People can easily strive to be better home cooks and actually achieve this goal by mastering a few basic cooking techniques while learning how to use specific cooking tools. Through practice and a little bit of education, creating meals that others will love is certainly within reach.
In short, the best way to learn to be a better home cook is to work on technical skills through practice, along with using the right vessels and tools for cooking and maybe even learning from a cook or a chef that you know cooks delicious food.
Becoming a better home cook takes time and effort, and it should be fun while it is educational, even with the mistakes and messes made. Use this opportunity to learn about the foods you love and to cook with and for people you love, even if you are cooking for yourself.
How to Be a Better Home Cook in 10 Easy Steps
To start learning how to be a better home cook, first, one must decide what it means to be a better home cook; What do you want to get out of learning the various skills associated with that. For example:
- Does being a better home cook mean you can bake the best chocolate chip cookies at the bake sale or the best pot roast at the next family holiday meal?
- Are you hoping to get a full, balanced meal served to your family?
- Or are you just hoping that you can stop setting off the smoke detector every dinner time?
There are many approaches to become a better home cook, but the right direction to take on this journey is to learn more about a few key topics.
- Herbs & Spices- How to Properly Season Food
- Mise en Place
- Reading the Recipe
- Proper Use & Care of Knives
- Acids- When & How to Use them Properly
- Oil & Butter
- Pots & Pans- How to Choose the Right Cookware
- Tempering Proteins
- Cooking Hints, Tips-n-Tricks
Something as simple and ordinary as using salt the right way while cooking can totally transform a meal into a masterpiece. Salt is an essential part of cooking both savory and sweet dishes because it highlights a dish’s flavors, making the food taste better overall.
The general rule of thumb is to season a dish each time a new ingredient is added to the pot during cooking. If the food is already salty, like olives, or if salt is not tolerable for dietary reasons, then be conservative with salt added.
You might have heard the phrase to “add salt to taste,” which essentially means you have to add salt to the food that is being cooked, regarding as much salt as you like or think the food item needs.
You can start by adding a pinch of salt at a time. This is why it is necessary to taste as you go to understand the flavor profile you are trying to create.
There are many different types of salt, and some of them are:
- Kosher salt (generally used throughout the cooking process by many cooks and chefs)
- Table salt (kept on the table in shakers to add to food), sea salt (a coarser salt used for its larger shape, thus its more immense salty taste),
- Himalayan salt (used both as a cooking and a finishing salt)
- Various specialty salt types include grey salt, flake salt, and smoked salt, all of which add an extra depth of flavor to a dish.
Follow a recipe if it is available since it will clarify the amount of salt necessary to add in different stages of a recipe. Some foods, such as mushrooms or potatoes, shouldn’t be salted until after cooking is complete. (In this case, salt draws moisture out of mushrooms, creating an undesirable steamed texture).
Pasta water needs to be liberally salted before even adding the pasta, which is why learning about salt and how it benefits certain foods in cooking is essential.
Proper salting proportions
- Use 1-1/2 teaspoons salt per quart of homemade soups, stocks, sauces, and gravies. This recommendation does not apply to commercially prepared foods, which are often high in sodium already.
- Use 3/4 to 1 teaspoon salt per pound of raw meats, poultry, fish, and seafood.
- To salt pasta water, add 1 teaspoon of Kosher salt per quart of water (1 lb pasta requires 4 quarts of water).
2 Herbs & Spices
Using herbs and spices in cooking is another way to impart flavor without adding too much salt or an unnecessary amount of extra fat. Certain herbs and spices are traditional or classic to the flavors that people look for when they eat certain foods. In particular, culturally traditional foods will require certain flavors to make the food taste just right.
When possible, households should have spices and herbs regularly available in an easily accessible area in the kitchen since they are frequently used while cooking.
Once you recognize the spices and herbs that agree with your palate or that you use often enough, it might be a good idea to make your own spice or herb blends.
Mixing together basil, parsley, oregano, garlic powder, and onion powder would be a nice at-home Italian blend or something like a blend of one part cinnamon and four parts sugar would make a nice sweet spice blend for the top of pies or vanilla ice cream.
Be daring in the kitchen and try to add some “heat” to your cooking. A few red pepper flakes in a sauce or a soup might be a good, light place to start when trying to add spicy flavor to food.
Once you get more comfortable using spice, you can try whole peppers by taking out the pepper’s seeds and membranes first to add to meals. Just be sure to wear gloves, if possible, to keep your hands clean, and always keep your hands away from your face after touching the spicy peppers’ seeds and membranes.
3 Mise en Place
A French term that directly translates as “setting up,” in the culinary world, Mise en Place means “put in place.” It is used in specific regard to organizing all of your ingredients to be ready to go when you need them while cooking.
Set up your mise en place by washing veggies, cutting the raw food, measuring out ingredients, and ensuring you have everything right and available before beginning to cook. Even setting up the pots and pans you might need for cooking can constitute a mise en place.
It is a stage that can take a few minutes to do before the cooking begins, but it is an excellent organizational tool. It will help make you a better cook because you can better concentrate on the task at hand, rather than scrambling around the kitchen looking for certain things.
Utilizing Mise en Place is a trick that professional chefs do to prepare themselves to ensure they do their job efficiently to the best of their abilities. Setting up a mise en place can help a home cook make meals more straightforward and faster and certify that somebody can appropriately follow the recipe without missing ingredients.
4 Read the Recipe, Completely
Be sure to read the entire recipe, from start to finish, especially before cooking even begins. The most common mistake carried out by novice cooks is failing to read a recipe thoroughly.
By reading through the entire recipe before beginning, you can successfully set up the mise en place and prepare for the techniques or equipment needed to concoct the dish.
Imagine getting three-quarters of the way through a recipe and discovering you’re out of one of the main ingredients or spices! Then you’re left trying to substitute an item or tossing out the elements you’ve already use, thereby wasting your time and money.
Be mindful of cooking temperatures and times as they apply, following the provided recommendations to cook your food appropriately.
5 Proper Use & Care of Knives
The knives of a home chef do not need to break the bank, but some things should be factored in when choosing a great set of knives. Please make sure they are a set of good quality, that they are sturdy, and that they are one metal piece through the handle.
A butcher block with knives of different sizes and useful for other purposes might be a decent economical choice since all of the main blades used for cooking will come in one set. A chef’s knife is a proper place to start if you are looking for only one knife to buy since it has diverse applications for cutting food in various ways.
When purchasing your knife, it should, of course, be sharp. Most knife sets or butcher blocks come with a honing tool to sharpen the blades, and you should make sure your home kitchen has one. Some are cheap and are readily available due to their necessity to maintain the knife blades.
A sharp knife will allow for precise cutting. Keep knives clean by washing in hot soapy water instead of a dishwasher, where they can get dinged by other items in the dishwasher or develop rust. Be sure your knife is never used to cut material other than food, and always use it with an appropriate cutting board, as you should also never cut directly on the countertop.
Using your knives this way can dull them out or create little nicks in the knife’s blade, which is unwanted after making such a thoughtful investment in your good cooking. For the sake of safety, take care to keep these sharp knives and other cutting tools like pizza wheels, mandolines, and vegetable peelers in safe places and away from young children.
6 Adding Acids- When & How to Use them Properly
According to Food and Wine magazine, good chefs add acid to “brighten the flavor,” meaning that when food tastes flat or bland, even while using an appropriate amount of salt, adding some acid adds another layer of necessary flavor.
Depending upon the dish, the food might need a sour, tangy, bright, or sharp taste, and that’s where adding acid comes in. Add acids as per the recipe, especially if you are a new cook, and with more practice, you’ll know what type of acid to choose and how much to add to the dish.
Acid can be added with citrus fruits like lemon or lime, with one of the many varieties of vinegar, wine, or even an acidic or briny food like a pickle. There are many varieties of vinegar out there, and each has its own unique flavors.
There’s apple cider, champagne, white wine, and red wine vinegar, which can be used for raw cooking like in a vinaigrette or a marinade or included in soups or sauces, among many other uses.
Balsamic vinegar pairs well with over the top of certain foods like cheese on a cheeseboard or a salad, while rice vinegar works well to flavor sushi rice. Depending upon the recipe, these acids can be used for the sake of pickling, ceviches, or as entire flavor profiles in a meal.
7 Oil & Butter
One other essential element to proper cooking is the use of fats to add flavor and technical applications like preventing food from sticking or contributing an essential ingredient to cook or bake properly. These fats can be in the form of oil or butter in their many varieties.
Each fat is different in viscosity, flavor, smoke temperatures, and origination.
Commonly Used Oils include:
- Almond oil-
- Corn oil
- Coconut oil
- Olive oil
- Peanut oil
- Sesame seed oil
- Sunflower oil
- Safflower Oil
There is an incredible amount of varieties of these types of fats for cooking.
Different oils will be used for other purposes and varying applications. Take, for instance, olive oil, since there are different oil presses, thus, various applications. Some very pure and expensive Extra Virgin Olive Oils, which don’t even have to be imported brands, are only used as “tasting” oils and can be eaten by merely dipping bread in them.
Some presses make olive oils that can be used as salad dressings or marinades, olive oil can be used in desserts like an olive oil cake, and it can be used in more traditional cooking methods like brushing on a grill or put into a pan, so food doesn’t stick while cooking.
Olive oil can be used for deep frying foods as well but can tend to be very expensive in an application such as this. High-quality extra virgin olive oil has a smoke point of upwards of 425°F, which is well beyond the average 350°F to 375 F range for deep frying.
Less expensive oils with higher smoke points, like canola, peanut, vegetable, or corn, can be used for frying or cooking in general, more economically.
Certain oils like canola are flavorless, meaning they won’t overpower a recipe by imparting their own flavors, making canola an acceptable choice for most desserts or other foods that require fat, but not extra flavor.
Oil Smoke Points
Understanding the smoke point temperatures of the cooking fats is also essential. Smoke temperatures relate to the smoke point of the fat, meaning when the oil is in the cooking vessel, and the flame is on, when hot enough, the oil will start to “shimmer.” In other words, the surface of the oil begins to look like it is slowly flowing or rolling across its own surface in a thin layer.
At this point, the oil is hot enough in the pan to start cooking. However, if the fat begins to smoke, and the movement on the surface starts to pick up in pace or get more violent, it has reached its smoking point.
Depending upon the oil and its properties, this stage can be achieved at 325 degrees Fahrenheit to 510 degrees Fahrenheit. Hitting the smoke point during cooking is not suitable for oil because, at this stage in heat, the oil breaks down and can taste burnt.
Unfortunately, if this happens, you have to carefully dispose of the oil, clean out the pan, and start over. In short, the smoke point of the oil directly equates to the burning point of the oil.
Choosing the Oil
The many oil varieties give us a wide range of options to choose from for the cooking method we are looking for when considering our meal’s desired result.
A deep-fry will require an oil with a high smoke point, while a cook could get away with an oil with a low smoke point for the sake of looking for something to not stick while cooking.
- Pure butter has a smoke point of 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Animal fat like bacon or duck grease has a smoke point of 375 degrees Fahrenheit
- Vegetable oil at 400 to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Corn oil, and peanut oil at 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
Of course, follow a recipe to ensure that the correct oil is used for the overall success of the finished product in terms of taste and cooking techniques. Trying to cook food in oil that has not heated properly will cause the food to absorb the oil, rather than cook in it, resulting in overly greasy, bland food.
8 Pots & Pans- How to Choose the Right Pan for the Job
If you were to take a walk around a department store or a kitchen supply store, you would see many varieties of pots and pans. There are nonstick, stainless steel, cast iron, copper, glass, and even aluminum pots and pans.
Each material provides its own benefits to cooking a meal, but to point out the most significant benefits, consider the highest temperature the pots’ material can handle and what types of recipes you plan on using them for.
In general, when buying a new set of pots and pans, or even individual ones, be sure to purchase sturdy ones (not necessarily heavy) but pots that are solid in feel and weight. Better pans have metal through the handles as opposed to plastic anywhere on them.
Being entirely made of metal provides more versatility in the pot or pan. It can cook food on the stove and continue cooking in the oven without having to dump the already cooking food into another vessel before placing it into the oven.
This technique is especially true for a pot or pan made of cast iron or even a dutch oven, as they both can retain and withstand heat well. These types of cookware would also withstand a broiler, whereas any pots or pans with plastic or made of glass will melt or shatter under the extreme direct heat of a broiler.
Be sure to read the packaging of any new pot or pan to consider how well they will work in various cooking situations. The same is true for proper cleaning and care of pots and pans, which you should consider before purchasing.
For example, a cast-iron skillet, or anything made of cast iron, cannot be cleaned in a dishwasher, promoting rust on the surface. The pot or pan you will ultimately choose is indicative of the recipe and the cooking applications that you will use.
You want to make sure the vessel is large enough and appropriate in shape for the ingredients that you will be cooking. For instance, a nonstick pan can be used to make sticky or syrupy foods or even proteins that you don’t want to stick to a pan.
If a nonstick pan becomes the pan of choice, make sure the cooking tools you use do not scrape the pan’s nonstick coating. A wooden or silicone tool is an appropriate choice over a metal one in this case.
Nonstick pans aren’t always the best choice. While they’re easy to clean, they’re difficult to achieve a great sear on a piece of meat. Cast iron is excellent for browning meat. This is why it’s imperative to have several different types of cookware available.
Companies produce nonstick pans for practically any size, even for cookie sheets, so considering the ease of cleaning and in relation to the promise of food not sticking or burning because of the lack of sticking, it is probable that you will end up with a nonstick set. However, for whatever cooking set you do choose to land on, make sure there are sufficiently fitting lids for certain appropriate cooking situations.
9 Temper Proteins
Tempering meat is a process where you allow the meat to come to a temperature close to room temp, to achieve a more even cook on the protein. With this process, you can develop a nice sear or char with good coloration on the outside of the meat without cooking it until it is too dry in the middle.
The rule of thumb is the meat gets pulled out of the refrigerator and tempers on the counter, in a safe place until it reaches 72 degrees Fahrenheit internally.
Some experts say that you can temper meat at any time before cooking since taking meat out to temper on the countertop can take a few hours. Therefore, any time is better than no time when it comes to tempering.
A safe place for tempering would include a cool to room temperature space, possibly on a plate or a cutting board atop the kitchen counter to catch any liquid or anything else that might contaminate things in the kitchen.
Keep checking on the meat to prevent it from warming up too fast since food safety is vital. This process can be done for any protein, and if you choose to do it for fish, it should only be done for about ten to fifteen minutes directly before cooking.
More than tempering the meat, drying the outer layer of proteins before cooking with something disposable like a dry, clean paper towel can create crispy skin or a good sear on the protein.
The Importance of Resting Meat
Then, cook the protein as usual or as directed by the recipe you are following. After cooking, rest the protein before cutting into it.
Slicing meat before it is rested can result in all the good juices running out of the meat, making it dry. Allowing protein to rest allows for the moisture in the meat to redistribute, leaving you with a nice, juicy piece of meat inside, and if the meat was also tempered and patted dry, an excellent looking and tasting outside.
10 Cooking Hints, Tips-n-Tricks
Use a Thermometer: Certain recipes require the direct use of a thermometer, like making caramel, but using one to take the internal temperature of meat will ensure that it cooks to the desired doneness. You can attach some thermometers to an oven rack to make sure the oven is functioning at the right temperature.
Taste as You Go: Tasting as you go can help you make sure that the food is well on its way to a delicious finale. By tasting as you go, you can add things if a flavor profile is off before serving it at the table.
- If a dish tastes too acidic or sharp, add some fat or sugar to mask the sourness.
- If the food needs a little more brightness, as mentioned above, you can add some acid like a squirt of lemon.
Tasting while cooking can help decipher if more salt needs to be sprinkled in or add a little extra spice.
Use the Right Tools: You don’t have to spend an arm and a leg to get the tools you need or the tools you think you need to be a good home cook. The right tools can consist of the basics and the essentials to get you going.
Over time and with experience, you will see you only need specific tools and special equipment to have an easier and better time in the kitchen. One piece of equipment that comes to mind, especially for a learning cook, is a fire extinguisher. Keeping one handy might help to alleviate some newfound stress.
Cooking vocabulary: Learning contextual vocabulary associated with measuring food and the cooking processes will help develop the kitchen skills.
For instance, there are so many ways to cook an egg, and so many vocabulary words associated with these ways, that learning their meanings and their processes can help your cooking repertoire flourish. Practicing these different techniques and learning how to do them can certainly help make you a better home cook.
Cooking shows or classes: To help learn those vocabulary words, learn practically by watching someone do these cooking processes, especially if you are a visual learner. Tuning into a cooking show or attending a cooking class can help you develop better home cooking skills.
There are so many easy tricks to be learned from professional chefs and culinary experts that you can glean invaluable information from their expertise.
Possibly even more significant than this might be paying attention to the home cooks in your own lives, learning traditions and unique dishes relative to your family’s history. This would be such a special way to preserve culture and family connections to relatives and ancestors.