When you’ve cooked regularly for over 30 years, you learn a few things, ruin some things and occasionally come up with a few classic recipes. I don’t proport to be a professional chef, but rather a fairly experienced cook.
I’ve tried my hand at French, Italian, Chinese, Creole, Cajun, Indian, Thai and quite a few others including regional American cuisine. I've self published a cookbook which features my own photography throughout.
I enjoy the different cuisines for a variety of reasons, but the diversity has given me an insight into the fundamentals that apply across all cuisines.
A lot of people have asked for my advice on how to be a better cook and after giving it some thought I’ve realized there are a few critical techniques that can make a vast improvement in your cooking.
I guess I took these for granted, but after realizing that I had to learn them through trial and error, I decided to pass along a few of the more basic ones. They aren’t revolutionary, but just basic kitchen hacks you can use to elevate your cooking.
There are entire books written on techniques and the science of cooking, so this is not a comprehensive list, but rather a few easy to apply techniques and suggestions to make your food taste better.
- Make sure to use good quality pans (I’m a fan of All Clad, Staub and Le Creuset) and good tools. Spatulas, tongs, slotted spoons and a good set of strainers are essential. Buy good quality and you will have them forever.
- Use sharp knifes and use a sharpening steel each time.. You are much more likely to cut yourself with a dull knife. Buy yourself 2 large polypropylene cutting boards that won’t dull your knifes. One is for meat/seafood and one is for everything else. Professional kitchens will choose two different colors to keep them separate. Forget glass or marble and butcher block is a lot of work to keep clean, so I always avoid it.
Prep and Execution
- Take the time to do your mis en place. This roughly translates as “everything in its place”. It basically means to prepare your ingredients prior to beginning to cook. This is a mistake that causes issues for a lot of inexperienced cooks. You can’t be trying to chop another ingredient while the onions are burning.
- Add flavor in layers. You can’t dump a bunch of different spices in all at once and create a layered flavor.
- Salt and then taste. Adjust accordingly. You can always add more salt, but much tougher to take it out. Ignore the recipe, we all have different ideas of salty. Start with 1/2 of recommended and go up from there, if needed.
- Shop frequently. I know this is hard for a lot of people, but it will allow you to buy what’s fresh and reduce waste. Avoid the urge to over buy. It ends up in the trash.
- Don’t complicate things. Keep it basic. Learn the rules and then you can break them. Example, learn a classic recipe and then you can experiment.
Ingredients and Your Pantry
- Use good quality spices and replace them regularly. Nothing will ruin a dish faster than old bitter spices. Use whole spices (they last longer) and grind your own when you can. A dedicated coffee grinder for grinding whole spices is perfect. I’ve been using mine for over 20 years. They are made by Krups and the black one is for coffee and the white one for spices.
- Use fresh herbs often. Grow your own if you can. Basil is an easy one to get started.
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper are essential. Find a good brand and stick with it. All salts are different, and by sticking with one brand, you will learn how to work with it. Learn to salt in layers. Get yourself a salt cellar and salt using your fingers.
- Don’t cook with any wine you wouldn’t drink, but don’t waste an amazing bottle of Burgundy to make a beef bourguignon. Have a dry Sherry and a bottle of sweet Marsala on hand. If you plan on cooking Asian, a bottle of Rice Wine is very handy.
- Store nut oils and cooking oil in the refrigerator. It keeps them from going rancid. Olive oil does not need to be refrigerated.
- This is a game changer. Learn about umami or the savory taste and incorporate it into your cooking. It’s considered the 5th taste after sweet, sour, salt and bitter. Certain ingredients like porcini and shiitake mushrooms, anchovies, dashi, soy sauce and fish sauce are packed with umami flavor.
- Use the best ingredients you can afford. Stock your pantry with a few essentials, so you can always throw together a meal.
- In my opinion, Muir Glen canned tomatoes are the best all purpose tomato. Great taste, organic and fairly priced. I always have a few 28 oz cans of the diced and crushed on hand. Different textures for different uses.
- Use low sodium broths and stick to a specific brand, so you learn how to work with it and how to spice it properly.
- Shop in bulk stores like Costco for critical pantry items that you use often. Example, their EVOO (Extra Virgin OIlve Oil), Parmigiano Reggiano and whole black peppercorns are very good and quite a bit less expensive.
- Store shelled nuts, like walnuts and pecans in the refrigerator.
- Buy a good quality pasta. DeCecco is very good. Don't assume that fresh pasta is better than dried. They are both suited to different preparations.
- Use a big pot with lots of water to cook pasta. Salt your pasta water to taste like sea water and don’t add the pasta until the water is at a rolling boil. You don’t need to add oil to the water.
- Undercook your pasta by two minutes and finish it in the cooking pan with a little of the reserved pasta water (use a Pyrex measuring cup to scoop out the boiling pasta water just before you strain the pasta) and the sauce you’re using. Don’t overdo the sauce. It should be a subtle blending of sauce and pasta. If you can’t taste the pasta then it’s too much sauce. This will totally transform your your pasta. See the recipe link below.
- Give yourself a break. Sometimes it’s okay to throw some jarred marinara sauce on some pasta and call it a day. Here’s the caveat, make sure it’s a top quality sauce like Rao’s and finish off in the pan as described above.
Recipes To Get You Started