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.

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  • Take your time with egg whites, gradually increasing mixer speed for billowy, voluminous meringue.

    Meringue

    Tara Donne

    Click to Enlarge

  • Wok 1

    Grace Young's Step-By-Step Guide to Stir-Frying: Step 1

    Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed carbon-steel wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 or 2 seconds. Swirl in 1 tablespoon oil, add onions and stir-fry 30 seconds. Preheating the wok prevents ingredients like chicken from sticking.

  • Wok 2

    Step 2

    Push onions to sides of wok and spread marinated chicken in a single layer. Cook undisturbed for 1 minute, letting chicken begin to sear. In China, spreading meat in the wok is not necessary because stoves are powerful. American stoves tend to have weaker power and this added step ensures meat has a chance to brown and caramelize.

  • Wok 3

    Step 3

    After stir-frying chicken 30 seconds, add ginger, garlic, and paprika mixture. Add green and red peppers, reduce heat to medium and stir-fry 2 minutes. Reducing the heat is important to prevent the spices from scorching.

  • Wok 4

    Step 4

    Add fish sauce, chilies, zucchini, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and stir-fry 1 minute or almost all the liquid has evaporated. As you stir-fry make sure you’re using the spatula to continually scoop and toss the ingredients so that every morsel touches the hot well of the wok and cooks evenly.

  • Wok 5

    Step 5

    Restir cornstarch mixture and swirl it into wok. Increase heat to high, stir-fry 1 minute until chicken is just done. Remove from heat and stir in chili powder. Cornstarch often settles to the bottle of the bowl and needs to be restired to ensure the sauce thickens.

5. Patience, Patience

Patience may be the least prized, praised, or practiced of kitchen virtues in America. In baking, especially, where precision is mandated—weigh your flour! know volume from weight!—the need for an equal measure of patience can be forgotten. Yet it's essential. Consider the creaming of properly measured butter and sugar. It can take a full five minutes of slow work until the mix is perfectly light and fluffy. If a cake recipe calls for the cook to fold in flour in six batches, a shortcut four will compromise the crumb. Butter that needs to soften for cake or cookies takes time; rush it in the microwave and you'll likely melt it.

As goes baking, so, too, does most of cooking. The chemistry and physics happen in their own time. A few tools accelerate matters by attacking the problem at the molecular level: A pressure cooker raises the boiling point of water to allow food to cook at a higher temperature without coming to a destructive boil. Microwaves agitate the water molecules deep inside food faster than conventional heat reaches them. Marvelous tools, but limited. For most dishes, proper cooking happens when you submit to the sweet, natural reaction pace of chemical processes.

True caramelization of onions requires 50 minutes or more; less, and you're just burning some bits while softening others. A proper roux acquires its chocolate color at a pace as pokey as a New Orleans August afternoon. Chicken stocks should never boil. Pizza dough that's allowed to proof for 24 hours (or more) gains superior yeasty flavor and springy texture. Slow-cooked Dutch oven dishes involving hunks of tough meat will not develop properly at a fast bubble—they will do that strange thing that can happen in wet cooking, which is to dry out.

Patience extends beyond the stove to the cutting board, where meat must rest, gathering its juices back into its center; the patient cook knows that texture, in meat, trumps the temperature at which it's served. A properly cooked roast or turkey can rest for an hour. When foods are to be brought to room temperature before eating, such as cheese or salumi, that takes time, too. Chops need to stand outside the fridge for a while before hitting the pan, lest the chill interfere with browning.

The Slow Food Movement embodies the basic equation: Flavor equals quality of ingredients altered over time. Microbial-action philosopher Sandor Katz, author of The Art of Fermentation, points out that "if you walk into a gourmet food store anywhere and you look around and think about the nature of foods we elevate on this pedestal, almost all are the products of fermentation. They're created by micro-organisms with the benefit of time. "

If there's any consolation, it's that many cooks, like many cheeses, get better over time. "As you get older," Katz says, "things just don't seem so urgent, and you can wait things out a little bit longer. We have a built-in capacity to develop greater patience as time passes."

6. Use the Right Metals

Scrambled eggs bond to stainless steel like Satan's own scorched breakfast if you don't add enough fat. The horror of this sort of cling causes many cooks to flee to nonstick pans: less fat during the cooking, less elbow grease after. However, slick surfaces like Teflon and the new ceramics—which are generally not meant to be heated to high temperatures—isolate food from the properties of metal that build the deepest flavors in cooking, especially healthy cooking. Nonstick is great, but for a lot of dishes, we need to harness the full power of certain metals.

1. Metals that get really hot. 
Searing and browning are the basis of so much flavor development, and that often requires serious heat. Any steel or iron pan can be made hot (a wide burner under a broad pan is ideal for even browning), but none is dedicated to its purpose quite like the carbon steel wok. It's thin, light, and expansively concave, designed to sit on a rocket-engine blast of flame that works its way up the sides while the cook shakes the wok and tosses the ingredients inside. The goal is maximum searing, giving food what cookbook author Grace Young famously translated as "the breath of a wok."

"Other people say it has a 'wok fragrance,'" Young says. "It means you literally have the flavor of the metal." That metal—carbon steel—is also used in relatively inexpensive sauté pans, both French and American, like our favorite Test Kitchen pan, pictured at right. Widely available online, these pans become virtually nonstick when seasoned.

2. Metals that are very heavy. 
Cast iron is beloved because, though slow to heat up, once it's hot it stays hot. Mass is the key. Chef and science geek Maxime Bilet notes that many cooks fail to recognize how much the addition of food can drop the temperature of a pan, even an expensive one, if that pan lacks mass: "If you put a 2½-inch steak straight from the fridge into a $500 copper pan over a stove that's not turned up high enough, the steak will completely cool down the surface of the pan. You have to understand the relationship between the metal and the food you're putting in."

A preheated $30 cast-iron pan, once hot, has no such problem. It puts a gorgeous crust on cool corn bread batter. A cast-iron Dutch oven can brown meat on the stovetop before a stew is moved to the oven for a long, slow, even cook.

3. Metal made from several other metals. 
If every pot were made of cast iron, you'd need Schwarzenegger guns. In saucepans you want lightness that comes with stainless steel or even aluminum, but you still want good, even heat conduction and diffusion across the bottom, lest sauces or delicate proteins burn on the hot spots. That's why bonded pans like All-Clad use layers of different metals in their thick bottoms, designed for a balance of heat diffusion, retention, and conductivity.

The shape of a metal pan also bears thinking about: With risotto, for example, you want not only a thick bottom for good heat diffusion but also high sides so the water doesn't boil off too fast, before the rice is cooked. For a big pot to cook pasta or stock, though, light aluminum is just fine.

7. Try All the Cuts

The healthy omnivore shrinks beef portions while getting the most beef pleasure. This is done by making every bite reflect not just beefiness in general but the specific character of the cut. The beefiness of a chuck roast diverts sharply from the beefiness of a porterhouse. The approach is the same for other animals, especially the pig, but here we're focusing on one idea: Know thy cow.

Meat is mostly muscle, but the muscle varies all over the animal by the job it does. In simplest terms: More work, more toughness, more flavor. Because a cow is a fantastically complicated network of interlinked muscle systems, there are hundreds of beef cuts in the butcher's bible, made all the more confusing by folkish names, regional differences, ethnic twists.

Meat charts crudely map the beast and often give basic cooking advice, but they barely scratch the surface concerning the nuances of flavor and texture from cut to cut. The flank and the short plate, both parts of the undercarriage of the cow, yield flank steak and skirt steak, both relatively tough but delicious when marinated, quickly grilled, and sliced thinly against the grain. If you've only tried the relatively uniform, lean, and common flank, though, the fat-flecked, ropy, chewy, gamy skirt (which comes from the cow's diaphragm) is a revelation: Properly cooked and sliced, it, along with the nearby hanger steak (once called the butcher's cut because butchers kept it for themselves), is one of the beefiest of all. But, warns Pat LaFrieda Jr., of the great Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors in New York, which skirt steak did you buy?

"Outside skirt or inside skirt? Inside has one-third the flavor of outside. Come to my house. That's what I'm grilling, that's what I'm eating: outside skirt." Of course, it's rarely labeled as such; you have to ask. Meanwhile, up in the shoulder region of the cow is a marbled, coarse-looking flat cut that's far more tender but also very beefy: the recently "invented" and now-fashionable flat iron steak. Other high-flavor cuts that LaFrieda loves: the Sierra steak and the teres major. These sorts of steaks can be chewier, but LaFrieda likes a bit more chew—he also believes that chewing more can result in eating less.

A vow to know thy cow doesn't have to drive you into offal territory. Play with something as simple as ground beef: Get a good butcher to grind a blend of different cuts, some lean, some fattier. Better yet, grind your own for best flavor. You don't need a fancy attachment for a stand mixer; low-cost hand-crank models like Mom used can still be Web-ordered. Grill your blended burger, or make your meat loaf or meatballs; then try another blend. After meticulous experimentation, Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats (and this magazine) found that a blend of sirloin, brisket, and—huh?—trimmed oxtail yielded best burger flavor. LaFrieda Meat Purveyors, meanwhile, produces 75 blends for restaurants, grinding inside round for "that rare roast beef" flavor and adding dry-aged sirloin for a bit of funk.

Know thy butcher, too. Often, according to Modernist Cuisine author Maxime Bilet, the best will be one who buys whole animals from local farmers. He will experiment and will certainly be interested in the more obscure cuts. LaFrieda agrees: "Just walk up to a butcher and start talking shop. Have an open conversation."

Move further afield and check out the cuts at ethnic shops—Mexican, Halal, Argentine. Now obsessed, you can explore meat cutting yourself at a culinary school or groups like the Portland Meat Collective (pdxmeat.com).

Finally, seek out recipes that best express the cut. Osso buco is a meditation on the silkiness of melted collagen that comes from slow-cooked beef or veal shank. Perfect brisket is a rumination on the falling-to-strings that happens in a slow braise. There are such recipes from every cow-eating region in the world, from Sumatra (rendang, rich with coconut milk) to Sweden (kalops, fragrant with allspice berries). Nose to tail we go, all around the world.

The Recipes

For each of the seven principles on the preceding pages, our Test Kitchen developed a recipe that illustrates the concept at work—deliciously.

TRY ALL THE CUTS
View Recipe: Port-Stained Beef Medallions

FIRE THINGS UP
View Recipe: Mexican Broiled Corn Salad

USE THE RIGHT METALS
View Recipe: Crispy Pork Stir-Fry with Baby Bok Choy

CALIBRATE YOURSELF
View Recipe: Pan-Seared Chicken Breast with Rich Pan Sauce

PATIENCE, PATIENCE
View Recipe: Vanilla Angel Food Cake with Chocolate Sauce

DIG INTO PLANTS
View Recipe: Cauliflower Steaks with Maitake Mushrooms and Browned Butter-Caper Sauce

BE MINDFUL IN THE KITCHEN
View Recipe: Mushroom and Roasted Garlic Risotto

 

 

 

 

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