15 Tips To Make You A Better Cook
Kitchens are a comfortable place for me. They’re the lifeblood of the family, the hearth of our home. Where my family spends the most time together, chatting over meals or using it as a space for a group activity. As a child, I’d get my hair done in the kitchen and sit at the table to do my homework. It’s where I naturally congregate, even during a party and at other people’s homes. Where I’ve had deep, meaningful conversations well into the late-night hours. And while a family kitchen is very different than a commercial kitchen, the same techniques and tools can be applied in your home.
A professional kitchen can be daunting, but once you get the flow and know some basic safety, you start to see that professional kitchens operate on efficiency, preparation, and methods learned in culinary school. While I did not attend culinary school, I’m an avid learner on all things culinary, and here’s what I’ve learned from years working with chefs and applying these tips in my kitchen. It’s made me more comfortable cooking anything (even if I’ve never worked with the ingredient before) as well as more efficient, consistent, and look and taste better.
The following list is not all-inclusive. It’s not meant to be, it’s a starting place for those who are just starting out learning to cook or those looking to enhance their home cooking. Cooking is dynamic and varied. The more you learn, the more you experiment. The more you grow as a cook and add to your repertoire. Learning helps you execute better, but there will be times things go don’t as planned or doesn’t live up to expectations. That’s life, just try to be prepared as much as you can for whatever comes your way. On this blog, from time to time I’ll come back to share not only my wins, but more lessons learned in the kitchen.
Here are my 15 Tips to make you a better cook:
- Set up your workstation with all your ingredients and utensils before you get started.
- Sharpen your knife before using. You’ll get more precise cuts and it is actually safer to use a properly sharpened knife than a dull one.
- Have a dedicated bag or bowl to discard your waste- separate into compostable, recyclable, and trash. This will make cleanup quick and easy.
- Have paper or kitchen towels readily available to dry your cutting board- it’s safer and keeps your work area clean. Cleaning as you go is really key to being able to move from step to step easier.
- Think about the order of what you are going to cut your ingredients. Besides having dedicated boards for meat and vegetables, cut ingredients that stain or have heavy smells last. You wouldn’t want to chop red onions then go right to apples if they’re not being cooked together.
- Have little dishes to place all your ingredients. This is your Mise en Place. A place for everything and everything in its place. Getting all your ingredients ready, so when you’re cooking everything is ready to go and you can move quickly. Professional cooks spend hours chopping up meats, vegetables and herbs so they’re ready to add to the pan when they need them. They also keep things in dedicated areas, so they don’t even have to think about where something is while cooking. The preparing becomes instinctual because they always know where the tools are- that bottle of oil is in the same place, every time they go to cook. And at home, mise en place equates to happier, speedier cooking.
- If you’re using a recipe, read the whole thing first! Don’t wing it. You might miss a crucial part or assume ingredients go in when it’s not time. I can’t tell you how many times in my early days where I used all of an ingredient only to read that I should have saved some for a sauce or garnish or that the recipe needed resting/proofing/slow cooking time which I didn’t account for. It’s a bummer and throws off your whole meal. Reading the entire recipe first will allow you to prepare better for the whole process.
- Preheat your ovens and pans. Have it ready for you just when you need it. Remember, cooking is all about timing each process so waiting for a pan becomes a chain reaction delaying something else you need to prepare.
- Bring proteins to room temperature and pat dry before cooking. This will give you an even cook and give you the nice golden sear. Cooking is science too, relying on chemical reactions to get the desired results. That golden brown color that is so delicious is called a Maillard Reaction, a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned food its distinctive flavor. If there is too much water in the cooking process, it creates a steam cook rather than a sauté or sear.
- Season in stages, don’t wait until the end. This ensures you won’t over-salt. When you’re sweating onions, add a small pinch of salt. Season your meat before you cook it, and add another tiny pinch after you deglaze the pan (adding a liquid and getting all those browned bits that have all the flavor). By the end of the cooking time, you’ll create layers of flavor that will make your food stand out.
- Each cooking oil has a unique flavor profile and different smoke points. That means some oils (like canola or peanut oil) are better suited for high-temperature frying, while fats like butter or lard are best for stir-frying and sauteing. Super fragrant oils, like extra-virgin olive oil and sesame oil, are best used raw as finishing oils or for salad dressings. (More on why we use a blended oil for our Mojo Garlic Sauce here)
- Save bones and vegetable scraps in the freezer. The easiest way to make broth at home is to have a stockpile of ingredients, prepped and ready to go in the freezer. Toss onion tops, carrot peels and mushroom stems in a freezer-safe bag and have a separate bag for meat scraps and bones. When you’ve got the time, put them in a pot or slow cooker and cover them with water. Simmer away for hours and you’ve created tasty broth! No need to buy expensive bone broths or canned broths with tons of salt and preservatives.
- Recipes are just a guide. When you’re starting out, recipes are a great way to learn ratios and cooking methods. As you go along, don’t be afraid to deviate from the instructions and ingredient list. You know what you like, so don’t cook with onions if you hate them! Like spicy? Add peppers or hot sauce! Learn to adapt and trust your taste.
- Toast dry spices before using them. Dried spices arecommonly used but adding them at the end of the cooking time often does a disservice to your food. They can turn out dry and chalky tasting if you don’t activate their essential oils and aromatic compounds. Let spices get depth of flavor by toasting whole spices in a dry pan before you grind them. Or, add ground spices after you sweat your onions in oil, about a minute before deglazing the pan. Some spices like Paprika, are also fat-soluble, meaning they’ll be activated with fats.
- Add fresh herbs at the end. While you want to add dried spices at the beginning of your prep, you should add fresh herbs at the end. Long cook times can make some fresh herbs turn bitter or dull the flavor. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but heartier herbs like rosemary and thyme hold up better than delicate finishing herbs like oregano, parsley and cilantro.
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