About 10 years ago I was passing through the small kitchen at our old space in Brookline as former test cook Jeremy Sauer was cutting chicken breasts horizontally—parallel to the cutting board—into cutlets for a recipe he was working on. (Editor's note: Last year, around this time, America's Test Kitchen moved its facilities from Brookline Village to Boston's Seaport. Check out our Official Welcome Into Our New Home.) Without thinking, I walked into a trap by telling him that I’ve never been good at that technique, and that my cutlets always come out ragged and uneven.
“Is that a fact, chef?” he said with a Cheshire-cat grin; addressing me, someone who wasn’t a chef, as “chef” was a playful insult. “So you probably can’t do this, then,” he said, taking a ripe red pepper, lopping off the ends and opening it up quickly with his chef’s knife, pressing it flat against the board, and cutting it into two paper-thin fillets, and holding them up so I could see the light streaming through.
No Jeremy, I couldn’t and still can’t do that. My knife skills are decent, but they’ll never be anywhere near professional level. But that doesn’t mean I can’t cook professional-level food at home. All it takes is knowledge, some decent gear, a little planning, and a bit of practice—all things that Cook's Country (and our sister sites America’s Test Kitchen and Cook's Illustrated) can help with. After all, our mission is to help people become better cooks. I’ve certainly become a better cook over my twelve years of working here. As a testimony, here are twelve things I’ve learned that can help take your cooking to another level.
The New Essentials CookbookThe New Essentials Cookbook presents all of the right equipment, techniques, and ingredients you'll need to help you master what we consider today's essential dishes.
1. Salt In Stages
Food that’s only salted at the end of cooking lacks dimension. In the test kitchen, we add salt to recipes in stages—a little at a time—and taste and adjust seasoning before serving.
Bee House Salt BoxSalting your food is an important part of the cooking process. Our winning salt box looks good on your counter and provides you easy access to this all-important seasoning.
2. Salt Large Pieces of Meat in Advance
Salt big pieces of meat early before cooking. We recommend at least an hour or up to a day. Doing this allows the salt to penetrate and deeply season the meat.
Freeze-Tite Clear High Cling Freezer WrapAt an unusual 15 inches wide, this plastic wrap is the only consumer-grade product that we’ve found that can cover large ingredients or items with a single sheet.
3. Generously Season Cold Foods
In the test kitchen, we add more love to cold foods by seasoning it aggressively with both salt and acid. Chilling foods dull their flavors and aromas, so it's important to compensate by seasoning generously—but judiciously.
Test Kitchen Tip: To keep from overdoing it, season with a normal amount of salt before chilling and then taste and add more salt as desired just before serving.
OXO Good Grips 8 Cup Smart Seal Rectangle ContainerWith a plastic lid that latched easily and securely and an airtight, leakproof seal that didn't drip or let moisture in, this container is our top choice for chilling your food in a glass storage.
4. Use Hot Oils to Bring Out The Flavors of Spices
To intensify the flavor of ground spices—particularly blends such as chili powder and curry powder—cook them for a minute or two in a little butter or oil before adding liquid to the pan. This will help bring out their full flavor and aroma. (To release the essential oils from whole spices we recommend cooking them over medium heat, without any oil.)
OXO Good Grips Non-Stick 12-inch Open FrypanThe ideal skillet is easy to handle, is durable, has great release, and cooks food evenly with appropriate browning. This skillet makes everyday living easier. Who doesn't want that?
5. Use an Instant-Read Thermometer While Cooking
If you cook or bake regularly, you should have a food thermometer. A good thermometer takes the guesswork out of cooking, telling you exactly what's going on inside your food. In the test kitchen, we use an instant-read thermometer when cooking fish, meat, poultry, and bread to ensure that are recipes are one step closer to perfection. I happen to do this at home too—and yes, my meals come out just as good, every time.
Thermoworks Thermapen Mk4Knowledge is power, especially in the kitchen. We love this precise, quick-reacting instant-read thermometer because more control means less stress and better results.
6. Practice Your Knife Skills
You don’t have to be able to fillet a pepper, but cutting things evenly means they will cook evenly. Take the time to build good technique, and your speed and proficiency will gradually increase.
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7. Get Comfortable With Heat
Joyce Chen 14-inch Nonstick Flat Bottom WokThis 14-inch pan heats quickly, cleans up easily, and sears meat respectably.
8. Smoke Food Over the Grill More Often
Weber Performer Deluxe Charcoal GrillThe convenience of gas plus the flavor of charcoal make this grill a worthwhile upgrade from the basic model.
9. Get in the Habit of Prepping Your Space
Mise en place is the French term for “everything in its place,” and really just means doing all your prep work in advance and keeping everything organized until you need it. A proper “mise” allows you to work faster once the cooking starts.
Anchor Hocking 6-Piece Nesting Prep Bowl SetIts wide, shallow bowls are easy to hold, fill, empty, and clean. Plus, they can be used in the microwave and the oven.
10. Master the Meals That Are Important To You
In my household, a simple roast chicken became an important meal to master and so I did just that. With roasted chicken you get a two-for-one: try making stock from the carcass—it's dead-easy and a wasted opportunity if you don’t do it. In the test kitchen, homemade stock has been a transformative ingredient for many of our recipes.
Winco Reinforced Extra Fine Mesh Boullion StrainerThis stainless steel sieve has a large capacity and comfortable round handle that won't dig into your hands—making it the perfect strainer for stocks.
11. Acknowledge Lemon (and Lime) As Your Friend
There aren’t many dishes that aren’t improved by a finishing spritz. In the test kitchen, we normally add lemon or lime to the dish at the end for maximim flavor impact.
Chef’n FreshForce Citrus JuicerThis winning model features a star-like arrangement of large draining slots, which direct the juice in a steady stream with no splattering or overflowing.
12. Embrace Butter
Butter tastes good. Really good. It goes into everything in most restaurant dishes. You don’t have to over-do it, but know that a knob of butter makes most things taste better.