You, Too, Can Be An Above-Average Cook

Fried with lemongrass

Cooking is a skill I did not learn growing up. I would categorize 95% of my childhood meals as “meat and potatoes.” Any spices beyond salt, pepper, and onion were considered exotic and ill-advised. By age 20, the best home-cooked meal I could muster was grilled cheese and vegetables from a can.

But during college and especially in the years that followed, my palate and subsequently my culinary skills bloomed, in no small part thanks to my wife. At this point, we have a reputation among our friends and neighbors as good cooks—at least that’s what they tell us. We have hosted and prepared food for parties of up to forty people, and last Thanksgiving prepared a six-course tasting menu paired with wine for our families.

Keys to above-average cooking

You learn to cook by cooking a lot. While you can scour recipes and techniques, there is no substitute for getting those hands dirty and throwing the result in your mouth. We have honed our culinary skills with 15 years of cooking dinner most evenings.

Are we trained chefs? Ha! (No.) But we’ve learned a few tips and essentials over the years that have translated, at least for us, into tastier meals.

1. Basics

Find a partner who likes food and likes to cook. I know a guy who developed scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) in college from a diet consisting only of Cap’n Crunch for several months. Now in his 30s, he has never knowingly eaten a vegetable in its native form. His preferred dinner is baked chicken breast with salt and pepper.

If you were lucky enough to marry this guy, you would not have much opportunity to expand your cooking skills. I’m not recommending you choose a life partner based on their dietary restrictions, but a willing and food-minded cookmate can do wonders for dinnertime deliciousness.

Read through the whole recipe (and online comments) before you start. Dr-Mrs-Dr. Curious frequently chastises me for not following my own advice here. On more than one occasion, I have spewed forth a visceral “Noooooo!” when we need to eat in 15 minutes and the next (unread) step in the recipe calls for a 1-hour rest in the fridge.

I take most online comments with a grain of salt (pun intended), but upvoted recipe comments are an exception. Many times a suggested tweak of the oven temperature or extra spice can be the difference between a good and great result.

Get outside your comfort zone. Use fresh curry leaves from the Indian grocery store. Try your hand at sushi rice. Make your own butter. Even if you don’t love the results the first time, you are learning valuable skills that might translate to other dishes.

Spice market in Istanbul.
Spice market in Istanbul.

Youtube is your friend. For better or worse, we eschew our cookbooks in favor of “Google recipes” most of the time these days. Especially early on in the learning process, I found it extraordinarily helpful to watch video of a recipe before trying it myself. Is the description of how to spatchcock a turkey driving you bonkers? A video will solve that problem in an instant.

Find recipe sources you trust. Family and friends can be great recipe sources when you are first starting out (try to pick those whose food you actually like). Beyond this, the number of recipes out there is overwhelming. If you stumble upon a recipe that knocks it out of the park, see what else that author is cooking. Alton Brown, Serious Eats, and Ina Garten are a few of my go-to sources.

2. Ingredients

fresh market produce

Salt and butter.  Do not be shy (nor cheap) with these two staples if you want your food to taste good.

  • Salt: We keep 3-4 types of salt in stock in our pantry
    • table salt for everyday baking
    • coarse Kosher salt for most other dishes
    • French gray fine sea salt (read: expensive) for extra-special baked goods
    • Coarse sea salt (also expensive) as a “finishing” salt, i.e. sprinkled on top of food just before serving
  • Butter: Two types of butter are in our fridge
    • “Regular” unsalted butter: Land O’ Lakes and the like. This butter works just fine for most non-dessert cooking, in which you won’t taste much of the pure butter flavor.
    • “European” butter: Plugra and Kerrygold are examples of this style of butter, which has been fermented as well as churned longer to achieve at least 82% butterfat (normal butter is 80%). If you going to straight-up eat the butter or taste a buttery flavor—such as in a flaky pastry dough—go with this style.

Umami. The so-called fifth flavor (after sweet, salty, bitter, and sour), umami is manifested by taste buds that recognize glutamate, and is a buzzword in the food industry these days. A number of foods are rich in umami flavor; in my own cooking, I will sometimes add a small amount of tomato paste, soy sauce, or Parmesan cheese (the choice depends on the dish) to incorporate the umami flavor.

Parmigiana Reggiano—or as Mario Batali calls it: “the undisputed king of all cheeses”—deserves a separate mention. I have noticed a big difference in Parm quality among shops in my area, so do a little sleuthing and tasting to find one that is imported and really good. Luckily, we have an amazing cheesemonger in our city that imports the best Parmigiana at a reasonable price. It keeps forever, and I will sometimes buy a three-pound chunk if I am in the neighborhood.

Garlic. Unless you have an allergy to it, put garlic in almost everything you cook. I’m serious. A tip: if you saute with it on medium or high heat, make sure to only cook it for about 30-60 seconds to avoid burning.

Lemons and limes. A squeeze of juice or some zest can add that extra zing to many dishes. I find that lemon juice can work wonders with simple cooked veggies.

Seasonal ingredients. Embrace your inner hipster and buy fresh and buying local. We went blueberry picking last weekend (well, the adults picked and the kids ate) and assembled a blueberry galette later that night. Not much grows locally in the midwestern winter, but citrus grown elsewhere is in season.

Homemade stock. I look forward to Thanksgiving for the turkey stock we make afterward. For a basic chicken or turkey stock, add the bones with a little meat still on them, onions/carrots/celery, garlic (of course), peppercorns, saffron and salt. Let it simmer away for a few hours, and taste it to see if it’s done. I like to freeze it in different size containers in case I want to add more or less to a future dish.

cheese at market in Sarlat, France.
Cheese market in Sarlat, France.

3. Equipment

Decent freaking pans. Please toss that pan with the wiggly, plastic handle in the trash. A solid set of heavy-bottomed, metal-handled pans—Calphalon and All-Clad are common, affordable brands—can go a long way toward upping your stovetop game. Some of our favorite dishes call for a sear in the pan, followed by a finishing bake in the oven; oven-ready pans make this much simpler.

Meat thermometer with alarm. Professional chefs may be able to tell the difference between medium and medium-well via a finger poke, but I have failed miserably in my attempts to replicate this technique. Merely-human cooks are better off taking the guesswork out of it with a leave-in thermometer such as this one from Oxo. As a bonus, it has pre-programmed levels (i.e. rare, medium, well) for different types of meat.

Know your oven (and stovetop). Don’t just stick something in your oven without getting to know it first! An oven that runs warmer or cooler than its indicated temperature can result in chronically over- or undercooked dishes. The simplest solution is to stick a thermometer inside and see if it jibes with the indicated oven temperature.

For the stovetop, try to correlate what should happen in the recipe with what actually occurs in the pan; if the recipes states that onions should be golden brown after 10 minutes on medium heat, and your onions are black, then your burner runs hot. Make note of this for future recipes.


4. Techniques

Learn to estimate measurements. As your culinary white belt progresses toward a green belt, you will become more familiar with what a tablespoon, teaspoon, 1/2 teaspoon, etc. looks like. Somewhere near brown belt level, you will be able to eyeball measurements in the palm of your hand. Black belt measurement techniques are too dangerous to mention here.

Don’t skip the marinade. Marinating can forgive a borderline-criminal degree of overcooking. On the other hand, a chicken breast grilled directly from the fridge can turn into rubber if overcooked by a minute. Do yourself a favor and marinate meat for at least a few hours, or even overnight.

Clean up as you go. Totally optional, but I find it makes the meal experience so much more relaxing to know that I don’t have an hour-long hazmat cleanup waiting for me after dinner. This is especially true—but often more difficult to accomplish—when guests come to dinner. An extra glass of wine also helps with pending cleanup anxiety.

What are your secrets?

No doubt many of you out there are excellent cooks. What tips and tricks have you learned to create those delicious dishes?

7 Replies to “You, Too, Can Be An Above-Average Cook”

  1. I’m not a fantastic cook, but I cook all my own food when I’m working out of town (other than occasional sushi or pizza, usually).

    “Garlic. Unless you have an allergy to it, put garlic in almost everything you cook.” But how much!? I do this with nearly everything I cook, especially when I’m cooking ground meat, but I have no idea why or how much. I’m not even sure I’m tasting it half the time – help me!

    I would also venture to say: please please please don’t put cold water on your hot pots and pans right after you dump the food out of them. I have so many decent pieces of cookware that roommates have ruined doing just that. No fun making Polish crepes on a warble-y pan. Please please please let them cool before you dunk them : )

    1. Hi RR! Cooking for yourself when you are out of town is impressive, especially with that I assume is limited ingredients.

      I love garlic, so I will usually add a little more than the recipe calls for. The exception would be a recipe for chicken with 40 cloves of garlic!

      Cold water on hot pans seems ill-advised and dangerous!

      Thanks for reading!
      Dr. C

      1. Ack – that may be my problem, I rarely use recipe’s, and when I do, they’re for things like lemongrass cream sauce.

        I have a blessing and a curse in a very sensitive palate – usually a little bit of salt / pepper / oregano and I’m good to go 😛

        If I had say, 500g of ground beef I was cooking, how many garlic cloves would I add to that?

        1. My metric ignorance aside (that’s about 1 pound, methinks), I would say 2 garlic cloves would be adequate. Of course, it all depends on your preferences 🙂

          1. I will give it a shot next time! I think it is about a pound, I’m also terrible with conversions 😛 I think I’ve usually used about one clove, so maybe that’s why I haven’t been noticing it… Thanks!

  2. Solitary Diner says: Reply

    I think of my partner and I as good cooks, but I’m blown away by your Thanksgiving menu. How many weeks did it take you to cook all that food?

    The most recent helpful cooking hint that I’ve learned is to cook with a cast-iron frying pan. My partner has had the same one for about 20 years (as opposed to the non-stick ones that I used to throw out every few years), and it is great for frying almost anything. It gives a much better sear than any other frying pan I’ve used.

    For recipes, one of my favourite sites is Smitten Kitchen. I’ve only had one recipe from there that I didn’t like, and even that was really tasty with a very small amount of tweaking.

    1. Cast-iron is great! We have one we use for a great corn bread, among other things. I’ve moved away from all ting nonstick over the years.

      We cooked most of it on the day before and day of Thanksgiving, but the prep, including just getting all the ingredients, took a couple of weeks. Honestly, I don’t think I would do it again. It was really fun and delicious, but a bit too involved to actually enjoy the meal with our families!

Comments please!