Everyone who cooks is always on the lookout for simple things they can do to improve their cooking. For the most part, some of the tips that yield the biggest impact are things such as: knife skills, confidence and building your palate. Unfortunately, these are practiced and require a commitment of time and patience. Today I want to concentrate on some simple things that will have immediate impact and yield noticeable results. No classes required just a shift in shopping habits.
You have heard me say it before but it is worth repeating, the quickest way to cook and eat better tasting food is to use better ingredients. A saying that was coined in the early days of data entry was, “garbage in, garbage out.” This applies to recipes as well, inferior ingredients result in an inferior end product. Cheaper, which is often what draws us to certain products, is not always better. I cannot even count the times I have shared a recipe in class only to have a student come back and say, I tried your recipe but it didn’t taste nearly as good as yours. Digging deeper, I find out that the selected ingredients were not at all what I recommended. For instance, when I say broccoli, I do not mean frozen or if my recipe states butter, that is not margarine or shortening or some other form of fake fat. No kidding. With this in mind, I have composed a list of ingredients that I believe will improve your cooking without sending you to the poor house.
Ten simple tips that will make you a better cook:
1. Local and seasonal ingredients (preferably organic)
I say this because the closer to home a product is grown or produced, the fresher it will be. As for seasonal, I am always leery of asparagus on a Winter menu. Buy produce when it is at its peak of flavor and you will be rewarded ten fold. In addition to better flavor, there is the added benefit of supporting your local growers and producers. You are such a fine citizen!
2. Good salt
My preference for salt is a good quality sea salt. Many chefs express a preference for Kosher salt, which I do use for brines and a few other purposes, but I prefer sea salt. For me it has clean fresh taste that brightens up all dishes. It comes in many colors and forms such as, fine, coarse, flaked, used for different purposes. I use a natural sea salt that is ground fine for general cooking and baking and a white flaked sea salt for finishing. Your choice, but for improved flavor, ditch that table salt that has been iodized, bleached, processed to an inch of its life and often has sugar added because they have robbed it of all its natural flavor. Tasting them side by side, I guarantee you the difference will be noticeable.
Buy some whole black peppercorns, a sturdy peppermill and make their introduction. Pre-ground pepper is often stale and flavorless. I suggest buying your peppercorns from a place that specializes in spices to be sure of freshness (there is that “F” word again). Grind as you go. Cooking a big meal and need a lot of pepper? Grind a batch, enough for the day, in your spice grinder and you are good to go. There are many good quality peppers out there but I prefer India tellicherry peppercorns for their deep robust flavor.
4. Good olive oil
Cheap olive oil just tastes like oil so why bother? The whole reason to use olive oil is for its olive, fruity, flowery taste. It is sunshine in a bottle. I usually have two olive oils, one for cooking, nice quality but not the most expensive and then a better quality for finishing, the big guns. The thing I look for in olive oils is extra-virgin, first cold pressed. Extra-virgin is the first press of the olive which gives you the most flavor and cold pressed means the oil is extracted using a natural process and not by heat or chemical which alters the flavor. Worth it I assure you.
5. Real butter
A good quality butter makes everything taste better. Unsalted is recommended for cooking as it is clean tasting and helps control the saltiness of your finished dish. I use organic butter produced locally. When available, I use pasture butter from, you guessed it, grass fed cows but it is seasonal here. European butters are also delicious and worth the extra bucks especially for toast. biscuits and applications such as that. For this I buy, lightly salted. Real butter is a natural product without chemicals. Julia Child used a lot if it and lived to be 90 something. So did my Dad.
6. Fresh herbs
You will notice an immediate brightness to your food when you use fresh herbs. They are easy to grow and available year round now at most stores. I am not saying never to dried herbs, they have their place, but cannot compare to fresh for most applications. A pop of snipped herbs at the end of cooking will raise the bar of deliciousness, I promise.
7. Fresh citrus/zest
When a recipe calls for lemon or lime and you grab the stuff in the bottle, I know your food is sobbing knowing it is about to be blasted with a nasty liquid that will not enhance anything. A splash of fresh citrus can wake up even the most tired dish. It takes just a few minutes to squeeze or zest but the payoff is huge.
8. Good vinegars
Nothing is easier to make than a fresh vinaigrette. Whether you are dressing a salad or perking up a vegetable side dish, a homemade dressing will add spark to the simplest of dishes. I usually have a few vinegars in my cupboard: red wine, sherry, white wine, apple cider, balsamic and rice. I often add a splash to a stew or soup when it calls for a bit of acidity being careful not to add too much. The difference between generic and good is remarkable. Buy one and add as you can, they keep for a very long time.
9. Real Parmesan cheese
Contrary to popular belief, real Parmesan does not come in a green can or plastic zip lock bag. There is only one “real” Parmesan and that is Parmigiano-Reggiano. Highly prized and regulated, it is only produced in Parma, Italy and it is the “king of cheeses,” undisputed. A little pricey but one of those items that is so worth it you will wonder why it took you so long. It is nutty and so buttery that a little can pack a punch of flavor that is in a league of its own. Buy a chunk and grate as you go. You will never be able to face the green can again.
10. Homemade stock
Nothing is more satisfying for me than making my own stock. There is something about using scraps and the bones and parts of an animal that would otherwise get thrown out that really pleases me. In addition, your house smells really inviting. You can make a big batch and have it in your freezer. Whether it is chicken, turkey, beef, vegetable or fish, it is relatively easy (there are many recipes available). I save all the bones, fish parts, shrimp shells and such in my freezer until I am ready to take on the task. Making your own gives you so much more control over salt and intensity. I admit I use commercial stock at times, but there is nothing like homemade.
Follow these tips and I promise your cooking will improve. Remember, it is often the little things in life that make a difference. Be a better cook and spread the love, one dish and fine ingredient at a time. Until next time.