7 tips to make you a better cook
Want to make your food taste better tonight? Here are seven simple tricks of the trade that will improve the way your food looks, tastes and nourishes you. These tips are easy, cheap and can be incorporated into almost anything you cook.
If there is one spice I could not give up it would be salt. I know, salt gets a bad rap, but the majority of the problem with salt is the enormous quantities that go into processed food. If you avoid processed food and cook with whole foods you are in control of the salt in your diet.
The reason salt makes food taste better is that is works to suppress bitter flavors and allows sweet and sour flavors to surface. Read this post by Science Fare if you want to know the science behind this. If you want to learn more about salt, check out my post. Here are my best tips for using salt to enhance flavor:
Use kosher salt for cooking
There are a couple reasons for using kosher salt.
You will use less salt. Because kosher salt is larger grained, there are also larger spaces between grains, so by weight, the same volume of kosher salt is less salt by weight than regular table salt. Not all kosher salt is the same, however. Diamond Kosher salt is larger grained than Mortons and has no additives.
Kosher salt handles well. You can easily grab a pinch of kosher salt and evenly distribute it over your food. Because of the large grains it is easy to see how much salt you are using and where it has landed. I keep a small bowl of kosher salt by the stove for easy access.
Use flakey salt for finishing
Flakey salt provides bursts of salty flavor and crunch and is used for a last minute sprinkle to liven up a dish. I personally love to finish food with a little Maldon sea salt. I also keep a bowl of Maldon by my stove. Maldon is a nice finishing salt for baked goods too. Sprinkle over a chocolate chip cookie, banana bread or on caramel and you will know what I'm talking about.
Salt your water
When cooking potatoes, pasta or rice, add salt to your water before you add the food to the pot. The salt will subtly flavor the food, give it more taste and you will need less salt later on.
2. Give a little citrus love
Citrus brightens bland food and is often what is missing when you are wondering hmmm...what is this missing?
A little citrus juice added to salad dressing, marinades, baked goods and soups goes a long way to making a dull dish sparkle. I serve lemon and lime wedges with just about everything, particularly soups. Sometimes I use lemon or lime wedges instead of salad dressing. I use this citrus press almost every day. Check out my Crazy-good smashed potato salad and my BLT smashed potato salad as examples.
Citrus zest can be more important than citrus juice for flavoring and can be used when juice will cause curdling. Zest is the colored part of the fruit, not the bitter white pith. Add zest to salad dressing, soups, custards, baked goods, marinades, stews, salads or make a gremolade (mixture of zest, garlic, salt and herbs) to sprinkle on cooked meat. I like to use a fine Microplane zester for creating super fine zest with no bitter pith.
3. Cut your food uniformly before cooking
Whether you are cutting meat or vegetables, cut food into like-sized pieces. This allows each piece to cook in about the same amount of time. If you have big pieces and small pieces the smaller pieces will be overdone and the larger pieces may be undercooked.
4. A full pan is a crowd
Whether you are roasting a pan full of vegetables or searing chicken on the stove, don't crowd your pans. When food is too close together, it steams rather than browns, creating ugly, mushy and less tasty food. Instead give your ingredients a little breathing room and spread them over two pans or work in batches.
It is very tempting to shove everything into one poor pan. One pan is one less pan to clean than two, and cooking in batches takes more time than cooking everything at once. More dishes and longer cooking times are two things most of us like to avoid. Still, you will be amazed at the difference in both the taste and the texture of your food if you stop overcrowding.
A third way to avoid overcrowding is to invest in one large pan. I have a 14" skillet that gets a lot of use, even when cooking for only 4 people because it allows me to really spread ingredients around in my pan. Here are three reasonably priced 14+" skillets you may want to consider: a Lodge cast iron skillet, a Cuisinart stainless steel skillet and a Cuisinart non-stick skillet. All three skillets are priced under $50.
5. Think about umami
Umami, the 5th taste, literally translates to deliciousness. When cooking a recipe or creating one, think about what ingredients will provide umami. Mushrooms, tomatoes, garlic, Parmigiano Reggiano, fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce, oyster sauce, balsamic vinegar, Kewpie Japanese mayonnaise, bacon and anchovies all provide umami. A small amount of any of these ingredients can add great flavor to your food.
6. Get the most out of garlic
For starters, if you are using pre-cut, bottled garlic, toss that bottle in the trash and buy yourself a couple garlic heads. You will get much more flavor, enhanced nutrition and a lot fewer additives by switching to fresh garlic. Garlic is a great flavor enhancer (again garlic is a source of umami) and aside from sweets, enhances just about everything it touches. Here are my tips for using garlic:
Chopping by hand
When you chop garlic by hand, give it a rough chop, then sprinkle with salt, and alternate chopping with pressing the garlic with the side of the knife blade. The salt helps break down the garlic and makes it more available to flavor your food.
Chop in bulk
If you require a lot of garlic and hate chopping it by hand or want to speed up the process, consider investing in a Cuisinart Mini-prep. This device makes chopping large quantities fairly painless.
Buy a garlic press
If you hate chopping even small quantities of garlic by hand, invest in a garlic press. These devices have been recently embraced by many chefs who once thought they were for amateurs.
Let garlic rest
After you chop garlic let it rest for 10 minutes to 15 minutes before heating. Resting allows a chain of chemical reactions to occur that creates cancer-fighting agents which are not formed if the garlic is immediately heated.
Roast whole heads of garlic
Snip off the pointed end of a garlic head, lay the head on a piece of foil, drizzle some olive oil over the cut end, put the top back on. Wrap the entire clove up in foil and put it in the oven at 350 degrees for an hour and you will have a delicious, mellow garlic paste that enhances everything from eggs, to bread, to meat to soup. You might as well make two or three heads while you are at it. Roasted garlic will hold for several days in the fridge and you definitely will find something to do with leftovers...if you are fortunate enough to have them.
We don't just eat with our mouths, but also with our eyes and our noses. Visual and aromatic cues are all apart of the eating experience. When we see beautiful food, our brain is prepped to enjoy what our mouths will soon experience. That's why Pinterest food posts are such a success.
Food photographers learn about garnishing very quickly. Garnishing makes everything better. I use chopped herbs, pomegranate seeds, citrus wedges and chopped nuts on almost all of my food. Not only do garnishes make food look better, but garnishes give you an opportunity to add nutrient-dense ingredients to your food. It is a win-win-win dynamic: garnished food looks better, tastes better and is better for you.