One of the very best things about cooking is that anyone can learn to do it, and anyone can learn to be good at it.
And since we all have to eat – and for most of us that means cooking – I’m of the opinion that it’s a worthwhile endeavor to get good at home cooking.
Here are 13 basic principles that you can easily implement at home to up your kitchen game and give you consistently delicious home cooked meals!
1. READ THE WHOLE RECIPE
If you’re trying something new – or making something you haven’t in a while – read the recipe all the way through before beginning. That way, you’ll be familiar with the rhythm of the recipe and be able to anticipate the next step. Being caught off guard mid-recipe usually makes for a lower-quality final product and an unhappy cook!
2. RELY ON RECIPE DESCRIPTORS RATHER THAN TIMES
One of the most challenging parts of recipe writing and testing is that it’s hard to know how everything works in your kitchen. Maybe your range or oven run high, or your pans conduct heat extra-efficiently and what’s medium-high on my range might be medium-low on your range. Most well-written recipes will have an indicator of doneness other than time for this exact reason.
For example, a recipe may tell you to cook your onions about 6-8 minutes, until they begin to soften, so you know what to look for before moving to the next step. Maybe this only takes 3 minutes on your stove and the full 8 minutes would leave you with blackened onions. Always rely on the descriptors!
3. SEASON + TASTE AS YOU GO
Don’t just sample the final dish – taste components and adjust the seasoning as you go to make sure they’re on the right track. Tasting as you cook is not only one of the biggest perks of doing the cooking, it also prevents bland foods!
4. HONE YOUR KNIFE SKILLS
Perhaps the most important kitchen tool! Knives are essential for all the chopping, slicing, dicing, mincing, carving, and peeling that happens in the kitchen. Good knife skills means more uniform sizes which means more even cooking. Invest in good knives, practice your knife skills, and keep them sharp.
5. SALT EVERYTHING
Salt is a flavor enhancer. It makes everything better.
Case in point: If you’ve ever made a loaf of bread and forgotten to add the salt, you know what an important role it plays even in foods that aren’t distinctly salty. I keep my salt cellar of kosher salt on the counter at all times and add a pinch to almost everything I make – at most stages of cooking.
Almost all recipes on this site (apart from baked goods) call for kosher salt. I prefer it because it’s less sharp than table salt and it’s really hard to over-salt foods with it.
6. ADD ACID
If you sample a dish and it tastes flat, it’s probably missing acid. Adding a splash of vinegar or a squirt of lemon or lime juice right before serving can take a dish from slightly-underwhelming to WOWZA.
7. USE A DIGITAL THERMOMETER
Take all of the guess work out of telling when something is done and use a digital thermometer! I use mine for everything from meats to breads to baked potatoes. It’s key to getting perfectly cooked foods, every time.
8. REST MEATS
Give your meats 5-10 minutes to rest once they’ve finished cooking. It makes all the difference! Resting meat allows the juices to reabsorb. Slicing immediately after removing from the heat will cause all of that juice to run off, resulting in some sad, dry meat.
9. KEEP CARRYOVER COOKING IN MIND
Foods will continue to cook after they’re removed from the heat source. That’s why it’s important to remove meats, cookies, noodles, eggs, etc. from the heat just before they’re fully cooked. Remember: if they’re done in the pan, they’re overdone on the table.
10. START WITH QUALITY INGREDIENTS
Making delicious food is pretty straightforward when you start with delicious ingredients. Good vanilla, fresh summer produce, and ground spices are just a few ingredients whose quality make a big difference in final flavor.
Which ingredients are worthwhile splurges for your kitchen is up to you! Not everything needs to be expensive, and remember: just because something is expensive doesn’t necessarily mean it’s higher quality.
11. USE YOUR HANDS
Clean hands are one of the most versatile and underrated tools in the kitchen. Getting up close and personal with food can give you a better feel for it. Plus, hands are superior utensils for tasks like tossing salads, seasoning meats, and kneading dough, so don’t be afraid to use them! (But do make sure they’re clean).
12. BALANCE FLAVORS
Foods can be savory, sweet, sour, salty, spicy, or bitter. The most dynamic foods are usually a combination of at least a couple of these flavors. They can enhance and build off of one another in such satisfying ways! That’s why salted caramel (sweet + salty) and strawberries with a splash of reduced balsamic (sweet + sour) are so delicious. If your food is feeling a little one-note, try adding in another flavor profile.
The best way to get better at anything is to practice, and cooking is no exception. Don’t be afraid to experiment, try what you like, and try again if it doesn’t work just how you want the first (or second, or third) time. And of course, with cooking, this also means lots of eating delicious foods!