Posted by: A Part of the Solution | December 5, 2011

Easy Stuff to make You a Better Cook

I’ve spent decades of my life in kitchens. I’ve followed recipes, and I’ve made stuff up. I’ve cooked in the idiom of cuisines from all the inhabited continents and many major archipelagos. I’ve collected hundreds of cookbooks and watched a lot of food being prepared on the television set. And I’ve learned a few things along the way.

Some of what I learned has to do with how far I’ll go and under what degree of stress to achieve out-of-the-ordinary food. Some of what I learned is just plain common sense and useful in day-to-day cooking situations. I’ll be sharing from the second category in this blog post.

In no especial order:

1.) Allow the pan to come to full heat before putting the ingredients in. Really, if you don’t, the food is just laying there (and soaking up the fat you wanted to cook it in or soaking in the stock you use instead and becoming unappealingly soggy). A corollary of this first tip is a) Don’t jack the heat all the way up just to get the pan going (unless you’re boiling water, say). Most fats begin breaking down into polymers when they’re overheated. You only have to take your eyes off the pan for a minute to come back to a scorching disaster, a smokey kitchen and known carcinogens in every mouthful.

2.) Put a dampened tea towel or paper towel under your cutting board. Do this to completely stabilize the surface on which you’re cutting with (one hopes) a very sharp knife. If your board isn’t slipping around minutely as you chop up or slice through, you’ll find you have fewer kitchen boo-boos and you’ll be able to work more quickly as well as more confidently.

3.) Put a lid on it. If you’re wanting a large volume of something to heat up, it will do so more quickly if you put a lid on the pot or pan in question. And you’ll also be able to lower the heat under your pan or pot so as to reduce the likelihood of burning your food.

4.) Leave the lid off it. When you want a volume of food to reduce and thicken up (tighten up in kitchen speak), you want the lid off, or well cracked at the least. And if you’re short of time, you may also wish to put the hood fan on to draw the moisture out of your food more aggressively.

5.) Find an app, bookmark a page, download a PDF, or copy a chart in a book from the library to learn how deeply various vegetables grow in the ground, or how far above the ground they hang as they ripen. Stop adding the onions, carrots and celery (or whatever) to the pan at the same time. Instead, add the veggies to the pan in the order of growing depth. Your finished dish will have a better texture this way–whether it’s a soup, a stir-fry, a sauté or a roast. The deeper in the ground a vegetable grows, the longer it takes to cook. The further above the ground it grows, the less time it needs to become cooked through. And there’s an exception to this order: onions. I like my onions well cooked, so I always put them in first.

6.) Garlic management. a) when the garlic will come to the table raw, like in pesto or hummus, mash it with the salt in the recipe. The salt cures the garlic and does away with the full raw punch of this pungent allium. b) garlic is less likely to burn when you’re cooking it if you remove the germ from the clove before you otherwise prepare it. Slice the woody top off the clove. Split the clove partially along the convex side longwise. Push the cut edges apart and lift out the germ. I save those tender green sprouts for my stock-scraps bag in the freezer.

7.) When you’re making a dough with creamed fat in it, the whole recipe will work better if you have all your ingredients at room temperature. When you’re making a dough with fat rubbed into the flour, the whole recipe will work better if you have all your ingredients chilled before you begin.

8.) In baking, measuring accurately really does make a difference. Baking is all about adding techniques to various proportions of fat, flour (sugars) and wet ingredients together. If you don’t get the proportions right, you’re not likely to have a great finished product–or if you do, it won’t resemble the one you wanted it to be. Don’t bang a measuring cup on the counter or table to ‘level’ it. Do have dry measuring cups and a liquid measuring cup. Or heck, go all out and get a cheap postage scale and be accurate with less effort than all those measuring cups take.

9.) Baked goods need to be the same size to be done at the same time. If your cookies vary in mass by 30%, you’ll find some of them are done whilst others are burning and still others are obviously not cooked through at all. This is also true for muffins, rolls, and anything at all which is baked in a discrete unit. The corollary is a) use the size of a dish called for in the recipe, or scale the recipe to account for the different measurements of your dish. Filling for a nine-inch pie overflows if you use and eight-inch pie pan. And that same filling will be overcooked and underwhelming in a ten-inch pie plate.

10.) If you’re making a new recipe, please read the instructions and the ingredient lists all the way through. In fact, read them more than once. Check your pantry and fridge to be certain you have what you need to make the dish before you start cooking. Go through the steps of the dish so that you understand the time it will take and the skills and equipment it requires to be prepared.



  1. A suggested amendation to 4.) is use a pot with a larger surface area to speed evaporation in your pot (if you’ve got one with a larger surface area, that is–if you don’t, it’s back to the hood fan for you!)

  2. Good idea about using the germ for stock! I always threw them away. Not any more!

    • It’s surprising how quickly the little goobers pile right up as well. They add a nice character to a pot of stock.

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