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.
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."
3. Dig Into Plants
Early 2013 produced a microbuzz about the Cauliflower Steak, in which the weighty crucifer is cross-sectionally "butchered" to produce thick slabs that can be charred in a pan and finished in the oven like a T-bone. Farm-to-table chef/god Dan Barber serves it on a puree virtuously derived from the cauliflower's peripheral bits. Food blog Grubstreet nominated the cauliflower Vegetable Most Likely to Be Mistaken for a Piece of Meat. The CS is often on the menu of our favorite vegan restaurant in America, Vedge in Philadelphia.
Vegetarians are often teased for disguising vegetables as meat, as if they're not plant-proud (cue the seitan hot dogs). But chefs like Rich Landau at Vedge are after something else: main-course satisfaction that plays to the deepest potential of vegetables. He goes way past surfacing the obvious flavors of a plant; he deploys heat, time, and ingredients to build layers. This is important because in a healthier diet, plants need to move from character actor to star, avoiding what vegetable goddess Deborah Madison calls "the hole in the middle of the plate."
"It's all psychological," says Landau. "If you gave someone a bunch of chopped up cauliflower for an entrée, they'd say, 'Thanks for my vegan side dish. Now where's my dinner?' But if you give them a cauliflower steak, they pick up their knife and fork and start cutting. Zucchini is another plank-steak vegetable. Make a zucchini steak; then finish it with capers, tomatoes, and herbs like you would a piece of fish."
The most important plant cookbook of recent years is Madison's Vegetable Literacy, published this spring. It parses the plant kingdom—and its leaves, bulbs, stalks, roots, flowers, and herbs—according to family resemblances, kinship flavors and textures. "Cumin, caraway, cilantro, and dill all taste wonderful with carrots because they are relatives," Madison says. "Lettuce is in the daisy family. So are radicchio and artichokes." If you want to think the Madison way, buy the book now.
Producing main-course satisfaction is trickier when the sexy vegetables of summer and fall fade to the browns and duns of winter. "You look at a parsnip and go, 'Huh?'" Madison says. (We go, "Mash with carrots and smoked paprika, and drizzle with good olive oil.") Still, Madison says, "You can make a great red cabbage dish just by slicing it very thinly and sautéing it lightly. It's shiny, it's fresh." Dim sum restaurant Yank Sing in San Francisco does a dazzling thin-cut red cabbage salad that goes toe-to-toe with their shrimp dumplings—a trick that moves a salad to the center of all that dim sum starch and meat.
Other food cultures get this. "In Burma and northern Thailand," says Naomi Duguid, whose book Burma was one of our favorite cookbooks of 2012, "they serve steamed and raw vegetables on a platter, in much the same way we'd have a platter of chips or bread, that people can enjoy throughout the meal. Our equivalent would be a sad plate of baby carrots and celery sticks for kids." Be expansive with herbs, too: Put out bowls of fresh basil, mint, cilantro, and hot sauce.
Grill lettuce. Steam eggplant. Pan-fry pumpkin. Seek inspiration in the flavors and traditions of India, Hungary, Italy, China, Japan, Indonesia. Braise, roast, sauté. Be a plant-head.
4. Fire Things Up!
"The main ingredient in a Mexican salsa is fire," says Naomi Duguid, one of our favorite cookbook authors and a widely traveled food anthropologist. She isn't talking about chile heat here; she means that the flames that directly blister tomatoes, onions, and peppers in a salsa de molcajete are the soul of the dish. This is the best way to think of fire: as a zero-calorie, big-flavor ingredient in healthy cooking. You could even argue it's calorie-negative, since it melts fat out of meats.
"It's the most raw expression of heat," says fire-worshipper Adam Perry Lang, author of Charred and Scruffed. He throws meat directly onto smoldering coals, scores steaks to yield more surface area for fire to char, and moves chops around on the grill frantically for maximum, even fire effect. "There's also this element of bitter that adds such a counterbalance to sweetness that I think is so important," says Perry Lang.
Fire is easy, if you live year-round in Florida or SoCal and have someone to maintain your backyard fire pit. For the rest of us, it seems seasonal. However, with a bit of creativity, you can deploy the power of fire in your kitchen all year long. If you have a gas stove, of course, you can directly char peppers over a burner. If you have a winter woodstove, you can throw a whole eggplant into the firebox and retrieve a charred, perfectly cooked, smoky vegetable for curries or soups. You also have the power of the broiler—basically an upside-down grill—which is great if it's gas but fine, too, if it's a red-hot electric element. You can get creative with a culinary torch, like we did. You can create stovetop devices that impart fire's flavor cousin, smoke (right). You can heat pans—for the right pans, see page 230—to searing temperatures, creating a char that approximates that of direct fire.
For his vegan stock, Rich Landau uses intentional scorch to great effect: "We get the pan really hot and add a few hearty vegetables—carrots, rutabagas, celery root, and onions—and char the hell out of them. Then we add [fresh] vegetables and liquid on top of that. The levels of flavor it gives you are so beautiful and so intense. You taste the difference." Landau describes regular veggie stocks as "perfumed water." Modernist chef Maxime Bilet also loves to scorch and char but with a high-powered torch from a building-supply store—which he argues is far more energy-efficient than any broiler.
When grill season arrives, expand your horizons. Broccoli and other rugged vegetables benefit from fire, as do greens, dressed with a little fish sauce and then grilled—a treatment Duguid maintains will have kids fighting over them. Chef Wylie Dufresne likes to scorch lemons; it brings out their sugars and adds a pleasing bitter note.
Fire is flavor. Fire is fun. Fire away.
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.
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
View Recipe: Pan-Seared Chicken Breast with Rich Pan Sauce
View Recipe: Vanilla Angel Food Cake with Chocolate Sauce
BE MINDFUL IN THE KITCHEN
View Recipe: Mushroom and Roasted Garlic Risotto