7 Simple Ways to Become a Better Cook

Recipes take you only so far. After that, instinct and experience must take over. We talked to some of our favorite experts to uncover easy ways to get you further down the path to kitchen fulfillment and control.
By: Scott Mowbray and Ann Taylor Pittman

1. Be Mindful in the Kitchen

If you usually flee from psychological terms, pour a glass of red wine and consider this for a moment: Mindfulness, and the concept of presence—being in the moment, not above it, not outside it, not tweeting it—applies to cooking in a big way. Every dish has its own flavor arc, and the mindful cook attends and guides the process. She adjusts burners, stirs sauces, adds flavors at just-so moments. Dried herbs go into the pot early in the cycle of a stew, while fresh herbs (even the same herbs, such as oregano) go in near the end. Knowing this is one thing; practicing it is another, requiring presence. A dish can become second nature to a cook, but only if she has paid deep attention along the way.

Atlanta cooking teacher and Cooking Light contributor Keith Schroeder, who is writing a cookbook for us on flavor principles and techniques, likens this sort of flavor-arc awareness to beer "scheduling."

"Better beers have hops schedules," Schroeder says. "You have different hops for different reasons—bittering, finishing, aroma—and they go in according to certain signs during brewing. This idea really inspired my approach to cooking."

Which led us to speculate that recipes could be charted according to when and with what intensity attention must be paid—a more useful approach than simply listing hands-on time.

In this texting age, of course, there is the literal problem of scheduling. Phones beep, kids weep. The mindful cook is one who knows how to buy time, withdraw attention from a dish. As Schroeder points out, "If you want to reduce your presence, then reduce the heat. Chefs do this intuitively. If you need to back away for a minute, park your dish in neutral while you attend to something—then get back in."

He describes a paralysis that comes over student chefs, a feeling familiar to any home cook, that a dish, once begun, is somehow on a fixed schedule, like a runaway train. "But the pan is not glued to the stove," Schroeder says. "It has a handle, and you have a hand. It's not just about tinkering with the knob on your stove. If the convection of the cool air around you is what you need, doing a little dance with the pan is not that uncommon in better kitchens." You can lift the food out of the pan for a moment with tongs, slow the cooking, and then return it to the action.

For the very precise, very brilliant chef Wylie Dufresne (of wd-50 in Manhattan and Top Chef Masters), mindfulness proceeds from order. "If I'm going to cook, I put my apron on a certain way, and I have two towels, one on my left and one on my right, to get in the right mind-set. Even at home, I like to set up the same sort of ritual. There's the ritual of gearing up and of breaking down. Order, organization, the rhythm of the kitchen, and how you work your way through it from start to finish are all parts of mindfulness."

How does a cook less anal than Dufresne become just as mindful? To some degree it requires an acceptance of, a love of, cooking as a mindful act. This is the real joy of cooking. Only the cook knows how a particular dish got to this point, the point where it expresses its best nature, its deliciousness.

2. Calibrate Yourself

Kneading bread dough by hand requires adding small amounts of flour until the dough finds a texture that the experienced baker knows is right. For the newbie, this knowing seems like something passed on to the elect via old-world ancestors. It's not; it's just experience. The resistance of the dough under the heel of the hand; how a dimple bounces back; the development of the gluten into a tough sort of silkiness: Bread sends signals that the experienced, calibrated baker receives.

Calibration is about sense memory, and it's crucial because the deliciousness of a dish often lies between the lines of a recipe, in the unwritten and almost indescribable things that signal that a dish has found its sweetest spot along the cooking continuum.

This puts the busy modern home cook at a disadvantage since she is not whipping up 15 steaks or more every night like a line cook in a restaurant. For chefs, says Maxime Bilet, co-author of Modernist Cuisine, "It's reflex. It becomes second nature. As a line cook you get to the point where you no longer need to touch the meat to tell it's done."

Still, a home cook who understands cooking as practice can move toward perfection at her own pace. She can focus for several days on a single technique, such as pan-roasting—searing food in a heavy pan, finishing it in a hot oven. She can pan-roast scallops, chicken thighs, even vegetables, noting the sear, poking the food, timing the roast, listening to the sizzle.

"The kitchen does give you this wonderful orchestra of sounds that you need to be attuned to and pay attention to," says New York chef Wylie Dufresne. "The sounds of the kitchen can be soothing, but they can also be informative. I tell my cooks all the time that nothing should boil in a kitchen except water. If anything else can be heard boiling, it's cooking too hard."

But Bilet says it's wishful thinking for many home cooks to aspire to the reflexes of the line cook. Instead, he advises, we should lean on a $15 tool: the digital probe thermometer. Use its built-in calibration to help tune your own. "That instrument allows you to understand one of the most fundamental aspects of cooking, which is that temperature is everything to food, and every food has a specific temperature range in which it is best prepared and that protects its inherent quality. With that tool you can have this information at your fingertips," says Bilet.

Take the temperature of fish, poultry, and meat; of cakes and quick breads as they approach doneness; of poaching water; of puddings, sauces, and casseroles. Become a temperature geek, and calibration will follow. (We also love a $50 laser thermometer that reads the surface temperature of pans, grills, and pizza stones.)

Beyond that, use your ears, eyes, nose, fingers. Touch your food. Many cooks do this with fish, but vegetable genius Rich Landau, chef/co-owner of Vedge in Philadelphia, regrets that home cooks don't do so with plants. "What a great gift to be able to use your hands to check your food. It connects us back to when cooking all started, this caveman thing of having an intimate connection with your food. You fall in love with your senses."