Many of today’s adults, myself included, have missed out on a basic experience with food. We represent the first few generations who are so removed from food that most of us could not find familiar vegetables if they grew wild in our local parks. We have been raised on convenience foods, sold to our parents and grandparents as “time savers” that would allow them to spend more time with us. Over the years, this industrialized food system created a massive disconnect between our modern kitchens and what is good for our bodies, and we didn’t even know it was happening.
Although the food culture has taken a bigger role in our lives in recent years, many people have gotten stalled in the kitchen, stuck in an endless cycle of using processed foods, take-out and fast foods to replace the easy familiarity of a well-stocked pantry and refrigerator that saved our parents money and gave them a longer lifespan than we have today. As a result, we sabotage ourselves, buying processed ingredients, boxed food, frozen dinners and unable to break out of the cycle of discouragement and fast food.
If this sounds familiar, try these ten tips for success in the kitchen and ways to improve your cooking experience:
1. Use fresh ingredients more often.
Fresh, quality ingredients make tasty and nourishing food. As food ages, is processed, or sits on the shelf, it loses nutrition, flavor, life-enhancing antioxidants and takes on the flavors and off-gassing of its packaging. If your food tastes boring and bland, consider the cardboard, plastic, or BPA-lined cans it has been sitting in for months or years before you cracked it open.
Using fresh ingredients may help force you to push the envelope and use seasonally abundant foods, or help you break a habit of going out to eat instead of cooking. If you buy farm-fresh ingredients from the farmer, as in a community-supported agriculture (CSA) or a farmer’s market, you can also see the amount of work that goes into growing your food and appreciate the flavors of it more. You’ll be more likely to eat food you have in your house, so make your eating choices the farm, and less often when you’re hungry, in the kitchen.
2. Use chicken stock when you cook pasta and grains
This ridiculously simple trick has big payoffs in cooking flavor.
Instead of plain water, try substituting chicken stock or chicken broth. Every time you add a little flavor to a dish, you boost the nutrition as well as the overall experience of eating your meal. Layering subtle flavors in this way takes the ordinary to a much more enjoyable level, and it is easy to substitute. You can easily make your own chicken stock; save chicken bones when you roast a chicken, and simmer it for several hours with some coarsely chopped carrots, celery and onions (known as mirepoix). After the flavor has reached your liking and it has cooled, jar it and stash it in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks or freeze into ice cubes for easy use later.
3. Use mirepoix aromatic vegetable mix more often
Mirepoix (meer pwah) is the French’s fancy way of referring to the aromatic flavor combination of carrots, celery and onion. This is a common base in soups, stews, roasts and casseroles. The three provide a nicely rounded flavor and aroma base for most savory dishes and is a great place to start a soup, stew or stock. Start more of your dishes with these versatile aromatics sauteed in a bit of coconut oil or butter, and you may find this inspires your palate while you are cooking. Some great directions to go with this combo: add rosemary, garlic, bay leaf, oregano, thyme, parsley, sage, and/or basil for some delicious and earthy flavors that really bring out the mirepoix.
4. Lose your fear of fats and oils
A few decades ago, the fitness and health community really did a number on us when it decided fat was the enemy. Fat tastes good because it is a better carrier of flavor than water. Oil need not be present in great quantities to make a tremendous impact on the palatability of your dishes.
The selection and use is important, however. In our kitchen, we keep several oil types for different purposes, and use them sparingly:
- Coconut oil, for general purpose sauteeing and pan frying
- Butter, for low-heat sauteeing and baking
- Walnut oil, for medium heat pan frying, mayonnaise and vinaigrettes, and baking
- Olive oil, for brushing on garlic toasts, tossing in salads and sauteeing
- Toasted Sesame oil, for adding a toasty Asian flair to stir fries and dipping sauces
- Bacon Fat, for a smoky, meaty flavor
Fats and oils can be as heart healthy as a supplement! Walnut oil, which is high in Omega-3 fatty acids that are lacking in the American diet, can support your weight loss plan with light use by making your meals taste better and keeping you full longer.
Fat free is also not a healthier option. When fat is removed from a processed food, often it is replaced with sugar to compensate for the loss of flavor. You’re not doing yourself any favors buying artificially defatted foods. Instead, use healthy fats and oils, and far less of them, to achieve a healthy and flavorful balance.
5. Clean as you go
Often overlooked as simply a housekeeping issue, cleaning as you cook is an important part of the health and taste of your food. Failing to consider this can set you up for kitchen accidents, ruined meals, or worse, land you or someone you love in the hospital with food poisoning. Kitchen hygiene is critically important when you are using fresh chicken or meats which may contaminate other ingredients.
- Start with a clean kitchen. You don’t want to be caught without the spatula or pan you need. This is how food gets burned.
- When you finish with a tool, pop it in the empty sink and run water in or over it, especially if they are going to have concretions of cheese, batter or eggs drying while you finish your cooking. It takes the same amount of time to toss it in the sink as it does to put it on the back burner.
- If you have a moment, scrub a pot or two while you wait for something to sautee or come to a boil.
- Wash your hands often. Slippery hands or contaminated hands are the start of trouble.
- Keep the counters clean; don’t allow seasonings or ingredients to build up while you cook.
- Put away your ingredients as you use them. Even better, set up your ingredients in small dishes prior to starting cooking, a process known as mise en place (meez en plahs) or “putting in place.” Without cluttered counters, there is less around to booby trap you when you have a knife or hot pans in your hands.
6. Learn when to ‘wing it’ with measurements… and when to be exact
In general, when you are baking or working with candy, you need to measure everything very precisely. Candymaking and baking are exercises in chemistry, and a little too much flour or a half a teaspoon less baking soda can mean the difference between delicious and utter failure. Bread may not rise, cakes may fall, candy may not set or may end up the wrong texture.
Most everything else, though, is negotiable… at least a little bit. If it says 1/2 tsp. of garlic, you can probably feel safe just sprinkling it on and mixing in until it tastes right. If the recipe calls for a 12 oz can of tomato sauce and all you can find is a ten ounce can, you can probably get away with just adding a couple ounces of chicken stock. It probably isn’t going to make or break your dish. With most things, you’ll have to experiment anyway, so don’t be afraid to try using more, or less, or a similar ingredient. The important thing is to taste often and add more slowly.
7. Climb out of that food rut
If you are finding yourself bored with your menu, break out of your food ruts with new ingredients. Each week at the grocery store, buy a new basic ingredient — not processed — and make at least one recipe that showcases that ingredient that week. If you like it, great! You can expand on it from there. If not, you have learned you should avoid it. This is a perfect way to get to know individual spices, new vegetables and herbs, and new meats.
I used to live in an area where I could subscribe to a box of fresh, organic produce each week. I could not pick what came in the box; it was strictly what was seasonally available. The influx of new ingredients and my desire not to waste my food caused me to learn a new dish just about every week. My first one utilized Royal Thai Basil, a licorice-scented basil popularly used in Thai dishes and which grew with abundance there. It opened my eyes to a whole new cuisine!
8. Throw out seasoning mixes and processed ingredients
The 1950s saw the invention and application of a million new packages of prepared seasoning mixes, creamed soups, gravies and baking mixes to help “save Mother time in the kitchen.” Since then, the industrial revolution of food has reduced what used to be great shortcuts to food-like substances that are devoid of nutrition and value both, and don’t save as much time as they promise.
Today’s mixes are full of fillers, salt, preservatives, non-food ingredients, unnecessary binders, de-granulators, drying agents, non-caking agents and often taste just as bad as it sounds when compared to homemade versions. If you find you need shortcuts, often you can make your own baking mixes and drink mixes yourself. Seasoning mixes are usually at least half salt, forcing you to limit the amount you use based on its saltiness alone. Making your own spice mixes can be a fulfilling and inexpensive process, so deconstruct your favorite blends and make your own.
9. Work on timing
Paying special attention to the order in which food should be cooked can make or break any meal. In general, you should try to prepare all your ingredients prior to beginning the cooking process: clean, peel, slice, chop or dice everything first. Then examine the longest-cooking process and get it started so it can cook so you can begin another dish. Consider prep, cooking, and resting time needed for each step. Pop bread in the oven last while you are plating the rest of the meal.
This takes practice, but you can find your trouble spots easily by noting what is burned and what is undercooked. Find out why it happened and adjust your cooking process accordingly. Don’t get discouraged! Cooks who burn or undercook food aren’t bad cooks; they just need more practice!
10. Master ingredients, methods and tools — NOT RECIPES
The best piece of advice I have ever been given: “Put down the recipe book and cook.” If you religiously follow recipes but find it difficult to make your own dishes, perhaps you aren’t confident yet in what you’re using to cook. Recipes can be a great tool, but, they can also prevent you from blossoming in the craft of cooking.
It’s too overwhelming to try to learn everything at once, so pick an ingredient,a new utensil, or a new cooking method like poaching or smoking, and master one at a time instead. Watch a few videos on YouTube or catch an episode of “Good Eats” with Alton Brown on FoodNetwork or Hulu.com. Alton’s fantastically nerdy/geeky approach to his show has taught better chefs than me to appreciate everything from good knife skills to scallops to the lowly baked bean, and the best way to use the ingredient for its own delicious qualities.
If you’re struggling in the kitchen and looking for more ways to improve, keep following AshevilleBlog.com for more great tips from our dedicated food bloggers.