A few weeks ago I posted about Ten Cooking Realities it Took Me Far Too Long to Accept. People ate it up. Apparently everyone, much like myself, just wants a few foolproof rules to follow that make for instant kitchen success! Truth is, there are no rules. But that’s what makes cooking great – everyone has their own style and rhythm in the kitchen which is why different people’s food tastes differently. And that’s a good thing!
It’s all about being flexible in the kitchen but sometimes it’s nice to have some guidelines to live by. Things you can count on to make dishes better…here are 10 more of those, based on my humble experience.
10. Low and slow is the way to go.
I cannot tell you how many times I thought, “well sure, that chicken could cook for 40 minutes but wouldn’t it be easier to cook it for 10 minutes on super-blasting-broil heat? Efficiency!” Good cooking isn’t about being efficient, and it’s certainly not about being fast. The bad news is, many of the best flavors in the world (perfectly seared beef, roasted garlic, caramelized onions) take time to develop, and there is no substitute for time. The sooner you accept this fact the more relaxing cooking will become.
9. Buy the right tools.
Some things aren’t worth the money: a marble rolling pin, a $300 food processor, Lululemon yoga pants. But in the kitchen, you can generally assume the middle-of-the-line product’s going to serve you best. Want a mandolin for easy chopping? Don’t buy the one that’s going to fall apart the first time it faces a potato. Need a deep frying pan? Don’t spring for copper but don’t buy the one off the clearance rack at Home Goods, either. You get what you pay for and your food will usually come out better if you use better, proper equipment.
8. Don’t skip the garnish.
This is an Ina Garten rule but she’s right, you guys. Many recipes call for a little something at the end: a squirt of fresh lemon juice, a sprinkle of kosher salt, a dusting of parsley. I used to ignore these little tips because I GOT IT ALL ON THE PLATE AT THE SAME TIME AND IT’S STILL HOT NOW EAT IT BEFORE IT COOLS! but you know, the second I slowedddd down (see rule 10) and paid as much attention to the end of my dishes as I did to the beginning and the middle, the better my food became. This tip makes the difference between a Good Recipe and an Oh My Gosh What Is That? recipe.
7. Season. Season Liberally.
Speaking of kosher salt, why did it take me so many years to start regularly salting my food? I think it started with the convoluted notion that not adding salt was healthier (and it is…marginally, but far less satisfying and therefore I ate more later.) Now that I add salt and pepper to my food it’s got so much more flavor! For reals! It’s important to season every step of the way, from sweating the vegetables to the top of each serving, to achieve maximum results. And don’t forget to season stuff you’d never think about…like sandwiches.
6. Boil the water first.
So, so many times I’ve perfectly executed a dish, timed everything correctly…only to have my needed pot of boiling water still tepid. Everything else got soggy and cold and my perfect dish turned into an okay dish. What a bummer. I’ve learned to do the thing that takes the longest first – from preheating the oven to buttering and flouring the cake pan to peeling and chopping the tomatoes. Whatever it is, the more you can prepare before you actually start COOKING, the better off you’ll be. That’s how cooking shows work, afterall.
Seriously. Stop putting so much pressure on yourself. Did you compete in a triathalon the first time you learned to swim? Then stop thinking you have to master every dish the first time you make it. Is everyone fed? Did anyone get food poisoning? That’s success, my friend.
4. Knowing your flavors is half the battle.
There’s nothing worse than staring into a refrigerator at 6:00pm thinking, “Well hells bells. What am I going to cook for dinner?” There were many years when I was a slave to recipe books and AllRecipes.com and generally had to decide what to make BEFORE I got home. No more. The key to being able to whip up dinner based on what you have on the house is knowing what flavors work well together, and what you like to eat. For example, I always keep some kind of cheese (goat, mozzarella, etc.) in the house along with a jar of sundried tomatoes and basil. Those three flavors ALWAYS work, no matter what I do with them, so whether I’m tossing them with pasta or layering them on top of a chicken breast, I know what I’m going to get. Learn your palette and start paying attention to flavor combos you’re drawn to in magazines and in restaurants.
3. Only make one challenging dish per meal.
I went through a phase where I was positive I had to go ALLOUTALLTHETIME to be a “good cook.” I was wrong. I’ve found to make consistently successful meals I’ve got to choose my battles and focus 80% of my energy on one fabulous thing. Like last night: I made homemade ravioli which was time-consuming and challenging. Did I make a fancy homemade sauce and roasted vegetables along with a layer cake for dessert? Of course not. I drizzled the ravioli with olive oil and herbs and served them alongside a simple green salad. Dessert was ice cream with jarred chocolate sauce. I was less stressed, the ravioli were a hit. Three spectacular items isn’t going to be memorable. ONE spectacular item is going to stand out, and people will rave.
2. Use real stuff.
This one is not arguable. The fresher, more “whole” the ingredients you use, the better your food’s going to feel (and the better you’ll feel, but I digress.) Fresh herbs are going to be more flavorful than dried; fresh grated cheese is going to be better than that pre-shredded bagged stuff; real eggs are going to bake up better than “egg substitute.” If you really want to learn to cook, stop taking shortcuts you don’t have to take. It takes little more effort to chop your own garlic than to spoon out the jarred stuff, and your food will thank you.
1. The fresher, the better.
I live in the south. It’s easy for me to get all kinds of produce throughout the year and some delightfully fresh seafood, too. Avocados are only good here a couple months a year, though, and unless it’s summer the grocery store tomatoes taste like red water. Sometimes I have to buy stuff out of season for a particular recipe, but I try to stay as “seasonal” as I can. The flavors are stronger and I don’t have to work as hard to bring out the best in every ingredient I use. If you live in Minnesota, maybe avoid the shrimp and mango salad recipe. Go nuts on that elk-and-cherry concoction, though. (Do they eat elk in Minnesota? They should.)
There are dozens more tips and tricks I’ve picked up that only came from experience. The more I tried dishes that scared me and challenged myself technically the better I became at “reading” food as it cooked. Being a good cook isn’t about inherent skill and ability it’s about learning to do something slowly, over time. Like playing the piano, or accepting Ryan Lochte for exactly who he is, you know?