I’ve been cooking since I was about 8 years old. That’s a looooong time, friends and neighbors!! As such, I often take for granted the things I know to do from sheer habit. I started thinking about this last night, so I figured I’d pass along some of my cooking wisdom to those of you who might not know some of this stuff.
The number ONE thing that I see across the board with most home cooks (and some restaurant ones, too) is not seasoning the food. By “seasoning” I mean standard salt and pepper. I can’t state boldly enough how important salt is to cooking pretty much everything – yes, even baked goods. It’s a common misconception that leaving out salt in the cooking step can be fixed with a salt shaker on the table. I’m here to tell you it can NOT. If you want to taste the difference, here’s how:
Go buy a can of NO SALT green beans and a can of regular green beans and taste them side by side. Then try adding table salt to the unsalted ones. You’ll see that it’s just not the same.
Cooking pasta, potatoes and especially meats without proper salting with leave you with bland tasting food. If you make baked goods without salt, they’ll taste flat. Watch a few episodes of Anne Burrell’s Secrets of a Restaurant Chef. She uses a LOT of salt, granted, but I’ll bet her food is amazing. Don’t serve bland food!! Season as you go and taste often. You’ll see a big difference in your dishes.
While we’re talking about salt, you should also explore the different salts available. I use kosher salt almost exclusively, but every now and then I try other things like sea salt or exotic salt. The thing to know is that ALL salt tastes different. Table salt has iodine in it (“iodized salt”) and has a MUCH different taste than kosher or sea salt. I strongly suggest using kosher salt for cooking. It is a much more neutral salt than table salt. Try the two side by side and you’ll taste what I mean. Most recipes call for kosher salt – even if it’s not specified – and could taste overly salty if you use table salt.
The next biggest mistake I see quite often is misuse or lack of use of herbs and spices.
Herbs are the leaves of plants and can be used dry or fresh. Spices are generally the seeds or roots of plants, typically used dry.
By misuse I mean bad combinations of herbs/spices or overspicing to compensate for lack of proper seasoning. There are classic herb/spice combos for a reason: they work! Dill and oregano? I don’t think so. If you aren’t sure about your herb/spice use, use recipes until you get the hang of it. Nick overused black pepper when he was learning to cook. Why? Because that’s the only spice he was familiar with. Now he knows how to modulate his pepper use and even use other spices for flavour. I’ve had spicy food that needed salt. You can’t really substitute anything for salt. Seasoning is not the same as flavouring, remember.
There are some rules to using dried vs fresh herbs. Generally, you use dried herbs at the beginning of cooking to bring out the flavour and you use fresh herbs at the end of cooking so as not to destroy their flavour. Dried herbs tend to have more concentrated flavour than fresh, but fresh gives a fresh finish that you just can’t get with dried. It’s a flavour building technique to use dried herbs/spices early on and then use the same herb FRESH as a finisher. Try it with cilantro or parsley. Layers of flavour means a delicious and well rounded dish.
Browning meats and poultry would be the next most common mistake I see. As Anne Burrell says: brown food tastes good! And it does! It’s important to brown meats and poultry properly. This is especially key when making stews or braising.
Braising means you brown the meat/poultry then simmer in a liquid for a long period of time.
Braising is one of my favourite ways to cook. The layers of flavour you can bring out even in a tough piece of meat will amaze you. I like to braise with a pressure cooker because I’m impatient. You can achieve a 3 hr braise in about 45 mins with a pressure cooker. My 1 hr carnitas are awesome!
No matter what your method: stovetop, oven or pressure cooker, the key to that deep flavour is to brown first. To get a good sear on meat, make sure it’s DRY. Take a paper towel to it! If your meat is wet, you’ll end up with a kinda brown surface, but no carmelisation of the meat’s sugars. To get a proper brown, use high heat, dry meat and do NOT move the meat until it releases on its own. It will tell you when it’s ready to turn by releasing from the pan.
The next big mistake I see is also meat related: over- or under- cooking. Learning to cook meat to temperature takes practice. Knowing the difference between medium rare and medium well is a skill. Get yourself a good instant read meat thermometer until you get the hang of it. There is nothing worse than a well done flank steak or a burger that’s black on the outside and rare in the middle.
This also applies to chicken, lamb, pork and fish. Chicken must have NO PINK. You can’t rush chicken. An easy way to tell if it’s done is when the juice runs clear from the thigh. Use a thermometer if you’re unsure with poultry.
Lamb and pork are typically overcooked in the US. Pork is perfectly fine at medium (warm, slightly pink center), but most people and restaurants cook it well done. This robs pork of its tenderness and makes it dry – which is why most pork you buy at the store has been injected with saline. The salt water helps offset the overcooking. Lamb is appropriate at medium RARE. Yes, that’s right, medium rare: pink and cool center. Eating lamb any other way will rob it of its delicate flavour, yet you’ll see it overcooked most of the time, sadly.
Fish is also served overcooked much of the time in the US. Tuna and salmon suffer the most from overcooking. They become dry and flavourless. These rather oily fish should be cooked at the most to medium. I prefer medium rare or sushi. Fish that’s cooked with skin on such as striped bass you treat as you would with searing meat: high heat, put skin side down and it will release when it’s done. Easy! Cooked fish should be flaky and MOIST, not dry at all. If your fish looks dry, it’s overcooked.
Eggs are another tricky thing to cook. Eggs are the same as fish: if they are dry looking, they are overcooked. The trick to perfect scrambled eggs is to serve them while they are still glossy. Works every time. Now, for boiled eggs – which vexed me for YEARS – the trick is to use week old eggs. I use old eggs, put in cold water w/ 2Tbl white vinegar, bring to a rolling boil, turn off the heat, put on the lid and let sit for 10-15 mins. Then I rinse them with cold water and start peeling. The one thing I’ve seen consistently is the age of the eggs. No matter which method you use for hard cooked eggs, if you have fresh eggs, they will not peel as well, period. I’ve tested this. If your eggs have a green ring around the yolk, they are overcooked. Boiled eggs should have a moist yellow yolk with no green. Practice!
And finally, the most common and most dangerous thing I see regularly is crappy, cheap and dull knives. If you cook more than once a week, do yourself a favour and buy a decent knife!! You don’t need a dozen different knives to start off. I suggest a good quality 8″ chef or santoku knife. You’ll spend around $50 or so. I prefer Henckles, but there are many good brands out there. I see chefs with the 10″ knives, but for me 8″ is plenty long enough. As you use your good knife, you’ll begin to see reasons to have a boning knife, paring knife, serrated knife, etc., etc. You’ll never go back to crappy knives again!
Once you have your knife, take care of it. NEVER EVER put a knife into the dishwasher!! Automatic dishwasher detergent is basically sand and bleach, which is why it etches glass. Not only will it destroy the edge on your knife, it will ruin the handle, too. I rarely even wash my knives. I use them, rinse them, dry them and put them back in the block. You should get your knives sharpened regularly by a professional. If you cook a lot, every six months or so should suffice. If you don’t cook much, then once a year should be ok. The thing about good knives is that they hold an edge much better than the cheap ones.
Practice knife techniques. Alton Brown has an episode of Good Eats with excellent knife instruction. Find it! The old adage holds true: if you want to learn to cut quickly and accurately, get a bag of onions and start cutting. It worked for Julia Child, you know. :)
Those are the most common mistakes I see in homes as well as restaurants. Being a great cook is part skill and part art – but by practice and learning basic techniques you’ll amp up your menu in no time. Nick started out overseasoning and using too many clashing flavours as well as overcooking most everything but now he can not only season and use flavours well, but I can hand him ingredients and he can create dishes on the fly. It’s just practice! You can do it!
As always, I’m available for any Food Tech Support you might need. Feel free to email me or comment here with questions.