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 America's Test Kitchen Online Cooking School, where we go beyond the recipe and help you acquire habits you can use every time you enter the kitchen. Here are five small but important ways to immediately improve your cooking.
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1. 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 (see Focus on Fried Chicken) or chill the croissant dough for hours before rolling it out (see Bakery-Style Pastries). It also will help you identify ingredients that might be used more than once that should be divided as necessary before hand. Cooking School managing editor Molly Farrar, 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.
2. 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. “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,” says Cooking School on-screen instructor Christie Morrison.
3. 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 Carolynn Purpura MacKay also points out that it's important to position the oven racks as directed in the recipe.
4. 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 Sarah Wilson: 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.
5. 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 online 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.
What habits have helped you become a better cook? Let us know in the comments. And, if you want to see how our Cooking School has helped advance some of our members' cooking skills, check out these stories:
- Making the Leap from Nurse to Chef (with a Little Help from the ATK Cooking School)
- Taking the First Step to a Lifetime of Better Cooking with the America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School
- Breaking Out of a Cooking Comfort Zone with the ATK Cooking School
- Conquering Fears and Embracing Mistakes: One Cooking School Student's Journey From Uninspired to Adventurous Home Cook