For myself and people of my generation, cooking represents the worst kind of irony. Feeding ourselves is our most basic human need, but for some reason no one bothered to tell us how to do it (or even that it was important to learn).
So we grew up, left the house and became dependent on restaurants and instant meals, only to find out 10 years later that this “food” has been killing us slowly.
Now what are we supposed to do?
Learning to cook is important, but can be intimidating if you’ve never done more than boil water, open cans and zap frozen entrees. Navigating the kitchen is much easier if you know a few simple tricks that seasoned chefs take for granted.
10 Simple Kitchen Tips You Wish Someone Told You Earlier
1.Use tongs to cooking pretty much everything
Spatulas are awesome for anything that needs to be flipped or scraped, like eggs and pancakes. For everything else, tongs are the way to go. They’re much more nimble and less awkward to use, and you’ll find far fewer things jumping from your pan onto the floor. If you have non-stick cookware, be sure to use tongs with nylon tips. And always go for the 12-inchers.
2. Store everything in tupperware
As much as I’d like to be the kind of person who trims their herbs, puts them in an vase then wraps them in a damp paper towel so they last a week, I’m way too lazy for that. The good news though is that tupperware keeps almost everything fresh for much longer than your crisper, including berries, salad greens and produce that has already been cut. Because it is reusable, it is also more ecofriendly.
3. If you own a knife, don’t use a garlic press
Peeling and pressing garlic is a huge waste of time. To use a clove of garlic, set it on a cutting board and smash it with the flat side of a big knife (any chef’s knife will do). The papery skin will come right off, and you can mince it real quick right there in about 10 seconds. Done.
4. Keep a separate cutting board for things you don’t want flavored with garlic and onion
Assuming you follow any recipe ever, you’ll probably be using your cutting board for cutting onions or garlic. If so, I recommend getting a separate board you keep aside for cutting fruit, cheeses and other things that you’d prefer didn’t absorb the odors of previous meals.
5. Herbs that are supposed to be green should be purchased fresh, not dry
With the possible exception of dried oregano (great in Mexican, Greek and Italian foods), herbs are always better fresh. They’re also cheap and available almost anywhere. In particular, always buy fresh parsley, basil, cilantro, thyme, tarragon or chives if you can help it (a few should be in your fridge at all times). The dried versions are OK if not too old, but they’re very delicate and the jar will probably go bad before you use it twice.
6. Don’t bother with pre-filled spice racks
If you want spices to serve their purpose (making food taste better), you shouldn’t own a pre-filled spice rack. Spices go off quickly, and when their color starts to dull they’ve lost a lot of their flavor. There are several dried spices that are invaluable in my kitchen (cinnamon, cloves, curry powder, cumin, coriander, chili pepper, etc.), but you should purchase them as you need them, and in small quantities unless you use them frequently.
7. Overcooking is probably your biggest kitchen mistake
Overcooked vegetables are mushy and flavorless, overcooked meat is tough and chalky, overcooked grains are soggy and fall apart. In other words, overcooked food is bad food. Learn the art of taking food off the heat just before it is done, and let it finish cooking with its internal temperature. You can always cook it more, but you can never cook it less.
8. If it tastes OK but not great, it probably needs salt—and maybe some vinegar or olive oil
The media loves to bash salt, but I’m not convinced that sodium (rather than processed food) is the real problem. Also, the small amount you use when cooking at home won’t compare to what you’d get at a restaurant or in a packaged meal. Though over-salted food certainly tastes bad, under-salted food is bland and boring and a little dash can often save a dish.
If you think you’ve added enough salt but something is still off, try a small splash of vinegar or lemon (any acid) to brighten the flavor. If the food is dry or sticky, try adding a touch of olive oil. These three things can fix almost any lackluster meal.
9. Don’t buy regular big onions, use shallots or leeks
For most everyday cooking, milder onions will enhance your dish and give it more nuance. Big, strong onions certainly have their place in cooking (soups, roasts, etc.), but most kitchen experiments will be improved by more subtle onion flavor.
10. Fruit (other than berries) shouldn’t be stored in the fridge
Refrigerators dull the taste of most produce, so if you bought something that doesn’t need to go in there leave it out. Most fruits including apples, oranges, pears and bananas don’t belong in the refrigerator unless you’re not planning on eating them soon. I don’t refrigerate tomatoes, avocados or peppers either. Very hot climates are an exception, however.
What are your favorite simple kitchen tips?
Originally published June 1, 2011.