The perfect dish is a moving target. What’s delicious to one person can be overly-salty to someone else…and how many times have I made something great only to have it turn out so-so the second time I make it? They say it takes you at least 10,000 hours of practice to become an “expert.” In the kitchen, I’m probably at somewhere around 2,000 hours with many, many more to go – hardly an expert. But I’ve spent a lot of time making (and correcting) mistakes and trying to learn something from them while cooking.
Cooking isn’t something I do because I’m good at it or simply because I love food. You know how some people say they “have to take a 6-mile run before work or I just don’t feel like myself!” (I hate those people.) That’s how I feel about cooking. When I go on vacation I actually miss being in my kitchen because chopping and experimenting and baking and tasting are things that soothe me, make me feel purposeful. I really enjoy being in control when I’m in the kitchen; I’m Type-A, clearly.
There are things people tell you to do when cooking and things recipe books “suggest.” I hear the same things over and over again on the food channels and somehow always think I can find a workaround, a shortcut, another way. UGH. I have screwed up so many perfectly good dishes this way. So, just for you, here’s a short list of some of the things I’ve learned through trial and error over the last decade in the kitchen. Following these rules will improve each dish you make just a little, but overall turn you into a better, more consistent cook.
I know. The guests are here and that chicken breast took WAY too long to cook beyond raw and everyone’s waiting on you. Terrifying. But if you cut into that meat right off the grill, stove, or oven, all the juices are literally going to run out all over your counter. No one likes dry meat. And this lesson doesn’t just apply to slicing your meat to plate it. Don’t cut into anything to check and see if it’s done, either! Speaking of…
9. Buy and use a meat thermometer.
Man, I spent years avoiding meat thermometers. Ina Garten could simply poke a pork chop with her finger and tell whether it was done…why couldn’t I? (A: Because I am not Ina Garten.) Stop guessing about your meat. Seriously, it will save you so many headaches and heartaches and embarrassing gray-on-the-outside-but-red-in-the-inside steaks. Meat thermometers are a modern marvel, and they work Every. Single. Time. Insert the thermometer from into the side of the meat to ensure you’re measuring the middle temp, not the bottom of the pan.
Have a drink. Loosen up. Pour some wine in what you’re making and see how extra-delicious it becomes! All the great cooking cultures (France? Italy? Spain?) love some wine.
7. Use more oil.
I could break this rule up into 30 smaller rules and write a whole post preaching about how futile it is to try to “cut calories everywhere you can.” You know what your body likes? Whole, real food. You know what it doesn’t like? 100 Calorie Packs. STOP EATING THIS STUFF. Oil is not the enemy, nor is salt, half-and-half, or red meat. If it’s real food you can eat it and not feel guilty! Should you fry everything in 2″ of canola? No. Should you liberally oil your pan so your meat doesn’t stick and comes out more flavorful and therefore more satisfying? Yes. That way you won’t be eating your weight in frozen yogurt an hour later.
This one is easier said than done. At the store, there’s usually a cheap, a middle, and a pricey option – and who wants to spend $11 on balsamic vinegar? Always choose the middle option (at least!) when purchasing few-ingredient, whole items. I promise you, you’ll be able to taste the difference and so will everyone else eating your food. Take the time to grate your own cheese, throw away that spray butter, and buy real lemons instead of that stuff in the green bottle. Small changes lead to big, perceptible differences in your food.
5. Keep a garbage bowl out when you’re cooking.
This is probably the one piece of useful advice I ever picked up watching Rachael Ray (sorry, Rachael) but it’s a lifesaver. Try your best to keep your cooking area clean while you cook – you’ll feel less stressed and the dish will turn out better. A garbage bowl goes a long way to saving you countless drippy, smelly steps to the trash can.
People always talk using stock in everything on those fancy cooking shows. I was always like, “seriously, who has stock ALL THE TIME and water is fine, thankyouverymuch.” I was wrong. I’ve started making my own stock (mostly because I buy far too many rotisserie chickens) and I’ve found that everything from rice to soup to cous cous is better when you substitute stock for water. These simple changes translate past stock, too. I made a boxed cake mix last week and substituted milk for the directed water and it was the best boxed cake I’ve ever had. Try something that scares you. You’re just cooking, no one’s life is on the line.
3. Flexibility is the key to good cooking.
When I first starting cooking I was a slave to the recipe. I thought if I deviated just a bit it might not turn out. Eventually I began substituting recipe ingredients for others I liked better and before I knew it I wasn’t really using recipes at all. The key to learning to be a cook, not just how to cook, is in being able to change things up on a moment’s notice. Sauteed chicken breasts burning on the bottom before they’re cooked through? Pour a little water in the pan and cover with a lid – steam those babies! Thought you had sour cream and you’re already halfway through that muffin batter? Substitute yogurt instead (and yes, strawberry is fine! You just made a new recipe: Strawberry Blueberry Muffins! Look at you go!) Confidence is key to flexibility. Have some.
Oh my gosh, why is this one so tough? I realize I’m impatient but I don’t always know I want to make cookies two hours ahead of time. Sometimes I just want cookies NOW! I’ve started keeping one stick of butter out on the counter at all times, just in case. (Butter has so much fat it won’t spoil if set out.) I’ve tried every other way: microwaving on low, putting the butter on top of the barely-warm toaster oven, staring at the butter and willing it to soften. Room temperature butter (and milk and eggs) make FAR BETTER baked goods. Trust. Good cooks know what to skip and what to be patient on. This is not something to skip.
1. Learn what your basics are and keep them stocked.
There are few things worse than getting home at 7pm and having nothing but mustard and vodka in your refrigerator. Now that I’m a Real Adult I’ve figured out which ingredients we (a) like the best and (b) are the most versatile and (c) last the longest. And I buy them! Every time I’m out! Some of the basics I keep on hand are good canned tomatoes, olive oil, dried pasta, half-and-half, frozen meat, celery, carrots, onions, garlic, flour, brown sugar…the list goes on. Maybe I’ll post a list of them here soon but anyway, figure out for yourself what you make/crave the most and start keeping those things in the house. You’ll cook more, and the more you cook the more confident you are in the kitchen. And confidence is delicious.
What are your own rules to live by in the kitchen? Surprisingly, this is not a definitive list…