A while back (15 years ago to be exact–I’ve been writing this blog for a bit) I did a post on the various lessons I’d learned in the kitchen over the previous year:
There is always something to learn, and in the years since I wrote that post I’ve picked up plenty of new kitchen tips that I thought I’d pass on today. I may not be an expert chef (ask my family, not everything I cook is a hit), and I may be completely incapable of following a recipe (“that doesn’t sound right, better add more”), and most of these might be obvious, but hopefully there is a cooking tip or two hiding in this post that might be worth the read!
1. Go easy on the dried herbs.
Tacos and Italian have always been my go-to meals, and for YEARS I over-seasoned them. I’d pour on the cumin, chili powder, smoked paprika, and oregano and end up with over-spiced, slightly bitter taco filling. Same for my red sauces (thyme especially is easy to overdo). At some point it finally clicked: just figure out about how much dried herbs you think you need and then use half that amount–instant flavor improvement!
And, it goes without saying that fresh herbs are better, but, ain’t no one got time to run to the store for every meal…my cooking method is all about scrounging a meal from whatever you have on hand at the time.
2. Stock is the key to a good brown sauce.
I love all kinds of Asian food. I once took a 10 day vacation on the east coast and had Thai for dinner every single day–for the simple reason that it is better than all other types of food, so why waste my money on anything else? So, you’d think I would have learned to cook it by now, but sadly I still can’t make a great Krapow sauce. What I have finally mastered at least is a decent Americanized Chinese brown sauce.
The secret came from…following a recipe. A friend was making stir-fry and I noticed that the sauce was mostly chicken broth. I was like “wait, that can’t be right, when you make stir fry, you should mostly just use soy sauce and then be disappointed that it tastes like fucking soy sauce, right?” Come to find out, soy sauce is a seasoning, not a sauce (false advertising, man).
I’ve tweaked it over the years, but I start with chicken or beef stock (Better than Bullion is a great tasting brand that is less obviously full of MSG), add a bit of soy sauce and sugar (not enough to make it sweet, just enough to cut the salt a bit), and thicken it with corn starch. Finally, expand from there with whatever you have on hand (sesame oil, ginger, oyster sauce, follow your heart!)
3. Set a timer on your broiler.
Simple one here, I don’t care if you are making nachos, crisping up the top of a baked dish, or drying your freshly washed pants before school (we didn’t have a working dryer growing up), 2 minutes is much shorter than you think. Set a timer, and avoid the all too familiar shout of “FUCK, I forgot the broiler!!”
4. Pizza sauce actually does need tomato paste.
I know there is apparently some kind of big “this isn’t pizza sauce, this is marinara” debate out there, and for years I was like “whatever, it’s an Italian seasoned red sauce, who cares how thick it is?” But, having switched to incorporating tomato paste, I actually think the flavor is much improved. Canned tomato sauce just has an acidic edge that is tough to cover up, the paste tones that down with a bigger tomato flavor. I still struggle with making a GREAT red sauce, but the pizza sauce is getting there (dial way back on the herbs, use some paste, a dash of sugar, a splash of wine, you’ll get pretty close).
My wife does not like fennel seeds, which is a great tragedy (fennel powder is a grudgingly acceptable substitute). She has also asked that I stop putting fish sauce (*I* think it throws a nice dash of umami in the sauce and she only tastes it because I told her I used it) and Dijon mustard (just a small squirt!) in my red sauce, and on those, she might have a point.
5. Cook your stir fry veggies separately.
There’s no reason to be a hero in the kitchen, you aren’t impressing anyone (seriously, I can one-handed crack eggs all day to ZERO reaction from my family). So, there’s no need to fully synchronize the timing of your veggie additions to a pan, just do the problematic ones separately and throw them in a bowl while you cook the rest (keeping in mind they’ll cook a bit more in the bowl).
Again, don’t cook everything separately, that way madness lies! If you are doing a hash with potatoes, ham, onions, and peppers, by all means, cook everything together and throw the peppers in at the end and cook till they are done. But if you’ve got 10 different veggies to add to a stir fry, you don’t want to end up turning your broccoli to mush while you wait for the eggplant to cook through.
6. Turn your fire up. It will ruin your non-stick pans, but it’s worth it.
We have a nice gas stove, and the largest burner is basically set to “flamethrower” for 75% of the dial. But that’s what you want. Unless you are making pancakes or something, turn that shit UP, get some color on your food. I’m not talking burn it, but there is nothing more disheartening than looking at a pan of veggies being cooked on medium and slowly cooking into a pastel pile of mush. You want the fire so high, it is painful to stir your food. You want it so high you might lose a few arm hairs from the flames shooting up the sides of your pan.
On the other hand, this WRECKS your non-stick pans (that pan in the cover photo isn’t even 2 years old–and as you can see, it isn’t exactly “non-stick” any more). Still, worth it.
7. Brown onions in a pan with no oil.
Most cheap pans really just don’t get hot enough to really put some color on your onions. But who (aside from my parents who only cook on cast iron) has time to clean up a cast iron skillet (I’m not buying that “a properly seasoned cast iron skillet is just as good as a non-stick pan” bs)? A nice trick for browning onions is to throw them in a pan (with the fire ALL the way up, of course) with no oil until they singe up. It will also do your non-stick pan no favors, but will at least caramelize your onions quite nicely.***
***It has been pointed out that this is not “caramelization,” but rather “burning.” I still say it makes them taste better.
8. Dark meat chicken really DOES taste better.
I grew up eating very little meat, so when I do cook meat I tend to overcook it. This is mostly just holdover “I’m unsure of this stuff, so let’s cook it ALL the way through” meat hangup on my part. Consequently, my chicken (breasts) are usually kind of dry (unless I chop it up and coat it in a corn starch dusting for Chinese). Dark meat doesn’t have that problem, not only does it taste better, but you can cook the shit out of it and it’s still fairly moist. There’s a bit more cleanup (another hang-up from growing up rarely eating meat…tendons, gristle, and fat have no place on the meat I cook) but it’s still worth it.
9. Sunflower seed oil is a great cooking oil.
Don’t get rid of EVO, but I always have a bottle of Sunflower Seed oil on hand (not safflower). It has a really nice, nutty, almost sweet flavor, a high cooking temperature, and can be used in everything. Baked goods especially benefit from it.
Also, Dillons always has a big bottle very cheap for some reason, so that has helped keep it a staple! Don’t go paying $7 for a little 10 oz bottle, it’s not THAT good.
10. Put olive oil and kosher salt on baked potato skins.
IF you want to risk life and limb by eating a pesticide filled potato skin, at the very least cover it in olive oil and sprinkle it with kosher salt before baking. It will make for an awesome crispy salty skin that is so good you barely have time to think about how toxic it probably is.
As for salt in general, kosher is best, sea salt will do in a pinch (pun intended?), but “table salt” has NO place in a kitchen.
11. Speed roasting with a quick steam.
How many times have you tried to make oven-roasted new potatoes only to have them still not soft enough to eat after 45 minutes and it’s 6:30, and your 4 year old won’t stop asking for cereal, and your 10 year old wants to know what smells so gross, and your wife is mad because she saw the fish sauce bottle out and wants to know what in the hell it could have possibly been put in…and you just really need them done? Well, you could leave them in the oven and they will get done eventually, but I always like to speed them along with a quick steam beforehand. Just toss them in a steamer until they are barely cooked, then coat them in oil and seasoning and throw them in the oven. They’ll still get a nice crispy outside, and a perfectly cooked inside.
I do the same thing with my sauteed green beans–throw some water in the pan and add a lid, steam them in that a bit, and then boil the water out, easy as that. It will put an end to “I guess these are done…oh god damnit, just got a crunchy one.”
12. Cheap Parmesan cheese “dust” is still pretty good.
Take away my cook card if you must, but I use this in a LOT of stuff. Veggies, potato salad, salads, soups, tuna-salad, hell, I even make a dip out of ranch, sunflower seeds, and, you guessed it, parmesan dust. I don’t know if there is any real cheese in it, or what, but it gives a pretty big flavor hit to whatever you put it in. I especially like adding it to hash/sautéed veggies/broccoli…the HIGH HEAT crisps up the bits that touch the pan nicely, adding a lot to the dish.
13. Keep a mortar and pestle on hand.
This isn’t essential, but sometimes I like to grind up kosher salt…the chunks are not as big as they look and you can easily sprinkle it on any dish straight, but if you want a lighter salt hit, a few quick turns will break it down to smaller salt chunks.
However, a mortar and pestle IS kind of essential for popcorn….by grinding up the salt to a powder you can quickly make your own popcorn salt that will stick to the kernels nicely. Even better, you can add (sparingly!) dried herbs to the mix and grind them along with the salt to a popcorn-sticking powder too! My favorite recipe is popcorn made in a pan (with sunflower seed oil!), seasoned with butter, nutritional yeast, and a ground up mixture of kosher salt and dried chives.
14. Use balsamic vinegar in guacamole.
I’ve always known that making guacamole with lime juice instead of vinegar is like making a martini with vodka instead of gin (you can do it, but WHY?) And, really, any vinegar will work, but in recent years I have switched to using balsamic almost exclusively. You’d think the flavor would clash, but the unique sweetness compliments the avocados very well.
Also, for the record, guacamole ONLY needs balsamic, salt, and fresh garlic to be perfect. Cilantro, jalapenos, onions–they are all good additions too, but not essential.
15. Use fresh garlic and cut it with a micro planar.
Never use garlic powder or granules if you don’t have to. I mean, I guess there are probably some breadings, crusts, etc that might use it, but in general, use fresh garlic only. Even the pre-chopped stuff in a jar won’t do, you want brand new, freshly smashed garlic for the best flavor. For years I used a garlic press, then I started smash-chopping it with the back of a knife, and finally ended up with a micro planar. It is super fast, cuts it incredibly fine, and just seems to be the easiest and most efficient way to cut garlic.
Also, I don’t have a lot of retractions to make from my old post, but I must admit, since it was written, I actually HAVE used too much garlic, so, forget what I said there…it can be done, and it was gross.