How to Be a Better Cook with 9 Simple Tips
We all want to be better cooks, right? I believe that kitchen time should be something to look forward to and always awesome. Below I've compiled some of my essential tips for enjoying your time spent in the kitchen in 2019 and beyond.
1. Have the Right Equipment
This goes without saying, but what exactly IS the right equipment? The details will differ from cook to cook, but these 10 Essential Kitchen Tools are the ones I can't live without. Keep in mind outfitting a basic kitchen doesn't have to be expensive. I've collected a lot of quality equipment from "bargain" stores such as Home Goods and TJ Maxx over the years. If you choose to go this route though, it will take some time to find the right pieces, but when you do, they will last you a lifetime.
2. Organize Your Kitchen
Now don't freak out, I'm not saying you have to do an all out, gung-ho spring cleaning (well, only if you want to). There's a just a few things to keep in mind that will lend themselves to better kitchen flow. Take a look at your counter and where you use your cutting board most of the time. Is the trash within arm's distance? If not a garbage bowl or compost bucket can remedy this. Is your working space relatively uncluttered? Are your knives nearby? Where are the bowls and other commonly used items? Having most items nearby can make your cooking experience so much better (and so much more efficient).
3. Buy Quality Ingredients
If you want your food to taste good, it pays to buy the best raw ingredients possible. Produce and other items from the farmer's market are some of the freshest you can find (outside of growing it yourself). Less distance travel means less nutrients lost and therefore more flavor. More flavor in=more flavor out, so if you are frustrated with bland Brussels sprouts, pallid potatoes (have you ever tried purple potatoes?), and uninspired lettuce salads, give your local farmer's market a try. Find your local farmer's market here. Delicious tasting produce will also inspire you to get more veggies into your life. Just sayin'.
4. Stock Your Pantry
You don't have to go crazy, but a few key ingredients will keep you from being frustrated when you're charging headlong into a recipe. If stocking a pantry is new to you, don't spend a fortune at the store doing it all at once. I suggest choosing a few recipes that you want to cook, and stocking those ingredients. Over time, you will end up with a stocked pantry, and it will become apparent which ingredients are a go-to favorite for you.
5. Read the Recipe First
All the way through. More than once. Visualize what you will be doing. This is to ensure that you have all the ingredients, and all the equipment. This is when you will figure out substitutions if any are needed, NOT halfway through the recipe when three things are burning. This will also help ensure that you even want to MAKE the recipe. For example, you pick a recipe that takes 20 minutes to make. WAIT. Oh, plus 24 hours of marinating time. It's 6:30 and you're hungry. Read the recipe all the way through and you won't face this challenge anymore. This is how I choose recipes for meal planning.
6. Herbs and Spices are your Friend
Don't be afraid! Even if you "don't know anything about them", there's no time like the present to learn, it's the only way you will! I have my top 10 herbs and spices to keep on hand listed here. My spice cupboard leans Mediterranean and Middle eastern, as these are the cuisines I cook mostly, but it's a good a place as any to start! The best way to learn, if your spice cupboard is non-existent, is to purchase two spices that you've never used before and find a recipe to use them. Make sure you smell them and compare them to each other, noting their aromas and flavors. You'll be on your way to spicetown in no time!
7. A Place for Everything...
...and everything in its place. Also known as mise en place, it is what professional chefs do to prepare to cook, and you can too! Chopping all your ingredients beforehand (and even putting them in cute bowls like on cooking shows!) is not only fun, it helps cooking go super smoothly. My most successful cooking sessions are the ones where I am fully prepared. Meal planning is also a part of mise en place. Creating dinner meal plans for the week is so relaxing to come home to. There are some nights when I want to improvise, but most nights I like to walk into the kitchen and know what I am making.
8. Knives Knives Knives
If your knife isn't sharp, you will not enjoy cooking, hands down. You need to have your main knife sharpened 1-2 times per year by a professional. Become friends with the tool pictured on the left (under the knife) for the other 487 times you cook this year. It's called a honing steel, sharpening steel, or affectionately referred to in my cooking classes as a "knife improver". This tool doesn't actually sharpen your knife, which removes metal and change its shape, but rather aligns the microscopic teeth found on the edge of your knife to make it cut your food much much better. Most chefs knives are sharpened between a 15-20 degree angle, so you can run it along from base to tip like this. Start slow, and you will soon be taking care of your knives like a pro!
9. Develop a Repertoire of Seasonal Side Dishes
If you're shopping at the farmer's market, you might notice that certain items are not available all year round. At the change of each season, I generally will become obsessed with a certain dish based upon a ridiculously good ingredient (take this Santa Maria style peach salsa in summer time for example). Focus on seasonality in your ingredients, and you will be making dishes that are "eat the leftovers in your underpants in the middle of the kitchen floor at midnight" kinda good, if you know what I mean. I've grouped some of my favorite recipes by ingredient on my Pinterest account.
Bonus Idea: Take a Live Cooking Class
Another way to become a better cook is to take an in-person cooking class. Nothing can really compare to learning via live experience, and you're sure to pick up some of the tricks of the trade that just never quite make it into that cooking show, video, or blog post. My private in-home group classes are a fun and intimate way to gather.