Learning to cook well makes life worth living. If you think that’s dramatic, you probably don’t know how to cook well.
Regardless of what else is going right or wrong with your day, a satisfying, delicious, home cooked meal has a restorative quality that seems to make everything a little better. Sure, cooking on the same level as the professionals does have quite the learning curve – all kinds of cuisines and styles have their own peculiarities, which could take a lifetime to really master – but after learning a few basics, you'll be well on your way.
First, you need to mop up a few all-too-common mistakes. Most people never take the time to address these things, making the excuse that they’re just not good cooks. And that’s true – they’re not. But with a meager amount of effort, they could be. And so can you. All you need is a little know-how.
Everything you cook is the sum total of your raw ingredients, plus all of the chemical interactions those ingredients undergo. That means that every little thing you add to your dish matters.
Get the Good Stuff
If you buy bargain brand ingredients, you’ll get a bargain brand final product. Sure, there are certainly places to save money – you could go broke buying the best of everything. But basic building blocks like local, humanely raised meat, hearty breads made with high quality grain, and fresh, seasonal produce (all of which you can get through CSAs) will make a shocking difference in how your meals taste.
Use the Right Cooking Oil
When I started cooking, I used olive oil for everything from bread-dipping to stir-frying. What I ignored was a little something called smoking point.
Every kind of oil has a temperature at which it essentially breaks down and becomes garbage. Olive oil has a pretty low smoking point, whereas something like peanut oil has a fairly high one. So, the hotter your pan, the higher the smoking point has to be.
For that stir fry, I should have used peanut oil (which doesn’t make things taste like peanuts, PS) because for a proper stir fry, the pan or wok has to be screaming hot, and the oil has to keep up.
Learn Your Way Around Herbs
This is another example of trying to save money and eventually shooting yourself in the tastebuds. As a general rule, fresh herbs are best for any cooking project. The flavors will be brighter and your meal will taste better.
If you do go the dried route, which is admittedly much more convenient, you do have to tweak your approach. The drying process ratchets up the flavor of some herbs, like oregano and rosemary, so a tablespoon of dried versions will be more potent than a tablespoon of fresh stuff. So as a rule of thumb, use 1.5 times as much if you’re subbing fresh for dried.
Ok, sure, salt is technically a raw ingredient, and could go in the category above. So why make such a distinction? Because without salt, your dinner is dead on arrival. It works on a molecular level to release aromas, which equates to detonating flavor bombs throughout whatever you put in your mouth.
In ancient Abyssinia, slabs of salt were used as currency. In the 6th century, Moorish merchants traded salt for gold, ounce for ounce. Learn from their example and take value in your pantry's supply of the stuff.
Go Beyond Table Salt
Yes, it’s easy and cheap and on every kitchen table everywhere. But there are at least nine different types and families of salt, and they all work best with different foods.
For example, high quality flaked salt is composed of wafery crystals, developed from different evaporation techniques. The flavor is sharp and snappy, but not overpowering, and the texture is just large enough to provide a subtle crunch. That makes it perfect for sprinkling onto finished dishes, or simple snacks. Try adding a pinch to your next salad, too – trust us, it's delicious.
Don't Be Shy
Regardless of what kind of salt you use, be generous. Obviously, too much salt will make anything inedible, but being overly conscious about sodium is a sure path to bland food.
Takeout food tastes so damn good and leaves you so damn thirsty because they use a ton of salt. And though we're not suggesting you buy a gallon-sized bag of MSG, liberally salting your meats and vegetables before and during the cooking process will naturally enhance the flavors hiding in those foods.
Heat sets us apart from our mammalian cousins. It just about defines cooking. The problem is that while heat makes food edible, it also has the propensity to dry meat into sawdust or soften vegetables into a flabby mess if you're not careful
Preheat Your Oil
Heating oil in a pan until it’s shimmering, particularly if you’re cooking some sort of protein, accomplishes two things on a chemical level (stay with us here).
Throw a chicken breast into a cold pan, and everything gets hot at mostly the same rate – the pan, the oil, and the chicken. The proteins in the chicken bond with the cold pan, making the two stick together as the chicken cooks. Heating the oil beforehand allows the proteins on the surface of the chicken to cook very, very rapidly as you set it down into the pan. And when those surface proteins are heated so quickly at the beginning of the cooking process, they're no longer susceptible to sticking. So a nice layer of preheated oil means your food won't stick to the pan as it cooks.
A hot surface kickstarts the Maillard reaction, the process that browns meat and releases delicious flavors. Starting with a cold pan keeps you from getting the most out of that reaction, since it'll only begin once the pan is hot enough – at which point, your food will be almost done cooking. For the first few minutes, your dinner will just sit in a pool of warm oil, getting soft. But by preheating your pan and oil well enough, the Maillard reaction will kick in the moment your food touches down, so you get a nice, dark crust going.
Don’t Overcrowd Your Pan
When you cook, your heat is on a budget. Every ingredient you add to a pan draws some of that heat away. So if you’re piling ingredients into a pan, so you’ll get fewer crispy exteriors and longer cooking times. For a multi-ingredient, heat-intensive dish like a stir fry, cook each ingredient separately to keep the pan screaming hot and to get everything brown and crispy.
Things keep happening after the stove switches off. A lot of people think once they kill the flame, they’re done cooking.
Say you just cooked your pasta to a perfect al dente doneness. You switch off the heat, strain the pasta, and get to work finishing the rest of your dinner. That's great, but while you set out the plates and add another pinch of salt to your sauce, the pasta is still cooking from residual heat, going from just right to overly mushy by the time you're ready to eat.
Or say you made a few batches of mouthwatering cast iron fried chicken, working in stages so as to not overcrowd the pan. If you were to simply put the finished pieces on a plate or some paper towels as they come out of the pan, the first wave will have lost its crispiness by the time the last wave is done, on account of hot steam gathering onto the surface of the chicken.
Luckily, these kinds of things are avoidable. For the pasta, you take it off just before your desired doneness, or rinse it with cold water immediately after straining to remove the residual heat. For the chicken, rest finished pieces on a wire rack or in a warm oven, and you'll retain that ultra crispy skin.
But the important point to remember here is that cooking doesn’t always happen inside the oven or on the burner. So by all means - avoid salmonella by cooking things to completion. Just take the resting period into consideration when considering your food's texture and internal temperature.
It takes a lot of time to become a great cook. It doesn’t take that much to become a good one. Mostly, it’s internalizing and putting into practice little tips like these. Most people never do, so when you throw onions into a pan, they start sizzling, your house fills with a heavenly aroma, and everyone swoons over your culinary mastery, feel free to take all the credit.