Ever since owning and operating my own cafe I often get asked for cooking tips or things that you can do to become a better cook. At first glance these tips might seem a little common sense but sometimes we need a little reminder of some steps we can take to make sure we are getting the most out of our cooking experience.
Source The Highest Quality Ingredients Possible- this is something I over looked until I had my restaurant where I really learned the difference between quality ingredients and outcome of the dish. For example, when I had a recipe that called for vanilla extract I noticed a huge difference between vanilla flavored extract and pure vanilla. One is synthetic flavoring and the other is true vanilla from a vanilla bean. Another example is when you are picking produce check to make sure you are buying fresh ingredients and using them when they are at peak ripness. A ripe tomato will yield a better sauce in pasta or chili then an under ripe one which wont have as robust a flavor.
Read the full recipe TWICE. I know I know, your probably like obviously Cara! But hear me out... its easy to just glance at a recipe and then get started with the first step without reading all the way through the ingredient list and directions which I've been known to do in the past (I don't have a lot of patience) For example, if you are making a recipe that calls to be put in the fridge over night and you were planning on eating in a couple hours then you might find yourself in an "oh no, shit!" type situation. Reading the recipe through gets you familiar with the ingredients and their quantity to make sure you have enough of everything required. It also helps you understand the timing of each step and the technique needed to execute it well.
Know How to Read and Use a Recipe- What I mean by this is that there is a difference between treating a recipe like a contract that can't be changed or using it as a guideline. When you are baking a dish it is more important to follow the recipe exactly then if you are cooking a dish. When cooking there is WAYYY more flexibility with the ingredients. For example, if the recipe calls for 2 tbsp butter that you don't have but you have olive oil, you can use that instead and it will still work. Or if it calls for leeks but you have onion, you can use onion. Essentially, ingredients that are used for flavor can easily be substituted but if it is used for structure, its best to not substitute it. So even if you are baking and a recipe calls for cinnamon but you prefer nutmeg, feel free to switch it up since that is for flavor and not for the structure. On the other hand if it calls for 2 cups flour and you only have one you are going to have some issues.
Develope Flavor- I used to think that I was not a very good cook and my food would never taste as good as it does at restaurants. Then I discovered the importance of developing flavor using acid and salt. When ever I have a dish that is dull and needs to be brightened and enhanced I'll start with some form of acid like lemon juice or your favorite vinegar. I'll then add in some more salt. Go slowly adding a little bit at a time and tasting as your go until its just right. I promise you that if you feel like your dishes have been falling flat this might become your new secret weapon in the kitchen.
Prep Everything Before you Start Cooking- This step can sometimes be a real pain in the butt but it really changed my experience and outcome in the kitchen. Before you start cooking go through and measure out and prepare every ingredient necessary. So if the recipe calls for 1 tbsp tamari, 1 cup chopped onion, 2 tbsp fresh lemon juice and so on... make sure that each ingredient is laid out and ready to go. This will make it a alot faster to cook, your less likely to make a mistake like over cooking or undercooking, and you are less likely to forget an ingredient. Additionally you can prep things in advance to cut down on time if you know your going to be busy around dinner time.
Learn Techniques- Ill be honest, my knife skills are nothing to write home about so its ok if yours are not either but just understanding how to dice, chop and julienne a vegetable can make cooking much easier and more enjoyable. If you are not sure how to prep something YouTube is a great resource where I have learned almost everything I know.
Pre Heat When Necessary- I was watching the Food Network years back and although I can not recall which chef I was watching I'll never forget what he said. He said the one mistake almost all home cooks make is they don't do properly pre heat. So this means pre-heating the oven when baking or pre-heating a pan before adding the oil, or not letting the oil get hot enough before adding in your vegetables or meats. This is essentially a technique that is easy to undervalue but the next time you are cooking be sure to preheat and you will see better results.
Don't Cut Corners - This is one of the hardest tips for me to master because I am not one to show a lot of patience but when a recipe has a step that requires a technique or a lot of time to complete, comeplete it! Dont Cut Corners. What I mean by this step is if a recipe calls for carmelized onions then take the time to truly carmelize. There is a huge difference between sauteed onions and carmelized onions in a dish from a flavor and texture standpoint. Or if a chili needs to simmer for 2 hours so the flavors can blend then let the chili simmer for 2 hours. Roasting garlic in the oven is another example- low and slow. These steps take time but truly make a difference. Be patient, let its do its thing and you will see better results.
Know How to Measure Ingredients - You might recall that there are measuring cups and spoons and then their are those large cups for measuing out liquids. That is because liquids measure out differently then solids or dry ingredients. A way around this is to measure by weight or grams using a food scale. I have one of these and I find it most helpful when baking. But when you are just cooking using the individual measuring cups for dry ingredients and the large liquid cups for liquid will help you get more accurate ratios.
Tempurature- tempurature plays a huge role in texture and this is something that took me years to realize the importance of. If you are roasting vegetables and want a crispy brown exterior using a high tempurature like 425f or 450f will get you the result much faster rather then 350f and waiting forever and the veggies never really getting brown. Or if you are braising something then low and slow is the name of the game. That low tempurature is causing a change in the texture making what your cooking soften up and be melt in your mouth delicious rather then tough and chewy. Or if you are searing something to get a nice crunch on the outside its so important to make sure your pan is really hot before putting your ingredients in.
Practice and Give yourself Time- Dont be so hard on yourself. The 10,000 hour rule is a rule because its been proven true time and time again. The amount of time practicing a craft determines the level of mastery you'll reach. Becoming truly great at anything takes time. Practice, try new things and don't get discouraged. You will get better the more time you spend in the kitchen.