Thursday, October 11, 2018

Cooking Techniques

Here are some easy effortless tricks and knowledge that will make your cooking better immediately:
  • Meat (especially beef, pork, and poultry)
    • Dry meat with a paper towel before cooking it. Wet meat turns out “dry” and boiled-tasting. Dry meat, ironically, turns out moist and tender. What you call “moisture” in a finished meat dish is mostly the natural fats and oils, not water, which will actually boil the meat and carry those natural fats and oils away.
    • Always bring your meat up to room temperature. Don’t cook from refrigerator or freezer temp.
    • Salt your meat ahead of time to give it time to distribute throughout the meat. Up to 24 hours for beef or pork. This is a restaurant secret.
    • Even if meat is slow-cooked, a quick sear on a grill or fry pan will give some lovely maillard-reaction browning that makes it taste infinitely better. You can brown or sear meat at the beginning or at the end of cooking your dish (whichever makes more sense), but without it, meat tastes bland.
  • Vegetables
    • Fresh is better than frozen, and anything is better than canned.
    • Most people overcook their vegetables. A quick stir-fry is one of the most reliable methods for fresh veggies, and let the colour be your guide — they’re perfect just as they turn bright green. One of the easiest side dishes in the world is to get a bunch of fresh kale or other leafy green, wash it, roughly chop it, and then stir-fry it for about 2min in some oil and a dash of salt.
    • Root veggies are often best oven-roasted or grilled, and again, don’t overcook, or they’ll become rubbery. If you’re short on time, you can boil (or, sshhh don’t tell, even microwave) your potatoes or carrots to get them partly done and then finish them on the grill, pan, or oven.
  • Eggs
    • Get your oil hot enough before adding the eggs and they won’t stick. Butter always works better than oil, if you don’t mind the calories. Most people cook their eggs too cold. Especially omelettes.
    • If poaching eggs, add some vinegar (never salt) to the water, and you’ll find that the eggs stay together rather than exploding everywhere.
    • Cracking eggs into a small bowl and then pouring them from bowl to the pan (instead of cracking straight into the pan) is always a good idea. ESPECIALLY when poaching.
  • Sauces
    • An interesting sauce can turn a dull dish into a WOW dish. Supermarket roast chicken? Meh. Supermarket roast chicken with a basic black cherry sauce that you made in 10 minutes? THAT’S INTERESTING. Often the sauce matters way more than the dish, and is the easier part.
    • Don’t overheat. This is when sauces get lumpy or burnt. Double-boilers are great. If a sauce does separate, you can sometimes save it by vigorously stirring in a little more base (water, broth, cream as appropriate) and then slowly bring it back up to temperature.
    • For cream sauces, always use cream, not milk. Yes, cream seems less healthy, but milk lacks the fat content to keep it from curdling, especially if the sauce includes an acid like lemon or white wine. If you don’t want the calories of a cream sauce, pick a different sauce. Nobody likes accidental ricotta.
    • If it’s a sauce that uses corn starch or arrowroot or flour to thicken, dissolve the starch in a little cold water first, and then take your dish off the heat and mix that paste into your broth away from the heat. Then heat it back up. No lumps.
  • General
    • If you’re cooking food from a frozen dinner or jar or can, even one fresh ingredient will make a world of difference. Next time you bake a frozen pizza, add some fresh basil leaves or fresh pepperoni/salami or whatever else you like, and you’ll be amazed. Same goes for pasta sauce or curry sauce from a jar — some fresh garlic or peppers or other appropriate ingredient will totally rejuvenate it.
    • Learn the natural timing that things need to cook, and your cooking will also improve a lot, especially on the stove:
      • 1) Non-burning long-cooking ingredients like seed-based spices (cumin, coriander seed, mustard seed) and foundation vegetables like onions, celery, carrots are usually what to start with.
      • 2) Ingredients that burn a little more easily come next, like garlic, chili peppers, etc. Add them to your onions, etc, and only cook for a couple of minutes before adding the other stuff.
      • 3) Your main ingredients come next.
      • 4) Save leafy herbs like parsley, cilantro, oregano, basil, etc, to the very end. If you put them in too early, they’ll lose all their aroma and become worthless. Some even get bitter with too much cooking.
    • Also, learning what flavours are oil-based vs water based can inform your cooking a lot. Peppers and a lot of seed spices need oil to bring their flavours out, so that’s why recipes tell you to saute them first. A great trick from Indian cuisine is to do this in a separate pan when the food is nearly ready and then mix the aromatic oil and spices in at the last minute. Not just great for curries, it also works for soups, pasta sauces, and anything else that simmers a while but whose spices you don’t want to get dull.
    • Similarly, a little bit of acid (lemon, vinegar, white wine) can really make a dull dish sparkle. Add it near the end. DO NOT do this to creamy sauces or soups, though, or they can curdle.
    • Ensure your pan (and the oil in it) are at temperature before you add the first ingredients. If you throw the ingredients in the pain cold, immediately after turning on the heat, this is how to get dull, soggy, and also stuck-to-the-pan food (see “eggs” above).
    • Don’t just cook with your eyes. Use your nose and ears to tell you when things are too hot or too cold, or done enough or starting to burn. Regardless what the recipe says.
    • Similarly, use your tongue. Except when there are raw ingredients (pork, chicken, etc) that could make you sick, taste your food. A lot. Not only do personal preferences differ, ingredients do too! One jalapeƱo pepper can be super mild while the next is fiery hot. Spices in jars don’t necessarily go bad but do lose their flavour over time and will need different amounts than what the recipe says. Add seasonings to a little corner of the pot or sauce first, and taste that to see if it’s right before adding it to the rest of the surface and stirring it in. The recipe may say 1 tsp, but your tongue knows whether that’s right or if you need half that much or 5x that much.
    • Lastly, keep it simple. The techniques mentioned here will make a lot more difference to your cooking than a recipe that has 40 exotic ingredients. Stick to foods that are easy, but that you can do well. Take a hint from the Italians: most authentic Italian dishes (not the Americanized ones) only have 5 or 6 ingredients, but they use great ingredients and treat each one the way it was meant to be treated.

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