15 kitchen techniques that can make the difference between success and failure—fully explained.
Tim Cebula and Hanna Klinger
May 02, 2014
1 of 15Photo: Tara Donne
Why is brushing on the BBQ sauce so time-critical?
The trick is cooking both the meat and the sauce so they are done perfectly and at the same time. Sugar burns, and there's lots of it in most barbecue sauces. Slather too early, and you get a robe of char; too late, and you don't get the savory flavor from just the right amount of char. The best approach: Brush sauce on in about the last two minutes, when the meat is just a few degrees from done. Timing varies with the heat, so watch like a hawk, and move meat to indirect heat if it chars too quickly.
2 of 15Illustration: Joe McKendry
Why do I have to grill bone-in chicken over indirect heat?
Meat best served with a nice char on the outside while still rare within—think steak—or quick-cooking ingredients like shrimp can grill from start to finish right over the flame. But this won't suit bone-in chicken. Direct heat can't fight its way into the cool, bone-and-flesh interior before the outside is torched. Start the cuts over direct heat for grill marks and a little char; then move them away from the coal pile or gas flame to finish cooking more slowly.
3 of 15Photo: Tara Donne
Why do you preheat pans in the oven before roasting vegetables?
Many cooks don't think to do this, but you should preheat your pans for the same reason you heat a skillet on the stovetop before you sauté: less sticking, better browning. It's especially important with tender summer veggies, which cook through quickly. If you start them in a cold pan, they'll be mushy by the time you get any of that prized caramelization on the outside. As with stovetop cooking, you want to hear a sizzle when oil-coated veggies hit the pan, a sign that searing has begun.
4 of 15Illustration: Joe McKendry
Why do you start to boil potatoes in cold water?
As hearty as they are, potatoes actually need a little TLC to cook properly. Their flesh is relatively dense, so they cook much slower than, say, green beans. This density means it takes a while for the interior temp to match the exterior. Toss whole, cubed, or quartered potatoes into a pot of boiling water and you'll end up with potatoes that are both over- and undercooked: mushy and gluey outside, hard and crunchy within. By starting spuds in cold water, the internal temp will have a better chance of matching the external as the water approaches and then reaches the boiling point.
5 of 15Illustration: Joe McKendry
Why slice onions vertically?
To slice an onion pole to pole, or vertically, is to cut it with—not against—its fibers. Pieces of vertically sliced onion hold their shape better when cooked, which is particularly noticeable in caramelized onions: Horizontal cuts can become a pile of brown mush. It also makes a visual difference in tossed salads: An onion sliced across its equator makes semi-circle shapes, while vertical slices are pleasingly tapered.
6 of 15Photo: Tara Donne
Why let pizza dough rest before rolling?
Dough is kneaded to develop its gluten, of course, but right after kneading it's highly elastic. Roll or stretch too soon and it'll snap back more or less to where it started, making it very tricky to get the thickness you desire. Resting takes about 5 minutes. Cold dough presents similar challenges. If you bring dough home from the supermarket, let it warm to room temp before rolling. It takes quite a while, but cold dough will be harder to roll and will produce a dense, bready crust. Room-temperature dough will roll out thinner and give you a crisper crust.
7 of 15Photo: Tara Donne
Why does my blender seem to spin its wheels on certain tasks?
Because you've put food into it that belongs in a food processor. Large, dense foods will simply sit in the blender jar as blades pulverize the bottom layer, never quite managing to generate the tornado action that pulls unblended food toward the blades. The machine needs enough open space and liquid to start that motion and keep it going; otherwise the blades spin like tires on ice. Use the blender for soups, sauces, and smoothies; pull out the food processor for other tasks.
8 of 15Illustration: Joe McKendry
Why did my ground nuts turn to butter?
You overprocessed them. Healthy fats in nuts rise to the surface when heated (why toasted nuts get that lovely sheen). Friction of processor blades adds heat, draws out oil, and then bam! Ground nuts become butter. The trick: Pulse in one-second bursts so nuts break down bit by bit, rather than emulsify; you can see the precise moment when they're ready. A key corollary: Cool toasted nuts completely before grinding.
9 of 15Photo: Tara Donne
Why is wax paper a no-no for baking?
This seems like a rookie mistake, but everyone's been tempted to reach for wax paper when the parchment paper runs out—say, to let some peanut brittle set, at which point the paraffin coating on the wax paper melts and said food becomes glued to the paper, never to peel away. Parchment paper is coated in nonstick, heat-absorbent silicone, better for hot foods. Save wax paper for separating layers of already-cool baked goods, such as brownies and cookies, in plastic containers. Here the wax holds moisture in and helps keep the goodies from going stale.
10 of 15Illustration: Joe McKendry
Why am I not supposed to store tomatoes in the refrigerator?
It may seem counterintuitive—the fridge preserves a lot of other vegetables and fruit, after all—but the fact is that the cold damages the membranes in tomato cell walls, bruising the delicate flesh and compromising both taste and texture. The typical result is a mealy, bland tomato, a particular tragedy when you're dealing with $4 heirloom farmers' market treasures. Instead, store your tomatoes at room temperature, out of direct sunlight, with the stem end up to avoid bruising.
11 of 15Photo: Tara Donne
Why alternate wet and dry ingredients when mixing cake batter?
It's all about the bubbles, batter bubbles being a crucial factor that great bakers don't tend to talk about. When you beat sugar into softened butter or eggs into a frothy foam, this adds air to the batter. Bubbles give cakes a tender, open crumb. Gradually adding the dry ingredients keeps those bubbles from popping. Dump-and-stir is an effective mixing method for dense desserts like brownies, but for fluffy cake, you have to alternate, carefully and patiently, to keep the bubbles at their best.
12 of 15Illustration: Joe McKendry
Why can't I simply cool a roasted pepper, then peel?
When the pepper comes off the fire, it needs to be wrapped in foil or go into a bowl that has a tight lid, where it will steam. This five-minute spa treatment makes removing the charred skin much easier. If you don't do this, some of the skin will cling tenaciously, particularly in the folds of the flesh, turning a simple job into one that is remarkably aggravating. Let the steam do most of the work for you.
13 of 15Photo: Tara Donne
Why press tofu? Does it really make a difference?
A lot of firm and extra-firm tofu—the kind you want for stir-fries because it won't fall apart—comes packed in water. But water is the enemy of crisp, brown food, so it's a good idea to remove as much of it as possible from the spongy curd before cooking. Extra water also causes some rather violent sputtering of oil in a hot pan. Cut the tofu block into planks, place between paper towels, and press with a heavy skillet for 20 minutes. The tofu will crisp nicely and better absorb other flavors in the dish.
14 of 15Photo: Tara Donne
Why can't I skip the flouring step when I'm making crumb-coated foods?
You'd think a dip in raw egg would provide enough "glue" to hold breadcrumbs in place for coated fish, chicken, and the like. But the logic behind the classic three-step breading process is kitchen-tested: Breadcrumbs stick nicely to egg, egg sticks to flour, and powdery flour sticks best to the protein or vegetable being seared. This way, you avoid the dreaded sloughing-off of big clumps of coating in the pan as you cook, which leaves your food looking mangy.
15 of 15Photo: Tara Donne
Why do I always burn my garlic?
It's not you, it's the garlic. Its tendency to turn brown and bitter rests in its unusually low water content. Water tends to mediate cooking and burning, and garlic is only 65% water (many plants are 90% or more). And because you usually mince or thinly slice the cloves, those tiny bits are even more vulnerable to direct, dry heat.
Simple solution: If your recipe calls for sautéing the garlic alone, use medium-low heat and stir constantly (a nice bit of olive oil helps). If the recipe calls for cooking the garlic along with other items like onions or bell peppers, give the other ingredients a head start of a minute or two. While they cook, they'll give off moisture that will keep the garlic from browning too fast when you add it to the pan.