Make the most of your free time by honing new skills. By now you’ve explored, cleaned, and organized every room in your home, so it’s probably time to set some personal-improvement goals. Now is the time to hone your kitchen skills.
My husband and I are brushing up on lots of skills that have gone dormant during our normally jam-packed days, and we’re finding solace in some of these more repetitive tasks. So far, the highlights have been making fresh pasta, baking bread, and cooking with our sons.
If you’re interested in using this time at home to improve your skills in the kitchen, this list is for you. Whether you’re just learning to cook or have been whipping up masterpieces for years, these handy, science-based skills will translate across many different recipes and keep you cooking long after things get back to normal.
- Make a great vinaigrette – Vinaigrettes are far more than just salad dressings. In many ways, a vinaigrette is really the ultimate sauce, bringing brightness, acidity, and richness to just about any savory dish, from roasted vegetables to grains to sandwiches to cooked seafood or poultry.
The key to a great vinaigrette is emulsification. An emulsion is simply a cohesive combination of two liquids that don’t ordinarily mix, like oil and vinegar or oil and lemon juice. What’s more, an emulsified vinaigrette works best for keeping your salad greens crisp and unwilted because the vinegar surrounding the droplets of oil prevent the oil from directly contacting the greens. Bonus: An emulsified vinaigrette clings more effectively, guaranteeing balanced flavor in every bite.
- Braise more gently in the oven – Braising generally involves browning food first, and then cooking it in some type of liquid to finish. Braises can be fast, as in vegetables, or slow, like in our Best Beef Stew. But all braises involve gentle cooking in liquid and maintaining the liquid below boiling ensures that the temperature can’t possibly go above 212 degrees. This makes braising an especially effective technique for cooking meat, because longer cooking at a lower temperature coaxes collagen—the main protein that makes up the connective tissue surrounding meat’s muscle fibers—to melt into gelatin, which lubricates the muscle fibers and results in a soft, tender final texture.
- Teach your kids how to bake bread the easy way – The promise of no-knead bread seems impossible to keep, but all you need is the right recipe. Our kid-friendly Almost No-Knead Bread recipe is the perfect first loaf of bread for the little chefs in your life. They’ll combine flour, yeast, salt, and water in a bowl, let it rise, and then bake it in a Dutch oven. An hour later, out comes the most beautiful open-crumbed, crisp-crusted loaf most people have ever baked at home.
- Brine dried beans – Brining isn’t just for meat. When you brine dried beans in salted water, they cook up with softer, more tender skins and are less likely to blow out and disintegrate.
The reason this works boils down to science. The sodium in salt interacts with the cells of the beans’ skins. The pectin molecules in bean skins are tightly bound by calcium and magnesium ions. As the beans brine in the salt water, the sodium ions replace some of the calcium and magnesium ions in the skins, causing the pectin to weaken. Because sodium ions are more weakly charged than calcium and magnesium ions, they allow more water to penetrate the skins, leading to a softer texture. And for those of you who have hard water (which causes beans to cook up with tougher exteriors) this method negates the effects of hard water on beans!
- 5. Butterfly a chicken –To butterfly a chicken, use kitchen shears to remove its backbone and then press it to flatten.
Some people call it “butterfly,” others call it “spatchcock.” Either way, it takes just a few minutes and a good pair of kitchen shears to butterfly a chicken by snipping out the backbone and then pressing down on its breastbone to help the bird lie flat. Opening the chicken like a book promotes more even cooking of the breast and thigh meat. And a butterflied chicken cooks considerably faster than an un-butterflied whole bird, allowing you to roast it at a high temperature to achieve mahogany skin and succulent meat.
- Whip up light-as-air soufflés – There is a pervasive myth that soufflés are fragile and fraught with disaster, ready to collapse with the slightest disturbance. But here’s the truth: They are neither complicated nor finicky. A soufflé will not collapse from loud noises or sudden movements. The ideal soufflé has a dramatic rise above its dish, a crusty exterior cloaking an airy but substantial outer layer, and a rich, loose center that is not completely set.
- Make real caramel – Making caramel candies and sauces involves nothing more than melting sugar on the stovetop and then adding cream and butter—but it’s tricky. To break down its molecules correctly and trigger the cascade of necessary chemical reactions, the sugar must be heated slowly and carefully, or else it can melt unevenly and burn or seize and turn grainy. With a few modifications of traditional recipes, we found a way to make every batch of caramel foolproof.