This post doesn’t have any recipes. I just want to give a few tips on how you can improve your cooking quickly and easily. I believe the number one thing is this: use the best ingredients you can buy. It’s simple, yet people often don’t do it. I also recommend always reading through the recipe before attempting it: make sure you have all the ingredients and all the kitchenware called for; look up any words or techniques that you don’t understand (you can even watch some very instructive videos online). Keep in mind that some recipes just don’t work, so try to use ones from reputable chefs (by reputable, I mean whose recipes are known to work as written), and if you got it online, read the users’ comments to improve the recipe if necessary.
Let me first direct you to a post written by David Lebovitz on his blog: 10 easy ways to improve your cooking. I’ll summarize them here, but I urge you to read the explanations he gives (I won’t crib his entire post, you know!): 1) use fresh herbs; 2) upgrade your oils; 3) use shallots – lots and lots of shallots; 4) keep a good amount of decent semisweet or bittersweet chocolate on hand; 5) salt; 6) try lentilles de Puy; 7) rethink your vinegar; 8) try whole-wheat pasta; 9) wine; and 10) get some decent cookware. I couldn’t agree more with the latter tip: once you have the proper tool for the job, everything is so much easier and more enjoyable!
Of course, picking good fruits and vegetables is important: not too ripe, not blemished, not moulding or wilting. Ideally, buy what’s in season. You can look up specific tips for any item, of course, because picking a melon is not like picking bananas. Also, picking potatoes depends on the use intended for them. Here’s a tip for picking your avocados: gently press them with a fingertip. If it yields no more than your forehead, it isn’t ripe enough; if it yields like your cheek, it’s too ripe. The right consistency would be similar to the tip of your nose (you can also buy hard avocados and let them ripen a few days on your kitchen counter). Similarly, you can use the finger test to determine if your steak is done!
One can also make the case for buying organic produce. While it won’t make the food taste better, it is arguably better for one’s health – but it’s more expensive than its non-organic counterpart. I’d like to take a moment here to mention Whole Foods, which many refer to as Whole Paycheck because of the cost of shopping there. Here’s a link where people discuss it – I especially like the 11th comment, by A. (not me) and the response in the 12th comment, by faith. Basically, while shopping at Whole Foods can be expensive, you have to keep in mind that you are usually either buying organic food (which is more expensive than its non-organic counterpart at any grocery store) or gourmet items (that many grocery stores don’t even carry). And Whole Foods is more health-conscious, as it doesn’t carry junk food or food with nasty additives (the store even takes care to print on both sides of the receipt to avoid wasting paper!). Of course, if you stick to the staples, you could even save money at Whole Foods.
While we’re on the topic of money, here’s an article on The Kitchn that summarizes the 25 best tips of 2009 for frugal cooking and shopping – and it doesn’t even mention freeganism! I think this goes hand-in-hand with 10 tips for reducing food waste. I don’t like being wasteful, period, but with food, it really is like throwing money away. If you have a reclaimed freight center near you, you can also save money by shopping right.
Once you have quality ingredients, it’s important to store them properly, too. Mushrooms, for example, do better in a paper bag than in the plastic containers in which they are often packaged. Any pantry staples that are going to be around for a while (different types of flour, rice, spices, etc.) should be stored in sealed containers, to prevent infestations of grain beetles and other pests. Spices are also better off stored away from heat and direct sunlight.
Another important step, even though it doesn’t affect the quality of the food directly, is learning to pronounce words correctly. Here’s a list of 10 words that are often mispronounced, along with the right way to pronounce them. My personal pet peeve is bruschetta – it’s an Italian word and the “ch” is a hard sound, like “k”. It’s been around long enough that people should know how to pronounce it by now, but the guy in last spring’s Delissio ad still didn’t.
As far as the actual cooking goes, there are different tips and tricks you learn along the way. Some are neat tricks, though very specific and not absolutely essential (like how to keep a graham cracker crust from getting soggy), others should be basic knowledge and a tutorial is essential (like a visual guide to the difference between soft, firm and stiff peaks when whipping cream or egg whites). Here’s a crash course in kitchen basics, though the web in general is a great place to find videos and tutorials on just about anything. You’ll also get better with the ingredients themselves as you gain experience, allowing you to work with them optimally or make (successful) substitutions when necessary. For example, here’s a quick tip on the differences between the functions of baking powder and baking soda in recipes. In a nutshell, the baking soda needs something acidic in order to work, but the baking powder already contains the acid it needs. So while the two have similar functions, they are not interchangeable.
Even if you’ve been cooking for a long time, you might still learn something new or change your way of doing something. For example, I always used to crack eggs on the corner of the counter (or the bowl or the pan); the reasoning behind it is that the sharp edge cracks the shell more easily than something dull. I found out, however, that breaking open the eggs on the flat of the counter helps keep the inner membrane intact, resulting in fewer eggshell pieces falling in the bowl with the egg! So I now break open my eggs on the flat side of the counter – it’s counterintuitive, but it works.
Finally, for those of you who like to host brunch (and still sleep in), Smitten Kitchen has some great tips and recipes. And one tip from a professional chef I’ve met: warm the plates before serving dinner. The food stays warmer, which makes the meal better.