I'm a total nerd. Always have been. Always will. And I don't just accept my nerdom, I embrace it.
Learning is fun to me, especially when it involves food. Cookbooks account for 90% of my bookcase. Stacks of magazine subscriptions clutter every room of the house. My internet bookmarks bar is filled with various food blogs and other recipe websites.
I recently read this pretty interesting list of cooking tips from chefs put out by Food Network. And of course that got me thinking about some tips of my own. Although there is still about 100 lifetimes of knowledge to acquire before I even scratch the surface of the collective culinary world, here is a good start for those of you who are just starting out in the kitchen. 10 very simple, very easy ways to instantly improve your cooking.
1. Salt Is Your Friend
Properly seasoning your food is one tip that chefs and culinary professionals bombard us with time and time again. The majority of home cooks either greatly under season their food or just dump in some salt at the very end of the cooking process.
In his book, Michael Symon's Live to Cook: Recipes and Techniques to Rock Your Kitchen, the Iron Chef teaches that salting in stages throughout the cooking process will build more flavor. He suggests seasoning from start to finish, because it extracts the most flavor out of your ingredients.
For instance, if I'm braising short ribs, I will season the meat prior to searing, then season again as the vegetables are sautéing, and finally season one more time as the braising liquid is added.
Go ahead and get yourself some good Kosher Salt (Morton's or Diamond Crystal are the two standards) and keep it next to your stove in a handy-dandy salt cellar. That way it's always within an arm's reach.
And on the topic of salt, don't forget to add it to your water when cooking pasta. And not just a pinch. You literally want the water to taste like ocean salt water. This will make sure you pasta is perfectly seasoned.
2. Get Out of the Recipe Straightjacket
Cookbooks. Magazines. Internet Food Sites and Blogs. I love them all. I'm afraid to think how many cumulative hours I've spent reading about food. As much as I absolutely love and adore my large library of cookbooks and get super excited every time a food magazine gets delivered to my mailbox, they can also be a straightjacket in the kitchen.
No recipe is perfect for every person in every kitchen. So many factors can influence the outcome of a dish, even with an amazing recipe. For instance, exactly how hot is "medium heat"? What if the author's stove runs hotter or cooler than yours? How big is a large onion? A pinch of salt? Zeroing in on precise measurements, cooking times, and stovetop temperatures is quite difficult to quantify. So what's a person to do?!
Taste. Trust your instincts. Watch and experience your food as it cooks. Use the recipe as a guideline, not an absolute rule.
Like most things in life, there is an exception. Baking is a totally different beast than cooking. Recipes for baked goods should be followed as closely as possibly. I always, ALWAYS, try to be as precise and true to the measurements in baking recipes. I highly recommend using a digital scale. Measuring by weight is much more precise than measuring by volume (for example, 500 grams versus 2 cups). Here's the scale I have... it's been good to me: OXO Good Grips Stainless Steel Digital Scale.
3. Stay Sharp
There are three basic knives that will allow you to prepare almost anything in the kitchen: A paring knife, chef's knife, and carving knife.
The chef's knife is what I and you will use at least 90% of the time. It's an all-purpose knife that's perfect for chopping, dicing, mincing, and slicing. The smaller paring knife is good for small, intricate work such as peeling or working with small foods. And of course, the carving knife is good for slicing prepared meats and also cutting up bread.
No matter what knife you use, it is of extreme importance that you keep them sharp. Many home cooks think they will cut themselves if their knives are too sharp, but the opposite is actually true. Dull knives easily slip off the food you are trying to cut, causing more kitchen accidents than I like to remember. You can easily keep knives sharp with the use of a honing steel.
And while on the topic of knives, do your best to make uniform cuts. Whether you're chopping, dicing, or mincing, make sure to make your cuts the same size. That way your food will all finish cooking at the same time. If you are chopping an onion and some pieces are big and some small, you will end up either undercooking the big pieces or burnings the small pieces.
4. Making the Cut
Avoid glass and stone cutting boards. They will dull your knives extremely fast. The best cutting boards are made of either wood or plastic composite. They are both easy on your knives, are durable, and last a long time. Plastic cutting boards are also great because they are usually dishwasher safe. You do, however, want to follow some sanitary guidelines for your cutting boards...
I have three cutting boards, each serving a specific purpose. My wood cutting board is for everything except meat, fish, and poultry. Fruits, vegetables, herbs, and bread are all examples of what goes on the wood cutting board.
The red plastic cutting board is for cooked meat, fish, and poultry. The black plastic cutting board is reserved for all raw meat, poultry, and fish. This is the safest way to avoid cross-contamination in the kitchen.
5. Ingredients Matter
Ever taste a really easy, simple dish at a restaurant and wonder why it tastes a million times better than when you make the same thing at home? It happens to me all the time. I used to think that the chefs must be doing something crazy awesome in the kitchen, when in reality the opposite is true. They are just using the very highest quality, perfectly ripe ingredients possible.
Good restaurants take extreme care in sourcing the best of every ingredient. They don't just hope for ripe tomatoes or berries, they demand them. Unfortunately, most supermarkets we shop in stink. I've yet to have an amazing tomato or strawberry from any supermarket, even when they are in season.
Do your best to shop at farmers markets. Good farmers take pride in what they grow. It's almost guaranteed their produce is going to taste better. And they will only sell what's in season at that time. To find a farmers market near you, click here.
6. Mise en Place
That's a fancy French word that means get everything in place. In restaurants, all ingredients are washed, measured out, chopped appropriately, and at an arm's reach before anything hits the pan. It's about being organized.
Here's what used to happen to me: I'd start a recipe, have some ingredients cooking in the pan, then realize I forgot to chop something up. I had to then quickly wash it, haphazardly chop the item (not taking care to make uniform cuts since I'm in a rush), and then turn back to the pan to see that the food already in there started to burn. So frustrating!
Take the extra couple minutes and have everything ready. It will make for a much happier, enjoyable cooking experience.
7. Go Clean Up
Ever watch one of those cooking shows where the judges ream out the contestants for having a messy station. Chefs hate a messy kitchen. A messy kitchen normally leads to a messy dish. Contamination can also more easily occur in a chaotic atmosphere.
And really, who likes having to deal with a filthy kitchen after the meal has been cooked and enjoyed? Clean as you go.
8. I'm Feeling Claustrophobic
Dont' overcrowd the pan.
Trying to sauté some vegetables? Going for a high heat stir fry? If you overcrowd the pan, you will end up steaming your ingredients instead. Looking for a nice good sear on that meat? Stuffing that pan full will make it's temperature spiral downward, leading to gray-like matter instead of that golden-brown crust your trying to achieve.
All ingredients should fit in one breathable layer, so make sure to choose the right size pan or cook in batches.
9. Walk that Balance Beam
There are several different flavors that we humans can easily detect. To name a few, there's savory, sweet, acidity (sour), salty, and spicy. Good dishes balance these different flavors.
We've all experienced a plate that was too spicy or too salty, and for sure you've had desserts that were so sweet you could only take a couple bites. When cooking, chefs will often think about what they can add to counteract the predominant flavors, creating an overall pleasing dish.
Take this chili for example. With all the different peppers and chiles, it's a bit spicy. To counteract the heat, I added a touch of sweetness with cocoa powder and cornbread croutons. The chili was also very earthy and savory, so to balance that I added some acidity with a sour cream spiked with the zest and juice from a fresh lime.
10. Think Texture
Creamy. Crunchy. Chewy. Juicy. Hard. Soft. Fatty. Firm. Toothsome. We like varying textures in our food. Too much of one thing and a dish is one-dimensional.
A plain turkey sandwich is boring. Add some crunchy lettuce, juicy tomato slices, and some sort of creamy condiment, and now we're in business. This Spaghetti Squash Pad Thai has soft spaghetti squash strands with creamy tofu and scrambled eggs, and some very welcomed crunch from bean sprouts, carrots, and peanuts.
11. Eat with Your Eyes
I know. I said 10 ways, not 11. Oops, sorry. Anyway...
It doesn't matter if you are dining at a 3 Michelin star restaurant, your local neighborhood restaurant, or enjoying a family dinner at home. We eat with our eyes first. Presentation matters.
You can easily add color to your meal with relevant garnishes. For instance, in this Creamy Tomato-Basil Soup, I added a chiffonade of fresh basil and grated some parmigiano-reggiano cheese. It added a much needed burst of color to an otherwise bowl of reddish-orangey liquid.
Another restaurant trick is to build your plate up vertically. Height is impressive to the human eye. For my Braised Short Ribs with Polenta and Swiss Chard, I laid down polenta and topped it with a layer of swiss chard. To crown off the stack, I placed short ribs and drizzled the pan juices over the top.