Sam’s 5 Pro Tips To Make You A Better Cook

Ask yourself: Does cooking seem like too much of a hassle? Do you think of dinner as an event that requires hours of tedious preparation? Do you not cook because the food you make just isn’t very tasty? Do you wait until your chef friends come around to suggest a group dinner? Well, the latter is fine by me, but why not improve your own cooking? Then YOU could be the one sitting on the couch while everyone else cleans the kitchen. ‘You cooked, we’ll clean!’—music to my ears. Follow these easy tips and start enjoying your kitchen to the fullest!

1) Be prepared: We call it mise en place (‘putting in place’ in French). Don’t be the cook who rushes to chop the tomatoes while the garlic burns in the pan. Don’t let your poached eggs turn to rubber while you search for that slotted spoon. Don’t let you dinner get cold while you are feverishly whisking salad dressing.
Carefully review your recipe and prep everything (knife work, dressings, opening packages, etc.) before even turning on the stove (pre-heating the oven and boiling water are permissible).Sam 5 tips ingredientsI love using little bowls for all my mise en place— olive oil, diced onions, minced garlic, a few ounces of red wine, and an ounce of vinegar, peeled and chopped tomatoes, a salt cellar, a pepper mill, cleaned and picked basil and pasta should all be lined up, in the order listed in the recipe, on your counter, and water should already be simmering on the stove. Sam 5 tips servingWhen you’re prepared, all you’ll need to do is follow the steps of the recipe, sip some wine, and enjoy the pleasure of feeding friends.

2) Taste your food all the way through the cooking process. Adding a little salt to onions at the beginning helps to build a foundation of flavor—it’s a different and more tasty result than only adding salt at the very end. Adding salt to pasta water should never be considered optional. Boiling broccoli in salty water lends more flavor to the final product than adding salt at the end— In addition, seasoning through cooking liquid instead of seasoning at the end reduces the overall sodium content of the meal, as less salt is directly consumed.

Salt has a bad reputation among the blood-pressure conscious, but our bodies need salt, and so does our food! Why does food from a professional kitchen taste so good? It may be the butter, but more than likely it is the fact that people often cook under-seasoned, bland food at home without even realizing it. When food has the perfect amount of seasoning it really pops. Some people’s palates are more sensitive to salt than other, so find your sweet spot, and taste, taste, taste! Different salts have different densities per pinch, so in order to season food consistently, buy the same product consistently—I recommend my personal favorite: Black Diamond Kosher Salt.

3) Use acid! Lemon juice, lime zest, wine, and vinegar will all make your food shine. Wine and vinegars often get reduced (boiled down) in the pan at the beginning of the cooking process; a subtle complexity in a simple sauce (red wine and red wine vinegar boiled to a syrup with the onions and garlic of a pasta sauce before you add the tomatoes to the pan, for example).

Lemon and lime (zest and juice) are best added right at the end of the cooking process to brighten a dish. Not only does it add new flavors, acid actually brings out the existing flavors in your ingredients. For example, a simple pico de gallo (a latin-american relish of diced tomato, onion, cilantro, and peppers) changes dramatically for the better with a healthy shot of lime juice right at the end.

4) Get a real cutting board. Why struggle miserably while prepping vegetables, chasing cubes of zucchini around the counter as they fly off your Mom’s hand-me-down miniature, crescent-moon-shaped cheese board that serves as your kitchen’s primary prep station? Buy a cutting board minimally 15”x20” and either made of quality wood or thick plastic. I may have just changed your life…

5) Use a sharp knife. “How did you have dinner ready so quickly?” they’ll ask. Well, other than my professional training as a chef, I have a sharp knife and know how to use it properly. I didn’t spend 20 minutes dicing and peeling four potatoes, and the onions were sliced before a single tear was shed.  (For a video of hyperactive, rage-prone chef Gordon Ramsay demonstrating how to expertly dice an onion, click here click here.)

A knife is a tool: There is a right way and a wrong way to use it, and if it is cared for, it can last a lifetime. Generally, your height/hand size dictates what size knife is comfortable for you. I’m tall and find anywhere from a 8”-10” knife to be manageable. Even if you’re more petite, learn to use an 8” knife, as a smaller one will limit your versatility in the end.

Find a professional cutlery shop in your area and go handle a few to see how they feel. Some specialty stores such as Sur la Table even have veggies laid out so that you can take some flashy knives for a test drive. Expect to spend anywhere from $20 to $200 on a quality, everyday knife, so decide on your budget and don’t be afraid to ask the sales people for advice. For my full article on buying kitchen equipment on budget, click here.

Happy Cooking!

Photo credit: Sam Zucker

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Author My First Apartment

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Sam is originally from Boston, MA. He studied ecology and Spanish language during his undergraduate degree at Hampshire College (Amherst, MA). He then went on to train as a chef at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (Hyde Park, NY) and earn an introductory certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers in San Francisco in 2013. He currently lives in Barcelona, Spain and works as a culinary tour operator, wine educator, and food/travel writer for several outlets including My First Apartment. You can check out his blog at Zucker and Spice Travel.

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