Tips for successful cooking
Becoming a better home chef takes time and energy and certainly is an investment. I started sharing my knowledge, skills and love of cooking because I learned early on that I enjoyed not only the satisfaction of sharing my food, but helping others become more successful in the kitchen. I remember being on the sidelines of one my son’s soccer games on my cellphone verbally walking a friend through the fabrication of a whole chicken and loving every moment of it. Just about anyone can read a recipe, however, it’s the tiny tips and tricks that we foodies and home chefs pass on to each other that truly support our success. Here are just a few of my tips to turn up your cooking this spring.
KNOW YOUR INGREDIENTS
It should come as no surprise that what we put in a recipe affects the final dish. Working within your budget, make sure you select the best ingredients to ensure you are getting the best possible results. Shop first seasonally and locally. That will ease cost and encourage the best nutrition and quality.
STEER CLEAR OF PRE-SHREDDED, PRE-PACKAGED FOODS
They cost more, you pay for labor and, most importantly, many of them have preservatives or additives that are unnecessary and affect the overall taste of your meal. It only takes a few minutes to shred cheese or chop. If you like the convenience, read the ingredient label, then decide.
NEVER USE A DULL KNIFE
Dull knives go where they want to go (across your finger) not where you want them to go. Keeping up with your knife maintenance is not only safer but will allow you to become more efficient. Wash knives by hand. Never put them in the dishwasher. The heat and unstable environment of the dishwasher wears down the edges. Have you ever tried to cut a tomato with a dull knife versus a sharp one? Then you know what I am talking about.
SAMPLE YOUR INGREDIENTS
Trust me on this one. Never gamble or go in blind. Sample the wine you are planning to cook with. (A difficult task, I am sure). Test the heat of your jalapeños. Whatever goes in to a recipe needs to pass a preliminary test. One year as a gift I received a jalapeño popper stand for the barbecue. I couldn’t wait to use it. I ran out the store, bought a dozen medium-sized peppers, stuffed them like crazy and threw them on the grill. I served them up to the family only to find out that no one, not even the most daring of us, could eat them. I once used an entire bottle of wine for a dish before tasting it only later to discover it was swill and I was an unhappy, hungry chef.
SEASON AND TASTE AS YOU GO
This is especially true if a recipe has components. If you are roasting a chicken to put in a soup, season it. If you are making a sauce for a dish, season it. Don’t wait to the end of the meal preparation to season with salt and pepper. You will only be reaching the surface and find you are actually adding more than you need while attempting to get that seasoning down in the layers.
GRIND AS YOU GO
Buy your peppercorns whole and grind them as you need them. The aromas of cracked peppercorns only last a short time. So, for the best results, grind as you go. The fresh, peppery smell will intensify the pepper flavor as you eat. If you tire of hand grinding, invest in a small coffee grinder ($15) and only use it for pepper and spices.
IGNORE THE SALT GRINDER
It makes for a wonderful partner to Mr. Pepper Grinder but let’s leave it at that. It only makes your salt smaller. It does not alter the taste. Better yet, keep your salt in an open container with a lid. Use coarse kosher salt and distribute it with your fingers. Kosher salt is pure, without additives or anticaking agents. Using your fingers allows you to control how much salt you use and choosing the coarse variety will result in using less salt than fine table salt.
In all respects it is best to weigh out all baking ingredients if possible, especially flour. Purchase a kitchen scale ($15). They are simple to use. Weighing out flour will yield consistent results every time. No more sagging cakes or dense bread.
There is no shame in checking the temperature of that pork chop. Do it discretely if you must, but do it. I am not sure at what point it became taboo to temp meat. There is nothing worse than sitting down to a table of dinner guests only to discover someone has cut into a raw barbecued chicken leg. Worse yet is overcooked meat which cannot be undone. Take the guessing out of it, relax and temp it. Digital thermometers have become extremely affordable. If using a regular analog thermometer be sure to calibrate it routinely. They have a habit of rolling around drawers which can throw off their accuracy. Been there, done that!
USE COLD WATER AND SALT FOR PASTA
Hold the oil. Hot water can leach out minerals from water pipes. For best results, always start with cold water, put a lid on it to ensure it boils quicker, then generously and carefully salt the water as it comes to a boil. Salting the water will flavor the pasta whereas oiling the water will encourage the sauce to slide off.
GO WITH YOUR GUT
Time and time again I have conversations with people about mishaps in the kitchen, only to have them say, “I didn’t think that was right, but I kept going.” Go with your gut. Your confidence will falter at times in the kitchen. Mine still does, however, I find more often than not I should have gone with my gut feeling.
ASK AND SHARE
We all tell one another that it doesn’t hurt to ask, right? Why is it that we still don’t? Trying is admirable, but not asking is not. Save some frustration and ask someone what, why or how they were successful. Recipes are a dime a dozen on the internet. Gone are the days of Grandma Mernie’s secret cream puff recipes. Embrace sharing your cooking tips knowing that you may help someone else’s achievement and take pleasure in their success. Who knows, you may even get a sample.