by Ann Waterman
When I got married, I made a conscious decision that, instead of bemoaning a future of perpetual kitchen drudgery, I would embrace cooking and learn to love it. I think it’s true of most things in life that the better you are at them, the more you enjoy them; it’s definitely true for me and cooking.
I still have my share of cooking failures, but I’ve come a long way over the years and can now regularly put out meals that are nutritious and delicious. In fact, I can even say my food is award-winning — that is, if you consider winning my husband’s office Christmas cookie contest by a landslide a legitimate cooking accolade.
If you’ve resolved to put more home-cooked meals on the table or become a better cook in the new year, here are a few tips to help you on your way:
Begin with the basics.
You need to learn how to walk before you can run, and the same applies in the kitchen. Pick something simple like scrambling eggs, boiling spaghetti, or baking chocolate chip cookies, and learn how to do it really well. There are foundational principles in most basic recipes that you’ll need to know for more complex ones. For instance: You should always take scrambled eggs off the heat when they’re still a little wet, because they’ll continue cooking off the stove; wait until they look done, and they’ll be rubbery and overdone in a few minutes. This principle of latent heat applies to many other foods like meat and cookies and can make the difference between a mediocre meal and an outstanding one.
Use the right tools.
I cringe a little when I see someone using a paring knife to chop tomatoes, or a plate instead of a cutting board. Using the right tools in the kitchen can cut your prep time in half and save you from injuring yourself. Outfitting a kitchen properly doesn’t have to involve a lot of money or cooking equipment, as Mark Bittman points out in this excellent piece.
Get some knife skills.
I studied philosophy and theology in college, but some of my most useful education came from the work study program I did in the campus kitchen. I was assigned to salad bar duty, which involved cutting large quantities of many different vegetables into various sizes. These days, give me a 10-inch chef’s knife and I become a human food processor. You many not have had the same opportunity, but it’s easy to find a knife skills class at a local cooking school, a retailer like Williams-Sonoma, or even on YouTube. It’ll save you time and possibly your digits!
Remember that not all recipes are created equal.
It’s pretty simple: Bad recipes make for bad food. How can you identify a bad recipe? View as suspect any recipe you get from the label of a can, a cookbook that’s in the bargain bin of a bookstore, or anything that contains processed or pre-made foods. Of course, there can be exceptions, but most good recipes have clear, easy-to-follow instructions, use fresh ingredients, and come from a reputable source.
It’s always good to have a basic, all-purpose cookbook; for me, that’s Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. It’s a modern version of The Joy of Cooking, minus the recipes for jellied aspic and lobster thermidor. Cook’s Illustrated (and their counterparts Cook’s Country and America’s Test Kitchen) publishes recipes that have been painstakingly tested and are practically fail-proof. Pick up any of their cookbooks and I promise you won’t be disappointed.
My new favorite cookbook is Michael Ruhlman’s Twenty. It’s a great compilation of twenty cooking essentials (ingredients and techniques) to improve your skills in the kitchen. I actually wish this book had come out 10 years ago when I first started cooking seriously, but even as a more seasoned cook, there’s a lot to digest.
The interwebs are also a great place to find recipes, especially since most recipe websites provide reader reviews and ratings — which, in my opinion, is the real benefit of finding recipes online. Reviews help me identify awesome recipes, avoid sub-par ones, and gain helpful suggestions for executing recipes perfectly. A few of my favorite sites are Epicurious, Smitten Kitchen, Food Network, Michael Ruhlman, and Alexandra’s Kitchen.
I could go on and on about my favorite recipe resources, but these are the ones I keep coming back to.
Organize and prepare.
It’s still possible to mess up even the most fool-proof recipe if you aren’t properly organized beforehand. Always read your recipe through first to make sure you have the needed ingredients, equipment, and time — then read it again for good measure. There’s nothing worse than finding out mid-recipe that you’re missing a key ingredient, don’t own a springform pan, or need to let some dough rise for a couple hours when dinner starts in 30 minutes.
Always start with a clean work area, and pull out and prep everything you need before you start cooking: That means chopping onions, measuring out spices, and making sure you’ve thawed your meat. This pre-cooking prep is called mis en place – French for “everything in place.” It may seem unnecessarily time-consuming, and you might be tempted to wing it as you go along, but trust me: You’ll have greater success if you manage these details ahead of time.
Continue your education.
There’s always more to learn when it comes to cooking. Hang out with people who like to cook, and ask lots of questions; they’ll be happy to share their passion with you (and will probably invite you over more often for dinner).
Develop your palate by eating at great restaurants. My husband and I have birthdays a few days apart, and instead of exchanging gifts, we go to a really nice, high-end restaurant. We try things that are new to us and see what a perfectly cooked meal tastes like. But you don’t have to spend a lot of money to experience amazing food: Many ethnic restaurants serve exceptional cuisine at inexpensive prices. Check out your local paper’s food section for “cheap eats” recommendations and restaurant reviews. The internet will also help you find places that are serving great food at great prices. I find the discussion board over at Chow particularly helpful when I’m researching restaurants.
Do you love to cook, or is it a chore? Do you have any favorite cooking tips?
Images: Ann Waterman