to cut stems off strawberries or to make radish sculptures. But for everything else, use a chef's knife and a large, sturdy cutting board. A big, sharp knife will allow you to chop swiftly and efficiently.  A book like "Knife Skills Illustrated: A User's Manual" will change your kitchen life forever.  And always curl your fingers into a claw-like position on the hand that's holding the food to avoid dicing your digits with your chopping hand.
Season Every Component
If you're making a dish with multiple components, be sure to salt every one of them. For example, when making a quesadilla with let's say, beans, spinach, salsa and guacamole, be sure to salt the beans, salt the spinach, salt the salsa and salt the guacamole as you prepare them. If you try to salt everything at the end, it won't work. The same thing goes for pasta with sauce. It's hard to achieve the flavor of even seasoning when you salt at the end.
Use Coarse Salt
I've always used Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt, but any coarse salt will do. Coarse salt is free of iodine and has a cleaner, softer salt taste. The crystals are bigger and easier to grab and sprinkle. Iodized table salt has it's place; it's best for baking when measurements have to be precise. But for everyday savory cooking, coarse salt is a great staple.
"Mise En Place" Comes First
Mise En Place is a French term which means "putting in place". Everything you need for a recipe should be chopped, measured and at the ready before you start cooking. Otherwise you'll find yourself mincing onions while your eggs are burning or stripping kale while your pasta is turning to gum. Pretend you're a cooking show host and have all your ingredients ready to go in a bunch of those cute little Ikea bowls.
Control Your Fire
There's no shame in turning down the flame. If your recipe calls for medium-high heat but you're starting to see, hear or smell danger, just turn down the flame. One stove's medium-high is another stove's high-high. Trust your gut and adjust when necessary.
Dress for Success
Unless it's some Hidden Valley ranch on party crudite, I'm against bottled salad dressings. Here are the basics for a bright, fresh homemade dressing: Use 3 parts olive oil to 1 part vinegar.  Add in an aromatic like some finely minced shallot or some pulverized garlic. Season with a pinch of salt and some freshly cracked black pepper.  You might want to add some fresh herbs like oregano, thyme, rosemary, parsley or tarragon, but it's not necessary. Then, shake it all up in a mason jar or squeeze bottle, or whisk it fiercely.  Taste and adjust; if it's dull, you might need more vinegar. Too harsh? Add more oil.  Bland? Add more salt or aromatics. Always dress your salad right before serving and only until the leaves are just delicately glossy, not doused; there should be no pooling of dressing on the bottom of the bowl.
Crowding Kills Browning
Ever wonder why your meat or mushrooms didn't brown? It's because you loaded your pan up. Crowding your ingredients will cause them to release all their water and boil instead of brown.  Make sure to cook your meats and mushrooms in smaller batches to allow the moisture to cook off and the ingredients to brown nicely.
Brown Your Beef
Browning brings out flavor and complexity.  Whether it's beef chuck for stew or ground beef for chili, be sure to brown your beef in batches before tossing in your other ingredients.
Don't Lose your Sucs
Sucs is the French term for the brown bits that get stuck to your pan after you've pan fried some meat or vegetables. Don't get rid of those bits!  They have tons of flavor.  Add to the pan a splash of wine, water or stock which will lift those tasty bits up into a nice pan sauce. Finish that with some butter and a pinch of salt and pour it over your meat or vegetables for extra flavor. However, if your bits are black and burned, just discard them; it'll lead to a burnt-tasting pan sauce.
Read the Whole Recipe
We've all been there before; halfway through a recipe, we realize we did something terribly wrong, forgot a crucial ingredient or just discovered that something has to marinate overnight. Be sure to read a recipe from beginning to end before you start shopping and cooking.
Keep Your Pieces Even
If one piece of carrot is 3 inches wide and another piece is 1/2 inch wide, which piece do you think will cook faster and which will end up undercooked? Cut all your vegetables to roughly the same size so that everything cooks at the same rate.
Pound Your Way To Good Chicken
Have you had trouble with unevenly cooked or rubbery chicken breast your whole life?  Make sure to pound it with a meat mallet until its thickness is even throughout. This way, one side won't cook faster or slower than the other side. Or, you can butterfly it (slice through the middle of the breast with your knife parallel to the cutting board).
Don't Refrigerate Tomatoes!
The cold damages the tomatoes and makes them mealy. Keep your tomatoes on the counter and don't cut or salt them unless you're ready to serve them.
Meat Needs a Nap
You went through the trouble of cooking a nice piece of meat. Now let it rest for about 5 minutes before cutting into it (10-20 minutes for very large cuts of meat); the juices need time to re-distribute. If you cut into the meat right away, those juices will spill out on to your cutting board.
Most Importantly, Don't Get Food Poisoning
Make sure that cooked meats are not placed back on plates or cutting boards that came into contact with raw meat. Don't leave cooked foods or perishables out of the fridge for more than 2 hours. To cool off rice, pasta or other grains quickly, spread them out on a baking sheet or large piece of foil before packing them up for the fridge. Don't keep leftovers for more than 5 days (it depends...check this out Always cool your food before placing it in the fridge otherwise you'll raise the temperature of your refrigerator and put all your produce at risk.

Happy Cooking!


  1. I love this post! Sometimes it's good to go back to the simple things that a lot of us forget.

    1. Hi Amanda! Thanks for reading! Funny how a few simple adjustments make such a tasty difference:)