- I’m all for spontaneity when it comes to picking a restaurant or deciding on a movie, but when it comes to cooking, thoughtful planning is key to a winning result. These small practices will have a big impact on your cooking.
It doesn’t take a culinary degree or pricey equipment to become a good cook. It does, however, take an understanding of the intangibles that aren’t always written out in recipes. Those soft skills are a big part of the classes in Superior’s Cooking School, where we go beyond the recipe and help you acquire habits you can use every time you enter the kitchen. Here are ten small but important ways to immediately improve your cooking.
Our team has accumulated hours of experience in restaurants, at home, and in the test kitchen. Let them help guide you through the simplest and trickiest parts of your culinary life.
Read the Recipe Carefully: A skill that often gets overlooked by new cooks is how to read a recipe. If you don’t read the recipe through at least once—preferably twice—before you start cooking, you won’t realize that you need to brine that fried chicken before frying it or chill the croissant dough for hours before rolling it out. It also will help you identify ingredients that might be used more than once that should be divided as necessary before hand. Cooking School Chef Sammy, who swears by reading the recipe before starting to cook, attests that this kind of attention to detail makes the entire cooking experience less stressful and much more enjoyable.
Get the Right Equipment: The seven essential types of pots to cook a meal include skillets, Dutch ovens, woks, roasting pans, casserole dishes, slow cookers and salad bowls. Besides those pots, a well-stocked kitchen includes a saucepan or two, knives and at least two cutting boards, one for meat and fish and one for everything else. And ideally you should have a third board for fruit, so that it doesn’t end up tasting like garlic. We recommend using the biggest cutting boards your space will accommodate—the bigger the board, the more room you have for quickly prepping ingredients. You should also have a set of mixing bowls, dry and wet measuring cups and measuring spoons
Organize Your Work Space: Create a well-lit, clutter-free prep space in your kitchen that has space for your cutting board, ingredients and a bowl or two. Keep knives close by. And position a garbage can, trash bowl or compost bin within arm’s reach so you can get carrot peels, onions skins and so forth out of the way.
Shop Smart: Half the battle of getting dinner on the table quickly is making sure you don’t have to go to the supermarket every other day. The best approach is to make a weekly plan of what you’re going to cook, consult your recipes and write a detailed shopping list. You can make your trip to the store as quick as possible if you organize your list by aisle. Try breaking it into these sections: produce, meat & seafood, dry goods, freezer, dairy, refrigerator, bakery and deli.
Keep a Well-Stocked Pantry: When you’re making a shopping list, and as you cook and use up ingredients, keep your pantry in mind. If every time you reach the bottom of a bottle of soy sauce you always jot it down on your list, you won’t come up empty-handed the next time you’re about to throw your ingredients in a wok for a stir-fry
Use the Power of Herbs and Spices: Herbs and spices are essential for making great-tasting food that’s healthy too. They let you create bright, aromatic, vibrant-tasting dishes without loading up on salt, sugar, butter or cream. So keep a well-organized array of dried herbs and spices, preferably close to your work space. Keep in mind that herbs and spices do lose potency the longer they sit on your shelves. After they’ve been there a year or two, replace them. And if you have space, plant an herb garden or, if you live in a colder climate, a small planter that you can bring inside in the winter.
Remember Your Mise en Place: Another important habit that happens before cooking is organizing your mise en place, which is the French term for “everything in its place.” Whether you place your precisely measured ingredients in individual bowls or arrange them in order on a cutting board, having all of your ingredients prepared in the proper amounts is essential to successfully executing a recipe.
Preheat Your Oven: Most ovens need at least 15 minutes to preheat fully. If you don’t preheat your oven sufficiently, there’s a good chance it could affect the outcome of your dish. And Cooking School chef instructor Maria Khan also points out that it’s important to position the oven racks as directed in the recipe.
Taste the Dish Before Serving: Many recipes will end by instructing the cook to adjust the seasonings. Before you go ahead and adjust the seasonings, make sure to taste the food. We generally season food lightly throughout the cooking process and then add more salt as needed. And here’s a good tip from Cooking School chef instructor Sameer Mahmood: If you’re serving something chilled, taste it after cooking and before serving—cold mutes the effects of seasonings, so you may need to readjust them.
Learn from Your Mistakes: Even our test cooks occasionally turn out less-than-perfect food. It happens. However, a good cook should be able to analyze failure, pinpoint the cause, and then avoid that pitfall the next time. In all of our cooking classes, we provide a list of common mistakes that cooks might make when preparing each recipe. But even if your first try or two isn’t perfect, remember that repetition is key to any learning process.