1. Know Your Techniques
Learn the basic cooking and prepping techniques, including cutting and slicing of meats and produce. Focus on essential techniques first – for most of us, knowing how to cut and saute an onion is a lot more important and useful than learning to prepare lobster.
2. Invest In A Few Good Tools
Again, focus on the essentials. Stuffing your kitchen full of gadgets you never use is a waste of money and takes up storage space. Before buying anything, think how often you will actually use it. Do you really need a melon ball scooper? Or a candy thermometer? Rather than purchasing lots of items that will never see daylight again once they have landed in a drawer, invest in a few good tools. Pans, pots, and knives are the backbone of cooking, and worth spending a little more on. Quality pots and pans make the difference between great dishes and mediocre results.
There is no need to buy a 20-piece set with every imaginable size of pots and pans under the sun. Make your purchase based on how and what you cook most often. Knives are another essential cooking tool worth investing in. A chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a bread knife is all most people will ever need, and while top quality knives are not cheap, they make the job that much easier and will last you a lifetime.
3. Take Cooking Lessons
Unsure how and where to start? Sign up for a cooking class and look for good books explaining the basics of cooking. Cooking courses are a great way to improve your skills and repertoire even if you are already a seasoned home cook.
It’s a great way of being able to look professional chefs over the shoulder, learn new techniques, and a few secrets along the way. They also give you the opportunity to meet others who are passionate about cooking. And, you get to sample delicious food!
4. Great Food = Great Quality
Cooking gourmet food does not mean you have to slave away over elaborate recipes for hours, or use expensive ingredients. Rather, it is all about the quality of the ingredients. When shopping for groceries, always check expiration dates, and make sure fresh products really are fresh.
Check sensitive products such as meat, fish, seafood, and produce for any signs of “aging”. Buy meat, fish, and seafood unpackaged and from a butcher/seafood market whenever possible. Make sure produce is ripe, looks fresh, and is free of mold or rotten spots.
Use as little processed food as possible, making meals from scratch rather than relying on pre-made ingredients. Processed food typically contains preservatives, artificial colors and flavors, and often high amounts of sodium, sugar, and fat.
When you cook from scratch, you know exactly what goes into a dish, and you can control the amount of salt, sugar, and fat. Plus you get the pleasure of enjoying the process of cooking and putting something home made on the table. Sure it’s more convenient to buy a pie crust at the grocery store, but making your own (which is actually a snap with the help of a food processor) is infinitely more satisfying!
5. Buy Local, In Season, And Organic
Local, in season products are always superior in quality and will yield far better dishes. Transporting food over large distances causes more pollution, wastes fuel, and makes it more prone to spoilage due to potential damage or improper storage during transport. Produce that undergoes long transport routes is often picked very unripe to ensure it can stand up to the rigors of shipping, resulting in tasteless and inferior fruits and vegetables. Your environment and your taste buds will thank you for not buying cherries in December that have been shipped thousands of miles all the way from Chile!
6. Make Time For Cooking – And Enjoy It!
Cooking should be enjoyable and not yet another chore on your list. Following some simple steps ensures you will end up not only with great dishes, but will also have fun cooking them.
Cook easy and fast meals during the week. The last thing you want after a long day at work is to come home and stand in the kitchen for three hours. Chances are, if you are feeling stressed or rushed, disaster is looming in the kitchen. Reserve special or multi-course meals that require more time and attention for weekends.
Think of cooking as a relaxing, fun activity. Take a few deep breaths, clear your mind, and be in the moment when you cook, focusing on the tasks at hand. Don’t be distracted by TV, wandering thoughts, or chatting on the cell phone. Cooking is a mindful activity that requires concentration, but it is also a way to engage all your senses. Feel, taste, and smell the food, notice its colors, shapes and textures.
7. Choose Recipes Appropriate For Your Skills
Think of cooking as similar to training for a marathon – start off easy and in small steps. Just like a beginner is not going to run his first marathon after two weeks of training, you are not going to cook like a master chef in a week. Stick to recipes that are appropriate for your level of skills, and you will be rewarded with success.
Trying to create a five-tiered wedding cake may not be the best idea if you have never baked a cake before. Don’t set yourself up for failure!
8. Read Every Recipe Before You Start Cooking
Cooking often requires fast decisions and maneuvers, and there is usually no time to stop and try to figure out what the next step is. Always familiarize yourself with a recipe before you begin cooking.
Thoroughly read the recipe and imagine every step in your mind. That way, you are less likely to make mistakes and you won’t be faced with any ugly surprises.
9. Don’t Use Your Guests As Guinea Pigs
When planning a meal for guests, stick to tried and true recipes. If you want to make something new, try it out first and see if the recipe delivers. There is nothing worse than ending up with a horribly tasting dish (that looked so yummy in the magazine!) or a cooking disaster at your hands when you have guests over.
Remember, even the pros test and tweak their recipes!
10. Mies En Place – The Holy Grail Of Cooking
Mies en place is French for “putting in place” and in cooking lingo it refers to the act of putting everything that is needed for a recipe, from the ingredients to the tools, in place so that all the cook has to do is grab it and use it as he/she goes along.
Being organized and having everything you need already set up not only saves time, but it allows for a smooth process without any interruptions. This is especially important in restaurants where food needs to be put on the table in a timely manner, but it is also something that should be practiced by every home cook.
Before you start and after having thoroughly read the recipe, put out every single ingredient. Chop, measure, weigh, etc. all the ingredients and put them in separate containers (glass bowls are particularly useful for this) on the kitchen counter. Next, set out all the tools you will need for the recipe– spoons, knives, measuring cups, pots, pans, and kitchen devices such as a food processor or blender. Once you have mies en place, you are good to go and don’t have to worry about finding that measuring cup or running out of flour.