Have you ever been excited to try something new in the kitchen, only to find yourself over a smoking pan, scorching half of your ingredients while the other half are no where near being done? Or ever sat down to dinner, only to take a bite and realize it just doesn’t taste the way you expected it to? If you answered yes, then I’m so glad you’re here!
I truly enjoy cooking and eating, but for years I stuck to the same short list of meal ideas that I felt I’d perfected, using only the cooking tools and techniques that I was comfortable with. That certainly gets boring, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to break out of the rut or get motivated enough to do so.
Two years ago, I spent 5 months on maternity leave with our first baby. I sat on the couch nursing her, watching the Food Network like it was going to earn me a culinary degree. (Fortunately at that time they were still airing actual cooking shows.) It was incredible how much I learned from these TV chefs, and I enjoyed the learning enough to keep watching, even when they were making things I wouldn’t necessarily want to make myself. I’ve complied this list of 10 simple tips that you can use right now to make your food taste better, and make the experience more enjoyable and less stressful.
1. Season in layers.
This is a biggie. You can’t assume that just because you put some salt and pepper in your hamburger meat, that the tomato you put on your burger doesn’t also need some seasoning to bring out the flavor. It truly makes a difference to season different aspects of a meal as if they were going to stand alone, because you may end up under seasoning if you don’t.
2. Taste before serving.
Now that I’ve mentioned step one, it’s important to make sure that you are tasting your food as you work. Don’t season things at the beginning and assume that it will taste the same once it’s cooked. (This is obvious but will save you from over or under seasoning your food.) Note: salting something before it’s cooked has a much different effect on the flavor of the food than adding salt after cooking. If you are following a recipe, make sure that you’re adding the seasonings at the appropriate suggested time.
3. Use the ugly produce.
This is actually something I learned by watching my grandma in the kitchen. She could take the ugliest looking piece of fruit and turn it into something amazing. Take peaches for example.. Often the ones that are the ripest and most delicious are the same ones that, at first glance, you’d want to chuck into the trash. Alternatively, produce that is very visually appealing can sometimes be totally void of flavor. (ie: perfect looking bananas versus those with a few spots.) Cut away any bruised areas, and you’re often left with the most flavorful produce.
4. Make a plan.
It’s important to read an entire recipe before getting started. This will ensure that you won’t be flailing around mid-way through because you didn’t realize that your chicken still needs to be diced into pieces but your pan is now screaming hot and everything else is burning in the meantime. No bueno.
5. Prep everything before you apply heat.
This is especially necessary when you are very new to cooking. Very similar to step number 4 in that it’s so important to know what’s coming next. If you don’t have a ton of experience, it’s hard to know how long it might take you to chop, slice, and prep all of your ingredients, so it’s a good idea to have everything at least somewhat ready to go before the heat even turns on. It can eliminate a lot of stress and allows you pay closer attention to the actual cooking process as its happening.
6. Roast things.
In the spirit of step 5, putting things in the oven instead of cooking them on the stove top can give you one less thing to actively worry about. It’s not easy to have 4 things simultaneously cooking on the burners, so throwing an item or two in the oven to roast instead may lighten your load. Plus, roasting in the oven can impart some really great flavor, not only to meats, but to veggies as well. (Oven roasted broccoli, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, carrots…just some of my faves.)
7. Use the juice.
When you cook food in a pan on the stove top, lots and lots of terrific flavor can get stuck to the surface of the pan. Use all of that goodness to create a pan sauce. Learn how and you’ll never look back. It’s easy and it makes dinner feel extra special and delicious. A great example would be creating a sauce in the same pan that you just cooked pork chops in. So good. (Maybe I need to write a blog post soon about simple pan sauces..) Likewise, if you were to roast chicken in the oven to add to a soup, it would never be a bad idea to use the drippings from the pan and add that in also. There’s a ton of good flavor in there that shouldn’t go to waste!
8. Be mindful of color and texture.
Not too long ago, I tried a recipe I found on Pinterest for Italian tortellini soup. It was a broth/tomato based soup, and at the last minute I decided I’d add some heavy cream to it. It gave the soup an incredibly unappetizing pinkish hue. I’ll spare you a more specific description of what it reminded me of, but let’s just say it wasn’t easy to eat, even though it tasted just fine. Texture is just as important as appearance. I recently over-cooked some stir fry vegetables. To save the dish from just being a pile of mush, I added some chopped roasted almonds and it turned out being pretty good. Now I love adding all different kinds of nuts into a variety of dishes. Get creative and be confident in trying new things.
9. Spice up basic recipes with simple ingredients.
A good way to start learning to make new things is to take the recipes you’re comfortable with and tweak them a little. Examples could be adding roasted zucchini to your jarred spaghetti sauce, or putting berries in your pancake batter.
No one has ever become completely comfortable in the kitchen without a healthy dose of practice. The best cooks I know are the ones that do it all the time. If you’re up for trying new foods, techniques, kitchen gadgets, expect that there will be some things that won’t turn out the way you’d hoped. But each of these failed attempts will teach you something and you’ll come at it next time with better perspective. In the meantime, it might be a good idea to practice before your company shows up. Good luck, and happy cooking!!