Throughout my childhood and into high school I told my parents I hated cooking and had a plan to avoid it for the rest of my life. I decided that the day I graduated college, I would find a culinary school and propose to the first cute guy I saw walk out of it. Instead, I somehow fell in love in college and wound up married to someone who cooks more often than I do, but manages to set the smoke alarms off every time (I’m not kidding. Literally, EVERY TIME – even when he’s just browning onions).
Both sets of our parents apparently know we’re in dire need of cooking skills because almost every present we got this past Christmas related to the kitchen – including a how-to book of basic cooking instructions and use of kitchen utensils. Therefore, this article (found via dooce.com today) strikes a chord. I figure we’d better get off our butts and learn the basics before the boys realize their mum only knows how to make breakfast (mmm, crepes) and dad has to cook outside if we don’t want to die of smoke inhalation.
Here are a few of my favorite tips from the article:
1. You don’t taste as you go.
Result: The flavors or textures of an otherwise excellent dish are out of balance or unappealing.
For most cooks, tasting is automatic, but when it’s not, the price can be high. Recipes don’t always call for the “right” amount of seasoning, cooking times are estimates, and results vary depending on your ingredients, your stove, altitude…and a million other factors. Your palate is the control factor.
Think that experienced cooks don’t forget this most basic rule? Cooking Light Associate Food Editor Tim Cebula was sous chef in a notable restaurant when he served up “caramelized” pineapple that somehow refused to brown. Turns out Tim had coated the fruit in salt, not sugar. “That’s why it wouldn’t caramelize.”
12. You turn the food too often.
Result: You interfere with the sear, food sticks, or you lose the breading.
Learning to leave food alone is one of the hardest lessons in cooking; it’s so tempting to turn, poke, flip. But your breaded chicken or steak won’t develop a nice crust unless you allow it to cook, undisturbed, for the specified time.
One sign that it’s too early to turn: You can’t slide a spatula cleanly under the crust. “It’ll release from the pan when it’s ready,” says Assistant Test Kitchen Director Tiffany Vickers Davis. “Don’t try to pry it up―the crust will stick to the pan, not the chicken.”
17. Meat gets no chance to rest after cooking.
Result: Delicious juices vacate the meat and run all over the cutting board, leaving steak or roast dry.
Plan your meals so that meat you roast, grill, sear, or sauté has time to rest at room temperature after it’s pulled from the heat. That cooling-off time helps the juices, which migrate to the center of the meat, to be distributed more evenly throughout.
The resting rule applies equally to an inexpensive skirt steak or a premium dry-aged, grass-fed steak, as well as poultry. With small cuts like a steak or boneless, skinless chicken breast, five minutes is adequate. A whole bird or standing rib roast requires 20 to 30 minutes. Tent the meat loosely with foil to keep it warm.
21. You don’t shock vegetables when they’ve reached the desired texture.
Toss green beans, broccoli, or asparagus into boiling water for three to seven minutes, and they’ll turn vibrant green with a crisp-tender texture. But if you don’t “shock” those vegetables at that point by spooning them out of the boiling water and plunging them into ice water (or at least rinsing under cold running water) to stop the cooking process, the carryover heat will continue to cook them to the point that they turn army-green and flabby. This is not a concern if you intend to serve the vegetables immediately.
23. You pop meat straight from the fridge into the oven or onto the grill.
Result: Food cooks unevenly: The outside is overdone, the inside rare or raw.
Meats will cook much more evenly if you allow them to stand at room temperature for 15 to 30 minutes (depending on the size of the cut) to take the chill off.
A roast that goes into the oven refrigerator-cold will likely yield a piece of meat that is overcooked on the outside and undercooked at the center. As you slice the roast, you’ll see a bull’s-eye effect: The middle is rare (or even raw) while the outside is well done. This is less of a problem with smaller cuts like chicken breasts―though even those benefit from resting at room temperature for five or 10 minutes before cooking.
25. You use inferior ingredients.
This is an important point because it’s the linchpin of great cooking: Good food begins and ends with the ingredients. The dishes you cook will only be as mediocre, good, or superb as the ingredients you put in them. As a rule, we recommend using high-quality ingredients whenever available and affordable.
Always shop for the best ingredients. They’re the foundation of good cooking and why we strive not to make the mistakes described here. Choose top-notch produce, meats, and cheeses, and protect them as you would anything else precious―handle with love, respect, and care so you can be a steward of the joys of great food. Your cooking will invariably turn out better.
31. Your Green Veggies Turn Brown
Result: Drab veggies. Next time, baby them and they will stay vibrant.
When vegetables take a sad turn from bright green to khaki drab, it conjures memories of grade-school cafeteria food and the ruined texture of canned asparagus. The most common culprits: overcooking and acidic dressings. A cook has to know how to care for the delicate source of the green: chlorophyll.
Vegetables such as green beans, broccoli, and asparagus lose their bright color—and crisp texture, for that matter—after six or seven minutes of cooking. If you know you’ll be eating them immediately, just remove, drain, and serve. But if you’ll be busy assembling other dishes, consider blanching and shocking. Cook for two minutes in salted boiling water, then remove vegetables immediately and plunge into ice water. The ice back halts the cooking process and helps set the color. Later, the chilled vegetables can be quickly reheated—by sautéing in a bit of olive oil, for instance—without losing their green.
But blanching won’t keep veggies vibrant if you dress them too soon with an acid such as vinegar or lemon juice. Wait until just before serving (as we do with our SuperFast asparagus sides).
36. Your Rice Gets Gummy
Result: Sticky, gummy goo. Next time, use more water.
Rice is the great staple grain of much of the world, but it can strike fear in the hearts of some American cooks who have learned that the famous 2:1 water-to-rice ratio is not reliable in many cases or for many varieties. And stovetop prep can be tricky (rice cookers are reliable, so if you love rice, consider buying one). Slightly undercooked rice can sometimes be fixed with more water and time, but the dreaded gummy rice is a dead loss.
When rice is cooked in the traditional way—simmering in a lidded pot—the close-packed grains rub together and release starch, often leading to stickiness. The solution is blessedly ratio-free, though it may seem counterintuitive: Use more water. Lots more, so you cook the rice like pasta until it reaches the proper consistency, then drain. The pasta method keeps rice from rubbing together too much as it cooks; draining ensures it won’t suck up more water than it needs.
Check brown rice for doneness at around 25 minutes. You can also sauté brown rice in olive oil after it’s drained, to evaporate excess moisture. For white rice, which absorbs water more readily, try sautéing the grains before boiling, for about two minutes in a tablespoon of oil. Then add roughly four times as much cold water as rice to the pan, and boil. Check for doneness at around 15 minutes (timing starts when water boils). The oil forms a protective layer around the white grains during boiling—and sautéing lends the rice deliciously toasty flavor.
40. Your Flapjacks Flame Out
Result: Blotchy, burned pancakes
Too often, pancake cooks put up with a few poor specimens at the beginning—splotchy and greasy—and a few more duds at the end; the latter can be scorched from a too-dry pan yet perversely underdone within. This is not a heat problem or a batter problem: It’s a pan-prepping problem.
The solution: Don’t pour oil directly into the pan. Hot oil will spread, pooling in some areas, leaving other parts dry. Just a scant amount of cooking oil creates a smooth, even cooking surface throughout, so pancakes cook evenly from start to finish.
If you’re using a pristine nonstick pan, you may not need oil at all. Otherwise, here’s how to apply it: Heat a skillet (any variety) over medium heat, then grasp a wadded paper towel with tongs and douse it with 1 tablespoon canola oil. Brush the pan with the soaked towel. You could also use cooking spray, except for nonstick pans: It leaves sticky residue on Teflon surfaces.
Add batter, flipping only when bubbles form on the surface of each pancake, about two to three minutes. Resist the urge to peek, which breaks the seal between the pan and the batter; that seal is what ensures even cooking. Swab the pan with the oiled paper towel between batches to keep it properly greased.
Good advice, right? Check out the entire list – there are 42 tips in total and quite a few worth looking at, even if you’ve mastered how NOT to burn down the kitchen…