I’m not the greatest cook. But my food does taste good and the number of times I burn, under-season, or explode things in the kitchen has dropped off significantly. Not least because of a dwindling discretionary fund.
But I had to go through a bunch of thoroughly unhelpful cookbooks and cooking shows to get to where I am. Especially the cooking shows!
I’ll let you in on a little secret: COOKING SHOWS ARE EDITED!
No, Emeril or Rachel or even the Contessa herself don’t chop and cook and bake and mix all at the same time. I’ll tell you more about that in a little bit.
So let’s get all those ideas out of your head – cooking shows aren’t real. Not the contest shows, the softly focused Food Network shows, none of it is REAL. It’s all edited to look either more hectic or more relaxed than cooking actually has to be. This is especially true for us singleton home cooks.
Cooking at home is somewhere in the middle. And if you’re someone, like me, who needs to paint by numbers before you venture out into Pollack territory, I hope my five lessons of the single home cook will help!
First Lesson: Read the WHOLE goddamn recipe before you even think about putting the pan on the stove
Read it several times, out loud, in many different accents. Trust me when I say in the beginning, the most frequent mistake you’ll make is missing a step. Usually it’s the one crucial step buried in between steps 5 and 6 because some cookbook editors are terrible people who laugh in the darkness of night as your onions turn from a glaze to a blaze.
Unless you’re borrowing this recipe from a library book, feel free to write all over and highlight shit you think is important. Some specific things to pay attention to:
- Typically the ingredient list is written by what gets cooked or prepared first.
- Simmer times
- Things that need to be prepared right before throwing into the pot / oven such as apples, pears, avocadoes, etc that tend to brown when you chop them up
- Tools you’ll need
- Terms you don’t understand (YouTube is your best friend. Someone out there has put up a video on how to braise, sous vide, and chop an onion).
Got that? Now for the best part!
Second Lesson: Mise en place or your ass is grass
Yeah, I just dropped a French phrase. But it’s the most basic step and the one that will save you a lot of sweat and tears in the kitchen.
Mise en place (meez-ahn-plas) means getting everything in its place. Restaurants have prep cooks who dice, chop, mix, and juice ingredients before the line cooks or chefs even step into the front doors. So, too, should you! Not hire prep cooks, but prep food before you even light that gas stove.
And that’s the rub with cooking shows. They may seem like they’re dicing up onions two seconds before sautéing them but at least 3/4 of that was prepared before the director said “Lights!” It took me awhile to get over this shocker. Not because I’m gullible but because I really wanted things to be that smooth and easy in real life.
Well, mise en place will get you halfway there. It’s so important to do this because after the prep work all you have to do is throw things in!
Small bowls or ramekins are your best friends to hold all the minced garlic, chopped onion, roughly chopped kale without mixing too early. If you can mix ingredients beforehand, by all means. As long as the recipe says you can!
Also, mix the spices before hand. It saves so much time – you won’t be sweating and shaking over your tomato sauce which you will inevitably douse in too much oregano…yeah.
Third Lesson: Salt and pepper will make or break you
You think you’ll remember, but you won’t. Stick a post it somewhere or leave your salt and pepper right next to the ingredients that need to be seasoned – hell if you can, season beforehand – because you will get distracted when things start getting heated.
A couple of basics of seasoning:
- Dried herbs pack more flavor than fresh herbs. If a recipe calls for fresh herbs and you’re lazy, use half what the recipe calls for in dried herbs.
- The earlier you season, the less apparent those tastes will be. If you season after cooking, it will be very obvious that you added salt or pepper or nutmeg. Play around with what you like.
- Salt is NOT a flavor. It’s a flavor enhancer. If your food tastes like salt, you’re doing something wrong. Also, you probably have high blood pressure.
Fourth Lesson: Taste the rainbow
I know you’re not going to want to do this, but taste your bland ass food before you season so that you know what a difference it makes. It will help refine your palate (hur-hur) so that you know how to balance your flavors better.
Keep tasting while you’re cooking to make sure everything is right. Obviously, don’t taste things like RAW chicken or eggs. Just thought I’d mention that in case some of you were thinking of it – you know who you are. You can however taste the season mix. I don’t know what that will do but maybe you can figure something out.
If you’re cooking for others – for the love of Buddha - use different spoons or forks when you taste! No double dipping. No one wants to eat your mouth germs, mmkay?
Fifth Lesson: Clean up after your damn self
One of the biggest reasons I didn’t cook at home was because I hated the big mess at the end. But guess what doing all that mise en placing has freed you up to do? That’s right – wash up!
While things simmer, bake, or rest, wash utensils or bowls that you won’t be needing anymore. It takes out so much stress. All you’ll have left is the pot or pan and spoon or spatula you cooked your food in.
What are your basic food tips and techniques?