Five Tips for Becoming a Better Home Cook
Take it from a pro, this is a recipe for success.
I’ve worked in professional kitchens for nearly a decade, and I’m often approached for cooking advice. Detecting mistakes is a big part of being a culinary supervisor, but correcting those mistakes is just as important.
Seeing how my fellow millennials are utterly befuddled in the kitchen, I’d like to take a moment to help them out.
Here are five principles that will break bad habits and make you a better home cook.
1.) Size Matters
If you’re chopping vegetables or meat, they must be the same size to cook evenly. Otherwise you’ll have little bits that are scorched or mushy, and big pieces that are still raw.
A related concept is different ingredients have different cooking times. Carrots are dense and take longer to cook than onions; if I add both at the same time, the onions will burn and the carrots will still be raw.
So, you offset them. Add carrots, potatoes, or starchy items first. When they’re 75% done, add the ingredient with the faster cook time. Cooking is, at its root, a process. You just have to find the right process for each dish.
2.) It’s Gotta Be Hot
Let your pan (with oil!) heat up for about a minute before food even touches it. Preheat your oven. And don’t try to boil something until the water is actually boiling. Your instruments have to be hot before they can cook.
High heat seals juices inside meat and gives it a crispy, tasty crust.
Some foods are okay going into a cold vessel. An example is mashed potatoes: it’s better to cover a pot of potatoes with cold water and bring it to boil, as it helps the starchy vegetables cook evenly.
But for meats, you want that pan hot. High heat seals juices inside meat and gives it a crispy, tasty crust. (We call this the Maillard Reaction.)
A cold pan actually causes meat to lose its juices, as the gradual warm-up causes liquid to seep out. You wind up boiling the meat, making it soft and flavorless. Yuck.
3.) Leave It Alone
You only need to flip your burger or steak once.
(On another note, stop opening your oven to check on that roast! You’re letting out all the hot air.)
Tying back to the Maillard Reaction, you need to wait a moment for food to taste good. That golden brown, crispy, delicious sear on a pork chop or grilled cheese sandwich comes from a single good turn, not a dozen impatient flips. J. Kenji López-Alt can get away with it, but you’re probably not as talented as he is (I know I’m not). More often than not, I see home cooks flipping their food absentmindedly out of impatience rather than methodical concentration.
Put your ingredient in a hot pan, let it cook 50% to 75%, flip it, and let it finish. Your dish — and guests — will thank you for it.
4.) Taste as You Go
How do you know its ready to serve if you don’t taste it? Good food requires seasoning. We professionals understand this, but many home cooks are scared of oversalting their food. The solution is to taste as you go.
A recipe is a guideline, and not all ingredients are identical. Any given component may be unique, such as a particularly sweet tomato or fatty piece of meat. Hence, two attempts at the exact same recipe may taste very different.
Good line cooks can make the same dish a million times without tasting it; but great line cooks taste their product each time to ensure consistency. Odds are, you don’t have that kind of experience or muscle memory. So taste your food! Otherwise, you won’t know if your food is too bland — or salty — until it’s at the table, which is too late.
5.) Carryover Cooking
If it’s fully cooked in the pan, it’s overcooked at the table. That’s the concept of carryover cooking. It applies to all hot food, but steak, eggs, and chicken are the usual victims.
When I cook a steak, I pull it off the grill and let it rest for at least five minutes. If I don’t, the flavorful juices will seep out as soon as I slice it and the meat won’t be as succulent.
When I scramble eggs, I pull them off the heat when they’re still runny. If I don’t, they’ll keep cooking into a sponge by the time they hit the plate.
And when I make chicken fried rice, I only cook the chicken just enough to seal the outsides. If I don’t, I’ll be adding veggies and rice to fully-cooked chicken, and it’ll be dry and stringy.
If it’s fully cooked in the pan, it’s overcooked at the table.
The key is to anticipate where your food is in the cooking process. In lieu of professional experience, assign yourself a signature dish or two. Master it and familiarize yourself with its execution, and expand those lessons into different recipes. It’ll calibrate the egg timer in your head.
Cooking is all about technique, and technique only improves with practice.
But words of wisdom — and encouragement — can make a big difference too. If you equip yourself with these five ideas, there’s no doubt in my mind you’ll become a better cook.