At the intersection of the spooky season and dropping temperatures, there is a huge rise in time spent in the kitchen. Baking season is upon us, and more and more people are ready to slowly simmer the soup on a cozy fall day. Plus, with all these Halloween and holiday parties coming up, many people want to boost their culinary prowess to impress their friends and family.
Luckily, a few easy swaps and switches can make you the chef you were always meant to be. Put on your apron and grab your favorite kitchen tools; it’s time to get cooking.
Tool Care & Safe Use
When asking about better cooking, most chefs will instantly recommend cooking tools rather than techniques. There’s a reason for that—high-quality tools make high-quality food. Food is all about chemistry, and how your pan transfers heat or how your spatula scrapes the ingredients from the cooking surface really does make a difference.
Sharp knives are the number one tool in a chef’s arsenal. Dull blades hack at vegetables and tear meat until all you’re left with is a shredded mess. Not ideal. Sharp knives easily slice through tough, hearty vegetables and remove fat and skin from meats and fish. With practice, you’ll learn to cut evenly sized portions of your ingredients, which encourages even cooking throughout the dish. Sliced onions will caramelize at about the same rate, diced vegetables will roast evenly, and stew meat will tenderize within a reasonable range.
And with sharper knives comes a renewed need to practice safe chopping techniques. Dull knives lead to more frequent injuries due to slipping and imprecise cuts, but sharp knives do require a bit of care with use for your safety. Practice cutting ingredients slowly on the cutting board. Use one hand to stabilize the ingredient and tuck your fingertips under to create a sort of claw. This keeps all appendages away from the blade for a reduced chance of injury. Over time, your speed will naturally improve as you master the technique.
Take Care of Your Kitchen Tools
Even after outfitting your kitchen with the best possible tools, you’ll need to care for them properly. Read up on appropriate care before buying—will you actually season that cast iron skillet, or will it just sit in your cupboard when it needs some TLC?—to ensure you buy items that you can maintain for the long haul. Be realistic. Some items require a little more attention than others.
Wooden utensils should be hand-washed and dried to prevent cracking. Additionally, these kitchen tools may require an occasional coat of mineral oil to prevent drying. Most ceramic and silicone items can be put in the dishwasher. When in doubt, read the care instructions for the item before you throw away the packaging; more than likely, the manufacturer included some helpful tips to lengthen the lifespan of your tools or gadget. When you care for tools appropriately, they’ll last longer and perform better.
For another quick fix to your cooking, play with your seasonings. If you don’t season your food, start! Spices really kick your food up a notch. They add both flavor and health benefits with little caloric addition. Cooking with spices is a great way to get into healthy cooking without sacrificing flavor. If you’re health-conscious, stay away from those spice mixes often sold at grocery stores; many use salt and sugar as bases, so if you’re eliminating or cutting back on either of these ingredients, stick to individualized bottles. You can always mix your own blends by combining your favorite spices without salt and sugar.
If you’re brand-new to seasoning your food, try playing with some spices you have in your pantry but never use. Over time, you’ll discover which spices are your favorite through trial and error. Sometimes, you’ll knock it out of the park and create something incredible; other times, it may turn out a little off. It happens. Keep going. As you experiment, you’ll find some favorite spice blends that even the most educated chef may not know about.
If you’re not quite so adventurous with your food, start by looking at the spices listed in your favorite recipes. Take note of common denominators. If all your favorite recipes use a combination of chili pepper, cumin, and garlic powder, you can replicate that trio in your own experimental cooking. From there, build out your spice repertoire by adding a variety of flavor profiles. Choose some dried herbs, hot and peppery spices, and earthy seasonings to create layers of taste.
Taste Often—When Possible
Always remember to taste the food as you add spices to avoid overpowering the flavor of your ingredients—as long as there’s no raw meat in the pan. Balanced flavors are not worth food-borne illnesses. Most vegetarian and vegan recipes are safe to taste-test, so take advantage of this opportunity to fine-tune the flavors and add more when necessary.
If you find you’ve added too much, you can generally counteract it by adding more of your ingredients—potatoes, vegetables, rice, pasta, or anything else you have in your pantry. It’s best to add these extras sooner than later so the new additions are done at the same time as the rest of the dish. If you’re cooking sauce or soup, you can also add water or broth to dilute the spiciness.
Shake That Salt (& Pepper)
Most recipes utilize salt and pepper because they are universal flavor boosters. As you cook, get in the habit of adding less salt more frequently. Adding salt at various times during the cooking process creates layers of flavors as it will interact with the food and change. It’s all chemistry. Adding a quick shake of salt early and one right at the end is a good start, and as you spend more time in the kitchen, you’ll discover the best times to season your favorite dishes. For example, when cooking curry, add a quick shake of salt while softening the onions, another when seasoning, one more when adding vegetables, and a final pinch to finish it. It sounds like a lot of salt, but if you use careful shakes, it will create a delicately balanced dish without overpowering your other flavors.
Lastly, to finish your food and complement all these flavors you’ve spent time cultivating, add some acid. Citrus juice, vinegar, wine, tomatoes, or pickled condiments will do the trick. They will make your food’s flavors pop, and you will be amazed at how much better your food tastes when you add just a quick squeeze of lime to your curry or top your tacos with some pickled vegetables. Spicy foods taste great with lemon or lime juice at the end, and Italian food is well-suited to a splash of balsamic vinegar.
These quick tips and kitchen tool tricks will make you a better chef instantly. Seriously. Don’t believe me? Try out a few of them for dinner tonight. You’ll be amazed that you could make something so tasty with so little effort. Over time, these quick tips will feel second nature to you, and you’ll wow all your friends and family with your culinary expertise.