Everyone has a budding master chef within, but that flavor maestro can be tough to channel. If you’re looking to finally hone your cooking skills and become adept enough to compete in a fiery reality show (even if it’s only in your mind/kitchen), here are a few basic tips to get you started. Remember: Cooking is like life, so most of the time, the best bet is to go with your gut.
1. Brace Yourself
Once you have a recipe, make sure to read it in its entirety before diving in. Recipes will often have waiting times or require material (say, parchment paper or a food processor) that might not be obvious from a quick glance at the ingredients and a little salivating over the teaser photo. Even if there aren’t any surprises, it’s always good to get the lay of the land before setting out. Consider prepping what you can ahead of time if the prospect of tackling the entire thing at once is overwhelming. Making pancakes in the morning? Mix the dry ingredients together and load it into a plastic bag. Got a killer kale salad on your mind? Wash and chop the leaves so your base is in the fridge and ready anytime. Speaking of your fridge, keep it stocked and organized. You’ll be much more inclined to create when your tools are well maintained.
A common mistake among new chefs is forgetting to taste their food as it’s being prepared. Even chefs who have skill, experience, and intuition in the kitchen need to make sure they’re hitting all the right flavor notes. Sampling along the way serves a triple purpose: It both whets and satisfies the appetite, and allows for any adjustments that you might need to make along the way (not that you do—you are a budding master chef).
3. Take Your Time
Patience is a virtue, and it's one that is tested in the heat of the kitchen. Specific situations make patience imperative. To invoke another adage, a watched pot never boils, and while you’re waiting for those bubbles to surface, you might be inclined to jump the gun or start seeing phantom steam. Resist! Same goes for a hot pan: A piece of meat, for example, needs a piping hot pan to get the proper sear. Other items like chocolate suffer from too much heat too soon, which can cause irrevocable burning. Stay patient, and your taste buds will thank you.
4. Stay Measured … Sometimes
There’s often a deep distinction drawn between bakers and chefs, which mostly has to do with the strict, non-improvisational style of baking. If pies and cupcakes and pastries are swirling in your eyes, then it’s important to stay true to recipe specifics (though there’s wiggle room if, say, you want your zucchini bread to have nuts instead of raisins). In other culinary ventures, be bold and modify (with caution) according to personal taste. This will get easier as you refine your skills, but if, for example, your homemade marinara could stand a little more fresh basil, don’t be afraid to take fate into your own hands and toss in another handful.
5. Take a Deep Breath (And Let Your Food Breathe, Too)
An overcrowded pan is another common kitchen blunder. No one likes a crowd, right? Food doesn’t either. The impulse is sensible: piling as many chicken breasts into a pan as possible seems like a good way to cut down on dishes and get a meal prepared faster. The problem is that overcrowding can trap heat and cause food to steam and sweat instead of sear or char. The result is soggy, when you want crisp. Give your food some space and cook in batches. You and your meal will feel much better.
6. Keep it simple
Practice the “less is more” attitude when you’re starting out in the kitchen. While many of the best dishes come from complex sets of flavors and processes (bonjour, beef bourguignon), an excellent oatmeal cookie or roast chicken is a marvel in and of itself. No need to gild the lily.
7. Go For Broke
Not really (cooking at home should save you money), but quality ingredients are worth investing in when it comes to making the very best meal. A few items in particular to avoid skimping on: cheese, meat, coffee, maple syrup, and eggs. This applies to hardware, too. While a large number of kitchen gadgets are not worth the big bucks, you should take some time to find quality basics like knives and a cutting board. Those will get used often and hopefully stay in your cupboard for years to come.
8. Set Goals
Trying to master everything at once can be overwhelming, so figure out what you want to ace and then practice. A few suggestions: eggs (the variations alone will keep you busy for a while), pasta, steak, vinaigrette, red sauce, or soufflé. Mastering specific techniques can also be a good basis for your training. Carefully practice knife skills, peeling, or studying different sauces or what’s in season. Luckily, there’s an endless amount of things to learn, and if frustration strikes, you can move right along to the next one.
9. Hit the Books
Consider finding a spirit animal in cookbook form as a source of guidance and inspiration. After all, you need to find your culinary identity, and at the beginning of the journey, it’s best to avoid trying to be everything all at once. You’re probably already inclined toward a chef, cuisine, or cooking aesthetic, and that can provide a good basis for learning. Plus, such tomes are chock-full of tips and tricks that will further beef-up your repertoire.
10. Scope the Perimeter
At the grocery store, that is. One of the most important tenets of cooking is that fresh ingredients are king, and at the supermarket, those will be on the outer edges of the store. Produce, dairy, and protein live there and can guide your menu based on what’s in season. Speaking of which, know what’s in season. It’s a great way to build a dish, but it’s also good to know so you don’t end up with a bad dish just because you didn’t pay attention to the calendar. Modern living has made it so that every item is available at almost all times, but that doesn’t mean you’re getting the best quality. A peach pie in January might sound nice, but pear would be a better bet.
11. Don’t Be Afraid of Seasoning
Salt and pepper should be applied at every stage of the cooking process. These guys are your friends and will help bring out the flavors already in the food. At the next level, spices are more difficult to master, but stock up on a few basics like bay leaves, chili powder, cinnamon, oregano, rosemary, thyme, and paprika, and expand from there as recipes require. Buy quality spices in small amounts, as they stale over time. It takes time to learn every spice and how different flavors interact, but a good way to study is to sprinkle them on your morning egg. One day it’s cayenne, the next day it’s basil, and soon, you’ll have a good sense of the powerhouse in your pantry.