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I’m the person my friends turn to for cooking advice. What’s the best temperature to roast a chicken? How long should the turkey be in the oven? How do I know the flan is done? These are just a few of the questions I’ve gotten throughout the years. The answers to those questions are easy but every so often someone will ask me an even bigger question: how can I be a better cook?
As I contemplated the answer to that question many things came to mind. While there are infinite ways to become a better cook, I’ve found that a few basic rules that can drastically improve the quality of one’s meals almost immediately. So while there are many tips I will share in the future, I’ll begin with these three simple ways to be a better cook:
Select quality ingredients
This particular piece of advice has become quite cliché over the years with chefs preaching that good raw materials make for better food. After working in kitchens for years, I can attest to the fact that quality ingredients produce tastier dishes. Not because those ingredients are expensive but because they are chosen with care.
For instance, you’ll want to choose produce in its most natural state possible. At the market, choose whole mushrooms instead of the ones already sliced. Buy a whole block of cheddar and grate it yourself (I promise it’ll taste much better than the dried up grated cheese sitting on the supermarket shelf). As a general rule of thumb, the less hands involved in producing that food the better - and fresher - it’ll taste.
Many chefs advocate buying organic and that’s great if you can afford it. However, don’t overlook buying local, seasonal produce which will taste much better than whatever organic fruits and vegetables flown in from thousands of miles away.
Being married to a farmer I can attest to the vast difference in flavor between a freshly picked head of lettuce or one that’s sat in a cold refrigerator for weeks. Fresh lettuce will have very soft leaves and possess a sweetness that’s almost heavenly. But these properties tend to change quickly once refrigerated, yielding a stiffer, more bitter lettuce.
Taste, taste, taste
My husband - bless his heart - has a tendency to serve food without ever tasting it beforehand. While he’s usually on point with seasoning every so often a dish ends up over salted. This could all be prevented if he tasted the food beforehand. So keep this in mind next time you cook and have a few tasting spoons handy. At the very least you’ll want to check the dish mid-way through to adjust seasonings and once again before serving.
Remember that herbs and seasonings behave differently altogether depending on whether they are fresh or dried or when they are incorporated into the pot. If a curry recipe calls for toasting cumin seeds in oil then don’t wait till the last minute to add cumin to the prepared dish. A bigger sin would be subbing with cumin powder. While it is the same spice, the fact that is has already been ground changes its flavor all together. Roasted cumin is nutty while ground cumin has a more 'flowery' taste.
If you are serious about cooking learn as much as you can about the herbs and spices you intend to use in the kitchen. Become mindful of each season’s ‘personality’ and use it accordingly. A great resource I turn to time and again is Healing Spices by Bharat B. Aggarwal, PhD and Debora Yost.
Season but don’t overkill
“You can’t make anything taste good without salt.” This are the wise words of Chicago chef Grant Achatz. He and every other chef will tell you that seasoning is an art. It’s easy to go overboard with salt but it’s also just as easy to under do it and end up with a ho-hum dish. How what should you do? Well, my dear, here’s where practice comes in handy. There’s no way around it. Only after cooking something several times will you crack the code of how to prepare it perfectly. Seasoning is no exception to this.
However, do keep in that different salts have different levels of salinity. So if a recipe calls for kosher salt don’t substitute for table salt and vice versa. For instance, when I first started baking (years before attending culinary school) I swapped sea salt for table salt in a cake recipe. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time so I was shocked when, after icing the cake and presenting it to my special guest, it didn’t cause an impression. After tasting it I discovered why: the cake was salty! Not only that, the salt crystals hadn’t melted and the cake was ‘crunchy.’ Needless to say the entire cake ended up in the garbage. Please remember this anecdote next time you salt your food.