Cooking well is about more than just knife skills and finding a favorite lasagna recipe. It’s about knowing when to use which type of pan, or what ingredients can be substituted for others. If you’re looking to grow your kitchen abilities, you need to learn how to think like a cook, gaining a deeper understanding of ingredients, better techniques, and learning the secrets to take a dish to the next level. Here are 10 habits that will make you a better cook. How many of them do you use in your cooking?
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1. Read the Recipe Carefully and Follow the Directions (At Least the First Time)
Almost everyone has embarked upon preparing a recipe only to realize midway through that the dish needs hours of chilling time before it can be served or that it calls for a special pan that you don’t own. By reading the recipe completely through before you start to cook, you will avoid any surprises along the way. We also recommend making the recipe as directed the first time you cook it—once you understand the recipe, you can improvise and make it your own, but first you have to give it a fair shot as written
2. Be Prepared (It’s Not Just for Boy Scouts)
Set out and organize your mise en place before you start to cook: Track down all of the equipment you will need for the recipe and prep all of the ingredients (be sure to prepare the ingredients as instructed—food that is uniformly and properly cut will cook more evenly and look better). A recipe is a lot simpler to make when all the components and tools you need are at your fingertips. That way you won’t overcook your pasta when you can’t find your colander at the last minute and you won’t forget to add the baking soda to your cake.
3. Start with Good Ingredients
Don’t expect to turn old eggs into a nicely risen souffle or make a stunning salad from the wilting greens that have been in your fridge for two weeks. Freshness matters, and the components you use can make or break your dish.
4. Keep Substitutions to a Minimum—No, Seriously
We’ve all done it—used brown sugar when there’s no white sugar in the pantry, subbed in whatever cheese we have on hand for the Gruyère in the recipe, poured the batter into a square pan when the round pan was nowhere to be found. There are certain substitutions that can work in a pinch, but in general you should use the ingredients and equipment called for in the recipe. This is especially true in baking, where even the slightest change can spell disaster. And if you use a 10-inch skillet when a 12-inch is called for, you’ll never get the sear you’re looking for on that chicken.
5. Always Preheat
Most ovens need at least 15 minutes to preheat fully. Plan accordingly. If you don’t preheat your oven correctly, then your food will spend more time in the oven and, as a result, will likely be dry and overcooked (and baked goods may suffer more dire consequences). Also, position the racks in the oven as directed—cookies that brown properly on the middle rack emerge overbaked when baked on the lower rack. These warnings also apply to preheating your pans on the stovetop. The temperature of the cooking surface will drop the minute food is added, so don’t rush the preheating step. Wait for the oil to shimmer when cooking vegetables, and wait until you see the rst wisps for smoke rise from the oil when you’re cooking proteins.
6. Monitor the Dish as It Cooks
Ovens and stovetops can vary in intensity. And maybe you cut those carrots slightly larger than we did when we created the recipe. These little differences are why we often give a range when providing cooking times. You should treat cooking times as solid guidelines, but it is also important to follow the visual cues provided in the recipe. And don’t wait until the prescribed time has elapsed to check the doneness of a particular dish: It is good practice to start checking 5 to 10 minutes before the recipe says the food will be done.
7. Taste the Dish Before Serving
Most recipes end by instructing the cook to adjust the seasoning “to taste.” This means you actually have to taste the food. We generally write our recipes so you’re seasoning the food pretty lightly throughout the cooking process and then adding more as needed at the end. Foods that will be served chilled, such as gazpacho, should be tasted again when they are cold, since cold mutes the effect of seasonings. Don’t forget that there are other ways to season besides salt and pepper.
8. Learn From Your Mistakes—Your Education in the Kitchen Is a Lifelong Project
Even the experienced cooks in our test kitchen often turn out less-than-perfect food. (You have to work through the duds to get to the best possible recipes!) A good cook is able to analyze failure, pinpoint the cause, and then avoid that pitfall next time. A good cook also notices when something works particularly well—a combination of ingredients, a particular technique. Above all, a good cook is always learning. Don’t make a new dish every night of the year; if you find something you like, make it over and over until you master it and add it to your regular repertoire.
9. Know the Lingo
Some recipes are precise blueprints, specifying particular sizes, shapes, quantities, and cooking times. Other recipes are rough sketches that leave the cook to fill in the blanks. In addition to the level of detail supplied by the recipe writer, the level of knowledge the cook brings varies tremendously. Unfamiliar terminology can be a big problem, especially for novice cooks trying to work their way through a recipe—if you aren’t sure what a word means, you should always check before proceeding with the recipe.
10. Enjoy Yourself. Food Should Be Fun!
In the end, a successful cook is someone who enjoys cooking. Yes, sometimes you just need to feed yourself, and there are plenty of recipes out there for quick and painless meals when you aren’t feeling up to assembling a three-course feast. But even the simplest cooking tasks can be enjoyable. Take pride in your accomplishments; if you enjoy cooking, you will get in the kitchen more often—and practice really does make perfect.