When I mention my husband cooks professionally, by far and away the most common response I get from women is, “It must be so nice to be married to someone who cooks!” To which I typically respond, “When he’s home for dinner – which isn’t very often.” It is in fact lovely when he cooks – he does what he does for a living for a good reason. But most of the time, I’m preparing the food I eat. As my standards have risen, I’ve had to improve my own cooking proportionately. Fortunately, Chris doesn’t have to be present in the kitchen to be influential. By watching him cook and having him critique my cooking, he’s taught me a number of essential tips. I hope that these help improve your cooking as they have mine.
1) Add a pinch of salt and pepper after every vegetable you put in a pot.
I make a lot of vegetarian soups and stews, and people always seem quite surprised when they have such depth of flavor. The main secret is well-apportioned salt and pepper. Although many people think of applying salt and pepper only at the end of the cooking time, both cause fundamental chemical reactions that bring out and enhance the base flavor of a food. Adding just a little bit after every ingredient (or if you have a lot of different vegetables, every two) helps ensure that both are applied throughout the meal. It will also help the salt and pepper absorb into the food, making it taste more like itself instead of tasting like salt or pepper.
2) Your pasta water should taste like the sea.
Surprised that salt is showing up again? Don’t be. Salt is one of the absolutely fundamental building blocks of cooking. And don’t worry too much about putting “too much” salt in something – most excessive salt intake is not from cooking, but from processed food. For example, if you cook a soup from scratch, it would taste disgustingly salty before you approached the amount of sodium present in canned soup. Much like salt helps bring out the fundamental flavor of vegetables, it does the same for pasta. The only way to capture it is to heavily salt the pasta water itself. I always thought of plain pasta as blah, but adding salt to the water was a revelation. Because it releases some of its starches as a result of the salt, it has its own great flavor, even without a lick of sauce.
3) Balance the flavors.
You’ll often heard it said that baking is a science, while cooking is an art. This is mainly because cooking is so flexible – the chemical reactions are far more forgiving than in baking, and botched dishes can often be rescued. I’ve found that this tip is key to fixing something that tastes “off.” When you taste something that seems not quite right, try to identify the flavor profile (sweet, sour, bitter, salty) that there’s too much of. Then, add an ingredient that’s the opposite. For example, if something is too sweet, add a dry wine or lemon juice, depending on the food (sour is pretty similar to bitter in this sense). I find this to be the most helpful in cooking tomato sauce with canned tomatoes. Ideally, the onions that you’ve cooked first should caramelize in a way that provides enough sweetness to balance out the bitterness of the tomatoes. But often that just doesn’t happen – especially if you’re in a rush – and the sauce tastes bitter. When that happens, I add a pinch of sugar. The key is to not add so much that it makes the sauce taste sugary, but just barely enough to balance out the bitterness.
4) Don’t assume the brown bits stuck a little bit to the pan are a waste – they’re often the most delicious.
There are some times when using a non-stick pan is great – omelets in particular – but they shouldn’t be used for everything. As you cook ingredients, whether vegetables or meat, some will stick to the bottom of the pan, and they should. (This is assuming you are cooking it correctly – I’m not talking about burnt bits.) These bits are caramelized, which means that the sugar within them has been browned and many, many delicious chemical reactions have taken place. Instead of writing off these bits as garbage, reclaim them by deglazing the pan. Basically, this is done by adding liquid to the hot pan, then scraping the bits off, which then dissolve into the liquid as a sauce. If you’re preparing meat, this is done after the meat is removed from the pan. If you’re preparing a stew, you can do it right with the vegetables still in the pan. As for liquids, you can use wine or stock as appropriate. As much of the flavor is in the “sucs” (the browned bits), using this technique deeply enhances flavor.
5) When you’re cutting, be sure to curl the non-knife fingers that are holding the food under a bit.
This hasn’t made my food taste much better, but it’s definitely kept me from cutting my fingertips off. Curling the fingers under on the hand holding the food keeps them out of the way in case the knife slips or otherwise goes astray. In this position, the knuckles are the part of your hand closest to the knife. As you should only be raising the knife a little bit, if you slip, the flat end of the blade should bang harmlessly against your knuckles.