Tips for Rookie Cooks
- Salt doesn’t just add saltiness
One of your authors (if you read the introduction to this book you can guess which one) learned this rule late in life. After a couple of frustrating bouts with dull, bland home fries, she had a lightbulb moment when she discovered a key rule of cooking: salt doesn’t just make stuff salty; it’s more like a magical ingredient that functions in a multitude of ways. A salt balances out the flavors of whatever you’re cooking, making sweet, sour, or bitter flavors more prominent; tenderizes meat; and draws moisture from vegetables, which aids in caramelization. If your soup tastes bland even though it’s packed with innately delicious ingredients, add a pinch of salt and—abracadabra!—taste it again. Same with stews, roasted veggies, meats, sandwiches, and even desserts. Don’t overdo it—add a pinch at a time and taste as you go.
- How to cook meat
There are four important rules to remember when cooking meat on the stovetop—whether it’s chicken, beef, pork, lamb, or even fish.
- 1. Make sure the pan is very hot before you add the meat. (The meat should cause a boisterous sizzle the instant it hits the pan.)
- 2. Leave the meat alone until it’s time to flip it. The meat will naturally release from the pan when the first side is properly seared. If you pull it off before then, you’ll leave the beautiful and delicious caramelized crust on the pan.
- 3. Don’t press down on the meat while it is cooking. We know you like to hear the juices sizzle when they hit the pan, but you want that juice to stay in your meat and make it, well, juicy!
- 4. Always let meat rest for at least 5 minutes or so before slicing it so that it reabsorbs its juices and stays tender. Trust us, if you don’t, you will have dry meat. And no one wants to eat dry meat.
- Avoid sticky situations
Don’t you hate it when you measure something sticky like honey and half of it sticks to the measuring cup? Try oiling your measuring cup with vegetable or olive oil spray before measuring and even the stickiest ingredients will slide right out.
- Purée away your cares
When you’re making a soup or sauce that will ultimately be puréed, you can be super lax about how you cut the ingredients that will go into it. With chunky vegetables like carrots or potatoes, you want to make sure the pieces are roughly the same size so that they cook evenly, but they don’t have to look pretty. Fresh herbs like cilantro or mint can be thrown in stem and all. (Herbs with woodier stems like rosemary or thyme still need to be destemmed first.)
- Forgot to soften your butter?
Not to worry: use this simple trick to soften butter in a flash. Slice the stack lengthwise into four ½-inch-thick pieces and lay them side by side on a piece of waxed or parchment paper. Lay another piece of waxed or parchment paper on top and roll with a rolling pin to about ¼ inch or 1/ 8 inch thick. Voilà—soft butter!
- Get the most zestiness from your citrus
When a recipe calls for both the zest and juice of citrus fruit, zest it first (ideally, directly into the other ingredients so you get all of the intensely flavored oil) and then juice it.
- Ask your butcher to do your work for you
Cutting beef into bite-sized pieces, boning chicken, or trimming the fat from a roast can suck up a lot of time—especially if you don’t have great knives and a degree in butchery. The good news is that most butchers will happily do your prep for you—they’ve got all the right tools and they know how to handle a piece of meat. They’ll remove bones, trim fat, take off unwanted skin—even dice it or slice it into perfect stir-fry-sized pieces. For best results, try to time your shopping for the least busy times of day, be friendly, and ask nicely.
- Keep your knives sharp
Sharp knives make prep easier, faster, and, perhaps surprisingly, safer. Have your knives professionally sharpened about once every year and use your honer (that long, cylindrical piece of steel that comes with many knife sets) often to keep the blades straight in the meantime.
- Trimming Asparagus
Recipes that include asparagus always instruct the reader to trim off the ends before cooking. That’s because the ends are too hard and woody to eat. But how do you know where the boundary is between the inedible and the delectable? Hold the spear in both hands, gently bending it a couple of inches up from the end. The spear will break naturally at the boundary, leaving you with perfectly palatable asparagus. If the presentation is important, you can trim the broken ends with a knife to tidy them up.
- Make leftovers easy to use
Don’t you hate it when a recipe calls for half a can of coconut milk, two tablespoons of tomato paste, or two chipotle chiles out of a can of chipotles en adobo? What, you wonder, are you supposed to do with the rest? Spoon them into ice cube trays, freeze them overnight, and pop them out, and store them in freezer storage bags (clearly marked, of course) in your freezer for months. The next time you need a small amount, simply pop out a cube or four and drop it right into whatever you are cooking.
To read the first part, click here