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12 Things I've Learned at Work That Have Changed My Cooking Forever

When you've worked at America's Test Kitchen for 12 years, improved kitchen skills is a benefit of the job.
By Published Sept. 18, 2018

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.

1. Salt In Stages

Garlic Knots
Salt is added to Cook's Country's Garlic Knots recipe at two different stages. First, we add a teaspoon of salt to the dough. Next, we sprinkle coarse sea salt on the knots before letting them cool down.

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. 

2. Salt Large Pieces of Meat in Advance

Turkey Breasts
In this Cook's Illustrated Slow-Roasted Bone-In Pork Rib Roast recipe, the roast is rubbed evenly with a salt-sugar mixture. The roast is then wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated for at least 6 hours.

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.

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.

4. Use Hot Oils to Bring Out The Flavors of Spices

Toasting Spices
For the herb sauce in Cook's Country's Stovetop-Roasted Chicken recipe we pour off 2 teaspoons of fat from the skillet after the chicken is done cooking. Next, we add garlic and rosemary and cook it over medium heat until fragrant.

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.)

5. Use an Instant-Read Thermometer While Cooking

Instant Read Thermometers
Deputy Editor of the Tasting and Testing team, Hannah Crowley, measures the temperature of a roast using a digital thermometer during testing of several brands of instant-read thermometers for an upcoming review.

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.

6. Practice Your Knife Skills

A team member of the Tasting and Testing team tries out a variety of different santoku's knives on carrots for an upcoming review.

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.

7. Get Comfortable With Heat

Browning in Skillet
After the pork has been removed from the slow-cooker in Cook's Country's Slow-Cooker Pork Carnitas recipe, we heat up oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat to ensure that all the liquid is evaporated and the pork gets browned.

Don’t be afraid of heat: a ripping-hot skillet, wok, oven, or grill can provide deeply flavorful browning and char.

8. Smoke Food Over the Grill More Often

Charcoal Snake Wood Chips
To cook Texas-style smoked brisket we built a charcoal snake using briquettes. This formation of the briquettes provides low, indirect heat to the center of the grill for about 6 hours.

Smoking meat, fish, and veggies on a grill is really easy; you don’t need a fancy smoker to make great hot-smoked salmon, pulled pork, chicken legs, or brisket.

9. Get in the Habit of Prepping Your Space

Stir Fry
Before preparing quick-cooking recipes like America's Test Kitchen's Stir-Fried Beef and Broccoli with Oyster Sauce, we always organize the ingredients.

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.

10. Master the Meals That Are Important To You

Roasted Chicken with Lemon Herb Sauce
Cook's Country's Stovetop-Roasted Chicken with Lemon-Herb Sauce uses an unconventional, oven-free approach to this versatile dish.

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.

11. Acknowledge Lemon (and Lime) As Your Friend

Grilled Asparagus
Cook's Country's Grilled Prosciutto-Wrapped Asparagus recipe finishes with a sprinkle of pepper and a spritz of lemon juice.

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. 

12. Embrace Butter

Corn on the Cob
To keep Cook's Country's Grilled Corn on the Cob recipe simple we add salt, pepper, and unsalted 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.