In celebration of this wonderful historical anniversary for Sunday life, I found out that about 25 years have passed since I haven’t left the family nest and started cooking in earnest for myself. I like to think I’ve gotten a lot better at it over that time, so here are 25 tips I’ve picked up over the years that help me cook better every day.
Heat your pan before adding oil
If you pour oil into the pan before heating it, the oil will begin to smoke before the pan reaches the correct temperature. First heat the pan, 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 the amount you want to eat. Excess oil can stay in the pan, but if you don’t add enough you won’t be able to cook properly.
Wash the pans while they are hot
Buy good quality carbon steel or cast iron pans and wipe them under running water while still hot. It takes seconds to clean such a pan, but if you let the pans cool, you will be cleaning dried food for years.
Mix in one direction
It may sound like an old wives’ tale, but mixing meat fillings such as for meatballs, it lines up the protein strands in one direction. This helps them capture more moisture for a juicier filling.
Bland is fine
Not everything has to be turned up to 11 on the flavor front. A gentle meal can be a gentle joy.
Most of us know how to rest steaks, but I rest just about everything, from roast chicken (15-20 minutes) to dough (30 minutes) to salad dressings (10 minutes).
Use a mixing bowl
If you are mixing something stronger than dough (for example dumpling, meatball, grain or hamburger fillings) use a saucepan rather than a bowl. The straight sides stop the mixture from jumping out, the weight keeps it from moving around too much, and it has a built-in handle.
Seasoning is more important than flavoring
Spice is what you taste with your mouth (the five tastes – salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami) and is far more important than the flavorings you smell (almost anything else).
Umami is the whole ball game
Umami is the most important spice in cooking. To bring it out, fry the meat well and use juices, 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 got tastier overnight, it did! It is the same chemical process as aged wine, but only in continuation
a faster timeline.
Take advantage of this by cooking your stews the day before, or even earlier in the day, rather than trying to time them to be finished right around dinnertime.
Alkalies tenderize meat better than acids
A little bit of bicarb will help tenderize thinly sliced meat for roasting etc.
reducing the contraction of muscle fibers during cooking.
For frying, think twice
It is better and faster to prepare three small fries than one big one.
Woks aren’t always all-in
When frying in the wok, fry the meat and vegetables separately and then toss them together with any sauce at the end. It makes things so much easier.
Balance your diet, not your meals
Sometimes a single carb meal is fine, and sometimes a single vegetable meal is fine. Trying to be everything at every meal can be exhausting.
Green salads are great
Just a few lettuce leaves and a vinaigrette. You don’t need 10 ingredients for a side salad.
Marinades are overrated
I’m not against marinades, but often their moisture prevents you from marinating the meat well. If you must marinate, take the acid and sugar easy. The acids give the meat a tender texture and the sugars will burn before the meat browns properly.
Coffee on medium heat
When browning meat for stew, use medium heat instead of high heat. You will get more even browning and the taste (the brown residue left in the pan) will be tastier and not burnt.
Deglaze with anything
Wine is often used to deglaze, but the most important thing is to scrape and spread the cake (see above) to add umami. It doesn’t matter if you use wine, juice or water.
Cook the wine
If you are cleaning with wine, cook until it stops smelling like wine. It’s not so much “cooking the alcohol” as allowing the alcohol to develop the flavor of the dish.
A good search is vital
When cooking a thin steak, you may need to alternate between getting it really brown on one side and cooking it evenly on both sides. Go for more coloring. I’ll cook a steak 90 percent on one side if it needs to get really brown, then just sear the other side.
Also known as tempering, this involves frying spices—whether whole or ground—in oil to release their flavor. 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 that I can remove it from the water and finish it in the sauce (see below).
The key to great pasta is mantecatura
The most important part of making pasta is the mantecatura – the mixing
pasta and “sauce” with a little pasta water to emulsify, thicken and coat the pasta.
Preparing a good meal starts with choosing good ingredients. Take as much care in your shopping as you do in your cooking.
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