I grew up with parents who owned a restaurant and loved food. They were so busy with said restaurant, though, they didn’t have time to teach me to cook. I learned more about food and cooking from my parents after I left the house than the 18 years I lived with them. I would call them, hoping for help identifying an ingredient in a recipe or a cooking technique I was unfamiliar with, and they would walk me through it on the telephone, long-distance coaching sessions of sorts.
Cooking was something I had to learn as I went along in my adult life. I often didn’t feel prepared or adequate at the job of preparing food, but it didn’t stop me from trying. In the end, my lack of training early on didn’t matter. What has helped me become a better home cook more than anything? Practice. Lots and lots of cooking, trials and errors, successes and failures. Anyone can be a great home cook. Today I am sharing some tips and tricks, some specific and some general, that can make anyone, even people who think they can’t cook, better at making great food.
#1 Taste as you go.
Whether you are experimenting with food or following a recipe to the T, you need to taste as often as possible. Learn to taste and adjust the seasonings to make the food you are making have the right balance of flavors. If you don’t taste it, you won’t know.
#2 Trust and develop your food intuition.
Early in my cooking years, I would never stray from a recipe. I didn’t have the confidence and hadn’t practiced enough. Over the years, however, I’ve developed a food intuition and now I can trust it when I feel it. If something just feels off, I know a recipe probably isn’t going to turn out unless I make some adjustments. I’m always sorry when I don’t trust my intuition and make the necessary adjustments before a recipe flops. Develop your own food intution by really paying attention to what works and what doesn’t work with the food you make. You’ll eventually know when a muffin batter is to dry or when the amount of seasoning in a recipe isn’t right and be able to use your intution to fix it.
#3 Take notes.
Whenever I try a new recipe, I write down what we specifically liked or did not like. If I’m using a cookbook, I write right on the page. If I’m using a recipe I’ve printed out from online, I write on there. (I have a large binder of online recipes I’ve printed.) I can’t trust my memory to remember, and these notes help me to apply what we liked to other recipes, and avoid making similar mistakes in the future. It helps me to know what we tend to like and disklike and adjust a new recipe before we even try it.
#4 Use salt!
When you’re cooking meals from scratch with whole food ingredients, you are cutting out a ton of sodium from the processed foods you are avoiding. Don’t wait until the end to add salt. Salt your foods as you go, adding a small amount as needed. I like having a salt crock right by my working space so it’s easy to access.
#5 Add lemon.
It’s amazing what a touch of citrus can do to a dish. It brightens and enhances the flavors of the recipe. Don’t leave it out when a recipe call for it, and don’t be afraid to add it if you think a dish is missing something and you can’t figure out what it is. Often just a squeeze of lemon juice will take a dish from good to great.
#6 Add cinnamon.
This is another flavor enhancer that is underutilized. I love adding a touch of cinnamon to my savory dishes. It’s adds that extra something that makes people love the recipe even if they don’t know what it is they love.
#7 Get to know flavor pairings that work.
Years ago I purchased The Flavor Bible, and then The Vegetarian Flavor Bible, and those are my most-used “cookbooks” in my kitchen, although they aren’t cookbooks at all. I figured if I couldn’t go to culinary school to learn about these things, I could certainly teach myself. Getting to know which flavors go well together has helped me immensely in my cooking. Some of my favorite dinners have come from starting with an ingredient I have and want to use, opening The Flavor Bible, and creating something based on the list of ingredients that go well with it.
#8 Reach beyond your comfort zone.
It’s great to have a few go-to recipes that you know you can do well. In order to grow as a cook, though, you have to try new things. We only become better when we make mistakes. I tell my kids that all the time. We grow when we make mistakes, so don’t be afraid to make mistakes in the kitchen. Try new recipes, new techniques, or foods from different cultures. Always doing the same will not make you a better cook.
#9 Use fresh herbs.
There’s nothing wrong with using dried herbs; I do it all the time. But fresh herbs can really bring a dish to the next level, so use them as often as you can and you’ll see your food start to really sing. Yes, your food will sing. Try it.
#10 Don’t be tied to recipes.
This goes along with #2, but deserves its own space. Yes, as a food blogger, I’m telling you it’s okay to adjust a recipe to your liking. A recipe is developed based on the taste buds of the person who developed it. Make it work for your taste buds. For example, if you read the recipe for my Avocado Tuna Salad, and think, “This would be great with red onions”, then add red onions. I don’t generally like raw onions all that much, so I don’t include them in many recipes. But this recipe might be good for you without them, but excellent for you with them. Adjust recipes to work for you and your family.
#11 Use stock instead of water.
When you’re cooking grains, beans, polenta, or even pasta, use stock instead of water for better flavor. You’ll be surprised at how much better the overall dish is when you cook the basics in a flavorful stock.
#12 Shop local whenever you can.
Go to farmer’s markets when they are in season and search out locally sourced foods at your grocery store. The fresher a food is, the better it tastes. Period. Food that is grown or raised locally is almost always fresher and tastes better than food that’s been in a truck for days, shipped across the country.
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