When I started cooking more, I already had many of the basic concepts down, mostly from cooking shows. Season your food throughout cooking, let your meat rest after it’s done on the heat, heat your pans and oil before adding any ingredients. I understood those concepts and you might too. So this post is more about things that aren’t talked about much in recipes or things I was too stubborn to change at first. Not just cooking techniques, but also how I buy items and what I think about home-cooking. If you’re not used to cooking at home, it’s easy to get burnt out, so these tips cover a few things that got me stuck and unsatisfied when I first started cooking at home.
Using the wrong cooking oils: For most of my adult life, I only kept olive oil in my kitchen. I thought that’s all I needed and didn’t think the flavor of olive oil was that predominant in my dishes. I remember one time I was grilling pineapples for a pineapple cocktail and brushed the pineapple with olive oil, and man did those not turn out well. I bought coconut oil because it was trendy, and started using that in sweeter recipes and in some Asian dishes. Finally last year, I bought some vegetable oil and started using that for all my non-Western dishes and I realized how big of a flavor difference using a neutral oil makes.
Serving foods that are too cold: This is more of a personal preference, but I realized when I started letting some of my dishes and ingredients warm up slightly (like 30 minutes out of the fridge), the flavors shined through so much more. It’s probably why you love the vinaigrette you just made, the one that’s basically room temp, but may not be as big of a fan of the bottle of vinaigrette in your fridge. Or why salsa straight from the fridge doesn’t taste nearly as good as room-temp salsa from restaurants. Or when I was little how I always preferred my mustard and ketchup in packets instead of cold bottles; I liked the flavor of the room-temp condiments so much more (I still feel that way, I just don’t cause a scene at burger joints or donut shops anymore). Dressing and veggies, like salad greens, are the two main things that I will let warm up just slightly before serving.
Letting your dishware change the temperature of your food: It’s why Tex-Mex restaurants’ plates are too hot to touch and why your bartender adds ice to your glass then dumps it out before pouring your cocktail. Plates, bowls, mugs, and glasses can quickly turn your dishes and drinks the wrong temperature. You don’t have to do this for everything, but for hot dishes and drinks that don’t taste great at a cooler temp, warm the plate or cup. To warm my plates, I turn the oven to about 200F and put my plates (that can handle some heat) in for a couple minutes until they’re hot but I can still handle them. If your oven is already on at whatever temperature, put your plates in and check after about 30 seconds. Depending on the plate material, most don’t need that much time to heat up. I pour hot water in my mugs and glasses if I’m serving a hot drink, even just my coffee in the morning. This tiny step keeps my coffee hot for about 5 minutes longer. And the same goes for cold dishes and drinks. I do this way more for drinks than I do dishes (see above, I don’t like ice cold dishes, unless they’re meant to be ice cold). But you’ll be very surprised how much better your home cocktail or beer taste if you freeze a mug or put an ice/water mix in the glass while you’re making the cocktail.
Adding a thickening agent to hot liquid: This one took me several times to attempt to make a smooth sauce with a thickening agent (like flour or cornstarch) and hot liquid. My thought was if I’m trying to thicken a sauce, why does it make sense to mix a thickener to cool water then add to the dish. That’s adding more liquid?! When you add a thickener straight to a hot sauce, it clumps which then makes the thickener not spread and.. not thicken. So follow the rules here, use less cold water if you would like, but avoid adding a thickening agent straight into a hot sauce, gravy, etc.
Not using a thermometer to check the temperature of meat: Especially when it comes to thicker cuts of meat, I am still not good at knowing when something is cooked like I want it. Getting a cheap digital food thermometer is such an easy way to cook your food perfectly without cutting into something too early to test the temp. I’m finally not overcooking my chicken or fish because of my thermometer. This tip also really works well with frozen dishes (like frozen lasagna) and baked items. If the recipe doesn’t spell out what temperature something should be, a quick google search will make things clear.
Buying a big portion of something when a recipe only calls for a tiny amount: I’m mostly talking about perishable items here. If a recipe is calling for an herb, specialty cheese, or other garnishment but you only need a tiny bit, make sure you have other uses for it before you buy. Remember, you and the people you’re cooking for are the only ones tasting your food, so if you leave out the pine nut garnishment, does it matter that much? Just as important, this concept helps your budget. Sure, the dish you made only cost $10, but everything you bought for it (and have left over) cost $40. You would feel as excited to cook at home if you don’t feel like you’re helping your budget a little.
Treating your kitchen like a restaurant: It’s a pretty common phrase in the American culture to say something like “Oh, I had Mexican food for lunch, I don’t want it for dinner.” Most of us like variety and that’s great, but you shouldn’t expect every meal you make at home to have completely different tastes. When I first started cooking more at home, I would try to do a different cuisine each night. This tip ties into the one above, in the fact that you get overwhelmed with a grocery list and tend to not use ingredients before they spoil. You buy three different kinds of cheese, a few cuts of beef, a few different delicate herbs and greens, and before you know it, you have a stuffed fridge of items you only have one recipe for. Throwing stuff away really makes me not want to cook, so every week I try to only focus on one or two cuisines to cook at home. And usually those cuisines have overlapping ingredients. Italian and Indian surprisingly have a lot of similar ingredients (like chicken, tomatoes, garlic, onions, and rice). Same with Mexican food and Korean (rice, beef, cilantro, cabbage). Some of the ingredients won’t be the exact same (French lentils vs Indian lentils), but it’s your kitchen and you don’t need everything to be perfectly authentic every time.
Adding flavors to dishes because the recipes calls for it, but I don’t actually enjoy: I’m sure we all have a few spices and flavors we don’t enjoy as much as others. It’s okay if a recipe calls for a tablespoon of something you don’t really like and you only add a teaspoon. You’re cooking for yourself and if you don’t love something, add less or take out. Or if we really enjoy something, add more. Sure, it’s a simple concept, but how many times have you made a dish with a veggie you didn’t love and you pick around the veggie on your plate? I want everyone to be adventurous, but no need to ruin your meal just so you can stick to a recipe. I like ginger, but I don’t love it to overpower a dish, so I don’t add that much. I don’t crave warm spices (like clove, nutmeg, or allspice) in savory dishes, so I just add a pinch when I recipe calls for them.
Not knowing what flavors pair well together: There are so many build-your-own restaurant concepts out there, where you build your sandwich, rice bowl, pizza, you name it. Have you ever picked a bunch of different ingredients you love, but then when you eat the dish, it sucks? Sometimes less really is more, and sometimes we add too many different flavors that don’t mix together. I did this a lot, from build your own falafel sandwiches to adding too many ingredients into a big salad at home. I make this mistake the most when picking out a dressing. Sure I love a bleu cheese dressing, but that doesn’t mean it goes well on a delicate arugula salad. A raspberry vinaigrette is really nice, but not when the only cheese you have to top your salad is shredded colby jack. A quick fix for this is always ask yourself “have I seen these flavors mixed in other dishes?” Different cuisines tend to have a pretty tight list of flavors that work well and there’s a reason, so sometime not trying to reinvent the wheel at a build your own pizza place is your best option. If you’re curious about learning more, I recommend The Flavor Thesaurus. I bought this book about a year ago, and it’s filled with different ingredients, what pairs well with an ingredient, why, and what cuisines you’ll see them in. It’s really helped me narrow down my grocery list because it helps me better think about flavors across different cuisines.
Using table salt: This is my only slightly snobby suggestions. I remember going through Sam’s kitchen when we were consolidating everything to move in together and his iodized table salt was one of the first things I threw away without any hesitation. Growing up, that’s all we used, but since finding different salts that are so much better for cooking, I steer clear of the small-grained table salt in my home cooking. Mostly because it’s not as versatile as kosher salt. Both salts melt well into dishes, but kosher salt has bigger grains and holds up when you sprinkle it on meats, baked potatoes, etc. Kosher salt will give you that crunch that table salt will never.