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Most of the time, I write about baking, but I also do a lot of cooking. The Beloved and I do actually eat foods that do not fall into the Dessert category. So, when I asked on twitter and facebook awhile ago what I could write about that would be really helpful to my readers and fans, I was pretty excited that this came rolling in:
“For those learning how or just beginning to take cooking seriously, what’s some good advice?”
Of course there are more than ten things you need to know to be a better cook, but ten is a nice round number, and with each tip and trick we learn, we become better cooks. Some of us are farther along on our journeys to becoming Intuitive Cooks–folks who cook by feel, by season, by flavor and without books. So after reading my list, please leave your suggestions in the comments.
Here we go: my Ten Basics to Make You a Better Cook.
Invest in Good Knives (and Take Care of Them)
You do not need a knife block bristling with 47 knives in every shape and size imaginable. You do want a couple of nicely balanced, forged blades though. Depending on your stature and the size of your hands, you’ll want a nice 8″ or 10″ long chef knife and a good 3″-4″ paring knife. If you bake a lot of breads, invest in a good serrated bread knife. If you do a lot of butchering, consider a cleaver and a filet knife.
I could talk about the pros and cons of the big names in knives, but at the end of the day, mostly it comes down to personal preference since they’re all fine knives. Just look for “full tang,” which means the blade extends down into the entire length and breadth of the handle.
Take the time to hold the knives and see which brand feels the best in your hand.
Once you have them, use a steel before you use them each time that you use them. This is called “honing” and straightens out the edge back into a sharp point if it has gotten rolled over from cutting. Have your knives sharpened (which is actually giving the knife a new edge and not just straightening out the old one) at least a couple of times a year and much more frequently if you use them on a daily basis. Sharpening once or twice a month would not be out of the question if you are using your knives every day. There are plenty of knife sharpeners available for purchase, but for my money, a sharpening stone and oil will do the trick. That’s what all the chefs and cooks in the restaurant used.
Heat Your Pan
This should be the first step you take to make 99% of your dishes. Heat the pan first. Then add the fat. Let the fat get hot. Then introduce the food. This is the recipe for Foods Not Sticking.
A friend got an entire set of the Calphalon for a wedding present. This was twenty-five years ago, so it wasn’t the new kind of non-stick Calphalon but the anodized aluminum. She hated them, because she said that everything stuck in them. I asked her if she had been heating the pan/adding fat/heating fat before introducing the food. She said no and immediately changed her ways. Lo and behold, she had many fewer issues with food getting stuck in her pans.
Leave the Food Alone
Most folks have this almost undeniable urge to mess with food once it’s in the pan. But if you want the food to brown, you need to just leave it alone and let it sit there and sizzle merrily. After a couple of minutes, you can wiggle the food gently with tongs. If it’s ready to turn, it will release easily. If it’s not ready, you’ll know, because it will be stuck. Leave it for another minute or two and then try again.
If you keep messing with your food, it will show you its displeasure by falling apart.
Even Cutting Means Even Cooking
I’m not saying that you need to practice your knife skills every night, but when you realize that foods of different sizes, shapes and densities cook at different rates, you’ll understand that cutting foods into even pieces–rather than just madly chopping–will serve you better in the long run.
Season as You Go
Photo Credit: Upupa4me
Add just a pinch of salt at the beginning of cooking and pretty much each time you introduce another ingredient. That way, the salt enhances the whole dish as it cooks. This way, you very well could end up using less salt in total than you would have had you waited to salt at the very end.
Learn How to Build Flavors
Every cuisine has its own flavor-builders based upon aromatics. In France, there’s mirepoix. In Italy, Spain and many Latin countries, it is some form of sofrito/soffritto. In Creole and Cajun cooking, it’s the Trinity. In India, it’s onion, possibly tomato and whatever mixture of spices is going to go in a particular dish.
When you understand that a wide variety of dishes from all over the world start with “chop onions/carrots/celery/bell pepper, etc and sizzle in a pan until they turn translucent,” cooking becomes more intuitive. Starting with that one base instruction, you can make anything from a Thanksgiving stuffing to a Beouf Bourguignon to biryani.
Know How to Make a Pan Sauce
Elevate that piece of chicken you just sauteed by making a quick pan sauce. And when I say quick, I mean it really does only take a few minutes.
Here’s what you do:
- Remove the meat and set aside, covered in foil.
- Pour off most of the fat (if there is any left in the pan)
- Deglaze the pan with about 1/2 cup liquid–stock, water used to cook vegetables
- Brighten the flavor with a Tablespoon of acid–citrus juice, vinegar, wine
- Reduce over medium-high heat until syrupy
- Off the heat, swirl in a bit of cream, olive oil or butter for a silky consistency.
- Hit with complementary fresh herbs and season if necessary (it might not need it)
Get an Instant Read Thermometer
Taking the internal temperature of the food you cook is the most effective way of knowing when the food is done or not. This holds true not only for meat and poultry, but also for breads and cakes.
This does not mean that I think you should be dependent upon the thermometer, though. Use it to test, and then check with your senses so you know what “done” looks like, smells like, feels like. Using a thermometer will help you to trust your senses so as you learn more and practice more, you won’t have to wonder, “Is it done?” You’ll know that it is.
Understand Carryover Cooking
Photo Credit: ReneS
Now that I’ve told you that you should have a thermometer, I am going to say something rude about them. When they tell you your turkey is done when the thigh meat reaches 175F, they’re only telling you half the truth. What they don’t tell you is that if you wait until that thigh reads 175F on a thermometer, by the time it rests on the counter for thirty minutes, the temperature will probably go up another 15F.
Carryover cooking is this: food continues to cook after it leaves the heat source. There was already heat being radiated into the food during cooking, and that heat continues its Journey to the Center of the Food, even when removed from the heat source, sort of like how a star that dies millions of light years away from us still shines for us here on Earth until the last of the light the star emitted actually reaches us.
The greater the mass of the food, the longer carryover cooking happens and the more the temperature will rise. For small cuts of meat such as chicken breasts, carryover cooking may only account for an additional 3F degrees or so. For huge things like rib roasts and big old turkeys, the temperature can easily rise an additional 10, 15 or even 20F!
With that in mind, take your turkey out of the oven when the thigh meat hits about 160F. Your turkey and your guests will thank you.
Know How to Thicken
This might seem like a weird one, but it really isn’t. The success of a dish has a lot to do with texture, consistency and mouthfeel, so if you understand thickening, you can fine-tune your consistency so it is perfect.
There are plenty of ways to thicken dishes. Look. Here are some now. Not all of these will work in all instances, but it’s good to have them all in your arsenal.
- Flour meats before browning. Not only will the flour give a nice crust, it will also help to thicken your sauce for stews and braises.
- Start with a roux: equal parts of fat and flour cooked together for at least a couple of minutes. The lighter in color the roux, the more thickening power. Roux is what gives classics like Bechamel sauce their thick and silky texture.
- Stir in pureed starchy vegetables such as potatoes.
- In things like tomato sauce for pasta, use an immersion blender to puree some of the sauce while leaving some “chunky.” You can also puree the entire batch, depending on what texture you want.
- Reduction. Reduce the sauce by keeping at a heavy simmer or a very gentle boil to concentrate flavors and give more body.
- Starch slurry. Whisk some cold stock or water together with flour, corn starch or potato starch. Stir into your hot sauce to thicken.
- Beurre manie: knead together softened butter and flour and then drop bits of it in your sauce until it is as thick as you’d like.
- Thicken and enrich with egg. Temper a beaten egg or two with some of your hot sauce/broth and then whisk the whole thing back into the pot. The egg will bring a richness and silkiness to the dish.
- Whisk in some cornmeal or masa harina to Mexican and Tex-Mex style dishes. Toast it in a skillet first until fragrant. This brings a nice corniness to the dish as well as serving to thicken it up.
And there you have it, my Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Cooking. I also got some great responses from facebook, including working clean (cleaning as you go), and being mindful of cross-contamination (thoroughly cleaning or using different cutting boards for meats and vegetables).
If you’d like to add to this list or if you learned something you didn’t know before, please have at it in the comments!
Thanks so much for reading, and have a wonderful day.