For over a year now, we've been talking with cooking experts (chefs and cooks, cookbook authors, food writers, recipe developers) about what they feel are their top five essential things a home cook should know, do, own, or understand in order to be a great cook.
In honor of the Big Feast day tomorrow, we combed our Expert Essentials archives, pulling out nuggets of kitchen wisdom to help you make it though your cooking marathon with body and mind intact. Read on for our special Thanksgiving edition, with appearances from Deborah Madison, Yotam Ottolenghi, Nigel Slater, and more of our favorite voices in the kitchen.
Nigel Slater: When entertaining, it is probably best not to attempt a recipe for the first time. Better to go for something you know. Maybe have a little rehearsal.
Deborah Madison: Purpose. It's important to remember that when you're feeding someone, including yourself, it's an honor. It's about pleasure and nurture and respect. We all come to the table with different kinds of baggage —hungers that can't be satisfied, or fear, or perhaps an illness that makes food problematic, or even good appetite and high expectations - you name it. Cooking for any or all of these qualities is a big job, but a satisfying one.
Catherine Pantsios: Don't overplan your menu. Keep it simple ... and serve family style so you can enjoy your guests and spend time with them. No one wants a stressed out host who disappears into the kitchen, so make dishes you feel confident about and have a good time!
On Working with Recipes
Isa Chandra Moskowitz: Pay attention to down time. "When you read a recipe, be sure you understand how long the entire recipe takes and if there are any periods of down time. This will help you to not start cooking a recipe that ends up taking longer than you want and it also helps to know that there might be some hands-off time while something is soaking or cooking, so you can get other things done.
Joyce Goldstein: Read the damn recipe! I've worked worked with cooking students, line cooks, professional cooks, all sorts of people and I always emphasize this point. Read the damn recipe! People start moving before they take the time to read through the recipe and familiarize themselves with it. It seems so obvious, but I have seen so many people get halfway into a recipe and realize they weren't supposed to add all the wine or that there's a 6-hour rest period in the middle.
It may sound a little odd, but try reading a recipe out loud! I think it's a very valuable exercise because that way you have heard it as well as read it. Also, if you've changed a recipe, be sure that you've made a note on it. If it really needed lemon or if it was too salty, for instance, be sure you write in on the recipe so the next time you pull it down, you have a record.
Joyce Goldstein: Use quality ingredients. Your ingredients aren't the place to skimp. If you buy crap, you're going to have to work a lot harder to make it taste good. Whereas if you buy quality, guess what: the ingredients do a lot of the work for you.
John Beaver: Whole spices are (almost always) better. Whenever possible, purchase your spices whole and grind them as you need them. This will produce the strongest, most fragrant flavors as exposure to air and sunlight weakens the spice.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: Consider the potato ricer. "The potato ricer makes the best, creamiest, most delicious mash. But it's also great for squeezing the water out of greens. I take a bunch of greens (kale, chard, etc.) and quickly blanch them, for maybe one minute, just to take them down a bit. Then stuff them into the ricer and give a squeeze to extract as much water as possible. Heat some oil in a pan, add a little garlic and maybe some cumin, and then throw in the greens to heat them up. What you have in just a few minutes is a lovely plate of greens, somewhat more-ish in flavor. I use my ricer several times a week, and not just for potato mash!"
Kathy Hester: "If you have a big, 6-quart slow cooker, cook a pie pumpkin! Take a small pie pumpkin, wash it off, and poke a few small holes in it. Put it in the your cooker. (It needs to be small enough that it will fit, of course.) Cook it for about 6 to 8 hours and then let it cool. It cuts open like butter and you just scoop out the seeds. You don't even have to puree it, the flesh will be so cooked that it will just mash up on its own. This works for all squashes like butternut and acorn — any of those hard winter squashes that you hate to cut through.
"You can bake potatoes and sweet potatoes, too, using any sized cooker. Some people wrap them in foil or spray the crock with cooking spray, but I usually just wash them and poke them all over with a fork. Throw them in the cooker in the morning before you leave for work and when you come home, you have perfectly cooked potatoes.
Mollie Katzen: A good knife is the doorway to good cooking. "There is no one right knife for everyone — but everyone needs the right knife! Finding the right knife is like finding your mate, your soulmate. Your knife is an extension of your hand. It's the key to cooking and especially the key to cooking vegetables. (Most vegetables need to be chopped after all.) Don't let a bad knife be a barrier to enjoying your time in the kitchen."
Daniel Patterson: Salt is the most important seasoning, and seasoning is 90% of deliciousness. Learn to salt progressively — a little bit at a time — rather than all at once at the end. Season meats at least twenty minutes before cooking. Learn how salt interacts with sweet, sour and bitter. In the book I explain that salt pulls up acidity and pushes down sweet and bitter flavors. Acidity will push down salt, sweet, bitter and bitter will balance sweet. And sweet softens salt and acid and mutes bitter.
Nigel Slater: Never neglect the bottom of a roasting tin. There is much flavour in those crisp bits and pieces and roasted meat juices. Unleash them with a little stock, wine or a favourite fortified wine such as Marsala.
Sam Mogannam: Taste as you go. "Food should be tasted and seasoned at every stage of the cooking process. Taste for more salt or pepper, of course, but also acid and fat." Sam recommends to build your cooking intuition and instincts. "You should always be strengthening your basic skill set," he says. "But also build your instincts. Don't become a slave to recipes. If you taste at every step, you will deepen your experience and become more independent. Then you can create a dish on your own."
Annie Sommerville: Prep as much ahead of time and ask for help. To the extent that you can, don't leave all your prep for just before you begin to cook. Wash and de-stem your greens in the morning, or chop up the onions and garlic. And if you are entertaining, ask people to help. "It makes the evening more fun!" she says. "You can't control everything so just let it go and enjoy sharing the kitchen with your friends. Sharing is a very good thing."
Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi: On cooking vegetables. Yotam rarely boils vegetables and cautions against overcooking them when you do. Maybe 3 or 4 minutes for green beans, he suggests. He prefers to roast or grill most vegetables (beetroot, cauliflower, okra were a few that he listed) as this concentrates their flavors. He also likes to keep the vegetables as whole as possible or, if cutting is required, to slice them in relation to their natural shape and architecture.
Karen Solomon: Cooking requires a soundtrack. You have to have music! "Sometimes I listen to NPR," says Karen. "But then it just drives me crazy and I have to put on some music and sing along. Be sure that it fits your mood and the dish you are making, or at least the task you are working on."
Sue Conley/Cowgirl Creamery: Fearless Attitude. "Julia Child said to never apologize for your food. I think that's so true. You shouldn't be afraid that you're going to make a mistake because cooking is a process and you can start and stop and adjust along the way. As long as you're tasting, tasting, tasting then you're going to end up with something that might not be what you had in mind in the beginning but will still be delicious. We need to try new things!"
Isa Chandra Moskowitz: "I feel like there's a lot of pressure from places like Pinterest for us to have a special kind of kitchen experience. There's this culture now which is promoting these kind of whimsical, warm-wood-and-beautiful-napkins moments. (I'm guilty of this too!) Just calm down: not everything you make needs to end up on Instagram.
Edward Behr: If you're not a teetotaler, it helps to drink a glass of wine or beer with your food, or for that matter as you cook — a bottle that more or less goes with what you’re eating and increases the pleasure of it. Of course you can also be both a teetotaler and a great cook, too!
On Cleaning Up
Jodi Liano: Deodorize your kitchen with a bowl of vinegar. Just leave a bowl full of plain, white vinegar on the counter as you cook. The vinegar will eliminate the cooking orders, especially lingering ones (leave it on the counter overnight.) Works for bacon and fried foods, such as fried chicken, too.
Deborah Madison: Before you start cooking, fill your sink or a bowl full of hot soapy water. As you use your tools and utensils, just drop them in the suds to either soak or be quickly washed and rinsed. This helps you stay on top of the cleaning up and helps everything to go smoothly. It keeps my prep area clean and clear and that helps to keep me focused.
Have a Sense of the Large
Jane Hirshfield: A sense of the large. The pause to say a blessing before eating is practiced by relatively few these days—one rarely sees it in public places, and at home, it’s often reserved for special occasions, Thanksgiving or a wedding dinner toast, the end of Ramadan fasting or Easter brunch. But the conscious recognition that eating takes place in a great web of connection is available at any moment. Taking a trout from the stream or paying the grocery store cashier wearing hygienic gloves on her hands as she accepts your bills, we enter an exchange that involves us with every other being on the planet, extending in every direction, from past into future.
To make visible that fundamental recognition, after we’ve set the plates down on the table, before we first lift a fork, is to add to the dish an ancient, essential, extra seasoning as powerful as hunger, as fundamental as water or salt: gratitude. The pause need not be ostentatious. Its mindfulness can be entered with others or it can be private— brief, silent, made without motion or word. Yet its existence changes the meal, the day, and the world.
(Image credits: Rachel Joy Baransi)