I love to cook. Not baking. I’m not a big fan of baking. Too much science, too much math, too much precision… I’ll leave that to the fine folks of The Great British Bake Off. But cooking? Skillets, fat, heat, acidity, meats, veggies, starches? Oh yeah. Sign me up.
Without going into a long backstory à la Chopped, I worked as a short order cook in college. That’s really what ignited my love of cooking. I didn’t necessarily like what I had to cook for our customers, but when I was making my shift meal and knew I was just making something for myself, that was awesome. I had a commercial kitchen with a plethora of ingredients. It was great. Sometimes I’d even bring food from home to add to my shift meal. Great situation for me.
This is not to say I’m a great cook. I’m not bad for someone who has never taken a cooking class. But I struggle with the same things all home cooks struggle with: consistency, flavor combinations, prep and cooking techniques, and equipment. I don’t struggle as often now with flavors, technique, and equipment, though I do still struggle with those occasionally. My biggest battle is with consistency. One day you get something that tastes like I’m a city councilman in Flavortown, other days I have three perfect medium-rare steaks and one just barely avoiding becoming an actual hockey puck.
But through the years I have learned a few little tricks that can make you seem like a bona fide gourmet. Here are a few of them:
1. Proteins Love Citrus
Citrus is a great way to add a little flavor, a little acid, and some tenderness to meat. Chickens generally handle any citrus well. Lemons, limes, oranges, even grapefruits. Add some fresh juice to the meat while it’s marinating or as you season, and then hit it with a fresh squeeze right after it’s finished cooking. Beef generally likes limes and oranges. Pork likes oranges best but can handle lemons and limes, too. Maybe even add some zest to the seasoning. It’s great. A small hit of some tangy, acidic citrus is a small but impactful way to add some freshness to your proteins.
2. Embrace Mayonnaise
I don’t mean slather it on some bread like you normally would with mayonnaise. I’m talking about using it as a frying fat and as a base for sauces. The best grilled cheeses in the world are fried in mayonnaise. Don’t believe me? Try it. Take your bread, put some mayonnaise on one side and butter on the other, throw it mayo side down in a medium-high heat cast iron skillet. Add a couple types of cheese, cover it with another butter/mayo slice of bread, apply some pressure with a spatula, and cook for exactly three minutes per side. I prefer cheddar, mozzarella, and provolone, but as long as it’s a melty cheese, it’ll be good. Mayo is also great as a base for sauces and dressings. Want an example? Put about a tablespoon of fresh lemon juice, a tablespoon of capers, three basil leaves, one sprig of fresh rosemary, the pepper of your choice (I use two serranos), and a half cup of mayonnaise in a food processor. Mix until smooth and put on literally any savory dish. Delicious.
3. High Heat Is Rarely Needed
Most things will cook best on medium or even medium-low heat. Bacon, eggs, thin-patty hamburgers, potatoes, pancakes, most sauces, most reheatings… the list goes on and on. Sure, sometimes you need something that is piping hot. You can’t sear a steak on medium heat, for instance. But by and large, medium heat is a safe bet for most things. When I first began cooking I would get impatient and crank the heat up. This just led to a lot of things that were burnt on the outside and raw in the middle.
4. Maintain Your Knives
Everyone should have a chef’s knife, a paring knife, a serrated bread knife, and a carving knife. Paring knives are smaller and used for peeling, slicing, or otherwise cutting small fruits and veggies. Serrated bread knives are, true to their name, for slicing bread. Carving knives are long, typically round-nosed, and sharp, and are used for slicing (or carving) big hunks of meat. Then there’s the chef’s knife. This is the most practical knife you can have. It does almost everything, and if you’re just starting to get into cooking, this is the first thing I recommend buying. This is the model I have (and I promise I’m not getting paid for this), and it’s awesome. I’ve had it for years, I keep it sharp, and it’s been absolutely fantastic. The best part is that it’s not really that expensive. I know $43 seems like a lot for a knife, but trust me, it’s not.
Just as important as having those knives is maintaining them. I have a decent whetting stone and I sharpen all my knives regularly, generally about once every couple of months. Dull knives are dangerous. Of all the many minor cuts I’ve had, the more bloody ones were always because I was using a dull knife. And also, never put your good knives in the dishwasher. Dishwashers dull blades, which means you must sharpen them more often, which means your knife will get smaller and smaller and you’ll think, “what a piece of crap. I can’t believe I got this because some idiot on some stupid blog recommended it,” then you’ll send me mean letters and I won’t sleep at night.
5. Don’t Buy Pretty Equipment Unless It’s Also Useful
There are lots of cool-looking kitchen utensils out there. Silicone tongs, silicone whisks, plastic knives, silicone spatulas… I hate silicone. I don’t hate silicone, but I think silicone tools are very limited. For instance, silicone tongs generally cannot end up as thin as regular, stainless steel tongs. This means it’s more difficult to pick things up with them, which kind of defeats the purpose of tongs, right? Just get some plain, stainless steel, spring-loaded tongs. They’re cheaper, they’re just as easy to maintain, but they’re better. Same thing with the whisks. Normal, stainless steel whisks are all you need. Speaking of whisks, I know a lot of people get several types of whisks. That’s okay if you use whisks a lot, but if you don’t, just get a regular French whisk. These are the most versatile types, and are generally cheap. Here’s a wiki page on whisks to show you what each type of whisk is really for. Perhaps the lesson here is that you should get kitchen tools from a restaurant supply store or something, because all the cool-but-impractical stuff from Target ends up being pretty useless.
6. Follow Recipes, Sort Of
I think the best thing you can do when you start cooking is look up recipes. Look them up online, watch reruns of Good Eats, find recipes on YouTube…it doesn’t matter. But here’s the thing about those recipes: those are done by professionals and are meant to satisfy the largest number of people. What Ina Garten puts in her recipes may be good, but it may be something you don’t like. Here’s an example: I’m not a huge fan of cooked onions. I like raw onions, but I don’t like the sliminess of cooked onions, generally speaking. So whenever I see a recipe that calls for cooked onions, I first figure out whether they will be prominent in the dish. If they are, I will probably just dice the onions so small that I can’t really feel them. If they aren’t prominent, I’ll probably substitute onion flakes or onion powder. Furthermore, if you are following a recipe and you don’t like the direction it’s headed, just change it. Don’t want it so spicy? Leave out half the amount of hot stuff called for. Love spicy food? Double the peppers! You’re absolutely going to strike out every once in a while. Some of the most godawful food I’ve made has been from tweaking recipes. But those served as valuable lessons learned. At some point you will learn the things you like and don’t like in general, and you can adjust recipes accordingly.
7. Learn to Deglaze
Deglazing is when you remove meat (or whatever) from a pan, then add liquid to that pan to make a sauce with the liquid and the leftover bits of meat (or whatever) in the pan. Personally, I love using wine, vodka, or cream for this, but it’s different depending on the recipe. The purpose of deglazing is to make a sauce of some sort. Have you ever made biscuits and gravy? You know how you take sausage out of the pan then add flour and milk to the sausage fat? That’s deglazing. Deglazing often leads to what cooks refer to as a “pan sauce,” which basically means a sauce made in the same pan that the protein (or whatever) was cooked in. An easy rule of thumb is that you almost can’t go wrong with alcohol and fat. We don’t keep a lot of heavy cream around, so generally I use butter for the fat element. You can then add other seasonings/spices, or large ingredients. If you add substantial ingredients like chopped veggies, I suggest running your pan sauce through a blender before serving. It’s an easy thing to do but really kicks the food up a notch.
8. Use Roux in Mac & Cheese
Remember that gravy analogy from the “Learn to Deglaze” section? Gravy starts off as a roux. Adding flour to the fat creates a roux that can be infused with more flavor and also serves to thicken a sauce. This is handy for any number of dishes (including our Feliz Navidad Scalloped Potatoes), but is especially handy in that potluck and holiday classic, mac and cheese. Step-by-step directions for making a roux can be found in the scalloped potato recipe, but if you’re a visual learner, here’s a Food Network video! So here’s how to use it in mac and cheese: Boil the noodles, strain, and set aside. In the same pan, make your roux, then add heavy cream (or whole milk if you have it), salt, pepper, and cheese. Stir that all together until it’s melty, ooey-gooey goodness. Add the pasta back in and stir until everything is well combined. Put all of that in a casserole dish and top with fresh cheese, bread crumbs, and black pepper, and bake at 350°F for about 20-30 minutes. Voila! You have perfect mac and cheese.