Whether your a beginner cook or have been cooking for awhile, step up your cooking game with these cooking tips!
1. Read recipes thoroughly ahead of time. Twice.
Admit it. You’re thinking this is the dumbest cooking tip of all time. You’re like “DUH Deanna! Of course you’re supposed to read the recipe!” But when you find a good recipe, you skim it quickly and start cooking.
Me, too. I’ve done it. Skimmed that baby and thought good enough. Because I’m no amateur. I know what I’m doing by now, right?
Wrong. The result? Epic fail. Mistakes get made. The imaginary audience in my kitchen starts booing and hissing.
It’s not just important to read the recipe before you start cooking, it’s also just as important to read the recipe when you decide to make the dish.
Why is it so important?
Even recipes from published cookbooks can leave out information (or ingredients!) in the list but there it is, hidden further down in the instructions. It’s also possible that you’ll miss that “marinate overnight” instruction or “pour batter into Springform pan” and…ooops…you don’t have a Springform pan.
Be a cool cook. Read, reread, then cook.
2. Prep and organize ahead of time.
I’m guilty of this one sometimes. I get antsy. I just want to get the process moving along and skip this step. I think to myself: I’ll just chop the tomatoes while the meat is browning. Why is that wrong?Because it’s so important for safety and recipe success to be prepared and it will only help you (us) be better cooks!
“Mise en place” is what the cool cooks call it. It’s a French phrase meaning “putting in place.” Before you even heat up the pan, get everything prepared. Everything should be washed, chopped, diced, minced, whispered sweet nothings to, and set out on your countertop prior to cooking.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not a calm cook. Timing is not my strong suit. So when everything is happening and I realize I still have to chop another ingredient that needs to be added to the pan and the onions will burn if I don’t do it fast, I get stressed. Stress in the kitchen can cause cuts in pinky fingers and burnt thumbs.
If you master this step, cooking will feel like a breeze and will be much more enjoyable.
3. Don’t overcrowd your pan or baking dish.
Foods release moisture as they cook. When pans get crowded, your food will start to steam itself rather than brown and that will change the texture of the food. Potatoes in the oven won’t be as crisp on the outside, meat won’t brown as well, etc. Give your food ample room in the pan, especially when browning or baking things that need to be crisp (like french fries in the oven or breaded chicken).
If your pan is too small, cook in batches. For example, when I make my Homemade Chicken Nuggets, I have to cook the chicken in batches, unless I use a larger skillet, in order to get the super crispy coating that makes them so good.
Unless the recipe calls it, don’t steam your food by cramming too much together.
4. Turn your pan handles to the side.
You like your legs, right? Take a good look in the mirror. Is your skin smooth? Tan? Or are you wincing at your varicose veins?
Whatever your legs look like, they WON’T look good with a nice new large burn on them.
Yeah. Contrary to popular belief, spattered oil burns are not sexy.
Always turn your pan handles to the side. When things get a little hectic, and you’re racing across the kitchen to grab an ingredient, you could to run into the handles and knock the pan onto the floor. Or a cat. MeOWCH.
Even if you’ve followed steps 1 and 2 and are feeling all zen about cooking, the kiddos could knock down a hot saucepan of boiling water.
Get in the habit of turning your handles to the side and stay safe, cooks!
5. Get a good chef’s knife.
If there is one tool in the kitchen that I can’t live without, it’s my chef’s knife. A chef’s knife can also be called a cook’s knife.
For year’s, I hadn’t put much thought into my knives. Once I finally found a good knife, I can’t imagine a time without it. It made my life in the kitchen sooo much easier. I had been struggling with cutting techniques and, to my surprise, it was the knife that was holding me back and making me feel like I was struggling when cutting.
My current knives are Cutco brand. I know a lot of chef’s don’t use this brand, but I tried it and am quite happy.
A good chef’s knife must be sharp and feel good in your hand. If you have small hands, you may feel more comfortable with a smaller 6-7″ size and larger hands would fit better with a 8-10″ knife.
Some good options are:
- Shun Classic 8″ Chef’s Knife
- Wusthof Classic 6″ Cook’s Knife
- Wusthof Classic 7″ Santuko – as you can see, Santuko knives have a different shape than the others. They work just as well and it’s just a matter of preference. I have both and my Santuko is quickly becoming my favorite.
6. Purchase fresh, quality ingredients.
If you’re a frequent reader of this blog, you know I’m a snob about this stuff. I can’t help it, friends. I was born this way!
Your food can only be as good as your ingredients and you get what you pay for.
Don’t use old, expired spices.
If you’re a beginner, you probably don’t have a lot of spices. But if you’ve had that paprika for 10 years, splurge on a new one. Come on, you deserve spices from this decade, don’t you? And I’d hate for you to be arrested by the Spice Cabinet Police.
Buy fresh, healthy looking vegetables.
Farmers markets are a great place to look.
If you have an onion that’s past it’s prime – sure, you can use it. But it won’t be as potent and have as much zing. Just know that the final outcome of your dish won’t be as flavorful. In this case, you might add a little more onion than the recipe calls for.
Buy quality cheeses and meats.
Lately, I’ve been comparing organic chicken versus the inexpensive regular chicken. I notice a difference in my food! This all started when I made hard boiled eggs out of the cheap ones, and some tasted like fish. YES fish! [shudders]. I found out that some hens are fed fishmeal and this might be why. So I started by buying vegetarian fed eggs. I’m not expert on this, but I have noticed when I buy organic foods and better quality meats, they taste better.
Be selective about generic brands.
I’m not saying you can never buy generic brands, but if you find a brand you know and trust, stick with it. Sometimes I skimp and sometimes I splurge. It just depends on what I’m making and how important the dish is at the time. For example, I’m making a cheesecake tonight for a special occasion so I bought the Kraft Philadelphia brand cream cheese rather than the store brand. I don’t know if one is better than the other, but it’s a special occasion and, like all snobs, I want the best! 😉
7. Don’t leave the kitchen.
This may seem like a no-brainer but we’ve all done it. You’ve got your meal simmering away on the stove and you know you’ve got a couple of minutes to put a new load of laundry in. Sure, you can do it. But it’s risky. Sometimes nothing bad happens, but other times you come back to a burnt meal.
If you’ve made the meal enough times, you know at what points in the cooking process you can bend this rule. But if it’s a new recipe you’re trying or you’re a beginner cook, stay put!
8. Don’t put food in a cold pan.
I know my Hungry Husband is guilty of this one. And I get it. He wants to eat NOW! And getting the food in the pan as quickly as possible gets him from A to Z faster.
Cooking is a science. I confess that most of my scientific knowledge these days comes from binge watching episodes of Breaking Bad. But after learning about The Maillard Reaction from The Science of Good Cooking, it drove home the point that good meals come from following food science.
When you put meat into a cold pan, the meat is going to release moisture as it heats up. Unless you like gnawing on dry meat, heat your pan up first so your moisture stays in the meat and doesn’t escape too early. By preheating the pan first, you’re giving your meat a nice searing which holds in all those yummy juices.
9. Bring meats out of the fridge early. And don’t cook wet meat or fish.
Okay, I combined these two and not everyone agrees with the first part. I try not to put meat on the grill or pan directly from the fridge. Some say to bring it to room temperature first. The theory is that your outside will overcook by the time the internal temperature rises. Some chefs say this is a myth. I’m somewhere in the middle. I just try to remember to take my meat out early to give it a fighting chance to warm up a bit before cooking.
Another tip I learned is that to get a nice sear on the outside of your meat, blot it with a paper towel first. If the meat has moisture on the surface, it doesn’t brown as well.
10. Rest meat after cooking!
Yes, I’m yelling. Because doggonit, rest your meat!
I’m not going to get into all the scientific mumbo jumbo, but here’s the gist:
When the meat is cooked, moisture moves outward towards the edges of the meat. If you cut into it right away, all the juices spill out. By letting it rest, the juices move back towards the center of the meat so the juices go in your belly, and not on your plate.
How long should meat rest? It depends on the size of the meat. Steaks: 3-5 minutes. Roasts: 10-20 minutes. Large turkeys can rest 30-45 minutes and they’re still steaming hot when you carve into them!
11. Use proper measuring tools.
Measuring Spoons vs. Regular Spoons
Use actual measuring spoons, not the regular teaspoons and tablespoons that you eat with.
Don’t laugh! I’ve seen it happen. And don’t be embarrassed if you’ve done this. As a beginner cook, you might not know this. Or maybe you’re in college and don’t have any kitchen tools yet.
The spoons we eat with vary in size depending on the design of the spoon. They’re not precise. For cooking, you could probably get away with using your regular spoons, since the measurement will be fairly close. But you won’t have those specialty 1/8, 1/4, 1/2 sizes. If you think you’re going to be cooking more than one meal in your lifetime, it’s worth it to invest in a set of measuring spoons. Purchase metal rather than plastic. Plastic can have static cling which can make some spices stick to them.
For baking, you have to use actual measuring spoons. No exceptions!
Wet vs. Dry Measuring Cups
A liquid cup and a dry cup are exactly the same size. So why do you need both? A dry cup is meant for things like flour, sugar, and other fine granules and you’re supposed to fill the dry measuring cup completely to the top so you can scrape off any excess with the back of a knife. In a liquid measuring cup, you can’t do this. You fill the liquid to the line. Using dry measuring cups for dry ingredients is a more precise way to measure, which is very important in baking.
12. Be weary of high heat.
I never use high heat on my stovetop, unless I’m boiling water. Every stove is different. Mine is electric (unfortunately). High heat is just too high! I’d burn everything if I used high heat.
Because I know my stovetop gets really hot, when a recipe calls for medium-high heat, I turn my stove to about medium or a little lower (between 3 and 4). It’s just one of those things you will get the hang of the more you cook with your stove.
13. Salt your pasta water, never add oil, and don’t rinse.
Salt the water.
Mario Batali says you should salt your pasta water until it “tastes like the sea”. I agree.
You don’t have to worry about consuming too much salt because most of it goes down the drain with the water. Salting your pasta water gives flavor to it before you put any sauce on it.
Don’t add oil.
NEVER add oil to your pasta water. My Italian grandmother is turning over in her grave just at the thought of you possibly putting oil in your water. Mama Mia! Why is she so upset? Because when you add oil to your pasta you make it slick and the sauce won’t stick well to the pasta.
The starchy water that the pasta boils in has all the goodness in it and helps the sauce adhere to the pasta. Rinsing also makes your pasta get cold quickly. I even save some of it to add to my sauces.
14. Don’t improvise too much.
If you’re a beginner cook, follow the recipe. You can always make notes and alter the recipe the second time around.
At the same time, if you know you hate mushrooms, leave them out!
Once you know your way around the kitchen you can be as adventurous as you want.
NOTE: Don’t improvise with baking. Baking is an exact science and everything needs to be measured precisely. This rule can be broken if it’s something simple like: leaving nuts out of a cookie recipe or adding a little more cinnamon to a pumpkin pie.
15. Be flexible. Roll with the punches.
If you fail at a meal, congratulations! That means you’re one step closer to becoming a better cook.
You can never be a good cook without some serious flops. Like the time I tried to make a fancy schmancy herbed butter turkey that would change lives. It sure changed lives…we practically broke our teeth on the dried meat that was the consistency of jerky. And let’s not forget the numerous failures I’ve had making recipes for this blog. Failures happen. Just keep your favorite local pizza delivery phone number close by!
I hope these cooking tips will help you get more enjoyment out of cooking!