January was a month full of disasters. My house seemed to fall apart on me all at once and both my husband and I got hit with the flu at varying times. I didn’t have as much time to cook and when I did, my heart wasn’t in it or I kept making mistakes (yes, I make plenty of mistakes – that’s frankly how I think you learn to be a better cook… by messing up!)
This disastrous month has inspired me to blog about some of my worst mistakes in the kitchen (so stay tuned for that gem) but in the meantime, I thought I’d start on a more positive note with some of the best cooking tips I’ve learned over the years (usually as a result of a disaster) from a variety of sources. While less entertaining, it’s likely much more helpful. Remember that it’s never too late to start to learn to cook. Take it from Julia Child, who was 32 when she started!
10 TIPS TO BECOME A BETTER COOK
1) Bring Everything to Room Temperature Before Cooking It
I’m sure there are a few exceptions to this rule but for the most part, everything you cook should be room temperature before you grill, roast, poach, sauté, broil or use any other preparation method to cook food. Why? It helps the food cook evenly. If part of it is colder than another part, it’ll overcook one part and undercook the other.
2) Save Your Pasta Water
When you make pasta, reserve about one cup of the starchy, salted water when it’s done cooking. Use this liquid to add a little bit to your sauce to bring together all the flavors. Something amazing happens when you do this and you get a smooth sauce that glistens in the end. Add a little spoonful at a time until you get the desired mix you want.
3, 4 & 5) Use More Salt, Use the Right Kind & Learn How Much To Add
Food critic Jay Rayner once said: “Salt is the difference between eating in Technicolor and eating in black and white.” How many of you have watched an episode of Top Chef or a cooking competition and the judges’ main critique is: “There’s not enough salt?” It can be the greatest gift (or downfall) to food which is why you have to learn to use the right kind — and the right amount. My “house” (everyday) salt is Diamond Crystal kosher salt (inspired by the suggestion of Thomas Keller) but I typically finish dishes with Maldon sea salt. You can find the former in your grocery store but Maldon is typically sold in Whole Foods or specialty grocers. If you have something called “table salt” just go to your pantry, pick it up and throw it away. You’ll be a better cook already. How to salt? Sprinkle nearly a foot above the food – it’s not just for theatrics. It helps to ensure the salt is being evenly distributed.
6) Rethink How You Dress Your Salad
It’s easy to overdress salad or end up with bruised lettuce. Here’s the proper way to add dressing.
Step 1: Put cleaned, dry greens in a bowl.
Step 2: Season greens with salt.
Step 3: Add dressing to the side of the bowl (DO NOT PUT DIRECTLY ON GREENS).
At the end you should have greens that glisten with dressing, but that have no leftover in the bottom of the bowl. Feel free to add cracked pepper at this point and any other add-ins.
7) Scramble Eggs Fully, Low & Slow
I used to scramble eggs quickly in a pan and then blast them on high heat for a quick breakfast. They’d come out a mix of yellow and white and have a little brown burned layer on the bottom. ALL WRONG. First mistake: the eggs should be whisked until they are completely homogenous and a uniform pale yellow. If you see white bits or parts of yolk, keep going. Next, heat your eggs on low heat, stirring every few minutes. It’ll take longer but the end product will be much better. About three-quarters of the way through, I like to mix in some crumbled goat cheese which melts into the cheese and adds a lovely flavor. I top them with chives, salt and pepper.
8) Clean Mushrooms with Flour & Water
I mentioned this trick I learned at the Culinary Institute of America in a previous post. Check it out.
9) Grow Your Own Food
OK, this might warrant some eye-rolling because it’s easier said than done. But seriously — food from your own garden will taste better than anything you can buy in a store. Thanks to the mass industrialization of agriculture in our country, you can rarely find heirloom varieties of food in stores today which is a real shame because those are the best tasting around. The only options are typically farmers’ markets — or your own backyard. In the spring and summer, we rarely purchase any produce because nothing can compare to the taste of heirloom and organic varieties of food growing 10 feet from my kitchen door. Want to learn more about heirloom plants? Check out this article. More blog posts to come on gardening in the next few weeks as I start preparing for spring!
10) Know When to Invest in the Right Kitchen Tools
For my wedding, I registered for a beautiful Citron-hued Le Creuset cast iron pan. It’s one of my most-used pieces of cookware. But, I could have just as easily purchased one for $20 at the hardware store. Over time I’ve learned that some things are worth the investment – and others aren’t necessary. Drew Magary has some fun with this every year around the holidays detailing some of the strangest (and often unnecessary) cooking tools and gadgets in his “Hater’s Guide to the Williams-Sonoma Catalogue.” (If you haven’t read this stop reading and click on the link now. It’s HILARIOUS!) That being said, a few items I DO recommend you consider investing in are: a Vitamix (just buy it when it goes on sale!), really good cookware (I use Copper Core) and a proper meat thermometer with a probe (these are typically not much money).