As we celebrate this wonderful milestone anniversary for Sunday life, I realized that about 25 years have passed since I left the family nest and started cooking for myself seriously. I like to think I’ve improved a lot in that time, so here are 25 tips I’ve learned over the years that help me cook better every day.
Heat your skillet before adding the oil.
If you put oil in the pan before you heat it, the oil will begin to smoke before the pan reaches the correct temperature. Heat the pan first, then add the oil, and then add the food.
Oil is a tool as much as an ingredient
Add as much oil to a pan as you need to cook, not as much as you want to eat. Excess oil can stay in the pan, but if you don’t add enough, it won’t cook properly.
Wash the pans when they are hot
Buy good quality carbon steel or cast iron pans and brush them under running water while they are still hot. It takes a few seconds to clean a pan that way, but if you let the pans cool, you’ll be scrubbing dry food for a long time.
Mix in one direction
It may sound like an old wives’ tale, but mixing meaty fillings, like meatballs, in one direction aligns the protein strands. This helps them trap more moisture for juicier fillings.
soft is ok
Not everything needs to go up to 11 on the flavor front. A soft meal can be a soft joy.
Most of us know how to rest steaks, but I rest just about everything from rotisserie chickens (15-20 minutes) to batters (30 minutes) and salad dressings (10 minutes).
Use a saucepan to mix
If you’re mixing something firmer than a dough (for example, fillings for dumplings, meatballs, croquettes, or burgers), use a saucepan instead of a bowl. The straight sides keep the mixture from jumping, the weight keeps it from moving around too much, and it has a built-in handle.
Seasoning is more important than flavor
Seasoning is what you taste in your mouth (the five flavors: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami) and it’s far more important than the flavors you smell (pretty much everything else).
Umami is the whole ball game
Umami is the most important seasoning in cooking. To highlight, brown the meat well and use broths, tomatoes, cheeses and mushrooms. Look for soy sauce, fish sauce, miso, and Vegemite to boost the umami of your dishes.
Things taste better the next day, so…
Umami develops over time, so if you think your stew or curry just got tastier overnight, it did! It is the same chemical process as the aging of wine, but only in
a faster time scale.
Take advantage of this by cooking your casseroles the day before, or even earlier in the day, rather than trying to schedule them to finish right around dinner time.
Alkalis tenderize meats better than acids
A little baking soda will help tenderize thinly sliced meats for sautéing etc.
by reducing the contraction of muscle fibers while cooking.
To skip, think small
It is better and quicker to make three small stir-fries than one large one.
Woks aren’t always all-inclusive
When wok frying, fry the meats and vegetables separately and then mix them with any sauce at the end. It makes things much easier.
Balance your diet, not your meals
Sometimes a carb-only meal is fine, and sometimes a vegetable-only meal is fine. Trying to be everything to every meal can be exhausting.
Green salads are great.
Just some salad leaves and a vinaigrette. You don’t need 10 ingredients for a salad.
Marinades are overrated
I’m not against marinades, but their moisture often prevents meat from browning properly. If you must marinate, watch out for acid and sugar. The acids give the meat a tender texture and the sugars will burn off before the meat browns properly.
Brown over medium heat
When browning meats for stews, use medium heat instead of high. You’ll get a more even browning and the fond (the brown residue left in the pan) will be more flavorful and won’t burn.
deglaze with anything
Wine is often used to deglaze, but more importantly it scrapes up and dissolves the bottom (see above) to add umami. It doesn’t matter if you use wine, broth or water.
cook the wine
If you are going to deglaze with wine, cook it until it stops smelling like wine. It is not so much about “boiling the alcohol” as it is about allowing the alcohol to develop the flavor of the dish.
A good guarantor is vital
When cooking a thin steak, you may have to negotiate between browning it well on one side and cooking it evenly on both sides. Go for more gold. I’ll cook a steak 90 percent on one side if it needs it to brown a lot, and then just dry the other side.
Also known as tempering, it consists of frying spices, either whole or ground, in oil to release their aroma. You can do this at the beginning of a curry or at the end to add another layer of flavor.
If it’s not al dente, it’s overcooked
I start tasting the pasta two minutes before the time printed on the package so I can get it out of the water and finish it in the sauce (see below).
The key to a great pasta is butter
The most important part of making pasta is the shortening – mixing
the pasta and “sauce” with a little pasta water to emulsify, thicken and coat the pasta.
Making a good meal starts with the choice of good ingredients. Take as much care in your purchases as in your cooking.
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