When you think about making your meals taste better, or becoming a better cook, what presents itself to your mind? Do you wish you had the money to splurge on luxurious ingredients like really high-end olive oil and aged cheese? (Personally, I wish I had a white truffle perched on my windowsill all the time.) Or do you wish you could go to culinary school and learn the fine arts of French cooking?
All of these things are well and good, but there are so many ways you can improve your cooking right now, without spending a dime. Here are 14 absolutely free ways to take your cooking up to the next level.
Making Do With What You Have
So much of cooking well seems to involve money, doesn't it? Buy this perfect piece of cookware; make sure you have three kinds of salt in your cupboard; do you have cherry vinegar as well as balsamic, red wine, and rice? Shop at the farmers market; is that tomato the best it can be? And what about that seafood? Wild salmon only, please.
While spending money wisely and well on our tools and food is important — and good food should command priority — making do with what you have is equally important, and the root of many of the world's great cuisines. Thrifty, savvy cooking skills have created dishes like bread panade, pasta e fagioli, and other classic rustic dishes that have their roots in making do.
So, without truffle salt, a rich steak, a full set of copper-clad cookware, pastured eggs, or other treats of the modern cook, here are 14 ways of making your cooking even more delicious with the power of your own two hands and whatever kitchen you're in.
1. Read the recipe all the way through before beginning.
This is a common admonishment, but it's really true! How many times have you got halfway through a recipe and then discovered you forgot an ingredient, or added something all at once when it should have been divided? (I raise my hand sheepishly.) Reading a recipe all the way through and taking time to put it in your own words in your head will help you not only cook a little better, but will teach the underlying mechanics of what is happening.
2. It's better to put dinner on the table a little late, so you can start cooking with a clean work space.
This is one that I find I need to remember all the time. I will fly through a work day, then toss myself into the kitchen, shoving yesterday's cereal bowl and pasta pan out of the way. It would be better to take a deep breath, clear up, and yes, have dinner ready a little later, but enjoy the process of making it in a more cleared-up space.
3. Set a daily time to clear out the fridge.
One of the biggest inhibitors to cooking happily and well, for me, is feeling like my fridge has suddenly gotten out of hand. What's in the back of the crisper? Are those leftovers still good? It's not good to feel scared of your refrigerator. Take it in hand often, looking for things that need to be used up or eaten. After dinner is a good time, as you're putting away leftovers, to take stock and see if there's something that should be prioritized in tomorrow's meal.
4. Use your hands.
Your hands are your first and best kitchen tool. I use my fingers to mix and knead dough, to prod a piece of meat to check for doneness, and to rub out lumps in sauces before cooking. Your hands are the best tool for mixing a salad.
5. Cut everything the same size.
Knife skills are a big thing that people want to learn, but while the focus can be on fancy cuts or speed, the real mark of good knife skills is being able to reliably cut everything to the same size. Making a chicken stew? Cut the chicken breast into precisely-sized pieces so they cook at the same rate. Same goes for roasted vegetables. Practicing precision and evenness in your knife skills will get you farther than being able to dice an onion in 30 seconds.
6. Brown boldly!
When browning meat or vegetables, really let them brown. Don't push the meat around the pan incessantly. Let it sit and sear, and maybe even char a tiny bit. That's the flavor right there. When in doubt, brown a little more. You'll taste it.
7. Don't leave the flavor in the pan.
When you sear meat, cook a pan of chicken in the oven, or roast vegetables in a sheet pan, they leave a bit of themselves behind. Don't let that go to waste; add a splash of water, broth, or wine to the pan and scrape it up.
8. Build taste over time.
When you're working with simple ingredients, adding time to the process can elevate in a way that more expensive additions never could. For instance, slow cooking an inexpensive cut of pork, or letting a French soup simmer in the oven all Saturday. French onion soup is one of the best examples, in fact, of a radically simple and inexpensive dish that is turned into pure luxury with the addition of time. Sauces are another place this happens; slowly reducing a chicken or vegetable stock concentrates the flavor.
9. Smoke is magical.
Any hint of smokiness in a dish will elevate it. You can add smokiness in so many ways: your grill (I like to grill meat instead of browning it, before braising or slow cooking), smoked salt, even roasting peppers over your stove burners.
10. Pay attention to how things smell.
I think that we all are pretty well acquainted with the smell of scorched cookies. But beyond that, really invest in your sense of smell as you cook. It's not just about smelling burnt things; if you pay attention you can tell by smell when a stock is rich enough, or when the potatoes have browned enough in the oven.
11. Season early, then add more as needed.
In most dishes, it's best to season early so the salt, spices, or herbs can cook with the beans, meat, or vegetables. Season your chicken with a quick brine; sprinkle the Brussels sprouts with salt before they crisp up in the oven. Then taste and add more before serving as needed. (What it means to season to taste.)
12. Take full responsibility for how your food tastes.
A recipe is only a guide, especially when it comes to savory dishes like pasta, soup, and salad. Taste as you go and adjust with more salt, pepper, and other seasonings as you go to suit your taste.
13. After salt, add acid.
If you taste a soup or any other dish and think, hmmm. This is a bit bland. It's time for a splash of acid. Squeeze in lemon or a dash of plain white vinegar. It's amazing how this can brighten and sharpen all the other flavors. (More on the role of acid in cooking.)
14. Join The Kitchn's Cooking School!
You knew this was coming, right?! Yes, we have an absolutely free cooking school that starts this Monday, October 6. It is 20 days, 20 lessons to help you become a better cook. We're covering the basics and essentials of home cooking in 20 structured lessons, with homework options so you can pick and choose which works best for you. Come and join us, plus thousands of your fellow cooks — we think it will be fun!
Read more about The Kitchn's Cooking School and sign up below!
And we'd love to hear more from you on the best (free!) ways to cook better and love your food more.
(Image credits: Kristin Teig)