Cooking is an art form that involves all of our senses. We touch, smell, taste, listen, and see in order to produce something that nourishes ourselves and those we love. Beyond that, cooking requires planning, patience, and money, and it often involves the critique of the people we love most. In other words, cooking is multidimensional and richly personal.
The forthcoming tips were gathered from home cooks with an array of experience and points of view. Many tips overlapped, and each person had bits to add that did not involve actual cooking, but instead were focused on the cook’s environment, mindset, and reasons for cooking in the first place. The bottom line is this: Anyone can improve their skill set in the kitchen, and you don’t need a pantry full of expensive ingredients or equipment to do it.
- BE MINDFUL: cooking can be stressful, and it doesn’t need to be. It’s all about mindset. Take three deep breaths before beginning and remember your intention behind cooking in the first place. Is it to nourish? Please your guests? Connect people? Help you unwind from your day? Ground into moment and go forward with that energy. It carries into the food you cook.
- SET THE MOOD: put on your favorite music, light a candle, clear the sink of dishes. When the vibe is right, you’ll have more fun and approach your food with more patience, play and love.
- INVEST in the best knife you can afford and keep it sharp. Your knife is an extension of your arm and your most valuable kitchen tool. Also, sharp knives are safer than dull knives.
- USE A CUTTING BOARD that’s spacious and sturdy, and keep it stationary by wetting a paper towel and putting it flat between the countertop and cutting board.
- READ IT: If following a recipe, read it from start to finish before you pick up your knife. Chop what needs chopping, slice what needs slicing, and measure out your spices all before anything hits the heat. In French terms, this is called “mise en place,” and it means “everything in place” before you start cooking. This way you’re not caught unprepared and your mind will be able to focus on exactly the task at hand.
- SAVE THE RINDS from your parmesan cheese. You can freeze them until ready to use. Toss a rind into pasta sauce or soup while it simmers. The cheese will diffuse into whatever you’re cooking, adding an unexpected dimension of flavor to the dish.
- LEMONS: Always keep a lemon or two in your kitchen. Lemon will improve the flavor of just about everything. Lemon zest will elevate the intensity of a lemony flavor, while lemon juice will add more tartness to a dish. Zest lemons before cutting and juicing them. Use fresh lemon juice, not bottled.
- BUTTER: Make sure to read the recipe and follow the directions for using butter. Use melted butter when your recipe calls for melted butter. There is a chemical reason for using butter at various temperatures, and each will yield a different result. Avoid using a microwave to bring butter to room temperature.
- BROWN BUTTER: If your recipe calls for butter, brown it over low heat first! Browned butter adds an unforgettable nuttiness to anything: especially baked goods, mashed potatoes, and popcorn.
- SOAK garlic cloves in water overnight to make them easier to peel.
- SOAK sliced or chopped onions in ice water to make them extra crispy and milder. Soak onions in vinegar to mellow their bite and make them sweeter.
- BEFORE BRAISING cuts of red meat, brown them. This seals in the juices and creates a fond, which are the brown bits at the bottom of the pan that elevate a sauce from good to fantastic.
- For better french fries: double fry them. First, cook them in a saturated stable fat (like beef lard) until softened and starting to brown. Then remove them, drain them, and return back to the fat to finish frying.
- For better roasted potatoes: Cut and parboil them in salted water for 15 minutes. Drain them, season them, and roast with olive oil for 25-35 minutes at 400 degrees until crispy and golden, tossing halfway through.
- For better mashed potatoes: If you’re making gravy or pan sauce, save some of that starchy cooking liquid before draining the potatoes. Add the drained potatoes back to the pot and allow them to dry out over very low heat (stirring consistently). Warm the cream or milk before adding. Add butter at room temp (not melted) in small increments as you are mashing the potatoes. This allows the butter to incorporate into the potatoes more completely.
- For better smoothies: Peel and cut bananas into chunks and freeze them. This will make your smoothie colder, thicker, and smoother. It also gives your almost-bad bananas a chance to shine where they might’ve met the compost bin instead.
- LEARN A VARIETY of cooking methods: steaming, sautéing, braising, and roasting, for example. Start with one technique at a time, and practice each technique with a variety of vegetables.
- CLEAN as you go! It’s not very fun to clean up the whole mess after eating the delicious dinner you’ve prepared. Take micro breaks as you’re cooking to lighten the cleanup load at the end.
- BLANCH TOMATOES and peel the skins to make a smoothly textured and flavored sauce.
- SEASON AND TASTE as you go! Keep a dish of sea salt next to the stove so that you can season each layer of flavor you’re adding to the dish. Start lightly: you can always add more.
- ALLOW meat and fish to rest for several minutes once removed from heat. Fish and meat continue to cook internally even after exposure to heat. Allowing the meat to rest gives the flavors within proteins time to settle. Meat that’s prematurely cut will lose flavorful juices, and these are the juices you want to keep.
- IF YOU BURN IT: If some or most of the dish is salvageable, scrape off the burnt parts. Then puree it into a soup. Throw it out or throw it in a crockpot to cook down to homemade food for your pet. Take a deep breath, and remember you can start again tomorrow.
- IF YOU OVER-SALT IT: Add rice, potatoes, quinoa, more veggies or beans to soak up the extra salinity.
- BLOOM: When making a dish with a bunch of ingredients or spices, add each ingredient incrementally and allow its flavor to bloom before adding the next ingredient or spice.
- ADD SPICES before adding liquid, not after. Spices are fat-soluble and need to be incorporated with fat. Adding spices too late will cause them to pool to the top instead of blending properly into your dish. For example: add spices to your sautéing veggies when making chili; then, add the rest of the ingredients.
- Use ONIONS AND GARLIC together, and add garlic during the last 30 seconds of cooking (or just before adding any liquid). Garlic is easy to burn and will make the whole dish taste bitter if it does.
- TEST THE SEASONING of ground meat (burgers, meatballs, meatloaf, kabobs, etc) by pinching off a small bit of meat. Cook it in a sauté pan and taste. Adjust the whole yield accordingly (you can test this way as many times as it takes!).
- BUY GREENS every time you shop and chop them as soon as you get home. Store them in an airtight container with a damp paper towel. That way you can throw in a handful of greens to whatever you’re cooking. It’ll quickly boost the nutrient-density of your meal.
- USE FRESH HERBS liberally. When buying a bunch of parsley or cilantro, chop it all at once. Save whatever you don’t use first in an airtight container and add handfuls of herbs to whatever you’re cooking. Chopped herbs will last 3-4 days when stored properly.
- EMBRACE the seasons. What’s in season now is what will taste the best. If you don’t know which vegetables are in season when, observe what looks the best and brightest at the market. Strawberries and tomatoes are most vibrant and abundant in the summertime. Squashes are gorgeous during the fall. Use your instincts to guide you toward the freshest seasonal produce. Your food will taste better when your ingredients are solid.
- ACIDS: Get to know your acids. A splash of red wine vinegar or lemon juice goes a long way to elevating a dish. Different vinegars and citrus juices will lend a different effect, and you’ll learn to spot the difference with time and experience. Start with red wine vinegar. Venture to white wine, sherry, champagne, and balsamic vinegars. Fruit vinegars are often loaded with sugar. Use these sparingly. Add a bit of vinegar or citrus at the end of cooking, taste, and add more if necessary.
- SWEETEN your dishes more creatively: for example, use honey, maple syrup, date paste, molasses, grated carrot, mashed banana and applesauce in baked goods. Alternative sweeteners lend a depth and complexity that regular cane sugar does not.
- HOMEMADE VINAIGRETTES are simple to make and so much fresher than anything you can buy at the store. Learn to make a base vinaigrette with olive oil, vinegar, dijon mustard, salt, and pepper. From there, the sky’s the limit.
- OBSERVE as you eat your own food, and the food of others: What do you love about this particular dish? Remember and even take notes. Ask the cook how they seasoned it, or what they did to make the texture just right. People love sharing knowledge and talking about what they’ve created. Nothing beats learning from fellow home cooks.
- BE EASY on yourself. Cooking is a skill that takes practice, and practice requires mistakes to learn. Use these mistakes as opportunities to improve next time.
Jacqui Gabel is a nutrition therapist, chef instructor, and personal wellness chef in the greater Denver area. She lives to inspire connection, empowerment, and memory through food. Find her on IG: @realfooddesire
Mason J. Spendow is a traveling retreat caterer and private chef based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His life’s work is to be a steward for the profound healing powers of food. Find out more about Mason at www.onpurposekitchen.com and IG: @onpurposekitchen
Ji Sun Chong loves to cook delicious food and eat to her heart’s content. She lives in Philadelphia and has gained inspiration through time living in Baltimore (her hometown), Washington DC, Maitland, Ontario, The Twin Cities, and Seoul.
Tony Tushar spent over a decade working in James Beard award-winning kitchens where he learned how to tie together an appreciation for multi-cultured food and seasonal eating. He currently lives in Minneapolis and loves nourishing his family.
Linda Quillen is a retired nurse practitioner living in Lincoln, Nebraska. She is a lifelong cook who loves the challenge of cooking a new dish and learning new techniques to feed the people she loves.