If you’re just starting out or are used to following a recipe, cooking sans instructions can seem like a daunting task. But honestly, once you get a few basic cooking rules down, you’ll be able to toss most of your recipe books in the recycling bin and start creating Michelin-worthy meals of your very own. Seriously — unlike baking, cooking does not require exact measurements, times or temperatures for food to taste good. Follow the easy rules below and try whipping up your next meal using nothing but your imagination and taste buds.
Season and taste your food as you cook
When it comes to making food as flavorful as possible, salt is your friend. By adding a little bit of salt to both sweet and savory recipes as you cook, you’ll bring out the flavors already in the food, making for a tastier end product. In sweet recipes, add a pinch of salt to batters, doughs, and frostings to add richness to the sweet flavors. In savory recipes, add a pinch of salt every time you add new ingredients—for example, add salt to vegetables as they’re sautéing, then a few pinches more salt when you add meat, then another pinch when you add sauce—so that your recipe comes out well-rounded and balanced. This method will also prevent oversalting food at the end of the cooking process.
Don’t crowd the pan
If you’re sautéing, pan-frying, or roasting, it’s important not to crowd the pan. You want to end up with a texture that’s cooked on the inside and slightly browned on the outside, and a too-crowded pan will make browning impossible because it creates too much steam (think about the difference between perfectly browned mushrooms, and soggy grey ones). Whether you’re using a sheet pan or a skillet, make sure everything is spread out into a single layer, instead of being piled up. If you don’t have enough room, cook in batches or use several pans.
Keep your knives sharp
It might seem counterintuitive, but you’re actually less likely to cut yourself with a sharp knife than with a dull one. The logic? Sharp blades cut more easily so you don’t need to apply as much pressure, and food is less likely to slip around in your fingers. You can sharpen your own knives with a whetstone at home, but if you don’t want to deal with the headache, kitchen stores like Sur la Table and Williams Sonoma have knife-sharpening services. It also speeds up the cooking process and who doesn’t like getting dinner on the table quicker?
Always add garlic at the end
Garlic can burn within 20 seconds (or less depending on how hot your pan is). If garlic burns, it’ll taste bitter and the aromatic flavor you wanted will be gone. If you want to add garlic to a dish, make sure to add it toward the end to avoid burning it.
Add dried herbs at the beginning, add fresh herbs at the end
It takes a while for the full flavor of dried herbs to develop so you always want to add those at the beginning of your cooking process so they have time to infuse their flavors into your dish. On the other hand, adding fresh herbs to a dish while it’s still cooking can cause them to taste bitter or can cook the taste right out of them so it’s best to add fresh herbs after the cooking process is complete.
Prep all of your ingredients before you cook
Once you’ve got a general idea of what you’re going to cook (or you’ve read a recipe), the next step is to prep, measure, and chop all of your ingredients. Keep things in separate bowls, cups, or piles on your cutting board, then add them as called for to the recipe as you cook. Having everything ready to go means you can cook seamlessly, without having to stop (and risk burning things) and chop or measure midway through.
Use enough fat
Although the low-fat craze is officially over, many people are still afraid to add enough fat to their home cooking. The thing is, fat serves a couple of culinary purposes. First of all, a good layer of fat in a sauté pan will keep food from sticking and burning, as will coating food with fat before you roast it. Second, fat will help bring out flavor. For high-heat cooking like sautéing, grilling, and roasting, choose fats with high smoke points, like vegetable and soy oils—if you’re cooking at lower temperatures, or looking to finish a salad or a sauce with a bit of fat, try butter or fancy olive oil.
Learn a few easy sauces, and then tweak them
You’ve probably heard of the five mother sauces of classical cuisine — béchamel, velouté, Espagnole, sauce tomat and hollandaise. Don’t worry, there’s no need to spend hours slaving over the perfect hollandaise but it would be worthwhile to get the hang of a classic béchamel (a roux mixed with dairy), sauce tomat (a traditional tomato sauce) and Espagnole. Each of these can be customized to accompany hundreds of dishes. Check out this handy guide to making all five of the mother sauces.
Keep your counters as clear as possible
It may seem normal and smart to keep all of your kitchen appliances—blender, food processor, slow-cooker, stand mixer—right on the counter, but it actually makes it much harder for you to cook effectively. These things take away from potential prep space, and when you’re working in cramped quarters, your food quality might suffer. If you use an appliance every day (think: toaster or coffee pot), it might be worth keeping it on the counter. If not, find cabinet or shelf space for it elsewhere, and only take it out when you’re using it.
Don’t go crazy with heat
OK, I know we said the cooking temperature wasn’t as important as baking temperature, but you do want to pay attention to it. When it comes to perfectly cooked food, heat control is definitely important but doesn’t need to be exact. Sure, blasting the heat under your skillet or in the oven might make food cook faster, but it will also likely lead to burnt outsides and raw insides. If you’re searing meat, start with a scorching hot pan and then reduce the heat to medium to finish cooking. If you’re sautéing more fragile ingredients like vegetables, start with a medium heat and gently increase the heat if necessary. Make sure to keep the heat at a temperature where ingredients are cooking and not burning, and never turn the heat so high that you see smoke (except for searing meat of course).
Use acid, spices, and fresh herbs to brighten any dish
If you ever cook something that tastes good but a little “flat”—there’s flavor, but no oomph, and overall things are a little lacking—try adding a squeeze of lemon or lime juice, or a drop of vinegar. Acid can liven and lighten something, without making it taste sour or acidic. Likewise, spices add a whole new layer of flavor and can be added to pretty much any recipe without having to make other adjustments. Herbs are a great thing to add to a recipe at the very end, to add some freshness to a dish that might feel a little heavy otherwise, like braised meat or stew.
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