It's the little things that can turn a meal from ordinary to outstanding.
Knowing how to make a perfect sourdough boule or a flawless garlic aioli may seem like the pinnacle of culinary success, but really, it is far more useful to know the little tweaks that can make a meal go from ordinary to outstanding. Learn these and your homemade meals will become something you and family members look forward to.
Use spices and herbs.
There is so much more to flavoring food than just salt and pepper! Use spices to create an ethnic taste – curry and coriander for Indian, basil and oregano for Italian, cumin and chile for Mexican, cinnamon and saffron for North African. Fresh herbs add texture, flavor, and color to salads, soups, wraps, marinades, and sauces, while a pinch of dried herbs can liven up any dish. Don’t be afraid to double or triple the amounts called for in a recipe.
Don’t skimp on salt.
If you’re cooking from scratch, you probably don’t have to worry about sodium intake. That’s a much bigger concern when you buy processed food. Be generous when seasoning food at home; salt in stages, tasting as you go, until you reach the perfect point. Try using kosher salt, which has a clean taste and large flakes that make it unlikely to over-salt. Use your fingers so you have an idea of how much is going into the food.
Learn to toast.
Toasting nuts and seeds is a great way to deepen the flavor of any dish. It draws out the oils, making them taste nuttier and crunchier. Toast in a dry cast iron skillet over medium-high heat, shaking or stirring until the aroma coming off them is strong and they start to turn golden. (You can also do it in the oven, but watch them carefully.) Use toasted nuts in baking, in salads, in pesto, on porridge, and as garnishes.
Grind your own pepper.
If you don’t have a pepper mill, go buy one right now. I’d argue it’s the single most transformative flavor-booster you’ll ever have in the kitchen. Pre-ground pepper simply doesn’t cut it. Often pre-ground pepper is mixed with other spices and can contain mold.
Shred your own cheese.
Pre-shredded cheese is widely available and convenient to use, but it doesn’t melt as well because it is coated in starch to prevent clumping. Shred it at home (this is a great chore for kids) for smoother melted cheese and fresher flavor.
Use stock instead of water.
Keep a stash of stock on hand. It can be vegetable, chicken, beef, or fish – whatever you want – and use it to cook soups, sauces, risotto, braises, pilaf, etc. Most of these dishes can be made with water, but the difference that comes with using stock is tremendous.
Use a great knife.
Once you start using a good chef’s knife, you’ll never want to pick up a cheap knife again. When you can cut vegetables quickly, easily, and perfectly, it makes cooking so much more pleasant. You’ll be more inclined to use up those hard root vegetables hanging out in the bottom of the fridge or mince that extra bit of garlic for added taste. It makes everything less intimidating.
You won’t need extra gadgets such as a garlic press, a mandoline, etc. if you have a fabulous knife that can do the job just as well. Care for your knife properly and it will make you a happier cook for years!
Prepare in advance.
Read the recipe from start to finish. Take the time to collect and prepare all ingredients before you start cooking. Scrambling to chop a carrot while onions burn on the stove can ruin a dish, while making the experience rather stressful. It’s worth doing the chopping first, particularly if the cooking times are short.
Take this advice an extra step and prepare your week's menu in advance. That will make coming up with meal ideas much easier.
Ever since I bought a digital scale, I can’t imagine life without it. Together with my conversion lists and the many equivalents I’ve memorized over years of cooking, it makes cooking and baking go more smoothly. The results are reliable, and it’s easy to double or triple batches while always getting the same outcome.
On a related note, having a thermometer to measure the temperature of meat or homemade bread is very useful. It takes guessing out of the equation by telling you exactly what the inner temperature is – a number often provided in the recipe.